Atlanta Hawks in Line to Become the Eastern Conference San Antonio Spurs

There can only be one version of the San Antonio Spurs, but the Atlanta Hawks are doing their darnedest to make sure that’s an inaccurate statement.

No longer are the perennially middling Hawks content retaining their old identities. They aren’t pigeonholed into mediocrity by Joe Johnson’s mega-contract anymore, and the franchise has finally found some direction during Danny Ferry’s tenure as general manager.

That direction points right at the Spurs, who just happen to be the organization everyone would love to use as a model.

This is by no means an overnight process, but the Hawks are now on the right track as they work toward becoming the Eastern Conference’s version of the defending champions.  

 

Hiring the Protege 

Divvying out credit for the Spurs’ success over the past two decades isn’t an easy task, especially because every level of the organization has been absolutely incredible. 

San Antonio has been blessed with one of the game’s best general managers (R.C. Buford), a man who has found draft steals just like his predecessor (some guy named Gregg Popovich) while pioneering the extreme international movement and signing players to one value contract after another. As if that wasn’t enough, Pop has made the Spurs consistently excellent on the sidelines, establishing himself as a coaching legend in the process. 

Not only is the man with a sardonic sense of humor during between-quarter interviews the best coach in today’s NBA, but he’s become a virtual lock for the hypothetical coaching Mount Rushmore, right up there with Pat Riley, Phil Jackson and Red Auerbach

Of course, it’s hard to find success without players. 

The organization was lucky to move so seamlessly from the David Robinson era to the Tim Duncan one, and it’s also helped to have mainstays like Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, as well as a constant stream of high-quality role players willing to buy into the system. And now it seems as though the Kawhi Leonard era will be a successful one as well. 

Atlanta hasn’t gained access to a transcendent superstar like Duncan or “The Admiral,” but it has been quietly putting together a potent roster under Ferry’s supervision. 

Now the Hawks obviously weren’t going to lure Popovich himself to Hotlanta, but they managed to find the closest thing—Mike Budenholzer

Coach Bud began his NBA career as a video coordinator for the Spurs back in 1994-95, and he would quickly move up the ranks. He began serving as an assistant coach during the 1996-97 season, a campaign in which Pop fired Bob Hill and began doing the coaching himself. It was a controversial move at the time, but it sure turned out nicely. 

After seven seasons as the lead assistant on Pop’s bench, he finally got his chance to serve as a head coach. 

It’s not hard to see the connection. After all, Budenholzer was hired by Popovich in 1994, and the two have worked closely ever since. Beyond that, Bud earned his superior’s unbridled trust, as Pop explained prior to the 2013-14 season in an interview with Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:

He was my right-hand man. He came through the ranks. I first brought him into the film room 17 years ago or something like that, or more, I can’t remember but he started there for several years. I put him on the bench and he moved up. As time went on I depended on him more and more. He became my top assistant, top confidant, but over time he’s just acquired an ability to understand the whole deal.

There are some golden quotes throughout that interview, but that level of trust just about says it all. 

With Budenholzer at the helm, the Hawks should be able to establish an identity, one much like that possessed by the Spurs. They’ll prioritize ball movement, three-point shooting and solid defense, even if it comes in an unglamorous style that seems like a poor fit for an arena nicknamed “The Highlight Factory.” 

Even after just one season, Budenholzer has already established himself as an up-and-comer in the coaching ranks. Bleacher Report’s Dan Favale called him part of the next wave of elites on the sidelines of the Association, making him one of just six coaches to earn such a distinction. 

If you’re trying to build the Eastern Conference version of the Spurs, there’s no better start than hiring a man who worked with Popovich for 19 years, proving himself a valuable right-hand man with his in-game adjustments and private arguments that sparked San Antonio’s creative processes. 

 

The Results

The Hawks weren’t particularly impressive during Budenholzer‘s first season in charge, but you could already see the makings of a special, Spurs-like unit. 

“The ball moves more crisply and frequently than ever; Budenholzer‘s Hawks ranked first in assist percentage last year,” Favale wrote. “The more you watched them play, the more you wondered what Budenholzer could do with a Hawks team at full strength.”

It’s that last clause that’s so key, as the Hawks were forced to play much of the season without Al Horford, who tore his pectoral muscle about a third of the way into the year. As the big center sat out the remainder of the campaign, Atlanta sunk from competing for the No. 3 spot in the East to struggling its way into the postseason festivities, where it challenged the No. 1-seeded Indiana Pacers and ultimately fell short in its upset bid. 

But let’s go back to that No. 1 ranking in assist percentage. 

