There was an air of optimism around exit interviews this week at Philips Arena. After an up-and-down season that ended with a loss to the Pacers in Game 7 of their first round series, the Hawks were in good spirits, knowing that a foundation had been laid for the future — a future they believe will be very bright.
After seven consecutive playoff appearances, the Hawks’ next challenge is building not just a playoff contender, but a roster and culture capable of competing for championships. After the 2012-13 season, the Hawks made drastic changes throughout the organization, bringing in Mike Budenholzer as head coach, adding new assistants, and bringing a number of new players to training camp. General Manager and President of Basketball Operations Danny Ferry wanted to change the culture of the Hawks’ organization on and off the court, and this season they feel they took a step in the right direction.
“Almost a year ago, sitting with Bud in front of you guys we talked about having a system based way of playing, having competitors, and playing unselfishly,” Ferry said on Wednesday morning. ” I think that foundation has been laid this year. We were one of the leaders in assists all year. I think if you watched our team play, there was a substance to how our guys played. They competed night in and night out. And from a system-based way of playing, we’ve evolved over the last couple years, and here at the end of the year you could read and play out of sets to do things that I think put us in the best way of playing that put us in the best position as a basketball team in the regular season and the playoffs.”
In Ferry’s mind, it started with the coaching staff laying the groundwork, and the results he saw this season pleased him.
“I very much believe…in a system based way of playing,” Ferry said. “On top of that, the level of communication, the level of work that our staff put in this year to make that happen. Player development is very important to us. The time and effort our coaches put in to that and helping DeMarre, who talked about Quin yesterday, and Jeff and the work that Kenny Atkinson does, Taylor , all of our guys do. Player development is a very important component of this organization and will continue to be so, so I feel great about the job our staff did.”
Struggling with injuries all season — most notably Al Horford‘s torn pectoral — the Hawks had to play a number of players more minutes than initially anticipated. The job done by these players — young and old — stepping into large roles and playing them capably was certainly one of the biggest positives from this season as a number of players had career years. The entire roster did well to stay ready for their opportunities, and the coaching staff did a great job of developing the guys and preparing them for those moments.
The attention given to players by the staff was something many pointed out in their exit interviews. The point guards all mentioned the job of Kenny Atkinson — the longest tenured coach on the Hawks staff at two years — and his help in developing their games, and DeMarre Carroll laid praise on Quin Snyder for helping him become a much improved shooter this season.
“This was like the first year, you know I have to give a shoutout to Coach Quin Snyder, because this was the first year a coach really worked with me on my footwork, my shot, and spent time with me,” Carroll said. “Credit to Coach Quin, ’cause that shows me that he cares about me as a person and cares about my career. I think I’m headed in the right direction. I feel like I’m a rookie. Finally got to play and did what I did. Think there’s a lot of room to get better and improve.”
Along with the development of the players, there were plenty of compliments paid to the system that Coach Bud installed. As Ferry said, he wanted to see a system-based style of play, and Coach Bud installed his system confidently and successfully in his first season. Bud’s system, predicated on pace, space, and ball movement, was well-received by the players, who enjoyed playing a more open style of basketball.
“He did a great job. He’s learning on the job like everyone else is,” Shelvin Mack said. ”He did a fantastic job of putting us in a position of being successful, and have a positive output on the game. He understands it. He’s been through it. He shared the experience of losing last year in the Finals, and it’s easy to relate to someone that’s been there and done it.”
“Coaching staff for their first year was wonderful, like, a joy to play for,” Jeff Teague said. ”Playing with this group of guys, man, I wouldn’t trade it for the world. Getting Al back healthy and with the guys we have, we have a really good group. We gel together and we enjoy playing with each other, so I’m excited for next year. It’s fun basketball. I think everyone’s excited to watch us play, and I think everyone on the team is excited playing. When you’re playing like that unselfishly and sharing the basketball and just having fun, it’s easy to play for a guy like him. He’s a great guy. He’s very personable. He’s funny. He’s emotional, he’s everything, so he’s like a perfect coach.”
“I love the way we play; spacing and pace and unselfishness on the offensive end,” Ferry said. “Defensively, just the activity and the consistent plan that we put out there every night. We have corporate knowledge going forward. Next year’s camp won’t be ‘this word means this’ and ‘we’re going to do 3-man weave this way,’ it’s going to be, we’re going to come in running, and that will again bode well for us going forward.”
