PHILADELPHIA -- Watching the Hawks, a team that has won 24 of its last 26 games, a team that moves the ball with effortless fluidity, a team that seemingly has five guys that can shoot the ball from anywhere on the floor at all times, evokes one recurring question: Why?
Why did it take nearly two decades for the NBA, a league that recycles coaches like Coke bottles, to recognize the head coaching acumen in a man that has done nothing but assist one of the greatest coaches of all-time to four championship seasons?
Mike Budenholzer is the wrong guy to ask this question. He will smile, shrug and point out that he was happy serving as Gregg Popovich’s top lieutenant in San Antonio. And he’d be telling the truth.
“Not many people in that program sought jobs,” said Sixers coach Brett Brown, a former Spurs assistant. “It was a great place to work.”
Honestly, after watching Budenholzer transform the Hawks from a fringe contender into an Eastern Conference power in less than two years, how many owners wish they had made a greater effort to poach Coach Bud?
• MORE NBA: While You Weren't Watching: All-Hawks edition
Atlanta isn’t a spunky upstart destined to tumble back to Earth; this Hawks team has staying power. The Hawks are unselfish (No. 2 in the NBA in assists) and have sharp shooting (No. 5 in field goal percentage/No. 3 in three-point percentage), they are high level defenders and are most productive in the fourth quarter. They have a dynamic point guard in Jeff Teague, a premier marksman in Kyle Korver and a pair of versatile big men in Paul Millsap and Al Horford. They have the best record in the East, the most road wins (15) in the NBA and a sterling 10-2 record against the big, bad West.
Ask Hawks players to explain the hot start and you get a similar answer: Budenholzer.
“It all starts with coach,” said Horford. “He lays out the structure for the team and our guys are just following it.”
Budenholzer is a Popovich-like presence on the sideline; he holds players accountable but won’t overreact to mistakes.
“He lets you be you,” said Teague. “He doesn’t put pressure on you. He lives with mistakes.”
Added Brown: "He sees the game well. He’s highly perceptive reading the game. He’s an old school guy. He came up through the video room. He did his due diligence. He was 'NBA’d'. He didn’t come through Real Madrid or UCLA. He has a real strength for reading a game and feeling a game."
When Budenholzer was hired in the summer of 2013, he sat down with general manager Danny Ferry -- a former Spurs executive -- to discuss revamping the roster. Out would be an emphasis on big names, big stars. In would be a targeted search for talent that fit the pass-happy system Ferry and Budenholzer wanted to play.
“We had a similar vision,” Budenholzer said. “We didn’t agree on everything; we had some great debates and some great arguments. But we agreed we needed high character players who could play the way we wanted to play.”
Several players were already there. Teague was a rapidly improving guard when he hit restricted free agency in the summer of 2013. He signed a four-year, $32 million offer sheet with Milwaukee and publicly declared his preference to play there. Atlanta matched the offer, leaving Budenholzer with a talented but erratic playmaker who didn’t want to be there. Budenholzer, though, sold Teague quickly. He demanded he be better defensively. He put him in similar sets Popovich ran for Tony Parker, but he didn’t club Teague over the head with Parker’s history. The only Parker reference he ever made, Teague said, was “drive through the 45,” which called for Teague to attack the middle when penetrating from the wing instead of diving baseline.
“He never asked me to be like Tony,” Teague said. “He asked me to be me.”
Horford was there, too. Horford is one of the NBA’s most underappreciated stars. He’s an excellent mid-range shooter, a sturdy screener and a solid rebounder. Though undersized, Horford is comfortable banging bodies with bigger centers and is the backstop of a defense that ranks in the top seven of points allowed, defensive field goal percentage and three-point percentage. A pectoral injury robbed Horford of all but 29 games last season, statistically one of his finest.
The longest tenured Hawk, Horford admits he didn’t know what to think about Budenholzer when he arrived. But he knew the team would fail if it didn’t follow his lead.
“The biggest thing to have success is you always have to respect your coach,” Horford said. “You have to understand that he wants to be successful, he wants to win. All our guys bought in from the first day.”
Ferry supplemented the roster with role players who fit the system. Millsap signed a two-year, $19 million contract in ’13. Budenholzer encouraged Millsap to extend his game beyond the three-point line. Millsap took 11 threes his first three-seasons in Utah. He took 212 last season and has attempted 102 this season.
Said Millsap, “The confidence [Budenholzer] shows in me is huge.”
Making Atlanta’s early success more remarkable is the climate in which it developed. It was a tumultuous offseason. Owner Bruce Levenson self-reported a racially-charged email (Levenson has announced plans to sell the team). Ferry made racially insensitive remarks on a conference call with minority owners (He is on an indefinite leave of absence). It would have been easy for the Hawks to be divided. Instead, they banded together.
“Honestly, it wasn’t a distraction,” Horford said. “We have a lot of guys that understood that our business is to come out and represent the city of Atlanta and the team and play basketball. There were things out of our control, and we didn’t have to worry about them.”
And Ferry? Would the team welcome the exiled GM back?
“I would,” Horford said. “The reason why we are having this success is because of Danny. He had the vision. He put all of this together.”
Skeptics will point to Atlanta’s lack of a defined primary scorer as a reason to doubt playoff success. They will call them undersized, inexperienced, incapable of competing with star-studded rosters in the postseason. Not that the Hawks care. One game at a time is an oft echoed ethos in sports, but the Hawks seem to truly live by it. Before Atlanta’s win over Philadelphia on Tuesday, Teague swore he had no idea what the team’s record was. Horford says he rarely looks at the standings.
“We are just all about working hard,” Horford said. “We do that, we know we can do some big things.”
