Breaking Down the Hawks and Cavaliers: Who Is the Eastern Conference's Best Team?

The Cavaliers have been a completely different team since mid-January, but are the Hawks still the better team?

With the Cleveland Cavaliers officially claiming the 2 seed in the Eastern Conference last week, the collision between the Cavs and the Atlanta Hawks in the Eastern Conference Finals is highly anticipated.

It's not a sure thing, of course, as the Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls may argue they have just as good of a shot to play in the Eastern Conference Finals, but these two teams have been pacing the East all season, so it would only be fitting that they go head-to-head in the playoffs.

But which team is actually better? The Hawks locked up the 1 seed a couple of weeks ago, but have they hit their peak already? The Cavaliers made some mid-season additions, but were the changes enough? Let's dig into some numbers and find out!

Defensive Impact

If we look at the season overall, the Hawks are easily the better defensive team, ranking eighth in the league with a 100.7 Defensive Rating. The Cavaliers have been more of just an average defense over the course of the season, ranking 19th with a 103.9 Defensive Rating (the league average is 103.0).

But that's over the course of the season, during which there are many ups and downs for every team. So let's take a look at each team's Ratings for each month.

NBA Avg.103.4103.6102.1101.9103.5103.0

If we take a look at the last two months of 2014 for the Cavaliers, we see that they didn't perform well at all. November was nearly a full point below the league average, and the month of December was even worse, as they had the eighth-worst Defensive Rating. January, when the team really started to transition, was better for the Cavs, but they were still a bottom-10 team and ended the month with the same Defensive Rating as the Knicks.

However, thanks to stellar defensive play from Timofey Mozgov in February (93.3 Defensive Rating), the Cavaliers looked better than the Hawks on defense for the month and have stayed above the league average for the months of March and April.

While the Cavaliers have shown improvement from the beginning of the year, the Hawks have started to slip. Don't let the 18.8 minutes per game fool you -- Thabo Sefolosha was a big reason for the Hawks' success on defense before the calendar flipped to February. It's not as the Hawks were horrible in February and March, but it's no coincidence that the Hawks' defense trended towards the league average and dropped 5.5 points from January to now.

Atlanta HawksDef. Rating
With Sefolosha97.6
Without Sefolosha104.8

Sefolosha has made a huge impact on the Hawks' defense comparatively when he's been on and off the court. When he was on the court, the Hawks allowed only 97.5 points per 100 possessions. When he's off the court the Hawks gave up 104.8 points per 100 possessions, a 7.2 point swing, the biggest difference on the entire team. Further proof of the difference Sefolosha made -- the Hawks had 7 losses from November through January but had 7 losses in the month of March alone.

The Cavs' defense is holding steady, and the Hawks' defense is looking vulnerable without Sefolosha, but how do they compare offensively?

Tale of Two Offenses

The Cavaliers have LeBron James and a point guard in Kyrie Irving who can score 50 or more points on a given night -- argument over, right? Not quite. The Hawks' offense has some of its own firepower.

Thanks to a near double-double every night from Paul Millsap, their own talented point guard in Jeff Teague, and three-point specialist Kyle Korver, the Hawks are sixth in the NBA this season with a 106.4 Offensive Rating, just 1.1 points behind the Cavaliers' fourth ranked offense. But like their defense, the Hawks' offense has been mildly inconsistent.

NBA Avg.103.4103.6102.0101.9103.4103.0

Not surprisingly, the Hawks' offense looked its best during the month of January when they rattled off 17 wins as part of their 19-game winning streak. The team had some of its best marks of the season, turning the ball over only 13.5 times per game and hitting 41.5% of their three-pointers. Couple that with 105.6 points per game, and the Hawks put up their best month of the season, finished third offensively in January, and even beat out the Cavaliers on offense by 2.8 points.

But all good things come to an end, or at least regress back to the norm. December and February weren't great months offensively for the Hawks, as they played barely above average. But since March, the Hawks have been business as usual with a 106.6 Offensive Rating. Regressing back to a league average offense in the playoffs instead of the top-five potential they have shown they can reach could be the difference between losing in the second round and making it to the NBA Finals.

Offense is the one thing that the Cavaliers have shown is not a weakness, consistently a top-five offense every month except for December -- but even that month, their offense ranked in the top-eight. Recent play has shown the Cavaliers to have a slight edge offensively, but it took growing pains and some mid-season trades to find the right formula.

But while recent play favors James and company, we can't just dismiss the Hawks. They've played above the league average marks all season. Even if we look at the months of March and April, the Hawks are shooting almost as efficient from the field as the Cavaliers are, with a 53.2 Effective Field Goal percentage compared to Cleveland's 53.5 percent. Their True Shooting percentage is only 0.5 percent different as well, and both teams own top-five marks since March.

And the Winner Is...

... to be determined, of course. As for our algorithms, they favor the Hawks. Even though both teams have top-five championship odds, the Hawks have a considerable edge: 11.8% to 6.3%.

The 19-game winning streak gave the Hawks enough cushion for the end of the season while the Cavaliers tried to string enough wins together (they're 33-15 since January) to go after the 1 seed in the East, but to say they're the better team simply because of their win total is foolish. The Hawks have shown they have a better defense than the Cavaliers without Sefolosha -- even if it is inconsistent.

The Cavaliers are a slightly below average defense but are able to mask it some thanks to their consistent offense. The Hawks can be just as dangerous from the field though. Of course, the star factor edge goes to Cleveland, but as a team, Atlanta has been solid year round even with its ups-and-downs.

While the Cavaliers' recent play has gotten everyone justifiably excited, the Hawks are the better team until proven otherwise.