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Lessons to be learned in Atlanta

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Atlanta should be sending four players to All Star Weekend, and the Wolves should do a thorough study on how the Hawks reached this point

The Atlanta Hawks extended their winning streak to a team historical best 16 wins last night with an oddly competitive-yet-casual win over the Wolves, a game that Minnesota closed to single digits multiple times in the second half, yet never felt in jeopardy of not being a Hawks win.

The Hawks put on a clinic: 56% shooting. 30 assists, only 10 turnovers, 10-28 from three. Atlanta, this season, isranked top 5 in both offense and defense from just about any angle you look at either. They're a team of unselfish, remarkably skilled, high IQ players who are enthusiastic, disciplined and meticulously well coached. They are deserving of their success.

But how exactly did they achieve their success? They aren't tanking and drafting at the top of the lottery: the last time the Hawks had a top 5 pick was 2007 (Al Horford). They aren't spending like a Yankee(s): if anything, they've been selling, getting out from under overpriced contracts like Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. And they aren't making superstars out of their current roster.

Or are they?

Something that is incredibly bothersome to me surrounding the Hawks is the idea that they're a cinderella team, relying on teamwork, hustle, and determination to make up for their lack of star players. That's not true. That's a headline narrative for the AP feed. Don't get me wrong...the Hawks definitely have chemistry. They definitely play 100% every night. But to imply they're basically a team of likable, overachieving mid-carders is vastly underselling their starters, to the point of it being borderline insulting.

One of the questions being asked around the league right now is, do the Hawks deserve to have four All Stars? The answers is a definitive yes.

And quite honestly, the question to begin with should be, do the Hawks have four players playing like All Stars? Because that frames the question more appropriately to what is being achieved in Atlanta. They aren't deserving of four All Stars because they're winning a ton. They're deserving of four All Stars because they have four players playing like All Stars.

Jeff Teague

PER TS% FTr Reb% Ast% Stl% Blk% Pts/Par WS/48 WP/48 Wins Produced
Jeff Teague 22.7 .586 .398 4.9 39.7 2.9 1.2 4.4 .216 .239 6.3
Damian Lillard 22.1 .574 .311 6.9 29.0 1.9 0.4 4.1 .209 .231 7.9

Paul Millsap

PER TS% FTr Reb% Ast% Stl% Blk% Pts/Par WS/48 WP/48 Wins Produced
Paul Millsap 19.6 .567 .397 13.7 15.6 2.6 2.2 2.2 .167 .171 5.1
Blake Griffin 22.9 .553 .390 12.4 24.7 1.4 0.9 0.5 .180 .117 3.7

Kyle Korver

PER TS% FTr Reb% Ast% Stl% Blk% Pts/Par WS/48 WP/48 Wins Produced
Kyle Korver 15.8 .738 .224 7.4 13.1 1.0 1.1 5.7 .172 .282 8.3
Klay Thompson 22.8 .613 .230 5.9 15.4 2.0 2.2 4.0 .212 .227 6.1

Al Horford

PER TS% FTr Reb% Ast% Stl% Blk% Pts/Par WS/48 WP/48 Wins Produced
Al Horford 21.0 .567 .163 12.7 18.7 1.1 3.9 1.3 .188 .140 3.7
Marc Gasol 22.7 .570 .445 13.6 18.5 1.4 4.2 1.2 .190 .137 4.2

I mean, that doesn't really require any long form exposition, does it? The Hawks' success makes perfect sense when you think of them as Blake Griffin, Klay Thompson, Damian Lillard and Marc Gasol. If you were to actually put those four players on the same team, the pundits would flip themselves trying to guess if they would sweep the playoffs or win more games than Jordan's Bulls. The only reason they aren't flipping now is they don't realize it.

But that's just it, isn't it? In reality, the Hawks basically do have that team. And they're riding a 16 game winning streak, while dominating the East standings in a way that makes you really wonder if anyone in their conference, at least, can truly compete with them.

