The Hawks Way: Players' makeup as key as execution in motion offense
ATLANTA -- There's a defining organizational philosophy among the city of Atlanta's professional teams: The Braves Way. It's a culture that wrought a championship and a litany of division titles.
So why not The Hawks Way?
Coach Mike Budenholzer smiled when recently asked about the challenge in this modern game, of getting players to buy into the selfless nature that's of the utmost importance in his motion offense.
But for this franchise, it's their foundation and their philosophy.
"I think it's something that if everybody does it, then everybody starts to understand that they all benefit from it," Budenholzer said.
Atlanta heads into Friday's matchup with the Pistons ranking third in the NBA in assists per game at 24.8 this season, with only the Celtics (27) and Warriors (25.5) posting better numbers.
When combined with last year, Budenholzer's first season at the helm, the Hawks are tied for first at 24.9 per game. The only team that can match that level of distribution is the one with whom the coach's motion offense ways were forged, the defending champion Spurs.
"That's our thing, moving the ball around and getting a ton of assists," said power forward Mike Scott. "We share it and guys make shots, so we get a lot of assists."
It's resulted in point guard Jeff Teague ranking seventh in the league at 7.0 per game, and overall the Hawks join the Magic as one of only two teams with six players averaging 2.6 assists or more, with Kyle Korver (3.0), Paul Millsap (3.0), Dennis Schroder (2.8), Shelvin Mack (2.7) and Al Horford (2.60). Thabo Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll have factored in too at 1.7 and 1.5 per game, respectively.
The balanced scoring it promotes has an NBA-best six players delivering at least 12.0 points or more -- Millsap leads with 18 per, followed by Teague (15.8), Horford (13.8), Korver (13.7) and Carroll and John Jenkins at 12.0 each -- which is two more than any other Southeast Division team.
Budenholzer's system gets results, but it's based more than anything else on one critical factor: you have to check your ego at the door.
For players who were the best on their teams at the high school and college levels, learning to defer to others isn't always a natural mindset.
"It's a little difficult," said Millsap. "But when you know you're playing for a goal ... I think the Hawks have done a great job of getting guys in here with the mentality of wanting to win, and when you have those types of guys, it's easier to do it."
Millsap was among the players the Hawks brought in before Budenholzer's first season, and this past summer, they added another player who is thriving in the system in Sefolosha.
The shooting guard had spent the previous 5 1/2 seasons with the Thunder, where there were two defined scoring weapons: All-Stars Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. Sefolosha's numbers reflected that offensive mindset as he went from 7.6 shot attempts in 2008-09, his first year in Oklahoma City, to 5.6 in his last.
The Hawks' scheme presented a return to Sefolosha's roots, with the Switzerland native saying it's "actually refreshing" to be in an environment more like the one he was accustomed to in stops at Tege Riviera Basket (Switzerland), Elan Chalon (France) and Angelico Biella (Italy) before entering the NBA in 2006 with the Bulls.
"That's the type of basketball I grew up playing coming from Europe," he said. "It's a lot closer to what I was used to -- and it's been fun. The guys are great and everybody is walking me through it, welcoming into the team with open arms. So I've been feeling great on and off the court."
Primarily used off the bench early on, Sefolosha stepped up with Carroll out with a groin injury, averaging 10.5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 1.5 assists in starting the last four games.
One of those starts was in arguably the Hawks' most complete performance under Budenholzer, as they racked up a season-high 33 assists and had eight players score in double figures in last week's 114-103 win over the Heat.
While Atlanta produced higher assist totals under Budenholzer last season -- they had 38 (Dec. 18 vs. the Spurs) once, two games with 36 (Nov. 9, 2013 against the Magic and Jan. 31 vs. the Sixers), one with 35 (April 4 against the Cavaliers) and one with 34 (Dec. 16 against the Lakers) -- they've never done so with as many players in double-digits in scoring as they had against Miami.
"I think the way that we play and the way we share the ball, it could be anybody one night might have a big night," Budenholzer said. "Some nights it might be balanced. I think in a perfect world, we're making good reads and good decisions and we're sharing the ball and whoever is open is getting it and they're taking advantage of their opportunities. I think the balance is something that's great and we'll take it."
While Budenholzer has laid the groundwork, he doesn't feel he should be the one taking credit for helping players understand the bigger rewards of passing up on a shot if it means setting a teammate up for a better one.
"It doesn't come easily but that's part of having a group that has been in the league for a little bit longer and has a good amount of experience," he said. "The more guys are in the league they learn that playing together they can accomplish something more than they do individually."