ATLANTA (AP) — The Hawks know it can be done.
A season ago, they watched the San Antonio Spurs blow out LeBron James’ Miami Heat for the NBA title without anyone carrying the bulk of the load.
Still, this is rather rare territory in a star-driven league, a team pushing itself into the championship mix without one or two players standing above the others.
Atlanta, which has set a franchise record with 15 straight wins and leads the East with a stunning 36-8 record, is a team in every sense of the word. The starting lineup is about as balanced as it can be, with five players averaging between 17.2 and 11.7 points per game. The bench runs five or six players deep on any given night, all of them capable of making a valuable contribution.
“Every night, somebody different can step up,” coach Mike Budenholzer said.
Not that the Hawks don’t have some talented players. Paul Millsap and Al Horford have been to the All-Star Game. Jeff Teague, the team’s point guard and top scorer, will almost certainly make the All-Star team for the first time when the East reserves are announced. Sharp-shooting Kyle Korver and defensive stopper DeMarre Carroll have blossomed in starting roles since coming to Atlanta.
“Give me four or five really good players compared to just one superstar,” Millsap said. “I’ll take that any day.”
The deep roster has created a camaraderie that might be unmatched on any team. Those who aren’t in the game can usually be found hooting and hollering on the sideline, cheering on their teammates, everyone fully invested.
“It’s kind of like a college team,” Carroll said. “Everything we do, we do as a group. We know we’ve got each other’s backs.”
Over the last 30 years, only five teams have gone on to win the NBA title without at least one player averaging at least 20 points a game, according to STATS. The most recent was last year’s Spurs, who were paced by Tony Parker at 16.7 points a game.
“We watched how the Spurs did it in the Finals,” Korver said. “We’re not the Spurs, but we do a lot of similar things. And they won the Finals pretty convincingly.”
No other champion in that span has had a top scorer with a scoring average lower than 17.6, slightly above Teague’s average.
“There are definitely times during a game when you need someone to step up and make a play,” Korver said. “What we’re trying to do is make it possible for a lot of people to be that guy. There’s a lot of talk about us not having a superstar, but I feel like we’ve got a lot of good players.”
Just look at the balance during their 15-game winning streak:
— All five starters have led the team in scoring at least twice. Backup Mike Scott did it once, too.
— No one has scored more than 27 points in a game, and three times the Hawks’ top scorer didn’t even have 20.
— In five of those 15 games, all five starters were in double figures.
— In one game, a staggering eight players scored at least 10 points; only once has fewer than four players failed to reach double figures.
For the season, 13 of the 15 players have at least one double-figure game (the only exceptions: rookie Adrien Payne, who has spent a good part of the year in the D-League, and little-used but valuable locker-room presence Elton Brand).
Eight players have led the team in scoring, led by Millsap and Teague with 15 games apiece. Korver and Horford have each done it seven times, with Carroll pacing the scoresheet in five games.
Of course, there’s a reason the star system has worked so well for most NBA champions. In the playoffs, when the intensity increases and defenses get even stingier, it never hurts to have one or two go-to scorers with the game on the line. Someone who can create his own shots and isn’t afraid to take a lead role.
Then again, with no player averaging more than Millsap’s 33.3 minutes a game, and Budenholzer already giving his starters a night off during a grueling road trip, the Hawks might be fresher than most teams come the postseason.
For now, the Hawks are enjoying the ride.
“I’ve been on some really good teams. I’m not sure I’ve ever been on a team that’s so selfless,” Korver said. “There’s something different about this group, too. There’s a lightness to our spirit. We’re just out there having fun.”
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