The Atlanta Hawks are quite possibly the best story in the NBA this season. When the 2014-15 campaign began, they were a trendy pick to be one of the league's most improved teams - many smart basketball minds projected them to win more than the 38 games they did last year, a mark that just barely got them into the East playoffs. But nobody thought they'd be this good - the Hawks this season have already surpassed that 38 number before the All-Star break, roaring to a 43-10 start that's got them leading the Eastern Conference by a country mile. They even went 17-0 in January.
For anyone who enjoys a good underdog narrative, the Hawks are a godsend. They could be the 67-win team that absolutely nobody saw coming.
Also: For a fan of a rebuilding team that's still crafting its future identity - like, say, I dunno, the Celtics - the Hawks are an inspiration.
This miraculous Atlanta team - which the C's face tonight at the TD Garden, incidentally - has come along at the right time. We're living in a post-Miami Eastern Conference, in which LeBron James' old big three has dissolved and his new one still working to get the timing right. At least at this very moment, the window is open for a new group to rise to power in the East. LeBron and the Heatles have won every East title since the Celtics were in their prime in 2010, but no longer. In short - it's now possible for superstar-less teams to be successful in this conference.
The Hawks have just about perfected the model for that. Paul Millsap, Al Horford and Jeff Teague are far from household names, but they're playing together beautifully this season, and they've developed a system - thanks in no small part to coach Mike Budenholzer and a strong supporting cast - that's taken the NBA by storm.
Watching from a distance, you have to wonder. If the Hawks can be this good without a single MVP-caliber talent on the roster - if all it takes is solid role players, a good coach and a good system - then what's to stop someone else from replicating what they've done?
What's to stop the Celtics?
Don't get me wrong. I'm not predicting that Boston's on the verge of rattling off 19 straight wins the way Atlanta just got done doing. I'm not suggesting that the Celtics' raw, young core of Jared Sullinger, Kelly Olynyk and Marcus Smart has the talent of Millsap, Horford and Teague. I'm not even sure that Brad Stevens, though a fine young coach, quite has the chops of a Budenholzer type just yet. But I am saying that when you observe the Hawks, you get the sense that they're approachable. They're human. There is no NBA deity on that roster like a LeBron or a Kevin Durant or a Tim Duncan. They're the first .800-plus NBA team I can ever remember watching and thinking, "Hey, why can't we do that?"
The Hawks aren't successful because talent fell magically into their laps. There was no draft lottery to give them a No. 1 pick, no max free agent to take his talents to the Appalachian Mountains. All Atlanta did was put together complementary pieces, work hard, develop continuity and improve as a team. If that's not the ideal model for a rebuilding team to follow, then I have no earthly idea what is.
The Celtics are a long way from becoming the next Hawks. Matter of fact, given the scattered group of guys on the roster right now, such a transformation isn't even possible. The C's are still giving too many minutes to transitional players - guys like Evan Turner, Tayshaun Prince and Gerald Wallace - whose roles on the team are little more than stopgap measures while Danny Ainge looks for more meaningful pieces to build around. The 2014-15 Celtics roster isn't a complete team yet. It's a mishmash of guys who happen to make sense on a salary cap spreadsheet, albeit not always on the court.
Having said all of that, the Celtics are already developing a style that occasionally borders on Hawks-esque. They're taking the young talent at their disposal and using it in creative ways, emphasizing ball movement and shooting as means of generating efficient offense.
While "ball movement and shooting" are by no means original concepts, the Hawks are unique in how proficient their entire roster has been, big men included. For more depth on this topic, I'd highly recommend reading Jonathan Tjarks' fantastic essay about Atlanta, which discusses the team's ability to succeed by playing a five-out style that maximizes spacing. The Hawks are good at generating open looks in large part because Horford and Millsap are able to play brilliantly on the perimeter, using their ball-handling and shooting abilities to stretch the opposing defense.
This may well be the direction the entire NBA is moving. In the near future, it won't matter whether you're a 5-foot-11 point guard or a hulking 7-footer - everyone will be expected to pass and shoot effectively. The Hawks are succeeding with that model already.
Can the Celtics do it too?
