Learning to Trust the Atlanta Hawks

May 29, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry takes questions while introducing Mike Budenholzer as the new head coach during a press conference at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

For much of the last decade, the Hawks have been the ultimate “average” NBA team. They make the playoffs every year, but never advanced further than the second round. They kept the same core group intact, safely holding their playoff position but never taking too many risks with trades or free agency. This season, the Hawks once again were bounced in the first round — their 7th straight playoff trip — however, there’s a very different feel to this offseason. There’s a sense that they can actually do more and continue improving as a team. I was uncomfortable with these feelings of confidence, and wanted to make sure I wasn’t feeling this because I’m employed by the team, so I emailed our other resident Hawks fan/blogger here at HP, Bo Churney to try and talk this out.

Robby Kalland: Alright, Bo. The Hawks season just ended. They finished 38-44, squeaked into the playoffs as the 8 seed (their 7th straight trip), and lost a tough first round series in seven games to the Pacers. This has been, more or less, the norm for the Hawks since 2008, with a few forays into the second round sprinkled in with the first round exits.

However, I’m feeling optimism that I haven’t felt since that 2008 season ended. Is this just me being contractually obligated to be optimistic about the team? Am I buying in too much? Can we really, finally trust the Hawks? Help me out.
Bo Churney: I think your optimism is warranted and I’ll tell you why: this team is finally forging an identity that starts from the top of the organization and goes all the way to the bottom.
In the past, the Hawks really had no identity. The ownership group never really had a face, the general manager had no real public game plan that the fans could identify with, and the players were an awkward fit; Iso-Joe wasn’t filling the seats, Josh Smith had a love-hate relationship that shifted by the minutes, and Marvin Williams was always the guy that was drafted ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams.
Now? That ownership group is done suing each other and is turning into actual faces. Bruce Levenson is starting to become a more dominant face of a formerly shadow-like ownership, and new minority-owner and CEO Steve Koonin is starting off his tenure by being extremely active with the fans and the community. Plus, he likely helped bring the Pac-Man logo back, so that’s a huge positive.
But the biggest thing that the ownership has done is to entrust the operations to President of Basketball Operations and General Manager Danny Ferry. What do you think is most important thing about Ferry that has helped the organization form a more unified identity?
RK: It’s strange as a Hawks fan to have this kind of faith in the organization from the top down. I no longer dread the draft or free agency. There was a time when Hawks were to tweener wings what the Timberwolves were to point guards, I don’t have any concerns that this group in the front office or the coaching staff will have those kinds of problems. Ferry didn’t have the best run in Cleveland as GM, but his refresher course in San Antonio between GM gigs seems to have paid off. I mean, anyone who can unload Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams in a two-day period without taking on any long-term deals in return has to be pretty damn good at their job. 
Aside from unloading those two ghastly deals, and not re-signing Josh Smith — as much as I loved him — the most important thing Ferry’s done is bring in Mike Budenholzer to be the head coach. For the first time in my memory, there is a clear connection between what the team wants to do on the court and the decisions being made by the front office, and that is all about the relationship between Bud and Ferry. Ferry played for Bud and also worked with him when he was in San Antonio’s front office, so they’re very close as friends and also in their ideologies about basketball.
Every press conference Ferry holds, or the two hold together, they speak about wanting to create an identity and having a system they will play with. Ferry mentioned it earlier this week when he spoke after exit interviews. They’ve done that, and now I think you’ll see even more fine tuning of the roster to fit Bud’s system. I think the most telling signing for this was giving Kyle Korver a pretty sizable long-term deal. Bud’s system is all about pace and space, and there are few if any that do that better than Korver. His contract was questioned at the time, but all he’s done is go out and set an NBA-record for consecutive threes made and lead the NBA in three-point percentage.
Personally, I haven’t trusted a Hawks coach this much in my lifetime — which isn’t saying a ton, but, whatever. I love the style of play he has the team running, they play hard every night, and every player glowed about him at exit interviews. What was your impression of Coach Bud’s first season as a head coach, and how excited are you about the future with him at the helm?
BC: I am extremely excited about Coach Bud’s future with this team. As you said, the players were giving him extremely high praise in exit interviews, which isn’t something you always see when players are discussion their current head coach. (looking at you, Kobe)
I think the most important thing — and you alluded to this — is that there is a rather mechanical system in place now. Of course in any system, you want to maximize the talent of your best players and the Hawks were seeing that with Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford before he got hurt. However, the Hawks offense also saw the prospering of guys like Shelvin Mack, Pero Antic, and Mike Scott, guys who weren’t exactly expected to do a lot this season. I think that is what I’m most excited about with Coach Bud. Even with all the injuries this season, Budenholzer was continuously getting the maximum out of the able-bodied players.
