When Atlanta walked off its home floor Wednesday night with a 100-97 victory over Utah, Mike Budenholzer did what all victorious coaches do in the NBA — they wave across the floor to the opposing coach and walk to the locker room. But as Bob Rathbun and Dominique Wilkins discussed during the broadcast, Budenholzer and Jazz coach Quin Snyder are more than just peers: Budenholzer watched Snyder blossom as a gifted assistant coach on his bench last season.
More importantly, both gentlemen are students from the most influential coaching school in the modern game of basketball: Gregg Popovich University.
The San Antonio Spurs organization has changed the NBA forever — advanced scouting overseas, the reinvention of the corner three-point shot, deeper benches and regular season minutes restrictions are just a few successful experiments that can be traced back to R.C. Buford and Popovich during the Tim Duncan-era. As the NBA expands faster and wider than anyone could have predicted just a couple years ago, organizations are constantly facing decisions on players and coaches without even knowing what the salary cap will be beyond next season.
Within this chaotic, swelling madness, it is stability — above potential, cap space, draft picks and even raw talent — that is the most valuable asset in the league.
Stability — along with unrivaled ingenuity — is what put San Antonio in position to make the NBA Finals in back-to-back seasons, and what gave them an overwhelming advantage in the dismantling of the former Big Three-era Miami Heat this past June. Sure, most teams don’t have the blessing of drafting Tim Duncan, but the Spurs are competing for championships nearly two decades later because of their unwavering commitment to surrounding Duncan with Tony Parkers and Manu Ginobilis and Kawhi Leonards — and evolving their system year-and-year to maximize their efforts.
The astonishing success of the Spurs has given birth to a tremendous number of copycats: Oklahoma City, Houston, Portland, Atlanta, Utah — the list is practically endless. The NBA’s modern obsession with shooting efficiencies, three-pointers, transition defense over offensive rebounding and conservative defenses against the pick-and-roll originates, practically speaking, with San Antonio — a team that is thriving, ironically, at the same time so many of their opponents are borrowing their philosophies.
So this brings us back to Wednesday’s game, where sophomore Budenholzer and rookie Snyder coached opposite each other for the first time in their careers. It was Snyder’s return to Atlanta after taking the job in Utah — Rathbun credited Snyder with developing promising guard Dennis Schroder and working closely with sharp-shooter Kyle Korver. Budenholzer and his staff transformed a tired Atlanta team, one that routinely topped out as an also-ran in the East during the Josh Smith/Mike Woodson-era, into a league-high passing and shooting machine. The Hawks led the NBA in assist percentage in 2013-14, and reinvented itself around the gifts of Korver and a collection of gifted guards and forwards.
The ball doesn’t stop moving in Atlanta, as any number of Hawks can lead the team in scoring on a given night. All-Star Paul Millsap scored 30 points on 13 for 23 shooting from the field against the Jazz; Korver connected on four 3PM and finished with 17 points and six assists; and point guard Jeff Teague scored 20 points and dished out eight assists. The team shot over 51 percent from the floor and made nine 3-pointers; this more than helped make up for a tough night from Atlanta’s best player, Al Horford, who had just eight points on a subpar shooting performance.
Teague, operating as a poor-man’s Tony Parker under Budenholzer, has blossomed into a careful, steady guard who makes up for a lack of scoring talent by spending more time at the foul line. He had a game-high 8 FTA on Wednesday (he made six), and is averaging 5.7 FTA per game after attempting half that number the season before Budenholzer took over as coach.
Korver is the most dangerous man on Earth with a spot-up jump shot. The gravity he has in the half-court is staggering, as opposing defenses opt out of protecting the rim in order to get out on him.
Although sometimes they still forget.
Millsap, who hit four 3-pointers on Wednesday, had never hit more than 39 long-range shots in a season before arriving in Atlanta. But playing for Budenholzer equates to passing, moving without the ball and hitting the open man — which, as it turns out, makes everyone on the floor a bit sharper. Even though the team missed Horford last season, and they are still working him into the fold, the combination of Millsap and Horford in the frontcourt is as promising a unit as any in the NBA.
The Hawks could finish anywhere in the East standings this season and it wouldn’t shock me — well, anywhere expect the basement of the conference. That growth and progression are a product of stability and culture; and no matter what is happening off the floor in Atlanta, the Hawks will keep winning basketball games so long as they keep their commitment to that principle.
And it’s with that in mind that Snyder’s impressive start in Utah should not be a surprise. The Jazz were a boring team last season — they were as creative as peeling potatoes and, injuries aside, points were hard to come by. Now? Snyder has them in the Top 10 in offensive efficiency, as well as eFG% and true-shooting percentage. Much of that has to do with this thing, I don’t know if you’ve heard of it, called the three-point shot — Utah takes a lot more of those now. Snyder has Gordon Hayward, Alec Burks and company (even Enes Kanter!) attempting more than 30 percent of their shots from behind the arc, the sixth-highest rate in the NBA.
Important distinction: shooting 3-pointers doesn’t automatically make you a good offensive basketball team. (See: Philadelphia.) But Snyder’s willingness to inject some life into one of the most predictably tasteless offenses in the league is why the team has been competitive in six of their nine games — including wins against Cleveland and Phoenix. Kanter and Derrick Favors are playable as a tandem now; the team is scoring 109.8 points per 100 possessions when they share the floor together, per NBA.com — a huge improvement from a season ago. Their primary starting lineup is scoring like gangbusters, posting an offensive efficiency of 114.9. Burks is having his best season and Hayward is going to turn heads all year if he keeps churning out 18/6/5 stat lines.
