It’s natural to want to mimic the champs. But if you believe Dominique Wilkins, that’s not the way to beat them.

That’s why at a time when much of the NBA is obsessing on how to go small, Wilkins' Hawks are getting bigger. Knowing starting small forward DeMarre Carroll, was likely gone in free agency, the Hawks replaced him with center Tiago Splitter. And in doing so, they opened the door to the lineup configurations most teams seem to be running from.

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Wilkins, the Basketball Hall of Famer and Hawks vice president, spoke with Sporting News last week about the best season in Atlanta Hawks history and his own career. He found himself breaking down basketball philosophies to explain why a 60-victory team would change its roster makeup coming off a trip to the Eastern Conference finals.

“I think people get too caught up with small ball and going small,” Wilkins said in an interview to promote Allstate’s Champions of Good program. “Yeah, it works on certain teams, but I’ve never been a believer in matching up with someone else. I believe in making people match up to me.”

With Splitter, the Hawks aim to do just that. And they have options here. They can start Splitter at center alongside Al Horford and Paul Millsap in a super-sized lineup, or they could bring him off the bench to keep those two All-Stars fresh.

Either way, there will be a seasoned NBA center manning the paint for the Hawks at all times. That comes after the Warriors won the NBA Finals by replacing veteran center Andrew Bogut with a wing player and using 6-7 power forward Draymond Green at center for the second half of the series.

But to Wilkins, one team’s recipe for success doesn’t signal a need for sweeping changes across the league.

“We have to go big, because when you play against bigger teams, you become small very quickly,” he said. “I think one of the reasons Cleveland lost the champion

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ship is because they tried to match up with Golden State instead of staying big. When they stayed big, they won.”

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Losing Carroll still hurts the Hawks. He’s an athletic wing who, while known for his defense, put together a respectable season on offense last year as well. Wilkins described him as a glue guy who would be missed in their system.

But by replacing him with a player at a different position, the Hawks refused to take a scaled-back version of Carroll. Instead, they took a player with a history of success who could help Atlanta foster a winning culture. Splitter comes from the Spurs, where he had worked with Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer, a Spurs assistant until 2013. 

The Hawks have been a playoff team the last eight years — the second-longest streak behind the Spurs' 18 — but 2014-15 was their best since moving to Atlanta in 1968. In Wilkins’ perfect world, Splitter would put them over the top. But the former NBA scoring champion with the Hawks is enjoying the success on multiple levels.

“Man, it’s been so much fun being a part of this team and the way these guys have been playing,” Wilkins said. “To see the city get excited about it ... it was just a wonderful run this year. Now, we get a chance to build on what we did last year.”

And as they take that chance, they won’t be building off anyone else’s blueprint.

On rivalries-turned-friendships

The Hawks unveiled a statue of Wilkins outside Philips Arena in March, and one of his old rivals used the chance for a joke. 

"I'm pretty sure it's not made in a defensive stance," Celtics legend and Pacers president Larry Bird said after hearing about the statue.

Bird and Wilkins have gone back and forth on the court, with Bird famously scoring 60 points against Wilkins in a 1985 game. The statue was another chance talk trash, which both small forwards were known for in their playing days.

“That was his way of respecting and appreciating me as a player and as a competitor,” Wilkins said. “Larry doesn’t go on TV to talk much about anyone. For him to come and give me praise it meant a lot to me, and I appreciate him for that.

“People don’t know the relationships we have with one another. We crack on each other all the time. Crack jokes, that what we do. So when Larry says something like that, or Clyde Drexler or Karl Malone or Michael (Jordan), it’s not an attack on each other, or a slight, it’s appreciating and glorifying people you admire people you admire and respect.”

To illustrate his point, Wilkins recalled another former-rival-turned-friend.

“Karl Malone and I have been knowing each other 27 years," Wilkins said. "Never spoke. Never spoke. Because we were competitors. It wasn’t until two years ago we became best friends. We were able to know each other as men, as opposed to just basketball players. Now, we can sit down and talk about how we used to compete against one another. That’s what competing is all about. That’s what being a player is all about is competing. But now, we’re not that anymore. We’re people.”

And besides, Bird was right. The statue wasn’t in a defensive position anyway.