Atlanta’s 127-98 drubbing of the Cleveland Cavaliers at Quicken Loans Arena on Wednesday didn’t happen by accident. Despite the Hawks being most recently remembered for making the 2013-14 postseason depsite a losing season, this squad is one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference at 18-7 entering Saturday’s games.
To be fair, I had to look up the name of Atlanta’s head coach. Evidently it’s Mike Budenholzer, whose name sounds like a piece of expensive equipment meant for irrigation. No team has cauterized its ailments and excelled like the Hawks. Without leading scorer Jeff Teague, the team was still able to beat the Cavs by 29 points and shoot 64.5 percent from the floor.
It’s worth noting that the team’s defense is solid: Atlanta ranks seventh in points allowed (97 points per game) and eighth in defensive efficiency. But its offense has been remarkable. The Hawks don’t have an arsenal of attack-the-rim players and their free throw rate shows it: Atlanta averages 22.2 free throw attempts per game, 20th in the league. But the team ranks in the league’s top five in field goal and three-point percentage and shoots a whopping 52.9 percent adjusted field goal percentage.
Budenholzer’s roster isn’t teeming with all-stars, either, but the team distributes its production better than most: all five starters average double figures in scoring and the bench is fifth in the league with 8.4 assists per game. The team takes care of the ball, too: Atlanta ranks fourth in the league in assist-to-turnover ratio (1.96).
Balance has a way of extending across multiple areas of a given professional sports team. Fox Sports interviewed Budenholzer about his methodology in late November.
“I think the way that we play and the way we share the ball, it could be anybody one night might have a big night. Some nights it might be balanced. I think in a perfect world, we’re making good reads and good decisions and we’re sharing the ball and whoever is open is getting it and they’re taking advantage of their opportunities. I think the balance is something that’s great and we’ll take it.”
John Hollinger’s assist ratio — based around the theory that every time a player comes into possession of the ball, he has an opportunity to generate an assist — further exemplifies the selflessness of the team:
There’s also something to be said about having Kyle Korver — the best three-point specialist in basketball now that Ray Allen isn’t active — in the starting rotation. Through 24 games, as Grantland’s Kirk Goldsberry noted, Korver was shooting an absurd 54.6 percent from beyond the arc, with each three-point attempt worth 1.64 points. The Creighton product has long led the league in boy-band-looks, but many more can start remembering him for something else: the man with the best three-point shot in the league.
There’s plenty of time for any team to unravel, but few analysts projected Atlanta to be where they are currently. In just Budenholzer’s second season as head coach he has the Hawks believing, and maybe the rest of the Eastern Conference should consider following suit.
Josh Planos has had his work featured at the Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, Huffington Post, Vice, CBS Sports Radio, Fox Sports Radio and ESPN Radio. He’s currently a Digital Editor at KETV NewsWatch 7 and a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter (@JPlanos).