Going into the season there was little known about how these Atlanta Hawks would do as the team entered another transition stage, the first being when they divested Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams and this one would be without nine-year Atlanta Hawk Josh Smith.
For fans, the off-season moves of Paul Millsap, Elton Brand, DeMarre Carroll and the like, along with two international rookies and the re-signings of Kyle Korver and Jeff Teague left an uncertainty about what this version of the Atlanta Hawks were supposed to be.
Were they tanking, as some in the media implied, sustaining, or what? What was the purpose, the goal of letting Smith go, but retaining Korver and Teague. Bringing Paul Millsap in meant more talent, for sure, but to what ends?
The Sucks/Rules culture we have been living in since the late 1990's tells us, in the paradigm of an NBA franchise, you're either tanking or title-bound -- the lukewarm middle is worthy of nothing, a boring purgatory not worth time or effort in following a team.
It was in this place, this substance-less middle ground that pundits and fans alike casted the Hawks. Peachtree Hoops did, too, placing the team squarely in the cross hairs of a lower tier playoff team and early playoff exit.
We weren't wrong, and neither were the fans. However, the emphasis on goals may be where most missed a mark. When the pundits and some fans placed the Hawks in this tier of teams, there was an implication that the Hawks were satisfied with maintaining their playoff status at any costs, as if this administration was like the one before, bent on normalcy without the hint of attempting to smell the flower of champions.
I would counter, now, in hindsight, that none of us considered another goal. Not one of standings or seedings, but one of culture. The destination is surely, ultimately, a title, but the first step along the way was changing the perception of the franchise, the culture that has lingered for quite a while.
Step one, and the most important part of this season, was replacing the head coach. Larry Drew was very good withe the roster he had, especially in the times of injury and lack of bench help. However the success, it was clear that Danny Ferry wanted to bring in a coach that would implement the style and brand of basketball that Ferry saw in his mind when he envisioned the future.
In Mike Budenholzer, Ferry got the guy he needed. Coach Bud took the Hawks through an injury-filled season, complete with some highs and some prodigious lows, but never sacrificed health or long term needs for the good of a single regular season game. It was a change Hawks fans had seen only in the way that a team like the San Antonio Spurs had managed their roster. Sometimes stars would have a night off to nurse an injury that likely would not have kept them out of the postseason. Budenholzer knew that a game in November was not the same as a numbered game in the postseason.
With Budenholzer in place, we saw a team that would scrap, claw and often shoot their way back into games. The Hawks shot a tremendous amount of three-pointers every night. In the past it might have been a death knell to the team, but with an infusion of players that fit what Ferry and Bud were trying to do, it worked. After Al Horford went down, the Hawks lacked a ton of top-end talent, but they fought like crazy all season long, through injuries to Millsap and Korver, to make it to the postseason.
This postseason was one like I can't remember. Sure, the Celtics series of 2007-2008 was exciting, but it never felt like the Hawks were going to take out the C's. The Hawks of this season took on the Pacers and by Game 6 had the whole city wide-eyed.
Heck, the team played so well they even brought the Pac-Man back early. Win! It's saying something about how that team played in the first round that the Pacers have suddenly "found themselves" in their series against the Wizards. What that really means is that the Hawks did a great job of taking them out of themselves, something I look forward to this team doing plenty of, not just to the Pacers, but the rest of the league as well.
In one season with Coach Bud at the helm there is a different feeling. The Hawks are doing things differently and it looks like the things a championship franchise does. It's obvious that the key to a championship team is championship talent, but you have to have the organization in place before you can get and make the most of that talent.
This season took another step in that direction. The future is different. This year, the target was changing the culture.