Are the Atlanta Hawks REALLY this good?

As many of you know, I’m a huge NBA fan.  This has been a really fun season so far because the top two teams (Atlanta and Golden State) aren’t the same old teams that are always at the top.  San Antonio is really struggling.  Miami lost LeBron.  Cleveland is finally starting to figure it out, after struggling for much of the early season.  Chicago has had a ton of injuries.  The Clippers have struggled and now are without Blake Griffin.  OKC has had major injury problems with Durant’s foot and Westbrook’s early season issues.  There are so many great story lines this year, but my favorite is how good the Hawks have been.  I will admit that I’m not a Hawks fan, even though I’ve lived in Atlanta for over 25 years.  With that being said, I certainly don’t root against them.  There has been quite a buzz this year in the city over just how good they’ve been.

That leads me to the point of this article.  Are the Hawks REALLY this good?  My favorite sports writer is Bill Simmons from Grantland.  He often does a segment on his Podcast called “Are we sure they’re good?”  I got inspiration from that for this article.  Are we SURE the Hawks are good?

No one can question the Hawks’ success this season.  They are 44-12 with a plus 6.1 score differential.  They’re 15-4 against the Western Conference.  Perhaps the most amazing stat is that they started the season 1-3, so they’ve gone 43-9 since then.  That’s remarkable.  They have had all of the following quality wins this year: @ Washington, vs. Chicago, @ Cleveland, @ Houston, @ Dallas, vs. LA Clippers, @ Milwaukee, vs. Cleveland, @ Portland, @ LA Clippers, vs. Memphis, vs. Washington, @ Toronto, @ Chicago, vs. Oklahoma City, vs. Portland, vs. Washington, vs. Golden State and @ Milwaukee.  That’s a very impressive list of wins.  They are good on the road at 19-8 and excellent at home with a record of 25-4.  The statistics aren’t lying.  This team has played REALLY well so far.

What I can’t figure out is why they have played so well.  I’ve heard and read all the things about them playing true team basketball.  That they pass up a good shot to get a great one.  That they have 5 guys who can all do a little bit of everything.  I understand all that.  I really do.  The question of why is a deeper question.  This is nearly the exact same roster as they had last year.  They finished 38-44 last year.  Horford did miss a lot of the season, but does he account for 20-25 wins by himself?  The one player that plays a lot more this season is Dennis Schroder.  And while he’s been great, he’s essentially replacing Louis Williams.  Williams averaged 10.4 points per game with a PER of 14.2 last season.  Schroder is averaging 8.5 points per game with a PER of 14.7 this season.  Not much difference there at all.  Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore are new, but they’re averaging less than 10 points combined and have a PER of around 12 (which is below average).

In addition to a very similar roster, none of the Hawks are really at an age when they’d figure it out, so to speak.  Teague is still young at 26, but has been in the league for 6 years.  And really his numbers aren’t that much better this year.  Horford is in his 8th season and is 28.  And he’s actually having his worst season since 2011-12, statistically speaking.  His field goal percentage is the lowest it’s been since 2008-09.  DeMarre Carroll is 28 and was just about the same player last year.  He is shooting from three-point range a tad better, but he’s worse in overall field goal percentage and worse from the line.  He’s also averaging less rebounds, assists, steals and blocks than he did last season.  Paul Millsap is also about the same as last year.  His field goal percentage is up, but his three-point percentage, rebounds, assists, blocks and points are all down from last year.  Kyle Korver is one guy who is having a better season, although not as much better as many people probably think.  His field goal percentage is considerably higher than high career average.  His three-point percentage is actually not the highest of his career, but it is significantly higher than his career average.  All his other numbers are right in line with what he did last year though, including his points per game.

The coaching is certainly one thing I can look at and say has made a difference.  There’s no question there.  Mike Budenholzer came to the Hawks before last season and he’s clearly had a huge impact.  I do wonder why the Hawks weren’t a little better last year, but it takes time to adjust to a new system and a new coach.  The team definitely has a better grasp of the system this season.  However, this doesn’t explain how they went from winning 38 games to a projected 64.  A coach and a system doesn’t make a 26 game difference if the talent remains nearly identical.

