CLEVELAND — If the Atlanta Hawks were a political campaign, they would be worried right now about the optics.
Their paid pollster would pore over a spreadsheet and sigh, while a team of strategic consultants shook their heads in dismay. "The optics," they would mutter. The optics look bad.
The ledger shows the Cleveland Cavaliers with three victories, and the Hawks with zero in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals. Team LeBron is poised for a landslide victory, and the pundits are ready to pounce. "It's still a superstars' league," they will sneer.
This is not how the Hawks' campaign of hope and change was supposed to end.
Atlanta set out to win on traditional basketball values, of selflessness and character, on a spread-the-wealth offense and a salt-of-the-earth defense. They ran a campaign of egalitarian ideals, believing that a group of solid, skilled players could prevail over the NBA's entrenched superstar paradigm.
In this grim 11th hour of the campaign, they still believe.
"Still confident in it," Hawks guard Jeff Teague said Monday. "No matter what happens, still going to be confident in it. We believe in our team. We believe in the guys that we have. We feel like we can do something special, whether it be this year, next year or whatever. We're going to stick to this."
The Hawks will try to stave off elimination here Tuesday night and send the series back to Atlanta, but they know the end is near. No NBA team has ever won a series after losing the first three games, and these Hawks are unlikely to be the first.
But they find themselves emboldened by the campaign—and all the more certain that, given another year together, this unconventional model can contend for a championship.
Bad optics aside, the Hawks have every reason to still believe.
They did win 60 games this season, the second-best record in the NBA.
They were dubbed Spurs East—by LeBron himself—for their pass-happy team play and stout defense.
They made the conference finals, without a single transcendent player.
It would be a mistake to simplistically view this series as a referendum on the No Stars Model.
"They're here," said ESPN analyst Jon Barry. "They're in the Eastern final. And this team hasn't played anywhere near the type of level of basketball that we saw when they won 33 of 35 [in the regular season], when they were beating elite teams in the West. They were smoking everybody."
Barry added, "No, I don't think you have to have that one, dominant, go-to superstar player to win. I don't."
Yes, the Hawks' run will ultimately have been cut short by LeBron James, the greatest player in the game, and that will be how the public remembers this series. So much else was in play here, however.
The Hawks were built on the notion of five very good players—backed by a deep bench—working in harmony, and events threw that model into disarray before it had a chance.
DeMarre Carroll has not been the same since badly injuring his left knee in Game 1, robbing the Hawks of their best defender against James. (Thabo Sefolosha, their next-best perimeter defender, was lost to a broken leg before the postseason began.) Kyle Korver suffered a season-ending ankle injury in Game 2, robbing the Hawks of their best shooter. Teague, Paul Millsap and Al Horford have all struggled with less publicized injuries throughout the playoffs.
The most serious of those is Millsap's sprained right shoulder, which caused him to miss five games in early April and has never fully healed. There are whispers that it might require surgery after the season.
Every team has injuries at this time of year, and the Hawks will get no sympathy from their current opponent. The Cavs lost All-Star forward Kevin Love in the first round, while Kyrie Irving has hardly played in this series because of knee troubles. But LeBron is the ultimate equalizer, able to turn even a battered roster into a contender. That's what superstars do.
The Hawks, built as they are without a transcendent individual scorer, have less room for error. Their greatness depends on having all five starters in sync, and a vibrant bench behind them. They are the proverbial sweater with the loose thread—pull it, and the entire sleeve begins to unravel.
"It's a team sport," Teague said. "Basketball is played with five guys on the court. We feel like we have really good players at all five positions."
In truth, the Hawks' slide began late in the regular season, after they clinched the East's top record and went into cruise control. Their passing stats and their offensive efficiency have both declined in the postseason.
Despite everything, the Hawks nearly pulled out a season-saving victory here in Game 3, taking the Cavaliers into overtime with a more spirited effort than they put forth in the first two games. And they might have won Sunday had Horford not been ejected on a controversial flagrant foul call in the first half.
Would a fully healthy Hawks team have beaten a fully healthy Cavaliers team? We'll never know. But the Hawks are unbowed.
"There's no doubt, the way that we've built the team, with a lot of really good players, a lot of high-character guys, we feel like we can compete and play with anybody in the league," coach Mike Budenholzer said, adding, "This is the way we're built, we believe in it, we think we can win at a high level and we'll continue to do that."
As such, you can expect the Hawks to do everything possible to keep this group together this summer. That means re-signing Carroll and Millsap, who will both be coveted free agents. Carroll, a bargain at $2.4 million this season, could command $9-12 million a year on the open market, according to rival executives. Millsap, who made $9.5 million this season, might command $16 million or more.
Depending on how it all unfolds, the Hawks could have the flexibility to add a $10 million player before using Bird rights to re-sign Carroll and Millsap, although market pressures could disrupt that.
Atlanta also has the 15th pick in the June draft, via Brooklyn, thanks to the Joe Johnson trade.
Hawks officials remain committed to this non-superstar model, what they call the "middle build," and in this core group, most of whom are still in their mid-prime. As much as the Hawks, like any team, would love to snare a Kevin Durant type, they will not be, as one team official put it, "chasing ghosts" in the name of making a splash.
They are committed to this model, and they should be. Transcendent players are in short supply, and rarely available. The draft lottery is a crapshoot. Waiting around with cap room for Durant to come is not a sustainable model.
"Unless you have a top-five player, you have to go the Atlanta way, and pray that you stay healthy," said a rival executive. "Unless you have LeBron, [Steph] Curry or [James] Harden, go the 50-, 55-win approach, and hope you catch lightning in a bottle with health."
By late Tuesday night, or later this week, the Hawks' season will likely be over. But the dream is alive. The template is there. The Hawks are the inspiration for every star-less team and every small-market franchise. The campaign of hope and change isn't over. It just needs a little fine-tuning before the next election cycle.
Howard Beck covers the NBA for Bleacher Report and is a co-host of NBA Sunday Tip, 9-11 a.m. ET on SiriusXM Bleacher Report Radio. Follow him on Twitter, @HowardBeck.