Even for the Hawks, the most anonymously good team of the last half-decade, this year's version is exceptionally random. After trading Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams in the offseason, first-year GM Danny Ferry assembled an odd collection of vagabonds on short-term contracts.
Of the eight players who have logged more than a thousand minutes, only two are under guaranteed contracts beyond this season and one of them -- Lou Williams -- is out for the year. The other is Al Horford, which isn't a bad place to start, but just about everything else is in flux.
Josh Smith, Devin Harris, Kyle Korver and Zaza Pachulia will all be free agents this summer. Pachulia, incidentally, is done after the team announced on Saturday that he will undergo season-ending surgery for an Achilles injury. Jeff Teague will also be a restricted free agent, which will be interesting considering his age (24), his draft class (the point guard extension heavy 2009 group) and his steadily improving production.
If that's not enough, coach Larry Drew had the option on the final year of his contract picked up by former GM Rick Sund before he gave way to Ferry. All of that is usually a recipe for dysfunction, but Drew challenged his players in camp to look beyond the expectations and they've bought in to the mindset.
"I think guys just know what they're playing for," Teague told SB Nation after the Hawks lost to the Celtics on Friday. "Everyone wants to play well, but as a team we feel like if we win everybody gets a great opportunity to do what they want to do. That's how we accepted it. Just win, and everybody looks good."
The Hawks have won enough to make the playoffs again and they are right in the middle of the underwhelming muddle that is the Eastern Conference playoff race. There have been grand arguments constructed about the Pacers, Knicks, Bulls, Nets and even the Celtics as a postseason spoiler, yet nary a soul is talking about Atlanta.
Because of Horford, who remains one of the game's underappreciated gems, and their wealth of three-point shooters, the Hawks should at least be considered dangerous as a first-round opponent. Beyond that is anyone's guess, but considering everything that has gone down that's still something of an accomplishment.
"Everyone said this was a rebuilding process and that nobody gave us a chance to be in the position we're in right now," Drew said. "I'm very proud of them that they stepped up to the challenge, and they didn't buy into all the new faces and having to learn the new system. As a coach that's very gratifying. I'm very happy with how our guys have responded to everything."
Teague, especially, has responded. In his second year as a starter he's upped his scoring and playmaking, averaging 15 points and 7 assists, while making a career-best 37 percent of his shots behind the arc.
"I think I've played better," Teague said. "I think I've still got more in store. I'm just not even reaching my potential yet. It's not even close. I'm just trying to get better every year."
Developing Teague has been one of Drew's primary jobs since he took over for Mike Woodson after the 2010 season. The coach has been encouraged by what he's seen.
"For us, when he's playing at a high level we're a totally different basketball club," Drew said. "He's done a phenomenal job in his growth as a point guard. He's had his moments, but I really believe he will continue to grow as one of the better young point guards in our league. Hopefully at some point he will be mentioned in the same breath as some of these other guys."
This summer will be fascinating. After five years as the league's consummate second-round team, change seems inevitable. Smith has said that he wants a max deal and Teague could be in line for a big payday as well. With potentially tons of cap space and a pair of first-round picks, Ferry could be positioned to pull off a major move or two. But for now the Hawks have gamely made the best of their uncertain situation.
"It's like a win-win," Teague said. "We know we can be a lot better but nobody expected us to be here."
Leftovers from the scouting trail
In reporting the feature on Celtics assistant GM Ryan McDonough and the art of scouting, it was clear that the two biggest changes in scouting the past decade have been the use of the video scouting service Synergy and the rise of advanced metrics.
"Synergy is really valuable," McDonough said. "We use it for everything, too. We use it for NBA games, college games, international games. The amount of video and ease of use is huge. It's really changed how we do everything and made us a lot more efficient."
Here's an example of how much the evaluation process has changed. When Leandro Barbosa declared for the draft in 2003, scouts went searching for any available videotape and what they came up with was often murky.
"We got some video, I don't even know how to describe it," McDonough said. "Remember the old glow puck in hockey? That was like him. You couldn't tell if he was at the three-point line or in the paint. The video was so bad and grainy and you also couldn't tell the competition."
Getting accurate statistics? Forget it. Even if you did, there was no way to translate them, given the competition. The Celtics have one of the best in the statistical analysts in the business working for them in assistant GM Mike Zarren. His work is a closely guarded secret, but it's interesting that team president Danny Ainge remains something of a stat skeptic.
"Statistics are important, but I'm not so sure that statistics have evolved into anything greater," Ainge said. "What guys shoot, their percentages, if they're good rebounders, I'm not sure there's a formula that identifies much better than what we had 20 years ago. You can go watch a game and say that guy's a really good rebounder. He's getting 10 a game. Now you go watch a game, you say that guy's a really good rebounder, he's getting 20 percent of the defensive rebounds. There is a little bit more clarification in exacting some of those things."
Skeptic is not the same as denier, of course, and what Ainge is after most of all is information. That often gets lost in the unnecessary war between stats and eyes. No successful team relies strictly on one or the other. "Just doing one or the other to the extreme, just relying on pure scouting or just statistics is reckless and foolish," McDonough said.
Ainge told me one of the things he's learned over the years is that timing and anticipation are skills, as is the ability to play hard.
"Coaching helped me the most," Ainge said. "I realized coaches can't transform players all the time. I was going to be the best coach in the world. Our team was going to play the best defense ever. I realized that's really hard to get some players to see. It's hard to get some players to react and anticipate."
Is some of that information available in the reams of statistics? Sure, if you know where to look and how to find it. One other thing that stood out in the course of my reporting was that it's harder to find an edge thanks to the amount of quality information. What this really comes down to is the individual evaluator and the needs of the team.
"Every team looks at things differently and every team values things a little bit differently," Magic GM Rob Hennigan said. "The trick is figuring out what we want to be about and how we want to accomplish that."
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