According to NBA.com’s statistical databases, Atlanta literally recorded assists on two-thirds of its made buckets from the field. The Chicago Bulls placed second (65.4 percent), and only the Los Angeles Lakers (63.9), Los Angeles Clippers (62.8), Spurs (62.1), Minnesota Timberwolves (61.6) and Washington Wizards (60.1) managed to finish above 60 percent. 

However, let’s make Leonardo DiCaprio proud and go deeper

SportVU data shows that Atlanta created more points off assists during the average game than any other team, barely beating out—you guessed it—the Spurs. The Hawks also finished No. 1 in assist opportunities per game, while San Antonio checked in at No. 4, trailing the Lakers and ‘Wolves, who were respectively aided by passing specialists named Kendall Marshall and Ricky Rubio. On top of that, only the Spurs and Clippers recorded more secondary assists than Jeff Teague and Co. 

The wins will come in time; what’s important now is to establish a stylistic foundation, which Budenholzer did quite well in his first season at the helm.

And it was about more than the passing. 

Rarely will I recommend an article with more fervor than this one by Bleacher Report’s Grant Hughes, which breaks down how the Spurs were largely responsible for the NBA’s corner-three revolution. Budenholzer brought that mentality aboard, but he also pushed the issue even further. 

Instead of just focusing on the corners, he bought into the analytic idea that all triples should be shot with more frequency. The Atlanta head coach is very much in tune with the statistical aspect of the sport, and it showed, as there’s been a push within the analytic community for a drastic uptick in overall three-point numbers. 

Grantland’s Zach Lowe explained this when he penned a terrific piece about the NBA’s new SportVU cameras near the end of the 2012-13 campaign: 

The analytics team is unanimous, and rather emphatic, that every team should shoot more threes—including the Raptors and even the Rockets, who are on pace to break the NBA record for most three-point attempts in a season.

Later on in Lowe’s article, which you should read in its entirety, there’s more:

[Dwane] Casey is obviously right that [DeMar] DeRozan is a bad three-point shooter. But the analytics team argues that even sub–35 percent three-point shooters should jack more threes, and that coaches should probably spend more time turning below-average three-point shooters into something close to average ones.

As I broke down here, NBA shooters need only connect at roughly a 28 percent clip from beyond the arc in order to make a statistical case for their efforts. There are various reasons this is met with speculation, but those are tangential at this time. 

The point is simply that the Hawks should shoot more threes from all over, and that’s exactly what Budenholzer had them do during his first season in charge: 

That’s a pretty sizable difference, one that shows across-the-board increases. And here’s where it’s important to establish exactly what it means to follow in San Antonio’s footsteps. 

In order to build a team using that Spurs blueprint, a team doesn’t have to mimic them completely. It doesn’t have to design plays that result in corner threes, run plenty of off-ball screens or allow its point guard to work his way past a succession of picks. They don’t have to have Popovich on the sideline and Buford in the front office. 

Sure, Atlanta is also doing plenty of other Spursy things—placing a priority on drafting international prospects, attempting to use Jeff Teague like Tony Parker, adding wing defenders and making signings that don’t financially cripple the team down the road, among other things—but the specifics aren’t important. 

What made the Spurs so special—and what continues to make them special, for that matter—is a willingness to be on the cutting edge.

San Antonio has long been innovative in how it goes about its business, figuring out a leaguewide inefficiencies and capitalizing upon them. That was done with the international flavor, just as it was with the corner-three revolution. 

However, those facets of the sport are public knowledge now, and they’re readily taken advantage of by plenty of NBA teams. It’s a situation not too different from the infamous Moneyball revolution initiated by Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s, as the remaining MLB teams started prioritizing on-base percentage and defense until it was no longer a market inefficiency. 

What makes these Hawks so exciting, and what allows them to shape themselves in San Antonio’s image, is their willingness to take advantage of the new cutting-edge developments, like shooting a ridiculous number of threes and passing the ball more than anyone else. 

It takes a lot of skill and a lot of luck to create a dynasty. 

Atlanta is a long way from even sniffing that classification, and it would be a nice first step just to escape mid-level mediocrity, which the team could very well do after Horford returns to the lineup for the 2014-15 campaign. However, with the right system in place and the best possible choice holding a clipboard, the Hawks are setting themselves up perfectly. 

Are they the Eastern Conference’s version of the Spurs heading into this next campaign? Absolutely not. 

But they could be down the road, and that has to be considered a nice breath of fresh air for Atlanta’s beleaguered fanbase. 

 

How do you think the Hawks will fare in 2014-15? Let me know on Twitter and Facebook.

