The success of the 60-win Atlanta Hawks during the 2014-2015 season was built on a dominant starting lineup. In nearly 1,000 minutes of game action, the quintet of Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll (now departed), Paul Millsap and Al Horford outscored opponents by 8.1 points per 100 possessions and, in general, Atlanta was able to blow away opponents at the beginning and end of games throughout the campaign.
Fast-forward to the 2015-2016 season, and the "new" starting five began with a thud. Mike Budenholzer inserted Kent Bazemore into the lineup in place of DeMarre Carroll, and while the Hawks rolled up a respectable but underwhelming 31-27 record through late February, the results of the core five-man unit were highly underwhelming. The group was outscored by 2.7 points per 100 possessions in those 58 games, and on the defensive end, the results were disastrous to the tune of 105.7 points allowed per 100 possessions.
During that time, Atlanta was kept afloat by the bench, including strong contributions from Dennis Schröder, Thabo Sefolosha and even Mike Scott. Still, many pointed to the starting lineup's struggles (including in this space) as a reason to potentially insert Sefolosha in place of Bazemore to fix the most prominent five-some. Budenholzer stayed strong, however, and the results have paid off in a phenomenal way in recent weeks as the team's overall performance has also taken off.
Though the starters have posted only a +1.8 net rating over the balance of the 75-game season, the recent numbers are startlingly impressive. Since dropping three games in a row in late February, the starting lineup is outscoring opponents by 14.1 (!) points per 100 possessions, and their collective defensive rating is a stunning 93.0 in that 17-game sample. While skeptics could easily point to the fact that only 210 minutes of court time goes into this sample, the difference on the court has been visible on both ends, and it is encouraging that the improvement has taken place even as Kent Bazemore struggles with his jump shot.
What does it all mean? Well, to put it simply, rotations are shortened in the playoffs. The Hawks were able to tread water for much of the year using their quality depth, but as the postseason approaches, any team's "main" lineups are emphasized, and Atlanta will undoubtedly deploy their starting five for an increased workload. It is fair to suggest that Thabo Sefolosha could also see more minutes (in place of Bazemore), but regardless of that balance, Budenholzer's team must be able to function at a high level with their own starters against the best that the opposition has to offer.
Individual improvements from the likes of Kyle Korver and, especially, Jeff Teague can be credited with this overall uptick from the starters, and that is also encouraging. On the whole, though, it isn't difficult to decipher the importance of setting the tone in the first few minutes of any game, and the starting five of the Atlanta Hawks finally appears to be gelling at an opportune time.