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The Hawks Can Fly, But When Will They Soar?

Don’t feel bad for the Hawks. Their non-superstar-based system may have come up short this season, but if they can keep the pieces together, a deep playoff run is in the 2015-16 cards.

The Atlanta Hawks never sought to stand for something. They are not hippie idealists, assaulting the big, bad conventional wisdom that says you need a top-10 player to win a championship. There was no powwow in which Atlanta officials declared, “We shall beat the superstar with our glorious system.”

“I think we’re just tired of hearing about that,” a hoarse and weary Mike Budenholzer told Grantland this week. “Everybody would like a superstar, but I definitely think you can win the way we are doing it.”

Almost a decade before Budenholzer and Danny Ferry turned the Hawks into this season’s best NBA story, Atlanta spent three straight top-five picks on Marvin Williams, Shelden Williams, and Al Horford. They bottomed out for three chances at a foundational superstar, and they whiffed twice before landing Horford — a fantastic two-way player who can’t quite guarantee you buckets when everything else stalls out.

Once Ferry dumped Joe Johnson on the overeager Nets, Atlanta spent summers dangling max cap space in front of any superstar who might at least acknowledge an NBA team existed there, including Dwight Howard, Carmelo Anthony, LeBron James, and Chris Paul — the point guard Atlanta passed up in 2005 to gamble on Marvin Williams, a sixth man in college. Nobody gave them a real hearing.

There was nothing left to do but become a basketball team. “If we got one of the top five or eight players in the world, that would be awesome,” Kyle Korver told Grantland during a sit-down this week in New York. “But it’s not our job to think like that. We don’t have LeBron, so we have to keep trying to figure out ways to beat him.”

And that, right there, is why the Hawks accidentally stood for something — even if that something was in no way revolutionary. Basketball diehards — fans, media, team employees — pour their life into this league. If all that matters is having one of the 10 best players, then what are we all doing? What’s the point of running through 82 games in Charlotte and Orlando when you could just hold a tournament between the teams featuring LeBron, Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, Stephen Curry, James Harden, Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook, and whoever else you might put in their class?

“Are you just supposed to accept you’re not gonna win the championship just because you don’t have one of the best players in the world on your team?” Korver asks. “Why are we even playing, then?”

That’s not just a rhetorical question for the Hawks. The NBA just lived through a season in which three big-market teams (Sixers, Knicks, Lakers) plunged down the standings to increase their odds of drafting a star. This is why Rockets GM Daryl Morey took the rare step of publicly suggesting it would be good for the league if the Hawks made the Finals. The NBA badly needs the middle way to work. A league is not healthy if it consists of only three types of teams: contenders with superstars, teams losing on purpose to get superstars, and a bunch of cute little hamster-jogging-in-wheel teams killing time before venturing onto one of the other two paths.

The Hawks are not unique in cobbling together some championship equity while working in that third group. The Pacers came within a game, and maybe one faulty Roy Hibbert substitution, from making the Finals. Paul George, at his apex, is kind of like a wing version of Horford — a splendid all-around player who ranks among the league’s dozen best on his good days, but not someone who can carry an offense on his own. Without that sort of special player, you have to carve out a collective identity to shrink the superstar gap. Indiana leaned on bruising post play and the league’s best defense.

Memphis did the same thing in the West, with a Horfordian center in Marc Gasol emerging as the best all-around player on a deep and ferocious team. Memphis is still pushing, but it also hasn’t had enough consistent scoring to slog through three straight playoff series. Indiana’s mysterious collapse last season amid chemistry issues is a useful analogue for the Hawks: If you bank everything on the whole being bigger than the sum of its parts, with no fallback plan, one kink in the system can undo everything. Chemistry is fragile and ephemeral. The Hawks still don’t quite understand what happened to their team, and especially their offense, but the machine started wheezing at the wrong time.

“The last part of the season, when we had such a big lead in the standings, I felt like there was some slippage in our habits,” Korver says. “We are not a team that can turn it off and on. The teams who have those superstars — those amazing individual talents — maybe they can turn it off and on. But a team that relies on rhythm and chemistry — we have to keep our edge every night.”

Now, there is a long offseason of searching for answers ahead.

“I can’t put my finger on it just yet,” Budenholzer says. “But we’re going to look at everything, and we’re going to be very critical.”

The Grizzlies got as far as the conference finals, in 2013, before Budenholzer’s old team swept them away in a series that included two overtime games. But the Hawks acknowledge they’re not yet at that level, and that acknowledgment surrounds the central question they face: Are they close enough to the Spurs model to make a run to the Finals from the East, or is their current group hopelessly behind in overall talent?

