Last season, the Atlanta Hawks were the unexpected darlings of the NBA. They won a franchise-best 60 games, had the Coach of the Year in Popovich protege Mike Budenholzer, and sent four players to the All-Star game, a feat only eight teams in league history have accomplished. They did all of this without boasting a single superstar on their roster, in no small part to a Spurs-like predilection for spacing and ball movement that Budenholzer picked up during his 17-year tenure as an assistant on San Antonio’s bench.
It’s highly possible that the Hawks surprised even themselves with their early-season success. They had been a good team in previous seasons and showed tremendous growth in several key areas, but they made such a stratospheric ascent in the 2014-15 season that it was difficult to process. The pinnacle of that was an undefeated January to kick off 2015, the first 17-0 month in NBA history.
But after the All-Star break, the once-majestically-soaring Hawks came crashing back down to Earth. Including the playoffs, they finished the season with a mediocre 25-19 record, which culminated with them being knocked out of the Eastern Conference Finals by the Cleveland Cavaliers in five games. And it’s difficult to pinpoint precisely what went wrong. According to SportsVU data, they executed just as well, if not better, than they had up to that point in the season, freeing up even more open looks at the basket.
Somewhat inexplicably, they just stopped making as many of those shots. And the only real accounting for that are the inescapable laws of probability. But also ill-timed injuries. And naturally-occurring shooting slumps. Okay, so maybe it wasn’t that big of a mystery. In the end, the Hawks were just like any other NBA team, subject to the same peaks and valleys that pepper the terrain of a grueling 82-game season.