And again, the Hawks haven't been throwing wins or dollars to get to this point. Quite the opposite, in fact. Al Horford was the #3 pick in his draft, sure, but he's making a modest (all things considered) $12 million/year, compared to Marc Gasol, who's making nearly $16 million/year. And then look: Jeff Teague was picked 19th in his draft (the infamous Year of the Flynn), and is signed for just $8 million/year, which is the same price tag of (among others) OJ Mayo and George Hill. Paul Millsap was picked 47th overall (I mean, I don't not like Craig Smith, but...) and is signed for just $9.5 million/year. Blake Griffin is signed for nearly twice that amount. And Kyle Korver.....Kyle Korver, man....

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Kyle Korver is top 20 overall in 17 categories this season&#10;&#10;He gets paid less than Marvin Williams and JR Smith <a href="http://t.co/MXrdaqCIYQ">pic.twitter.com/MXrdaqCIYQ</a></p>&mdash; Key Sang (@Phantele_) <a href="https://twitter.com/Phantele_/status/559475368089112576">January 25, 2015</a></blockquote>

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And the Millsap/Griffin dynamic is going to play out for Korver and Teague as well, as both Klay and Lillard are going to be getting max contract extensions when they're eligible.

So that's lesson number one for the Wolves: ignore the populous chatter and find players that will play a superstar game at a less-than-superstar price.

Contrary to what teams seem to believe, it is not that hard to do. Kyle Korver was basically sold for cash by three different teams (Philly, Utah, Chicago) before landing in Atlanta. Millsap was so 'unwanted' his deal with the Hawks was just a 2 year signing that happened well after the summer's big free agency rush, which was after the Jazz not only declined to offer him an extension, but renounced his rights to facilitate a trade with Golden State.

They key, of course, is to know what you're looking for. Paul Millsap is not the quote-unquote 'prototypical' power forward. He's undersized, was a second rounder, and spent most of his career up to that point as a backup. But if you do know what you're looking for, then you'd see Paul Millsap has been playing at the level he is this season basically since 2008. Atlanta saw that, and because they did and no one else didn't, they were able to sign him without competition for half the market price. With Korver, the Hawks were willing to pay a little more than market value to make sure he stayed because they knew that, in truth, Korver is worth nearly twice his market value. This isn't hunting for unicorns. These guys are out there.

This right now is unfortunately something the Wolves do not at all understand the concept of. The only bargain contract the Wolves have is Robbie Hummel. I guess you can count Shabazz Muhammad too, but I sort of consider that a happy accident, since Flip clearly wasn't going on his production at UCLA (we hope...). By contrast, the Hawks have only one real contract you could argue isn't a bargain contract: Thabo Sefolosha. We talk about this again and again on this site: paying full freight. Corey Brewer, Chase Budinger, Pekovic...the Wolves nickel and dime themselves to cap space death.

And as for 'knowing what to look for'....

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>btw, Jeff Adrien&#39;s WP/48 was .227&#10;&#10;Dray Green&#39;s is .225&#10;Favors&#39; is .223&#10;Faried&#39;s is .222&#10;Drummond&#39;s is .216&#10;&#10;Bu y&#39;know. Raduljica is tall</p>&mdash; Key Sang (@Phantele_) <a href="https://twitter.com/Phantele_/status/559480893300297730">January 25, 2015</a></blockquote>

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Lesson number two is another one we talk about all the time: kill it in the draft. Like Bazz, Jeff Teague is more of a happy accident than anything else. But three of their key contributors off the bench were smart pick/pickup guys. The Hawks drafted Mike Scott 43rd overall two years ago, Dennis Shroeder 17th overall last year, and picked up Pero Antic in free agency after he went undrafted.

This is also something the Wolves struggle to grasp. Jonny Flynn instead of Steph Curry. Wes Johnson instead of Boogie or Paul George. The Wolves have a thoroughly depressing roulette of guys that were traded for mediocrity or sold for cash in their recent history: Ty Lawson, Chandler Parsons, Nikola Mirotic, and Donatas Motijunas, just to name a few. And while it's gotten better with Flip (Dieng is a quality pick, and Glenn Robinson III I think will prove to be as well) there's still that struggle with 'knowing what to look for'...Zach LaVine being the best example this year.

