There may be nothing that frightens the average NBA more than the idea of mediocrity. It is the notion that there is nowhere to go for an unidentified period of time — no improvement, no cap flexibility, no enticing trade assets — and nothing to watch but the gradual and steady decline of a core constituted for competitive basketball but not championships.
It’s why coaches and GMs are fired, because if there is anything that ticks off a fan base more than losing 50-plus games, it is a lack of direction or upward trend. As fans, we hate the staleness that accompanies a slowly deteriorating roster that peaks much too low for satisfaction.
The disgust for mediocrity is why teams tank late in the season; it is why the best players on the worst teams get hit with an injury bug come late March and drop like flies; it is why teams voluntarily build pathetic rosters to enhance future draft position.
Teams don’t want to be caught in the vicious cycle of sixth seeds and 17th-20th overall draft picks. That is why the Philadelphia 76ers tore it down and began a full-fledged rebuild. That is why the Boston Celtics hired a fresh-faced college coach to handle a flawed roster sure to face considerable turmoil.
The Atlanta Hawks, on the other hand, don’t seem to be afraid of low ceilings and high floors, despite the fact they have spent the last five seasons as the league’s shining beacon of mediocrity. This new direction in Atlanta, though, is not a race toward the same mediocrity that has been the unfortunate national staple of this team since 2009; instead, it is a race towards flexibility, something that can potentially be far more valuable than high draft picks – and far more dangerous, too.
That is why it is too early to laud GM Danny Ferry’s strategic rebuild. There are two reasons we should reserve judgment: (a) The rebuild is not even remotely finished and (b) there is no way to determine the longevity of the recently acquired pieces. We have only learned that anyone is fair game, everyone is trade bait and Ferry takes no prisoners. How this will end, nobody knows.
But the Hawks again are going to be a competitive team. They will be on the playoff fringe in a much-improved Eastern Conference. And they might just end up better than last season’s injury-riddled amalgamation of expiring contracts.
So with a future more question-filled than Jeopardy! itself, the Hawks will embark upon this season with a clear goal of making the playoffs, but also with a clear message that changes will continue, both as the season progresses and in the future.
Here are five things to watch concerning the Hawks.
1. The point guards. Coming into last season, the perception was that Jeff Teague was the point guard of the future, ready to take the reins and steer the Hawks to some sort of competence. He began the season looking like he was ready to assume his role as a foundational piece moving forward. But as the season progressed, his lack of assertiveness and tendency to disappear for long stretches began to hinder the plan that seemed to be in place for his supposed permanent role.
When Milwaukee signed Teague to an offer sheet this offseason, many opined that Atlanta would let Teague walk and immediately give the responsibilities of the offense to German rookie Dennis Schröder. However, the price at which Milwaukee signed Atlanta’s incumbent point guard – 4 years, $32 million – was too much of a moveable and desirable asset for Ferry to let walk away for naught.
Teague once again will come into a season with something to prove. But on his heels will be Schröder, the rookie who intrigued just about everyone at the Las Vegas Summer League.
Schröder showed incredible defensive potential and elite court vision as he led the Hawks. His slight frame and ability to finish in traffic are cause for concern with regard to immediate playing time, but he seems to have all the tools to develop into an elite starting point guard.
Teague knows he is on the ticker, so it’s worth watching how he comes out of the gate. And if it’s no different than last season, it’s worth wondering if he will still be in a Hawks uniform after the trade deadline.
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