The Finals matchup is set, and thanks to a scheduling quirk and two mostly non-competitive conference finals series, we’ve got nearly an entire week with no basketball. It’s a good time to revisit how we got here.
On Tuesday night the first-seeded Atlanta Hawks got swept out of the playoffs by LeBron James and what Cleveland Cavaliers general manager David Griffin found on the ground after holding Phil Jackson upside down and shaking him real hard. The tearful farewell columns began showing up before the game even started. Evidently the war against really good basketball players rolls on, or something.
From the time they rocketed to the front of the Eastern Conference in December and continuing through the league smarmily awarding January’s Eastern Conference Player of the Month award to Atlanta’s entire starting five to today, the Hawks have been posed by sportswriters as a basketball revolution, a walking rebuke to the NBA’s emphasis on superstar players. “While there are no superstars,” wrote Beckley Mason of the New York Times back in January, “the Hawks are loaded with highly skilled, smart players who are committed to making the game easier for one another.” Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins went full schlongform on “the story of the Hawks and the modern NBA, discovering a better way to play, which was evident all along.” A Hardwood Paroxysm basketblogger wrote that “The Hawks’ MVP is the fact that they have no MVP.” And so on.
The eulogies are working in that same vein. Bleacher Report’s Howard Beck, who filed his before Game 4, wants us to know that, although the Hawks might fall, the dream of “traditional basketball values” lives on in the hearts of all bounce-passing children or whatever:
The ledger shows the Cleveland Cavaliers with three victories, and the Hawks with zero in the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals. Team LeBron is poised for a landslide victory, and the pundits are ready to pounce. “It’s still a superstars’ league,” they will sneer.
This is not how the Hawks’ campaign of hope and change was supposed to end.
Atlanta set out to win on traditional basketball values, of selflessness and character, on a spread-the-wealth offense and a salt-of-the-earth defense. They ran a campaign of egalitarian ideals, believing that a group of solid, skilled players could prevail over the NBA’s entrenched superstar paradigm.
Oh for chrissakes. Cast thine eyes across yon river Styx, bard; yea verily, Leonidas and his brave Spartans doth make the wanking motion at thy silly shit.
This Atlanta Hawks: Anarcho-Syndicalist Basketball Commune stuff is nonsense, of course. By what standard is three-time All-Star and max contract player Al Horford not a superstar, but two-time All-Star and max contract player John Wall, who shoots less frequently and creates more baskets for his teammates, is one? Steph Curry’s Warriors recorded more assists, secondary assists, and assist opportunities per game than the Hawks this season—are they out here valiantly keeping the flame lit for traditional basketball values? For that matter, the Knicks threw nearly 40 more passes per game than the Hawks did this season. Are they beacons of selflessness in a game hijacked by superstar egos?
Pictured: The Giving Tree selflessly handing over its leaves.
(Also, in exactly which tradition is a “spread-the-wealth offense” some old-time basketball virtue? Certainly not the one in which George Mikan and Jim Pollard attempted more than half of the Minneapolis Lakers’ shots en route to the NBA’s first championship. Not the one in which Wilt Chamberlain took over 39 shots per game in 1960, either. Hell, Lew Alcindor accounted for a quarter of the shot attempts on Basketball Moses John Wooden’s magical undefeated 1966-67 UCLA team all by himself. Do the 2002 Sacramento Kings really have that rich a legacy?)
Here’s ESPN’s Kevin Arnovitz, like Beck a very smart basketball writer, adding a verse to this epic poem in his postmortem:
The Hawks would demure if you called them romantic, but there’s something very aspirational about what they’re trying to do as a team and a basketball organization. Korver talks about it most willingly when he describes the satisfaction of building something, and Carroll does, too, when he gets going about “Hawks basketball.”
This is the idea that an NBA team can put structure before talent, that culture and system and trust can be the basis for success. Of course, a team needs talent to win, and few things annoy Budenholzer more than a nation of basketball pundits declaring his team isn’t talented. But the notion that you take the best talent on the board in free agency and the draft, then worry about sculpting it into something cohesive doesn’t wash with the Hawks.
But actually: hogwash.
First of all, however they may congratulate themselves, Atlanta’s braintrust didn’t begin assembling this team with a system in mind, or a conscious preference for unexceptional (“very good”) players. Nobody was out here saying Hey, let’s look for try-hards with modest ceilings, that’s the ticket to victory. They didn’t draft Horford third overall, one spot behind Kevin Durant, because they figured he wouldn’t be a dominant player. They certainly weren’t going to trade him away for a selfless scrub if he turned into Karl Malone. He just turned out not to be.
