Each season that I’ve covered the Hawks for TrueHoop Network, I’ve written a playoff preview and a season postmortem. In re-reading last year’s preview, I came to a realization. We’re watching the birth of a new era in Atlanta Hawks basketball.
This preview is going to be about the narrative story of where the Hawks are as a team and franchise. If you’re looking for an analytic breakdown, Hawks.com‘s Robby Kalland has you covered with his excellent piece. You can also check out the 5-on-5 series preview on ESPN.com that HawksHoop editor Bo Churney and myself were asked to take part in.
Getting back to last season’s playoff preview, it was a regurgitation of the same concerns I had the previous season. I was concerned about coach Larry Drew’s ability to put optimal lineups on the floor and emphasize players that were best-equipped to help the team win. I was concerned about Jeff Teague being passive and deferential. And I was concerned about Josh Smith playing the right way to help his team win and advance.
If you look back at Drew’s tenure as head coach of the Hawks, there’s no question in my mind that the turning point was Game 3 of the 2012 series against the Celtics. Kirk Hinrich went scoreless for the game and registered a single assist in 26 minutes. But during his time on the floor, Rajon Rondo did not score a basket or record an assist. In the fourth quarter, Drew sat Hinrich and played Jannero Pargo for a disastrous minus-7 stint. This allowed the Celtics to come from behind, tie the game at the end of the 4th and eventually win in overtime.
I know people are tired of me dredging this up. But think of what might have happened if Drew had played Hinrich, a starter for most of his games since leaving the Hawks, instead of Pargo, a career end-of-bench reserve. The Hawks might have gone up 2-1 in the series, recaptured home court advantage after splitting the first two games in Atlanta, and put themselves in position to win the series.
Waiting in the second round were the 8th-seed Philadelphia 76ers. If Drew had played Hinrich instead of Pargo in Game 3, a trip to the Eastern Conference Finals might have been within reach. We could be sitting here talking about how Drew is the greatest coach in Atlanta Hawks history, no other coach having reached that level.
What does this have to do with the present Atlanta Hawks team? Nothing, for two reasons. First, Danny Ferry has done such a spectacular job of staffing the Hawks with players that were undervalued assets prior to arriving here that Mike Budenholzer doesn’t have any bad options. There’s no Pargo or Johan Petro or Josh Powell here. Aside from a pair of rookies that need seasoning, there’s not a player on this roster I wouldn’t trust with the ball in their hands with the game on the line.
Secondly, Ferry upgraded not just the top-to-bottom roster talent, but also the coaching talent. Budenholzer has gone with some wacky lineups this season. I’m convinced that the purpose was to put every player in situations where they would have to make decisions that would decide the outcomes of games. I will be nitpicking every personnel move that Bud makes in this series, just as I did Drew in preceding seasons, and I won’t be pulling any punches. But my expectation is that, win or lose, everyone who watches is going to come away believing that Mike Budenholzer is one of the rising stars in the NBA coaching ranks.
Let me explain why I believe the Hawks are at a franchise turning point. As I sat down to write this, I was watching the Bad Boys 30-for-30. The show describes how Pistons leading scorer Adrian Dantley butted heads with Isiah Thomas and was traded for Mark Aguirre. In the two years preceding the trade, Aguirre averaged 25 points per game. With the Pistons, Aguirre was a third option behind Thomas and Joe Dumars and averaged 15 points as the Pistons won the franchise’s first NBA championship.
At season’s end, the team learned that Rick Mahorn had been selected by the Minnesota Timberwolves in the expansion draft. During the next season, Aguirre realized that the team was missing the rebounding and toughness that Mahorn provided. He suggested that Dennis Rodman take his place in the starting lineup. The greatest scene in the film is when coach Chuck Daly is drawing up a play and Rodman asks “do you want Mark Aguirre in this situation?” Daly screams “no” at him and Aguirre pats Rodman on the shoulder.
Rodman, still a wide-eyed youth at that point, was uncomfortable taking a starting spot away from Aguirre, a player he revered. The team had to convince Rodman, in spite of his desire to defer to his more-experienced teammate, that what they needed to win was Rodman in a starting role. The result? A second consecutive NBA championship for the Pistons.
And here’s the parallel I’m trying to draw. For the past two playoffs, Josh Smith took a high volume of shots from areas of the floor where he shoots for a low percentage. He didn’t take these shots because he believed that was what he needed to do for his team to win and advance. He took those shots because, like Dantley, he felt those were the shots he was entitled to take.
In the offseason, Ferry allowed Smith to walk and replaced him with DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap, two players who have filled whatever role was asked of them to help the team win. Meanwhile Teague, like Rodman, has been asked to fill a role he was not comfortable with. Teague, like a young Rodman, has been deferential by nature.
Before the broadcast of the season finale against the Bucks, Fox Sports South showed an interview with Kyle Korver in which he described a conversation with Teague. Korver, to paraphrase, told Teague that “we’re not a good team at all when you’re not attacking the basket.” As with the Bad Boy Pistons and Rodman, the Hawks are asking Teague to play a role he’s not naturally predisposed to. They’re asking him to be a team leader and focal point of the offense.
As I type this I’m certain of one thing. The Hawks are in the playoffs for one reason and one reason alone. The Hawks are in the playoffs because Jeff Teague decided the Hawks would be in the playoffs. I trashed Teague after the playoffs last year and at mid-season this year for what I described as his lack of passion for the game. If Teague has now accepted that his role is that of leader and focal point, then the Hawks now have a full squad of players who understand and accept their roles. If Teague has decided to give the team what it needs in order to win, the Pacers better watch out.