By: Isaac Gillen, KCOU Sports
The Atlanta Hawks are tearing through the league like talons through prey. The team atop the NBA’s Eastern Conference is coming off a smokin’ hot January in which it rattled off 17 victories as part of a franchise record 19-game winning streak.
It was announced at the beginning of this week that for the first time in NBA history, the Eastern Conference Player of the Month Award would be shared by five members of the same team. Let me introduce you to the January Eastern Conference Player(s) of the Month.
Point Guard Jeff Teague- Making his first NBA All-Star appearance next week, Teague will also be competing in the Taco Bell Skills Challenge. He’s averaging a career high in points, assists, steals, blocks and rebounds. He’s the maestro of one of the league’s most efficient offenses averaging 7.5 assists per game. This is a guy the Hawks were going to let walk so they could get Brandon Jennings. Or was that just a Spursian ploy to get Teague on a cheaper deal?
Shooting Guard Kyle Korver- Korver, despite having a career year shooting the ball did not get the All-Star nod from the coaches. That hasn’t stopped him from terrorizing opponents from beyond the arc. Korver is shooting the lights out from everywhere. He may be the first to ever join the 50-50-90 club. He’s shooting 51.7% on the year, but 53.2% from beyond the arc. Meaning the man is actually a worse shooter when not behind the line. He’s also shooting what would be a career high 92% from the foul line. Although he won’t be competing in the All-Star game, he will be competing in his 3rd 3-point Contest searching for his first victory.
Small Forward DeMarre Carroll- Former Mizzou Tiger DeMarre Carroll won what was likely his last Player of the Month ever in January. Unless of course, the Hawks continue to win at such a blistering pace. Carroll, known to some as a “junkyard dog” has had a rather quietly successful season shooting the ball. He’s scoring at a career best rate and his 3-point accuaracy has improved drastically over his past two seasons spent with the Hawks (above 40% for the first time in his career).
Power Forward Paul Millsap- Millsap is on one of the league’s friendliest contracts (like most of this Hawks team). Playing at an All-Star level he received his second consecutive All-Star nomination. Millsap’s agent was thought a moron when despite teams clamoring for him he signed what at the time seemed to be a cheap deal to go play on a stagnant Atlanta team. Millsap has proven worth every penny and then some since joining the Hawks. He extended his range out to the 3-point line and is now averaging over one make a game from beyond the arc. His defense improved significantly as well as he’s seventh in the league in steals and SECOND in Defensive Win Shares.
Center Al Horford- Horford is one of the league’s most underrated big men. Coming off of a second shoulder surgery, Horford will be making his third All-Star appearance in New York. He’s started every game he’s played in since his rookie year with Atlanta back in 2007. Regarded as one of the best shooting and passing big men in the game, Horford leads Centers with 52.4% shooting from mid-range and is fourth in assists with 3.3 per game.
Now that you’ve met the players of the month, let’s examine the January Eastern Conference Coach of the Month, Mike Budenholzer. A disciple of San Antonio’s Gregg Poppovich, Budenholzer left San Antonio to coach the Hawks after the Spurs met their demise in the 2013 NBA Finals. Since taking over the Hawks, Budenholzer (and troubled GM Danny Ferry) transformed the team into one of the league’s most efficient squads. The offense is built around spacing the floor and ball movement. Much like his mentor, Budenholzer relies heavily on having big men that can both shoot and pass the ball effectively. He’s got two of the best in the league at that in Horford and Millsap. Everyone on the floor is a threat from midrange and beyond. Teague coming off of either a Millsap or Horford pick with Korver coming off a double screen on the weak side is simply unfair to opposing defenses. Their bench players can all shoot exceptionally well from range as well. Even backup Taken 3 villain center Pero Antic can hit from outside. Mike Scott, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder also can shoot remarkably well off the bench and add athleticism on the wing. A complete roster full of shooters who are at the very least competent defenders. The Hawks are hoping to bring the Spurs playoff success to A-town as well.
The only team that’s perhaps playing better is the team the Hawks faced Friday. The Golden State Warriors and rookie head coach Steve Kerr came to Philips Arena with the league’s second best record (39-9) and the league’s best shooting backcourt in Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson. Only fitting that the NBA’s mid-season Super Bowl came 5 days after the NFL’s Super Bowl. The league’s 2 most high powered offenses racked up 240 points on the night with the Hawks taking the game and the league’s best record (42-9). The Hawks shot 15-27 including Korver going 5-9 and the bench going 7-8 from downtown. Teague led the team in scoring with 23 points, 11-11 from the stripe. Atlanta outshot and frankly outplayed the best in the west.
Which begs the question, are the Hawks the best team in the NBA? Or better yet, are the Hawks championship contenders for the first time in decades? Could they be the NBA’s next San Antonio like dynasty? If they keep annihilating teams on offense like they have been, then the end is certainly not in sight.