There is a larger conversation to have about homogeneity in basketball, and if a partisan agenda toward the elimination of mid-range jumpers and stout power forwards is really a good thing for the league. But objectively speaking, Atlanta and Utah are two very fun basketball teams — better positioned than they were before their respective head coaches took over. So here’s to looking at you, Pop.
I watch a lot of basketball games. I’m not just writing this to justify my outrageous cable bill — “Should I spend more money on NBA League Pass or food this month?” is an all too common question I ask myself — but to transition into the first installment of “free throws.” Here is where I’ll be throwing a hodgepodge of awesome clips and stills from the NBA season that I couldn’t commit entire columns too. They are not free throws in that I’ll make or miss on some of them, rather they are just free, smaller observations compared to the whole of each of my wordy columns. (Why am I over explaining this again?)
Larry Sanders vs. Marc Gasol would be the best show on Fox this spring.
Make it anything — basketball, cake decorating, bumper cars, chess. I’d watch ANYTHING they competed in. Sanders, at his best, is an all-caps, tenacious disciple of the Kevin Garnett school of interior defense. Marc Gasol is possibly the game’s most underrated superstar — the manifestation of basketball I.Q. and court vision in a burly, 7-footers body. In this battle, it looks like there is something personal, and unless I missed trash talk on a trip or two, it might be the dissonance between their styles of game. These teams simply couldn’t play often enough.
Jabari Parker out-hustling everyone on the floor.
In the wake of Dirk Nowitzki passing Hakeem Olajuwon on the all-time scoring list, I’ll tread lightly when I say that Parker appears to be a special scorer. He has the right body for this era — a thick forward with his height and athleticism is perfect for the positional overlap forming between the 3 and 4. Watch him go to work on Tony Allen, universally lauded as one of the game’s best defenders — albeit at shooting guard.
Parker not only times it perfectly so he separates himself from Allen in a single spin-move, but so Gasol, a former Defensive Player of the Year, does not have a chance to get to him. Great recognition. The rook is smart, and is not afraid to hustle himself into good opportunities — he doesn’t just settle for juicy one-on-one chances against smaller defenders and stand around defensively. Check out his team defense followed by perfectly filling his lane on a ill-fated fastbreak:
And then check him out creating points for his team by sampling recognizing when to burst by a Memphis defender:
I don’t have to be anti-Wiggins to say the Bucks were dealt a brilliant hand in the 2014 NBA Draft, and drafting the Greek Freak and Parker in back-to-back seasons could prove to franchise altering.
More Greek Freak drives and post-ups, please.
Speaking of Giannis, he did some really cool things offensively against Memphis, a game Milwaukee won in large part because of his endless versatility on that end. Jason Kidd had the Bucks calling the Greek Freak’s number exponentially throughout the game, and he and O.J. Mayo took over much of the second half with an occasional Brandon Knight dunk tossed in for good measure. The basketball universe has a recurring wet dream where Giannis becomes the next Magic Johnson; as sweet as that may be, how the Bucks are already using him projects really well for the long haul.
The Greek Freak has been compared to a scarecrow for good reason — his limbs never quit. A player with a body like that is really dangerous close to the basket: he’s always a good angle away from getting a decent shot attempt, which is scary for the defense. (See: Why the entire NBA is freaking out about Anthony Davis.) Kidd is experimenting with Giannis post-ups, sets that can equally yield shots or, in this example, fierce interior passes to cutters:
Giannis is also going to be a nightmare on the perimeter, as guards are not chemically designed to deal with his length, and bigs, like Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph, cannot (CANNOT, CANNOT) deal with his speed on an island.
Eric Bledsoe is really fun to watch.
While his big payday this fall was a lightning rod for debate over the future of individual player salaries in a booming market, let’s not forget, at its core, why Eric Bledsoe is payed like an up-and-coming star player. Here I’ll give you a few reasons:
Portland has an elite offense.
A common regression candidate entering the season, Portland’s returning starting lineup averaged 108.3 points per 100 possessions a year ago, per NBA.com. Another year of growth and chemistry, another year for Damian Lillard to learn the point guard position, and LaMarcus Aldridge coming off his best season — and people didn’t expect possessions like this?
Look, they have been defending out of their minds out of the gates, something that is unlikely to maintain as the West schedule takes its toll, but this offense is tricky to approach for even the game’s best defenses — just ask Houston.
Robin Lopez is a wizard at positioning around the basket.
Embarrassing note about myself: my little brother Lucas beats me all the time at 2K15. Like, 83 percent of the time, roughly. Now, in my defense, I work full-time, and I don’t care how difficult the Common Core has made things, he is putting more time in the virtual gym than me.
Whenever he lands on Portland after random team selections — Universal 2K rule: three randoms, pick one OR sudden death fourth random selection and you cannot change the team under any circumstances — I have to shake my head, because I know what’s coming: Robin Lopez is going to score 25 points.
I could be Patrick Ewing’s Knicks and Lopez is posting a double-double on me. Why? Because 2K is flawless and knows Robin Lopez and what he is all about, and Lopez might be the game’s best positioned around the basket. He knows just when to slide in front of a clueless defender to box out, or when to cut to the rim when Lillard is going to be double-teamed:
The Los Angeles Clippers are not particularly good on the defensive end, but they do play DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin much of the time, two athletes who are mostly bigger and faster than Lopez. And yet Lopez dropped 17 points in the first half against them. He has a nose for open shots in the paint — part of the reason why Portland ascended into a Top 4 seed in the West last season, and why they might finish higher in 2015.
Chris Paul helps me get virtual revenge on Robin Lopez.
This is for all those lost battles, Lucas/Robin!!!
Joe Mags (@thatjoemags) is the Editor-in-chief of The High Screen. He is also a staff writer for pickinsplinters.com, a contributor to USA Today Sports and a staff writer for the Watertown Daily Times.