We are 20 games into the NBA season for the Atlanta Hawks and really things couldn't have gone much better. Atlanta is 14-6, is currently riding a seven-game winning streak and has won nine of their last 10 games. What have we learned about this team over the first 20 games?
We knew that the Hawks should be a great offensive team and they have delivered on that promise. They are currently sixth in the league in offensive efficiency averaging 106.9 points per 100 possessions. They are second in the league in assist percentage and are third in assists per game. They are again one of the league's top three-point shooting teams knocking down 38 percent of their attempts.
Individually, they have taken advantage of Mike Budenholzer's equal opportunity offense. They don't rely on one singular player but instead rely on the group to deliver quality and high percentage shots.
Jeff Teague is playing at a near All-Star level averaging 17.5 points and 7.1 assists per game. He's been down right dominant in some games and has been the team's closer when they need baskets down the stretch. He continues to emerge as a player and has taken yet another step forward in his second season under Budenholzer.
Kyle Korver is also off to a terrific start and having a historic season shooting the basketball. Korver is currently shooting 53 percent from the field, a ridiculous 55 percent from three-point range and 95 percent from the free throw line. The case could be made that he is the team's MVP to this point.
There are others that deserve mention. Paul Millsap has been solid and seems to provide whatever the team needs. DeMarre Carroll has taken his game to another level and is shooting 41 percent from three-point range. Al Horford hasn't quite been his normal All-Star self night and night out but is starting to show flashes once again.
It took a little bit of time to gel and if felt like the team was feeling its way through the first few games. However, they have settled into a groove of late and the result is a very scary offensive team.
Atlanta went to great lengths during the offseason to improve defensively, especially on the wing. They added Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore through free agency but getting Horford back from injury was the biggest offseason move. Overall their defensive performance has been a bit of a mixed bag. Early on they were hampered by slow starts and a lack of focus on the defensive end of the floor.
After allowing 126 points in a loss to Toronto in late November, the Hawks had sunk to 26th in the league in defensive efficiency. Since then they have won seven straight and have held their opponents under the century mark in five of the seven games. Over that span, Atlanta has improved their defensive efficiency rating to 101.9 per 100 possessions which is currently the ninth best mark in the league.
The Hawks still aren't a good rebounding team and their lack of size in the front court often makes it tough in slowing down opposing bigs. Sefolosha has had a big impact on the perimeter defense and given Budenholzer another option behind DeMarre Carroll. Bazemore hasn't had the same impact and has yet to see consistent minutes.
Atlanta's defense is trending in the right direction but there is still work to be done.
Mike Budenholzer has done a masterful job in guiding the Hawks out of the gate. Its hard to punch holes in a 14-6 start. The Hawks play an appealing brand of basketball that is predicated on effort and unselfishness. Seldom does this team go out and not play hard and that is a reflection of Budenholzer and his staff.
Atlanta has a much deeper team this season than last and sometimes that can be a detriment as players find themselves out of the rotation. To this point it doesn't appear to be a problem for the Hawks. Everyone seems to understand and accept their role. Guys like Bazemore and Elton Brand have been ready to step in whenever their number has been called. Communication between the coaching staff and the players is key and it looks like Budenholzer and his staff are doing a great job in that department.
Again this is a bit of a mixed bag of results. On one hand there is Dennis Schroder who has emerged as a key player for the team off the bench. On the other are guys like Mike Muscala and Adreian Payne who haven't garnered much playing time, or in Payne's case any playing time.
Schroder has probably been the biggest surprise of the first quarter of the season. He is averaging 9.2 points and 2.9 assists off the bench while shooting 53 percent from the field. While his jump shot remains a work in progress, his quick first step and ability to play downhill in the pick and roll has caused all sorts of problems for opposing defenses. He is emerging as a defender and is playing with a lot of confidence.
Mike Scott has had his moments and once again has proven that he is a capable scorer off the bench. Shelvin Mack hasn't shot the ball well and lost the backup point guard job to Schroder but is seeing consistent minutes off the bench and still appears to have the trust of the coaching staff.
Consistent minutes haven't been there for Muscala and Payne. Muscala has been active and in uniform for most of the games but has been relegated to the emergency big man and is behind Pero Antic and Elton Brand in the rotation. The Hawks drafted Payne with the 15th pick in the 2014 Draft but the rookie has yet to see any playing time in an NBA game. Atlanta has utilized the D-League to get Payne time on the court and that is likely to continue as the season wears on.
What to look for in the next 20 games?
For one, the schedule is about to get much tougher. To date, the Hawks have had the easiest schedule in the NBA according to their opponent's winning percentage. That is going to change starting next week when Atlanta enters a stretch where they face, the Bulls, Cavs, Rockets, Mavericks, and Clippers. Its going to get much more difficult but Atlanta has done a good job of building themselves a bit of cushion and for the most part have won the games they were supposed to.
There is still room for improvement. Al Horford continues to work his way back into shape and is still looking to regain his All-Star form. Horford is already shooting a high percentage from the field but Atlanta has yet to lean on him heavily. Kent Bazemore has struggled to acclimate himself with the system and we already mentioned Mack's shooting struggles.
To this point, Atlanta has been fortunate and avoided any significant injuries. They seem better equipped to handle the nagging day-to-day stuff but still can not afford to lose a key player for a significant stretch.
Again its hard to punch holes in a 14-6 start. Critics will point to the schedule but teams can't control who they play. Wins at the beginning of the season count the same as those at the end and Atlanta has passed its first test of the season.