The Atlanta Hawks’ Best-Ever Season: 2015

Every NBA franchise, even the most long-suffering, has had a high-water mark where their fans felt like they had a real chance at winning the title. For the Atlanta Hawks, a franchise whose history since moving to Atlanta in 1968 has been one largely of futility, it took them 47 years to reach a level where they began to approach the level that the franchise had achieved in St. Louis at the butt end of the Eisenhower administration.

You’ll notice that the year the Hawks did win the title—1958, when they got their one win in four tries against Bill Russell and the Boston Celtics—has not been chosen as the “best-ever season.” That’s because for this series’ purpose, only seasons in the franchise’s current home count. Whether the team has retained the name or not from the old city’s squad, people who live in the city associated with the team now don’t get to claim another city’s past glories.

So the Oklahoma City Thunder don’t get the ’79 Seattle SuperSonics, the New Orleans Pelicans—even if they were called the Hornets for their first few years in the league—don’t get the legacy of the mid-’90s Charlotte squad, and (we’ll get there in a few weeks, since we’re going alphabetically) the Sacramento Kings don’t get the 1951 Rochester Royals’ title on their ledger.

Anyway, let’s talk 2015 Hawks.

The On-Court Record

In simplest terms, going 60-22 and being the top overall seed in the conference for the second time in Atlanta (the first was in 1994, when they went 57-25 and got the tiebreaker over the New York Knicks in the post-Michael Jordan interregnum in the East) is a clear demonstration of “best season ever.”

Likewise, reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history after being relocated to the East from the West in 1970, certainly makes a case—the team’s unlikely run to the ECF in 2021 is the only other time they’ve gone that deep in the playoffs.

Unfortunately for the Hawks in both 2015 and 2021, they ran into a powerhouse, first in the person of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers, then this past year in the form of the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks.

So that’s the high-water mark. 60 wins and a conference final. Not the greatest peak of any NBA franchise (plenty enough of them have won titles, after all), but not bad.

The Featured Players

The Hawks put four guys in the All-Star Game in 2015, all as reserves. Considering the Hawks’ problem with fans knowing they exist outside of Atlanta, those were four guys out of seven roster spots, an impressive feat in its own right.

Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, and Jeff Teague all got honors as the Hawks raced out to a fast start, winning 19 games in a row in December and January and sitting at 40-8 at one point.

Indeed, at that point in the season, the Hawks had the best record in the East by seven games over the 33-15 Toronto Raptors, they were even in the loss column with the 37-8 eventual champion Golden State Warriors and as such the top overall team in the entire league.

Their fifth-best player was DeMarre Carroll, who posted 2.0 VORP on an incredibly deep roster that had no true superstars (Horford’s 3.6 VORP led the team, followed by Millsap at 3.3, Korver at 3.0, and Teague at 2.8.) It was by far Carroll’s best season and helped earn him a big—and regretted by the Raptors—four-year free agent deal after the playoffs.

Teague made his only All-Star appearance; he matched his 2.8 VORP on a mediocre Indiana Pacers team in 2017 and got a ring as a replacement-level bench player in Milwaukee after getting traded from the Celtics in 2021.

Korver made his only All-Star appearance as well in a career in which he averaged just 9.7 points over 1,232 games in the league. He was just the right guy in the right system—more on this in a bit.

Millsap made the second of his four consecutive All-Star appearances in a career that has established him as the best player ever to come out of Louisiana Tech not named Karl Malone.

And Horford returned to the All-Star Game after a four-year absence and was absolutely the best player on the team both in terms of VORP and WS/48 (.179.) He is at 92.8 career Win Shares at age 35 and if he stays healthy enough to play a couple of more good seasons could end up over 100. Only 33 players who are currently Hall of Fame-eligible and not actually in the Hall have reached that mark.

The Coach

This was the year that Mike Budenholzer put himself in the conversation with guys like Mike D’Antoni and George Karl as coaches whose system was great in the regular season but wasn’t built to win titles. Indeed, it wasn’t until 2021, when Budenholzer’s Bucks got the monkey off his back and won him a title, that he was able to shake the reputation that took root in 2015 and flowered on a couple of Bucks teams that choked in the playoffs in 2019 and ’20 before getting over the hump.

One reason the team had four All-Stars (and a fifth guy who had borderline All-Star advanced stats in Carroll) was because of the way they distributed the ball. The roots of Milwaukee’s four-out, surround-the-post-guy-with-shooters offense can be found on this Hawks team, and guys like Teague and Korver presaged guys like Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton six years later.

Phil Jackson once said that the secret to his coaching success was having guys like Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant on his teams. Budenholzer didn’t have MVP-level talents (and didn’t lose until his team ran into a GOAT candidate and a couple of guys who were the best players on their teams before 2015 in Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving.)

We should’ve seen the 2021 Bucks coming in the form of the 2015 Hawks (indeed, some of us did; plenty of Pacers fans wanted to fire Nate McMillan and hire Coach Bud when Atlanta got rid of him in 2018.)

The Hawks beat a last-exit-before-collapse Brooklyn Nets team in the first round of the 2015 playoffs and smacked the Washington Wizards—a team that featured a healthy John Wall along with Paul Pierce and 21-year-old Bradley Beal—in round two. Coach Bud and his still-ahead-of-its-time 3-point heavy offense had a lot to do with that.

Honorable Mentions

The 2021 Hawks, as the only other Atlanta team to reach the Eastern Conference Finals, deserve mention for best seasons in franchise history. They were the 5 seed in a 72-game 2021 season with a prorated-to-82-games 47-35 record, 13 games below the 2015 squad, the biggest reason why 2015 won out. Likewise, it’s hard to argue with a season that featured a 19-game winning streak and four guys in the All-Star Game from the same team.

The 1958 St. Louis Hawks deserve mention—even though they’re ineligible due to the rules of this series, they did win the title. Along the same lines, the 1957, ’59, and ’61 Hawks made the Finals, which is more than the 2015 Hawks did, so that merits an honorable mention as well.

NEXT: Boston Celtics. Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!