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Atlanta Hawks earn encouraging midseason grade amongst big-picture questions

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The Hawks just can’t escape from the overarching question.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Denver Nuggets Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks are riding high with a 27-19 record and a top-four seed. Coming into the season, projecting that level of performance would have been aggressive to say the least and, as a result, Mike Budenholzer and company earned a very encouraging grade for their first-half showing.

Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated handed out Eastern Conference grades earlier this week and he bestowed a “B+” on the Hawks while having this to say:

No NBA franchise is better than the Hawks at failing to inspire excitement while surpassing expectations. While they have staved off preseason fears that they might fall apart in the wake of the Jeff Teague/Al Horford departures—thanks to another year of All-Star level play from Paul Millsap and the reasonably successful integration of Dwight Howard—their return to the middle of the East’s playoff picture has answered few questions.

The first sentence is, well, brilliant. While there were some believers in the Hawks prior to the season, the general rule, even beyond this year, that Atlanta can’t generate meaningful excitement nationally while playing quality basketball rings true. The play of Paul Millsap has indeed been stellar and, with him on the roster, there is certainly a baseline of respectability and professionalism on and off the court.

However, Golliver does have questions.

Dennis Schroder has proven he can handle starter’s duties, but will he ever blossom into a top performer at his position? What happened to Kent Bazemore’s shooting stroke? Why should Millsap trust the end of his prime to a team that’s constantly turning over its roster? Wouldn’t the Hawks be much better off selling off Millsap like they traded Kyle Korver, with an eye towards building around their 25-and-under roster pieces?

Schröder has performed quite well in his first season as a starter, averaging 17.6 points and 6.3 assists per game, but his defense has cratered and there are legitimate ceiling concerns. In the same breath, Atlanta has to be pleased with his development to this point, especially when compared to the modest contract extension he accepted prior to the 2016-2017 campaign.

Elsewhere, the Bazemore concerns are legitimate and they go beyond his shooting. Let’s just agree that the jury is out.

As for the final piece and the looming decision with regard to Millsap, Golliver paints something of a disturbing picture to close.

While there are worse fates than dreary respectability, Atlanta’s wheel-spinning is bound to continue given Millsap’s expensive summer decision and a young core that has yet to distinguish itself or even really take shape.

“Dreary respectability” is a great description for what is the most likely scenario should Atlanta hold on to everyone through the February trade deadline. Will the Hawks make the playoffs and compete for a second-round appearance? Probably, but the next contract for Millsap will likely be a terrifying proposition unless he provides Atlanta with a steep discount (unlikely) and that coupled with a seemingly firm ceiling on this current collection isn’t the most encouraging recipe for the future.

The big takeaway from the piece is that the Atlanta Hawks have exceeded expectations this season and, really, for the last few. There is, quite obviously, nothing wrong with that and that goes to the culture of winning instilled by Budenholzer, Millsap and others. With that said, the organization can’t escape from the “will they or won’t they?” question that lingers in the midst of every conversation and, if and when they (again) stay the course, it will end predictably and the questions will repeat in earnest when July arrives.