The Atlanta Hawks apparently are punting on winning the Eastern Conference this season after trading starting shooting guard Kyle Korver to Cleveland. But don't necessarily just assume Atlanta will be a bad bet in the immediate future now.
You don't win an NBA title without a superstar. That's basically a proven fact with perhaps a couple of exceptions over the past 50 years. The Atlanta Hawks don't have a superstar. In 2014-15, they led the Eastern Conference with 60 regular-season victories and had four All-Stars but were summarily swept in the conference finals by the Cleveland Cavaliers, who obviously have a superstar in LeBron James. Last year, Atlanta won 48 games but was swept by Cleveland in the conference semifinals. The Hawks' best player on those teams, power forward/center Al Horford, left in free agency this past offseason for Boston.
I actually give credit to the Atlanta front office as it realized the team as constituted wasn't going to get past the Cavaliers , and it didn't want to lose another top player for nothing in free agency. Thus the deal of Korver, who was set to become a free agent after this season. Clearly the Hawks are a bit weaker after trading the former All-Star sharpshooter. He is averaging 9.5 points per game and shooting 40.9 percent on 3-pointers. His 42.9 percent 3-point shooting over his career ranks third among active players behind Stephen Curry and Steve Novak. In return, the Hawks got Mike Dunleavy, Mo Williams and a protected future first-round draft pick.
Yet a statistical argument can be made that this doesn't hurt Atlanta all that much. For one, Dunleavy is a similar player to Korver if not quite as good from long range (Williams was a throw-in for salary reasons and won't ever take the court for the team; the Hawks received cash in the trade to offset the approximate $1.2 million remaining on Williams' salary). Also, the Hawks allowed 106.4 points per 100 possessions when Korver was on the court and 98.4 with him off the court. They shot nearly the same percentage on 3-pointers with Korver on the court (33.7 percent) as they did with him off (33.6 percent).
Korver hasn't been as good this year following offseason ankle surgery. The Hawks now can play rookies DeAndre Bembry and Taurean Prince more in Korver's spot and they are part of Atlanta's future. The 35-year-old Korver was not. He does make the Cavs better, though, and they are -500 in NBA betting to win the East again.
Atlanta actually enters this week as the hottest team in the Eastern Conference, on a six-game winning streak and sitting fourth in the East. The last two wins were without Korver and on the road (New Orleans and Dallas). They lead the Southeast Division, if you care about such things. Atlanta is a +140 favorite on NBA odds to win the Southeast. Sometimes, a team can jell after a move like this as sort of a middle finger to management for quitting on the season.
So while I wouldn't necessarily assume that the Hawks are going in the tank immediately, more moves could be coming. The next players to go in trade are likely Paul Millsap, now the team's best player, and Thabo Sefolosha. Millsap would bring a lot more back in trade than Korver did even though he too will be a free agent after the season. Millsap has been linked to Toronto, Denver and Sacramento. The trade deadline is Feb. 23.
This week, Atlanta completes a four-game road trip with a visit to Brooklyn on Tuesday (first meeting of season between teams), followed by home games against Boston and Horford on Friday (first meeting) and Milwaukee on Sunday (Hawks are 2-0 vs. Bucks).
I would bail on the Hawks once Millsap is traded, but hold off before that.