The Hawks have been labeled the "new-look Spurs" by just about everyone who has realized what Danny Ferry’s front office is trying to build: a cost effective championship-caliber roster with a championship-caliber coach, all placed in a culture that will breed a championship-caliber team.
It’s an easy process of appellation. They’re called the "new-look Spurs" because they poached the prodigies right out of San Antonio’s locker room. First there was Ferry, the Spurs’ former Vice President of basketball operations; now there’s Mike Budenholzer, Gregg Popovich’s old right-hand man, who spent 19-years observing and soaking in an environment so conducive to winning that it would be nearly impossible for him to escape such a place without sapping up a substantial amount of good juju.
There’s one thing people forget about these Spurs, though. They scored the number one pick in the 1997 NBA Draft after their former number one pick and MVP, David Robinson, went down for the season. They paired Tim Duncan and Robinson together to make one of the most lethal frontcourts ever to touch the hardwood. That’s a stroke of luck with which analytics can’t help.
But still, highlighting that is merely a cop-out and disservice to the work the Spurs have done as a franchise. You don’t stay relevant this long without superb management and coaching. Tim Duncan doesn’t win anything without Manu Ginobili (57th pick overall) and Tony Parker (28th pick overall).
You need a star to be the Spurs and, whether or not Al Horford is that guy is a debate for another day. Because assuming management believes he is that guy, can be that guy, or at least can be a huge help to a guy they plan on acquiring sometime in the future, it’s all about developing and utilizing the players around whoever that guy is.
Most would agree that while an incredible player, Horford isn’t quite good enough to be the best player on a championship team. Obviously, that’s a statement in a vacuum. It means very little. But, realistically, with the current salary cap, Horford is an ideal number two piece. Right now, he’s being forced to play as a number one. What’s worth noting though, and what’s also very Spurs-like, is that Budenholzer and his coaching staff utilize the players around their offensive focal-point in a way that maximizes everyone’s specific skill set.
There are so many moving pieces in this offense, so many opportunities for Kyle Korver and Paul Millsap who both thrive off spacing and screens. There’s a clear strategy every time this team leaks out into transition. Teague pushes the ball with flanking runners while Korver either trails or flashes to the perimeter. It creates rhythm shots in a rhythm offense. Just as important as all of the strategy however, is the player development.
When Shelvin Mack came to Atlanta he was a fringe NBA player. Mike Scott was a second round draft pick. Many wondered if either would ever crack a rotation in the NBA. Both are now key bench contributors for a likely playoff team and it’s been relatively easy to spot their improvements in both confidence and execution in comparison to last season. Scouts have already raved about Atlanta’s player development and, if the success continues, rookies Dennis Schröder and Lucas Nogueira will have their opportunities in due time.
If you look at what’s allowed the Spurs to sustain their dominance for just about 17 years, you’ll notice that the team has rarely, if ever, struggled to receive contributions from their role players. Whether it be an aging Robert Horry, a suddenly useful Danny Green, or the once hopeless Boris Diaw, the Spurs have received tons of help from guys that couldn’t find homes elsewhere. If the Hawks can do the same thing through similar implementation of system and coaching, then it bodes well for the franchise’s hopes of sustained competitiveness.
As we’ve seen though, in this league you need a go-to player. Horford, at the very least, is a guy who can carry an offense. Without him the Hawks are struggling. That’s just the nature of the NBA.
Ask the Spurs what you need to compete for a championship. They’ll probably tell you about the same things I’ve chirped about above: player development, an established system and culture, and cost-effective management. And all of that is as true as true can be. But what they’ll probably forget to tell you is that the team was initially built from two first-overall picks who won a combined total of three MVP awards. The question is: how much of a difference did that really make?
Easy answer: it made a world of difference. Thought out answer: it was huge in establishing the culture, but the management from then on allowed continued and expanded success that doesn’t come guaranteed with a top pick.
You can compete without a top-15 player in the NBA, but it sure as hell helps to have one. No ground-breaking analysis there. But, if the Hawks can ever get their hands on one (or two), they seem to be establishing the personnel on the sidelines and in the front office to sculpt a true "new-look Spurs."
You don’t need the number one pick to get this seemingly unattainable star. You don’t even need to trade the house for whoever this guy might be. It just so happens that the Spurs’ current best player didn’t come into the league as a sure-fire superstar.
Tony Parker was a late first round pick. Manu Ginobili was a late second round pick. Becoming the new-look Spurs is harder than it looks, because that means finding the hidden gems and developing those gems into top players. If you’re not LA or Boston, the way to sustain competitiveness isn’t to bottom out and draft your star guy. If that happens and you’re lucky, then maybe you’ve struck gold. The real way, though, is to develop players in systems that allow them to succeed, regardless of draft positioning.
That’s what makes the Spurs so hard to model. It doesn’t matter where they draft, they find their guys. So when LeBron James said of the Hawks: "Take the names off the back of the jerseys and that's the San Antonio blueprint of how they play," it was no doubt a compliment to Atlanta's system, energy, and success in execution regardless of who is in the game.
But, of course, maybe to be the "new-look Spurs" the Hawks don’t need a top-10 pick or don’t need to trade for a top-15 player. Would it help? Certainly. Still, it’s not always possible to just scoop up an absolute star. Maybe the Hawks just need to develop one.