Religious Selflessness: The Atlanta Hawks’ Mantra of Late


Nov 29, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford (15) is congratulated by teammates after hitting the game-winning basket against the Dallas Mavericks in the fourth quarter at Philips Arena. The Hawks defeated the Mavericks 88-87. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Sports and their conjoining fandoms are a religion; they are fans having blind faith in players and coaches they may never meet and front office minds they probably don’t know about. It’s a belief that once the season rolls around, one’s featured team has the proper makeup to bring home the championship.

Religions come complete with idols and tradition-filled rituals. Different sports organizations have different operations and ways to involve the fans, whether it be certain arena chants, colors, mascots, Twitter hashtags and other rallying cries to assert one’s continued belief and support of the team.

President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said “Selfishness is the only real atheism; aspiration, unselfishness, the only real religion.” In that sense, selfishness is trust in only what one knows in absolute. No knowledge rests its hat on hopes or wants but rather the bubble of near and quantifiable observation. I, the sole arbitrator of my daily duties, can rely on myself at all times as I am solely in control of my faculties. That is the extent of my reality. Unselfishness, on the other hand, is a resting faith in what may be beyond physical perception, resting faith on second hand accounts of purely metaphysical beings, ideals, or actions.

On the court, this is manifested as trust in each other as teammates within a particular game plan. It’s knowing that Al Horford will be spotted up at the top of the key after setting a screen without specific observation of said event, so a semi-blind pass can be made to create an open shot opportunity.

Individual players may only import themselves on their individual stats and/or market brand, eschewing any possible team gain in the process. It’s knowledge of the process of reaping immediate dividends, not because the player desires less than optimal output from the collective but because the mutual dividends cannot be readily perceived. Thankfully for the 2013-14 Hawks, this seems not to be the case.

As of Sunday, the Atlanta Hawks are first in almost every single team assist ranking imaginable, via TeamRankings:

  • Assists per game: 25.6
  • Assists per possession: .260
  • Assists per field goal: .664
  • Assist to turnover ratio: 1.721

And the explanation is not evident from each players’ assist numbers. Only one Hawk is averaging over 3.4 assists per game, Jeff Teague with 8 in 32.6 minutes per game.

In Jeff Teague, the Hawks have a certifiable table setter. As a point guard coming into the draft from Wake Forest, he was lauded as a quick footed playmaker, thriving on getting to the rim, but needing work facilitating at an NBA level. In this, Teague’s fifth NBA season, his assists per game mark has risen in each campaign. The early results are in from this season, and in terms of being getting the ball to teammates in their sweet spots on the floor, Teague has grown markedly.

Now, Teague finds himself in the top five in assists leaguewide, as well as points created from assists, per the NBA’s SportVU data tracking. In addition, Shelvin Mack has emerged as one of the better backup point guards in the league, a steady hand for the second team.

In the realm of sharing the ball, it may be obvious than a team without a central figure is leading the pack. Presumably, with a star player, the ball tends to stick in his hands being the most difficult matchup for the opponents to combat. But with this Hawks team, there’s always 8, 9, or 10 men contributing very equally throughout the game.

It also helps to have flexible players positionally and spatially, including the many three point threats on this Hawks team to help space the floor. 12 players have made a three for the Hawks this season, including 9 with at least 9 made threes.

I took some clips from the Hawks recent slashing of the Utah Jazz Friday night. Take a look at some A.B.C. ball leading to assists below.

Here is a simple semi-transition opportunity for the Hawks. The Jazz are mostly back on defense but the threat of a Teague drive draws the attention of 3 green shirts. With the knowledge that one of the most prolific three point shooters in history is mere feet away, Teague calmly dishes to Korver and, for added oomph, sets a hushed pick on the only man with a chance to challenge the shot.

While Korver is one of the most feared offensive weapons on the Hawks, veteran Elton Brand certainly isn’t at this stage in his career. Still, Teague takes a leap of faith in deking Brand’s defender into helping baseline and slyly threading the needle to an open Brand under the basket. Jeff could have easily spun away from the baseline in trying to find his own shot, but I I have a hunch he had President’s Roosevelt’s quote in mind.

But this extends beyond just Jeffrey Teague. It even pervades the ideals of the post players.

You’d never know this is just Millsap’s 26th game as an Atlanta Hawk, as his rapport with Horford seems weathered by age. Here the big man drives the floor and makes an unselfish wrap-around pass for the easy Al two. Saint Millsap cares not for self-adulation.

This is the kind of selflessness that shoots the Hawks to the top of the assist rankings as well as third in the Eastern Conference standings. After logging 104 assists in the past 3 games, there’s no doubt that basketball atheism is not running down the home tunnel with the team. In total, it’s clear the Hawks are out to typify the “better than the sum of their parts” idiom. And yet, some doubt the significance of their accomplishments so far and their true talent abilities going forward. Let’s pray they make believers out of non-believers.