One’s sense of self often defines how they go about their damn business. Confidence kills, and two upstart teams—one in the NBA and one in the EPL—are mainlining self-assurance this season and converting the drug into tangible wins. The Atlanta Hawks stand at 44-12, atop the Eastern Conference. Southampton, with 14 wins in 26 EPL matches, sit in fifth place, just one point behind Manchester United for fourth place and its Champions League riches. These two teams have taken full advantage of the ineptitude of their rivals, making shrewd and subversive trades, hires, signings, and philosophical decisions to set themselves up for success. This basketball/soccer season, the Hawks and Southampton have springboarded from middle class citizens in their respective leagues to consideration amongst the elite.
In a few short months, they’ve gone from “are they for real?” good to “holy shit, they’re actually beating us” great. After starting the season 1-3, the Hawks lost only twice in December and went undefeated in January, winning a franchise record 19-straight during the stretch. Southampton beat Sunderland 8-0 early on, went through a rough patch of five straight losses, then immediately rebounded by taking 16 of their next 18 points, beating Arsenal and Manchester United, and drawing against league leaders Chelsea in the process.
Underdogs no longer, these teams have disrupted decades-long balances of power by beating down on their former oppressors.
Underdogs no longer, these teams have disrupted decades-long balances of power by beating down on their former oppressors. In other terms—they’re having their day. Just months ago, this writer was questioning how “real” Southampton thought they were, but now, it’s apparent that the Saints are shouting Drake lyrics like, “where you get to where I’m at, you gotta remember where the fuck you at,” from the rooftops. They’re here to hang.
The similarities between the teams are much deeper than current win-loss records. On personnel decisions, the Hawks and Southampton have simply finessed the competition. Both teams practice a simple and sustainable organizational strategy: Flipping peaked assets for more than their worth and replacing them with cheaper, potentially better options. It’s exactly what Birdman is doing/trying to do with Lil Wayne and Young Thug, and what downsizing is like at every ad agency in America.
In recent years, the Hawks and Southampton eschewed their expensive stars to thirsty teams for opportunities to build more complete squads. There’s no one single superstar carrying the brunt. In Atlanta, the likes of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and Marvin Williams were all either traded for things that teams actually wanted (like draft picks and expiring contracts) or allowed to walk. In their place are 2015 All-Stars Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver, along with floor-spacing swingman DeMarre Carroll—all picked up at a total cost of $18 million this season. A once-young core of Al Horford and Jeff Teague are only on their second contracts and are now entering their primes. The Hawks have invested in their team instead of in the insular power of one.
To the same effect, Southampton dumped Adam Lallana, Dejan Lovren, and Rickie Lambert last summer when Liverpool offered $77 million for the lot. They recycled that money to sign eight players, including half of their new-look defense, their new leading goalscorer, and new their leading assist man. If Southampton can squeak into the EPL’s Top 4—something they’ve never done in their 129 years of existence—the prestige and television money from the ensuing 2015-2016 Champions League campaign will boost recruitment efforts.
The Hawks, a cultureless, long-time lost-for-love symbol of Eastern Conference mediocrity, could use the bump in sex appeal too. One truly great season/Twitter account doesn’t erase the fact that they’re still the fucking Hawks and they still play in Atlanta, one of the sports world’s We Don’t Give a Shit capitals. That shouldn’t discourage the bunch, though. Snagging the Conference’s top seed and making a formidable playoff run could make Atlanta an alluring destination to top free agents and trade targets, or at the very least, a place to think about. They’ll have cap space for a max contract this summer, and unlike previous years, they stand to be in a more attractive position than they were when Dwight Howard and Chris Paul each delivered the fade. These are surprisingly swell times for both teams.
In terms of leadership, one cannot ignore the two groups of men responsible for how far the Hawks and Southampton have gone thus far. Two of Gregg Popovich’s coaching offspring are running the show in Atlanta. Head coach Mike Budenholzer and GM Danny Ferry have brought the “Spurs East” label to the Hawks. At Southampton, a Barcelona pedigree and La Masia-level of sophistication is being whipped up by manager Ronald Koeman and director of football Les Reed.
Budenholzer and Koeman, simply put, represent two of the finest sporting minds on the planet. Before taking over the Hawks in 2013, Budenholzer had been on the Spurs’ staff since 1994, starting as a video coordinator before joining the bench as an assistant in 1996. He’s been with Pop since Day 1. Koeman's footballing education has a similar pedigree. His roots are indebted to two legends of the Dutch game: Johan Cruyff, who managed the Barcelona “Dream Team” that Koeman starred for, and Louis van Gaal, the best Dutch manager since Cruyff, and the man who hired Koeman as an assistant at Barcelona in 1998.
Through their respective coaching educations, Budenholzer and Koeman never learned how to lose. Being on the side of Popovich, Cruyff, and van Gaal will do that. The roots of Budenholzer and Koeman’s respective coaching philosophies aren’t dissimilar either. Dutch totaalvoetbal and Popovich-ball both value positional fluidity, ball movement, and efficient shots. Perfect teamwork, basically. These can be radical concepts to teams that rely on hero ball, but the Hawks and Southampton aren’t about any one individual.
Despite existing in completely different sports/countries/leagues, the Hawks and Southampton share enough DNA to be able to learn from one another.
