Amid Gathering of Superstars, Hawks Showing NBA They Don't Need One to Win

Howard BeckNBA Senior WriterFebruary 15, 2015

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NEW YORK — LeBron James was taking questions Friday. If you could get to him.

The Cavaliers star was sealed off behind a frantic mob of reporters and cameras, a tangle of outstretched arms, bumping elbows, iPods on selfie sticks, dangling microphones and stationary floodlights. The pack was 120 strong and five rows deep.

Jeff Teague was also available Friday. To reach him, you had to walk up to his podium and say hello.

The banners behind both men said "All-Star." But not all NBA stars are created equally or move us the same way. 

NEW YORK - FEBRUARY 13:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers during media availability at 2015 NBA All Star Weekend on February 13, 2015 in New York. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and/or using this photo
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Four Atlanta Hawks, including Teague, made the All-Star roster, the most of any team this year. James drew a larger crowd than all four combined.

When it comes to talent and flash and magnetism, LeBron eclipses all. And when it comes to the championship race, he leads the field in expectations, too.

Even with a quartet of All-Stars, the East's best record, a top-five offense and a steely defense, the Hawks project as virtual underdogs this season. Vegas favors the Cavs to win the East, though LeBron's team is 10.5 games behind Teague's at the All-Star break.

The Hawks are underestimated, underappreciated, the underdog's underdog. But they are also something more: a contrarian's dream, a symbol of hope.

The NBA has been forever ruled by superstars—Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Isiah Thomas, Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Tim Duncan, Dwyane Wade, LeBron James. Nearly every NBA champion has had a Hall of Fame anchor (or likely Hall of Famer), or two, or three.

No superstars, no titles. That's the general rule. That's the model these Hawks—a happy, spirited crew of passers and shooters and defenders—must defy. They are blessed with multiple stars, but no singular, all-time talent. There's no LeBron, no Kobe, no Michael.

So, the skepticism lingers. But in the far corner of the room Friday, one stout soul proclaimed his belief.

Yes, he said, the Hawks can win it all.

Jan 23, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague (0) and forward Paul Millsap (4) react late in the game as the Hawks win their team record 15th consecutive game against the Oklahoma City Thunder at Philips Arena. The Hawks defeated the Thu
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"You've seen it happen before," Chauncey Billups said.

Eleven years ago, the Detroit Pistons took the title, with an underestimated, unflashy group of selfless stars, led by the well-traveled Billups.

Only one starter, defensive ace Ben Wallace, made the All-Star team that season. Yet the Pistons crushed the Los Angeles Lakers and their four megastars: Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O'Neal, Karl Malone and Gary Payton.

It was an unusual upset of the NBA establishment, a rare triumph for the underdog.

Of the 30 champions crowned in the salary-cap era, the 2004 Pistons are the only one without a certain Hall of Famer. Only Billups even has a shot, and he hardly fits the conventional image of the NBA superstar.

Nothing about that Detroit team was conventional.

Those Pistons did not have a single player average 20 points, but they had four players between 10 (Tayshaun Prince) and 16.9 (Billups), and they played a consummate team game.

These Hawks also lack a 20-point scorer, but have five players averaging between 12 points (DeMarre Carroll) and 17 points (Teague), and they do it while playing a consummate team game.

"They remind me very much of our teams," said Billups, whose Pistons made the Eastern Conference finals six years in a row.

They almost repeated as champions, too, but fell to the San Antonio Spurs, a team built on three Hall of Fame talents: Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Tony Parker. The old NBA order was restored and has not been upended since.

That's why these Hawks matter now. They represent the best hope for every team and every fanbase not blessed with an otherworldly talent.

We toss around labels like "star" and "great" without thinking much of it, but at any given time, there are only a handful of transcendent talents in the NBA. There are only 10 or 15 true difference-makers, the kind of players you can build a contender around. And some, like Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, are on the same roster.

WASHINGTON - JANUARY 31: Chauncey Billups (R) of the Detroit Pistons presents President Bush with a team jersey while visiting the White House January 31, 2005 in Washington, D.C. President Bush hosted the Pistons to honor their 2004 NBA Championship. NOT
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Everyone else is desperately searching, hoping to find a franchise star in the draft, or to steal one in free agency. And some are working to create an alternate model. The Hawks call it the "middle build"—a strategy initiated by general manager Danny Ferry and his management team when they arrived in 2012.

They began unloading high-priced players, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams, using the salary-cap room to construct a more balanced lineup.

