I have to admit I am not a lifelong NBA fan. I've loved sports all my life, growing up with baseball and adding tennis, basketball and football to my arsenal along the way. Even as my love of college basketball grew to equal how much I cared about baseball, I still was wary of the NBA.
I'm sure we all know the objections people have made about the NBA -- selfish, overpaid players who care more about their stats than winning, blah blah blah. Sadly, no one in my sports-loving family thought otherwise, and it wasn't until a childhood friend got me to start watching in 2008. At that time, my most beloved teams, the Braves and Mercer Bears basketball, were pretty mediocre, so it was easy for me to get hooked. And boy I did, and that year of course culminated in Zaza Pachulia's Nothing Easy speech.
Even if those early seasons of playoff exits, I could see everything I thought the NBA was was wrong. Sure, players like iso-Joe Johnson existed and frustrated me, but there was lots to love. I went to plenty of games, given that I live 90 minutes away. I even stood in the sixth man section for the entirety of a few games, even once it was clear the Hawks had completely checked out. But still, I needed more to be fully onboard with dealing with Josh Smith and his shot selection.
Then in summer 2012, I got a text saying Joe Johnson had been traded. I'm fairly certain I knelt down on the ground right then and there and thanked God for Danny Ferry. I was in. I went to probably 15 games last season, just excited knowing that the Hawks were headed up. Of course, I still had to stomach Josh's often bizarre decisions during games, but last season was a great stepping stone. I started watching random NBA games in my free time, just because there was so much to be excited about.
Then, last summer sealed the deal. The hiring of Mike Budenholzer, the letting go of Josh, the signings of Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll who friends in Utah highly touted to me, it all seemed to be fabulous. I wasn't even too devastated when Milwaukee stole Zaza away (okay, I was, but I understood why it happened). Ferry and company made sensible, reasonable decisions to put together a solid roster.
There's no need to go into detail about how the season with that roster played out, what with injuries and lowered expectations after eyeing the 3 seed for a minute. But in the midst of some high highs and low lows, Coach Bud's system shone through. Kris already detailed it on Monday, and he put it perfectly: "Budenholzer's system is about playing the game the right way, playing for each other and not beating yourself."
Atlanta's 2013-14 season had everything I love about basketball. Even when Al Horford went down, the Hawks didn't beat themselves up and completely collapse. Players continued to development, and I'm sure I'm not the only fan who stopped turning games off despite being down 12 heading into the fourth. Coach Bud brought with him something I always want to see from my team -- the drive to never quit.
Budenholzer's influence was apparent in other areas, as the team seemed to get along and mesh well. Clubhouse chemistry has taken a beating as more advanced stats start to prevail, but how can things like this be irrelevant to how a team plays together?
Originally coming from the viewpoint of being a diehard mid-major college basketball fan, I guess I'm used to a lot of ball sharing between fairly equally talented guys (such as seven seniors from Mercer), instead of a few dominant stars headed to the pros with fill-ins on the rest of the roster (like Jabari Parker and Duke losing to said Mercer).
Obviously, the Hawks didn't completely triumph under such a system, but the fact fans didn't sit down even as the five-point lead evaporated during Game 6 is a huge testament to what Ferry, Budenholzer and now the always-enthusiastic Steve Koonin are trying to do. The future of Atlanta basketball is bright for those who love what the game is all about.