Beyond the chalkboard, Budenholzer and Koeman have both earned praise from their players for their warm player-management styles. A winner’s confidence stemming from decades worth of dynastic team experiences flows through these Budenholzer and Koeman sides. The Atlanta Hawks and Southampton FC aren’t exactly used to that, because for basically forever, these teams were, as Kanye once said, “slowed down by the perception of themselves.” That’s no longer the case. Their fits of rebellion, however, have put targets instead of numbering on the back of their player’s jerseys.
Despite existing in completely different sports/countries/leagues, the Hawks and Southampton share enough DNA to be able to learn from one another. Neither want to drop back down to the upper middle class. If the Hawks and Southampton are to become generational with their wealth, each should note these three things about the other. If heeded, more winning seasons should be on the way.
What Southampton has that Atlanta doesn't (yet):
1. A long-term culture. As ex-Popovich guys, Budenholzer and Ferry are definitely building this, but it’s important to not let the potential trappings of one magical season change the course. Southampton, long-noted for their prodigious youth academy (Gareth Bale, Theo Walcott, and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain are all graduates), were finally able to develop and sell enough talent to fund a £30 million upgrade to their training facilities. How their director of football once described the “Southampton Way” would make Bill Belichick blush: “Keep your focus, don’t panic, you know you’ve got systems and processes in place.” Can there be an “Atlanta Hawks Way”?
2. A belief that EVERYONE is on the trading block. Southampton have been ruthless in their transfers. If a player wants to leave for the glory and higher wages of a richer club, they have no issue selling them off, given that the transfer fee is nice and fat and that a replacement has been lined up. In the NBA, every player has their price, and as this year’s trade deadline showed again, GMs aren’t shy about flipping quality talent for a combination of young players and picks. With Millsap and Carroll off the books this summer, Horford entering the final season of his contract, and Teague and Korver continuing to play above their salary, the Hawks aren’t primed to bring everyone back next season. Doubling down on Teague or Horford may be a possibility if the right team comes sniffing around. The Hawks need to be prepared.
3. A determination to bring along youth to fill gaps. In 2008, Southampton were in deep financial troubles, and couldn’t afford to sign veteran players. They patched up their senior team wounds with youth academy players, and through the bleeding, future stars in Morgan Schneiderlin and Lallana were developed. Next man up.
Budenholzer witnessed the Spurs do this better than any team in basketball for over a decade. That’s why it was slightly disappointing to see rookie center Adreian Payne get shipped off to Utah earlier this month. Aside from Horford, Payne was their only big capable of protecting the rim. They opened up a roster spot to be flexible at the trade deadline, yet didn’t end up making any moves. It was an odd decision on Ferry’s part, as Millsap and Horford aren’t likely to be together much longer, and Payne was picked 15th overall by the Hawks just last June. There’s still youth to be groomed, though; how quickly promising point guards Dennis Schroder and Shelvin Mack develop could inform Ferry’s next decision on Teague.
What Atlanta has that Southampton doesn't (yet):
1. Recessive failure and prolonged middle-class status. This isn’t necessarily a good thing, but learning from big mistakes is apart of any building process. The Hawks didn’t make the playoffs this century until 2007, and until this season, were at their best as unspectacular perennial five seeds led by the likes of Joe Johnson and Josh Smith. Yuck.
Granted, Southampton have had hardships too. They were declared insolvent in 2009, demoted to the third tier of English soccer, and were ordered to put accountants in charge of the club to keep everything afloat. Just three years later, they were back in the EPL. Bravo Southampton, but the come-up has been almost too quick. In three seasons since returning to the EPL, Southampton have jumped from 14th to 8th to the verge of a Top 4 spot. The Premiership is a different animal than the lower leagues, and how Southampton maneuver the likely possibility of dropping back down to the middle class (Between Arsenal, Manchester United, Liverpool, and Tottenham, the fight for Champions League qualification only gets more cut-throat every year) will determine whether or not they stay strong enough to charge back up.
2. A willingness to find stars in strange situations for below-market prices. Paul Millsap’s 2-year, $19 million contract makes NBA nerds squeal. He’s making nearly half of what he should be, and the Hawks were able to spin that by picking up the market’s pieces from the Dwightmare of Summer 2013. Southampton will need to locate and poach bargains similar to what Millsap represents for the Hawks if they’re to compete year-in and year-out with the big boys. Keeping an eye on the movement from the fallout around Borussia Dortmund’s relegation-threatened season would be smart for Southampton. If a mass exodus is forthcoming, expect clubs to pick at Dortmund’s carcass in the transfer window, with Southampton getting in on the action, too.
3. A willingness to pay to retain a young core. The Hawks anted up for Teague and Horford before they were worth $8 million and $12 million a season respectively. Now, those contracts look very, very smart. Southampton have historically let their brightest young talents flee to bigger clubs (Gareth Bale and Theo Walcott are the most infamous examples), and just last summer, teenage fullbacks Luke Shaw and Callum Chambers were bought by Manchester United and Arsenal. If Southampton start rewarding their invaluable young performers a bit sooner, the later scourge of watching years worth of development and investment literally and figuratively walk away will be put off. Southampton’s been able to lock up 20-year-old midfield starlet James Ward-Prowse to a new long-term contract, but they can’t stop there: With sharks circling their signatures, 23-year-old Nathaniel Clyne and 25-year-old Jay Rodriguez need to be next.
For fans of Atlanta and Southampton, the current season has been, well, lit. One can only hope each club maintains their balance and learns the lessons necessary to stay on their current path.