"You can build around one (superstar), or you can choose to rebuild, to try to acquire one," said assistant GM Wes Wilcox, a Ferry protege. "We felt we had some good players, that maybe we have an opportunity to continue to add to those good players, and just build out the group—what we kind of deemed as our 'middle build' philosophy. And in that, just try to identify good players, who are really good people, who are highly skilled, who play with great unselfishness, who possess a high level of intelligence, who are naturally competitive, and get as many of those type of guys as we could. And then add the element of great coaching and incredible organizational support."

The coaching element fell into place in 2013, when Ferry hired Mike Budenholzer, who spent his career learning under the Spurs' Gregg Popovich. The Hawks made several other key moves that offseason, re-signing Teague and Kyle Korver, signing Paul Millsap and Carroll and drafting Dennis Schroder.

To be clear, the Hawks never dismissed the superstar model. At various points, they chased Chris Paul and Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony. But they charted parallel paths, knowing that superstars rarely move.

Ferry is in limbo now, on leave since last summer for reading a racially insensitive scouting report on an internal conference call. But these Hawks are an embodiment of that "middle build" vision.

Teague and his All-Star teammates, Al Horford, Millsap and Korver, are very different players with very similar character traits.

Feb 4, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague (0) reacts to a play by forward Paul Millsap (4) in the fourth quarter of their game against the Washington Wizards at Philips Arena. Hawks won 105-96. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY S
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"Nobody has an ego," Teague said. "Just good character guys. Guys who bought into the system Coach Bud implemented."

He added, "Paul Millsap can easily average 22 points a game if he wanted to, but he sacrifices for the team so we can be a good team. And it works for us."

Indeed, we might view the Hawks stars differently if they shot as often as some of the NBA’s more celebrated players.

Millsap averages 16.8 points, but he’s taking just 12.4 shots per game. If Millsap shot as often as Carmelo Anthony (20.2 attempts per game), he would likely hit the 22-point average Teague mentioned, based on Millsap’s efficiency and his three-point range. The same goes for Teague and Horford, who average just 12.7 shots per game each.

"It's kind of in their heart, in their guts, that they play unselfishly," Budenholzer said. "They care about each other, they compete. They do all of the things that go into having good chemistry."

Consider: Six Hawks average at least 2.7 assists per game.

"They almost overshare the ball," Billups said. "And sharing the ball and moving the ball around and everybody touching it provokes enthusiasm on defense," a formula that "will let you win in the playoffs."

Skeptics wonder who will score for the Hawks in crunch time, in a tight fourth quarter of a critical playoff game—the kind of situations when superstars take control. Atlanta has a simple answer: That's what's great about our team. You have no idea who that will be, and neither does the opposing defense.

Unpredictability is the Hawks' go-to option.

Billups, who now works as an ESPN analyst, is pulling for them.

Oct 29, 2014; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer talks to guard Jeff Teague (0) during a break in the action against Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre. Toronto defeated Atlanta 109-102. Mandatory Credit: John E. Sokolo
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"I do, because I think that we don't celebrate teams like that enough," he said. "We undervalue their talent, because they don’t have a super-duperstar. But yet they still find a way to get it done."

Tellingly, none of the Hawks won the All-Star fan vote. Teague, Horford and Millsap made it as reserves, by a vote of the coaches. Korver was chosen by the commissioner, as an injury replacement for Dwyane Wade—recognition not only of his stellar shooting but the Hawks' team play.

The Pistons were similarly underrated, receiving most of their honors only after they had won the title.

"Our team, the Detroit team, was recognized as an All-Star team, not All-Star individuals," said John Hammond, the former Pistons executive who is now with the Milwaukee Bucks.

Just as Ferry set the table for this Hawks team, Pistons president Joe Dumars "did a remarkable job of putting a team together that fit, had chemistry, played with each other and for each other," Hammond said, "and turned it into a championship team."

The Hawks know what they are up against. The Cavaliers are stocked with elite players, led by James, accompanied Kyrie Irving and rounded out by Kevin Love. The Chicago Bulls have Derrick Rose, Pau Gasol, Jimmy Butler and Joakim Noah.

But the Hawks' front office has studied the 2004 Pistons and everything that made them great—the stifling defense, the unselfish play, traits "that we've tried to emulate," Wilcox said.

The alternate model doesn't have to be invented. It's already there, waiting to be replicated.

"We just going to do it our way," Teague said. "So hopefully, things can work out, and when we do get to the championship, or if we do win it, then y'all guys can talk about us. You can take the Hawks blueprint."

 

Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.