ATLANTA -- Entering free agency in 2012, the Atlanta Hawks had approximately $63 million committed to just six players and draft picks and cap holds for the following season. The team had qualified for the playoffs for five straight seasons, but was $5 million over the cap with a substantial portion of its roster to fill out.
A newly hired administration had a few options to hone the franchise's long-term strategy.
There was the status quo -- a few tweaks here and there, some growth from Jeff Teague and maybe they could sniff a top-2 or top-3 seed in a weak Eastern Conference. A more radical option, one that followed league trends, would be to detonate the roster and start over. On the other end of the spectrum was the Heat model -- carve out cap space to make a run at a couple of superstars during the summer of 2013, say, Chris Paul and Dwight Howard.
The Hawks considered each of these options but chose a different path. Call it The Fourth Way.
A financial renovation allowed them to keep a door open for a couple of max superstars, but build depth and versatility with friendly contracts around a top-shelf player in Al Horford and an emerging young talent in Teague.
Sixteen months later, on opening night 2013, the Hawks fielded a starting lineup of Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Horford -- the same five-man unit that has taken the floor for each playoff game this season. Along the way, the Hawks' front office added some hand-picked pieces, and a coach who embodied the organization's desired culture, style and temperament.
The net result was a 60-win regular season, the No. 1 seed in the East bracket and the franchise's first trip to the conference finals since the NBA/ABA merger. Here's how it was built from the ground up:
Pos.: C | Years in Atlanta: 8
"I never forget -- I watched the lottery," Horford says. "And there was only a small chance the Hawks would get into the top three, otherwise their pick would go to Phoenix. And when they got it, I was, like, 'I'm playing in Atlanta.'"
This was the spring of 2007, and Horford was coming off back-to-back national titles at the University of Florida, where he established himself as an all-purpose, mature big man who could read the game. While Greg Oden and Kevin Durant were locks to go No. 1 and No. 2 in the draft, Horford was slotted at third on just about every draft board in the league. So when the Hawks landed the No. 3 pick at the May lottery, Horford had a pretty good sense he'd end up in Atlanta.
At the time, the Hawks were abysmal, but Horford says he was excited about coming to the city. He cut down the nets in the Georgia Dome that spring, and his folks really took to the city.
Horford proved to be an essential piece, as the baby Hawks grew up with Horford as a calming force and, ultimately, the franchise's rock. He reached an agreement with the Hawks on the eve of the rookie extension deadline for another five seasons in Atlanta at $12 million per, a deal that expires in the summer of 2016, just when the salary cap explodes.
When the Hawks came out of the gate 7-6 this season, you'd hear murmurs that Horford was on the block. The rumors sincerely befuddled the Hawks' front office, who pointed out that few big men in the league fit coach Mike Budenholzer's image of a 5-man, both in terms of skill set and manner.
Pos.: PF | Years in Atlanta: 2
Like everything else in life, Millsap's journey to Atlanta started with Andre Iguodala.
In the spring of 2013, the league was hearing persistent whispers that the Warriors were hellbent on acquiring Iguodala. When this kind of chatter materializes, information-gatherers around the NBA quickly move into a game of connect the dots. If Iguodala was headed to Oakland, then the Warriors would have to get off some dead money, which meant that some other team would be willing to absorb those contracts, which also meant that team would probably have to renounce some rights of its own.
When the wheel of intel landed on Utah, the Hawks immediately reached out to Millsap's camp to express interest. If Millsap were to get renounced by the Jazz -- and the math suggested that was going to be the case -- he'd have a home in Atlanta.
With the hiring of Budenholzer, the Hawks wanted to install a new system and culture, and Millsap was precisely the kind of player who'd fit in it. Millsap was impressed by general manager Danny Ferry's vision for building the team, and Budenholzer's basketball mindset.
The number Millsap's camp initially posed to the Jazz was measurably higher than the two-year, $19 million contract they ultimately fetched from Atlanta (it's hard to believe Utah would've balked at retaining Millsap at $9.5 million a year).
But for both Millsap and the Hawks, the marriage was a win-win: The Hawks got a versatile, impact player for below market value; Millsap found an ideal situation and will have the opportunity to enter free agency as a 30-year-old playing winning basketball at the prime of his career.
