Expectations in sports can be a dangerous thing. Rarely do fans go into a new season expecting a mediocre season, because where is the fun in that? It's typically either everything is going to be the best or the worst. That's part of what defines fandom. Having unrealistic expectations and holding steady with those expectations for as long as humanly possible because, let's be honest, it's an incredibly satisfying feeling when those unrealistic expectations come to fruition. It's also incredibly devastating when the opposite happens and the bottom falls out. It's unusual that fans' expectations remain virtually the same year in and year out, but for the Atlanta Hawks fanbase that has been the case for a long time now. This season was no different.
It's weird, the Hawks finished with their worst record since the 2007-08 season where they won 37 games, but there's a part of me that feels like this was the most successful season in a long time. Maybe it's because of how close the club came to knocking out the No.1 seed in the playoffs. Maybe it's because of how many 3s the team attempted and made this season. Or maybe it's simply because of how likeable this team was from top to bottom. I don't really have a definitive answer as to why I enjoyed watching this team as much as I did this season because the record tells a different story.
It feels like forever ago that the Hawks looked like they were going to cruise to the No.3 seed in the East until Al Horford went down, again, for the remainder of the season. It should have been a devastating blow for the team -- Horford is their best player and all, but it wasn't. Sure, if this team played a Western Conference schedule they may not have won a game in 2014 with how they played in the second half of the season, but that's not reality. In reality, they weathered the storm, and made the playoffs as the No.8 seed in the weaker conference.
After Horford went down, I assumed Hawks general manager Danny Ferry would elect to blow it up. I wouldn't have been opposed to the idea at the time, and I feel the same way now. It wasn't a poor decision by Ferry to not make any significant changes because there was a number of good reasons to go either way. Had the Hawks ended up choking away the No.8 seed I'd probably be singing a different tune, but they made the playoffs and put on an incredibly entertaining showing.
If I was in Ferry's shoes I'm not entirely sure which route I would have gone. He ultimately decided to play the conservative card by not moving Millsap, Lou Williams or Jeff Teague. Not moving any of these pieces meant Ferry probably still wanted to qualify for the postseason. It was a bold move to continue to press on without Horford, but it payed off in the short-term.
Yes, Paul Millsap was a fantastic story this season, but he can leave the team for nothing next summer if the Hawks don't choose to sign him long-term. I tend to think the Hawks won't give Millsap a long-term deal next summer, so perhaps this season was the best chance to move him for picks and/or assets. Millsap took a chance taking less money to play in this system, and it worked out in a major way for him. Millsap may have priced himself out of Atlanta next summer, but that means Bud's scheme and Ferry's vision is working.
Playoff Teague re-emerged to the delight of Hawks fans everywhere this season, but he still struggled for the majority of the season without his pick-and-roll partner in Horford. Lou failed to get back to his old self, and that played a major role in the Hawks regular season struggles. The front office and coaching staff thought he might be able to fill the Manu Ginobli-esque role on the team, but that doesn't seem like a realistic possibility anymore.
The Teague-Lou duo may have been most frustrating duo this season, but the Kyle Korver-DeMarre Carroll duo was easily the most enjoyable. And with Carroll tweeting he wants to become the African-American Korver this tag team looks like it could be giving opposing defenses fits beyond the arc for the next couple of years.
What ultimately defined the 2013-14 season for the Hawks was the incredible coaching job of first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer. He turned Mike Scott, Pero Antic, Millsap, and Carroll into 3-point assassins in his first year roaming the sidelines. The team bought in, and with Horford, this team could have probably made a run at the Eastern Conference Finals. Budenholzer established a new, fun identity for the club in Year 1, which is a rare thing in the NBA.
In a vacuum, 38 wins isn't something to be celebrated, but this is one of those rare situations that calls for it. There is still a lot of work to be done, sure, but the Hawks have the cap space and assets to do so. Building a contender is a process that takes time and patience.
Eventually, I think Ferry will have to make a major move with all of his assets and cap space to either sign a star, or get a top-5ish pick in one of the next few drafts. But it's May of 2014, and there is still time for that. Danny Ferry and the Hawks aren't in danger of becoming the Gene Smith-era Jacksonville Jaguars anytime soon.
Relishing over a 38-win season is a novelty, so enjoy it. Regardless of how peculiar that might be.