Atlanta isn't merely the home to Ludacris, boiled peanuts and 100 intersecting streets named Peachtree. Now it's also a petri dish to determine if the championship hybrid developed by the San Antonio Spurs can grow somewhere other than the Alamo City.
If the experiment proves successful, it could overtake the more traditional three-star nucleus model that has long narrowed the field of teams truly capable of playing for a title.
A rough survey of NBA personnel attending last week's NBA D-League Showcase in Santa Cruz, California, resulted in a split decision as to whether the Hawks, currently atop the Eastern Conference by a comfortable margin, can replicate their regular-season success in the playoffs. The skeptics believe Atlanta's lack of size and a go-to scoring superstar will hurt it when the pace slows down, rotations shorten and games are decided by who executes the best on last-minute possessions, when the opponent has had days to prepare for every tendency. That's when having a player who can create a shot all by himself, or draw enough attention to create a shot for a less wily teammate, becomes paramount.
"Chicago, Toronto and Washington are all better built for the playoffs than Atlanta," said one Eastern Conference executive, "because they have size and at least one guy who can break you down."
The disciples contend that the Spurs already laid waste to the need for all that by winning a championship—and nearly winning two—that relied as much on Kawhi Leonard, Boris Diaw and Danny Green as it did Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, who have been a Big Three in name more than reality for the last several years. Today's NBA, with its zone defenses, profusion of three-point shooting and diminished physicality, is more akin to guerrilla warfare—flexibility and versatility at both ends of the floor being more important than a singular matchup or three.
"I would definitely think the model now is a team that plays stronger together than just having a couple of superstars," said one Western Conference scout. "The Spurs proved you can go all the way if you get enough guys who will buy into you telling them, 'This is all you have to do.' I hate to call Atlanta 'the Spurs of the East' but they do play the best team basketball outside of San Antonio. I'm buying (that they can win in the playoffs). They move and they play for each other."
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer and the GM he's standing in for, leave-of-absentee Danny Ferry, both developed their chops in the San Antonio organization. So did Thunder GM Sam Presti, who rightfully deserves credit for first eschewing the three-star model when he dealt James Harden rather than pay whatever was necessary to keep him hitched to Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. (That said, Presti's hand wasn't exactly free—Harden, sources say, already had made it clear internally that he wasn't going to be happy as a third wheel.)
The Atlanta structure is by necessity as well. Not hugely profitable nor a popular free-agent destination, the Hawks are an amalgam of players capable of playing multiple positions. They have 10 players averaging between 13 and 33.5 minutes. Their ages: 21 to 33, with half between 26 and 29. Their payroll, just under $60 million, is 26th in the league.
The Thunder roster is $20 million more expensive but operates off similar minute distribution, Serge Ibaka leading the way with 32.5 minutes a night. The Cavs' Kyrie Irving, Kevin Love and LeBron James, conversely, are all averaging 35 or more for a roster that costs more than $81 million.
But while the Thunder's title contention—when healthy—has lasted longer than even the best of the three-star models, the Miami Heat, they have only one fruitless trip to the Finals to show for it. Only the equally egalitarian 2004 Detroit Pistons and 2011 Dallas Mavericks have rings, and they were one-and-dones.
Imagine, though, if the Hawks and Spurs meet in the Finals, or even the Hawks and Golden State Warriors, another team whose star power has yet to be proved and has separated itself as much because of its depth and versatility as anything else. Maybe it won't kill the three-star model or discourage teams from building them, but it will extinguish the notion that only markets capable of getting multiple franchise players have any chance in June.
It'll also mean firing up a quality GPS. That "Peachtree" thing is no joke.