Pos.: SF | Years in Atlanta: 2
Ferry had liked Carroll dating back to his tenure in Cleveland, when Carroll delivered a stellar workout prior to the 2009 draft. That June, Memphis plucked Carroll at No. 27, three spots ahead of the Cavs, and life moved on for all parties.
As recently as three years ago, there were questions as to whether Carroll would stick in the NBA. He had established himself as a tough wing defender, but as of opening night 2012, he'd sunk a total of seven 3-pointers in three seasons in a league that increasingly values spacing. He was waived by Denver in February 2012, then caught on with Utah through the 2012-13 season.
Ferry, Budenholzer, assistant general manager Wes Wilcox and the Hawks scouts all share a common appreciation for Carroll, so they kept tabs on him as he drifted around the league. As Carroll's game grew, so did their interest. And when it was time to find a permanent, but low-cost solution at the 3 in Atlanta, Carroll fit the bill.
Carroll got a few nibbles around the league during the summer of 2013, but only Atlanta laid a true vision of using him to his full capacity.
"This was the next step for him in his career," Carroll's agent, Mark Bartelstein, says. "He'd gotten a chance to play in Utah, had become a fan favorite as a role player. Now all of the sudden there was an incredible opportunity to go to a team and become a starter."
The two-year, $5 million deal Carroll signed with the Hawks represents one of the best non-rookie contracts in the game, one he will undeniably improve upon this summer.
Pos.: PG | Years in Atlanta: 6
In the spring of 2009, the Hawks had just concluded their first winning campaign in 10 years, 31-year-old Mike Bibby's first full season with the team. They moved early to re-sign him, but the draft class was a mother lode of point guard talent -- the kind of year when a team picking in the late teens could reasonably expect to land a top-10 pick any other June.
"Dave Pendergraft, Mike McNeive and our scouts loved Jeff's potential from the outset, dating back to his college career," former Hawks general manager and current senior advisor Rick Sund said. "[The 2009 draft class] was maybe the deepest ever for point guard talent, but in that range where we were picking, Jeff stood out."
Three years later, the Hawks were knee-deep in a major renovation when Teague came up for his rookie extension. Ferry had moved Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams that previous summer, sending out more than $105 million in contracts in exchange for less than $24 million. In the process, the Hawks cleared a ton of cap room for the summer of 2013, just enough for the Hawks to wedge two max players into the spreadsheet should they hit the mother lode. An extension for Teague wasn't in the cards.
But there was one catch -- they'd have to slow-play Teague in order to fully explore all of their options. Teague and his reps heard next to nothing from Ferry in the lead-up to free agency, and when former Hawks coach Larry Drew landed in Milwaukee, he promptly recruited Teague, who signed a four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Bucks.
During that period in the first two weeks of July, it became increasingly clear that the Hawks wouldn't land the likes of Paul or Howard. Still, there was a building consensus from just about everyone involved -- Teague's side, the Bucks and league insiders -- that Teague would likely suit up for the Bucks in the fall.
One hour before the deadline, the Hawks matched the Bucks' offer sheet.
There's a diversity of opinion about the Hawks' affinity level for Teague -- both then and now. But in the final analysis, the contract was too reasonable to pass up for a point guard with plenty of upside who would now be playing for a coach whom the front office was confident could sculpt that potential. The Teague-Hawks negotiations may not have been the smoothest in league history, but the end result was mutually beneficial.
Pos.: SG | Years in Atlanta: 3
Among the bounty of assets acquired by the Hawks in the Johnson deal was a $5 million trade exception that fit snugly around the final year of Korver's contract with the Bulls, which effectively became guaranteed when he landed in Atlanta. For Korver, the deal was auspicious. A Bulls reserve headed into free agency following the 2012-13 season, Korver would see a huge spike in minutes and shot attempts as Atlanta tried to fill the hole left by Johnson.
Korver turned in a nice season, starting 60 games and posting a true shooting percentage of 63.7. He also had two attributes deemed essential in a wing by Budenholzer -- length and accuracy from distance.