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Atlanta Hawks 2014 NBA Free-Agency Big Board: Ranking Top Targets Post-Draft

The Atlanta Hawks are in a good position to be a major player in the 2014 free-agency period, but there might not be a rush to overpay for talent.

As we saw last season, the Hawks are pretty good at finding values during this time of year. General manager Danny Ferry pulled off one of the biggest steals of recent memory by signing Paul Millsap to a two-year deal worth $19 million last year, and there’s a chance he finds a way to get a great value again.

The Hawks have already been fairly busy this offseason, trading Lou Williams and Lucas Nogueira for John Salmons, who only has $1 million guaranteed on this year’s deal. That moved helped clear up some cap space, and the Hawks filled a need on the wing with some of the savings.

Here’s Sam Amick of USA Today with Atlanta’s first signing:

Thabo Sefolosha, a 5½-year starting shooting guard for the Oklahoma City Thunder, will sign a three-year contract worth $12 million with the Atlanta Hawks, a person with knowledge of the agreement told USA TODAY Sports.

The person spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the contract, which cannot be signed until July 10 because of the NBA‘s free agency moratorium.

While the signing of Sefolosha might take Atlanta out of the race for some of the bigger max guys like LeBron James and Carmelo Anthony, there are still some nice talents out there for them to target.

Here’s the free-agency big board for the Atlanta Hawks for the 2014 offseason.

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Hawks’ Lou Williams Trade Shows Atlanta Is Serious About Luring Star Free Agent

Fresh off appearing in the postseason as the Eastern Conference’s eighth seed, the Atlanta Hawks are already busy making moves that could lead to even better results next time.

According to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Chris Vivlamore, “The Hawks have agreed to a trade that will send Lou Williams and the rights to 2013 first-round draft pick Lucas Nogueira to the Raptors for John Salmons, according to a person familiar with the situation.”

The Hawks intend to waive Salmons in a move that will free up salary cap room,” Vivlamore writes.

The deal isn’t official just yet, but ESPN.com’s Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst are already hearing similar things: 

The Hawks, sources say, will immediately waive Salmons to expand their projected salary-cap space for this summer to $15.5 million, though one source cautioned Sunday that the move is more about flexibility and roster-shaping for the Hawks than any specific free-agent target.

So perhaps we can rule out the organization making a serious run at LeBron James and/or Carmelo Anthony, but the Hawks could still swing for the fences. The home run in this free-agent market would be finding some way to pair James and Anthony together.

Stein and Windhorst reported that “the Cleveland Cavaliers and Atlanta Hawks are among the teams mulling potential trades designed to clear enough cap space to be able to recruit the two stars and close friends.”

Apart from the home run scenario, Stein and ESPN.com’s Ramona Shelburne also reported that “sources told ESPN.com that the Atlanta Hawks and Miami Heat are two more teams that could join the race for Anthony.”

While the Hawks are almost in position to make a run at Anthony, they’d likely need to make another move or two in order to have a shot at James as well.

It’s certainly doable, but the larger question is whether James or Anthony would be willing to forgo more established winning situations to join Atlanta.

Traditionally, the Hawks haven’t had much success attracting premier free-agent talent, and it’s hard to see them pulling ahead of other suitors like the Chicago Bulls, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks or Los Angeles Lakers.

The more probable outcome isn’t quite as exciting, but the Hawks have certainly positioned themselves to improve the roster.

Assuming this trade goes through, general manager Danny Ferry will have ensured that Atlanta at the very least has the opportunity to target one or two second-tier free agents.

The organization could pursue an above-average small forward like Luol Deng, who’s reportedly on its radar.

Alternatively, it could even look at a big man Paul Gasol. It could even explore upgrades at the point guard position if it isn’t convinced Jeff Teague is the floor general of the future.

In one of his mock drafts, ESPN.com’s Chad Ford (subscription required) revealed that Atlanta is, “not completely sold on Jeff Teague and could explore the market for him this summer.”

Should the Hawks deal Teague, a free agent like Kyle Lowry could also be on their radar.

Though the franchise may not have the pedigree desired by the likes of James or Anthony, it certainly has some pieces that could be appealing to other free agents. Center Al Horford is one of the better big men in the business, and—whether the Hawks are sold on him or not—the 26-year-old Teague has quietly shown flashes of All-Star play.

Teague averaged 19.3 points and five assists per contest in a seven-game first-round series against the Indiana Pacers during the playoffs.

One of the better fits in Atlanta might be unrestricted free agent Lance Stephenson. The Hawks could use a dynamic playmaker alongside spot-up shooters like Kyle Korver and Pero Antic. While the Pacers don’t want to lose Stephenson, they could be outbid by a club with Atlanta’s resources.

