The new Hawks have managed to form the kind of camaraderie that usually takes months, in just a matter of weeks.
How the new-look Atlanta Hawks are looking so good so soon.
By Jon Cooper
Before the Hawks even opened the season it was obvious that there was something different about this team.
The nine new faces on the roster was an obvious reason. Then there was the up-tempo style of play.
"With the difference in personnel we were going to play different," said the architect of the new-look roster, first-year General Manager Danny Ferry. "For us to succeed we're going to have to play a little faster, play with a little more tempo, with losing Joe [Johnson] and Marvin [Williams], that lent itself to one way that was pretty successful here. I think with the personnel we have now we can take this in a different way but still be successful."
Ferry believed different could be good and so far it has been. It's also been quicker than some might have expected.
Despite losing 52.6 percent of last season's scoring, 42.8 percent of rebounds, 51.5 percent of assists, 50.8 percent of last year's field goals and 83.5 percent of made 3-pointer, the 2012-13 Hawks headed into game No. 16 against the Washington Wizards Friday night at Philips Arena with a 10-5 record, only one game off last year's pace.
Taking advantage of a full training camp and multiple days of practice, both of which were all but eliminated by last season's delayed start and compressed 66-game schedule, head coach Larry Drew has got his new-look Hawks on track for another high seed in the Eastern Conference playoff chase.
"I think we've made the most out of the time we've been given," said Drew. "It's a challenge when you start a training camp with 14 new faces. It's an adjustment but I embrace challenges. I've never shied away from them."
The team has made great strides in learning Drew's system and developing the kind of camaraderie that usually takes months to form in a matter of weeks. It's been an ideal combination, as Atlanta is currently third in the Eastern Conference and only a game back of Miami in the Southeast Division, and recently put together a League-high six-game winning streak.
"It's a new team so it takes a while but I felt that Coach has simplified a lot of things and we've done a good job getting everybody acclimated to our system," said center Al Horford, the team's leading scorer and rebounder. "I think we still have a ways to go but we're pretty good.
"It helps when you have guys that know how to play the game and the game comes easy," he added. "Just keep being consistent like we've been. I think we've been doing a good job."
The term "Basketball IQ" is one that Drew likes to use about his team and something he attributes to the early success.
"There's a lot of teaching that has to go on, particularly with all the new faces," he said. "But some of this stuff, you have to hope they can just kind of figure it out from a basketball standpoint and that their IQs are high enough to where they can figure it out. This group has that. This is a very intelligent group. Some of these guys see things even before they happen. So they're very knowledgeable about the game and different situations."
That knowledge and adaptability has helped point guard Jeff Teague run the kind of up-temp game Drew wants. Teague likes the options around him and their ability to absorb what's been thrown at them.
"So many basketball minds on the floor all the time, everybody can make plays and smart decisions," said the fourth-year point. "That makes it so easy to play. You have guys that have been in the League for a while on our team that are able to go out there and be really effective and know what they can do and know where everybody is going to be. It helps. It makes your job a lot easier."
Ferry didn't just bring in players, but solid, experienced veterans. DeShawn Stevenson is a 12-year pro. Kyle Korver has nine years experience. Devin Harris has eight. Lou Williams and Johan Petro have played seven seasons, and Anthony Morrow and Anthony Tolliver both have four years, with Tolliver also having the maturity gained from playing overseas.
"The luxury is there are guys that have been in the League for a while and have played for good teams and good coaches and it doesn't take that much time to get adjusted," said center Zaza Pachulia. "They are team players. It's definitely a privilege to have them on the team. You just have to tell these guys, show these guys, they pick it up very quickly and it makes the job easier for L.D. and the coaching staff and for the players who have been here before, it makes it easier for us as well."
The Hawks are playing the kind of unselfish, team basketball that belies the inexperience that these guys have playing with each other. They're handing out 23.5 assists per game, third in the NBA, and have been held under 20 assists in only one game (they had 18 in that one). Defensively, they're forcing a league-high 18.1 turnovers, are third in steals at 9.4 per game and haven't allowed an opponent to shoot 50 percent all season.
Bringing in guys that have won championships (Stevenson with the '10-11 Mavericks), or played for them (Harris with the '05-06 Mavericks), or nearly played for them (Korver was a Bull in '10-11 when they lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to Miami) has helped.
"We have good guys that feed into the concept of what we're doing," said Stevenson, part of the Johnson trade with Brooklyn. "We have a lot of guys that have a lot of playoff experience. So I think when you have that and guys that want to go out there and win you get good results."
These new Hawks are more about playing with who's on the floor with them at the moment than how long they've been with the team and how they got to Atlanta. Besides, many of them have seen roster turnaround before.
"When I was in Dallas we had five or six new guys every year. We had a lot of turnover there, too," said Harris, who has played in Dallas, New Jersey, and Utah yet never teamed with Stevenson, who also has played on those three teams, until this season. "I think we've played extremely well. We're creating a lot of turnovers, we spend a lot of time in transition. Obviously we still have a long way to go but we're definitely making some strides."
"This is my sixth head coach in eight years so I've seen quite a bit of turnaround," added Harris, with a laugh. "I'm used to it. It's nothing."
Stevenson admits that he's been on teams that have seen a lot of turnover, but that this Hawks team is unique.
"Not as much as this team but I've been on teams that had a lot of different faces -- the Mavericks, in Washington -- but this is kind of different," he said. "Other teams, we had, no disrespect, we had a major superstar. I think we have stars on this team. Everybody in here is feeding into one concept. We have guys that can score the basketball, play defense, shoot threes, have every dimensional player. We go out there and we fight every day."
With that mentality and the IQ, the new Hawks have effectively blended in with the old Hawks.
"They realize what it's all about. It's about team and winning," said Horford. "It's not about anyone trying to outscore the other person. At the beginning we had problems identifying defensive stuff. We have that down. Offensively, everybody's pretty much on their place, they know all the plays. So that helps. That has sped up the process."
Drew is encouraged by the progress.
"Getting all those guys on the same page, are we there yet? No," he said. "There's still work to do. "It's a process but I'm confident we'll all get there."
So is Ferry.
"The guys, the coaching staff and the players have done a nice job of building as a team, building camaraderie as a group," he said. "There's good leadership on this team, guys have talked to each other and it's good guys. I'm happy with the way that's unfolded. The type of people that we have as far as people, it will give us the best chance to succeed."
Jon Cooper is a freelance writer based in Atlanta.