The Spurs in 2013 and 2014 might not have had a top-10 player, but Tim Duncan and Tony Parker in those seasons were closer to that discussion than the current versions of Horford and Jeff Teague. Kawhi Leonard is better than any Atlanta wing, and the gap in bench talent is enormous — even assuming a full return to health for Thabo Sefolosha.

The Hawks won’t ever be as good as the 2014 Spurs, but they should approach this offseason with a confidence that what they are building could lead to something greater than a conference finals loss. You can frame this season as a failure if you want — as a reaffirmation that the half-dozen best individual talents can beat a cute team that doesn’t have one. The Hawks won’t do that, and they shouldn’t.

They are on to something, and if they upgrade in the right ways, they could absolutely push for the Finals next season. How many foundational superstars are there, really? How many players could do what LeBron has done in carrying a mediocre supporting cast to the Finals — even in the East? We know by now that Carmelo Anthony can’t. Kevin Love can’t. Blake Griffin and Chris Paul can’t. The Heat, with two All-Stars, fell into the abyss without James. There might be three players on earth who can do what James just did: LeBron, Kevin Durant, and, in a year or two, Anthony Davis. And even Durant hasn’t gotten through two rounds without his costar.

The Hawks won 60 games, they could have won 65, and they obliterated the Western Conference when they were rolling in the winter. Sure, it’s only the regular season, but you don’t go on runs like that if you don’t have something that really works — something that confounds opponents.

Grudgingly, the Hawks admit that the playoffs are a different animal, and that dialed-in defenses gummed up a system that had run so freely in January. They schemed for Korver, who couldn’t find nearly as many open shots. “It’s just harder in the playoffs,” Korver says. “Teams take stuff away. But that’s part of our growth — that understanding that if they take something away, other opportunities open up.”

“You have to get beat down a couple of times before you get to the top,” Korver says. “This was one of those moments for us.”

The Cavaliers were the first team to really dare Atlanta to beat them with jump shots — a brilliant move from David Blatt, who rarely gets any credit for anything. They ducked under screens on Teague pick-and-rolls, walling off his penetration and allowing their own big men to stick with Horford and Paul Millsap instead of sliding over to help. Horford and Millsap tore apart defenses on free rolls to the rim when teams trapped Teague, but that option suddenly evaporated against Cleveland.

The Cavs even gave Millsap pick-and-pop 3s.

CLEDROPATL

Millsap was reluctant to launch until Game 4, and though a shoulder injury had something to do with that, he has always passed up a bunch of open 3s in order to drive toward the rim.

These are real holes, and the Hawks will have to correct them. Teague has improved his midrange shot, but he doesn’t enjoy taking them and still topped out around 40 percent on long 2s — a mark that doesn’t quite scare defenses. Parker turned his midrange jumper into a 45 percent weapon, and Teague will have to do the same.

“Jeff is going to have to make teams pay,” Budenholzer says. “He needs to work and get better.”

Millsap has a brilliant floor game, but there will be times when he just has to jack the 3s that teams give him.

These kinds of internal improvements are the first step toward finding another postseason gear. For all the hand-wringing about the Hawks’ decline on offense, this team still produced a ton of open shots in the playoffs. About 52 percent of their shots were either “open” or “wide open” in the regular season, the best mark in the league, and that share fell to only 49 percent in the playoffs, per SportVU data1 — a difference of maybe two or three shots per night.


1.

The NBA classifies “open shots” as shots where the closest defender is between 4 and 6 feet from the shooter. “Wide open” shots come with at least 6 feet of distance between the shooter and the closest defender.

Budenholzer has stared at those numbers over and over, unsure what to make of them. “Those numbers have been the hardest thing for me,” he says. “I want to be critical of us, but it’s not very critical to say, ‘We’re just not making open shots.’ We did get good looks, but maybe there were red flags there. We have to look at everything.”

The offense looked different, felt different. Those two or three shots matter, and defenses successfully redistributed some of those open looks to the right players. The Hawks also couldn’t generate free throws, the best source of relief points when everything else fails; they averaged just .227 free throws per field goal attempt in the playoffs, a mark that would have ranked 29th in the regular season.

They just weren’t quite the same. You could see it on the film — an open cutter not getting the ball, a mistimed pass, a dribble handoff counter that never happened.

The team was a shell of itself by the end, of course. Damn near every relevant player was hurt, and Budenholzer was playing lineups that were, I’m sorry, borderline embarrassing for a conference finals team.

But combine some internal player development with a roster upgrade or two, and there’s no reason these guys can’t chase the Finals again. After all, this was really their first year together under Budenholzer; Horford missed almost all of the 2013-14 season, and the Hawks understand that a team wagering on a system needs time to master it. “I want continuity to be one of the biggest things in how we improve,” Budenholzer says.

