I haven’t hid the fact at all that, since I started Wayniac Nation a little over a year ago, I am not what you would call an active NBA writer. I am usually good for two or three posts a year on the professional basketball circuit, one around All Star Break and a couple heading down the 20-week road that is also called the NBA Playoffs. Why break tradition now?
I also haven’t hid the fact that when it comes to fandom, I have no problem admitting that I am a bandwagon San Antonio Spurs fan. When my beloved New Jersey Nets split for Brooklyn, they hardly had any semblance of the team I grew up watching, often winning 20 games a year. So, I ditched them and jumped on the Spurs bandwagon, not because they win, but because they play basketball the right way. Almost as if to prove me right, after I wrote about how great a dynasty they were last season (you can read it here if you missed it), they went and took down Queen James and won another Championship.
I used to think that the greatest coach in the history of the NBA was a three horse race between Red Auerbach, Phil Jackson and Gregg Popovich. Enter 2015 and I no longer think it’s a race: Pops is the tops. It doesn’t have to do with the fact that he dethroned the King en route to yet another championship, and it doesn’t have to do with the fact that he recently won his 1,000 win (which he incidentally has the second highest winning percentage of anyone with 1,000 wins and the guy ahead of him had Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal on his rosters). No, it has to do with Coach Bud.
The Atlanta Hawks have been pretty much an afterthought since the millennium changed over to the 2000s and Dominique Wilkins hung up the shorts for a microphone and flashy suits. They didn’t even make the playoffs for the first seven years of this century and two of the last seven years they have made the playoffs, they have done it with losing records. Throw on top of their recent struggles that they had to contend with LeBron James in their division the past few seasons, I think it’s safe to say that even the people of Atlanta, aside from Kung Fu, Helmke and Nomi the Greek, ceased to give two poops about their Hawks. That’s changed.
Coach Mike Budenholzer is making the Hawks contenders again. Coach Bud replaced Larry Drew as head coach at the onset of the 2013-2014 season. He brought with him nearly two decades worth of experience from the San Antonio Spurs. He was hired as the video coordinator for the team in 1994 and by the time Pops took over a few years later, Coach Bud was the Spurs’ assistant coach. By the time he headed to Atlanta, he had four rings on his hand. For all of you new Atlanta Hawks fans, that’s four more than the teams that played at the Omni or Philips have ever won.
It was a bumpy start for Coach Bud, but you could see he had a formula in place. That formula was simple: play Spurs’ basketball. It’s arguably the most successful formula of the 2000s, so since he knew it better than anyone aside from Pops, why not run with it? His rookie year as head coach wasn’t pretty, but it was the end results that showed promise. Yes, the Hawks finished the year at 38-44, but they were strong down the stretch. They finished out the regular season with a 6-2 April, including 3 wins on the road and snuck into the playoffs as the No. 8 seed. They nearly stunned the nation when they took the top seeded Indiana Pacers to seven games in round one, but alas fell in Game 7. The season was over, but the future was just beginning.
The 2014-15 season is at the halfway point and guess who the best team in the Eastern Conference is? That’s right, it’s the mighty Hawks. The only team with a better record than the Hawks in the NBA is the Golden State Warriors, and that’s right, the Hawks beat them just a few short nights ago. That’s a pretty quick turnaround for a franchise that was known more for a 5 foot 7 super dunker, the Human Highlight Reel and a guy who signed one of the most ludicrous contracts of all-time over anything that they accomplished in the last 20 years.
Quickly, without using the internet, name the starting five from the Spurs championship team last season. Most people can’t. Those same people can probably rattle you off six or seven names from the Lakers and Celtics championship teams of the 80s. I bet they can name half of the Bulls from those 90s teams. But the Spurs, it doesn’t matter who they throw out there, their system wins championships, and the Hawks are proving that now.
This Hawks team is devoid of a single NBA superstar. Together, however, they are becoming All Stars. You know how many years Kyle Korver has been in the league? 13. I bet most people thought he was a rookie last season. Korver, finally in the right system, has turned into one of the most lethal and clutch shooters in the league. No one has shot a better three point percentage in the NBA since Coach Bud took over and Korver is heading to New York this weekend to play in the All Star Game. That’s not a typo, folks, Kyle Korver is an All Star. Why did it take Korver 13 years to be recognized? Because he wasn’t in the right system.
Korver, who averages about 12 or 13 points a game with around 4 rebounds and three assists is the perfect complimentary player to the teams’ bigger stars and more talented players. He will never be up for an MVP Award, but he doesn’t need to be. He accepts his role and he excels at it. Sure sounds a lot like Manu Ginobili if you ask me.
Have you been watching Jeff Teague? He is slowly evolving into one of the elite point guards in the NBA. His field goal percentage is rising, his three point percentage is up from last year, but on top of that, he is currently averaging his highest assist per game ratio of his career. Distribution to players, all equal parts in the cog that makes the Hawks machine go.
The Hawks, like the Spurs, are eight or nine deep. Foul trouble and injuries aren’t as big an issue because they have people that understand the system. Ever notice how Pops will give his Big Three off altogether on some road trips? Yes, it is to conserve them down the stretch, but it is also because he knows he has other players that can start and perform, grant it nowhere near as good as Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Ginobili. Still, being able to go that deep allows a team to go deep into the NBA Playoffs. I wouldn’t know who Dennis Schroder was if he walked up to me on the street, but I do know he is averaging 8.5 points off the bench.
Much like the Spurs, there really isn’t an aspect of the game that, as a team, the Hawks do poorly. They are statistically atop the leaderboard in almost every team stat, aside from offensive rebounds although no one is perfect. While many people jumped on the Big Three formula as the key to win championships, the Spurs proved that wrong last season. The one thing that has proven over the course of NBA history to win championships is team play and depth. The Lakers and Celtics proved that with household names like Kevin McHale, Michael Cooper and A.C. Green coming off the bench. Everyone remembers Jordan and Pippen, but names like Steve Kerr and John Paxson were around to rise to the occasion when it was most needed. Three superstars can grab you that one electric championship. But to stay relevant, and relevant for a long time, you need depth and a team and a smart head coach with a system that finds a way to get all 12 members of that team a role to win. Coach Bud has started that, and it is getting exciting to see where it will go.
Now take it easy. I am not calling the Hawks the next Spurs. I am not even saying that they are ready to win it all this year. I am simply saying that the Spurs system is the best in the NBA and the Hawks (under the leadership of someone under the tutelage of Pops for the last decade and a half) rising to the top is no coincidence. Is this Hawks team championship bound? As long as Bron is lurking in the East, he is going to pose a problem, so there are no guarantees, but this team has the roster that can make a deep run in the playoffs. Here’s what I do know: if the Hawks can keep Coach Bud and this roster in place, with a few tweaks like a big draft piece or a major superstar, the Hawks aren’t going anywhere for quite some time. HAWWWWWWKS!