When the San Antonio Spurs blasted the Miami Heat’s big three, knocking them from their perch as NBA Champions, there were a lot of questions.
Where would LeBron James play? Who would the Miami Heat sign? Would LeBron play in Houston? Who will coach the New York Knicks? Would LeBron play in Chicago? Who would coach the Los Angeles Lakers? Would LeBron play in New York? Who will sign Carmelo Anthony? Would LeBron return to the Miami Heat?
Nobody gave much thought to the San Antonio Spurs, or how teams might follow their strategy for success in the NBA.
But one team might be poised to replicate their success in professional basketball: The Atlanta Hawks.
Most folks don’t realize that the Hawks have made the playoffs every year since the 2007-2008 season. They’ve put a scare into a few champions, but haven’t made it past the second round in a long time.
Last year, they were 38-44, and were expected to be swept out of the playoffs.
Instead, they exposed the top-seed Indiana Pacers, taking them to a full seven games. Only a favorable ruling by the NBA Commissioner’s office allowing Paul George to play the last game of the series enabled the Pacers to escape, but the damage was done to Indiana. With Horford, the Hawks would have won the series.
Folks forget that the most talented player on the Hawks, big man Al Horford, was lost for the season after a dozen games. And they still made the playoffs.
The Atlanta Hawks are led by a pair of San Antonio Spurs experts. The GM is Danny Ferry, while the coach is Mike Budenholzer, who was Greg Popovich’s longtime assistant.
They’ve adopted the Spurs philosophy of moving the ball around. In 2013-2014, San Antonio led the league in assists per game. The Atlanta Hawks finished second in that category. Their best player for the season, Paul Millsap, was a league leader in boring statistics, like rebounds and blocks.
The team returns Horford, Millsap, point guard Jeff Teague, guards Kyle Korver and Lou Williams, as well as other players like forward Mike Scott. Whereas in the past, the team focused on “stars” like Josh Smith, Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, this team is focused on working as a unit, like the Spurs.
And they drafted Adreian Payne, who played four years for Tom Izzo’s Michigan State University, a competent 6-10 big man who can complement Horford on defense and create mismatches on offense.
These “Spurs of the East” are still a player or two away from knocking off the Heat, but they should easily make the second round next season, and maybe the Eastern Conference Finals. As they continue to improve the roster and mold the players, they may sneak up on a lot of teams while they still focus on what the stars are doing, and who will coach them.
John A. Tures is a professor of political science at LaGrange College in LaGrange, Ga.