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The Atlanta Hawks had a confusing season

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A lot went right, but a lot also went wrong

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

After the smoke clears from the first round of the NBA playoffs, there’s plenty to analyze for the Atlanta Hawks. This was the season of Dwight Howard’s return to Atlanta, the season of Dennis Schroder’s rise to the starting lineup, and the season of Taurean Prince’s emergence. It will be hard to fully evaluate the 2016-17 season until free agency reveals the rest of its ramifications, but there are plenty of themes and events to go over at the present.

As a whole, this season was confusing. Atlanta finished with a 43-39 record, and at fifth place in the East. As readers of this site have heard many times though, the team also had a negative point differential. Given that differential, Atlanta had an expected win/loss record of 39-43, according to Basketball-Reference. However, I’d argue that this team was more inconsistent than just bad or mediocre. The Hawks played extremely well and extremely poorly at various points throughout the season, only adding to the confusion.

On an individual level, Dwight Howard’s return to the Hawks has been an interesting story all season. Howard added a necessary rebounding angle to the team, and on that front his contributions should be recognized. Overall, he has also been just as good as anyone could have expected him to be. However, the issues with his fit on the roster are still real, and his absence from the floor in the fourth quarters of multiple playoff games speaks to this clash. His recent comments during exit interviews don’t inspire confidence in the future either, although it is completely understandable that a former all star would be frustrated at receiving minimal minutes in playoff games.

For Paul Millsap, easily the team’s best player, things are similarly unclear. Atlanta wavered back and forth on a Millsap trade over the winter, and eventually opted to keep him. With free agency not far off, the Hawks will have to choose if they want to offer an aging veteran a large contract. Millsap still has a few good years left, but any long-term deal will start to look bad by the end. The question of Millsap’s free agency is one that has been floating around this site and other NBA locations for months. The only difference now is that the team has to decide what it wants to do very soon.

In terms of younger players, Dennis Schroder and Taurean Prince are easily two of the most exciting players on Atlanta’s roster. Schroder’s season was subject to much of the up-and-down swings that limited the entire team, but there are still several positives to how he played. A quick glance at Basketball-Reference shows that his offensive rating and defensive ratings have both risen from last season. These numbers don’t provide the most nuanced view of his development on their own, but the overall picture — that his offense has improved while his defense has taken a step back — is accurate.

Schroder had a great series against Washington, and is still young. His shooting numbers are also up across the board from the 2015-16 season, even if they haven’t yet reached “good” levels. A continued uptick in these statistics next year could easily outweigh the increased turnovers.

As far as Prince’s development goes, his individual accomplishments this year are some of the most encouraging parts of this Hawks team. There are many metrics one can look at, but the simple fact that Mike Budenholzer started Prince for a playoff series speaks to his skill. Not many rookies can contribute at a high level in the playoffs, and Prince should be even more fun to watch next year.

There’s so much more to talk about for this Hawks team, but many of these questions center around free agency. Will Tim Hardaway Jr. be a Hawk next season? How about Mike Muscala or Thabo Sefolosha? What will Atlanta do with its draft picks? There are so many different directions that the team could go in with roster building this summer, and this is something to keep an eye on in June and July. As far as right now goes, though, there’s only so much that can be said.

This season lacked the pure excitement of the 2014-15 campaign, or the same levels of elite defense from 2015-16. The Hawks of 2016-17 took clear steps back from both of these other teams, and the result of the season — a first-round playoff exit — reflects that reality. There are still plenty of exciting players on this team, but coupled with uncertainty over the future of the roster. One thing is certain, though: this will be a very meaningful offseason for the Hawks.