Apr 24, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague (0) shows emotion after a shot against the Indiana Pacers in the third quarter in game three of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Hawks: A Missed Opportunity But A Bright Future

May 1, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks players take the court for pre game warm ups before their game against the Indiana Pacers in game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

For Atlanta Hawks fans, the last few months have consisted of people telling them how bad their team is. Whether it was from the national media, or the casual NBA fan, they were told that as a sub-.500 team in a “terrible conference,” they were a waste of everyone’s time. It’s something that’s become apparent in recent years, that a large number of people make their judgements by watching the standings, rather than actually watching basketball.

Anyone who regularly watched the Hawks this season would have a very different perspective though. The 2013-14 Hawks have been as dynamic and unselfish a group that you could have found in the NBA this year. Confronted by significant adversity, the character and work ethic of the squad shone through.

If we rewind the clock back to Dec. 26, the night Al Horford tore his pectoral muscle, the Hawks were third in the East, three games above .500. Exactly a month later, having lost their best player to injury, they were still third, with a record of 23-20. It was soon after that, that the season would turn for the worst as the team went on a run of losing 14 out of 15 games.

I suppose for that to happen, they must be a terrible team though, right? Well, it seems pretty tough to win games when you have Al Horford, Gustavo Ayon and John Jenkins already ruled out for the season, and then Paul Millsap, Pero Antic, Kyle Korver and DeMarre Carroll all miss significant chunks of a tough road trip out West. As outstanding a contribution as 34-year-old Elton Brand made this year, you don’t want him to have to play 43 minutes with Mike Scott as backup center.

All in all, the Hawks will look back on this season as an opportunity missed, but a sign of huge progress. If Horford had been healthy, Atlanta could really have gone far this year, but perhaps more important is the development the franchise is making as a whole. It’s just two years since the Hawks had one of the most inflexible salary bills in the NBA. Joe Johnson was tied down to an excessive, long-term contract. Marvin Williams, the man that was drafted over Chris Paul and Deron Williams, had a generous long-term contract too.

May 29, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks general manager Danny Ferry takes questions while introducing Mike Budenholzer as the new head coach during a press conference at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

As soon as Danny Ferry arrived as the new general manager, everything began to change though. Johnson and Williams were moved on, as was Josh Smith last summer, not just as a move to free up cap space, but to implement a complete change of culture in the organization. Ferry, a disciple of R.C. Buford and Gregg Popovich in San Antonio, dreams of making the Hawks the Spurs of the East, and the early signs are positive in that sense.

In the front office, smart acquisitions have been made to sign unselfish, team-first guys with an emphasis on 3-point shooting and defense. With Ferry installing long-time Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer as head coach this year, the team has finally moved away from the isolation basketball that had them boring spectators around the league for a number of years.

With an emphasis on ball movement, the Hawks led the league in assists for most of the season, only being overtaken by the Spurs themselves near the season’s end. With or without Horford in the lineup, Budenholzer encourages his team to make the extra pass and work for the open shot, instead of having a couple of go-to guys create a stagnant and static offense. Although the series with the Pacers was far from the team’s best shooting performance, the philosophy of having five guys who can score either inside or out, will likely remain a feature of Hawks basketball in the coming years.

Off the court, the season has closed with positives too. Lifelong Atlanta resident Steve Koonin, who has proven to be a marketing and media guru during his time with Turner Entertainment and Coca Cola, has become the new Hawks CEO. Koonin is committed to improving the Hawks reputation, and particularly, the attendance at games in Atlanta, as the franchise looks to keep growing. The three home games with the Pacers during this post-season saw Philips Arena, and the fans, as engaged as they have been for a number of years, and the aim will now be to sustain that positivity.

May 1, 2014; Atlanta, GA, USA; Indiana Pacers center Roy Hibbert (55) and Atlanta Hawks forward Paul Millsap (4) battle for the tipoff of game six of the first round of the 2014 NBA Playoffs at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

With the Eastern Conference playoffs feeling more open than usual this year, it would be easy to feel that the Hawks have blown their chance to break their long standing drought, and reach a conference finals. Instead, Hawks fans should focus on all the positives of this year though, and how the most enjoyable Atlanta team to watch for a number of years has left them with many memories.

There was Kyle Korver’s record breaking 3-point streak, Al Horford’s buzzer beating game-winner, Pero Antic’s one-legged fadeaway 3, Paul Millsap’s All-Star appearance, the return of playoff Jeff Teague and Mike Scott’s explosive Game 5 in Indianapolis. The season had many memorable moments, but the future could have even more.

Make sure to whisper it, but there’s every chance, that even the Hawks can become a force in the NBA.

Tags: Atlanta Hawks

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