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 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:
|3PA||% of FGAs that are 3s||Corner 3s||% of 3s from Corner|
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.