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2016-17 Season Preview: Atlanta Hawks

Sekou Smith

Sekou Smith NBA.com

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Oct 12, 2016 12:55 PM ET

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Extending their conference-leading playoff streak to double digits should not be a problem for the Hawks in the fourth year of the Mike Budenholzer era. New starters at point guard (Dennis Schroder) and center (Dwight Howard) add a significant wrinkle to the mix. But the Hawks return 11 players from last season and have trusted veterans in All-Star Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and Kent Bazemore to help stabilize things as Schroder and Howard adjust to their new roles and surroundings. Winning has become a habit for the Hawks, who believe they are one of the top teams in the East and the league.

ICYMI

Adios Al: The Hawks saw Al Horford depart for Boston in free agency, ending a splendid nine-year run that resulted in playoff appearances with Horford manning the middle. … They essentially chose Dwight Howard over Horford, signing Howard to a shorter and more economical deal (three years $70 million), while also upgrading their physical presence in the middle. … The Hawks signed veteran Jarrett Jack to serve as the backup and mentor for new starting point guard Dennis Schroder. Jack will also provide a vocal locker room presence that has been missing. … Rookie first-round picks Taurean Prince (No. 12) and DeAndre Bembry (No. 21) are physical upgrades on the perimeter and provide quality depth at small forward and shooting guard, respectively. … Lost early last season to a hip injury, Tiago Splitter is back in the mix this season as Howard’s primary backup. … Tim Hardaway Jr. is the player who generated the most buzz during offseason workouts from his teammates and coaches. He’s operating with a confidence and bounce that missing before his first season with the team, when he was dealing with a nagging wrist injury.

THREE POINTS

  1. While he garnered the bulk of the offseason headlines, as expected, his coaches and teammates are stressing to Dwight Howard that he does not need to serve as some sort of savior for his hometown team. The Hawks have a veteran cast and need Howard to play his role and be effective on both ends of the floor.
     
  2. Injuries to both Dennis Schroder and Jarrett Jack during the preseason forced Mike Budenholzer to take another look at the depth at the position. In addition to signing Josh Maggette as insurance, Tim Hardaway Jr. and DeAndre Bembry saw time at the position.
     
  3. The Hawks made Kent Bazemore a priority in free agency after watching him blossom into critical two-way player in Budenholzer’s system. Bazemore’s role changed, and he took advantage of every opportunity to raise his profile around the league.

MAN ON THE SPOT

Dennis Schroder. As much attention as Howard will receive this season, Schroder’s transition from Jeff Teague’s flamboyant backup to starter and floor leader will be the key to the Hawks’ season. Schroder has a grand total of 16 starts on his resume through the first three seasons of his NBA career. That’s not a lot of data to work with. But the Hawks would not have allowed him to finish as many games as he did last season if they did not believe that Schroder was the point guard of the future. That future, of course, is now. And Schroder, who certainly does not lack confidence, will have to take giant steps from now on.

STARTING FIVE

Dennis Schroder | 11.0 ppg, 2.6 rpg, 4.4 apg
No longer an understudy, his numbers and efficiency must improve as a starter.

Kyle Korver | 9.2 ppg, 3.3 rpg, 2.1 apg
Hawks need his 3-point shooting to return to his 2014-15 form (49.2 percent).

Dwight Howard | 13.7 ppg, 11.8 rpg, 1.6 bpg
Still a walking double-double, even after four straight seasons of statistical decline.

Paul Millsap | 17.1 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 3.3 apg
Adjustments to playing off of Howard instead of Horford should have no effect on his production.

Kent Bazemore | 11.6 ppg, 5.1 rpg, 2.3 apg
Confidence soaring after a breakout season that led to free agent jackpot.

KEY RESERVES

Tim Hardaway Jr. | 6.4 ppg, 1.7 rpg, 1.0 apg
Huge summer gains should pay dividends in his second season with Hawks.

Jarrett Jack | 12.8 ppg, 4.3 rpg, 7.4 apg
Seasoned veteran is capable as a backup but also has plenty of starting experience.

Kris Humphries | 6.5 ppg, 4.1 rpg, 0.7 apg
Consistent minutes must equal consistent production for this 12-year veteran.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The Hawks built up the program in Budenholzer’s first three seasons, leaning heavily at times on inherited stalwarts Al Horford and Jeff Teague. Now we’ll see how the Hawks fare with Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard in those spots. The gap between the Hawks and Cleveland Cavaliers was obvious at the end of each of the past two seasons. Time will tell whether the changes will help close that gap.

Sekou Smith is a veteran NBA reporter and NBA TV analyst. You can e-mail him here and follow him on Twitter.

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