Why the Hawks are a coach’s dream team

The best part about the Hawks is seeing them play. (Let’s call Friday’s 25-point loss to Toronto the exception that proves the rule.) The second-best part is hearing people who really know basketball talk about them.

True story: At a Georgia game two weeks ago, two men who’ve coached for a living — one of them was the Bulldogs’ Mark Fox — said to me, without prompting: “How about those Hawks?”

As much fun as the Hawks are from a fan’s perspective, they’re pure joy to a coach’s eye. They play the way every coach wants his team to play, although few see their vision so fully realized. For this correspondent, it has become an ongoing treat to monitor the visiting coach’s pregame remarks at Philips Arena, just to hear the latest round of gushing.

It began on MLK Day, when Detroit’s Stan Van Gundy contended that the Hawks should have four All-Stars (lo and behold …) and lauded them to the heavens. “Good defense is when you shut down the paint,” Van Gundy said, nodding toward the Hawks. “Great defense is when you can get out and close out on the 3’s.” (Factoid: The Hawks are seventh-best in the NBA at 3-point shooting defense.)

A week later, Brooklyn’s Lionel Hollins labeled the Hawks “maybe the quickest team in the league,” which sounded odd. Jeff Teague is quick. Dennis Schroder is quicker. DeMarre Carroll can move. Al Horford is spry for a center. But I view the other Hawks as more skilled than swift. Then it hit me: You’re only as quick as you play, and the Hawks play at a brisk pace by design. (That’s the “pace” in “pace and space.”)

Other coaches have raised similar hosannas. But nobody has captured the essence of these Hawks the way Toronto’s Dwane Casey did after his team’s Friday shootaround.

“You enjoy watching them play,” Casey said of the team his Raptors would later thrash 105-80. “You don’t enjoy playing against them.”

Then: “People look at them as a 3-point shooting team, but they play defense also. That’s the new part (over last season). They’re all committed. They’ve got a couple of great individual defenders, and the rest of them are excellent team defenders.”

Then: “They’ve bought into the system. It’s the old cliche — they play the game the right way. They share the ball, they play together. There’s not really a superstar, but a whole team of really, really good basketball players who’ve bought into the team.”

Then: “It’s good to see. I think it’s good for our league. But like I said, you just hate to be the opposing coach. I’m glad we caught them at the right time early and got a couple of wins (in the season opener and on the night before Thanksgiving), but they spanked us pretty good at our place (winning 110-89 on Jan. 16). They were kind of hitting their stride at that time.”

What does a coach appreciate about the Hawks? Said Casey: “Everything. Whether it’s sharing the ball, passing the ball, multiple efforts defensively, running the floor offensively, getting back in transition — they do everything well. The only weakness I would say they have is rebounding. That’s the only place, and (as an opponent) you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. If you crash the offensive boards, you’re giving up threes at the other end. It’s a double-edged sword.”

Then this: “You’ve got to bring your ‘A’ game to beat this team. Fans here in Atlanta ought to be proud they have a team that’s playing that way, and Bud (Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer) has done a heck of a job putting it all together.”

Here we note: Casey was nearly the Hawks’ coach, until — stop me if you’ve heard this one before — ownership intervened. In 2010, the Hawks decided to promote Larry Drew, the longtime assistant of Mike Woodson, whom they’d just fired, rather than hire Casey. Who would return to the Dallas Mavericks as lead assistant on the team that won the 2011 NBA title. Who would become the Raptors’ coach and who has built the second-best team in the NBA East without the supposedly requisite superstar.

Which makes Casey — whose team has taken three of four from the Hawks and who, while the Mavericks’ defensive coordinator, worked with the great Dirk Nowitzki — the man to ask about the oft-heard knock: The Hawks don’t have a superstar. Is that truly a championship disqualifier?

Said Casey: “You’ve got to have talent in this league, but it’s going more to the team concept. I think the salary cap and the new collective bargaining agreement are having something to do with that, … San Antonio has been good with (the collective approach) — they epitomize it — and Bud has brought it here. Golden State kind of has the same thing going there. I still believe you’ve got to have talent to win, but the needle is swinging toward the team concept.”

In a league built on and by stars, the group is starting to come first. That’s some concept. And if you’re a coach, these Hawks are your dream team.