Welcome to Hoop Dreams, a season preview unlike any other you’ll read before the 2016-17 season tips off. The premise is simple. We’ll be providing 30 of these fictional forays because it simply stinks that only one team can win the title each year. The list of contending teams seems to shrink with each campaign, and we wanted to provide something to those fans who only get to dream of Larry O’Brien during the offseason. Before October, every team can win the NBA title. Don’t believe us? Then keep reading. – Ed
The Atlanta Hawks head into the 2016-17 season as both a known quantity and a question mark. With the loss of former “pretty dang good but not transcendent” cornerstones Jeff Teague and Al Horford, the Hawks have rolled the proverbial dice by signing hometown anti-hero Dwight Howard to perhaps shake things up to avoid a winning season that ultimately ends in a sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Hawks roll through their first six games, winning the games they are supposed to win and putting an embarrassing scare into the Cavaliers before being bailed out by an almost casual three-point buzzer beater courtesy of the newly inked J.R. Smith.
This first stretch of games is proof that like his mentor Gregg Popovich, Mike Budenholzer can adapt, even with the loss of trusted personnel like Horford. The inclusion of Howard has destroyed the elegant spacing of the Hawks, and his crafty screens are missed by the German rascal, Dennis Schroeder, who struggles early on to find a rhythm with Howard. However the offense still hums and the defense is good enough, and steadily improves throughout November until it hovers just outside the Top 10.
Kent Bazemore has made a huge leap offensively, posting the best shooting percentages of his career. The Hawks, long considered something of a finesse team, start to grind out ugly wins, in large part due to the unexpectedly good chemistry between a Dwight Howard desperate for redemption and Paul Millsap, who is having another All-Star trending season. In December, in a bizarre turn of events, newly added reserve guard Jarrett Jack averages 25 points for a six-game stretch, which is eventually dubbed Jack–Sanity. However, he soon reverts back to being the usual Jarrett Jack, but Atlanta keeps winning.
The consensus is that two seasons ago the Hawks overachieved with a 60-win season and then followed that up by a season that could be charitably described as underachieving. This season the Hawks will comfortably achieve. As the All-Star Break approaches, Atlanta will go into a brief but telling free-fall, losing six straight to contenders, pretenders, and cellar dwellers alike. Their lack of a go-to scorer is put on blast and the team as a whole seems to have collectively lost that extra gear, losing many games in the last two minutes of regulation with lax defensive stands and a stunted, very un-Budenholzer-like offense. Kyle Korver’s best days are behind him and though he tries hard, his three-point shooting percentage has fallen off a cliff. He’s just not the consistent force from beyond the arc that he once was, and at 35, it’s hard to imagine his best days are even remotely ahead of him.
However, the team rallies in the last month of the season, and in an Eastern Conference where the playoff seeding is determined mostly by chaos and chance, the Hawks comfortably slide into the 5th seed, where they dispatch the frisky but raw Detroit Pistons in five games.
In the Semifinals the Hakws find themselves matched up against their fun-house mirror counterparts, the Toronto Raptors, who played out of their minds and ended the season with the best record in the East. Dwight Howard, heretofore a solid if uninspiring addition to the squad, comes alive and plays with the ferocity of his Orlando heyday. In a hard fought six-game series, Dwight clears his name as a prankster who doesn’t have the will to win. Even Charles Barkley, a notorious hater of Dwight Howard’s game, gives him grudging respect.
Schroeder and Millsap and Bazemore continue their basically solid play, but Dwight’s re-emergence as a true force, seemingly no longer timid nor wracked by lingering injury concerns, has tipped the balance. The Atlanta Hawks (sort of) shock the world and advance to the Eastern Conference Finals, where they will face off against Al Horford and the resurgent Celtics, who themselves have just felled an even more formidable giant, the reigning champs, the Cleveland Cavaliers.
The Boston Celtics are the most inspiring bunch of spare parts, reclamation projects, and eager company men ever assembled in the modern NBA. The Hawks by contrast, seem almost boring and annoying, a team good enough to get to the playoffs, even the Eastern Conference Finals, but not a team of destiny by any means. With the mood of the world for once in support of the city of Boston, the Hawks revert to the free-flowing, can’t-miss, well-balanced attack of their finest hour in 2014-15. Admittedly, Howard is still unable to replicate Horford’s scoring and playmaking from the perimeter, but Bazemore completely shuts down Isaiah Thomas, Millsap outplays Horford on both ends, and the magic of Brad Stevens sputters and dies on the floor of Phillips Arena, where the Hawks pull out a relatively easy Game 6 win. They are going to the Finals.
Miraculously, the much lauded Golden State Warriors lost in the second round to an aggressive Utah Jazz team that in turn was defeated by the Los Angeles Clippers, who seem at last poised to break the curse foisted upon their franchise years and years ago. However, from the outset, the Hawks dominate the Clippers. Only DeAndre Jordan makes life hard for the Hawks frontline, posterizing Tiago Splitter with an alacrity that seems unseemly. Chris Paul is brilliant, but again, the long arms of Kent Bazemore fluster him. Paul Pierce takes a lot of potentially momentum changing shots, and misses every single one of them. Despite the Clippers playing poorly, the series goes to seven games.
In what will one day be considered the most boring Game 7 of NBA history, the Hawks cruise to a twelve-point victory. Staples Center goes dark, as the Hawks cluster around Mike Budenholzer and pour Miller High Life over him in celebration.
The Hawks are given 50/1 odds to repeat.