What happens when an NBA team puts five unselfish players on the court who can all shoot from range and then implements one of the best offensive systems in the world?
Welcome to Spurs East: the 2014-2015 Atlanta Hawks
After finishing 28th in attendance in 2014, the Hawks gained the national spotlight for all the wrong reasons in the offseason. Owner Bruce Levenson and General Manager Danny Ferry self-reported racist comments within the organization, and the historically mediocre franchise looked to be on the downswing. With Levenson in the process of selling the team and Ferry still on a leave of absence, the focus has rightfully shifted to the hottest basketball team on the planet (could they beat Kentucky, though?).
At 20-7, having won 13 of their last 14 games, no one person can claim full responsibility for the sudden turnaround – but Coach Mike Budenholzer has a case. After spending 19 years grooming under Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, Budenholzer took the Hawks’ opening before last season and has not looked back. Bringing a Spurs-like attitude and formula to Atlanta, Budenholzer has firmly cemented the Hawks as a title contender – yes, the Atlanta Hawks are a full-fledged title contender.
In his introductory press conference with the team before last season, Budenholzer told reporters, “I think the league and the NBA, whether it’s fundamentals or the style of playing, is moving toward the style that we’re playing. I look forward to bringing to Atlanta the ball movement and people movement and people sharing and participating and a little bit less of the one on one.” From day one, Budenholzer has had a plan in mind. A team that encouraged the “iso-Joe Johnson” offense for too long, the unselfish play has been a welcome sight to fans. With that emphasis on passing, the Hawks lead the league with 25.8 assists per game. The Hawks are also third in the league in True Shooting Percentage (TS%) – a stat that accounts for the quality of each shot – at 57.0%. And, oh by the way, this is the most fun team to watch in basketball.
No stars, no problem for the Hawks. Enter Kyle Korver, the stealthiest weapon in the NBA. Chances are high that if you don’t watch the Hawks on a regular basis, you don’t realize how valuable the sharpshooter is. Sure, he is shooting an astronomically high 54% from beyond the arc and 74.6 TS% (Good for second in the NBA; fun fact: only one other person in the top 10 is under 6’10 and he only plays 22 minutes per game), but what he does off the ball might just be more important for the offense. If the defenses focus on him too much, Korver is more than happy to dish it off to the open man, or even simply be a decoy.The Hawks run multiple plays per game where they attract the defense to Korver only to dish the ball for an open layup.
Per 100 possessions with Korver on the court, the Hawks score 106 points. Without Korver? That number dips all the way to 92.2 points. As opposing coach Brad Stevens said before a matchup with the Hawks, “you have to treat him like he averages 30, or else it could be 30.” There is something to be said for not being able to give somebody any space at any point in the half court. But if you do give him space… good luck.
With an unassuming, quiet game to match his equally reserved personality, it’s no wonder nobody is paying attention to the most under-appreciated point guard in the league and the true engine of the team: Jeff Teague. With an inane ability to get the rim and finish/get fouled, Teague presents a problem for defenses who cannot leave Korver open to help on the drive. As an 88% free throw shooter, Teague is sure to make them pay, too. He possesses just enough of a threat to make an open jumper to keep the defenses honest, while he also might be one of the five fastest players in the open court in basketball. Teague, currently at 16.8 points and 7.0 assists per game, has a legitimate case for his first all-star nomination in his career.
But the Hawks hardly lose a beat when Teague leaves the floor. Dennis Schroder – the German speedster – has blossomed this season into the “mini-Rondo” that people were calling him during the 2013 draft. He struggled with turnovers and adjusting to the NBA pace last season, but, under Budenholzer, something clicked this season. His finishing ability around the rim, an improving jumper, and equally frightening speed has gifted Atlanta with a dangerous point guard tandem – a good problem to have when you have four readily open shooters around them, and rely so heavily on open shots.
But offense has never been the point of emphasis for Budenholzer in Atlanta. He knows better than anyone that defense will ultimately bring championships. Which is why Budenholzer has reinforced the importance of playing both ends equally hard – a task that might seem challenging for a team without a true rim protector. Yet the Hawks have more than compensated for a lack of shot blocking prowess with sharp defensive rotations and quickness. The Hawks now sit at seventh in the NBA in defensive efficiency – the same ranking as their offense.
The defensive end is where the true litmus test lies for this team in the coming months. Al Horford was rightfully slow in adjusting back to the NBA game early in the season, but has really begun to come on in the past few weeks. In his last eight games, Horford has averaged 17.8 points and 7.2 rebounds per game – a much more Horford-like stretch. But neither Horford, a converted power forward, nor Paul Millsap (the most underrated player of the past decade) are true rim protectors who like to stay under the basket. On the offensive end, both are face-up players who primarily threaten defenses with their midrange jumpers. On defense, they need to be the backbone. If this team is truly going to be Spurs East and challenge for a title, Horford needs to be darn close to Duncan (maybe more like Duncan of the past few years), especially on the defensive end. He needs to be able to go toe-to-toe with the Gasols, Noahs, Gortats, Howards, etc. of the world and grab the upper hand, because the Hawks do lack front court depth behind Millsap and Horford. They sure don’t want Elton Brand and Mike Muscala playing crunchtime minutes in the playoffs.
The time is now, Atlanta, to embrace a winning basketball team. A team that just went on the road and beat Cleveland, Houston and Dallas consecutively – all championship contenders – fairly comfortably. A team that has the second best odds to win the championship at 15.8% according to John Hollinger. And, most importantly, a team that has the best social media account in all of sports: https://twitter.com/ATLHawks.