ATLANTA — The Atlanta Hawks know it's going to take more than a couple of strong months to prove this franchise has really turned things around after so many dashed hopes.
The next week or so could be very telling.
After a tumultuous summer, the Hawks are off to a promising start with a roster that's short on megastars but deep in versatility. Already, they've strung together a nine-game winning streak — the team's longest in 17 years — and pushed themselves near the top of the Eastern Conference.
"Are we surprised?" forward Paul Millsap said, repeating a frequently asked question. "No. We felt like we had a pretty good team last year, but we weren't healthy the whole year. We felt like if we were healthy, we could really do something special."
Not surprisingly, there are still doubts about whether a team that went 38-44 last season, fortuitously sneaking in the playoffs, is really as good as its 17-7 record. Only two of those victories have been against teams with a winning record, the latest coming Monday night when the Hawks knocked off Chicago 93-86.
Over the next week, the Hawks will face Cleveland, Houston and Dallas on the road, before returning home to face the Los Angeles Clippers. The combined record of those teams going into Tuesday's play was 66-29.
"We didn't play the high-talent, high-win teams yet," said 35-year-old Elton Brand, the senior member of the Hawks. "So this week's the barometer."
With second-year coach Mike Budenholzer installing a system that's been described as San Antonio East, the Hawks do a lot of things right. Start with the ball movement that he demands from the offense, which has resulted in at least 20 assists in all but two of Atlanta's games. Even more impressive, the Hawks lead the league with 67.4 percent of their baskets set up by an assist.
The Hawks haven't had a truly major star since Dominique Wilkins, but they've gotten significant minutes from a dozen players. Budenholzer generally uses a 10-man rotation, which allows Atlanta to spread the scoring wealth. Jeff Teague (16.8) is the team leader, with an average that would be pacing only seven other teams.
A dozen teams have two players with a higher scoring average than Teague's. Cleveland and Chicago both have three. But all five Atlanta starters are averaging at least 11.4 per game.
"We've gotten a lot of contributions up and down the roster," Budenholzer said.
The Hawks have long been a team that draws little notice around the NBA — never good enough to get past the second round of the playoffs, rarely bad enough to land an elite player in the draft. Atlanta has traditionally ranked near the bottom of the league in attendance, and even when they draw a sellout crowd it's often because of a visiting star such as LeBron James or Kobe Bryant.
The team did make headlines during the last offseason, but for all the wrong reasons. Owner Bruce Levenson was forced to sell his share of the team after emails came to light showing him complaining about having too many African-American fans. Not long after, general manager Danny Ferry went on an indefinite leave of absence when it was revealed that he, too, had made racially charged comments when discussing a possible free-agent signee.
There's been no word on a new owner, or whether Ferry will ever return to his job. In the meantime, Budenholzer is handling both the coaching and personnel decisions.
`If the unusual arrangement is a distraction, it hasn't shown on the court.
`The return of center Al Horford, who missed most of last season with a torn pectoral muscle, has been a huge boost. Millsap, an All-Star a year ago, is having another solid season. Teague continues to develop into one of the league's better point guards. Kyle Korver stretches the court with his 3-point range, while DeMarre Carroll is capable of stepping up when needed.
"They look good," Chicago's Nazr Mohammed said. "They added a big piece by having Al healthy. That's going to make them seem improved. They were pretty solid and pretty good last year. Al really takes them up a notch."
It remains to be seen if the Hawks have the sort of go-to scorer every team needs in the postseason. That weakness showed up last year, when they squandered a chance to knock off top-seeded Indiana in the opening round
"There are still times," Korver said, "when you've got to get the ball to someone and say, 'Make a play for us.' That absolutely happens, especially in the playoffs."