If the Hawks believe the 23-year-old Stephenson is a star in the making, they could give him a deal worth $8-10 million per year. Offering a comparable contract might be difficult for the money-tight Pacers to stomach—especially given concerns over the young guard’s maturity.

Whatever names Ferry and Co. have in mind, they’ve made it clear the Hawks will be players in this summer’s free-agent talks.

That’s really all you can ask from a team that’s clearly still a piece or two away from making serious noise in the East.

While the big names are sure to generate headlines, don’t be surprised if Atlanta takes a more measured approach this summer. Recall that the club made relatively modest signings this time last year, inking Williams and power forward Paul Millsap to very reasonable deals.

Millsap made $9.5 million last season and is due to earn the same next season.

Atlanta also re-signed sharpshooter Kyle Korver to a four-year, $24 million pact last summer.

None of those deals broke the bank, and they ensured a balanced rotation that wound up being good enough to make the postseason. That kind of approach could be the template the organization follows this time around.

Unless a big-name decision ends up favoring the Hawks, this team might not have much choice. Aiming for someone like Stephenson or Deng would meet a need on the wing, and it likely wouldn’t entail a max contract.

As easy as it is to overlook these Hawks when it comes to premier free-agent destinations, they could be quietly assembling a winner before our eyes.

With head coach Mike Budenholzer taking over last season after being groomed by none other than Gregg Popovich, this franchise suddenly has a foundation worth watching—a foundation that could be significantly stronger by summer’s end.

 

Contract information courtesy of HoopsHype.

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Atlanta Hawks 2014 NBA Draft Big Board: Top 3 Guys for Each Pick They Hold

Picking at No. 15 and No. 43, the Atlanta Hawks will do their best to improve their roster in Thursday’s 2014 NBA draft.

Whom should the team target with its two picks?

Let’s take a look at the top three players the Hawks want to see available at each of their selections, assuming they don’t trade either pick.

Players will be included only if their status in mock drafts and big boards is somewhat near to the pick in question. For example, Andrew Wiggins would be a fantastic get at No. 15, but the smart money says he won’t be available that late in the draft.

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Atlanta Hawks vs. Minnesota Timberwolves 3/26/14: Video Highlights and Recap

The Minnesota Timberwolves looked to end their recent swoon on Wednesday against the Atlanta Hawks. The T-Wolves had lost three straight and faced a Hawks squad that had dropped three straight. 

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Shaquille O’Neal Subject of Open Assault Investigation in Atlanta

Four-time NBA champion and current Inside the NBA analyst Shaquille O’Neal is under investigation for an alleged assault that occurred last May. A co-worked claims he was injured when O’Neal tackled him from behind, while the longtime center insists it was just horseplay.  

ESPN.com reports local police have yet to file any charges against the 15-time All-Star. The incident came to their attention last July when Robert Williams filed a complaint in which he stated he suffered neck and back injuries as a result of O’Neal’s actions:

According to Robert Williams, a co-worker of O’Neal’s at Turner Studios, for whom O’Neal is an NBA analyst, the 15-time All-Star “ran out of a room and hit me with a tackle punch to the back knocking me down and falling on top of me injuring my neck and back,” the police report says.

Williams said the alleged assault was noted to Turner Security services the next day, which would be May 10, before being reported to local police on July 2.

Ryan Young of WSB-TV in Atlanta provided comments about the ongoing investigation from police and representatives for both parties.

Sergeant Greg Lyon of the Atlanta Police Department said the investigation has become more complex over time, which explains the extended amount of time without a decision about how to proceed:

The investigation was initially handled by the zone and as that investigation deepened, it was transferred (to) the complex case squad. At the conclusion of their investigation, we’ll have their findings and we’ll go forth from there, whether charges will be filed, whether it be reviewed by the DA’s Office.

Dennis Roach, who is O’Neal’s attorney, said in a brief statement that there was never intent for anybody to get hurt, stating: “This was nothing more than horseplay. No one intended for anyone to get injured.”

A representative for Williams denied those claims and said permanent injuries were suffered as a result of the incident:

We understand that the physical attack by Shaquille O’Neal upon Mr. Robert Williams is under criminal investigation. Mr. Williams is presently recovering after surgery.

However, he does state emphatically, that the permanent injuries he received were not the result of participation in any form of ‘horseplay.’

No timetable was provided by police in relation to when a decision will be made about whether to file assault charges against O’Neal. Further details from the investigation about the case and the events leading up to the reported tackle were not made available.

Once the research into the claims is complete, a far clearer picture about how police plan to proceed should become available. O’Neal has continued to appear on TNT’s Inside the NBA while the investigation has continued.