More to the point, Horford (and Jeff Teague, drafted 19th overall two years later) weren’t selected for system fit: The system the Hawks ran to such success this season was still years away from arriving when those guys did. A long series of personnel moves left those two—that is to say, a terrific big man just entering his prime, and a terrific young point guard, both of whom are good at basketball in precisely the ways that good bigs and good point guards are good at basketball across the NBA—as the team’s drafted core. If neither one happens to be a “superstar” (yet), it’s not because Atlanta chose them for system fit despite low ceilings, or has a preference for non-superstars—Easy on the development there, Jeff, we don’t need any of that “transcendent excellence” crap around here—but because the players they selected with those two moves turned out to peak a little lower than the absolute apex of individual ability. Like virtually all players do.
The Hawks looked at what they had, and they built on it. Teague and Horford are sharp ballhandlers and passers, and good scorers from inside the arc, so the team went out and got shooters who could work off the ball, space the floor for them, and take advantage of open looks. Horford’s one of the best defensive big men in basketball, which gave the team the luxury of prioritizing shooting at its other frontcourt spots, so the Hawks got Paul Millsap, Pero Antic, and Mike Scott. When they needed a coach, they hired a veteran of San Antonio’s staff, who had years of experience in a system tailored to the abilities of a diversely skilled two-way big man and a scoring point guard.
This is to say, they identified their stars, and sculpted the team to fit them. That’s what the great Suns teams did when they surrounded Steve Nash and Amar’e Stoudemire with interchangeable dudes who could shoot and run the floor. It’s what the Rockets did when they surrounded James Harden with tough defenders like Trevor Ariza, Patrick Beverley, and Corey Brewer, so he could focus on offense. It’s why the Spurs have kept a steady supply of stretch bigs around to make room for Tim Duncan and Tony Parker. It’s why the Warriors traded for Andrew Bogut. It’s what teams do.
This only seems audacious and countercultural in the Hawks’ case because neither Horford nor Teague is a volume scorer or has a reputation as particularly sexy to watch. But a strong regular season followed by a deep playoff run is precisely the type of thing that realigns these sorts of evaluations, when it’s not being wedged into a dumb, ill-fitting sports morality fable. Last season’s performance in the playoffs rewrote the book on John Wall; the 2013 playoffs changed everybody’s perception of Paul George. Maybe the Hawks do have star players. Maybe they’re a good team in the way good teams are good, and not because they’re the fucking Borg! Maybe they’re just not good enough to win three straight playoff series. Maybe they need better frontcourt depth and another wing. And maybe flaming out in the conference finals wouldn’t seem so weirdly shameful if they hadn’t been saddled with the burden of vindicating every dumbfuck bromide about the ascendant moral superiority of quick passing and balanced shot distribution.
Even Atlanta’s lauded and frequently gorgeous style of play, in which (mostly prior to the playoffs) the ball moved continuously on its way to whomever sharp cuts and screens got open, without ever seeming to bog down in the hands of an isolation scorer, is built to take advantage of Teague and Horford’s strengths as passers and quick and savvy decision-makers. Those are strengths they already possessed when Mike Budenholzer arrived to wed a structure to them. Structure didn’t come before talent, and talent is not subservient to it. Quite the opposite. The structure was built on the particular contours of Atlanta’s talent, and worked because of it.
Until it didn’t anymore. A beat-up Hawks team that even at its best would have no real answer for LeBron James staggered into the Eastern Conference Finals and got whomped by possibly the best player who ever lived. The only part of it that’s particularly revealing is the sportswriters mourning the death of a story they were telling themselves. This outcome doesn’t render a verdict on the stars-versus-systems binary, because it’s false to begin with; every good team is a system serving the talent on hand, and an NBA postseason takes the measure of both.
Talent did not defeat system; system wasn’t why the Hawks were in the Eastern Conference Finals in the first place. Nor was their system “destroyed,” as SB Nation has it. The better team played better basketball and beat the worse one, as tends to happen. A good team finished its season short of a ring, like all but one of them will.
Along the way, did the Hawks prove that star-free, post-human, system basketball can win in the NBA? Nah. They’re ineligible to do so. They proved that they’ve got a pretty good team, built around two pretty good stars, before a better team built around a better star proved that they’re not quite good enough. Keep the odes; the campaign that ended was a basketball season, and not a revolution.
Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org. Photos via AP