Atlanta Hawks Preview: Atlanta dares to be above average

Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

On the surface, this year's Hawks team looks a lot like the nondescript Hawks teams of years past, but this collection is the foundation for something more, not merely the ascension to a plateau.

Since taking over as general manager following the 2012 season, Danny Ferry has traded or cut ties with everyone he inherited, with the exception of Al Horford and Jeff Teague. The old Hawks -- Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia -- are all gone.

In their place is a team whose upside is about the same as the one he dismantled. The Hawks will be good, they won't be great and they'll probably give someone a decent matchup in the first round of the playoffs. In the top-heavy East, the Hawks are stationed just outside of the top five, but look to be ahead of the pack of up-and-comers and pseudo-contenders in the next wave of teams.

That, of course, is the dreaded no-man's land that may as well come equipped with an Atlanta logo. Same as it ever was.

But what looks like inertia is actually progress. Those old Hawks were going nowhere but the second round. The new ones aren't even that good yet, but after all of Ferry's deals, there's room to maneuver and grow. The Hawks also have a first-round pick coming from the Nets in 2015 and a much more manageable cap situation, with Horford signed at a very affordable $12 million a year.

And Horford is a fantastic building block. Still just 27 years old, he's entering his prime and coming off his best season that included career-highs in points (17.4) and rebounds (10.2). Because he plays in Atlanta for a team that had bigger names, if not better players, Horford has slowly morphed into the game's most under-appreciated star.

There isn't one element of Horford's game that truly stands out, but he's an excellent rebounder, a good scorer with range, a solid passer and a tough defender. Add it all together and he's a bit of a throwback to the big men of the 80s who could do everything well.

Combined with Teague, who is also coming into his own, the Hawks have two fundamental pieces in place. Teague was one of the last members of the point guard class of 2009 to get a second contract, but he's made solid improvements each year in the league. At $8 million per over the next four years, he's also working on a deal that makes sense for him and the team.

Ferry has also loaded up on smart veteran signings that include the likes of Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, Lou Williams, Elton Brand and DeMare Carroll. All this gives new coach Mike Budenholzer a solid base to begin his work. Millsap in particular could thrive playing next to Horford, giving the Hawks the award for having the most under-appreciated players in the league.

The draft yielded electric point guard Dennis Schroeder, who will have ample time to hone his developing skillset. The Rajon Rondo comps are a bit much -- not for nothing is Rondo the game's most unique player -- but it's easy to see the creative spark that informs his game.

Last year's top pick John Jenkins is an automatic shooter who could work his way into steady rotation minutes, and Ferry picked up intriguing strays such as Gustavo Ayon and Jared Cunningham who could also find their way into the rotation. The Hawks aren't counting on any of them at the moment, but it's a different group than the collection of fringe veterans who tended to round out Atlanta's roster during the previous era.

In some ways, the mix is a bit Spursian, which makes sense in that both Ferry and Budenholzer were schooled in the ways of Popovichology. Granted, Horford is no Tim Duncan, and Teague has miles to go before he can be discussed in the same sentence as Tony Parker, but Ferry has built a sustainable base with room to grow. That's a far different model than the past five years, when the Hawks were trying to catch lightning in a broken bottle.

In other words, it's the start of something new. While the results may be similar, the Hawks appear headed in the right direction.

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