Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Of The Atlanta Hawks, Championship Aspirations, and Patience

Jeff Teague could have a huge year. Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

Jeff Teague could have a huge year. Credit: Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

“What’s my motivation?”

It’s a phrase normally queried by well-off hollywood actors and actresses.

It seems the answer is always “a championship. That’s the ultimate goal”. Every time we hear it from an athlete or coach, it always seems so fake. Like a rehearsed hollywood movie line that repetition has stripped it of any true emotion. I understand that every single aspiring basketball player desires to win a championship more than can be put into words, but the will the win is not enough, despite what certain First Take pundits may claim. It takes talent, discipline, bold risk-taking and certainly a fair share of good luck.

We all watched the magnificent 2013 NBA Finals: the defending champion Miami Heat in serious trouble late in Game 6, the shot by Ray Allen to send it into overtime, the confetti dropping after Game 7. Could that be the Hawks in the near or far future? Could John Jenkins or Kyle Korver be the one draining a three pointer to save your Atlanta Hawks in the finals?

It is possible.

However, sorry to break the news to you, but it won’t be happening in June 2014. Probably not June 2015 either. I would love to be so very wrong but the immediate outlook of the team reads as closer to a .500 team than a serious threat to the Miami Heat, Oklahoma Thunder, or any other top shelf team.

So what do we do now? We wait.

It’s a hard pill to swallow; that we won’t even see the fruits of a first round pick in Lucas Nogueira until at least 2014 is but one of many reasons patience is required. The roster has essentially been filled out for this season and the core of Teague-Millsap-Horford will be kept together for at least another season beyond that barring a trade.

Atlanta Hawks fans and Atlanta Hawks observers both agree that the status quo is not nearly enough; the threat of a second round run is a too low a goal. That’s been a fact beaten into the fan’s heads by all kinds of talking heads and NBA bloggers. That the past outlook is merely average, mediocre, meh.

Many fans have become so enamored with the possibility that a championship can be had by swooping down for a convenient but very impactful free agent signing for trade, a la the 2008 Boston Celtics or 2009 Los Angeles Lakers, that it becomes a long slog to try to build slowly.

For example, the Pacers unloaded in the middle of the aughts and it’s been a long climb to reach the point of giving the Heat all it can handle in the Eastern Conference playoffs. Paul George and Roy Hibbert were drafted. George Hill was the target of a trade. David West was a free agent signing. It took the steady hand of Larry Bird and other to bring together a cohesive unit that brings competitiveness and selflessness every single night. Likewise for the Memphis Grizzlies in the wake of trading Pau Gasol to Los Angeles, who provided less resistance to the San Antonio Spurs in the Western Conference Finals. They rescued Zach Randolph from near career suicide, found a second round gem in Pau’s brother Marc and Mike Conley Jr. was the product of drafting and grooming.

Can Jeff Teague and/or Dennis Schröder follow the phoenix-like path Conley underwent and become a upper echelon force at the point guard position? Can the Al Horford-Paul Millsap duo become a ragtag pair of big bodies that rivals West-Hibbert or Randolph-Gasol? It is certainly possible but none of this will happen overnight. It took multiple years of the same core being together before they were serious threats for the title.

Though I would imagine Millsap to fit in without incident, seeing Josh Smith walk is not just about losing talent. It’s the high-low pick and roll plays with Horford we will miss. It’s Josh anticipating Horford’s man on defense and helping from the weak side. It’s the result of nothing we can measure with our eyes or any other of the five conventional senses; the mental, extrasensory connection Smith and Horford shared after residing in the same frontcourt for 6 seasons.

Such are the results from somewhat necessary roster turnover. But still I believe we have begun trekking down the most plausible path to the top for a mid-market, low attention destination to which free agents are not exactly flocking.

Some magazines, Slam or Dime for example, often post full pictured front covers declaring which high school basketball prospect “has got next”. At some point he will arrive or he will become a bust. There are LeBron James’s and there are Stromile Swift’s. The same can be applied to teams in the Association. But how will we know when we have arrived? What makes a successful team from a previously unsuccessful background? How can we measure and predict the championship ability of a team?

Team record seems like a good benchmark. Zach Lowe of Grantland puts championship contention at about 55 regular season wins. The last time the Hawks hit 55 wins, Dennis Schröder was 4 years old. The Hawks have only exceed that 55 win plateau 3 times in since moving south from St. Louis in 1968.

Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford high-fives fans on his way off the court after the Hawks' 83-80, come-from-behind victory over the Chicago Bulls in an NBA basketball game Wednesday, March 2, 2011, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Curtis Compton) ** GWINNETT OUT MARIETTA OUT **

Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford high-fives fans on his way off the court after the Hawks’ 83-80, come-from-behind victory over the Chicago Bulls in an NBA basketball game Wednesday, March 2, 2011, in Atlanta. (AP Photo/Atlanta Journal & Constitution, Curtis Compton) ** GWINNETT OUT MARIETTA OUT **

Many in the advanced statistics community will refer questioners to the Four Factors, those being Offensive Rebounding Percentage, Turnover Percentage, Effective Field Goal Percentage, and Free Throw Rate or Free Throws/Field Goal.

But the Miami Heat were a dreadful offensive rebounding team in 2012-13, finishing in the bottom 5 teams in the difference in offensive and defensive rebounding. They were also only merely average when it comes to turnover differential or getting to the free throw line more than their opponents. It certainly seems possible to eschew some of those areas and still succeed. Maybe it is something that lies beyond numbers.

It’s no secret the new regime of the Hawks have modeled the organization after the one that resides in San Antonio, which has brought home 4 titles in the last 15 years and were literally inches of a Ray Allen shot from a fifth. This is a proven method. It can be accomplished without players whose comments have become newspaper headlines or blog posts about extracurricular activities in nightclubs.

There no guarantee the Hawks will ever become that model franchise. In fact, there has already been a somewhat high profile character incident in the form of Coach Mike Budenholzer’s DUI. It’s an inauspicious start to the era to be sure, but it should not have any bearing on the performance on the court by the time late October rolls around.

But do we know for certain? Of course not. Maybe Coach Bud loses the respect of the locker room. It’s certainly doubtful but there’s little in this game we can truly predict with completely certainty. That’s why we as fans love sports. There’s no script. There no line rehearsing. There’s true drama in that not a single soul knows the outcome before it is witnessed simultaneously by millions around the world.

I truly believe great things are on the horizons for this franchise. I trust in a masthead that came from such a successful organization. But the pieces are simply not in place yet for a contention of the ultimate prize. All I can tell you is soon. Soon we will arrive. And the basketball world will recognize this fact. And Atlanta Hawks fans can one day rejoice.

*All stats taken from Hoopdata and Basketball Reference

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