Next page: Evolution of James Harden, five questions with Damian Lillard
The Evolution of James Harden
James Harden says he didn’t check Twitter much last season. He didn't read the criticism of his defense, didn’t watch the videos mocking it, didn’t hear the pundits declaring after Houston’s first round playoff exit Harden to be the ultimate one-dimensional player.
“I didn’t get into the negativity,” Harden said. “You just shut it out.”
Harden’s teammate, Dwight Howard, saw it differently.
“I think the whole playoffs affected him,” Howard said. “He wanted to come out this year and prove to people that he is one of the best players in this league.”
So far, Harden has. He continues to thrive offensively, leading the NBA in scoring (26.9 PPG) and is second among two-guards in assists (6.7 APG). He scores inside and out and makes more free throws per game (7.8) than any player in the NBA. This season Harden has layered his game with strong defense. He is second in the league in defensive win shares, a stat that compares his individual defensive rating’s impact on team success.
Harden admits that defense has not always been a priority.
“Last year, I tended to worry about offense and having so much load on the offensive end. Now I just go play and give 100 percent effort. [Defense] was a part of my game evolving. I was scoring at a high level and learning how to play defense at a high level. Even the greats didn’t come in playing both ends of the floor. That’s all it was.”
As a team, Houston is measurably better defensively this season. The Rockets are third in the NBA in defensive efficiency; they were 13th last season. The additions of Trevor Ariza and Corey Brewer have added two superior wing defenders in the mix.
Said Harden, “I have no choice but to go out there and play both ends of the floor.”
With Harden and Howard, Houston has the offensive star power to compete with any team in the rugged Western Conference. And the improved defense has the holdovers from last season believing they can come out of it.
“We’re really buying into the idea that defense is going to win us a championship,” Howard said. “Last year we believed we could just outscore everyone. That didn’t work out well for us. We’re trying to hold teams to a low percentage. Everybody’s minds are in the right place. We haven’t done anything different [schematically]. Last year, our defense as a team, we had certain guys playing defense, but not as a unit or together. This year we are all locked in.”
Five Questions with…Damian Lillard
The Blazers guard is averaging a career-high 22 points per game this season
SI.com: How long did getting cut from USA basketball bother you?
DL: It still bothers me. I still think about it. There was no reason for me not to be on the team. I still don’t know why I wasn’t. But it’s just more wood on my fire. It motivates me today.
SI.com: What’s the difference between this year and last?
DL: Last year was a surprise, even to us. We were surprised at the success. We were excited about every win. That team won games offensively. This year we haven’t been the same team offensively. We are winning games with our defense. This year we can hang our hat on that. We are closing games out on that end.
SI.com: How taxing is it to basically have to go up against an All-Star level point guard most nights?
DL: It takes a lot out of you. It makes you raise your game every night. Physically it’s a challenge because point guards have the ball in their hands so much. And mentally you have to prepare yourself to know their tendencies. I don’t get into the statistical stuff. It can be misleading at times. I watch a lot of basketball. I watch games. I just watch [future opponents'] games. I watch clips of different pick and rolls. I think Steph Curry is really tough to prepare for. He can do so much. He is a great shooter, a great playmaker. He’s unselfish and he has so many weapons around him. You can’t send him one direction. He has a strong right hand and a strong left hand. He can hit a pull up. He can do everything, so it’s hard to get him to do one thing that is a weakness.
SI.com: What have you learned about surviving that type of grind?
DL: I think it comes down to taking care of your body. There are a lot of things you can do to help recover; it’s important for us to use our resources. Relaxing, getting my rest at night is obviously important. Not being up on my feet. I use the cold tub, get massages, get my lifts in, try to keep my body strong for that daily pounding. I spent time at Utah training at altitude before camp. I changed my diet last summer. It really prepared me for camp. I was in Utah, training, just testing my wind. Training should be tougher than playing, and it was.I came back and I was in great shape.
SI.com: You have opened the doors for several mid-major players to be high picks. What does that mean to you?
DL: That was a goal of mine when I came out. There have been mid-major guys drafted before me but they weren’t really high picks. I felt if could prove that mid-major guard could be a top pick, others would. Other guys coming from mid-majors, you don’t hear as much about how they don’t play great competition, that they didn’t do this, or they didn’t do that at the highest level. That makes me feel good. Hopefully many more guys will get chances.
Next page: Mannix's Twitter mailbag, latest NBA rumors and more
Mannix's Twitter Mailbag
Quote of the Week
“He told me he is playing like an old man, you know, the slow man’s game when you’re not getting too high off the floor.” -- Raptors coach Dwane Casey on DeMar Derozan, who returned to the lineup on Wednesday after missing 21 games with a leg injury. DeRozan, 26, scored 20 points in a win over Philadelphia.
Tweet of the Week
Amen, Roy. The temperature drop in some arenas in the northeast is insane. Boston and Philadelphia rank as two of the coldest in the NBA.
If one thing is clear from Oklahoma City’s acquisition of Dion Waiters and its pursuit of Nets center Brook Lopez, it’s this: The Thunder understand the urgency to win before 2016, when Kevin Durant can become a free agent … The Clippers are the strongest candidate to land Tayshaun Prince once Prince completes a buyout with Boston. I’m told there is mutual interest … Expect the Clippers, who gave up Reggie Bullock and a second round pick to acquire Austin Rivers this week, to be aggressive over the next month in search of bench help. LA ranks No. 27 in the NBA in bench scoring this season … Jeff Green is going to be a big help in Memphis. Green was miscast as a top option in Boston; as a third or fourth option, he will thrive. Teams will have to respect him on the perimeter in ways they didn’t respect Prince … Jason Kidd has done a tremendous job in Milwaukee. 21-19 after the injury to Jabari Parker? He could close the gap between him and Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer and Warriors coach Steve Kerr with a strong second half.