The 2016 season for the Atlanta Hawks can best be described with one word. "Inconsistent." In 2015, the Hawks were the class of the Eastern Conference in the regular season, piling up 60 wins while making their first Conference Finals appearance. This season, the team dropped back to 48 wins and fell to fourth in the East. They bowed out a round earlier in the East semis but in similar fashion with a sweep by the Cavaliers.
So what went wrong? Did the rest of the league suddenly figure out what made the Hawks special in 2015? Yes and no. This version of the Atlanta Hawks spent most of the regular season trying to figure out who they were. The loss of DeMarre Carroll the previous offseason was felt in the locker room but not on the court as much as many feared due to the emergence of Kent Bazemore.
The biggest difference in this Hawks team was that they took a large step backward on the offensive end of the floor. Mike Budenholzer's famed system made a lot of headlines even in his third season but the Hawks struggled offensively overall in 2016.
Atlanta had the sixth best offensive rating in the league in 2015, averaging 106.2 points per 100 possessions. They tumbled to 18th in 2016 and 103.0 points per 100 possessions.
However, the Hawks remade themselves as a defensive team ascending to the No. 2 spot in the league in defensive efficiency. That was without a large impact from last offseason's biggest acquisition Tiago Splitter, who spent the first part of the season in and out of the lineup due to a persistent hip injury that eventually required season-ending surgery.
Splitter was great defensively when he played, but his presence did little to pump any life into Atlanta's slumping offensive attack.
There were no clear cut answers for the offense either. The system still produced a large number of open looks in both the regular season and the playoffs. The Hawks just struggled to make them and there in lies the problem. Teams paid extra attention to Kyle Korver and made a habit of ducking under screens against Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder. Opponents were also more than willing to allow Paul Millsap and Al Horford to fire away from the outside rather than overplay and give up shots at the rim.
What the Hawks do offensively is successful as their 25.6 assists per game suggests. They simply must get better because far too often they ground to a halt at crunch time as teams loaded up in the paint and forced them to fire away from the perimeter.
The Hawks seemed to put things together over the final two months of the regular season where they went 15-7. However, a loss on the final day of the regular season to an undermanned and undermotivated Washington team dropped them to the fourth seed and served as a reminder of just how inconsistent their offense could be.
That loss proved costly in the postseason when after dispatching Boston in six games they were forced into a second round matchup against the top-seeded Cavaliers. The Hawks were competitive Game 2 notwithstanding. However, they didn't have enough down the stretch to hold off Cleveland and again enter the offseason searching for answers.
Pivotal offseason awaits
There will be plenty of storylines in play this offseason and a lot of things to keep an eye on. The was plenty of noise at the trade deadline that Atlanta was exploring pushing the reset button on this roster. They reportedly explored trades for just about everyone with Al Horford and point guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder garnering most of the noise.
Horford remains the key piece of the puzzle. He hits the open market for the first time in his career and figures to be one of the bigger names on the free agent market. The cap explosion will increase the amount of teams that have the ability to chase Horford. However, the Hawks will remain the favorite right up until the end.
The Horford decision is one that is going to be debated for many seasons beyond this one. It may take an offer near the five-year max to keep Horford in an Atlanta uniform. Horford's value goes way beyond the box score and his numbers but a full five-year max for a guy who will be 30 next year could be more than they are willing to swallow.
The problem for Atlanta is that they are clearly not as good of a team without Horford. There probably isn't a free agent on the market that could come in and keep the Hawks at their current level. At this point, if Horford walks, it feels like it is reset time for this roster. That might even be the correct answer but it remains to be seen if that is the path that they choose.
The Kent Bazemore problem
Kent Bazemore took a huge step forward in 2016 and now the Hawks have to wait and see if they can afford to bring him back.
Bazemore averaged a career-best 11.6 points, 5.1 rebounds, and 2.3 assists. He knocked down 44.1 percent of his field goal attempts and shot 36 percent from three-point range. More importantly, he took over at small forward for Atlanta and helped replace Carroll at both ends of the floor.
Since they originally inked Bazemore to just a two-year deal, the Hawks don't have Bazemore's full Bird rights. That is the exact same situation as with Carroll last offseason which ultimately led him to accept a large deal from the Toronto Raptors. The cap explosion this summer is a good thing for Bazemore. Wing players have become hot commodities on the open market and Bazemore will be an intriguing option for a lot of teams.
The Hawks may very well want to bring back Bazemore but the hard reality is they may simply not be able to afford him.
The Point Guard Conundrum
While the cap explosion is going to provide cap space to just about every team out there, the free agent status of Horford and Bazemore really limits what the Hawks will be able to do to improve their team.
The Hawks were heavily involved in a number of trade deadline rumors involving point guards Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder. The duo has served as a solid one-two punch for Atlanta the last two seasons but the day is rapidly approaching where they will have to make a choice between the two.
Jeff Teague will be entering the final year of his current contract next season. At $8 million per, he is a bargain and could provide an avenue for the Hawks to add another piece either via trade or salary relief. Teague will be 28 next season and will likely be looking for a lucrative deal after playing on a team-friendly deal for the last four seasons.
Trading Teague might not be that easy if Hawks' officials aren't convinced that Schröder is ready to take over the job on a full-time basis. He has shown flashes of brilliance but has also battled maturity issues and bad decision making. We have seen him close games in place of Teague only to vanish from the rotation completely a few games later.
Still, Schröder is just 22 years old and has a higher ceiling than Teague as a player. He must harness his emotions if he wants to get to the next level but continuing on as the team's backup may actually stunt his growth.
Schröder is under contract for next season $2.7 million and will be due a $3.8 million qualifying offer in 2018 when he will be eligible for restricted free agency.
If the Hawks elected to deal Teague over the offseason, then it would give them one full season with which to evaluate Schröder as the team's starter before having to hand him a long-term extension.
More talent needed
The 2016 Atlanta Hawks were a good team but not a great one. They were competitive against the Cleveland Cavaliers but simply did not have enough talent top to bottom to be a real threat. That was the case last season as well and here is what I wrote following their elimination from the Conference Finals:
Still the playoffs showed there is work left to be done. I have a firm belief that a team doesn't necessarily have to have to a superstar to be a championship contender, but a team does need talent. Atlanta got a lot of mileage out of its roster in 2015 but to take the next step the talent level must go up. That doesn't necessarily mean that the team must sign the biggest named free agent on the market. The under the radar addition (and often ridiculed) addition of Thabo Sefolosha this past summer made quite a bit of difference for the 2015 team. The Hawks need to add talent to the roster, but it is important that the talent fit with the rest of the group.
That still applies and even more so now due to the overall age of the roster. The Hawks can't afford to bring back the same cast and bank on internal improvement. This group isn't getting any younger and whether it is a retool or a complete reset, changes are in order.