Coming into the 2013-14 season it was clear that the Atlanta Hawks had their eyes squarely on the future. They didn't talk about tangible goals like acquiring homecourt advantage in the playoffs or achieving a high draft pick. Instead, Danny Ferry and Mike Budenholzer approached the season with the microscope on themselves and let the chips fall wherever they may mentality.
Reporters following the Hawks were quick to learn that Budenholzer was much more concerned with what his team could do or couldn't do on the court as opposed to the opponent. The Hawks seldom made significant changes in order to gain a short term advantage. Why? Because the Hawks have a system and everyone in the organization believes in that system and they refuse to deviate from it. Instead, they focused on themselves and their improvement and at the end of the day they were content to let that lead them to wherever it may.
This ultimately goes beyond Xs and Os although the on court system plays a huge part in everything they do. They have fundamental beliefs about the game and about what it takes to become a successful franchise. No matter what happened on the court in 2013-14, they all know that this season was just the first step of the process.
Before the season began, I wrote about Mike Budenholzer being the biggest acquisition of the summer and nothing has really happened to change my mind, although Paul Millsap came close. I come from an age where coaches often pass the time on media day making false promises about what they want their team to do while knowing full well that it isn't likely to happen.
That wasn't the case with Budenholzer who described the fast style of play that he wanted, accountability on the defensive end of the floor and, most importantly, a competitiveness throughout the franchise. There were few times where this Hawks team didn't answer the bell this season. They were often better following a loss and many nights they just refused to go away. It's how a team can shoot 30 percent from the field in a Game 7 and yet find themselves only down eight points in the fourth quarter. This team believed in what Budenholzer and his staff were selling.
What he was selling was the system, which is not some top secret program that instantly makes a team a contender. No,
Budenholzer's system is about playing the game the right way, playing for each other and not beating yourself. All things that we have seen this franchise struggle with in recent history. Its an identity and all great teams have one.
Player development is a huge part of Atlanta's system now. Look no further than Mike Scott and Shelvin Mack as reasons to be confident about the likes of Dennis Schröder, John Jenkins and Mike Muscala. Both Scott and Mack came to camp with unguaranteed contracts and both proved their worth. Neither may develop into future NBA starters but both proved that they belong in this league which isn't bad for a pair of second round picks. Credit Scott and Mack for putting the work in to improve but credit the team for putting them in position to be successful.
The improvements didn't stop there. Guys like DeMarre Carroll, who was a role player in Utah and Memphis, expanded his game and flourished at times with the Hawks. A veteran like Paul Millsap comes in and expands his game and becomes an All-Star for the first time in his career. The work that is being done to improve internally can't be overlooked and it is something that this franchise has lacked for a long time.
If Budenholzer was this team's guiding light then Millsap was its beating heart. I haven't been shy this season in saying that Hawks not only got a bargain in Millsap but they also got an upgrade over Josh Smith at the power forward position. This isn't about Smith but rather Millsap, who came everyday and punched the clock like a mill worker ready to begin his 40-hour week. He grew with the system and took his turn shouldering the load after center Al Horford was lost for the season. Paul Millsap was simply a joy to watch.
Most will look at Jeff Teague's season and classify it as inconsistent. He started well but but struggled in January as the team had to adapt to the loss of Horford. If you look at his numbers, Teague averaged better than 16 points in all but January this season. Once his three-point shot came back in the second half, teams could no longer pack the paint and he showed down the stretch and in the postseason that he can be an impact player. Teague's challenge going forward is becoming even more consistent and continuing to grow as a leader.
You also can't look back on this season and not talk about the amount of injuries this Hawks team suffered. The biggest of which was of course Horford, who suffered a torn pectoral muscle for the second time in three seasons. Horford was limited to 29 games and went down just as the Hawks seemed to be growing comfortable with Budenholzer's system. To make matters worse, Pero Antic and Gustavo Ayon soon joined Horford on the sidelines as the Hawks' frontcourt was decimated. An already small team became smaller and Atlanta struggled its way through February and March.
For all of the positives I have thrown out here you can't ignore that the Hawks were a sub-.500 team in 2013-14. Yes, injuries played a major part but losing Horford stunted the growth in many ways. This team certainly wasn't an eight seed with a healthy roster but they were seldom healthy. No GM prepares to lose three of his four centers at one time and I don't know how a team could prepare for the amount of injuries that struck the Hawks in the second half.
One thing is clear and that was that this team never quit. It'd be really easy for a team to lose their best player and then lose 15-of-16 games in a month and fold up the tent. To Budenholzer and this roster's credit they never did that. They righted the ship in April and held on to keep the franchise's playoff streak alive. They entered the first round as a heavy underdog and pushed the Pacers to the brink of elimination before falling. No one will likely remember that two or three seasons down the road but it was an important step for this group of players.
What does the future hold? Ferry and company keep their cards close to the vest so expect to be surprised again this offseason. While they will no doubt explore a lot of avenues, remember that he brought in Millsap and Carroll to little fanfare last season and both outperformed their contracts. I would expect a similar approach to this offseason.
I have been a lifetime Hawks fan but this was my fourth season covering the team. I have watched them transition from a franchise whose vision was cast no further than what was immediately in front of them to one with an eye on the future. From where I am sitting that is a great place to be.