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Why Do People Still Doubt the Atlanta Hawks?

On Sunday, at halftime of the San Antonio Spurs and Chicago Bulls game, ESPN NBA analyst Jalen Rose made a statement that was equal parts dumbfounding and hilarious. He said, if Derrick Rose isn’t healthy for the third-seeded Bulls, it will be “smooth sailing” for the second-seeded Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Playoffs.

Jalen’s point would be valid—if there weren’t a team 9½ games above the Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference standings, a squad that has won three of its four matchups against Cleveland.

That team is the Atlanta Hawks.

You’d think Jalen would at least mention the team that has occupied the East’s top spot for more than two months, is 17-5 against the top eight seeds in its conference and has a 50-14 record. But alas, Atlanta didn’t get any consideration. It’s becoming a recurring theme for the underrated Hawks, who’ve been labeled as NBA title pretenders by numerous media types and bloggers across the country.

When downplaying the Hawks’ potential to make noise in the playoffs, skeptics seem to go back to the three same criticisms: they rely too much on the three-point shot, they always choke in the playoffs and they don’t have a superstar.

Let’s look at why these criticisms don’t hold much weight.

Criticism No. 1: The Hawks rely too much on the three-point shot

There seems to be a sentiment around the league that the Hawks live and die by the three-point shot and won’t be able to make as many in the playoffs when every team plays tough defense. Part of this criticism may stem from last season’s first-round playoff series against the Indiana Pacers, in which they hoisted up a record 230 three-pointers, according to NBA.com.

Yes, Atlanta has several excellent long-range bombers, including Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll and Mike Scott, but the Hawks don’t even take that many three-pointers.

According to ESPN, Atlanta is just No. 7 in the league in shots attempted from behind the arc. All six teams ahead of them in the statistic (the Houston Rockets, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Clippers, Cavaliers and Dallas Mavericks) are in playoff spots.

Yes, you read that correctly. Most pundits’ pick to win the East, the Cavaliers, attempt more threes per game than the Hawks do.

And if you think Atlanta can’t shoot well against playoff-level opponents, think again—in their 15 contests against Eastern Conference teams seeded second through fifth, the Hawks have shot 130-of-335 from three-point range, good for 38.8 percent. That accuracy is actually just a tick better than Atlanta’s No. 2-rated season mark of 38.5 percent. (per ESPN)

The truth: The Hawks are a very good three-point shooting team. The three-point shot is a big part of their attack, but they don’t rely on it as much as some other playoff teams. They can also make their deep shots against playoff-caliber opponents.

Criticism No. 2: The Hawks always choke in the playoffs

The Atlanta Hawks franchise has never played more than two playoff series in a single season. They’ve advanced to the conference finals and even the NBA Finals before, but that was before the league expanded its postseason format to include four rounds.

Yes, there has been a history of playoff failure for the Hawks.

But what do Atlanta’s postseason shortcomings from the last 65 years mean to this year’s team? Probably about as much as the Los Angeles Lakers’ and Boston Celtics’ 33 combined NBA Finals wins mean to them this season: nothing.

Second-year head coach Mike Budenholzer has instituted a system unlike the Hawks franchise has ever seen, and most of the players he has plugged into the machine haven’t been around longer than two seasons or so.

And even looking at each of Atlanta’s playoff series losses in the last seven years, how many of those were the Hawks actually favored to win, seeding-wise? Only one, in 2012, when fifth-seeded Atlanta lost to the fourth-seeded Boston Celtics in six contests. (Hawks had the better record.)

In all of the other series losses, the Hawks were the lower seed and not expected to win. They even pulled off an upset in 2011, defeating the fourth-seeded Orlando Magic in six games.

So please save all your “first-round exit like always” comments about Atlanta. This is obviously a different team.

The truth: The Hawks have a history of being a team that’s good enough to make the playoffs, but not good enough to make much noise once there. This year, they are a better team than they have ever been. They may or may not choke, but past playoff losses to superior teams won’t affect the 2014-15 Hawks.

Criticism No. 3: The Hawks don’t have a superstar

This criticism is actually a true statement. Atlanta doesn’t have a superstar. They have Jeff Teague, Al Horford and Paul Millsap, all of whom are stars, but not superstars.

My problem with the sentiment that a superstar is needed to win in the playoffs is it was clearly proven wrong less than a year ago in the 2014 NBA Finals between the San Antonio Spurs and the Miami Heat.

The 2014 Spurs are a team very similar to this year’s Hawks, both in offensive scheme and the composition of the team. Neither team has a superstar, but rather, a bunch of solid players and great chemistry, both on and off the court. Meanwhile, the Cavaliers are like the 2014 Heat—LeBron James is a member of both squads, and he’s flanked by a couple of talented players, with a decent, but unspectacular group of role players.

Need a refresher from last year’s NBA Finals? The Spurs won the series 4-1, with the best winning margin in NBA Finals history.

This isn’t to say the Hawks will definitely beat the Cavaliers in a playoff series this spring. But the blueprint is there—play unselfish basketball on both ends of the court, “out-teaming” the Cavs’ three-man squad.

People may say every successful team needs an offensive beast you can hand the ball to in crunch time and say, “go get us a basket.”

But what about a lineup of five men (Teague, Korver, Carroll, Millsap and Horford) where everyone can shoot and score? That sounds even more lethal.

The truth: The Hawks don’t have a superstar, but Teague, Horford and Millsap are a great crunch-time trio. They, along with Korver and Carroll, are all threats to put the ball in the basket and form an unpredictable lineup to defend. By following the blueprint from last year’s Spurs, Atlanta can defeat superstar-laden teams.

Conclusion:

Are the Hawks title contenders? Absolutely. They may not win the NBA Finals or even the Eastern Conference Finals, but they need to be in the discussion. Most of the criticisms used against them are either false or illogical. So can people please stop dismissing them?

I’m looking at you, Jalen.

Note: All statistics are from Basketball-Reference.com and accurate as of March 13 unless otherwise indicated.

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