As we approach the second half of the NBA season there are several things that appear to be in order. LeBron James is leading a star-studded team, the Western Conference is cluttered with above average teams, and Stephen Curry continues to prove he isn’t human. Though, one aspect of the 2014-2015 NBA season that continues to surprise everyone associated with the game is the Atlanta Hawks.
The Hawks have been stuck in NBA purgatory for much of the past ten years. The team holds the longest current playoff streak in the NBA, making several one and done trips to the postseason every year since 2008. However, as a result of these constant unsuccessful playoff trips, the Hawks had never found themselves in a position to draft a franchise-changing player and could never sign any potential superstar free agents due to the ineptitude of the front office.
Essentially, the Hawks have been a decent team for the past seven years with no progression, just stagnation.
But as All-Star weekend comes to a close, the Hawks find themselves in unfamiliar territory.
They own the second best record in the NBA (43-11) behind the Golden State Warriors, a team they downed a week ago, a 19 game win streak which included the first 17-0 month in NBA history, and a 6 and a half game lead over Toronto for first place in the East.
How is it possible that a team known for striving to be average is all of a sudden the favorite to go to the NBA Finals?
The first step in fixing the Hawks was correcting the culture of the team via the front office.
The Atlanta Spirit was the group of businessmen who previously owned the Hawks. Compiled of contingencies of businessmen from Boston, Atlanta, and Washington D.C. the group was ill-fated to work together, let alone run a lucrative business such as an NBA franchise. The most infamous moment of “co-operation” between the parties occurred during the 2005 trade of Boris Diaw for Joe Johnson. This signifies the beginning of the Hawks mediocrity.
Eight of the nine owners would vote to approve the trade, while the one outlier, Steve Belkin, held the controlling vote as the Hawks Governor within the group. The group was at an impasse. The natural thing to do would be to find some sort of common ground, but for the Atlanta Spirit group that’s not how things work. The other eight owners decided to sue Belkin in attempt to force him out of the organization, and in 2010 it was announced that Belkin had sold his shares to the some people within the Atlanta Spirit group.
This past January it was announced that 100 percent of the Atlanta Spirit group would sell their shares. It was perfect timing for a team attempting to break the mold of what it was on the court: mediocrity. Now it can attempt to break that mold off the court as well.
Joe Johnson went on to become the face of the franchise. He dazzled crowds at Phillips Arena with his incredible displays of three pointing shooting, the all-star guard went on to lead the Hawks to their first playoff appearance since 1999.
And in 2010, Johnson was signed to a max-player contract worth $123.7 million.
The Joe Johnson contract is regarded in Atlanta as the worst contract ever handed out by the Hawks. It made Joe Johnson the highest paid player in the league, a guy who hadn’t averaged more than 21 points per game 2007.
Quite frankly, the Hawks did not have a choice. Their options were either go back to the days of the early 2000’s and be the laughing-stock of the league, or continue to be an average playoff team. Management chose the latter and you can’t fault them for that.
The Hawks misfortunes turned to fortunes on July 11, 2012.
Newly hired general manager Danny Ferry, the former Cleveland Cavaliers GM during Lebron’s first stint in Cleveland, somehow found a way to shred the team of Joe Johnson’s albatross of a contract and traded him to the Brooklyn Nets for expiring contracts and draft picks.
To this day, I am a firm believer that Danny Ferry had something on Nets GM Billy King, because there is no way he would take that contract on willingly.
After the departure of Joe Johnson, Ferry made the difficult, yet smart decision to part ways with Marvin Williams (No. 2 overall pick in 2005) and Josh Smith (No. 17 overall pick in 2004).
Following his first season as general manager, Ferry decided to build the Hawks to his liking. He fired incumbent head coach Larry Drew and hired longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant coach Mike Budenholzer. Budenholzer had been Gregg Poppovich’s right hand man in San Antonio for 19 years. Ferry knew that the Hawks needed a coach who could implement a system that would allow multiple players to thrive. This is exactly what Budenholzer has brought to the team.
The next step for Ferry was free agency. Due to the very public failures of the Hawks management, signing notable free agents had always been a struggle, despite the fact that many NBA players call Atlanta their home during the off-season. The Hawks had the dream of pairing Chris Paul and Atlanta native Dwight Howard together and if not for Doc Rivers trade to the Clippers, it very well could have happened. To no one’s surprise, the Hawks didn’t land either of the superstars.
Though, as with all major sports team’s there was a plan B.