I think that was one of the problems in the past; a lot of times it seemed like there was something left to be desired with the Hawks. They weren’t achieving their potential. With Coach Bud and GM Danny Ferry, it seems like the Hawks will always be playing at max capacity.
Anything else about Bud that you like?
RK: Totally agree. Bud is almost the anti-Mike Woodson, and it creates a really fun style of basketball for the players and also for fans to watch. For most of this playoff streak, the Hawks operated a slow paced, isolation offense (RIP Iso-Joe) that was relatively brutal to watch. Larry Drew started to change this last season with Joe leaving, but this season has been, without a doubt, the most aesthetically pleasing Hawks team to watch in the past decade-plus.
Going along with what you said about getting the most out of the team’s potential, I was really impressed with how this entire coaching staff — Quin Snyder, Kenny Atkinson, Taylor Jenkins, Darvin Ham, and Jim Thomas — were so committed to player development. In exit interviews, DeMarre said this was the first season a coach, in this case Quin Snyder, worked with him on his shooting form and footwork, and it paid dividends for Carroll. Kenny Atkinson does a tremendous job with Jeff Teague and the point guards, and Darvin has helped the bigs out a lot as well. This coaching staff, for as long as the team can keep them together, is going to do really great things with developing players, and it isn’t just with rookies and young guys.
With that staff in place, and a pretty solid core group of Horford, Teague, and Korver under contract for at least two more years and guys like Millsap, Carroll, and Antic back next year, the Hawks are positioned for another playoff run next year. However, it’s clear in listening to Ferry, Bud, and ownership speak that they want to take the next step to be more than a mid seed that peaks with a second round appearance. What moves do you want to see them make this offseason and next season prior to the trade deadline to position themselves to continue this building process?
BC: Just looking at what the Hawks have now: the point guard, power forward, and center spots are pretty locked down. Teague, Millsap, and Horford form a great core to work with, plus they could be backed up with solid bench players like Mack (RFA), Scott (RFA), and Antic. There has been talk of the Hawks having interest in Greg Monroe, but I’m just not sure where he would realistically fit in.
Because of those things, I would look for the Hawks to upgrade their wing players. Korver and Carroll are good players and can work well as starters, but the Hawks had no real back ups for when they were on the bench. Lou Williams started to regain his offensive touches at the end of the season, but the team still needs someone that can play defense at the 3 when DeMarre’s not on the floor.
I think it would be a good idea for the Hawks to target Thaddeus Young, who will likely be traded before draft day. I do not know what it will take for the Hawks to acquire Young, but it is definitely something I would explore. After Young, you have a couple of relatively big names at wing in Luol Deng and Lance Stephenson. However, I would expect the Hawks to avoid both of those guys due to salaries they are likely to command and instead look at someone like Trevor Ariza, who is having a great season as a 3-and-D guy in Washington.
Would you approve of that game plan and would that potentially make for a good follow up season to the foundation that the Hawks put down this year?
RK: Yeah, I think the clear area of need is on the wing (Disclaimer: I can’t talk about specific players to target in free agency/trades as a team employee). Carroll and Korver both had excellent seasons, but with Kyle playing the two-guard a lot it left a lot to be desired at the three-man spot when Carroll sat. If they’re going to make a splash this offseason, I’d expect the wing to be the position they look at upgrading or at the least increasing their depth there.
I think at this point both of us — and Hawks fans in general — are feeling unusually comfortable and are optimistic about the future of this franchise. For a fanbase that has been much maligned, they started to show out towards the end of the year, particularly in the playoffs, and hopefully they continue to take notice next season. A lot of pressure is on Ferry and Coach Bud to hold their attention by continuing to build on the relative success of this season and take some risks to move the franchise forward and not be content with the status quo.
Any final thoughts?
BC: Final thoughts? I just can’t wait to add something new to the #TopTiergue/TRILLSAP/KORV3R tweet repertoire next season. Unlikely, but it would be really interesting if it’s “M3LO!”
Anything else, Robby?
RK: Dammit, Bo. Did you really have to bring Melo into this?
BC: Yes. I mean… it’s Melo!
RK: Fine. Well, I think that’s everything. Now it’s just time to find out if we’re right to trust the Hawks.

Robby Kalland

Robby covers college football for Cox Media and formerly covered the Atlanta Hawks for Hawks.com and SB Nation. He once broke a roulette table in half with Anthony Tolliver and was given a bottle of wine by Johan Petro in the same night.

  • Jamaaliver

    Robby, on behalf of Hawks fans everywhere, I believe you are the luckiest man in the world. Not many fan bloggers get to actually cover the team they love for a living.

    Also, PF is about to become an issue in a few months. We have no dependable backup Center. Plus the starter is injury prone and playing out of position.

    This entire roster needs work.

    What’s your thoughts on Dennis Schroeder’s struggles this year? Is he still the PG of the future? Is Bud and the coaching staff to blame? Did Ferry over-draft him? What about wasting Mike Muscala’s rookie season to bring him over mid-year and then NOT play him? Seems like a veteran Forward/Center would have been more useful in the playoffs? (Ivan, Collins, Hawes)

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