The 2015-2016 season for the Atlanta Hawks was like the Monday after a holiday weekend. Last season was the holiday, complete with unexpected heights and achievements the franchise had never seen before. This season was the Monday, the return to work: still feeling the vibe from the weekend but kind of in a haze when it applied to work.
The season never took on the same cohesion and purpose the previous season did. It always felt like the Hawks were searching, as in the Barry Manilow tune, getting up and down, trying to get that same feeling again. While the defense came together in a way that saw it vault to the celebrated status of being just as good as the Spurs at the top of the league, the offense sputtered all season, finishing a paltry 18th in offensive rating in the league.
Their sense of urgency toward their contextual mediocrity never appeared to the point of being obvious to Bird Watchers, seeming alright with aimlessly floating a few games over .500 for the majority of the season, appearing ambivalent when falling behind and casual in victory.
This was the age-old lament Atlanta Braves fans often had when watching their juggernaut Eastern Division overlords throughout the 90's and early Aughts. The connection that was there between fans and team as the Hawks rose in 2014-15 was absent for the majority of 2015-16, all without apparent concern for the development from the team.
That's not to say the team never cared, by no means, it's that the professional attitude, for better or worse, that the team had, and the confidence they had that things would get better, that projected as the veneer of coldness and absent emotion, a killer to perception to anyone outside the locker room.
Yet, it could be argued that the team didn't feel the urgency, both on the court and off the court. The point guard position, the quarterback of the on-court team and a critical piece to have secured, was anything but that all season long, to the anxiety of nobody but the incumbent starter at the position, Jeff Teague. After the trade deadline, where nothing happened to address any of the gaps that had revealed themselves throughout the season, Teague was open to us about how much the uncertainty of his status impacted what we all know to be a very insecure and fragile psyche.
Why was the team, who know who Teague is at this point in the 27 year old, seven year veteran's career, so willing to spend 55 games with a will they/won't they storyline that would make a 1980's drama blush? To know how this impacts their quarterback and still maintain an uncertain environment at the position points to the purgatorial cloud that seemed to hover over the team this season.
This did nothing for the growth of Dennis Schröder, either. The third year, 22 year old PG, played marginally more minutes this season than last (20.3 to 19.7) and didn't move the needle on his advanced stats year over year as well. Of course, why expect more return on your investment when no more capital was put into it? Meaning, why expect a step forward from Dennis when you weren't willing to invest more in him than you did before, with the capital being playing time.
The Hawks need to see what they have in Dennis, and that means the risky play of starting him and giving him the 30+ minutes for development. But the Hawks played it safe, and in turn stood still at the position, and the team reflected that caution. The Hawks have to get off the fence here before next season and make a choice, and since Mike Budenholzer spent the second round of the playoffs openly playing Dennis over Teague in some of the most important minutes of the series, the choice has been made, intentionally or otherwise.
Waiting until this series may have cost them trade value on Teague, but it most certainly cast a fatal spell on the talented, if imperfect PG, because there's no way he can play next season with a high level of confidence after a season of trade concerns impacting his play, and then the passive vote of no confidence in the series against the Cavaliers.
The decision to play it safe with Teague and Schröder and the tentative, if non-urgent play of the team as a result throughout the season, is something the front office, who played it as safe as you could this season, has to learn from. They cannot waste the prime seasons of the two most expensive players (Paul Millsap, Al Horford) by maintaining this status quo. They cannot enter the 2016-2017 season with both Teague and Schröder on the roster. It will cost them games, growth and, most certainly, both players.
That safe front office approach was seen in the draft as well, another area the team has to learn from its past season. To bail out of the draft time and time again, casually tossing away the most financially controllable and highest ceiling player acquisition tool available smacks of a win-now approach. Maybe Tim Hardaway, Jr. will help fill the gap that will be inevitably left when Kent Bazemore cashes in from his two seasons of hard work as a Hawk, but abandoning the best way to acquire cap-efficient minutes and develop your own All-Star caliber talent (and keep it), is a short-sighted move that rots the overall talent level on the team over the long run.
