The Spurs showed us that it takes far more to win than having a few star players. This year’s Atlanta Hawks have all those qualities, and even some All-Stars, too
They may not have Gregg Popovich or Tim Duncan. They may not go on to win five championships by 2020. But the 2015 Atlanta Hawks have won 24 of their last 26 games with the exact same mentality that the San Antonio Spurs used last year to crush LeBron James’ Miami Heat 4-1 in the NBA Finals.
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Atlanta’s roster is complete, from their All-Star power forward Paul Millsap to their young German point guard Dennis Schroder, bringing energy off the bench. The ball never seems to stop moving on offense, and with their constant all-around effort and help defense it’s no wonder that the Hawks allow the 2nd fewest points per game (96.7) and the 4th stingiest opponent field goal percentage (43.7 percent) in the league.
They’ve gone from being a solid team in a poor Eastern Conference, to the hottest team in December, to a legitimate NBA title contender.
There’s plenty of reasons why the Hawks should be set to make the Finals this year, but the main reason is that they’ve become an Eastern Conference equivalent of last year’s San Antonio Spurs. One of the most dominant teams in NBA history, who couldn’t have made running circles around their opponents look any easier.
So here’s why the Hawks replicate Popovich’s legendary 2014 Spurs, and why they are such a serious contenders to take home the Larry O’Brien trophy for the second time in franchise history.
Dec 22, 2014; Dallas, TX, USA; Atlanta Hawks centerAl Horford
(15) and guardKent Bazemore
(24) block a shot by Dallas Mavericks guardRajon Rondo
(9) during the first half at the American Airlines Center. Mandatory Credit: Jerome Miron-USA TODAY Sports
Jeff Teague has been instrumental in the Hawks’ 31-8 start to the season. This whole team makes their ball movement and floor spacing special, but Teague has done an excellent job of setting up the offense and maintaining a high level of efficiency (the Hawks rank 3rd in assist-to-turnover ratio with 1.9). Which, as last year’s Spurs proved, goes a long way to help fill up the trophy cabinet.
Teague is easily having the best season of his career and, with averages of 17.5 points, 7.2 assists and 1.8 steals (all career highs), he’s well on his way to making his first appearance in the All-Star game.
He’s improved his shooting efficiency more than ever as well. Shooting 10 percent better (now 47 percent) from 10-16 feet out than last year and making 66 percent of his attempts from within three feet (a marked improvement of six percent from a year ago).
Teague has helped set the energetic tone the Hawks have played with all season. Now that he’s scored 20+ points in seven of his last nine games, it’s clear he’s showing no signs of slowing down.
Dec 23, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guardDennis Schroder
(17) passes out of the defense of Los Angeles Clippers guardChris Paul
(3) in the first quarter of their game at Philips Arena. Also shown on the play is Los Angeles Clippers forwardMatt Barnes
(22). Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
Dennis Schroder is yet another Hawks guard who’s done nothing but impress this season. Now playing just under 18 minutes per game, he has the perfect opportunity to make some serious improvements to his game. What better situation could he be in right now, other than the Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks?
Schroder has shown a lot of poise at times when running the offense, and if a screen or play breaks down and he’s left at the top of the key by himself, he’s shown a good ability to find a teammate to restart the offense. Rather than panicking and making an erratic pass.
He still has areas to improve in though, mainly his perimeter shooting as he’s making just 24 percent of his three-point attempts this year. However, his playmaking and vision at times has been a key part of the Hawks bench play.
Back on December 17th, when Atlanta crushed the Cleveland Cavaliers 127-98, Schroder scored 10 points and dished out 10 assists in just 22 minutes of action. Not bad for the guy who’s only job is to backup Jeff Teague.
Dec 15, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford (15) shoots over top of Chicago Bulls forwardPau Gasol
(16) during the second half at Philips Arena. The Hawks defeated the Bulls 93-86. Mandatory Credit: Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports
What helps make the Hawks really unique, though, is their highly skilled big men; Paul Millsap and Al Horford. The duo that has given the them an anchor to their defense and the best floor spacing frontcourt in the NBA.
Millsap and Horford are collectively averaging 31.7 points per game (16.9 and 14.8 respectively) and have been a cornerstone for the Hawks offense all season. Their only major weakness lies in Horford’s lack of defensive rebounding this year, who’s pulling in only 6.6 rebounds per game (with just 5.1 being on defense). Millsap’s 8.0 per game help to make up for this though, and Horford still brings a lot more to this Hawks team than he takes away.
Millsap may be the one with the most range and the ability to knock down a three-pointer (he’s 33 percent from deep this year) but both are shooting above 45 percent from over 16 feet out.