The Hawks’ defense has dramatically improved this year.  They’ve gone from giving up 101.5 points per game to giving up 96.8.  Atlanta’s opponent field goal percentage has dropped from 46.2% down to 43.4%.  Their opponent three-point percentage has dropped from 36.5% to 33.7%.  They’re also turning the ball over slightly less, while causing slightly more than they did last year.  The numbers are definitely better, but again I ask why?

Their offense has also improved this year.  They are shooting 46.7% from the field as opposed to 45.8% last year.  They’re also better from long range hitting 38.3% this year compared to 36.3% from last year.  Their points per shot and adjusted field goal percentage are also up slightly.  Lastly, they get to the free throw line about one more time per game than they did last year.  Their offense isn’t as improved as their defense, but it is better and more efficient.

In truth, I haven’t watched that much more of them this year than I did last year.  I have watched some games and they’ve looked really good.  I have no doubt that they have some talent.  At the same time, I wonder if it will keep up the way it has.  I broke their season down into three parts and found something pretty interesting.

  • In their first 10 games they went 5-5 and gave up 103.9 points per game while scoring only 102.6.  So they were outscored by their opponent during this 10-game stretch.  They only played 3 teams with winning records during these games.  This was not a very good stretch of basketball and you would be hard pressed to convince anyone they were much better than an average team during this time.
  • Over their next 38 games they were completely dominant.  They outscored their opponents 103.61 to 94.05.  During this stretch they went 35-3.  That’s a pace of almost 76 wins in a full season.  There was no way they could keep up that pace, as it was simply one of the most dominant stretches we’ve ever seen.  Not to mention that many of their big wins came during that stretch.  Two of their three losses were very close.  Only the loss to Milwaukee was a bad game for them.  They nearly went 37-1 during this stretch.
  • Their next 8 games have been more like the ones at the beginning.  They’ve been outscored 102-99.88 and they’re 4-4 during this stretch.  They lost to two non-Playoff teams (to be fair New Orleans would be a Playoff team in the East) and they were manhandled by Toronto at home.  They did beat Washington and Golden State during this stretch, so that’s good news.

I realize that every team goes on streaks.  The Warriors, Grizzlies, Cavaliers, Clippers, etc. have all had streaks where they were really good and streaks were they weren’t as good.  I haven’t looked at the numbers, but I’m not sure they are quite this drastic for any team (not counting the Cavs’ terrible play while LeBron was out).  If you simply break their season down into two parts it becomes a little clearer.  You have an 18-game stretch where they went 9-9 while being outscored 103.06 to 101.39.  Then you have a 38-game stretch where they went 35-3 while outscoring their opponents 103.61 to 94.05.  I’m fairly confident most elite teams don’t have 8-10 stretches where they are outscored.  Even the Cavs who started 5-7 were only outscored by less than a point per game during that 13-game stretch.  And this is a team which had a completely new roster and new coach.

The 38-game stretch is a much bigger sample size, but 18 games is still a decent amount of games.  This isn’t a definitive explanation or justification to say that the Hawks aren’t really this good.  However, it certainly has to raise some concerns.  That’s especially true when you consider their last 8 games are a part of the “bad” part of their season.  Are the Hawks closer to the 38-game stretch or the 18-game stretch?  Are they somewhere in the middle?  Should we throw out the first 10 games since they were still learning the system?

I tend to think the Hawks truly are a good team, but not a great team.  Does this mean they can’t advance in the Playoffs?  Absolutely not.  With the news coming out today that Derrick Rose is having surgery again, the Bulls now become a team that’s probably not a real threat.  That leaves the Raptors, Cavs and maybe the Wizards as threats to the Hawks.  However, the Wizards have their own health issues and won’t be a major factor if they can’t get healthy.  I’ll be shocked if the Hawks don’t win their first round.  Even if they somehow lost the #1 seed, they’d still play a far inferior team in Round 1.  I personally don’t think there is much chance they lose the #1 seed, but you never know.  There’s just not enough time left in the season, barring a major collapse by the Hawks, for anyone to catch them.  But after round one, things could get very interesting for the Hawks.

