Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague and forward Paul Millsap react to their victory at Philips Arena. Photo by Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters
Nobody expected this. Absolutely nobody, except maybe Mike Budenholzer.
The coach of the Atlanta Hawks affectionately called “Coach Bud” has taken a team of relative nobodies and led them to a mind-boggling 16-game win streak and the top of the Eastern Conference. How the hell did this happen?
Ask most people what they think of the Atlanta Hawks and they’ll probably recall the franchise’s glory days of the 1980s. Led by “The Human Highlight Film” Dominique Wilkins, current Los Angeles Clippers coach Doc Rivers, undersized Slam Dunk champion Spud Webb, and bruising big men Tree Rollins, Kevin Willis and Jon Koncak, those Hawks were a sight to behold.
Athletic, energetic, wearing those classic red, yellow and white jerseys with the Pac-Man-like Hawks logo, the team coached by Mike Fratello kept coming up short against Larry Bird’s Boston Celtics, Isaiah Thomas’ Detroit Pistons and Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
The Atlanta franchise had a mini-resurgence in the 1990s with Mookie Blaylock, Danny Manning, Steve Smith and Stacey Augmon under the watchful eye of Hall of Fame coach Lenny Wilkens.
Since those days, however, Atlanta has mostly underperformed and the Philips Arena has too often been half-empty. After all, the city of Atlanta still considers itself more of a football or baseball town, with the NFL’s Falcons and MLB’s Braves getting better attendance numbers.
A unique choice
When Hawks management announced the hiring of Mike Budenholzer as their new head coach heading into the 2013-2014 season, practically nobody knew who he was.
Starting as a video coordinator for the San Antonio Spurs, Budenholzer eventually served as an assistant coach under Gregg Popovich. After spending 18 years with the franchise and seeing four of the team’s NBA Championships, “Coach Bud” took on the challenge of resuscitating the perpetually underachieving Hawks.
Budenholzer helped the team secure a 38-44 win-loss record, good enough for eighth seed in the East. Though the Hawks were able to push the top seeded Indiana Pacers to a seventh game, they still couldn’t get out of the first round.
Asked on an ESPN NBA podcast how he approached his team heading into his second season in charge, Budenholzer noted, “We had some momentum and continuity coming into this year. We proved that we can compete with anybody in the East and, I guess, anybody in the League. It’s a credit to our players.”
Who are these guys?
Those players have largely been unheralded throughout their respective NBA careers, thus adding to the shock value of the Hawks’ rise among the ranks. Al Horford is the longest tenured Hawk, and he was coming off an injury suffered last season.
“He didn’t play basketball for 9-12 months and he didn’t really have a September to prepare,” Coach Bud said of Horford. “And training camp in October wasn’t what it is for most normal players. I think it took him a little bit of time to get real comfortable as much on the defensive end as on the offensive side.”
With Horford in the middle, the rest of the Atlanta squad will probably leave you scratching your head wondering who they are. Guards Jeff Teague, DeMarre Carroll and Thabo Sefolosha have been lock-down options on defense, while Paul Millsap has joined Horford and Pero Antic in locking down the paint. Meanwhile, veteran shooter Kyle Korver has kept opposing defenses honest with his long-range bombing.
Basically, Budenholzer has applied what he learned under Popovich and San Antonio’s winning ways to build “Spurs East.”
“I think, individually, each guy is taking a lot of pride in his defense and collectively, we’re doing all the little things that it takes to be good defensively,” Budenholzer states with pride before cautioning, “but we’ve got a long way to go. We’ve got to keep getting better.”
Beasts of the East
These Hawks have extended their franchise-best win streak to an unbelievable 16 games, something neither those teams led by Wilkins and Rivers or the squad led by Blaylock and Smith were able to do back in their day. Shocking every basketball mind worldwide, they currently have 37 wins and just eight losses to have the best record in the NBA.
They have separated themselves from preseason Eastern Conference favorites the Cleveland Cavaliers (fifth in the East) and Chicago Bulls (fourth in the East) and have secured for Budenholzer a spot as coach of the Eastern Conference All-Stars in the 2015 NBA All-Star Game.
If the Playoffs began today, they would be matched up with the underperforming Charlotte Hornets with a meager 19-26 win-loss record. If they keep this up, Atlanta could win 66 games and homecourt advantage throughout the Eastern playoffs.
Still, you’d be hard pressed to find anyone picking this team to represent the East in the NBA Finals. After all, when has this franchise ever been good enough to do that?
The question has to thus be asked: Where do the Hawks go from here?
“I think our guys enjoy competing and enjoy the moment,” says the low-key Budenholzer. “We’ve had some success but we need to just keep moving forward, keep our focus on improving, and keep it on the defensive end if we continue to guard and get stops, hopefully we’ll find a way to score.”
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.