O’Neal, 42, played in the NBA for nearly two decades with six different teams before retiring after the 2010-11 season. He joined the Inside the NBA team a short time later.

 

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Terrence Ross Throws Down Hammer Dunk vs. Atlanta Hawks

Terrence Ross never leaves home without his Paul Millsap-scaring shoes.

Late in the second quarter of the Toronto Raptors‘ come-from-behind 96-86 victory over the Atlanta Hawks, Ross threw down a nasty hammer off a pass from Kyle Lowry:

Couple of things to note here.

First, wow.

Second, wow.

Third, credit Millsap with running scared. He wanted no part of Ross’ latest poster jam. He would much rather step aside than be immortalized Brandon Knight-style.

Last, but certainly not least, wow.

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New Orleans Pelicans vs. Atlanta Hawks 3/21/14: Video Highlights and Recap

The red-hot Atlanta Hawks looked to continue their recent run of success on Friday, when they faced the New Orleans Pelicans. The Hawks had won five straight and faced a Pelicans squad that had dropped three of their last four. 

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Atlanta Hawks are better with Lou Williams on the bench

Atlanta Hawks are better with Lou Williams on the benchLou Williams is missing in action. The one time dynamic offensive threat has not seen the floor in the past three games.
Williams played 25 minutes and scored 15 points on 3-7 shooting against the Phoenix Suns March 2. The following game Lou found himself on the bench for most of the game, including the entire second half, logging just over five minutes in a loss to Portland. Since then, he hasn’t seen a minute of playing time.
But why is Williams not playing?
“All year we’ve been working on different groups that can help us,” coach Mike Budenholzer told the Atlanta Journal Constitution. “Lou has done a ton of good things and he has helped us through the year. Tonight, we gave some other guys some minutes and some opportunities. Playing a little bit bigger is important to us. But Lou has been very good for us all year. It’s one of the hardest parts about coaching. You can’t play everybody.”
Last season, Williams bursted onto the…

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Takeaways from the Atlanta Hawks’ West Coast Road Trip

The Atlanta Hawks returned home from yet another unsuccessful road trip. They dropped the first five games, before finally picking up a win against the Utah Jazz on Monday.

After going 1-5 on this trip, the Hawks will be home for the next two. Hopefully they can turn things around after only winning three games since the start of February. Here are the takeaways from the Hawks trip out West. 

 

Paul Millsap Returns, Comes Up Big Against His Old Team

After missing five games with a knee injury, Paul Millsap made his return against the Golden State Warriors. The Hawks desperately needed the All-Star’s presence inside.

He played limited minutes in his return, but was back up to his normal workload in the next two games. His impact was instantly noticed in the win over his old team, the Utah Jazz, and the nail-biting loss against the Clippers.

According to Hawks beat writer Chris Vivlamore, Millsap said he should be booed in his return to Utah.

However, the Utah Jazz are a very classy organization and have a respectful fan base. They gave him and the other former Jazz players a warm reception. Millsap was even given a video montage. 

Millsap did not disappoint against his old team, he scored 23 points and grabbed eight rebounds. With Al Horford out, the Hawks can’t afford Millsap to miss anymore time.  

 

Jeff Teague Shines then Regresses

The Jeff Teague roller coaster ride continues. He can go from looking like an elite NBA point guard one day and then look like he barely belongs on the court the next. 

As I mentioned in a recent article, Teague started off the trip playing great. He was playing aggressively and scored over 20 points in four straight.

However, he scored 10 points or less in three of the last four games and blew the game-tying free throws against the Los Angeles Clippers.   

Part of his struggles could be due to his cotton swab use. This is no joke; according to Sports Illustrated, he lost hearing in his left ear.

Although he did not shoot great in Utah, his aggressive play was back. Teague got to the line nine times and scored 16 points. Hopefully his ear prevented him from attacking previously and not the return of Millsap

 

Can’t win on the road

After going 1-5 on this trip, the Hawks now have a horrendous 10-24 record on the road. That is the worst record of all the teams that would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

They simply cannot win against good teams away from Atlanta. They have not beaten a team with a winning record all season long. This is something that good teams have the ability to do.

If the Hawks do make the playoffs, they will have to win on the road to advance. Even with their recent struggles, I still see the Hawks making the playoffs. 

They are finally getting healthy, and the Cleveland Cavilers, Detroit Pistons and New York Knicks are even more dysfunctional than the Hawks. 

My earlier prediction for the fifth seed seems unlikely now, but the Hawks should still make it as the seventh or eighth seed. This will most likely lead to a first-round loss at the hands of either the Indiana Pacers or Miami Heat

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