ATLANTA — Once the sting wears off from squandering a chance to knock off the top seed in the East, the Atlanta Hawks will likely savor this season as a successful first step toward their ultimate goal.
San Antonio East.
The Hawks' season ended in the opening round of the playoffs for the third year in a row, snuffed off by the Indiana Pacers in Game 7 on Saturday. Atlanta led the series three times and had a chance to clinch on its home court, but couldn't take advantage.
Indiana returned home and finished off the Hawks 92-80 in the deciding contest.
"We are young and we will learn from this," forward DeMarre Carroll said. "When you've got them at home and you can win at home, you should take care of business."
Now, it's time to take stock of what it all meant in the grand scheme.
The Hawks went 38-44, their worst record since the 2007-08 season and barely good enough to sneak into the playoffs as a No. 8 seed. But there were plenty of promising signs for a franchise that wants to build along the lines of the San Antonio Spurs.
First, the Hawks persevered despite losing one of their top players, center Al Horford, to a season-ending injury in late December. Paul Millsap was a bargain of a free-agent signing, making the All-Star Game for the first time, and Jeff Teague showed signs of becoming an elite point guard with some stellar performances in the playoffs.
When Horford returns next season, rejoining Millsap, Teague and 3-point specialist Kyle Korver, the Hawks will have four cornerstone players in their plan to change the entire culture of the organization.
That's what general manager Danny Ferry had in mind when he rebuilt almost the entire roster over the last years, ridding the Hawks of longtime stalwarts such as Joe Johnson and Josh Smith.
Ferry, who came to Atlanta from the Spurs, brought in a coach who sees eye to eye with him on exactly what the roster should look like: longtime San Antonio assistant Mike Budenholzer. It's clear they both want to build an Eastern Conference team that will have the sort of stability and long-term success of their previous employer out West.
"I think with all the moves we made within the organization, every phase of the organization, we're laying the foundation for how we're going to play in the future, how we're going to be, what we're going to be about and how we're going to play," Korver said. "I think some really good things happened this year."
Carroll was another astute pickup by Ferry, setting career highs in points (11.1 per game) and rebounds (5.5) after becoming a full-time starter for the first time in his vagabond career. He plays with a chip on his shoulder after being waived twice by others teams, just the sort of blue-collar player that Ferry and Budenholzer like having around.
Long range, Ferry wants to make the Hawks a viable player when big-time free agents go on the market. The team has never won more than one playoff series in a year since moving to Atlanta in 1968, so it's never been a very attractive option for those marquee players who are largely focused on the team that gives them the best chance of winning a championship.
The Hawks have the No. 15 overall pick in a deep draft and some room under the salary cap to address their biggest needs, whether it's an elite scorer at small forward or a true center who would finally free up Horford to play farther from the basket.
They could free even more cap room with a trade, perhaps dealing guard Lou Williams, a streaky scorer who was benched for a stretch after running afoul of Budenholzer. There are teams that might be interested in Williams, who has one year left on a not-so-outrageous contract (he's set to make $5.45 million next season).
No matter how things shake out this summer, this franchise can now see where it wants to go — and, more important, how it wants to get there.
"Everyone knows what the vision is," Korver said. "Not that it's been printed on the wall in the locker room or anything like that, but we know what kind of basketball is going to be played here and we know the kind of people they're going to bring in. They're very thoughtful in everything they've done."