Above is an example of one thing that makes the Hawks' offense brilliant - Al Horford's shooting touch from mid-range. Watch as Horford sets a pick on Thabo Sefolosha's man, Bojan Bogdanovic, momentarily detaining him at the elbow and giving Thabo some room to drive. If Horford were a weaker shooting big man, like an Andre Drummond type, he'd have to roll to the rim after this pick, thus clogging up the paint and making it tougher to get a good look. But Horford can afford to linger - and in so doing, he generates an easy shot as both Brooklyn defenders collapse on Sefolosha. Horford is shooting 50.4 percent from between 16 feet and the 3-point line this season, so it's no trouble at all for him to drill the open jumper.
Now let's watch the Celtics do something similar:
Not bad, right? Kelly Olynyk is playing the part of Horford here, as you see him handle the ball and set a quick pick on Evan Turner's man, James Ennis, before rolling to the rim. Turner doesn't go to him right away, but after a couple of quick passes around the perimeter, Olynyk is able to cheat back out and get good position for an 18-foot jumper. After a kickout to Turner, the Celtics' pointman finds Olynyk for the bucket. Again, same concept - the Celtics should thank their lucky stars they've got a center who can shoot. If Olynyk were Kendrick Perkins, the spacing on this play would have been a complete mess.
Of course, the other reason for the Hawks' success, besides "everyone can shoot," is the accompanying "everyone can pass." Paul Millsap, arguably the best player on arguably the best team in the NBA this season, has been a shining example in that department.
I love, love, love this clip. It's really hard to be successful in the NBA with one-dimensional players who look to attack the basket every single time they approach the paint - you need to mix it up to avoid becoming predictable. What Millsap does here is awesome. First he runs a pick-and-pop with Teague to block out Steph Curry. Then he lingers on the perimeter and waits for Teague's kickout - and when he finally gets the ball, he threatens to shoot right away, then switches it up and drives into the lane. When you think he's going up with it, he then throws you off again with the swing to DeMarre Carroll for the corner 3-pointer.
Millsap is a great player because he's a constant threat to shoot, to drive and to pass. When he can tantalize you with all three, all in one fluid motion - and when everyone around him is a knock-down shooter - he's just about impossible to stop. You've basically got to hope someone misses.
To say the least, it's not easy for the Celtics to emulate plays like that one. Here's their best attempt:
All in all, a mighty solid effort on this play by Jared Sullinger, who runs a pick-and-roll with Evan Turner that results in a decent look at the basket from about 8 feet, just inside the paint. Sullinger could potentially make that shot, but with Philadelphia's Nerlens Noel and Luc Mbah a Moute lingering at the rim, he instead kicks out to the corner for Brandon Bass, who's wide open. Swish.
You can see from the above examples that, at least on rare occasion, the Celtics are capable of playing Hawks-like basketball. The best thing Atlanta does is show versatility with its bigs, and the Celtics have two guys in Olynyk and Sullinger that can replicate that from time to time.
The problem right now (well, one of them anyway) is that those pretty plays don't happen often enough. Olynyk still has moments where he's unable to get to his sweet spots on the floor, or he gets there but is too hesitant to shoot. Sullinger still has weaknesses with his shooting range and his court vision. The nice plays happen, as they did in the two examples you just witnessed, but they're too few and too far between right now.
This is a long-term process. The Celtics won't master this style of play overnight, nor is it possible for them to do so - they still need to add several pieces to this roster before it's anywhere near completion. It's always difficult to find a rhythm on the floor when your rotation is constantly being yanked around by personnel moves and the other shoe (a shoe that's probably named Brandon Bass) might drop at any second.
But these Celtics are growing. They're showing signs of improvement every day. A couple of months ago, they were hamstrung with uncertainty over the future of Rajon Rondo - who, it's worth noting, made it difficult to implement any kind of system at all because he so enjoys creating plays his own way in a "random" offense. The Celtics now are confident in the core group they have moving forward. Olynyk, Sullinger, Smart and Avery Bradley are the nucleus that they're building around - and while four players is far from a full roster, it's enough that the C's can begin to forge a new style of play and craft an identity.
In a way, comparing the Celtics to the Hawks is silly. The two teams are doing battle tonight, and I'd sooner predict a 25-point Hawks blowout win than a competitive game. On the other hand? Give it three or four years. Keep watching this Celtics team evolve in the coming seasons, and they might just build something worth writing home about. The Celtics aren't the talk of the league now, but ask me again in 2018.