Where Do the Atlanta Hawks Belong in the Discussion of the NBA's Elite?
The Atlanta Hawks have been soaring high lately, going 12-2 over their last 14 games, and now sit firmly in third place in the Eastern Conference at 17-7, ahead of preseason favorites Chicago (15-9) and Cleveland (14-9). Their success over these last few weeks hasn't exactly gone unnoticed, but it's certainly not receiving the attention of, say, the Golden State Warriors' recent 16-game win streak or the rise of the Oklahoma City Thunder back among the league's elite since the returns of Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant.
Such is life in the Eastern Conference. Every strong stretch by a team from the East comes with a caveat regarding schedule and strength of opponent. It's no secret to anyone that competition is fiercer in the Western Conference; that's become a given. As a result, any success that comes from teams in the East outside of everyone's preseason darlings, the Bulls and Cavaliers, has that asterisk attached to it. It's happened to the Raptors, it's happening to the Wizards, and if the Hawks beat said Cavaliers tonight after beating the Bulls on Monday, you can bet it will happen to them as well.
So, should we care about the Hawks' recent hot stretch of games or ignore it because they're beating up on lesser opponents?
Well, over that stretch, here's where the Hawks have stood in some important categories:
Of the 12 teams the Hawks have beaten over that period, only the Wizards, Pelicans, and Bulls are currently at or above .500, so the schedule concerns could certainly have some merit when it comes to discrediting the scorching hot numbers shown above. In fact, Atlanta has had the easiest schedule of any team in the NBA to date, according to Basketball-Reference.
In that case, what if we looked at how the Hawks have fared on the season as a whole, using statistics adjusted for strength of opponent? First, here's how the Hawks rank among other teams in the NBA and Eastern Conference this season without any adjustment:
|Category||Average||NBA Rank||East Rank|
|Margin of Victory||+5.08||8th||2nd|
Not bad. The Hawks and Bulls are the only Eastern Conference teams to rank in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and they join the Raptors and Cavaliers as the only East teams in the top-10 in net rating.
Considering just how horrible the competition supposedly is out East, and that the Hawks have had the easiest schedule in the NBA to this point, you'd expect that the adjusting of these ratings for strength of schedule would knock the Hawks out of the upper echelon, right? According to Basketball-Reference, that's not the case:
|Category||Average||NBA Rank||East Rank|
|Adjusted Margin of Victory||+3.22||11th||3rd|
|Adjusted Offensive Rating||108.25||10th||3rd|
|Adjusted Defensive Rating||104.67||9th||3rd|
|Adjusted Net Rating||+3.58||10th||3rd|
When adjusted for strength of schedule, the Hawks become the only Eastern Conference team in the top-10 in both offensive and defensive efficiency and they join the Raptors and Cavaliers as the only East teams in the top-10 in net rating. We can talk away their schedule all we want, but the strength-of-schedule-adjusted numbers seem to suggest the Hawks are very much for real.
They currently rank 10th in our NBA Team Power Rankings with a nERD of 62.1, the third best mark for an Eastern Conference squad. Their 99.5% playoff chances are the sixth best in the NBA, while their projected 47-35 record puts them as a fifth-seed in the East, just a single game behind the Cavaliers and Bulls that we're both projecting at approximately 48-34.
What once looked like a two-team race out East for the top two seeds is quickly looking like a five-team jumble between the Raptors, Wizards, Cavaliers, Bulls, and Hawks. The Raptors and Cavaliers are strong offensive teams, but lacking on the defensive end. The Wizards rely heavily on their fifth-ranked defense, while their offense lies in the middle of the league in terms of efficiency (13th). The Bulls look dominant at times, but might have their ceiling capped by nagging health concerns. Is it possible that the Hawks are the East's most balanced team?
On the offensive end, the Hawks are a well-oiled machine. Run by Jeff Teague (who's having arguably the best year of his career), the Hawks are third in the NBA in assists per game at 25.4. Using SportsVU's player tracking data, we can look even deeper and see that they're, in fact, one of the best teams in the league at moving the ball - as evidenced by their standing in secondary assists per game (6.7, second), assist opportunities per game (49.7, second), and points created by assists per game (60.0, first).
That has resulted in a league-best 33.9 points per game on catch-and-shoot opportunities, fueled by the league's third-best catch-and-shoot effective field goal percentage (weighted twos and threes) at 55.5%. Kyle Korver is at the root of that success, leading the league in catch-and-shoot points per game at 9.0.
On the defensive end, the Hawks are taking care of business in an unconventional way. Despite ranking high at eighth in the NBA in defensive efficiency, they are dead last at protecting the rim, allowing opponents to shoot a league-worst 57.0% in that area, with both of their bigs, Paul Millsap (59.7%, fourth-worst) and Al Horford (56.5%, 16th-worst) ranking in the bottom rung of players in the league on an individual basis (minimum four shots faced at the rim per game).
While that deficiency is a well-publicized hinderance for the Cavaliers, for example, the Hawks have overcome that shortcoming with strong perimeter defense and a solid system implemented and maintained by coach Mike Budenholzer. The Hawks only allow 22.0 shots at the rim per game (21st), are fifth in the league in steals per game (9.0), and are ninth in the league in opponent turnover ratio (16.3 per 100 possessions). They've found a way to counteract their biggest weaknesses on the defensive end, while capitalizing on their offensive strengths better than almost any team in the league.
In other words, the Hawks are legit. They may not contend for the title this year (we have their championship chances at only 2.5%, 13th-highest in the Association), but they certainly look like they'll be a threat in the Eastern Conference. As Al Horford continues to work his way back up into game shape after missing the majority of last season with a pectoral tear, and he continues to gel with an underrated Paul Millsap, an under-appreciated Kyle Korver, and a revitalized Jeff Teague, this Hawks team could continue to make noise until someone hears them.
If they can dispose of LeBron and the Cavaliers tonight like they did with the Bulls on Monday, that might not take very long.