There’s a term in winemaking and, yes, some of its indescribable beauty comes from it being French: terroir.
The most direct translation is “a sense of place,” but what it encompasses is the totality of the environment that produces a wine, expanding to both the controllable and uncontrollable aspects of it, the known and the unknown, the things that can be changed and the things that cannot. In his “Southern Reach” trilogy, author Jeff VanderMeer extends this meaning to include a holistic way of conceiving of any mystery – of recognizing that there are multiple inextricable elements to everything. And sure, in the books, the character that advances this theory turns out to be a raving lunatic consumed by the unnamable unknown at the heart of the either horrific or transcendent “Area X,” but that doesn’t mean it can’t apply to a basketball team.
Which brings me to the Atlanta Hawks.
In a league where teams from the suddenly relevant Cavaliers to the meticulously constructed Rockets bet big on luring multiple stars in the hopes of contending, the Hawks seem neither totally lucky nor completely intentional, yet find themselves on top of the Eastern Conference and riding a 14-game winning streak. They boast the league’s third-stingiest defense (99.4 points allowed per 100 possessions) and sixth-best offense (106.9 points scored per 100 possessions). Coach Mike Budenholzer – now in his second season – has brought the discipline, balance and ball movement he learned as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs and the team, in turn, has bought in: All of their starters are averaging double-digit points per game, but none are averaging more than 20.
But it’s somehow more than all this, too. It’s not as if the Hawks haven’t tried to lure big free agents like Atlanta native Dwight Howard and – aside from the return of Al Horford from a torn pectoral muscle – it’s not as if this year’s roster is that different from the one that barely scraped into the playoffs last year before losing to the Indiana Pacers in the first round. Instead, this year’s Hawks are evidence that patience, work and the indefinable elements of terroir can produce something great. No two players are better bellwethers of this than Kyle Korver and Horford.
If his current numbers hold, Korver will be the first player in the league to notch a 90/50/50 season from the free throw line, arc and field. To put that in some perspective, Korver scores more efficiently from the floor in the flow of the game than an average player does from the free throw line, and he scores pretty damn efficiently from there as well. He currently leads the league in points per scoring possession by a wide margin – the gap between him and the second player on the list is the same as the distance between the second and tenth players.
But it’s not as if Korver’s shooting ability is a surprise. He already holds the NBA record for 3-point field goal percentage in a season (53.6 in 2009-10). But somehow, this season that skill has been amplified: He’s not so much dropping daggers as broadswords, claymores and halberds. He gives a lot of credit to a Japanese practice called misogi, which has its roots in purification rituals, but for Korver, has grown into a way of breaking down barriers to performance through grueling physical challenges like carrying an 85-pound rock along the floor of the ocean.
“You get lost in the detail. Before long the detail is not the detail anymore. There’s a detail that is smaller than the next detail. There are long periods of time where you keep doing the same thing over and over again and you try to perfect it, just the littlest things,” he told SB Nation’s Paul Flannery. “And that’s what really carried over to basketball. It’s not just about getting my legs into the shot, it’s how am I getting my legs into my shot, where am I dropping, how am I using them, where the angles are, all the different things. I’ve just tried to keep breaking them down more and more.”
If Korver has broken down one skill to the point where it’s become everything to him, his teammate Al Horford has built up a diverse set of skills into a complete game. An undersized center at 6-foot-10, Horford is nevertheless the team’s anchor both in terms of his on-court contributions and his off-court demeanor, where he is as tireless and dedicated to his craft as Korver, if in a less single-minded kind of way.
“Malleability might be Horford’s best NBA skill,” wrote Grantland’s Zach Lowe, and the evidence is right there in Horford’s ability to either roll hard to the basket to finish or pop out to drain 20-footers, to post up or kick the ball out to a waiting shooter like Korver. He’s not an elite defender, but he’s good. He’s not an elite rebounder, but he’s good. He doesn’t level his man with screens, but he’s good. He’s not an elite passer for a big man, but he’s good.
In this system, at this moment, Horford is greater than the sum of his parts. Korver has managed to leverage his dedication to the one repeatable act of shooting into something greater as well. And it’s like that all down the line, from Jeff Teague to Paul Millsap to DeMarre Carroll and on into the bench. You might look at any of these guys and think of them as a nice piece on a good team, but not the centerpiece of a great one. Yet the Hawks appear to be making something great out of them.
We tend to think of teams as constructed, of teams in the present as a result of foresight and planning, of teams in the future as the product of design and intention. Cap room acquired for Free Agent X; enough losses to likely secure Draft Pick Y; role players acquired to fit neatly around the development of Rookie Z.
But in ways that count a great deal more than we’re fully comfortable with, teams are more accumulations than designs. Preparing for that, and succeeding within that context, doesn’t mean planning for every contingency so much as being comfortable with constant adaptation, with developing an ability to let go and embrace with equal ferocity.
In spite of our desire to see it that way, basketball is not a problem to be solved. Which is not to say there isn’t a science to it, but science has never genuinely been about erasing doubt, about securing certainty. It’s about learning to live with doubt, in finding paths through it while knowing uncertainty still impinges on the borders.
An NBA season is more landscape than building and the Hawks, partly by design and partly by happenstance, have come across a terroir – a group of players, a coach, a system, an approach – that is producing some of the NBA’s finest play right now. Whether it will hold up under the harsh glare and focused attention of the playoffs is another matter, but they can’t face that problem before they get to it. Instead, they’ll rely on the philosophy that got Korver through his first misogi, when he paddleboarded the 25 miles of open water from the Channel Islands to Santa Barbara:
“Everything falls into place by doing the smallest thing perfectly.”