Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Are the Hawks the Last of Their Kind?

By Ross Lancaster

As this season sits at the All-Star Break, the league is perhaps at its most wide-open point in years. While the Warriors possess the league's best record, with incredible team numbers on both sides of the ball, they're hardly invincible in a beyond-stacked Western Conference.

In mid-February, there's a case to be made that any of eight teams in the West could be in the Finals, while any of the top five in the East could play into June. That's almost half of the league that has a legitimate title shot with only two months left in the regular season.

We couldn't say that last year. As dynastic as the NBA has historically been, I don't know if we've ever been able to truthfully say that.

One of the teams in that baker's dozen that looks the strongest is the Atlanta Hawks. As far as comparing preseason expectations to real performance, they're something like last year's Blazers, the surprise team of the league.

But unlike that Portland team that had an established star, a rising star, and a few key role players, the Hawks team that recently won 19 games in a row after sweeping the month of January has a decidedly more egalitarian roster.

With the Hawks, despite having four all-stars, there's not one big-time, casual fan-attracting player on the roster. In fact, if you look at various "Top NBA Players" lists, no Hawks appear until in the last parts of the top 25, or at all.

It's tempting to compare the Hawks to recent Spurs teams, since coach Mike Budenholzer was a longtime San Antonio assistant who runs a similar, extra-pass, team-oriented offense as San Antonio has for the past few seasons. But whereas the Spurs have players like Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker and Kawhi Leonard to create their own offense, the Hawks are perhaps even more reliant on passing.

While point guard Jeff Teague is one of the league's most prolific and successful drivers with the ball, most of the rest of the team isn't especially flashy, relying on making smart plays and finding the open man. At one point in the 19-game win streak, the Hawks had more 30-assist games in the previous two weeks than the rest of the league combined.

As far as NBA roster building goes in the salary cap years, it's much more common to see top teams in this or any era revolve around one, two or three stars, and try to fill the remaining 9-12 roster places with solid role players or need-filling attributes.

While Al Horford and Paul Millsap were all-stars in the past, it's highly unlikely that a general manager of a big- or even middle-market team would sign either as a franchise centerpiece. But when combined with a variety of team-first players that fit to a T in a system, they become as valuable as the names that lead the points per game charts, and reminiscent of a team like the Pistons of a decade ago.

But the biggest difference between when the Pistons won a title in 2004 and now is that there's loads more talent in the league, and it's nearly impossible to win playoff series largely on defense.

In the sports world, baseball is traditionally the sport where we talk about "Moneyball"-type strategies in building a winning team that exploits market inefficiencies. And there's a good reason for that. Where baseball in many cases is a more individual sport, basketball inherently involves more teamwork and a chemistry element.

Yet, the Hawks have exploited market inefficiencies in player salaries by paying their three best players, Horford, Millsap, and Teague, in the $8-12 million per year range, finding unbelievable value at a point well below the max salary. And Kyle Korver, who may merely be having the greatest 3-point shooting season in the history of the league, only costs the team $6.2 million this season, and about $11 million combined for the next two seasons.

Is this a replicable strategy? Goodness knows there will be attempted imitators if the Hawks win the title late this spring. But upcoming financial dynamics in the league may make it impossible.

Last October, the NBA signed an extension of its national TV deal with ESPN and Turner worth a massive, $2.66 billion per year for nine years. In comparison, the current TV deal is worth $930 million a season. Major League Baseball's national TV contracts are worth about $1.5 billion a year through 2021.

It doesn't take a genius to figure out that this means the salary cap is going up. Way, way up.
One article over All-Star Weekend quoted one unnamed team as believing that the cap would skyrocket to $91 million upon the expiry of the current TV deal in summer 2016, and go up to $127 million the next year. With the current cap at $63 million and projected to be $67 million next year, that would make for about a twofold increase in a matter of 24 months.

In that case, what quality players in their primes aren't max players? Even in the current climate, a player like Gordon Hayward (good, but hardly great or a top player) got the restricted free agent max last summer and no one really batted an eyelash.

When well-above-average players like Horford, Millsap, Teague, and Korver are on the market with millions and millions available to potentially any team, will a big-market but historical afterthought team like the Hawks have an opportunity to resign its best players? And will any team even be able to attempt to win a title spending like Atlanta in 2014-15?

Now, don't get me wrong, no one should feel sorry for NBA owners. They comprehensively won out in the 2011 lockout against the players, and the NBA's star has only risen since then. Players should have a greater percentage of basketball revenue, but having something like a max salary for individual players should go by the wayside.

Even with the max salary for unrestricted and restricted free agents sure to rise when the new cap figures get announced, an artificial number of players will be at that salary point. My hunch is that in order for much of any team to be competitive in a title race, they'll have to have a couple max players. If some teams get their way, the max might be set at such a point to where a large-market team could sign four or five.

With salaries at an artificial ceiling, the problem of overpaying many players below the top tier will continue to be an issue that gets worse, and it will make it much harder for GMs to build teams like the Hawks.

Enjoy this year's Hawks while they last. They may be the last contender for a while that's put together without a traditional star or max contract.

Contents copyright © Sports Central 1998-2017