The Atlanta Hawks have been the most dominant team in the Eastern Conference, by way of both record and average point differential. They’re also the most dominant team in franchise history (60-21), having won three more games than the next best team.
It seems as if the dominos are finally starting to fall in Atlanta’s favor. After barely squeezing into the playoffs last year, giving the top-seeded Indiana Pacers a run for their money before losing in seven, Atlanta is hoping for a different result this time around. But how likely is it?
Obviously questions were raised about the Hawks after their loss against one of the worst teams in the NBA, the New York Knicks, but there’s more to it than just one game. Although the spotlight has been on Atlanta for its impressive streak of victories, they’re far from invincible in the East.
Let’s start with their wins and losses.
After going even through its first 10 games, Atlanta started clicking on all cylinders, going into the All-Star break with an East-leading 43-11 record. Their undefeated January resulted in all five Hawks starters being named Eastern Conference Player(s) of the Month. (Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Al Horford)
The early front-runners for NBA Finals participants were the Hawks and Golden State Warriors … until the All-Star break.
Ever since the festivities in New York City concluded, the Hawks have been mediocre at best, compared to their newly set standards anyway. Through 27 games, the Hawks have nearly matched their loss total from the unofficial first half of the season. (17-10)
The Cleveland Cavaliers have earned the best record in the East post-All-Star break by going 19-7.
Atlanta has had less to play for down the stretch, periodically resting starters, but they could be in for trouble in their first-round matchup. Slated to face either Indiana or Brooklyn (it’s Pacers right now), both teams pose a threat to Atlanta.
Since the All-Star break, the Nets and Pacers have accumulated more wins than Chicago, Portland, Memphis, Dallas, Washington, Toronto and Milwaukee. Both teams have played some solid ball, catching fire in hopes of a playoff berth.
Imagine the narrative behind a potential Hawks-Pacers first-round rematch where the seeds are reversed from the previous season.
However, the point I want to emphasize is Atlanta’s deficiencies that’ll play a tremendous factor. Every team has weak spots, but Atlanta has some that may be more difficult to overcome compared to other teams.
Do the Numbers Make Sense?
It’s really hard to imagine that the best team in the Eastern Conference is near the bottom of the league in rebounding (28th) with 40.5 rebounds per game.
Atlanta is actually on pace to become only the eighth team in NBA history to finish a season with 60+ wins while grabbing 41 rebounds per game or less, per Basketball-Reference.com. Out of the past 10 NBA champions, only two out of the 10 have snared less than 41 rebounds per game for the regular season.
The two teams are the LeBron James-led Miami Heat in 2012-13 and the 2006-07 San Antonio Spurs.
For a team of this caliber, to win that many games, other areas have to be immaculate. Fortunately for Atlanta, that’s the case:
Notable Full Season Rankings
Three-Pointers Made per Game: 4th (10.0)
Field Goal Percentage: 2nd (46.7%)
Free Throw Percentage: 5th (77.8%)
Steals: 5th (9.7)
Fouls Committed per Game: 1st (17.8)
Their body of work this season is something that should be appreciated, but with a grain of salt. There’s no guarantee that their regular-season success will directly translate into the postseason. It’s a completely different monster.
Red Hawk Down
The inability to rebound the ball is hidden by Atlanta’s team defense (as shown by the steals and foul rankings), but the Hawks have to move forward without an integral piece.
Thabo Sefolosha suffered a broken leg during an off-court incident involving the stabbing of Pacers forward, Chris Copeland. Sefolosha recently issued a full statement through Atlanta’s Twitter account:
— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) April 14, 2015
Sefolosha has been ruled out for the rest of the season.
Sefolosha has been a contributor to Atlanta’s success this season, especially on the defensive side of the floor. Atlanta holds a Net Rating of +5.9 and an overall defensive rating of 103.3, which is seventh in the NBA, per Basketball-Reference.com. Although team defense can be pinpointed for their success, Sefolosha plays a larger role than some may think. When he’s on the floor, Atlanta gives up just 97.6 points per 100 possessions, compared to surrendering 105.2 points per 100 possessions when he’s on the bench.
A Change of Pace
Can Atlanta adjust to the slower pace in the playoffs? Currently, Atlanta is average when it comes to pace, posting 93.9 possessions per 48 minutes. (15th in the NBA) With rebounding already being an issue, can Atlanta adjust to a potentially slower pace than they already play at?
Can we trust Atlanta to finish defensive possessions by grabbing a rebound? There will be fewer opportunities, skewing numbers down across the board. What Atlanta needs to be able to do is force turnovers to counteract its rebounding woes.
First and foremost, Atlanta is a great team. There’s a reason they lead the Eastern Conference in wins and went undefeated for a whole MONTH. However, there are too many red flags surrounding Atlanta, and they shouldn’t be counted on in the playoffs, especially since LeBron James is still there.
While we’re still waiting on the seeding for Chicago and Toronto, Atlanta will face either one of those teams or Washington in the second round, assuming they get past Indiana or Brooklyn.
Either way, a second-round exit isn’t out of the question, and neither is a first, but the NBA title will not be making its way to Atlanta.