The 2014-15 Hawks that surprised the league

Published August 31, 2023, 9:00 AMPolo Bustamante
Polo Bustamante

NBA.com Philippines writer Polo Bustamante looks back on the Atlanta Hawks who had a stellar 2014-15 season.

“To me, teamwork is the beauty of our sport where you have five acting as one. You become selfless.”

We’ve all heard a version of those words by Coach Mike Krzyzewski. Basketball is a team sport. Individuals don’t win games, teams do. That’s why no matter how great a singular superstar is, he still needs to be supported by his four other teammates on the floor. 

So, what happens when a team has four All-Star caliber players, playing a cohesive system? Are they good enough to win a championship?

Those were the questions the 2015 Atlanta Hawks tried to answer.

State of the NBA

The NBA was a dichotomy back in 2015.

The San Antonio Spurs were coming off a championship run where they showed how total basketball can dominate star-studded opponents. With the trio of Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili slowing down, the Spurs needed every bit of contribution from the rest of the team to overcome the vaunted Miami Heat. That total team effort was a direct contrast to the Heat and their star-centric style of play.

On the other end of the country was a team on another end of the basketball spectrum.

After his tenure with the Heat, LeBron James took his talents back to Ohio where a new Big Three was set up for him. The Cleveland Cavaliers made the right moves to surround their King with two other All-Stars in his return. Even though Kevin Love and Kyrie Irving have proven that they can both be leaders of a team, they bowed down to James who was the central figure of the new-look Cavs.

Atlanta took a look at both options and decided to become the Spurs of the East.

The lineup

Fortunately, the Hawks already had someone familiar with how the Spurs were run. Their head coach Mike Budenholzer was an assistant under Coach Gregg Popovich. So just like his mentor, he decided to assign key players that were on his roster to similar roles to the stars of San Antonio.

The centerpiece of the team was Al Horford. He was a jack of all trades who could score, rebound, and create opportunities for his teammates fairly well. Just like Duncan with the Spurs, all the action of the Hawks was centered around Horford. He would park himself in the high post and make reads from there.

The primary perimeter option of Atlanta was Jeff Teague. Just like Parker, Teague was a no-nonsense point guard who got the job done. Teague wasn’t excellent at one thing but he was a capable scorer and playmaker. He was also the team’s best slasher, which made him a natural partner for Horford in the two-man game.

The Hawks didn’t have players that could mimic the skills of Ginobili and a young Kawhi Leonard at the wings. That’s why Atlanta decided to roll out a committee of wings that could do a lot of the little things that those two Spurs could do.

Off-the-ball movement? Paul Millsap took care of the inside while Kyle Korver stretched the defense outside. Shooting? That fell on the shoulders of Korver. Defense? DeMarre Carroll and Millsap tag-teamed the wing defense. Playmaking off the bench? That was Dennis Schroder’s role. Quirky play? Schroder again, and a sprinkle of Millsap and Carroll at times.

The aftermath

Atlanta’s decision to photocopy San Antonio paid off in the 2014-2015 regular season. They jumped out to become one of the best teams in the East, winning 23 of their first 31 games – good for second in the conference at the end of 2014. No one knew what was about to come next.

The Hawks opened 2015 with a 98-92 win over the Utah Jazz. Then they just kept winning, and winning, and winning. They swept their entire slate of games in January 2015, going 17-0 during that span. They became the first team to ever go 17-0 over an entire month.

Because of that run, the entire starting five of the Hawks was named Player of the Month for the Eastern Conference in January 2015. The recognition for what Atlanta was doing that season continued when four of their five starters – Horford, Teague, Millsap, and Korver – were called up to the All-Star Game.

Atlanta finished the season with a 60-22 record, the second-best team in the league and only two wins shy of San Antonio’s record in the previous season. In the playoffs, the Hawks took down the Brooklyn Nets and the Washington Wizards to advance to the Conference Finals. It seemed like they were on the same championship path as the Spurs.

That path led to King James who was waiting for the Hawks in the Conference Finals, this time with the Cavs. This is where the road got rocky for Atlanta.

Unlike the Spurs, the Hawks didn’t have a solution for James. The King averaged 30-11-9 in the series. He absolutely obliterated Atlanta’s defense. He got to the spots he wanted and just toyed with the defense. Even without Love and Irving severely limited, James towed the Cavaliers to a four-game sweep, sending the Hawks home after their incredible season.

The dirty little secret of the Spurs that the Hawks weren’t in on is that San Antonio played total team basketball but still relied on their own superstars. The Spurs knew they could lean on Duncan or budding star, Leonard, who was the Finals MVP of the 2014 Finals. When things got messy, they knew they could abandon beautiful basketball and let Duncan or Leonard go to work.

The Hawks didn’t have a player of that caliber. Their All-Stars were good, but none of them couldn’t take over a game like Duncan, Leonard, or James. 

Basketball is a team sport. That’s still true. But in the NBA, top-tier talent can raise the ceiling of their teams higher than even a team with multiple All-Stars.