Now more than ever before, there has to be a focus on the process instead of the results when it comes to the Atlanta Hawks.
That's because at least on the surface, it appears the Hawks are doing what the Hawks have always done. Fighting for a first-round exit in the playoffs? That's the Hawks. There are different faces around now, to be sure, but if they're ending up in the same places, what does it matter?
While you could understand a lack of patience given the history of the organization, Hawks GM Danny Ferry, first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer and a core composed of Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague have earned it, even if things don't feel all that different yet.
Despite losing Horford early in the year to another torn pectoral muscle, the Hawks have stuck around in the playoff picture and have been competitive in spite of it.
As Ferry explained to Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, there are plenty of reasons to be optimistic about what's unfolded this year:
Throughout the year, I felt we've been on a good path. When healthy, we've been a very good team. I like the way we play. It's system-based. I like our players. There's some substance to them. With the way we're set-up from a salary cap standpoint and a roster standpoint that good things can continue to unfold.
We're not focused on trying to be the eighth seed in the playoffs because that's not our goal. We're trying to build something that's good, sustainable and the components are in place for us to do so.
The Hawks didn't choose to blow up the roster, tank and go with the popularized "Thunder Model" that most teams seem to embrace when they're stuck in the middle. Instead, Atlanta retained young point guard Jeff Teague this offseason, added forward Paul Millsap on one of the league's best value contracts, re-signed sharpshooter Kyle Korver and made some nice little bench signings along the way.
It's important to note that the Hawks didn't push all-in, though. No draft picks were sacrificed in the process of building this team. Future max cap room was maintained as well.
The Hawks may fail to make the playoffs in the end, but it won't be a costly failure like that of the Detroit Pistons, Milwaukee Bucks or a handful of other teams that overplayed their hand. Instead, the Hawks acquired potential trade assets on non-damaging deals, and they made sure every piece fit pretty well in the system that Budenholzer was brought on to establish.
It may seem like a small thing, but the Hawks as an organization finally functioned like they were on the same page. Bret LaGree at ESPN.com summed that up nicely:
There’s no changing the past, but the past is never just the past. It accumulates. Hope for a glorious future can’t erase it. Among Hawks fans, there most certainly is internal debate as to when exactly the last time the franchise had a general manager and head coach on the same page, the last time the franchise had stable, long-term goals, the last time management engendered trust, but there’s also consensus that those fine and necessary qualities exist now. The common hope is that those qualities will reveal themselves more fully, more clearly in time.
And it's that system that matters most. One of the reasons the San Antonio Spurs, the organization Ferry and Budenholzer hail from, have been so successful is because of continuity and time. A winning culture was developed.
The Hawks are in the infant stages of that process, but they've proven capable of playing the type of basketball that will yield plenty of wins down the line. The Hawks are attempting threes at a high rate (third in the league) and are sharing the basketball (third in total assists), which are two hallmarks of great offenses around the league.
Both Horford and Teague are a big part of that, much in the same way Tony Parker and Tim Duncan are for the Spurs. Horford can operate out of either post and pick a team apart with his passing and solid shooting from 15 feet, and Teague can use his speed to get into the paint and make defenses collapse.
Of course, Teague and Horford aren't nearly as good as Parker and Duncan, which naturally makes you wonder if they can be the building blocks for the future. Horford's troubling injuries certainly cast some doubt on that, and Teague's regression as a shooter this year is troubling.
Again, though, there are signs that this can work. Teague is still just 25 years old, and there are sneaky silver linings in his performance this season. Often functioning as the only player who can get his own shot, Teague has been placed in some rough spots this year late in the shot clock. Still, it should be considered a great sign that his free-throw attempts per game (4.8 this season) are nearly double his career average (2.5). He's becoming more aggressive even during a bad shooting year, as evidenced by the career-high usage rate (25.3) and points per game (16.3).
As for Horford? He was on his way to one of the best years of his career but only got to play in 29 games before being lost for the season. The Hawks were 16-13 before he went down and playing some nice ball, and Horford was putting up personal career highs in points per game (18.6), field-goal percentage (56.7) and PER (22).
Those are the numbers of a franchise big man, especially when you consider how solid Horford was cleaning the glass and serving as the lone rim protector in a totally new system with a new frontcourt partner in Paul Millsap.
Part of the reason why there should be optimism surrounding Horford's ability to lead the franchise going forward is because of the play of the other pieces next to him. Millsap made his first All-Star appearance this year. Kyle Korver posted a new personal best for true shooting percentage, a stat that he leads the league in. DeMarre Carroll has been a revelation as a high-energy forward.
How much has Atlanta's future outlook improved?
Point being, this system is getting the best out of multiple players, even if it's not providing the overall team results you might expect to accompany that. Injuries have a lot to do with it, of course, and it seems like the Hawks might be on the outside looking in as far as the playoffs go, as the New York Knicks currently have a hold on the No. 8 seed.
It would be wise to take a different tune if the Hawks didn't have any more avenues to improve and were saddled with bad deals, but the exact opposite is true. Time will be the biggest factor in the franchise's improvement, but it's important to note that the Hawks will have only $47 million in guaranteed salaries next year, a potential top-10 pick if they miss the playoffs, a trade chip in Lou Williams and his expiring deal, the right to swap picks with the Brooklyn Nets in 2015 and all of their own future draft selections.
Basically, there is flexibility and potential here that wasn't present in the past. Mediocrity is no longer the ceiling. And so even though it might not be apparent in the standings or appear all that different than years past, the Hawks already have started construction on building something meaningful around their core.