At this year's NBA trade deadline, the rumours surrounding the Atlanta Hawks followed the narrative that the team that just last season won 60 games were ready to blow the whole thing up.
Several teams were linked to starting point guard Jeff Teague. There was even talk of the Hawks gauging the market for their best player, Al Horford, who is free to sign with any team during the coming off-season.
This would have been madness last year, but this year’s Hawks are middling along the fringes of the Eastern Conference play-off race. Maybe it was time to start the whole thing over from scratch?
Apparently not content with any of the offers they received for their players, the Hawks kept what they have and have since even added a much-needed backup centre in Kris Humphries to their ranks.
So it was decided – Atlanta would give it one last go at trying to achieve success with this core group of players.
The Hawks have responded to that faith in management by tearing through their schedule and are currently the hottest team in the league not residing in Oakland, winning 11 of their past 14 games going into Saturday’s game with Milwaukee Bucks.
Atlanta are playing their best when it matters most, with only 10 games left on the regular-season schedule.
They are locked in a four-team race for the East’s No 3 seed for the play-offs (the Cleveland Cavalierss and Toronto Raptors are pretty set in the top 2), but for the first time all year are starting to resemble last year’s juggernaut.
Unlike that team, though, this year’s Hawks are achieving their good results with defence.
Since the calendar flipped to 2016, Atlanta have been the best defence in the NBA, and for the season are second in defensive efficiency (points allowed per 100 possessions) at 98.9. Only San Antonio Spurs – naturally – are better.
They could also have the deepest rotation in the Eastern Conference, should everyone stay healthy.
Off the bench, back-up wing Thabo Sefolosha – who missed last year’s play-offs after the NYPD broke his leg – is a long-limbed nightmare of a defender that could give the LeBrons of the world fits. Teague gives way to little when he leaves the floor in lieu of back-up point guard Dennis Schroeder, who is the better defender of the two. Humphries brings much-needed rebounding to a team that do so poorly. And third-year wing Tim Hardaway Jr has emerged as the two-way threat the team envisioned he could be when they traded their first-round pick to the New York Knicks for him last summer.
That is not to mention the starting line-up that boasts four All-Stars and five men who can step out and hit three-pointers at any time. Not many teams can claim to have that kind of arsenal available to them.
The Hawks peaked early last year and appeared to be spent by the time the play-offs came. This year, they are peaking at just the right time for the decisive time of the season.
If nothing else, the rest of the league should be on alert. The Hawks are back.
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