Rewrite the Past: In Fear of Loving the Atlanta Hawks

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Do you remember the moment you first fell in love?

With the Hawks, I mean. These Hawks, the ones that are riding a franchise-record 19-game winning streak. The ones that pen a new verse in their basketball fable on every possession. The ones that will bring three players to the NBA All-Star Game; the ones that inspired outrage on Twitter when a fourth1 wasn’t selected. The ones that, with 37 games to go at that point, were honored by the Georgia governor and his fellow lawmakers at the Statehouse, where players signed autographs for senators and ate doughnuts with hand-piped Pac-Man logo frosting. These Hawks — a celestial entity that glows without stars.

Maybe you don’t remember. The team isn’t defined by any one moment, anyway, just as it isn’t defined by any one player. The Hawks play with short-sighted urgency in a manner that will likely yield long-term rewards. Their passing exhibitions often blend into one another, and frankly, when the Hawks are at their best, you don’t notice them at all. Instead, what comes to view is the body language from the defense the moment players start losing sight of their target. You notice the arms that waver in defeat as a defender misses his rotation and watches a Hawk, any Hawk, launch a 3 from the corner. It’s exhausting for the opposition; for the uninitiated, it can be exhausting for the viewer, too.

Let’s talk about a moment, though.

In early January, Kyle Korver summoned every drop of his athleticism for what remains my favorite Hawks possession of the season. Korver sprints down the floor after stealing the ball from the Wizards in the third quarter, but his closing speed once he’s at the rim is no match for John Wall’s, who effortlessly catches up to him and steps into a chase-down block. Korver decelerates, and the second Wall shows his hand by going airborne, Korver whips the ball around Wall’s body and into the hands of DeMarre Carroll, who finishes the play with an easy lay-in. Speed, coordination, timing. The crowd erupts, and so does play-by-play announcer Bob Rathbun.

“How can you not love this team?!”

Great question. I felt cornered by it. It felt accusatory, only because, well, I didn’t love the Hawks. I still don’t. What’s the succinct, non-English word for maintaining a safe distance emotionally because you’re afraid that any relationship that forms is just going to end the same way the last one did? That’s kind of where I am right now. I’m still recovering from the last time this happened, the last time a team was so successfully divergent from the standard that it felt like a rebellion.

This happened two seasons ago.

It was a spectacular transition play, en route to a fifth straight Nuggets win, in a streak that would eventually swell to 15. Their improbable success (57-25, third-best record in the West)2 was the talk of the league. Everything the Hawks represent today, the Nuggets embodied then. Maybe you see the Hawks as a pseudo-socialist collective at the front lines of a war against the unfair, star-centric culture created by David Stern during the Magic-Bird boom. If that’s the case, then consider the Nuggets the sacrificial first wave of guerrilla insurgents.

“We believe in fast,” then–Nuggets coach George Karl explained. “We teach that. Run fast, score fast, play fast, sleep fast.” In many ways, the 2012-13 Nuggets were Karl’s ideal team. They lacked a true focal point on offense, but the torturous speed at which they played became the great equalizer on both ends of the floor. The Nuggets played at the highest pace in the league in 2013, but were only two-tenths of a point away from being rated a top-10 defense — extremely impressive considering the extra possessions created.3 They pressured, switched, and trapped relentlessly. Their blindsiding gang defense down on the block was a joy to behold, and might’ve represented the team’s vision at its clearest.

nuggetsGarrett W. Ellwood/NBAE via Getty Images

The Nuggets were a top-five offense despite being one of the worst 3-point-shooting teams in the league. To remedy this, Denver ran misdirection plays all around the court to ensure it’d get an easy look close to the basket. It was a pick-and-roll-oriented system, but with cutters probing the lanes for an opportunity, there was always the possibility that the pick-and-roll itself was the decoy. They called it “3-chest,” and it was a play as emblematic of their style as is the Hawks running a pin-down screen for a Korver 3.

These Hawks read like a second or third draft of those Nuggets. They’re refined, but the thesis remains the same: With collaboration and continuous motion, star power can be overcome by teamwork. There’s nothing new here. What’s fresh is the degree of execution. Time may have erased their forebears from collective memory, but you can still see faint traces of past ideas beneath. The Hawks are the top layer on the palimpsest of paradigm-shifting basketball.

More specifically, the Hawks read like a note-by-note correction of the Nuggets’ most obvious flaws. Instead of an almost singular insistence on scoring around the rim, the Hawks have an extremely diversified offense that takes advantage of their many 3-point shooters. Instead of breakneck speed, the Hawks play at exactly league-average pace. Instead of chaos, meticulous order.

As a result, there just hasn’t been much of an argument against the Hawks as a viable contender. Conversely, the skepticism surrounding Denver played a bigger role in their season narrative than the success. Not only were the Nuggets starless, but they also belonged to a lineage of uptempo teams that historically have not seen much winning in the last 25 years. The Nuggets fought to prove the validity of their team identity; when a team is consistently identified as “Spurs East,” validity is implied.

You probably know how this ends.

Denver Nuggets v Golden State WarriorsRocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

In mid-April 2013, the Colorado governor honored the Nuggets for their incredible run in the regular season. He didn’t offer doughnuts, but he did call for the Nuggets banner to fly over the state capitol for as long as they remained in the playoffs. The banner would come down after the second day in May. Denver lost handily to an upstart Golden State Warriors team that had speed and 3-point shooting.

If we want to look at what-if scenarios, the most obvious one would be the loss of Danilo Gallinari to an ACL tear only weeks before the playoffs. He and Chandler had been one of the league’s best tandems — having to replace Gallinari’s shooting ability with Corey Brewer’s wasn’t ideal. Today, only two seasons later, the Nuggets are a below-average NBA team that occasionally flirts with being one of the worst. Play fast, sleep fast, die fast, you might say.

So, what does this portend for the Hawks? Nothing. We aren’t looking at perfect symmetry here, only context that may point to what the Hawks will be up against in the coming months. Maybe the most ominous sign is that there isn’t an argument against the Hawks, at least one that goes beyond, “Who do they give the ball to at the end of a playoff game?”

The way Atlanta has talked about their success, you really do get a sense that they’re just out there playing basketball, taking it one play at a time. But this idea that most NBA observers have about stardom has sustained itself for so long that it’s essentially a truism. Whether the Hawks acknowledge it or not, that’s the biggest opposition the team faces. It can take this winning streak to historic levels, and there will still be cries of, OK, but playoffs. The Hawks could find themselves in some unforeseen shit-storm like last year’s Pacers, and the question would bear down even harder. We’ll catch something of a preview this week, as the Hawks face the Pelicans, Wizards, Warriors, and Grizzlies in consecutive games. They’re all can’t-miss, but none will move the needle for much longer than a news cycle. What happens between now and the end of April 15 is almost immaterial. Judgment Day is on the other side.

“You can’t have a burden winning,” Al Horford said in January.

Maybe that’s true in this case, and wouldn’t that be grand? But try telling that to the teams that have died on the altar upon which these Hawks are perched.

Filed Under: NBA, Atlanta Hawks, Kyle Korver, Al Horford, Denver Nuggets, George Karl, Danny Chau

Danny Chau is an assistant editor at Grantland.

Archive @ dannychau