Of all the surprises of this NBA season – rise of the Warriors, collapse of the Pacers, Kobe out for the remainder, LeBron on a roller coaster, Love on the bench — perhaps nothing is as unexpected as the Atlanta Hawks posting the best record in the league after last season’s 38-44.
Because second-year coach Mike Budenholzer spent 18 years assisting Gregg Popovich, who built championships for San Antonio, the Hawks are being called “Spurs East.”
At first glance, that seems implausible. There’s no recognizable superstar in Atlanta, no Tim Duncan, no Tony Parker. The Hawks are a young team still developing. Only one of their starters is older than 28: sharp-shooting guard Kyle Kover, 33.
But Budenholzer has replicated the Popovich system: every position manned by a player who can shoot, pass and play defense with high energy. All-Star point guard Jeff Teague, 26, works the clock to find the open man. This is team basketball at its finest.
Flip Saunders, coach of the Minnesota Timberwolves, said, “Until you are there and playing against it, you don’t really understand it. It took us almost a half to understand how good they really were. They’re the best combination offensive and defensive team we’ve played.”
Since Jan. 11 the Hawks have had seven games with 30 assists. The other 29 teams have combined for six such games during this period. All five Atlanta starters have led the team in scoring in at least one game, and the second string is almost as strong as the first. All the starters are above 30% on 3’s. The team collectively is hitting 39% of its bombs.
Atlanta’s 6-10 center Al Holford averages 15.2 points per game, mostly operating alone in the low post, where he’s making 65% of his shots. But his shooting stats are good at all ranges: 54% overall, 33% on 3’s, 75% on free throws.
“I have a good rhythm right now,” Holford said, “and I’m taking open shots. My teammates are setting me up. It’s easy.”
Korver, leading the league with 53% on 3-pointers, and Holford are always kept fresh for the final four minutes of the game.
Meanwhile, Atlanta’s defense is allowing 93.3 points per 100 possessions – the third-best showing in the league.
DeMarre Carroll, 6-8, 212-pound small forward, is solid offensively (11.8 ppg) and is one of best perimeter defenders in the league. Power forward Paul Millsap (35% on 3’s), plays mostly a high post to give Holford room down low. But Millsap is a rugged interior defender and rebounder (7.9 per game).
Popovich sees Budenholzer, 45, as a younger version of himself. “I brought him in as a video guy, no pay, no tickets,” he told the San Antonio Express-News. “Just go in the back room there, and when I ask you for something, give it to me. Don’t talk to me. . . . And from there he’s doing what I’m doing.”
Budenholzer, who will coach the Eastern Conference in the Feb. 15 All-Star Game in New York, believes his Hawks can supplant the Spurs as NBA champions. “The team for the most part is in place,” he said.
Not that the Hawks haven’t had their struggles. There were doubts Budenholzer was the right coach for a young team when he was arrested for DUI just weeks after he was hired.
Danny Ferry, the general manager who hired Budenholzer, has been on leave of absence ever since he made some remarks early in September that sounded bigoted and were publicly disseminated.
Budenholzer is de facto GM for now, but the team is up for sale — after owner Bruce Levenson was caught sending out racially insensitive e-mails. The new ownership may want a new general manager, who may want his own coach. Hawks fans can only hope that does not turn out to be the case.