"A full house beats a pair of aces every time."
This famous radio call was made during Game 5 of the 2004 NBA Finals when the gritty Detroit Pistons knocked off the star-studded Los Angeles Lakers to claim their first NBA title since the original "Bad Boys" of the 80s and 90s. The statement could be said again tonight after the Atlanta Hawks took down the Golden State Warriors, and jumped them for the best record in the NBA.
A decade ago, the two aces were Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal, but Friday night, they were the "Splash Brothers", a.k.a Steph Curry and Klay Thompson. While they have plenty of strong players, the Warriors are -- without doubt -- built around their smooth shooting and up-tempo backcourt. Players like Draymond Green and Andrew Bogut are integral parts of their team, but, honestly, it is all about Curry and Thompson.
The Hawks, on the other hand, have puzzled many NBA fans. First of all, hardly anybody thought they would be this good. Coming in, it was the Wizards, Cavaliers, and Bulls who were perceived as the front-runners in the East, but here is Atlanta, boasting a winning percentage of roughly 80 and opening more eyes with every win. Their team is puzzling because people don't quite know whom to rave about. Fans have been raving this season about Anthony Davis, Curry and James Harden, but on the Hawks? Who do fans point to and say, "That's the go-to guy?"
Could it be Kyle Korver, who is shooting over fifty percent from deep and proving himself to be more than a role player? Perhaps it's Jeff Teague, who has quietly become an elite NBA floor general. Is it Al Horford, whose steady play and versatile offensive ability anchors this unit?
The same questions were asked of the title-winning Pistons team in the 2003-2004 season. While the answer ultimately became "Chauncey Billups" during the season, players such as Richard Hamilton and Rasheed Wallace were also capable of being the team's go-to guys and lighting up the stat sheet.
This season's Hawks team seems built from a formula similar to that Pistons squad, focused around a starting lineup that does not have a weak link. In both cases, the weakest player would be the small forward (Prince and Carroll), but if those players are the fifth best starters, the Hawks know they have a strong team around them.
Carroll, like Prince, is all about defense. He can shut down any perimeter player (PG, SG or SF) on the opposing team, and he shows versatility on offense. He has averaged double-digit points this year and has numbers similar to those of Tayshaun Prince during his prime. Millsap and Horford are comparable to Wallace and Wallace from the Pistons, but they are a little more offensively talented and a bit less defensively dominant overall. Ben Wallace, although a non-factor in the post, was mostly used on offense as a lob-catcher. Millsap and Horford both possess solid scoring ability in the low post and from outside. They have become the second best power forward-center tandem in the NBA behind only Marc Gasol and Zach Randolph in Memphis.
Much like the 2004 Detroit team, the Hawks are outstanding in nearly every team-defense category. They are among nine teams allowing under 44 percent shooting from the field and among eight teams allowing under 34 percent from beyond the arc. They are in the top 10 in the NBA in forced turnovers and number two in point differential, coming in at just shy of plus-seven on the season.
Detroit was built around defense, as they went on a six-game streak during the season in which they held opponents under 70 points. While that is nearly unfathomable in today's NBA, the Hawks certainly do not let many opponents get past 95 points. They have played hard-nosed defense all year despite being somewhat undersized. They have high-energy players such as Dennis Schroder, Mike Scott, and Pero Antic who do their job on both ends of the floor. The Pistons went 10 deep with players such as Mehmet Okur and Lindsey Hunter, who can also impact the game with either their defense or offense.
The major similarity, however, is not driven by numbers. It is not their depth or their defense either -- although those are key factors. Overall, the Hawks have the same "we don't need a superstar" mentality of the 2004 Pistons team. Even while holding the best record in the East, the Cavaliers' recent success is dominating headlines. Sure, Atlanta's win over Golden State will garner them some more attention, but their success has been met with skepticism. Some write them off and wonder who the Hawks' go-to player is while others think they will get steam-rolled by LeBron James and company. Nevertheless, here they are, taking down the Splash Brothers and powering through the season with a 42-9 record and a tight-knit starting five.
The Pistons of 2004 were not given much attention either and most believed the Indiana Pacers and New Jersey Nets were the teams to beat in the East.
There is still plenty of basketball to be played this season, but more than halfway through, it is clear that the Hawks do not need a superstar. They have built a team that goes 10 deep, plays defense, and spreads the ball around. The bad boys of the new millenium upset the mighty Lakers in five games behind blue-collar basketball and relentless defense. The Hawks will have to strive to do the same when the playoffs start in just three months. One thing is clear, however, while we spend the rest of the season talking about the Warriors, Cavaliers, and Los Angeles Clippers, this Hawks team will be perching up at the top.