ATLANTA -- During the hour before the Atlanta Hawks took the floor against the Boston Celtics, Dikembe Mutombo worked the lower bowl of Philips Arena like a presidential rope line. A big hug for a Buckhead neighbor, another one for a couple of kids who go to school with his. As he strode toward the tunnel to return to the bowels of the arena, Mutombo regaled the rowdy hipster brigade that inhabits section 118 with a wispy wag of the finger.
The jersey retirement scene for Mutombo at halftime was an acclimation to the past, which is always a dicey exercise in Atlanta, where tradition has no authority. The current Hawks regime paid tribute to Deke throughout the day and night, because ambassadorial work comes with the territory, and he's a fixture in the city. Tuesday night was as much a civic honor for a philanthropic Atlanta elite as it was for Mutombo's four-plus seasons of patrolling the paint for the Hawks. As Kyle Korver said on Tuesday, Mutombo "has given the world as much as he gave the game." Asked for his favorite Mutombo moments, Korver said none were appropriate for on-the-record comment.
A small dose of mandatory nostalgia is fine, but there isn't an NBA franchise in the fall of 2015 that's less devoted to its past than Atlanta. Danny Ferry might have left the building, but his aggressive futurism remains the guiding principle, even more so after his departure. Whether it's distant or recent, "The past is the past," Paul Millsap said. The Hawks forward wasn't referring to Mutombo, but to the 33-2 run Atlanta ripped off after last Thanksgiving following a first month as uninspiring as the stretch they're currently slogging through. Just because last season's Hawks found religion when the weather turned doesn't mean this team will.
For a team that felt it wasn't playing well heading into Tuesday night, the Hawks unleashed a surge of pass-happy possessions, then poured it on with a 121-97 win over Boston. Mike Budenholzer inserted Thabo Sefolosha into the starting lineup -- a unit that was a plus-9.9 points per 100 possessions last season. On Tuesday, the five outscored the Celtics 42-25 in 14 minutes.
The Hawks found more variety out of a motion offense that had grown sticky in recent weeks, and played their most physical defensive game since a win at Miami eons ago. Sefolosha plastered Avery Bradley on a stagger screen to free up a curling Korver for a 3-pointer. A sturdy back screen by Jeff Teague got Sefolosha a straight-line cut to the basket on a baseline out-of-bounds set with less than three seconds on the shot clock. And though he can do everything within the Atlanta system, Millsap manhandled the C's with straight-up bully-ball, finishing with 25 points (10-for-14 from the field, 5-for-5 from the free throw line). The final tally for the Hawks: 33 assists on 45 field goals.
"That's who we are," Millsap said. "That's how we're supposed to play every single night."
This was nothing the Hawks haven't done before, and nothing new was learned. Trying to replicate success rather than creating it can breed frustration, which the Hawks had been slogging through before Tuesday. No matter how well they perform, the Hawks are a certain bet to win fewer games this season than in 2014-15.
There has been a certain serenity to the malaise, a calm that comes with knowing the organization is now solidly on stable ground, where nobody has to worry about managing a crisis larger than incidental contact between a coach and referee. For Atlanta, there's a singular, if uninspiring goal: play its best regular-season basketball in March and April, something last season's Hawks did not do, even as they clinched the No. 1 seed three weeks before the playoffs started.
But measured as the collective temperament in Atlanta might be, the Budenholzer Administration is now officially on the clock. The Hawks have undergone what some in the organization call a cleanse. From Golden State, Budenholzer brought in Keke Lyles as the executive director of player performance and Mike Roncarati as director of rehabilitation. The ranks of the front office have swelled with more junior execs, more scouts and more quant heads. Even the administrative staff has received a makeover. It's a cultural revolution from a franchise determined to make culture its calling card.
The organization might be structurally stable and bringing in forward-looking personnel, but the future is anything but certain. Teague and Dennis Schroder can co-exist at the point ... for now. Defenses are affording Korver, who will be 35 when the playoffs begin, zero space on the perimeter and he hasn't averaged fewer 3-point attempts per 36 minutes since his final season in Utah. Tiago Splitter can help the Hawks fortify their longstanding issues on the glass, but only when he's able-bodied.
The Hawks couldn't pay DeMarre Carroll $15 million per season, but they now have nothing on the wing that can replace his physicality, savvy and range. Carroll lent a vanilla Hawks team a true identity -- something between disarming charm and nervous energy. It worked, and the Hawks miss it.
Millsap and Al Horford, of course, have been the mainstays in Atlanta, but the latter will test the depths of owner Tony Ressler's pockets as he enters unrestricted free agency next summer. Nothing can spoil a honeymoon between ownership and management more than a $140 million-$150 million bill for Horford, an exceptional big man with across-the-board skills and incomparable selflessness, but not exactly the kind of superstar who can fill the building on a Tuesday night in December. Ressler knew it was coming when he bought the team, but any owner is well within his rights to demand his basketball operations team make an iron-clad case for allocating one-seventh of a billion dollars to a single player.
Like the vast majority of NBA teams, the Hawks have flexibility going forward. They'll be able to pay Horford and with his (relatively) modest cap hold of approximately $18 million, have some moola left over to sign additional talent. In many respects, the Hawks' future success and failure will come down to Budenholzer's salesmanship -- his ability to attract that talent.
"We're going to continue to do what we've been doing -- build our culture, hire great people, upgrade our facilities and our health program, show that we can bring people into our building." Hawks GM Wes Wilcox
Moving a franchise from the ranks of the forgettables to the short list of NBA destinations is a process. Just as they've been rebranding in their local market, the Hawks will need to educate the league on its virtues: the positive culture, the commitment of new ownership, the collective character of the roster, the coaching staff, Atlanta as a stellar market for an athlete in his prime whether he is single or married, a state-of-the-art training facility that's in the works to replace what's now one of the league's saddest grottos.
When Budenholzer was elevated to the top spot in Atlanta, he paid visits to many of the league's elite player agents whose clients Atlanta will covet in the coming years. Adding a superstar will require a special power of persuasion, though management insists luring a top-of-the-marquee name is something that comes with indirect messaging.
"That's not going to be our sole focus," general manager Wes Wilcox said. "We're going to continue to do what we've been doing -- build our culture, hire great people, upgrade our facilities and our health program, show that we can bring people into our building."
Budenholzer will continue to re-introduce the Hawks to the league, but his time in San Antonio has informed his opinion on the science of recruitment. An organization doesn't adopt a culture or technology or player development gurus or a shiny new practice palace to reel in a superstar. It does those things to win.
And once you win and sustain that success, the league comes to you.