With the system in place, the next step for the Hawks on the court is to build on that foundation and become a more consistent team on both ends of the floor. The Hawks showed glimpses of excellent play on offense and defense this year, but, as can be expected with so much lineup fluctuation, they struggled to maintain a level of play from game to game.
“I think there were a lot of good things ,” Coach Bud said. ”I think the players have a really good feel for the vision of what we want to do defensively and offensively. Now it’s just taking that to another level and building on it. Foundation’s the word we want to use, and a lot has been laid down in a very positive way, and there’s still a lot to be done.”
“We laid the foundation,” Carroll said. “We want to be the most aggressive team in the NBA next year. We want to bring it, physically and mentally. Whenever we step on the court we want to be the most blue-collar team.”
“I think we laid a decent foundation for how we’re going to play and what we’re going to be like, and I think it’s a really fun style of basketball to play and watch, all of it,” Kyle Korver said. ”I think the next level for us is we have to learn how to win. We have to take those last couple minutes and say, this is how we win games. This is who’s on the floor. These are the plays we run. These are the looks we’re going to get. These are the shots we need you to make, the stops we need you to get. Let’s go out there and do it. I think, like, we had that…almost. So, we’ll keep on getting better, we’ll learn from our mistakes, and we’ll keep building on the good things from this year.”
Along with building an on-court system and culture, the Hawks also wanted to create a better atmosphere off the court for the players and staff. Ferry and Budenholzer preached character and wanting to bring in players that would get along, and in that regard this season was a great success.
“It was just fun, I wanted to play everyday,” Teague said. “I wanted to come to practice everyday, I enjoyed it. There wasn’t like a dull moment. Everything was fun. Everything was exciting. I mean, we did stuff outside of basketball that was really fun like play baseball at the Braves stadium and stuff like that, and I had never done anything like that in my previous years, so that was fun.”
Part of building that culture is building the fanbase and the excitement about the team in the city. The three playoff games at home were testaments to how successful the team can be in galvanizing the city and gaining their support. Atlanta packed Philips Arena for those three games, and the players and organization took notice and want to build off of that success.
“The playoffs were good for us on many levels,” Ferry said. “I think Jeff and Paul and Bud and everyone really kind of going through that, stepping up, showing they can be competitive in that kind of environment. I think it was also great for us because the community here in Atlanta really rallied around what we were doing. I think they enjoyed the substance of how we were playing and our guys and that’s something we want to build on as well.”
“I think, when I look back on the series, I’m the most bummed about Game 6 because we had the crowd and the atmosphere that we’d been dreaming about,” Korver said. “That’s one of the reasons I came back here was we wanted to help build something like that, and to have that and have the game that we wanted and then to lose, that’s eating at me today. Hopefully next year, we’ll have those same atmospheres and we can close out games better and we can all be happier…You see what’s possible in every way; with this team, this city, this crowd, everything. You see what’s possible. I think it takes time to build some traction with a city, and it starts with us. We have to put a product out there that fans want to support and watch and get behind and want to support and cheer for.”
With a core group in place that seem to fit the on and off-court style the Hawks desire and 10 players under contract for next season, this offseason will be about adding pieces rather than reconstructing the roster.
“I like our group, I liked our group all year because they were really good to be around; professional and I liked our players” Ferry said. “We still need to add to what we’re doing. I think we built a depth to how we play, and now let’s build a depth to our roster. Some of that is going to be internal with guys stepping into bigger roles, but some of that can be external. We have the draft in front of us. We have trade possibilities that will come across that we’ll have to look at, and we’ll have opportunities in free agency that we’ll look at as well. We absolutely can continue to add to what we’re doing. Every team is going to want to add more size, more length, more athleticism, more shooting, and we’re in line with that. What’s nice with establishing how we’re going to play, is you can define more easily what fits for you and for our group. So we’ll try to find guys that fit how we want to play and how we want to work everyday.”
From day one, Ferry has preached process and taking steps to build a program. After a major overhaul last season, the Hawks appear to be happy with their first step towards building that organizational structure and culture. They have a coach and GM that work well together and share the same principles on what they want to do, the on-court system is in place, and they seem to have found a number of players that they like and that fit into that mold on and off the court. This offseason it’s all about taking the next step and building on top of what they achieved in 2013-14 by further developing the players already here and also adding pieces to that group.
As Korver said, “I think we’re in a great spot. I think it’s an exciting time to be a Hawk. I think it’s an exciting time to be a Hawk fan. I think we’re on the way up.”