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.
It looked for a long time as if the NBA trade deadline would come and go without many fireworks being set off, but the final minutes saw a number of deals sending players in different directions.
The biggest name on the move was point guard Goran Dragic, who was traded from the Phoenix Suns to the Miami Heat – one of his preferred destinations.
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Though there wasn’t much talk about Miami landing the dynamic guard in the days leading up to the deadline, Heat president Pat Riley swooped in with a late offer to bolster his team’s playoff hopes.
“We are incredibly pleased to take another step in getting the Miami Heat back to real championship prominence with the acquisition of Goran Dragic,” Riley said.
“Goran is an All-NBA player, and we felt that once he became available, we would do all that we could to acquire him.”
Miami were joined by other teams that took advantage with trades of their own. Here are the winners and losers from Thursday:
When you add the best player on the market, you’ve set yourself up well in the short term.
The Heat’s potential starting five of Dragic, Dwyane Wade, Luol Deng, Chris Bosh and emerging centre Hassan Whiteside suddenly looks like a very competitive team in the Eastern Conference.
A big ‘if’ though will be the health of the team, especially Wade and Bosh. Still, Riley made a significant push for this season without having to overpay.
Oklahoma City Thunder
Reggie Jackson is a promising young talent, but he was most likely headed elsewhere in the offseason in search of a big contract. The Thunder did well to get what they could for him and their haul has restocked their bench with much-needed rotation players.
Enes Kanter was also a smart move, compared to the pricier option of Brook Lopez.
General manager Danny Ainge finally flipped one of his stockpiled first-round picks into a player, trading for Isaiah Thomas.
The miniature point guard gives the Celtics an explosive scorer and an attacking pick-and-roll ball-handler, two things they really needed. Thomas’ contract is also extremely team-friendly and if Ainge doesn’t envision him being a long-term factor in Boston, he’s very moveable.
They had to give up a first-round pick just so the Philadelphia 76ers would take JaVale McGee and his albatross contract off their hands.
Their other trade sent guard Arron Afflalo to Portland for spare parts and a first-rounder, which is fine, but not enough. Denver weren’t able to shift Ty Lawson, Kenneth Faried or Wilson Chandler, meaning they’ll continue to be mediocre without a chance at a high lottery pick.
As great as the homecoming for Kevin Garnett promises to be, strictly from a basketball perspective, this made no sense.
Thaddeus Young isn’t going to move the needle, but he can actually play beyond this year. Garnett’s contract expires this summer and it looks like he’s heading for retirement. Essentially, one of the first-rounders the Timberwolves acquired in the Kevin Love-Andrew Wiggins trade turned into Young and then Garnett.
The biggest name likely to be on the move on tonight’s NBA trade deadline is star guard Goran Dragic, who, according to reports has informed the Phoenix Suns he does not plan on re-signing in the off-season.
Dragic could play out the rest of his contract and become a free agent in the summer, potentially leaving Phoenix empty-handed in the wake of his departure if the franchise doesn’t strike a deal by the deadline (midnight tonight, UAE time).
The 28-year-old’s willingness to leave the team stems from his frustration at the log-jam at the guard position. After trading for Eric Bledsoe ahead of last season, the Suns doubled-down on their strongest position by adding the ball-dominant Isaiah Thomas this past summer.
As part of the three-headed monster, Dragic’s usage and numbers have dipped from his breakout campaign in 2013-14, when he won the NBA Most Improved Player award and was named to the All-NBA Third Team. His current average of 16.2 points is well below his career-high of 20.3 from last year.
Multiple reports indicate that Dragic wants to play for a team where he can man the lead guard role, as well as sign a big-money deal in the off-season. His agent, Bill Duffy, reportedly informed Phoenix of Dragic’s preferred destinations, which include the Los Angeles Lakers, New York Knicks and Miami Heat.
The Houston Rockets have also expressed their interest in the Slovenian, but Dragic has reportedly balked at the idea of rejoining the team who he played for in two separate stints earlier in his career – 2010-11 and 2011-12.
Suns general manager Ryan McDonough admitted last week that the roster is guard-heavy and could use a shake-up.
“I think our roster balance is a little off, and that’s my fault,” McDonough told Arizona Sports radio. “We are a little too backcourt heavy, especially in terms of guys who, you know, I think you’d define primarily as scorers in the back-court. So I think at some point we’ll need to balance that out, try to get a little more size, a little more front-court scoring and rebounding.
“At the same time it’s a challenge because we do have talented players, they’ve all had success individually and team success in the NBA. So those are some of the decisions we’ll kind of mull over the next week or so and we’ll see where we are on the 19th.”
Phoenix (29-25) went into the All-Star break losers in seven of their last 10, allowing the Oklahoma City Thunder to tie them in the loss column for the eighth and final seed in the Western Conference.