Atlanta Hawks: From Controversy to Chemistry, Team Culture, Selflessness, and the Limits of Formulaic Roster Construction


Hawks starters: Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and Jeff Teague.

Hawks starters: Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and Jeff Teague.

Late last summer, after NBA observers were infatuated with the free-agency dealings of LeBron James, Chris Bosh, Pau Gasol, and others, the Atlanta Hawks made headlines. Not for signing any of these big names, but instead for their front office attitudes. Then controlling-owner Bruce Levenson’s inflammatory and myopic (yes, we can also say “racist”) 2012 e-mail became the talk of the league in the post-Sterling landscape. Levenson’s email was intended for the rest of the ownership group. His ideas about how to bring fans back to Philips Arena and how to excite the city were filled with misguided ideas about race. In many ways, there are two Atlantas: one involves the wealthy white suburbs; the other involves the newly-developing black city. Though there is a strong black middle and upper-middle class in Atlanta, the Hawks were not all-that-popular among portions of the affluent black population (rumors of fans coming to the arena to see opposing team’s stars as often as their own team), and were entirely unpopular among the wealthy white suburban population. Levenson basically implied that the only way for the franchise to succeed was to bring in wealthy whites, and that the black population was scaring them off. Essentially, he was imploring the rest of the owners to write off the black fan-base. In a league where not only are the vast majority of players African-American, but the fans are young and diverse.

As Derek Thompson noted in a February, 2014 issue of The Atlantic (based on 2013 Nielson ratings)45 percent of NBA viewers are under 35, and of all the major sports, the highest percentage watched by black viewers (45 percent of NBA viewers, more than three times higher than black viewers of NCAA basketball or the NFL). So yes, Levenson was saying all those fans should be ignored. They aren’t wealthy enough to care about. Thankfully, Levenson’s views were exposed and he was forced to sell the team (and make millions more). Granted, this line of thinking is likely far more prevalent in NBA front offices than most realize.

Ironically, GM Danny Ferry is hugely responsible for building this current version of the Atlanta Hawks roster. The Hawks attempted to lure Dwight Howard back to his hometown, but missed out. Instead, Ferry and coach Mike Budenholzer, both of whom have strong ties to the San Antonio Spurs franchise, showed restraint and picked up Paul Millsap on a ridiculously valuable two year deal for $19 million. Rest assured that Millsap will garner an enormous deal this summer. The controversy in Atlanta exploded again after Ferry’s comments regarding free-agent Luol Deng became public. The offending line, “Deng has a little African in him.” Ferry may have been reading the words of a scout, but he apparently didn’t deem it necessary to edit out the racist line of thinking. The scout was apparently claiming that Deng was not entirely honest, crafting some anecdote about an African shopkeeper who sells bad shit out of the back of his store, while keeping up appearances out front.

In any event, the actual Hawks basketball team became an after-thought heading into the season. Which may be exactly how Mike Budenholzer likes it best. After all, his name was an after-thought before he finally landed his first NBA head-coaching gig after 17 years (17!) as an assistant in San Antonio. Before heading further into the success of the team, and the importance of chemistry, think about this:

This group of teammates played without their center last year (Horford went down with a season-ending injury early in the year). They were the 8th seed and pushed the 1st seeded Pacers to a 7th game. Nobody gave them much credit because the Pacers were the NBA’s would-be contenders, who garnered all the attention with their late-season free-fall. The beginning of the season under Budenholzer showed promises of an efficent, ball-movement and spacing style offense. Then the season ends and the front office shit hits the fan.

In a way, this must have brought the team together. All the chaos and controversy, combined with low expectations from a frustrated fan-base. Chemistry is often born out of adversity.

***

Below, I’ve included an excerpt from Steve McPherson’s Rolling Stone piece on the Atlanta Hawks. McPherson explains that the typical way of looking at NBA roster construction has its limits, and that these Hawks don’t make sense according to those general trends. I love how he elaborates on the ineffable and unexpected success of the Hawks. So many NBA writers can’t “see the forest for the trees,” as the expression goes.

Advanced stats certainly give us strong evidence of how to play efficient offensive basketball: 1) Long two-point jumpers are usually bad shots, because they tend to be contested, except this matters less when Nowitzki or LaMarcus Aldridge are shooting them; 2) Corner three-pointers are the most prized shot in the game; 3) Sharing the ball is always preferable to isolation-ball (unless you have Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, but even then, it’s still usually preferable), but getting good shots is about shifting the defense, setting great picks, and off-ball movement, rather than making lots of useless passes. 4) Everything is easier in transition.