Around The League
• I wrote last week that Chicago Bulls big man Joakim Noah has privately expressed concerns about his left knee, surgically repaired last spring for torn cartilage, according to a source, while publicly saying it is coming along fine. Sources close to Noah insist the knee is improving and that the greater issue with his diminished statistics and struggle to defend his Defensive Player of the Year title has to do with having to spend more time away from the basket defensively, thanks to the addition of Pau Gasol. While Gasol has significantly boosted Chicago's offense, a case could be made that he is allowing more points than he is producing. Noah is so frustrated, one source said, that he'd welcome coming off the bench to play his normal center position rather than continue to defend stretch 4's and not be in position to quarterback the defense.
A simple solution would be for coach Tom Thibodeau to get everyone together, hear what they believe the solution to their problems is and adjust accordingly, but that is not Thibs' way. As a result, all the talk of the team's energy being sapped and losing faith in the system has certain merit. If the players have stopped listening to Thibs, one source close to the team said, it's because he has not been willing to listen to them.
• A former league executive gave an insightful reason why international players—and perhaps examples such as Brandon Jennings and Emmanuel Mudiay—are better served playing overseas than in the D-League: The high cost of traveling invariably prompts owners to send their higher-echelon executives to see those players, while scouts and lower-rung executives are more apt to get the Santa Cruz itinerary. Who the top decision-maker has seen live, or most often, can tip the scales when it comes to predraft skull sessions.
• Even those who believe the Hawks have what it takes to make a deep playoff run do so knowing that a go-to scorer who is an offensive matchup nightmare is an essential ingredient. Their top candidate for that on the Atlanta roster: forward Paul Millsap. "He's not a huge scorer, and he's not going to put you on his back, but he can put it on the floor, he can take bigger guys outside and take smaller guys down on the block," said one scout.
• One league source says the three-way deal that was to send Brook Lopez to Oklahoma City and Lance Stephenson to Brooklyn was never that close. "They didn't want [Kendrick] Perkins or Lance," the source said of the Nets. That doesn't mean a deal still couldn't be rekindled with other parts and trade partners. One wrinkle is that the Nets are still in contention for a playoff spot, which has GM Billy King reluctant to simply hold a fire sale. If that changes in coming weeks, it's far more likely King wouldn't hold out for talent and would accept future assets instead.
The other problem, one Western Conference GM said, is when reports make it painfully clear a player is on the market. "When these things become public, it lowers the player's value," he said. "Everyone is like, 'Oh, they want to move him, let's make a (lousy) offer.'"
One Question Interview
B/R asked Orlando Magic rookie point guard Elfrid Payton what he knows now that he didn't going into training camp:
"It's a point guard era right now. There's a different test every night. You have to play to your strengths, you have to have an identity as a team and you have to stick together. Teams are going to have runs on you, and you just have to weather them and stick with what you're doing. I've always had confidence in myself, but I know I have so much to learn. There are a lot of good guard combos in the league right now, but I think me and Vic [Oladipo] have a chance. We're not there yet, but we've shown a little bit of what we can do. Luke [Ridnour] has helped me a lot, too. Great person, great professional. Always ready, no matter when his number is called. He asks me what I see, and then he'll tell me what he sees."
Ridnour, who has served as a mentor for Jennings and Ricky Rubio in previous stops, says of Payton: "Mentally, he's way ahead of them all. Well, Rubio knew what was going on. What separates him is defensively he can really lock down. He's mature well beyond his years and a pure point guard."
A league scout breaks down what adding Jeff Green will mean for the Memphis Grizzlies:
"He's a great fit for them. You don't want to play small against them anymore. I saw [Green] play 10 minutes at power forward, and he did damage. With him at 4 and Vince Carter at 3, they can be dangerous. And when they play him, Vince Carter, Mike Conley and the two big guys (Zach Randolph and Marc Gasol), it could be a big problem, too. You can't double one of the bigs and leave any of those guys open on the perimeter. [Green] isn't quite the defender Tayshaun [Prince] was, but he's so much better offensively. He can cut, handle on pick-and-rolls, post up, and Gasol is such a good quarterback he'll find him when he's off the ball."
Ric Bucher covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter@RicBucher.