NBA Today: With new coach and approach, Hawks no angry birds
CLEVELAND — You might say the Atlanta Hawks don’t have any fans.
Or maybe you insist they’re not really going anywhere.
You’re missing the point, and don’t even try to pretend you’re paying attention.
These aren’t the same old Hawks.
Are they going to win a championship this season? Not likely.
Can they still offer their supporters tons of fun? Oh, you’d better believe it.
The Hawks (16-13) currently sport the third-best record in the Eastern Conference. Granted, that’s like saying you just trounced your 7-year old nephew in a game of checkers.
The East is, after all, basketball’s version of a slapstick comedy. It exceeds the boundaries of common sense.
But that’s not the Hawks’ fault. On most nights, they make the most of what they’ve got. On most nights, they share the basketball, find the open man and give opponents all they can handle simply by playing, as coaches love to say, "the right way."
And let us begin with new coach Mike Budenholzer.
He spent nearly 20 years with the San Antonio Spurs, including 17 as an assistant. He has the Hawks playing the Spurs’ way.
The Hawks are heady. They’re unselfish. They don’t beat themselves.
Entering Thursday’s 127-125 double-overtime thriller of a win at Cleveland, the Hawks led the NBA in assists at 27.5 per game. Then they passed for 33 against the Cavs.
The Hawks aren’t going to rule the sports talk airwaves with big names such as Kobe Bryant, LeBron James or Carmelo Anthony. They aren’t going to grab gossip-site headlines with a bunch of needless drama and lame excuses.
Instead, their best player is probably center Al Horford. Or maybe it’s point guard Jeff Teague. Power forward Paul Millsap and shooting sensation Kyle Korver are up there, too.
Will any make the All-Star team? Well, good question. Horford is one guy who’s playing like he at least deserves consideration — but knowing today’s marketing-marinated NBA, consideration may be all he gets.
If so, the Hawks don’t seem all caught up in that stuff, anyway.
At least, general manager Danny Ferry sure doesn’t. In his two years as GM, Ferry traded shooting guard Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets and allowed forward Josh Smith to be signed away by the Detroit Pistons. Both were All-Star types in Atlanta.
Now? It’s just a bunch of guys who play hard and rarely force a thing. Ferry may not be considered a genius for his offseason efforts, but the man is no slouch, either. It’s starting to look like he’s quickly put together a team in the truest sense of the word.
That’s what is known as "building a culture."
As Korver said, "It’s good when you have that guy. But I think we’re just growing as a team."
The Hawks went through a bit of a rough stretch in late November. They lost three straight (to Boston, Orlando and Houston) by a combined 53 points. But they’ve been right there in most of their defeats. The Spurs beat them by two at San Antonio. The Heat beat them by two (in overtime) at Miami.
Two nights after the Heat loss, the Hawks beat the Cavs on a last-second shot by Teague. Has their season been magical? Maybe not. But without a doubt, there have been some magical moments.
NBA buzz usually centers on the Heat, the two teams in New York or those other two in LA. Lots of folks prefer to pretend Atlanta is just kind of there, just sort of hanging out in basketball’s No Man’s Land.
That’s OK. Plenty of organizations and fans would appreciate the early-season relevancy displayed by the Hawks.
Critics say the Hawks won’t make it past the second round of the playoffs. Well, so what?
The regular season is 82 games. That’s a long time to watch a team. Would you rather watch it be a comedy of errors and underachievement, or play hard and smart and get the most out of what’s on the roster?
The Hawks sure aren’t complaining. They’re just going about their business, giving lots of effort and irritating everyone who said they wouldn’t be any good.
Most of the time, that’s the next best thing to winning a title.
So don’t blow off the Hawks. Or go ahead.