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How the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks embodied an effective and selfless approach

We revisit one of the most unselfish teams in franchise history.

“How can you not love this team? They’re so selfless.”

Bob Rathbun, long-time television voice of the Atlanta Hawks, uttered those words after one of countless highlights from the 2014-2015 NBA season in which Kyle Korver dropped a behind-the-back pass to DeMarre Carroll for a layup on the fast break.

The 2014-15 Hawks were known for that kind of play, with Korver flipping the script in this instance as the usual beneficiary of fantastic ball movement to free up his long-range shooting. In fact, any reference to “teamwork” as a prompt for NBA writing — i.e. SB Nation’s Teamwork series, from which this posts emanates — immediately sends Atlanta-based observers scrambling for references to the best Hawks team since the franchise arrived from St. Louis.

By now, it is more of a punchline, at least outside of Atlanta, to reference the “Player of the Week” honors garnered by the entire Hawks starting five in January 2015. After all, it was an out-of-the-box award even in the moment and, in the decades prior and the five-plus years since, no other five-man lineup has garnered the same recognition. Beyond that, the Hawks famously went down in ugly fashion at the hands of LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals, limping to the finish line as a group that hardly resembled the lofty heights of January.

Still, the Hawks captured something during a 19-game winning streak that included a 17-0 month, and it all happened without the presence of a singular superstar to dominate the proceedings. Famously, Atlanta did not have a single player averaging even 17 (!) points per game on the way to a 60-22 record and, even as the Hawks flattened every opponent that January, Paul Millsap led the way with only 18.3 points per game for the month.

As a team, the Hawks led the NBA in three-point shooting (41.5 percent) and assists (459) for the month, with Eastern Conference-leading marks in net rating, points per game, three-pointers made, field goal percentage, assists, assist-to-turnover ratio and steal-to-turnover ratio. In February, the Hawks sent four (yes, four) players to the 2015 All-Star Game, including the only career appearance for both Korver and Jeff Teague in the NBA’s midseason showcase.

In short, it was a fun time to observe Atlanta Hawks basketball, especially if you value unselfishness play and, yes, teamwork.

“For me, personally, in my 12 years, this is the most fun I’ve ever had playing basketball,” Korver said on ESPN’s SVP and Russillo radio show on Jan. 23, 2015. “We play true team basketball. We play a team game on offense, we play a team game on defense. Everyone talks about us not necessarily having the superstars, but I feel like we have a bunch of really good players who have just bought in to playing together.”

From a five-man lineup perspective, the fabled group of Korver, Carroll, Millsap, Teague and Al Horford wasn’t actually the most effective group for the Hawks that season, outscoring opponents by “only” 8.5 points per 100 possessions. It should be noted, though, that the quintet took the floor as a unit for the second-most minutes (915) of any combination in the NBA that season and things were electric on both ends.

It remains a strange bit of trivia to point out that the 2014-15 Hawks, lauded for their “beautiful game” offense, were actually a better defensive team on the whole. Atlanta’s defensive approach wasn’t as well-chronicled but, ironically, the Hawks also relied on teamwork, communication, and brilliant play from Horford, Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha, among others.

In truth, Atlanta’s approach is difficult to replicate, even if the 2014 San Antonio Spurs arguably topped the Hawks with an unselfish approach that netted perhaps the most aesthetically pleasing championship run in recent memory. In addition, there are other ways to establish teamwork, as evidenced by the beautiful pick-and-roll chemistry displayed by current Hawks Trae Young and John Collins.

As the story goes, things quieted down for the Hawks after the January explosion. Atlanta’s dominant winning percentage cooled, just as Thabo Sefolosha was injured by the NYPD and other injuries mounted. The end result wasn’t pleasing for, well, anyone, and there will always be a vocal contingent criticizing Atlanta for the way things ended, especially due to the fact that the Hawks simply didn’t fit into the traditional box of a championship contender.

Still, there were still signs of greatness by March, with the Hawks compiling a season-high 42 assists in a blowout win over the Sacramento Kings. Following that win, Carroll offered insight that jives perfectly with the prompt of teamwork in the basketball realm, saying plainly that the 2014-15 Hawks just didn’t care who scored and it led to a lot of positive outcomes.

“We’re just unselfish,” Carroll said after that victory. “We don’t care who scores. This is a high-character team. I think that’s why we’re so unselfish, because we’ll pass up a good shot for a great shot. If you have guys like that on your team, who don’t care who gets the glory, you set the record in assists.”

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