The Last Word with Lang Whitaker - November 5, 2009

Lang Whitaker is many things - executive editor of Slam Magazine, a contributor for NBA TV, a book author, and most importantly, a die-hard Hawks fan. After starting 2-for-2 in pushing the Hawks into the postseason, he's back for his third season in 2009-10 to share his thoughts on the team exclusively for Hawks.com. Check back every Thursday throughout the season to read his latest musings, and read him every day at www.SLAMonline.com

"Next Step: Consistency"
by Lang Whitaker

If you're building a championship-level NBA team, there are three steps that cannot be omitted: 1) You have to get the right players in place. 2) They have to understand and embrace the roles you ask them to play. 3) They have to play those roles consistently.

Watching the Hawks tip-off the '09-10 season, I was reminded, strangely enough, of the San Antonio Spurs. A few years ago, I went out to San Antonio to write a SLAM cover story on the Spurs, who've managed to assemble the closest thing to a dynasty we've seen in the NBA over the last decade. (They've won 4 of the last 11 titles and haven't lost more than 29 games in any season over that stretch.) I asked longtime San Antonio coach Greg Popovich how the Spurs had been able to create this championship machine.

"Consistency," said Pop. "We try to do the same things over and over and over again and fight the battles with players, where I think if you just talk about defense and rebounding and how you play the defense and how you play the pick-and-rolls, I think players in the end win and then all they think about is offense. I think our system more than anything is just persistent and consistent with a defensive emphasis more than anything."

Persistent and consistent. (And you want to talk about a team being on-message? A day after talking to Popovich, I was talking to Tim Duncan and I asked him what he saw as the key to the Spurs' success: "Consistency. We just want to do things consistently, methodically, just do them over and over again, just wear people down. That’s defensively, that’s offensively, and that is the system in it’s basic form.")

The exact things the Spurs focus on are irrelevant to this conversation. The Hawks, obviously, are not the Spurs; they’re more like The Spurts. Watching the Hawks sprint out to a 4-1 start over the first week of the season, one thing that has struck me is how inconsistent they've been. There have been stretches where the Hawks were dominant -- the fourth quarters against Indiana, Sacramento and Portland, the second quarter against Washington -- but there have also been a lot of stretches where the Hawks look as lost as Spirit the Hawk did during the Playoffs against Miami.

Believe me or not, the Hawks really aren’t that far from being a championship-level team. We’ve got size, speed, offense, defense, youth, age...a nice mix of everything. But the guys have to make free throws, they have to stop making stupid turnovers, they have to find the open man, they have to make the correct rotations on defense. And if the Hawks want to contend for a title anytime soon, they have to do all those things one way and only one way: Consistently.

MAILING IT IN…
Last week we talked about the Hawks needing to find an identity.
Reader Jason Parker writes…
Lang, I agree with you on this subject; I have been trying to figure out our identity for quite some time as well. I believe that we play at our absolute best when we are running and getting those fastbreak three’s from Bibby, Joe, and Marvin. Obviously, Woody wants us to be like his teams from Detroit, but that must start from the top and Bibby is not a good defensive PG, unlike Chauncey Billups. So we need to start consistently being that running team that beat the Celtics three times in Philips a couple Aprils ago.
Good point, Jason. The Hawks will never be a defense-first team, because that’s just not the line-up we have. I also don’t think the Hawks should be a run-and-gun team, like Phoenix, because we have the ability to get stops on defense. The perfect Hawks team, to me, is somewhere in the middle of all this, a team that can run when necessary, can execute in the halfcourt and can get a stop when they need it. For once we have a deep roster and there’s a lot of flexibility available to Coach Woodson. It’s up to him to find the right combinations.

Lang Whitaker is the executive editor of SLAM magazine and writes throughout the week at SLAMonline.com. Also, catch Lang every Tuesday night at 6:00 p.m. on NBA TV's "The Beat." He can be reached at lang@harris-pub.com.