NBA 2014-15 Power Rankings Preview: #18 Atlanta Hawks

Can the Hawks put all the summer controversy behind them and compete for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference?

This NBA offseason has been very eventful and the preseason is now just around the corner. To help bridge that gap for hoops junkies, we here at numberFire will be rolling out our projections for next season in the form of team previews, starting at 30 and going all the way to number one. We continue today with the 18th-ranked Atlanta Hawks!

The Atlanta Hawks spent the summer mired in front office controversy, which has the potential to loom large over their 2014-15 season. Things of this nature shouldn't really make a difference to the product on the floor, but the constant media attention serves as a major distraction to players and you have to wonder how hard they want to play for their executive body when mutual respect is suddenly not a given (just ask the Clippers).

The situation has subsided for now with well-liked coach Mike Budenholzer taking over for exhiled GM Danny Ferry as president of basketball operations, but the subject was ever present at Monday's media day and it's not likely to just die anytime soon. In the meantime, the Hawks will try to build on a competitive first-round series loss against the Pacers last season, while trying to re-integrate their former All-Star center, Al Horford, as he comes off his second incomplete season in three years due to a pectoral tear and subsequent surgery.

numberFire Metrics

Projected Record: 39-43
Eastern Conference Rank: 9th
NBA Rank: 18th
nERD: 45.7
Playoff Chances: 49.93%
Championship Chances: 0.75%

Before Al Horford went down last season, the Hawks were 16-13 and in sole possession of third place in the Eastern Conference. Many people will look back to that and assume that they can climb back up to that seed with a healthy Horford, but the truth is that a near-.500 record simply isn't worth as much in the East now as it was back then. They were one of only three teams in their conference with a winning record at the time and since then we've seen the rise of the Raptors, Wizards, and Hornets as legitimate top-tier teams. With the Cavaliers leapfrogging the majority of the conference this summer, the Bulls getting even better, and the Heat staying competitive, it's hard to imagine the Hawks doing much more than competing for one of the final few playoff spots. We project them to be exactly in that range at just one win above last season's 38-44 record and one game out of the eighth and final seed in the East (hence the near 50% chance of a playoff berth).

Player Movement

Notable Additions
Adreian Payne (via draft)
Kent Bazemore (via free agency)
Thabo Sefolosha (via trade)

Notable Losses
Lou Williams (trade)
Cartier Martin (free agency)
Gustavo Ayon (playing in Europe)

Getting Al Horford back at full strength will probably be the Hawks biggest offseason acquisition, but the additions of Bazemore, Sefolosha, and Payne could serve as an overall upgrade from Williams, Martin, and Ayon as well. Bazemore looked pretty good in 23 games (15 starts) following a trade to the Lakers last season, posting averages of 13.1 points, 3.3 rebounds, and 3.1 assists per game to go with 1.4 three-pointers on 37.1% shooting from behind the arc. That kind of floor spacing fits the Hawks' bomber mentality just fine (they were second in the league with 25.8 attempts per contest last season), so Bazemore should be a solid fit for the sixth man scoring spark hole left by Sweet Lou.

Meanwhile, Sefolosha will look to further bolster the Hawks bench unit by reasserting himself as relevant after falling a bit out of favor in OKC. He represents an excellent perimeter defender that can be called upon to guard a team's best guards and wings on a moment's notice and should be playing with a chip on his shoulder after a relatively lousy playoffs. Finally, rookie Adreian Payne out of Michigan State fits the Hawks mould perfectly as a stretch big (42.3% shooter in his final year of college) that has the ability to effectively go inside-out. He's in a crowded Hawks frontcourt with Horford, Paul Millsap, Pero Antic, and the re-upped Mike Scott and Elton Brand, but adding depth and fostering competition is rarely a bad thing.

Not a super splashy offseason, but a solid one nonetheless.

Three Burning Questions

How effective will Al Horford be coming off of another pectoral surgery?
After returning from his last pectoral tear in 2012, Horford posted career-high averages of 17.4 points and 10.2 rebounds per game during the 2012-13 season, while adding 3.2 assists, 1.1 steals, and 1.1 blocks and shooting 54.3% from the field. In other words, he came back just fine from the injury and arguably better than ever, playing in a career-best 37.2 minutes per contest over 74 games. It may be discouraging for him to miss the majority of another season to such a similar injury in 2013-14, but it's worth noting that the second tear was to the right pectoral, whereas the initial one was to the left. A fear of the dude being injury prone is certainly warranted, but suffering two separate pectoral tears on opposite sides of the body seems like nothing more than extremely bad luck at this point.

