With the Eastern Conference wide open, don't sleep on the Atlanta Hawks

Posted by Ben Parker on Thursday, July 24, 2014 with No comments

In a matter of a few weeks, the landscape of the Eastern Conference has dramatically shifted from being a two horse race between the Heat and Pacers to a wide open derby with as much as seven contenders. Of course, this is primarily due to LeBron James' decision to head back to Cleveland to join the Cavaliers, but other factors such as Lance Stephenson going to the Hornets and Pau Gasol going to the Bulls have also contributed to this shift. While everybody is all abuzz about the Cavaliers, Bulls, Wizards, and Hornets, nobody is paying one iota of attention to the Atlanta Hawks and the potential they have to make a run for the Eastern Conference crown.

The reason why they aren't getting any attention is equally obvious as it is incoherent: They haven't added any major free agents to their team this summer. What makes this incoherent is that their star center Al Horford missed almost the entire season with a torn pectoral muscle, and yet they found themselves taking the #1 seeded Indiana Pacers to a Game 7 in the first round of the Eastern Conference playoffs.  

                                          (credit: soaringsouth.com)

With Al Horford now healthy, the Hawks will finally be able to see how much damage they can do with a frontcourt that features Al Horford and Paul Millsap, two guys who are both all-stars. In my opinion, the damage that they can do is severe enough to come out of the Eastern Conference and stun everybody who follows the NBA. 

Before he went down with his pectoral injury last season, Al Horford was having the best season of his career, averaging 18.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, and 1.5 blocks per contest. As for Paul Millsap, what earned him all-star honors was his season average of 17.9 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.7 steals, and 1.1 blocks per game. Those aren't numbers to ignore in today's NBA, especially for big men. With Pacers center Roy Hibbert going all coo coo in the head, the door is now open for the Hawks to have the best front court in the Eastern Conference even with the Bulls having Joakim Noah and the Cavaliers potentially landing Kevin Love.

In addition to their fantastic frontcourt which also features the very dangerous stretch-big man Pero Antic, the Hawks have a very dangerous backcourt which features Jeff Teague and also Thabo Sefolosha who they signed this summer in free agency. Like Horford and Millsap, Teague has gotten better every season with this past season being his best, averaging 16.5 points, 6.7 assists, and 1.1 steals per game. 

Teague is not only a playmaker offensively, but he is also a playmaker defensively. By adding Thabo Sefolosha to their backcourt, the Hawks now have a very dangerous defensive team on the perimeter that can give the best backcourts in the NBA serious trouble. In addition, the Hawks also have Kyle Korver knocking down threes at the small forward position, which makes up for Sefolosha's lack of offense. 

As for the role players on the Hawks, I like the pieces that their head coach Mike Budenholzer has to work with. Kent Bazemore, who had a breakout season of sorts with the Lakers last season should be able to provide scoring off the bench, DeMarre Carrol is effective at providing energy and hustle, and Dennis Schroeder is looking like he may become a quality backup point guard. Plus, both rookie Adreian Payne and veteran Gustavo Ayon should be able to provide quality relief in the paint for Al Horford and Paul Millsap. 

The only knock on the Hawks is that they don't have a big name player who will put them on ESPN and TNT every week. They will once again fly under the radar as a result, but don't allow that to make you forget that Hawks still exist as a viable contender in the East. They can beat you in the paint and on the perimeter and they also have quality role players. In addition, they learned that without Al Hoford they can still make some noise in the playoffs. Now that they are getting Horford back, I don't see any reason to think that they can't run the table and come out of the East. 

---Ben Parker: follow me on twitter @nba_lord