This also ties into salary management as well. Another thing we talk about often here is the ideal method for building a team in a salary capped league, which is to get awesome players on dirt cheap contracts, and the best way to do that is the draft because everyone is locked into a fixed salary scale, regardless of how good they are. Dennis Shroeder this year has improved himself into three times the player Barea was for us, but the rookie salary scale means Atlanta pays him a third of what we paid JJ. Draft picks. Full freight. Knowing what to look for. It all ties together.

And the third lesson for the Wolves here is one that....well, let's politely call it controversial right now: coaching really freakin' matters in the NBA.

Along with getting Paul Millsap in free agency and Al Horford back from the injured list, the Hawks also got Mike Budenholzer...he of the Popovich line...as their head coach. And that has proven to be as important as anything, because the player who has improved the most dramatically and is really driving the Hawks' success this year is the guy they always had, Jeff Teague.

The ability for the right coach to dramatically improve the right player is a proven commodity, and the evidence of this is everywhere just in the last few years. Look at LaMarcus Aldridge before and after Terry Stotts; Gerald Green before and after Jeff Hornacek; Klay Thompson before and after Steve Kerr. The before and after Budenholzer effect on Jeff Teague is just as big. This season, buying totally into what can pretty accurately be described as the Spurs Way, Teague has skyrocketed his game into the upper echelon of not just point guards, but players in general.

NBA rosters are puzzles, and it's up to the coach to fit the pieces together. You figure out what kind of players you have, then build a system to maximize their possibilities for success.

I won't do a dissertation on Flip Saunders here, since we could debate for years about his merits. But I will briefly just point out one aspect

<blockquote class="twitter-tweet" lang="en"><p>Flip Saunders vs modern basketball. <a href="http://t.co/8wqHEQwL3a">pic.twitter.com/8wqHEQwL3a</a></p>&mdash; Rafael Uehara (@rafael_uehara) <a href="https://twitter.com/rafael_uehara/status/559135363940483072">January 24, 2015</a></blockquote>

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The Wolves are last in the NBA in 3pt attempts per game at just 15...less than half of the league leading Houston Rockets...and it's mainly because, as exemplified here, Flip will set up the entire offense inside the three point line. But then what's truly vexing is he'll talk about how the Wolves struggle to shoot like it's something out of his hands.

Because we really never had a big inside presence, either a four [power forward] or five [center], where you could throw them the ball and they could create. So we don't shoot the ball very well now because a lot of our shots are contested shots.

(if you haven't read Britt's interview over on Minnpost, go read it now)

Is the problem that Pekovic and Ricky have been hurt? Or is the problem that all five Wolves often find themselves so close together they effectively guard each other of the other team. In the example above, Flip has Bazz cutting down the middle of the floor between two of his own teammates, which outs four white jerseys all inside the lane. The structure of the offense does the defense's work for it; just by being near their assignment, they for Stan Van Gundy's @*#%ing wall.

Saunders has a vexing habit of making intentional decisions and then somehow thinking the team is a victim of circumstances it can't control. "I let the defense crowd us but who knows why our shots are contested." "I signed a center to take the last roster spot but who knows why we don't have a roster spot to grab Nate Wolters." Etc, etc.

It's not exactly encouraging stuff, especially since Flip is both the "what am I looking for?", and "how do the pieces fit together?" guy. We'll see if things change when Rubio and Martin return. But it's difficult to look at this team and have confidence they know what they're doing right now.

The Hawks are a team that knows what it's doing now. They grabbed a roster of great players without breaking the bank and found a tough, flexible, maximum success coach to guide them. They've proven the Spurs system isn't just random mythology; there's a structure there that can be duplicated. If you have the right personnel to make the machine work.