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Atlanta Hawks Leaving No Doubt About Their Place Among NBA's Elite

Grant Hughes@@gt_hughesNational NBA Featured ColumnistJanuary 19, 2015

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When did the last of your misgivings about the Atlanta Hawks' status as conference-devouring monsters desert you?

Was it when they won 14 of their first 20 games?

Was it when Al Horford shook off his quietly pedestrian start to find his under-the-radar superstar groove?

Was it when Kyle Korver hit seven threes in Atlanta's 12th straight win?

Was it when you looked directly at Korver's season shot chart, which is basically like staring at a solar eclipse?

NBA.com/Stats @nbastats

Korver's season shot chart: 51.5% FG% from the field, 53.6% from 3. Not shown here? His 92.0% FT% @ATLHawks http://t.co/PWZb1chAxq

Was it when you peeked at the stats and realized the Hawks rate frighteningly high in such a wide variety of critical categories?

Atlanta's Statistical Sweetness
ORtg (Rank)DRtg (Rank)Net Rtg (Rank)Winning Percentage (Rank)Assist Rate (Rank)
107 (5)99.8 (5)+7.2 (2).805 (2)19.7 (T-1)
NBA.com

Maybe you were one of those rare types who pegged Atlanta for great things before the season. If so, kudos to you. But let's not pretend anybody—anybody—saw this level of dominance coming. The Hawks have had to prove themselves throughout the first half of the 2014-15 campaign, shedding skeptics with every pristine extra pass and strung-together defensive rotation.

And as they win over whatever straggling doubters remain, they're doing something more than solidifying their position atop the East. They're waking us up to a bigger idea—one that's refreshing, yet oddly familiar.

They're reminding us that systems matter just as much as stars and that, in some cases, systems can make stars.

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Four of them, to be precise.

Paul Millsap used to be a dirty-work specialist whose developing three-point range made him intriguing. But he ended up in Atlanta on a two-year deal worth only $19 million in 2013. Now, his team-leading real plus-minus of 5.02 ranks 11th in the NBA, per ESPN.com.

CHICAGO, IL - JANUARY 17:  Paul Millsap #4 of the Atlanta Hawks shoots against Pau Gasol #16 of the Chicago Bulls during the NBA game on January 17, 2015 at the United Center in Chicago, Illinois. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that,
Randy Belice/Getty Images

Jeff Teague used to be a nice prospect with potential. But nobody truly believed he'd lift himself out of the crowded second tier of NBA point guards. He has, with a player-efficiency rating of 23.1 that ranks 10th in the league, per Basketball-Reference.com.

Korver used to be a specialist. Now, he's just special—on pace to shatter volume and efficiency numbers from long range. If he keeps doing what he's doing, he'll become the only player in NBA history to make at least two triples per game while shooting better than 50 percent from the field and beyond the arc.

Horford was a star, but nobody knew. Ironically, in one of his worst statistical seasons, we're finally seeing celebratory pieces written about just how valuable he is.

Those four players each deserve All-Star nods, opined CBSSports.com's Zach Harper:

Two All-Stars for the Hawks seems to be a lock, and the conversation of three is certainly to be had. But the East coaches granting them four All-Stars isn't out of the question, nor should it be dismissed. Teague and Millsap have earned this, and I believe Horford and Korver should as well. They're All-Stars at their positions and in their roles. They're doing it on a team that has the best record in the East and has been unstoppable since Thanksgiving. And it's in a conference that hasn't warranted much positive discussion outside of what Atlanta has done for two months.

The roster, especially the Hawks' Big Four, has earned a mountain of credit for what's happened this season. But it's hard to imagine things would be this good without head coach Mike Budenholzer and his system.

"It's just fun basketball," Korver told reporters after completing a back-to-back set of wins over the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls in mid-January. "To me, it's the best kind of basketball. I think a lot of the guys feel that way too."

Just watch a possession or two, and you'll see the ball hopping.

Or, scope out the assist rate in the charted stats up above. The same thing that makes the Hawks fun makes them function. They rank second in the league in assist opportunities per game, points created by assists per game and secondary assists per game, according to SportVU data provided to NBA.com.

Put simply, the Hawks operate as a collective, moving the rock from one member to another until the best shot materializes. Nobody seems to care who shoots.

It's now obligatory to mention that's how the San Antonio Spurs have played for years—and Budenholzer, a longtime Spurs assistant, has brought those principles with him to Atlanta. If this keeps up, Budenholzer might earn some hardware of his own, too:

Sean Highkin @highkin

I got a LOT of preseason predictions wrong but I'm riding with Mike Budenholzer as Coach of the Year.

It sounds highfalutin, idealistic, even preachy when we talk about what the Hawks' unselfish system means. But with the Golden State Warriors employing a similarly pass-happy approach with similarly great results, and with the Detroit Pistons losing a star but gaining direction...well, it's at least worth discussing how the Hawks' style points to larger ideas about how basketball should be played.

Steve Aschburner @AschNBA

Beating All-Stars > being All-Stars? Korver: "I love it when the best team beats the best players. That was The Finals last year to me…"

Those ideas only appear stronger when contrasted with the way star-driven squads in Cleveland, Chicago and even Toronto look vulnerable and unstable by comparison.

Besides, we have to turn to high-minded talk with this Atlanta team because the day-to-day stuff is done. The Hawks have nothing left to prove, and with a homestand that will stretch from Jan. 19 through the end of the month, we could be in for a winning streak that reaches 19 games and makes the mundane conversations even less useful.

The Hawks' 33-8 record marks them as elite. Their style and stats support the notion. If you're somehow still harboring reservations about Atlanta's qualifications as a contender, maybe you'll just have to wait until they show up in the Finals.

  

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