We have reached the quarter pole of the NBA season and the time has come to take a look back at these Atlanta Hawks and revisit some of our thoughts from before the season. The first 22 games haven't quite gone as scripted, but there has been some pleasant surprises along the way as well.
The System is Good
Coming into the season the new system or culture was a big discussion point regarding the Atlanta Hawks and the types of things new head coach Mike Budenholzer and General Manager Danny Ferry were trying to instill. A team's system goes beyond X's and O's and gets to the core of how a team is built.
Why is it so important? I think Jerry Colangelo who managing director for USA Basketball, sums it up well in Mike Krzyzewki's book "The Gold Standard." On the subject on the strength of a system Colangelo says:
"Guys who play together can beat a group of all-stars on any given night."
Now that doesn't mean talent isn't important. One of the reasons that the Miami Heat are back-to-back champions is that they have a lot of talent but also because they adhere to a strict system that best utilizes that individual talent. Same with the San Antonio Spurs and in most cases for every good team that is in the NBA.
As far as the product on the floor goes, I like what I have seen from the Hawks. Budenholzer talked repeatedly about having a team that would compete and this team has done that for the most part over the first 22 games. Sure there has been a stinker along the way but most nights they have competed to the final horn. They are playing basketball the right way, sharing the basketball and have omitted many of the careless mistakes that have plagued this team in the past.
In some cases it is still a work in progress but things seem to be coming together. I like the system. I think the system is championship caliber now it's up to Danny Ferry to put championship caliber pieces in place.
The importance of Jeff Teague
Jeff Teague burst out of the gate for the Hawks looking like a poor man's Tony Parker in Budenholzer's Spurs like system. Teague flirted with 20 points and 10 assist averages before regressing slightly of late as opposing defenses have started to adjust. When Teague started to struggle so did the Hawks and the result was a string of sub par offensive performances. Teague still hasn't regained his early season form but the Hawks have compensated of late and have found their rhythm on offense once again.
If you take a closer look at Teague, the shine of his amazing start is starting to wear thin. His 16.6 points and 7.8 assists per game average are career-highs but so is his 26.5 percent usage rate which is tops on the team. His shooting percentage has dropped to 41 percent which is as low as it has been since he was a rookie and his three-point shooting has plummeted to 25 percent. He has made up for that at the free throw line where he is taking a career-best 6.0 attempts and converting at an 83 percent clip.
I'm not trying to rain on the Jeff Teague parade but there is clear room for improvement and if he can find it there is an opportunity for what could be an All-Star caliber season.
In some cases change is for the better
Some scoffed their noses at the thought of replacing Josh Smith with Paul Millsap but that switch couldn't have gone any better for the Hawks through the first 22 games. Millsap is averaging 16.5 points and 7.9 rebounds while shooting 50 percent from the field and a surprising 42 percent from three-point range. Best of all, he is playing like a power forward should and has given the Hawks an option in the low post that has the capability to step outside.
I won't delve too deep into Smith's numbers at Detroit because frankly they aren't important. What is important is that Millsap has come to Atlanta and fit in rather seamlessly for what Mike Budenholzer and Danny Ferry want. When you factor in that he is doing so while making less than $10 million a season, then it's one of the best values in the league.
Simply put, this team doesn't miss Josh Smith.
It's been interesting watching how Coach Budenholzer does things in comparison to the way Larry Drew and in some cases Mike Woodson went about things. Atlanta's rotation has changed throughout the season due to injury but we have also seen Budenholzer give players opportunities at various points. Nearly every player has been a part of the rotation at some point through the first 22 games and there have been some surprises along the way.
The biggest surprise has probably been Shelvin Mack, who has solidified the backup point guard job and has become a very important member of Atlanta's bench. Many wondered, including myself, if Mack would even be on the team once training camp was over. He's made the most of his opportunity which was an opportunity that we thought would go to rookie Dennis Schröder who is currently in the D-League
One player that surprisingly hasn't made much of a mark has been second-year guard John Jenkins, who has faced an uphill battle after a back injury sidelined him for much of the preseason. Jenkins has played sporadically and hasn't really played well when given those limited opportunities. He's currently in the D-League along with Schröder getting reps and hopefully a much-needed confidence boost.
If Budenholzer has shown anything over 22 games, it's that players need to stay ready and that he may call upon them at unexpected times. Elton Brand, Mike Scott, Pero Antic and Gustavo Ayon have all been in and out of the rotation. Jenkins and Schröder will likely get more opportunities and they need to be ready once their name is called.
I predicted 44 wins for this team prior to the season and I still feel good with that. I have seen enough good things out of this team on the court that suggests they will be successful down the road.
Exit Question: What stood out to you during the first quarter of the season?