Toast of NBA 2 seasons ago, Hawks mired in terrible slump
ATLANTA (AP) The Atlanta Hawks are struggling to figure out what happened to the team that won 60 games just two seasons ago.
A ballyhooed makeover has quickly bogged down. The offense looks stagnant and confused. The defense is struggling to stop anyone.
The Hawks have faded back into NBA purgatory.
Since a 9-2 start raised hopes of another strong run in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta has lost seven straight games - its longest skid since February 2014 - and 10 of the last 11. More troubling, the Hawks haven't been competitive in many of those games.
The plummet includes six double-digit defeats, including a 36-point rout at home by Detroit and a 44-point embarrassment at Toronto in back-to-back games.
No wonder the Hawks took a bit of hope from their latest setback, a more respectable 102-99 loss to Oklahoma City.
''A step in the right direction,'' coach Mike Budenholzer said Tuesday, even while acknowledging ''this is a little bit of uncharted waters.''
Budenholzer has already juggled the lineup, making Thabo Sefolosha a starter and benching Kyle Korver. But there are plenty of troubling issues beyond an aging 3-point specialist - from new center Dwight Howard acclimating to an offense built on motion and making the extra pass, to Kent Bazemore struggling to live up to the huge contract he received this past summer, to Dennis Schroder's up-and-down play in his first season as the starting point guard.
''We started out the season with the right attitude, the right mindset,'' said Paul Millsap, who is battling a sore hip. ''Somewhere down the line, we lost track of who we are.''
Budenholzer was the toast of the league in 2014-15, molding the Hawks into a cohesive unit that was greater than its individual parts. Atlanta ripped off a 19-game winning streak and all five starters shared player of the month, an unprecedented honor.
The Hawks claimed the top seed in the East and got past the second round of the playoffs for the first time since moving from St. Louis in 1968. Even though they were swept by LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the conference finals, this looked like a franchise on the rise.
The Hawks had 12 fewer wins last season than they did the year before, and went out meekly in the second round with another sweep by the Cavaliers. That prompted Budenholzer, who inherited total control over personnel matters after the ouster of general manager Danny Ferry for racially charged comments, to decide on a major shake-up.
Atlanta doled out $70.5 million to Howard, even though his star had faded in recent seasons, allowing longtime Hawks center Al Horford to bolt for Boston. Budenholzer also traded point guard Jeff Teague to Indiana, handing Schroder the keys to the offense.
Those moves raised plenty of eyebrows, as did the $70 million contract for former D-Leaguer Bazemore, but the strong start - which included an impressive road win at Cleveland - seemed to justify Budenholzer's direction.
Then, suddenly, the Hawks fell apart.
The schedule surely had something to do with it. Atlanta's slide began when the team headed out on the road for seven of eight games, including a West Coast swing. With all that traveling, there was little time to practice between games, which affected the development of the offense more than anything. It didn't help that Millsap missed three games.
The Hawks have reached 100 points only two times during their slump.
''We have to move the ball better a lot better than we have,'' Howard said.
Atlanta's next chance to end the streak will be against Miami on Wednesday.
Away from the court, the Hawks are taking some major steps. A state-of-the-art practice facility is under construction. Philips Arena will get a nearly $200 renovation. A D-League farm club is planned for a new arena near Atlanta's airport.
The ownership group expects to see the same sort of progress on the court.
Budenholzer grudgingly acknowledges that his offseason moves brought more scrutiny to the team's recent woes, and perhaps made it more difficult to turn things around.
''There's a little bit of uniqueness of adding Dennis as the starter, Dwight as a new player, and we haven't been together,'' Budenholzer said. ''I hope there's enough guys who have been here, been through it, that we can kind of self-correct. But is it maybe a little bit tougher? Could be.''
Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963 . His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/paul-newberry .