The new and imploded Hawks step out Wednesday in Dallas to open their 2017-18 NBA season.
Time to unveil the step backward, otherwise known as the drive for the draft lottery. Time to usher in the age of irony, in which the more you win, the more you potentially lose when it comes time to pick some one-and-done next June.
And Paul Millsap is not walking through that door. Well, actually he is. But just for the home opener, when his Denver Nuggets come to town Oct. 27.
For those who are about to push a large rock uphill for 82 games, we salute you.
And before the new reality sets in, we allow the voices of those doing the hard work to speak to the questions of this season and to tell us how it all could play out better than anyone has projected. That’s the least we can do.
Just how much will Millsap be missed? The team leader in scoring and in tough-mindedness was the latest to leave via free agency, the Hawks receiving nothing in return but a good-bye wave. How do you fill the vacuum?
Coach Mike Budenholzer: “It's hard. All the tangible things he brought – the talent, the skills, especially defensively. Over time, people started to appreciate how good he was defensively. With our effort and our activity, some of those tangible things, defensively, we can do that collectively. Offensively, everybody is going to have to do a little bit more, make more decisions, more reads.
“As for the intangibles, he brought a competitiveness, a calm, a confidence that teams need. As we get into the season, you’ll probably see and feel how we are doing at replacing that. There’s no doubt he’ll be missed.”
Forward Taurean Prince: “You find different ways (making up for Millsap). Next guy up. We drafted John Collins, and we expect things out of him this year and for years to come. My role has gotten bigger. Guys we brought in have to realize more is expected than has been in their past. But that’s the opportunity a lot of players want. It’s time for us to take advantage of the opportunity. It’s time for us to blossom.”
Defense has been a trademark throughout Budenholzer’s four seasons in Atlanta. With the departure of Millsap and leading shot-blocker Dwight Howard, who’s going to protect the rim, and who’s going to do the hard work of rebounding?
Power forward/center Mike Muscala: “All five guys got to help with (rebounding and protecting the rim). Losing Paul and Dwight, obviously those guys made up a ton of rebounds and blocked shots and brought a presence in the paint. You make up for that with five guys, not necessarily with other bigs.
“Collectively, everyone boxes out and everyone does a good job of keeping their guy in front of them and not allowing them to drive. And when guys do come over, I think we still have some good shot-blockers on this team.”
Prince: “You go with the guys you have and give everyone the opportunity, and maybe somebody comes up to be one of the great shot blockers in the league five years from now. You never know. It’s not about trying to replace guys from last year, it’s about what you can do and what you’re here for and being the best at it.”
It's Dennis Schroder’s team now. Having lost three of its top four scorers from a year ago (Millsap, Howard and Tim Hardaway), what form will the Hawks offense take now? From where will the points come?
Budenholzer: “I think we’re going to have to play faster. I’ve been preaching to play fast since I got here, but I would say it’s going to be ramped up, be on another level. Our spacing and our ability to attack with our guards, attack with Dennis, is going to have to be different and better.”
Schroder: “Run fast – that’s our whole new system. We got to play with pace, after rebound or after they score. Kick the ball ahead. Bigs got to run. We ain’t got no Paul Millsap. We ain’t got no Jeff Teague or Al Horford. We got to play together as a team, move the ball. That’s going to give us the best chance to win the game.”
With pace must come space. Does this team have the 3-point shooting necessary to concern a defense and create said space (they ranked 23rd in the league last season in 3-point percentage, and that was with Hardaway and Kyle Korver for part of the season)?
Forward Ersan Ilyazsova: “For sure, why not? New players. New system. We try to open up, give more space for the point guards to penetrate and find the open guy. The biggest thing for us will be the corner 3’s. That’s the way the NBA goes now. Create space, give more floor and when you get open, make those open shots.”
Budenholzer: “We’re going to have to shoot the ball well at the end of the day. It’s a big part of our offense. When we shoot it well, we tend to have some success. The open shots are usually generated by us playing with ball movement, which is a staple of what we do. Then we have to make shots.”
In summary, how does a team with a modest 27.5-win over-under, as established by the wise guys in Las Vegas, succeed? Where do the wins come from in such a collection of players at such a time of reconstruction as this?
Guard/forward Kent Bazemore: “By showing up every night. That alone probably cost us 12 to 15 games last year, not showing up with the emotion and energy that it takes to win.
“We got a super young team, guys who love to play basketball. It’s going to take a very valid punch to take us down.”
Ilyasova: “To win games in NBA is no easy thing. It will take us all being 100 percent each game, each night. We don’t have those superstars who are going to come and put up those numbers – 40 points in a game. It takes all five guys plus the bench to come up with a lot of energy. Play as a unit. Play as a team.”
Muscala: “Probably best not to worry about expectations, honestly. Sometimes if you read too much into what people are saying you might believe it, whether you realize it or not. You have to trust in each other and then have no expectations for any game. View each game as that’s what’s important at that moment and try to do that for the entire season. That can be tough, easier said than done.”
And while the Hawks go about their rebuilding, can they maintain their tentative grip on the sporting affections of their hometown? Can they inspire a level of curiosity, at least, from the fan base while enduring the difficulties ahead?
Muscala: “I think we’re going to be a fun team this year, I really do. We’ve got some good young guys, like John Collins – high-flyer, fun to watch. We move the ball. We’re an athletic team. We play together, and I think that’s fun to watch. For me, I love watching teams like that. I think we’re going to bring a lot of energy to the game, too. I think that will bring fans to the game.”
Schroder: “What I’m expecting is every teammate of mine to try to compete for 48 minutes every game. That’s going to give us the best chance to be great as a team. Whatever the media says, that’s what they’re thinking. But we’re thinking differently. We’re trying to make the playoffs. That’s everyone’s goal at the start of the season. (The media) has their opinion. We got a different opinion.”