"Re-signing Kyle was a major priority for us," Wilcox says.
Soon after the season, Budenholzer and Ferry boarded a flight to southern California and endured a breakfast of acai and chia seeds at Korver's home to pitch him on returning to the Hawks. For Korver, it wasn't a slam dunk. He had a number of suitors, including the San Antonio Spurs, the team he'd fantasized about suiting up for. In the end, Korver preferred the idea of building something in Atlanta rather than maintaining something in San Antonio.
"Being a part of building something feels bigger," Korver says. "Bigger than basketball."
Korver earned a four-year, $24 million contract, which he's halfway through.
Years in Atlanta: 2
"Every conversation Pero and I ever had from the beginning, we'd end up talking about Duda," Budenholzer says. "Duda's pigeons, Pop's worship of Duda."
"Duda" is Dušan Ivković, the legendary Serbian coach -- "like the Pop of Europe, but a little bit older" -- and a renowned pigeon racer, which is a thing in Europe. Duda was instrumental in turning Antic from a callow young big man into a refined, mature, nuanced NBA center.
Antic appeared on Budenholzer's radar as a member of the Macedonian national team in Eurobasket 2011, where he had an incredible run. Largely unknown at the time, the big man displayed intuition, a decent outside shot and defensive smarts, along with uncommonly good body language and activity on the floor. Antic parlayed that EuroBasket performance into a deal with Olympiacos of the Greek League, with whom he won consecutive Euroleague titles.
Ferry and Wilcox kept tabs on Antic, and scouted him the 2013 EuroLeague Final Four in London. A couple months later, the Hawks signed him to a two-year deal to be the team's third center, fully guaranteeing the second year last spring.
Budenholzer adores Antic, telling HawksHoop's Bo Churney and Buddy Grizzard in January, "He's so unique. ... He does things, you just go back and watch film and usually it's brilliant. It's not necessarily anything that we've told him. He's just a really, really smart, instinctive player, including the defensive end."
Years in Atlanta: 1
At summer league in July in Las Vegas, Budenholzer was asked whether he was frustrated that Atlanta was being rebuffed by the A-list names in free agency. Yeah, the Hawks were frustrated. Nobody likes rejection. But he was over it. The way Budenholzer saw it, the Hawks' biggest improvement would need to come on the defensive side of the ball, and to that effect, the acquisition of Sefolosha was huge.
"In 2013-14, we were 1-8 without DeMarre," Wilcox said. "In games without Kyle we were 1-10. So we needed to add depth and versatility at the wing position. We also believed that Thabo would be a good addition to our locker room and culture."
Prior to agreeing to a three-year, $12 million contract, the Hawks dealt Lou Williams to Toronto along with the rights to Lucas Nogueira for John Salmons, whom they immediately bought out. The trade raised a couple of eyebrows around the league, but for the Hawks, the savings enabled them to bolster the roster with players who appealed to the new organizational sensibilities -- more length, more defense and a more systematic approach.
Sefolosha's leg was broken in an incident with law enforcement in New York in early April. The Hawks have sorely missed his defense and versatility on the wing during their playoff run.
Years in Atlanta: 2
In April 2013, Schroder wowed Ferry, Wilcox and Hawks scout and coordinator Jeff Peterson at Nike Hoop Summit in Portland with his speed, vision, length and the makings of a quality shot. After the event, Peterson was charged with watching every second of Schroder available on any visual medium. The film confirmed what the Hawks saw in Portland, and Schroder rose up their draft board.
The Hawks had the No. 17 and No. 18 picks in the 2013 draft, but wanted to ensure they'd have the best chance at two of their primary mid-to-late first-round targets -- Nogueira and Schroder. To do so, the Hawks effectively swapped No. 18 for No. 16 with Dallas and agreed to take on Jared Cunningham. After the Hawks selected Schroder, the Mavericks drafted a point guard, Shane Larkin. In hindsight, Rudy Gobert or Gorgui Dieng were better choices at No. 16 for Atlanta, as Noguiera was ultimately shipped to Toronto.