The next five games should be fairly interesting for the Hawks though.  Considering they’re in the middle of one of their not-so-good streaks, I’m going to enjoy seeing how they react to a fairly tough schedule.  Their next five games are: vs. Dallas, vs. Orlando, @ Miami, vs. Houston and vs. Cleveland.  Fortunately they are all at home except for Miami, but those are 4 Playoff teams in 5 games.  If they go 4-1 or 5-0 then I think it’s safe to say they are out of their mini-slump and they truly are a very good team.  However, if their slide continues and they go 2-3 or even 3-2, are we really ready to call them really good?  Is it fair to judge the Hawks on 5 random games in the middle of their season?  Maybe not, but these games are vitally important to their confidence.  The Cleveland game will be a huge barometer for the Hawks.  Dallas and Houston are both very good, but Cleveland is hotter than fire and a major speed bump for the Hawks if they want to make the NBA Finals.

Even after looking at the statistics and seeing that the Hawks are improved over last year, it’s still hard for me to believe that they are an elite team.  I’m still waiting for them to lose 7 of 10 and for people to start talking about them as just another Hawks’ team.  And I’ve heard and read all different experts talking about how good they are and how they play so well as a team.  That’s all fine and good, but we’ll see how good they really are come Playoff time.  Will these same experts be a bullish about the Hawks when they are facing Toronto or Cleveland in the Playoffs?  I recently heard a guy on a podcast say that he really liked the Hawks from the beginning of the season.  This I have a very hard time understanding and/or believing.  Again, this was nearly the same exact team that finished 38-44 last year and lost in the first round of the Playoffs to an Indiana team that was really scuffling.  How in the world could anyone have predicting they’d become the best team in the East?  I’m not buying that.  Was there reason to expect improvement?  Sure.  But not a 20-25 win improvement given they didn’t make many adjustments at all.

My prediction for the Hawks is that they’ll sputter a bit down the stretch, but they’ll maintain the #1 seed.  They’ll win their first Playoff round fairly easily.  Then they’ll struggle in the second round.  They may pull out a second round win, but I would be shocked if it wasn’t a 6 or 7 game series with the games all being fairly close.  If they do happen to make the Eastern Conference Finals, I’ll be shocked if they win.  I simply don’t think they beat Toronto or Cleveland in a series right now.  And yes I realize that Cleveland is currently the 4th seed, but with Rose now out for the year, I like Cleveland’s chances of securing the 2 or 3 seed.  For me it really comes down to confidence.  How confident are you that the Hawks really are this good?  If you could get even odds on Atlanta making the NBA Finals vs. Cleveland making the NBA Finals would you bet on Atlanta?  Would you bet on Atlanta with even odds against Toronto?  I certainly wouldn’t against Cleveland and I doubt I would against Toronto either.

The current odds in Vegas have the Cavs as the favorite to win the East.  And Chicago is not far behind the Hawks, although I suspect those odds will go down once they reflect the Rose injury.  My point is that there isn’t a confidence in the Hawks like there is in other teams.  If you switched records and had the Cavs at 44-12 and the Hawks at 36-22, no one would give the Hawks any chance to win that series.  The same could be said if you switched the records of Atlanta and Chicago or Atlanta and Toronto.  Even though Cleveland is 9 games behind the Hawks and Chicago is 8 1/2 back, the “experts” still give the Cavs an edge and the Bulls nearly even odds.  Compare that to the Western Conference where Golden State has much better odds than a team like Memphis or Houston.  The only team even close to the Warriors, in terms of odds, is Oklahoma City.

Odds are not a perfect measuring stick.  A team with LeBron is always going to get better odds because people like to bet on or against LeBron.  Same thing with OKC and Durant/Westbrook.  However, it has to say something when the Hawks currently have the 4th best odds to win the title (and very nearly the 6th best) and yet they have the second best record.

To sum all this up, I don’t believe the Hawks really are this good.  They had an amazing 38-game stretch where everything worked and they rattled off one of the best stretches in NBA history.  The Rockets did this several years back and ended up doing nothing in the Playoffs.  The numbers in the other 18 games the Hawks have played and they’re numbers from last year just don’t scream “elite team” to me.  Perhaps I’m wrong and they will get back on track and rattle off another amazing run.  But don’t be surprised to see them finished the season with a record around 15-11 in their last 26 games and struggle in the 2nd round of the Playoffs.

No tags for this post.