Prior to the injury last season, Al was putting up a new career-best 18.6 points per game and adding 8.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, 0.9 steals, and 1.5 blocks in the process. What's more, he was 4 of 11 from long range (36.4%) over the 29 games, after firing only 18 triples in total during the six previous years. The threat of him adding a three-point shot to his already well-rounded and underrated arsenal is nothing short of scary. If he can bounce back in a similar way to his 2012-13 season this year, while continuing to build on his game at age 28, he could certainly regain All-Star consideration in the Eastern Conference and help the Hawks make a push for the playoffs.

What will the Hawks do with Paul Millsap as he enters unrestricted free agency next summer?
The Hawks got the steal of the 2013 free agency period when they signed the consistently underrated and underappreciated Paul Millsap to a two-year, $19 million deal last summer. It worked out to be an extra valuable contract for Atlanta, with Horford going down around Christmas time and Millsap blossoming into an All-Star. He carried the depleted team to the playoffs in 2013-14 on the strength of his 17.9 points and 8.5 rebounds per game, all while being the only player in the whole NBA to average at least one made three (1.0), steal (1.7), and block (1.1) per game.

The only problem with the contract for the Hawks, of course, is that its up after this season and Millsap will go back into the restricted free agency pool with a much higher demand for his services. There are many ways this scenario could play out this year; seeing if the team tries to entice him to re-sign, trades him at the deadline if the going gets tough, lets him walk for nothing next summer, or works out a mutually beneficial sign-and-trade will be one of the more intriguing storylines surrounding the Hawks all year.

Has Jeff Teague already peaked?
Jeff Teague comes off as a perfectly serviceable starting point guard when you glance at his 16.5 points and 6.7 assists per game from the 2013-14 season. You could also gain confidence in him as the Hawks' floor general going forward by looking at the great seven-game playoff series he put up against the Pacers earlier this spring, when he posted averages of 19.3 points, 3.7 rebounds, and 5.0 assists per contest. If you dig a little deeper, however, there are some pretty glaring areas for concern.

For starters, he has seen a dip in efficiency in each of the last three seasons. His field goal and three point percentages were down at their lowest since his rookie season last year and, subsequently, so were his win share per 48 and nERD efficiency numbers:

Jeff TeagueFG%3P%eFG%WS/48nERD

Apart from being a relatively inefficient scorer of the basketball, Teague also had a pedestrian year passing the ball and playing defense. His 2.28 assist-to-turnover ratio ranked him tied for 31st among point guards in 2013-14, while his -0.84 defensive real plus-minus placed him 30th at the position. Teague is locked up as a Hawk for the next three seasons, and that seems fine under the guise of his increased scoring average from higher usage and more shots, but the declining efficiency numbers on both ends of the ball might soon make Atlanta question if he's really the point guard of their future.

Fantasy Hoops Stock Watch

PF/C Al Horford (Yahoo O-Rank: 23)
PF/C Paul Millsap (Yahoo O-Rank: 27)
PG Jeff Teague (Yahoo O-Rank: 55)
For takes on the Hawks' version of a "Big Three" as fantasy players, the blurbs written about them above should provide some insight. Horford should exceed that 23 ranking if he can stay healthy, Millsap's bound to be a good early-round pick that passes 27 in a contract year, while 55 for Jeff Teague might be a little rich (unless you're fully invested in a bounce back to his 2012-13 form). Act accordingly.

SG/SF Kyle Korver (Yahoo O-Rank: 73)
Those three players are what they are. For finding value in an Atlanta Hawks uniform, Kyle Korver is one of this year's best sleeper picks late in the middle rounds, especially if you're punting points. In his last two years as a Hawk, Korver has been extra consistent, posting a 37th-ranked season last year and a 38th-ranked one the year before. He's often ignored for a lack of flashy scoring numbers (12.0) and quiet rebounds (4.0), assists (2.9), steals (1.0), and blocks (0.3), but he is one of the league's best glue guys for contributing well enough in all nine standard statistical categories in fantasy hoops without killing you in either of them. He's solid in the often overlooked field goal percentage (47.5%) and turnover (1.4) categories, adds the occasional burst of counting stats, and is an absolute lock to be one of the league's most elite three point (2.6) and free throw (92.6%) specialists. If he's available around his current average draft position, you shouldn't pass him up.

SF/PF DeMarre Carroll (Yahoo O-Rank: 112)
DeMarre Carroll is another sleeper on the Hawks who should be available in the late rounds of fantasy drafts for your consumption. Last season, Carroll finished as the 53rd-ranked fantasy player with barely anyone noticing. Like Korver, Carroll is a jack-of-all-trades and killer of none, posting decent threes (1.3), steals (1.5), and rebounds (5.5), while keeping things afloat in field goal percentage (47.0%), free throw percentage (77.3%), and turnovers (1.1). He doesn't score a lot (11.1), rack up many assists (1.8), or swat a lot of shots (0.3), but there are plenty of other places to boost those categories (and if you're punting either of them, game on). All-around category helpers like Korver and Carroll become afterthoughts far too often in fantasy drafts. Break that cycle.