ATLANTA – The team with the Eastern Conference's longest active streak of playoff appearances has a new problem:
Mike Budenholzer doesn't know how to find playing time for so many healthy Hawks.
Atlanta made its seventh straight playoff appearance in Budenholzer's debut as coach despite a series of injuries. Al Horford missed more than half the season and for a time the Hawks were without their top three centers. Overall, Atlanta players missed more than 200 games with injuries.
At first glance it looked like just another ho-hum season of the Hawks making an early exit from the playoffs, unable to keep pace with the conference's elite teams.
There is reason for optimism, however. Even without Horford, the Hawks gave top seed Indiana a major scare in the first round, losing in a tough seven-game series.
The Hawks made progress while learning the ball-movement system Budenholzer mastered in his 19 seasons with the San Antonio Spurs. The Hawks, known in recent seasons for their short possessions with few if any passes, suddenly began to share the ball. Atlanta ranked second in the NBA with 24.9 assists per game.
Now, with Horford, center Pero Antic and others recovered from last season's injuries, there are difficult decisions ahead for Budenholzer.
"The great thing about our team is I think we've got really some good depth," Budenholzer said Monday. "That will be one of the hard things, figuring out how to use them all and take advantage of all their abilities. ... Assuming we're healthy, we've got a lot of guys that really deserve to play. ... It's going to be hard."
The starters are Horford, forwards Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll and guards Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver. Millsap emerged as an All-Star while Teague, Korver and forward Mike Scott also flourished in Budenholzer's system.
Here are some things to watch as the Hawks try to move up in the conference:
PECTORAL PROBLEMS: Horford had good reason to be cautious in his recovery from a torn right pectoral muscle that limited him to 29 games last season. In January 2012, he tore his left pectoral muscle and missed the remainder of the regular season. Horford's health is the obvious key to Atlanta's hopes. Following his injury, the Hawks fell from third to eighth in the East, barely beating out the Knicks for the eighth playoff spot in the conference.
MUSCALA IN THE MIDDLE: Elton Brand, 35, was forced into a fill-in starting role at center after injuries to Horford, Pero Antic and Gustavo Ayon last year. Adreian Payne, a first-round pick from Michigan State, was drafted to provide youth and size at the position, but he might not be ready for significant minutes if Horford has a setback or another injury. The player to watch may be Mike Muscala, a 2013 second-round pick from Bucknell who joined the Hawks from the Spanish League late last season. Muscala impressed the Hawks with his offseason work and could earn increased minutes.
PERIMETER SIZE: The only veteran newcomers are two wing players with size, Thabo Sefolosha (6-7) and Kent Bazemore (6-5). The Hawks struggled with perimeter matchups last year, especially when Lou Williams played at shooting guard. Williams was traded to Toronto in the offseason.
FOR SALE: The Hawks enter the season with uncertainty in their management and ownership following racially charged comments by co-owner Bruce Levenson and general manager Danny Ferry. Levenson is selling his majority share and Ferry remains on an indefinite leave of absence. Levenson's Washington partner, Ed Peskowitz, also is selling his share, meaning at least 50.1 percent of the team is on the market.
3-POINTERS FOR ALL: Korver is Atlanta's most accomplished 3-point shooter. He extended his NBA record of at least one 3 in 127 consecutive games last season. But he wasn't the only long-range shooter on the team. Atlanta set a franchise record by making at least 10 3-pointers in eight straight games last season. Scott, who missed his only 3-pointer as a rookie two years ago, broke out with 62 3s last season. The Hawks set a team record with 768 3s.
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