The Hawks have casually addressed the draft in the (real) three drafts of this new front office era. The first draft netted Schröder, but the draft capital acquired in the Joe Johnson deal, the other first rounder was used on Lucas Nogueira, who was then tossed into a cap trade. Then, in 2016, came the pick of Adreian Payne, was didn't even make it a season before being sent for a future pick, which is lotto protected through 2020 in Minnesota. Then came last season's abandonment of the draft in favor of the Tim Hardaway, Jr. Project, all of which projects an image that the team really doesn't believe in building through the draft or that the draft is a rotation or at least a roster building construct that adds value to the team.
They are a franchise who looks to be working as a pre-IPO company, desperate to show profits so that they can be bought, sold, or go public, without the long term strategy in mind. I don't think that's what Tony Ressler, Wes Wilcox or Mike Budenholzer want, yet the decisions that have been made appear that way through the lenses of the decisions most recently made.
So what now?
Here are some quick thoughts on what has to happen this offseason to get the franchise back on the growth track.
1. Sign Al Horford
The decision to make him more like Pero Antic can be debated, but I'd argue that die has long been cast ever since Mike Woodson spent Horford's first few seasons like he had no offensive game and relegated him to the sixth option (out of five) when on the floor instead of developing his interior game.
Anyway, he's once again a top 20 defender in the league, 13th in VORP and a key culture cog for the team. I believe there is still some growth room for Horford if he can continue to improve his three-point efficiency and take a more vocal role on the team, on and off the court. He has to become an extension of Mike Budenholzer as much as Tim Duncan extends Pop's influence in San Antonio.
It's not your money or checkbook, and NBA salaries are contextual to the current financial environment, so don't sweat the dollars associated. This front office won't just cut a blank check to get Horford back, but they will do enough to secure him, and this core relationship will continue to the franchise's benefit.
2. Get off the fence at Point Guard
It's time. Not only did we see the ill effects of what happens when you don't this season (noted above), Teague is in his last season of his below-market value contract, and has to be moved before the season starts and the value of return lowers substantially.
The discussion of "Is Dennis Ready?" is moot now -- you have to see if he can run the team and take another step forward before he, too, is walking out the door. Knowing how they got so little out of last season's arrangement, between the discomfort and insecurity Teague felt to the burn Dennis felt over being left on the bench time and time again, to the second round sweep by the Cavs, this really isn't a maybe they should, it's a it-may-be-too-late-already-but-let's-do-it move.
3. Say goodbye to Baze
This really isn't much of a discussion. The Hawks brought him in on a two year, four million dollar total deal and took his hard work ethic and effort and made him a valuable part of the team. Somebody is going to pay him way above what an average NBA player should get, and the Hawks can't be that team, nor is there any indication they will be.
When it does happen, as it did last season with DeMarre Carroll, we'll be ready with a fond goodbye and a solid ovation when he returns, because he's a fun player to watch and he clearly earned the time he had on the court this season.
4. Use the Draft effectively
This means actually looking to build the roster value in the long term with a selection instead of trying to use it as spackle to repair a ding in the drywall. If the Hawks had been using the draft in this method with every pick instead of punting for the majority of selections for the benefit of the very near term, they'd be in better roster health at this moment.
5. Continue to find the next low-budget, high-minute player
This is one area in which the Hawks have excelled. Between Carroll and Bazemore, the Hawks put a considerable bit of value on the floor. Maybe they felt Justin Holiday wasn't that guy after they brought him in, or just felt that THJ was coming along better than expected so they jettisoned the insurance, but that kind of talent acquisition has to remain in the roadmap for the front office. Given their propensity for two year, low dollar contacts, it's probably a calendar reminder at this point.
6. Find their Mojo
As great as Steve Koonin and the rest of the Hawks staff (Jaryd WIlson, especially) is at connecting with fans and making the Hawks a fan-friendly brand, the on court action has deeper tentacles to the emotions and pocket strings of the fan.
They have to get the Eye of the Tiger, That Lovin' Feeling, their Austin Powers Mojo back on the court next season, somehow, someway. A lot of that could come from the aggressive, emotional Schröder having a larger role, but Al Horford needs to remember to kiss the biceps after a big and-one and Paul Millsap could lift his head to the people of Atlanta after a strong finish to make the connection deeper.
Of course, Kyle Korver having a full offseason to refine his techniques and then come back for a run at 50/50/90 would be tremendous as well.
Any which way, the Hawks don't need to blow up the roster or oversign some marquee name to bring the fans back or advance their fortunes. Just some tactical moves, lined with some risk, versus playing it safe, going nowhere and having little to show for it, is enough to make great strides.