It’s an event that’s come to feel as annually reliable as the cycles of moons and seasons: this weekend, the Atlanta Hawks quietly exited in the first or second round of the NBA playoffs for the seventh consecutive year.
Despite an underwhelming 38-44 regular season performance, the Hawks managed to back into the playoffs as the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed. With the 48-34 Phoenix Suns resigned to an early vacation in the Western Conference gauntlet, Atlanta’s entry into the playoffs felt wholly undeserved, triggering so many inventive editorials clamoring for playoff seeding reform.
Once the playoffs started, the Hawks’ early 3-2 series lead over a grotesquely melting Indiana Pacers team would turn out to be the unquestioned apex of Atlanta’s season. With Indiana on the ropes, the Hawks would fail to crack 90 points in either Game Six or Game Seven, losing both contests as the Pacers advanced to the second round with a mighty sigh of relief.
The Hawks’ perennial residence in the NBA’s middle class can be a frustrating proposition for their more analytically-minded fans. In six of Atlanta’s last seven seasons, the Hawks have won between 45% and 60% of their games. (The lone outlier was a 53-win campaign in 2009-10, good for a 64.6 winning percentage.) According to the most modern strains of team-building wisdom, hovering this close to .500 is the single most undesirable destination for an NBA team in the standings.
As the contemporary line of thinking goes: by constantly creeping into the playoffs without the firepower to advance deep into May or June, the Hawks are losing early while also forfeiting any opportunity to build up a more dominant nucleus through high lottery picks and cap space to spend on free agents. This is the method shrewdly executed to perfection half a decade ago by today’s annual Finals contenders in Oklahoma City. No doubt there are plenty of Hawks fans who would actually be happy to see their team bottom out — sacrificing fleeting present-tense wins in favor of accumulating robust future assets — instead of watching their team lose another barely-seen first-round series that’s been relegated to NBATV.
However: although this year’s final result was indistinguishable on the surface from any of the Hawks’ previous six consecutive playoff defeats, there is a growing body of evidence that things may finally be different in Atlanta. Thanks to subtle but meaningful shifts in approach by the front office, the Hawks are in prime position to make substantial moves up the Association’s echelons of true contenders in the years to come.
Atlanta’s changes in organizational thinking are most clearly demonstrated in their selection of first-time head coach Mike Budenholzer. The Hawks’ previous two coaches — Larry Drew and Mike Woodson — have done nothing but supremely underwhelm in their post-Atlanta gigs in, respectively, Milwaukee and New York, delivering performances that have cast significant doubt on their overall abilities as head coaches. (Drew coached the Bucks to a league-worst 15-67 record in 2013-14, and Woodson was recently fired after a soap-operatic two-plus years leading the Knicks.) Meantime, Budenholzer spent the sixteen years before his arrival in Atlanta as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, under the tutelage of legendary basketball mastermind Gregg Popovich. With four Spurs championship rings on his fingers, Budenholzer has as much experience as any coach in the league in — quietly, stoically — winning basketball games.
On the court, Budenholzer’s influence can be most dramatically seen in the Hawks’ team-wide dedication to the three-point shot, a strategy long emphasized by the Spurs. During the Hawks’ 2012-13 season, their last under the guidance of Drew, Atlanta shot 23.2 three-point attempts per game, tied for fourth-most in the league. Over the offseason last summer, three of that team’s five most prolific three-point shooters left Atlanta (Josh Smith, DeShawn Stevenson, and Devin Harris). And yet, in 2013-14, Budenholzer got the Hawks to shoot even more from behind the arc: their 25.8 three-balls a game was good for second-most in the league, trailing only the famously analytics-minded Houston Rockets.
Budenholzer no doubt worked in concert with fellow San Antonio-to-Atlanta transfer Danny Ferry — who serves as the Hawks’ General Manager and President of Basketball Operations — to acquire a roster that was devastatingly flush with low-cost three-point shooters. The 2013-14 Hawks had nine consistent rotation members who:
- A. Played at least 15 minutes per game in at least 50 games, and;
- B. Shot at least three three-pointers per 36 minutes, and:
- C. Made at least 30% of those three-point attempts.
In ascending order of three-point accuracy, the Hawks’ shooters who met these criteria were:
- 1. Mike Scott, Power Forward: 31.0%
- 2. Pero Antić, Center: 32.7%
- 3. Jeff Teague, Point Guard: 32.9%
- 4. Shelvin Mack, Point Guard: 33.7%
- 5. Lou Williams, Shooting Guard: 34.2%
- 6. Paul Millsap, Power Forward: 35.8%
- 7. DeMarre Carroll, Small Forward: 36.2%
- 8. Cartier Martin, Small Forward: 38.4%
- 9. Kyle Korver, Shooting Guard: 47.2%
Now, Korver has always been an all-time great three-point shooter; his overwhelming accuracy in 2013-14 led the league in 3P% for the second time in his career. But the Hawks’ unique strength was their sheer number of shooters that were always on the court, and at every position. Compared to the Hawks’ nine-man army of three-point threats, most NBA teams had only three or four shooters who met all of the above criteria. Only the Miami Heat, with seven such shooters (a number that includes creaky shooting-only veterans Ray Allen, Shane Battier, and Rashard Lewis), could hold a candle to the Hawks’ league-largest three-ball arsenal.
What’s more, Ferry has assembled this roster on a magnificently efficient budget. In their series against the Pacers, the Hawks played a nine-man rotation — it’s the same group as the three-point shooters above, only with Elton Brand replacing the suddenly bench-bound Martin. Out of these nine playoff rotation members, only one of them was on the Hawks roster before Ferry’s arrival in the summer of 2012: the potential All-Star point-guard Teague.
The remaining eight players earning consistent playoff minutes — the very core of this Atlanta team — earned a combined $30.9 million.
What a vast difference from Atlanta’s 2011-12 season, their last before the arrival of Ferry, when the high-volume chuckers Joe Johnson and Josh Smith earned $30.4M between just the two of them. For the price of two problematic, pass-last shooters, Ferry assembled a team full of wicked three-point threats that gave a one-seed a run for their money. While it may have looked unremarkable at a first glance, Atlanta’s roster was a brilliant display of fiscal responsibility and ingenuity.
Usually, having both a new coach and general manager means a few years of non-stop losing as a collective identity amongst young, green prospects struggles to solidify. Just ask this year’s beleaguered fans in Sacramento, Salt Lake City, Orlando, and Philadelphia. By already assembling a progressive identity, built around the three-pointer — the game’s most efficient shot, and acquired at the most efficient prices — Atlanta’s solid 2013-14 season is less of a continuation of their mediocre past and more like early motion towards a successful future.