Years in Atlanta: 2
Also included in the draft trade with the Mavericks was the No. 44 overall pick, which the Hawks used to select Muscala. Atlanta had Muscala firmly in the first round, and made a few attempts to move up, to no avail. Muscala kept sliding, and as the No. 44 pick approached, the Hawks' draft room became giddy when he was still on the board after Ricky Ledo was announced at No. 43.
With no roster spot for him in Atlanta, Muscala started the 2013-14 season in Spain. But after Horford's season-ending torn pec and Gustavo Ayon's shoulder injury, Ferry brought him over just after the All-Star Break. A skilled, sweet-shooting big man who can rebound, Muscala has impressed in his first full season in Atlanta, posting a true shooting percentage of 60.8 percent.
Years in Atlanta: 1
After another in a series of impressive showings by Bazemore at the Portsmouth Invitational Tournament in April 2012, the Colonial Athletic Association's defensive player of the year was approached by a young junior NBA exec in a hallway. The exec introduced himself as Wes Wilcox, the director of player personnel for the Cleveland Cavaliers. The two chatted for about 10 or 15 minutes, according to Bazemore, and then went along their ways.
A couple of months later, Wilcox joined Ferry in Atlanta, and kept Bazemore on a semi-formal list of pro players they'd track. Bazemore went undrafted that June, but after a good run in summer league with Golden State, he received training camp invites from both the Warriors and Hawks for the fall of 2012. The Hawks came in second.
Bazemore bounced between the NBA and D-League in his rookie season, played extremely well again for the Warriors' summer-league squad in 2013, then got traded to the Lakers, where he enjoyed a nice 23-game stretch.
"Whenever a player plays well at every level -- at the Portsmouth Invitational, in the D-League, at summer league, in their limited NBA appearances -- that's a good scenario and sign of a potential contributor," Wilcox said.
In the 2014, both Budenholzer and the front office wanted to land a long, active wing who could defend. When the Lakers declined to extend Bazemore a $1.1 million qualifying offer, the Hawks zeroed in, along with several other suitors. The two sides agreed to a guaranteed deal of two years and $4 million fairly early in free agency.
Years in Atlanta: 2.5
After being drafted in the second round by the Wizards in 2011, Mack spent his first two seasons out of Butler University shuttling between the NBA and the D-League before hooking on with the Hawks at the end of the 2012-13 season with a series of 10-day contracts, then a non-guaranteed deal.
Hawks principals saw a cultural kinship in Brad Stevens' program, and took a liking to Mack. After a solid campaign as the Hawks' backup point guard in 2013-14, Mack signed a three-year, $7.3 million contract (the Hawks hold the option on the final year). At 24 at the start of this season, Mack conforms to the Hawks' focus on building a largely young group, ages 30 and under, enjoying their middle prime.
Barely a week on the job in 2012, Ferry selected Jenkins at No. 23 and Scott at No. 43. Perhaps you'll notice a commonality -- both guys can bomb from distance. All things being equal in Atlanta, this current Hawks administration will generally favor shooting over muscle, and refinement over potential.
Jenkins' lack of length on the wing holds him back in the Hawks' rotation, one reason why the team declined to pick up his 2015-16 option at the start of the season. Scott fared better last summer, securing a three-year, $10 million deal (the Hawks own the option on the final year) as yet another in the Hawks' platoon of stretch bigs.
Years in Atlanta: 2
In the summer of 2013, the Hawks were desperate to add another big man or two, with only Horford, Millsap and Scott under contract at the time, the latter of whom is a big man in height only. Brand signed a one-year deal worth $4 million for the 2013-14 season.
A buttoned-up professional, Brand was a natural fit in Atlanta where he pushes the reserve squad hard in practice scrimmages and holds down the role of elder statesman. The Hawks re-signed him in September to another one-year deal, this one for $2 million.
Years in Atlanta: 1
To flesh out their 15-man roster, the Hawks signed Austin Daye to a couple of 10-day contracts in March, before guaranteeing him for the remainder of the season in early April. The team holds a $1.2 million option for next season. Daye is unlikely to find his way onto the active list for any postseason game, but having spent time with San Antonio this season, he understands Budenholzer's system and provides a warm body in practice.