Bad news: Upgrading the roster is going to be hard. Everyone lauded the Hawks for landing Millsap and DeMarre Carroll on cheap two-year contracts, but the short length of those deals is coming back to haunt them now. (Atlanta offered both longer contracts at the time, per sources familiar with the matter.) Teams can typically go over the salary cap to re-sign their own players, a rule that provides more flexibility in chasing other free agents, but teams have a reduced version of that right for guys on one- and two-year deals.

To wit: Millsap’s maximum salary will be about $18.9 million, meaning that if Millsap wants his max — or thinks he can get it from another team — the Hawks will have to dip into their cap room to pay him. If Atlanta goes over the cap, it can sign Millsap to a deal starting at only $16.6 million per season. And if they use $19 million in cap space on Millsap, they would not have enough left over to re-sign Carroll.2 Even trading one low-cost player to clear space might not be enough.


2.

Atlanta’s early Bird rights on Carroll allow it to offer him only about $6 million per season if Carroll’s contract takes the team over the cap.

If Millsap is cool taking that $16.6 million, the Hawks can keep his cheaper cap hold on the books and work their way to something like $12 million in space to use on Carroll — or a replacement — before re-signing Millsap

Dipping under the cap will also leave them with the cheapo $2.8 million room exception, worth about half the midlevel exception that teams over the cap get to use. The Hawks could still land a useful bench guy on a one-year deal with that money, and Gary Neal is one name to watch.

If some team really wanted to screw the Hawks, it could offer Millsap a two-year, $40 million deal, which would allow Millsap to get back into free agency when the cap skyrockets again in 2017, when he’ll be 32. Power forward is loaded around the league, but it’s not hard to find a team that might splurge on Millsap. He’d be a nice consolation prize for Portland3 or San Antonio if LaMarcus Aldridge lands elsewhere, and the Lakers and Knicks loom with gobs of money.


3.

The Blazers tried to lure Millsap from the Jazz with a big offer sheet in 2009.

The Raptors and Pistons stand as intriguing options in the East. Toronto would have to renounce both Amir Johnson and Lou Williams to chase Millsap, and it’s unclear if it wants to go all in next season. Millsap is a little old for Detroit’s timeline, but he’d be perfect spotting up around Reggie Jackson–Andre Drummond pick-and-rolls, and rival executives get the sense that Stan Van Gundy wants to start winning now.

The Hawks have been intrigued before with Greg Monroe, and if Millsap wants all the cash he can get, you can bet Atlanta would look at a Millsap-Monroe double sign-and-trade. Monroe can’t defend or space the floor like Millsap, but he’s a bruiser who can get buckets in the post, and Budenholzer would love his passing.

Budenholzer doesn’t want to hear about changes. He wants to bring back the same group, “or darn close to it.” “It’s a helluva group,” he says. “The fiber, the minds we have — it all fits well.”

It’s tempting to suggest that the Hawks should look for a cheaper alternative for Carroll or Millsap, or even consider using Millsap’s salary slot to chase a center — an Omer Asik type who would allow Horford to shift back to power forward. Brandon Bass or David West could work as cheaper placeholders if Atlanta gets cold feet signing Millsap to a four-year, $80 million max deal that would carry him toward age 35.

But those guys are demonstrably worse players, and there just aren’t many guys 6-foot-10 and taller with the passing vision and overall feel to play in Budenholzer’s system. On the Carroll front, 3-and-D wings have gotten so expensive that finding a cheaper facsimile might be impossible without risking a massive downgrade.

That risk isn’t worth it — not with a team this good in a conference this bad. The Hawks probably won’t win 60 games next season, but with the right internal leaps and fringe roster tweaks, they could emerge as a more well-rounded playoff team. Dennis Schroder will get better. Mike Muscala is on the verge of cracking the rotation ahead of Mike Scott and Pero Antic. They might get better injury luck in April and May. They’ll have both the no. 15 pick and a tiny slice of cap flexibility to snag another rotation cog.

Even if they fall short again — and that’s the most likely outcome for literally every team — the Hawks could enter the summer of 2016 with Horford’s Bird rights and max-level cap space to lure another big player. Think about how good that team could be.

These Hawks blew apart the perception that Atlanta is a drab market with a drab team — a place no top free agent would ever consider. Players around the league took notice of what happened in Atlanta this season. Losing to LeBron doesn’t invalidate what they accomplished or sentence them to permanent also-ran status. The road is harder for the Hawks than it is for any team with a top-10 superstar, but it’s a road they got far along this season, and one they’re excited to continue walking.

“I’ve been on teams where it’s all about one guy,” Korver says. “This is way more fun. I believe in this vision, and I think we’re eventually gonna get it done.”