These main tenets of offense have been around since Red Auerbach began preaching the outlet pass. Efficient basketball usually involves great passing and spacing, which is aesthetically pleasing. Last season’s Spurs team. The Warriors, Blazers, and now the Hawks. We love watching these offenses because they are fluid and unpredictable, and three-pointers are inherently dramatic, as the ball arcs through the air, building tension in flight. We also like watching John Wall, Derrick Rose, and Russell Westbrook with their unmatched individual athleticism. The team success of San Antonio, Golden State, Atlanta, and Portland show that balanced scoring and fluid ball movement are here to stay. The modern NBA is a share-the-wealth league.

The reality is that ideas like “team culture” and “chemistry” are complex and malleable. Josh Smith is not known as any kind of disruption to clubhouse chemistry, but the way he plays simply didn’t mesh with the other four Pistons starters. Plug in Kyle Singler, and bring in a healthy Jodie Meeks off the bench, and suddenly, the Pistons have great on-court chemistry, and everyone feels more comfortable in their roles. Brandon Jennings (pre-Achilles injury) has a 24-point, 21-assist game. Unthinkable to most Jennings observers over the years. The…puzzle…pieces..began to fit perfectly. (What a brutal time for Jennings to go down for the season).

ESPN the Magazine’s April baseball issue tried very hard to quantify chemistry. It correctly predicted that the Kansas City Royals would have excellent clubhouse chemistry because of their “high isolation score,” which they based in part on the fact that 8 of their 10 projected pitchers were American. If one considers the amount of time pitchers on major league rosters spend off the mound (not actually pitching) it stands to reason that the more those pitchers enjoy being around each other, the greater the chance that those pitchers are able to stay positive through the ups and downs of a 162-game season. The Royals bullpen propelled them to post-season glory, but not without a strong dose of luck in the wild-card game.

What about how basketball team’s are constructed? What about how players complement each other? What about character, chemistry, and intelligence? This is the stuff that turns good teams (in all sports) into great teams. As coach George Karl noted after his 3rd-seeded Denver Nuggets were upset by the 6th-seeded Golden State Warriors in the 2013 NBA Playoffs, it becomes evident each year in the playoffs. From Mark Kiszla in The Denver Post;

For the eighth time in his nine seasons as Denver coach, George Karl was bumped off in the opening round of the playoffs, this time blowing the opportunity of home-court advantage provided by the third seed in the Western Conference.

Elimination games measure the size of the heart as much as the depth of a team’s talent.

“The more you move up the ladder of success in the NBA, character, chemistry and intelligence become more valuable. Talent becomes less valuable,” Karl said. “There are 10 teams in the league that have enough talent to win a championship. There are probably three, by the end of the playoffs that have the character and the chemistry to actually win the championship. And you’re eliminated somewhere along the way by your chemistry, by your character or by your intelligence, not by your talent.”

There’s no polite way of saying it.

Sure, Denver fought to the end. But this series was blown when the Nuggets got pushed around and lost their aura of invincibility at home, where they had been 38-3 during the regular season, when they squeaked out a victory in Game 1 and let the Warriors steal Game 2.

“In Game 2 we gave back everything we worked to get 57 wins and the third seed. … And that’s on me,” Karl said.

***

From Steve McPherson’s piece:

We tend to think of teams as constructed, of teams in the present as a result of foresight and planning, of teams in the future as the product of design and intention. Cap room acquired for Free Agent X; enough losses to likely secure Draft Pick Y; role players acquired to fit neatly around the development of Rookie Z.

But in ways that count a great deal more than we’re fully comfortable with, teams are more accumulations than designs. Preparing for that, and succeeding within that context, doesn’t mean planning for every contingency so much as being comfortable with constant adaptation, with developing an ability to let go and embrace with equal ferocity.

In spite of our desire to see it that way, basketball is not a problem to be solved. Which is not to say there isn’t a science to it, but science has never genuinely been about erasing doubt, about securing certainty. It’s about learning to live with doubt, in finding paths through it while knowing uncertainty still impinges on the borders.

An NBA season is more landscape than building and the Hawks, partly by design and partly by happenstance, have come across a terroir – a group of players, a coach, a system, an approach – that is producing some of the NBA’s finest play right now. Whether it will hold up under the harsh glare and focused attention of the playoffs is another matter, but they can’t face that problem before they get to it. Instead, they’ll rely on the philosophy that got Korver through his first misogi, when he paddle-boarded the 25 miles of open water from the Channel Islands to Santa Barbara:

“Everything falls into place by doing the smallest thing perfectly.”

***

Wikipedia entry for “Misogi” focused on use in martial arts and mental preparation.

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