Bad seasons end with no one caring that there are no more games to play. The Atlanta Hawks ended the last 2 seasons with many people feeling that way. Both first-round losses in game 6 were disappointing, yet also a relief. Each season had its moments of entertainment and hope, but I was ready to move on when it was over. I enjoyed watching other teams in the playoffs and being able to simply focus on basketball.
The hangover of those two seasons carried into this year. I was excited about several of the moves made by the Hawks in the summer of 2013, but I did not enter the season with enthusiasm beyond normal emotions for the opening of a new year of basketball. The hiring of an assistant coach from a successful organization was intriguing in the long run, but I expected a developmental phase for the new head coach. I have always admired Paul Millsap and thought he was a great value in free agency. DeMarre Carroll would be a fun guy to pull for off the bench. Beyond that my real focus was on what Horford could be as the leader of a team. Otherwise, it was mostly just time for some basketball.
The greatest success of the 2013-14 Hawks season was how hard it was to watch game 1 of the Wizards-Pacers series. I was not upset that the Hawks lost game 7 as much as that there was no game 8. I was not ready for it to be over. I did not shed real tears, but the truth is all good seasons end in tears of disappointment or joy.
The competitive spirit of a team that refused to accept a pre-written narrative of the limitations of deficient talent made this one of my favorite teams to watch. I am not sold that Atlanta is on an inevitable journey toward joyful tears next season, but this season has prepared me that it could be a long time before I am apathetic about the end of a season. Here are five lessons worth caring about from the Hawks season:
1. Don't judge people for failing to do something they were not meant to do.
Pero Antic is not a starting center in the NBA. The 18.9 minutes he played per game are more than he played in either of his last 2 seasons in Greece. There were few expectations for him to do much more than be an occasional bench presence behind Al Horford and Elton Brand. Instead, he was able to exceed his production in Greece and become an invaluable performer after Horford's injury. Undoubtedly, his production was awful in the playoffs, but making future decisions on Antic based on a role he was never intended to have would be a terrible mistake. I am looking forward to a second season of inbound passes and screens in what I expect will be 12-15 minutes a game. With a contract that is less than the minimum for most 31-year-old veterans, Antic brings a unique balance of toughness and skill ideal to remain a presence on the Atlanta bench.
2. A good host does not eat until everyone has been fed.
Jeff Teague had the best playoff performance of his career. He struggled at times with Paul George primarily defending him, but he did not disappear. His assist numbers dropped off after Horford was injured, although his shot improved as the season went along. Teague made progress in his first season in a new system. Hopefully, he will continue that progress in a crucial second season under Coach Budenholzer. Teague has shown a better ability to rise to big moments while also revealing that there remains room for growth under pressure. Jeff still plays mostly like a really good guard who still needs to grow as a true floor leader for the Hawks to take a step from competitors to contenders. Too often this season, he too easily vanished when he could not get himself going. No matter what additions are made this summer, Jeff must improve his ability to more consistently contribute in games when he is struggling individually.
3. No one is scared until the first shot is fired.
Shelvin Mack is not afraid of any situation on a basketball court. He repeatedly came in and settled the Hawks down in the playoffs. It may simply be his nature or a product of consecutive NCAA tournament runs, but Mack is comfortable when in the bright lights. With Dennis Schroeder waiting in the wings, a team in need of a backup point guard would be smart to offer Mack enough money to force the Hawks to decide how much he is worth. Mack's fearlessness is a legitimate and undervalued skill. While Schroeder could prove to grow into a productive player in the regular season next season, the Hawks could miss Shelvin's steady hand in the 2015 postseason. The fact that is a concern is a credit to a player who has had to fight to prove himself at every level of his career.
4. Always bet on those who bet on themselves.
Paul Millsap could have gotten more money last summer. I have no connection to any official offers, but there were plenty of rumblings that three-year offers were made from the same or more money per season. Millsap bet on himself. His All-Star season should result in him being rewarded financially after next season beyond what a three-year deal would have brought. I love seeing people rewarded for not selecting the path of least resistance. Danny Ferry acted quickly to get Millsap in free agency. When paired with the signing of DeMarre Carroll, it is difficult to recall two free agents providing so much productive value. While there are great hopes for Atlanta to bring in a player looking to cash in this summer, do not be surprised if the Hawks are able to cash in on another player who chooses to push in his own chips at the
Highlight Development Factory casino.
5. You never lose what you are not paying anyone.
A lot has been made that Lucas Nogueira has had a lost season as a draft pick. John Jenkins had a lost season, Nogueira just got older--and hopefully thicker. Stashing rookies abroad delays the beginning of the rookie contract and no portion of the salary cap is used during the season. With a rostered player in the D-League, teams lose a roster spot, a contract year, and the player's salary. It may be frustrating for fans to see players sent overseas, but the financial benefit and development opportunities are a significant advantage--particularly for teams without a D-League affiliate. Noguiera's season has not been wasted--particularly given his injury issues. Nothing was lost. Free seasons are never lost. It is worth caring for an organization that has a better plan than simply throwing money at problems...unless anyone knows a Macedonian billionaire wanting to make an investment.