The San Antonio Spurs have been playing chess for nearly two decades while everyone else is playing checkers. They were lucky to land Tim Duncan in the season that they bottomed out with at least partial intent, yet they have multiplied their fortune by being smarter and more malleable than everyone else. The 2014 NBA Finals were not just a sweep (Editor note: Spurs won series in 5) of the Miami Heat, but a clinic at the highest level on how to play basketball.
At the end of 2012, the Atlanta Hawks were mired in being capped out with little hope of ever escaping the first round of the NBA playoffs. A persistently splintered ownership group reached out to bring in Danny Ferry from the Spurs organization. Hopeful for an osmotic effect on a General Manager most known for building a straw house of support around King James in Cleveland, the bumblebee leadership in Atlanta appeared to make another move sure to inspire little buzz and even less sting.
Everything changed when Danny Ferry found some Russian play dough and convinced Billy King to take on an onerous contract of the exceptionally good and woefully starless Joe Johnson. Soon Marvin Williams and the second-worst Hawk contract was headed out as well. While Atlanta got various degrees of return on the moves depending on individual perspectives, Ferry needed nothing back to justify the subtractions--particularly in hindsight (nevermind that he could have a lottery pick out of it at year's end).
If the summer of 2012 was the cleaning out of the refrigerator, the next summer was the stocking of the cabinet. Only Ferry did not go out and buy the fun stuff the kids want at the store. Instead, he got the flour, sugar, eggs, and other items that require a whole lot of work to make something worth consuming. Too easily lost in the flood of statistics and asset collection now dominating the NBA is the actual players and personalities those numbers assess. Some observed that Ferry spent his first season building up assets to make a big move, but the truth is that he was gathering people and developing them--something he unmistakably brought from San Antonio.
The most important ingredient Ferry would store up in 2013 was bringing over long-time assistant Mike Budenholzer from the Spurs. Hiring assistants of successful coaches is no guarantee of success, but Ferry got it right when hiring the chef to mix everything together. While Popovich has plenty of branches now splintered from the Spurs tree, Budenholzer appears to be the one whose roots were the strongest. As of today, Ferry bringing in Budenholzer may end up being the best transaction the franchise has made in my lifetime. The presumption in such a statement is trumped by its thorough relevance.
Everything about what Ferry and Bud have done together is centered around player development and team fundamentals. While the Utah Jazz chose to invest in the assets of Enes Kanter and Derrick Favors, the new Hawks would grow alongside the character of DeMarre Carroll and Paul Millsap. The investment by Ferry was less in annual and total salary than what Joe Dumars would pay to let Josh Smith brick his way out of Atlanta and eventually Detroit. With a partly-questionable and now team-friendly extension to Kyle Korver and the matching of Milwaukee's restricted offer to Jeff Teague, the Hawks exited the summer of 2013 with what now is measurably the best starting lineup in the Eastern Conference when all 5 players are healthy.
Despite a successful 2013 off-season, it was difficult to see the real change occurring in Atlanta due to Al Horford's season coming to an early end and a bench with a glaring hole in its perimeter defense. It is difficult to know which free agents rejected offers extended to them this past off-season as the Hawks entered with plenty of cap room. Fans including myself were left disappointed by Atlanta taking the leftovers in Thunder castoff Thabo Sefolosha and the lesser-known yet strangely-coveted Kent Bazemore. Despite the disappointment, the moves doubled down on shoring up the team's greatest weakness in 2013-14. While Thabo's shot has not come around, his defensive abilities and unselfish play are worth the 4 million he is getting paid to be Atlanta's second-best on-ball defender behind DeMarre Carroll. Sefolosha and Bazemore are both getting more comfortable each game and each seem to have secured their roles backing up Carroll and Korver, respectively.
Somewhere in this strange mix, Ferry drafted a 24-year-old from Virginia in the second round, signed a Macedonian, and committed to a former Butler guard drafted and cut by a division rival. Mike Scott, Pero Antic, and Shelvin Mack all have moments where fans wonder what purpose they have on the floor, yet those moments are exceeded by stretches where each play their individual roles with high character and always remain prepared for the small or large moment where they are needed. The two signature second quarters for the Hawks in 2014 are Scott's evisceration of the Pacers in game 5 and Mack's scorching of the Cavs last week. Meanwhile, Pero out-flopped James Harden and out-boxed Dwight Howard in his audition last week for Taken 4. In a season of joy, the three castaways bring it exceedingly and add some color to the odd mix of play-doh in Atlanta.
Meanwhile, emerging from the shadows of two pectoral injuries stands the quiet leader at the CENTER of the Hawks' rising dough: Al Horford--now the greatest Hawk since Dominique Wilkins and undeniably the best two-way center in the Eastern Conference. It is no coincidence that Atlanta has won 14 of 15 at the same time Horford returned to being the best player on the team. In the midst of the star Joe Johnson could never become and the complimentary greatness Josh Smith could never accept, Horford is willing to carry the burden Joe did not want without needing the attention Josh craved. Al is not the star Atlanta fans want but he has become the less-brightly burning light that the Hawks need.
You do not build an NBA team with assets or stars or strategies. You build it with talent and character. Danny Ferry has carefully turned a franchise with no money, divided ownership, limited assets, and a terrifying history into one worthy of being modeled. Should the Hawks choose for him not to return from his suspension, then another NBA team will certainly be interested in having Ferry lead their organization using real dough. There is not a magic formula for succeeding in the NBA and the top two teams in the Eastern Conference are emblematic of that truth. The Raptors and Hawks are as different in roster construction as any two teams in the league, yet both have placed development and people in the center of what they are doing. If you want to see what happens to a franchise when an individual talent becomes more important than character, watch the Lakers.
My 7-year-old son and I will keep watching the Hawks. On Sunday night, he looked up at me while Atlanta was up by 22 points on the Rockets and said, "Dad, the Hawks are like always winning." His favorite player is Dennis Schroeder whose improvement has not gone unnoticed by his young eyes. If the ownership issues do not muck things up, my son will be watching his favorite player develop as a Hawk for a long time. I do not know where Danny Ferry is on this Christmas Day and I do not know if or when he will return to Atlanta, but I sure am glad he drafted Dennis. Hopefully, the Hawks' organization will make a decision sooner than later on Ferry, so Coach Budenholzer can give exclusive attention to his primary tasks. Whatever decision is made on Ferry, he deserves the satisfaction of knowing that despite an incredibly poor error in judgment, he has built a Pac-man juggernaut ready to swallow up the ghost of disappointments past.
Rising out of the Play-Doh in this NBA season is a collection of carefully-molded chess pieces whose playoff fate remains undetermined, but whose destiny is now something beyond a capped-out checkerboard. The team has freaking laser beams on the floor, bobble heads being given away in the form of the opponents' heads bouncing in a flurry of passes, and hope raising into the rafters along with the notes from the smoothest organist in sports. You can tell everyone that they are called the Atlanta Hawks, but this Christmas they may be more easily recognized as contenders.
To all at Peachtree Hoops: May the Count keep rising, the Marvin scale always be zero, and all your Christmases be Merry!