The NBA is and always has been a star-driven entity, but the biggest story in the league this season has been the unexpected rise of a team devoid of big names. The Atlanta Hawks are both challenging the archetype for building a contender in the NBA and are the epitome of the direction the game is heading.
For all the talk of LeBron James’ homecoming to revive the Cleveland Cavaliers and the Chicago Bulls’ strengthened roster, it’s the Hawks who’ve been by far the best team in the Eastern Conference.
Atlanta finished the first half of the season at 43-11 heading into the All-Star break, and are well ahead of the second-placed Toronto Raptors with a six-game cushion. Only the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference were better with a 42-9 mark.
— Kyle Korver (@KyleKorver) February 16, 2015
If you told anyone who follows the NBA before the year that the Hawks would win 43 games, no eyebrows would have been raised. That’s because Atlanta averaged 41.5 wins the past four seasons as a consistently middling team.
No franchise wants to find itself in the middle. If you’re in the middle, then you’re bad enough to not compete for the title, but good enough to not bottom-out and receive a high draft selection. But that’s where the Hawks have been perpetually stuck for the past half-decade, losing in the first round of the playoffs for three straight years.
So 43 wins? That’s typical. But absolutely no one outside the team could have imagined 43 wins at the All-Star break, not even those who closely follow the Hawks.
“I saw this team being pretty good, but not this good,” Bo Churney of ESPN TrueHoop told Sport360. “I thought they had a shot at winning 50 games, but that was about it. I feel like everyone else that was optimistic on Atlanta also had them around that many.”
Churney has watched the Hawks as a fan since the early 2000s and started covering the team in the 2012-13 season, when they went 44-38 in the final year of Larry Drew’s stint as head coach.
While the quickest way to ascend in the league is to add high-quality players, Atlanta’s meteoric rise has been largely due to the addition of someone who never even touches the ball – coach Mike Budenholzer.
The 45-year-old, along with Golden State’s Steve Kerr, is the frontrunner to win the Coach of the Year award. But unlike Kerr, who’s taken his team to another level in just his first year, Budenholzer didn’t have the type of success the Hawks are enjoying now when he first took over.
Last year, Atlanta actually got worse from their 2012-13 campaign, finishing 38-44 and below .500 for the first time since 2007-08. On the surface, it looks as if there was no indication of the impending turnaround, but looking closer, the signs were there.
For one, the Hawks managed to return to the playoffs, albeit in the weak East, without their centre and anchor Al Horford, who suffered a season-ending pectoral injury at the end of December.
At the time of his injury, he was averaging 18.6 points and 8.4 rebounds. Atlanta went 16-13 with him on the floor and 24-31 when he was out. Yet without their high-scorer, the Hawks finished the year with an offensive rating (points scored per 100 possessions) of 105.9 – their highest since 2009-10 – and pushed the top-seeded Indiana Pacers to seven games in the first round of the playoffs before being eliminated.
This season, Horford’s numbers have dipped to 15.6 points per game and 7.4 rebounds, but he’s part of a starting five which has every player averaging at least 12.0 points. That type of team-oriented play is something Budenholzer has cultivated.
“The culture is definitely one where everyone knows they have a role to play and that the team has to play together to be successful,” added Churney. “That philosophy has rubbed off on all the guys, where you can tell that they just enjoy being around each other on and off the floor.”
Our 19-game winning streak started with a victory in Milwaukee on Dec. 26. Time for history to repeat itself?
— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) February 22, 2015
It’s not a coincidence that Atlanta’s style of play resembles that of another team which has had profound success. Before joining the Hawks, Budenholzer served as a video coordinator for two seasons with the San Antonio Spurs before becoming an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich in 1996.
Budenholzer has clearly brought ideologies from San Antonio to Atlanta. The Hawks, like the Spurs, play freely by flinging the ball around from player to player to search out the best shot. They rank fifth in the league in passes per game with 323.9 and second in assists per game with 25.6. Their approach has quickly earned them the nickname ‘Spurs of the East’.
“Actually, I’m a little flattered and embarrassed about somebody emulating what you do and how you do it,” Popovich told NBA.com of his former pupil. “Sometimes it’s overstated. He had to get along with his players. They had to believe in him, trust him. He’s done all those things. That’s on him.
“They’re not going to respect him or play for him just because he came from San Antonio.”
While San Antonio have innovated and mastered that style, it’s no longer unfamiliar. ‘Pace and space’ has become mainstream, with more and more teams embracing the free-wheeling approach.
Basically, ‘pace’ refers to playing up-tempo and getting up as many quality shots as possible. ‘Space’ refers to opening up the floor by having players on the court who can stretch the defence with their shooting. The style of play is both the cause and effect of the decline in stationary big men.
If you’re a power forward or centre who can’t shoot out near the perimeter, you better be able to defend the basket on the other end.
“The pace may not be a requirement of the future NBA, but spacing and shooting definitely are,” added Churney. “While some teams are able to overcome it with outstanding defence, it is clearly a detriment when a team is playing a guy that simply cannot shoot.”
Atlanta have essentially built their offence on spacing with five starters who can all shoot the ball. Their shots generally come either at the rim or from beyond the arc – the two most efficient areas of the floor to score from – and they’re converting. The Hawks have the fifth-most layups with 670 and the fourth-most 3-pointers with 542.
With few stars and an advantageous style of play, Atlanta can feel more like a lab experiment than a basketball team. They don’t have a single player that would entice a casual fan to buy a ticket. But the city has taken notice and after years of modest attendances, Philips Arena is abuzz every night.
Atlanta’s 90.4 attendance percentage in home games isn’t even in the top half of the league, but it’s a vast improvement from previous seasons and Hawks players feel there’s a home-court advantage as the team has gone 25-4 – the second best home record in the NBA.
“This is my eighth year, and I’ve never seen us like this,” Horford said. “I feel like the fans are starting to come out, they’re starting to believe and it’s exciting to see.”
The NBA has seen teams dramatically rise and rapidly fall. Atlanta aren’t the first to take the league by surprise and won’t be the last. But after weeks of anticipated decline, one thing has become clear: The Atlanta Hawks are for real.
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