The Hawks acquired Paul Milsap in free agency on a very team friendly two-year deal worth $19 million and in addition, signed defensive whiz DeMarre Carrol to a two-year $5 million deal. Both Milsap and Carrol prior to the Hawks played for the Jazz and neither were known to be big time contributors. However, since signing Carrol, the small forward has morphed into a solid wing player on both offense and defense, while Milsap has made the all-star team in both his seasons as a Hawk.
In addition to their free-agent pickups, the Hawks also re-signed sharpshooter Kyle Korver, who was acquired from the Bulls days after Joe Johnson was traded away, to a four-year $24 million deal.
After a combined $18 million per year was spent during the 2013 offseason, the Hawks were able to round out their starting five. Point guard Jeff Teague, who had just begun to show glimpses of stardom in previous playoff series against the Chicago Bulls and Orlando Magic, and center Al Horford were the main holdovers and were now joined by Milsap, Carrol, and Korver.
Not to be forgotten were the additions made to the bench. Ferry made it a point that he was going to build through the draft, and that’s exactly what he did.
He drafted point guard Dennis Schroder, known as the German Rajon Rondo, as well as sharpshooters Mike Scott and John Jenkins. Ferry also made smart veteran signings in Thabo Sefolosha, Pero Antic, Elton Brand, and Kent Bazemore.
What Ferry was able to build was a roster that fit his coach’s style. Coming from the Spurs, Budenholzer implements a system that focuses on spacing the floor and passing up a good shot for a better shot. It is a Spurs like approach, littering the roster with guys that can shoot the deep ball and big men, such as Al Horford or Tim Duncan, that can step out and drop a 15 footer. This effectively allows each player on the floor to guide their defender out of the paint, which inevitably leads to rotational mismatches and open shots.
Budenholzer’s system has allowed each player, especially the starting five, to come in to their own. Take for example Kyle Korver. The 6-foot-7 guard out of Creighton has been known throughout his career to be a three-point specialist. However, since coming to Atlanta his role has expanded.
To an extent, the Hawks offense runs through the “White Mamba.” On any given possession you will see multiple screens designed to set up a catch-and-shoot for Korver. If a Hawks ball handler sees Korver wide open, there is no doubt the three-point specialist will receive the rock.
The stats back this up. Korver is having a historic shooting season that some NBA writers are calling it the best shooting season in NBA history. Korver is shooting 51 percent overall from the floor, 52 percent from three and 91 percent from the free-throw line. If Korver keeps up this type of production it would be the first season in NBA history where a player shot 50-50-90 for the entirety of the season.
There is also the defense factor.
The Hawks as a team are the only team that is currently in the top five of both the offensive and defensive efficiency ratings. The defensive success of the Hawks can be attributed to DeMarre Carrol who is the team’s best perimeter defender and the guy who’s routinely matched up against the opposition’s top scorer.
Budenholzer knows the teams defense runs through Carrol.
“DeMarre really sets the tone for us defensively, gives us our spirit and our identity.”
Carrol’s defense has paid huge dividends. By being able to shut down the oppositions best scorer, it has made it much easier for the rest of the team to be able to rotate efficiently and play help defense if someone loses their man.
The NBA has become a superstar driven league and coaches must adapt to the talent that has been bestowed upon them. But what the Atlanta Hawks are accomplishing this season is proof that buying into a coaches system can be the difference between “one-and-done” playoff appearances and NBA Finals trips.
The Hawks don’t boast any superstars. Players like Al Horford and Paul Milsap may be fast approaching that title, but the Hawks boast a roster full of above average players that have bought into a system that allows everyone on the floor to have their moment in any single game. It’s team basketball to the fullest extent.
As Paul Milsap put it, “Give me four or five really good players compared to just one superstar [and] I’ll take that any day.”
Milsap has a point.
During the Hawks recent 19 game winning streak, the box score on any given night would reflect one thing: consistency. Night in and night out the Hawks starting five would each be in double figures. There wouldn’t be the big 30-point game from a player, but rather a multitude of guys posting 15 or more.
Despite the recent controversy that has led to Ferry being indefinitely suspended due to insensitive comments regarding Miami Heat forward Loul Deng, the Hawks were built the right way.
Perfect coaching, shrewd and smart free agent signings, and drafting to a system rather than on talent has taken the Hawks back to the top of the Eastern Conference. Up to this point in the season, the Hawks have built a model of consistency that has worked for teams like the Spurs in the past.
The Spurs used this style of play to defy the odds, dethrone the league’s top stars, and win five NBA titles.
Only time will tell if it yields the same results for the Hawks.