It’s easy to get caught up in narratives, especially on Twitter. Nothing can be good without something else being bad. As the Cavs blew out the Hawks to reach the NBA Finals, I saw this play out all over my timeline. The Hawks are the worst 60-win team of all time. Their phenomenal regular-season success wasn’t for real because they fell apart in the playoffs. You just can’t win in the playoffs without a superstar.
That, or, a very good team that absolutely could have made the Finals ran into some bad injury luck and one of the most dominant performances of LeBron James’ career.
At the beginning of the season, I picked the Hawks to win 48 games in PBT’s season previews. That seemed high at the time. It turns out I lowballed them by 12. Just about everything broke right for Atlanta after a summer that couldn’t have gone much worse. The racism controversy and lingering uncertainty about ownership could have hung over the team all year like the Donald Sterling scandal did over the Clippers during last year’s playoffs, but it didn’t. Mike Budenholzer achieved total buy-in to a system built on ball movement and passing up good shots to get great shots.
The downside to a system like that, though, is that all of the pieces have to be in place, and once injuries start to take their toll and players’ roles shift, the entire thing can unravel. The Hawks weren’t the same after Thabo Sefolosha’s run-in with the NYPD sidelined him for the year, and all throughout the playoffs they battled injuries to Al Horford’s finger, Paul Millsap’s shoulder and DeMarre Carroll’s knee before losing Kyle Korver to a season-ending ankle injury. Every team has dealt with injuries in the playoffs, and some handle it better than others. In that way, it’s easier to weather that storm when you have LeBron James. But that the Hawks lost to him should not be an indictment of their season or of Danny Ferry’s approach to team building.
In no way is the Hawks’ philosophy dependent on not having a star — they went hard after Chris Paul and Dwight Howard in the summer of 2013 and even sniffed around Carmelo Anthony last summer. When they didn’t get one of those players, they were forced to regroup, and they deserve credit for maximizing their reality as well as they possibly could have, targeting the right role players and putting them in the right spots. If the Bulls don’t fall apart in the second round, maybe Atlanta faces a more favorable matchup in the Conference Finals, and then suddenly we might be talking about the Hawks going to the Finals.
The Hawks have a lot of questions to answer this summer, chief among them the worth of Millsap and Carroll. One of those questions isn’t whether they can win without a star, as if they can make one materialize out of thin air. They have the infrastructure in place now, and if everyone can get healthy, there’s no reason to believe they can’t be serious contenders again next year.
Until then, they and their fans should be proud of what they accomplished.