One crucial thing missing for the Hawks: experience
By HUNTER KOSSODO
College Contributor Network
In three months, the Atlanta Hawks have gone from playoff hopefuls to Finals hopefuls. Along the way, they've compiled the best record in the NBA at 40-8, and are winners of their last 19 games.
They've done so presumably because they watched the Spurs annihilate the Heat in the NBA Finals last year and thought to themselves "maybe we should try this playing unselfish team basketball thing."
The Hawks emulate that philosophy the Spurs used to win the title better than any team in the NBA this year, but is expecting them to be holding their own Larry O'Brien trophy in June a realistic expectation?
The statistics say it is. The Hawks are among the best in the league in field goal percentage, free throw percentage and total numbers of assists, steals and points as a team. They also lead the NBA in three point percentage, which has basically become the most important stat in the NBA the past couple years. The Hawks are also extremely adept at limiting fouls while drawing a fair amount themselves.
One stat that goes the other way for Atlanta is rebounds. While Al Horford and Paul Millsap are definitely capable at grabbing missed shots, as a team the Hawks aren't a very good rebounding team. They are tied with Minnesota as the fourth-worst rebounding team in the league, and tied with Miami in dead-last for offensive boards.
The good news is that the champion Spurs last year and the champion Heat the year before weren't good rebounding teams in the regular season either. Then again the Spurs barely missed any shots in the playoffs while the Heat played hounding defense and had the best player in the world to fall back on.
In Millsap, Horford and Jeff Teague the Hawks have three All-Stars for the first time since 1980. One of their non-All-Stars, Kyle Korver, is having one of the best three point shooting seasons ever. They've beaten a lot of stinkers during their hot streak but they also have a laundry list of impressive wins this season. The Trail Blazers, Thunder, Grizzlies, Clippers, Cavaliers, Rockets, Mavericks and Bulls have all fallen prey to the Hawks since mid-December, some of them more than once.
But what the Hawks lack in the least is what is arguably one of the most important things for a team to have, playoff experience. Not just making the playoffs, the Hawks have been regular attendees since '08, but actually making it far.
Atlanta hasn't won a playoff series since 2011 and hasn't made it to the Conference Finals once since the NBA-ABA merger in 1976. Korver was a bench player on a Bulls team that made the Conference Finals in 2011, and Millsap made the Western Conference Finals as a member of the Jazz in his rookie season in '07. That's the furthest any Hawks starter has made it in the postseason.
That can't be overstated, because playoff basketball is a completely different animal, especially the further it gets. When the Hawks are facing an opponent that is 100 percent focused on how to stop them and they have an entire series to tweak their game plan, coupled with the fact that Atlanta will only be facing better and better teams as it gets through the playoffs, the Hawks won't always be able to play the way they want to.
It's very rare that a team that went nowhere in the playoffs will be in the NBA Finals the following year, and when it does happen it's usually because three stars decided to team up. One recent exception is when Dallas was bounced out of the First Round in 2010 and followed that up with a title the very next season.
The Mavs had Dirk Nowitzki though, and that's an important point to make. As much as we like to talk about the NBA being a team game, it's hard to win without a superstar. A team needs that one player that they can get the ball to when the going gets tough, and it will in the playoffs, and they know that something good will happen.
Just look at the list of champions since 1991. The Bulls had Jordan, the Rockets had Olajuwon, the Spurs had Robinson, Duncan and Parker, the Lakers had Kobe and Shaq, the Heat had LeBron, Wade and Bosh, the Celtics had Pierce, Allen and Garnett and the Mavericks had Nowitzki. The '04 Pistons bucked the superstar trend, but they were also a far superior defensive team than this year's Hawks.
So when the chips are down and the Hawks need someone to take over the game, can they trust anyone to do that? Is Horford or Millsap or Teague or Korver that guy? Will any of them ever be that guy? The Spurs won the title last year playing great selfless basketball, but they also knew Parker, Duncan and Manu Ginobili could be trusted with the ball in their hands in crunch time of an NBA Finals game.
Fortunately for Hawks fans, this is the "it's a good thing they're in the Eastern Conference" part. No team in the East that could conceivably make the playoffs this year, except Chicago and Miami, have heaps of playoff experience either. Sure the Cavs have LeBron, but Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love haven't sniffed the playoffs once and they also have a first-year head coach.
You have to give this team credit for staying focused after an awkward controversy in September and sputtering to a 1-3 start to the season. Not only staying focused, but playing the game beautifully. While some teams are still trying to figure out what they want to do offensively and defensively, the Hawks know exactly how to maximize the personnel on their roster.
That's not an easy thing for a team that was sub-.500 last season to do that across a full season, and it's not even the All-Star break yet.
Most of that speaks to the job head coach Mike Budenholzer has done. Budenholzer, unsurprisingly given how the Hawks play, was an assistant with the Spurs from 1996 to 2013 and had a hand in what is the most prolonged run of success in NBA history since the Boston Celtics and The Beatles were taking the country by storm in the '60s.
It's nice to think an underdog franchise like the Hawks can come out of nowhere to win the title this season, but this team is at least a year away and that's being optimistic. Getting a taste of meaningful late-playoff games this season would be huge, and maybe next year they won't just be Finals hopefuls, but Finals favorites.
Hunter Kossodo is a junior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University. He is a rabid supporter of Boston sports having lived there for most of his life. Follow him on Twitter: @HKossodo