The range of this frontcourt is so beneficial to the Hawks because of the attention they demand from their mid range game. This constantly forces a zone to shift because opponents have to move across to cover an open 15 feet look from Horford or Millsap, which help creates more space on the weak side for guys like Kyle Korver, Teague and DeMarre Carroll.
Millsap is fast enough to break free of a slower power forward to find his own space for a shot, and if Horford isn’t open for a shot inside then he has excellent court vision to swing a pass to an open teammate.
Which is exactly how the Spurs made the Heat look so inept in last year’s Finals.
Jan 7, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guardKyle Korver
(26) celebrates making a three-point basket against the Memphis Grizzlies during 4th quarter at Philips Arena. The Hawks won 96-86. Mandatory Credit: Kevin Liles-USA TODAY Sports
The list of Korver’s incredible numbers and records never seems to end. From ranking 15th all-time in total three-pointers made (1,623) to having the most accurate shooting season from downtown in NBA history (53.6 percent in 2010). He’s done it all. And this year is no different.
Korver is making three 3’s a game on 52.5 percent shooting, which makes him the most accurate long range shooter in the league right now. No surprises, there. Add on the fact that he also has the highest true shooting percentage in the league (72.6 percent) for the second year running, then it’s clear just how valuable Korver is to this team.
And when he starts setting screens on centers to create open shots for his teammates, then you really can’t ask more from him. What other catch and shoot player runs inside to try and screen the other team’s entire frontcourt at the same time?
Dec 8, 2014; Indianapolis, IN, USA; Indiana Pacers forwardSolomon Hill
(44) goes up for a shot in the lane against Atlanta Hawks forwards Kyle Korver (26), Paul Milsap (4) and Al Horford (15) at Bankers Life Fieldhouse. Mandatory Credit: Brian Spurlock-USA TODAY Sports
Every individual aside though, it’s the way the Hawks play collectively at both ends of the floor that has made them a top contender to become NBA Champions this year. Their fluid ball movement and help defense has earned them a new identity, but it can’t go unnoticed how that same style replicates the Spurs of recent years.
It’s not too surprising either, really. Their head coach, Mike Budenholzer, did spend 17 years as assistant coach to Gregg Popovich in San Antonio. You can’t blame him for recreating some of the Spurs’ characteristics this year, and Hawks fans should do nothing but thank him.
Dec 23, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer talks with guard Dennis Schroder (17) in the third quarter of their game against the Los Angeles Clippers at Philips Arena. The Hawks won 107-104. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports
They simply make team basketball look so effortless. No matter how well a team plays defense, zone or man, at some point they’ll eventually be late to the man receiving a pass if the ball is moved fast enough. And if the big men come to the top of the key to set screens so effectively, guards are quick enough to make cuts to the basket or run the baseline, and the ball is moved around the wings quickly, then a man can always get open sooner or later. This is what the Hawks do at such an elite level, which is why they’re 2nd in the league in assists per game with 25.6.
Washington Wizard’s small forward, Paul Pierce, couldn’t have said it any better:
"They cause turnovers, they cause deflections, they stay within their principles and they just run. They keep coming offensively. They shoot the ball, they keep moving."
Teague provides a spark of energy, Millsap and Horford can bring so much defensive concentration inside that opponents still manage to leave Korver chances to shoot open threes, Schroder is one of the most underrated role players in the league, everyone else coming off the bench fills their role perfectly, and the Hawks offense continues to fire on all cylinders.
On defense, all their guards show great attentiveness playing man defense and dodging screens, their agile big men move well enough to make playing zones even easier (Millsap alone is averaging 1.8 steals per game) and the way they play help defense and pile on players in the paint or run after any open man rewards them with 9 steals a game (6th most in the NBA).
Jan 5, 2015; Los Angeles, CA, USA; Los Angeles Clippers forward Matt Barnes (22) is defended by Atlanta Hawks forwardDeMarre Carroll
(5) and forwardThabo Sefolosha
(25) at Staples Center. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports
All of this has given them the 5th best defensive efficiency in the league, allowing just 99.9 points per 100 possessions. Which just so happens to be better than the Spurs of last year, who allowed 102.4 points every 100 possessions.
What makes the Hawks so dangerous is that team basketball (as in not the 2-on-5 style that the Thunder play with Durant and Westbrook) makes a team contend through both the regular season and the playoffs. It doesn’t rely on a couple of superstars maintaining a hot shooting spell, but instead relies on everyone just doing their job.
It’s consistent and it works. And, most importantly, it’s the style that the Spurs proved wins championships.
So don’t spend a second sleeping on the Hawks, because they’ll be a nightmare for any team in this year’s Finals.