Sports teams are usually tied to their narratives. While it may be simplistic to encase an entire franchise on a few stereotypes, we as fans and followers of the game are guilty of this crime. By this logic, once the Raiders were successful cheaters, and now are only a sad franchise. Also, the Padres are bland, and the Red Wings are to be respected, while the Spurs are boring but always find ways to win. The list could go on and on, with most teams having an identity that is well known by the regular fans.
And in this line, the Atlanta Hawks have always been like the modern Cincinnati Bengals or the late 20th-Century St. Louis Blues: a moderately successful team that is not taken very seriously in the biggest stages.
To wit, the Hawks have never won the NBA title since moving to Atlanta in 1968. In that span, they have made the postseason a healthy 28 times, but never even reached the Eastern Conference Championship, while going one-and-done in 15 of those 28 trips. They enjoyed the prime years of Dominique Wilkins, but it happened during a time in which Larry Bird, Isaiah Thomas, and Michael Jordan blocked any chance to advance further in the postseason.
The franchise has been threatened to move on several occasions, with a recent scare coming as recently as last month. Even as the team is now officially for sale with a promise to stay in Atlanta for the foreseeable future, the future didn't appear as bright recently as last September, when the NBA season was ready to begin.
After 7 straight playoff appearances that yielded only 3 series wins and a combined 2-12 record in the second round, were projected to be fighting for the eighth seed in a weak Eastern Conference. After all, their roster had only 5 combined All-Star appearances (with two of them coming from veteran backup Elton Brand), and coming off a season in which they made the postseason with a losing record, it seemed right to be less than optimistic about Atlanta. In very Hawks fashion-like, they were only scheduled for a total of 4 nationally televised games.
Oddsmakers set their win total at a fair 40.5 wins – a mark they eclipsed on game number 50 of the season, with their league-high 41st win on February 4.
That in itself is certainly impressive, especially coming from a team that was never supposed to reach these heights. While the East was all fuzzy with the return to LeBron to Cleveland, the health of Derrick Rose, and the emergence of the Wizards and Raptors as true contenders – not to mention fringe squads like Detroit and Miami – the Hawks, as they are wont to be, were overlooked and continued to be so for a good chunk of the season.
Their team identity made the general opinion about them skeptical, always expecting the other shoe to drop. On November 26th, the Hawks lost a thriller to the Raptors, dropping to a mediocre 7-6 record that seemed well in line with what we expected from Atlanta. However, since then the team has been almost unstoppable with an unreal 34-3 record. During this amazing streak, the Hawks have amassed some truly outstanding feats:
- 14 wins in 15 games from late November to late December.
- A perfect 17-0 January to cap a 19-game winning streak (6th longest in NBA history)
- 19 total wins by double digits, including 10 in 11 games from January 11 to the 30th
- No Atlanta player scored 30 points
This final note is the embodiment of everything Atlanta stands for as a bona-fide title contender. Years after employing the likes of high-volume shooters like Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, Atlanta reshaped its roster to include a collection of undervalued players that could fit perfectly under Coach Mike Budenholzer's system.
Budenholzer, who spent 18 seasons as Gregg Popovich's assistant in San Antonio, has tried to mimic the Spurs' success by employing a system full of ball-handling, sharing, and emphasizing strong basketball IQ between his players. This has led the Hawks to be the sixth-best team in both offensive and defensive ratings, while being generous with 3-pointers in a very Spurs-like way. Atlanta leads the NBA in 3-point percentage, while also having the 8th-highest attempts.
Atlanta has benefited from tremendous amounts of health, leading to an established starting five that has found a great level of consistency despite the absence of a marquee player. No Hawks starter averages over 20 points per game, but they all oscillate between 13 and 17. On a similar note, no Atlanta player averages double digits in neither rebounds nor assists, while 8 of their bench players average over 10 minutes per contest.
While every other contender, including the Spurs, can boast on at least one star player to anchor its success, Atlanta is really an outlier. Their recent success has prompted a change of identity for the Hawks, who are finally being recognized as a legitimate threat to make a deep playoff run. Their historic January was recognized with the whole starting five winning Eastern Player of the Month honors, while Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and Jeff Teague were selected to the All-Star Game.
The questions surrounding Atlanta as the season rolls along will be if the team can hold their pace and challenge for the title. Their lack of star power tends to be the biggest concern come playoff time, as it is not the same to battle in the regular season as it is to face the grind of long series against the best teams in the league. However, Atlanta has validated its status by going toe-to-toe with the best squads in the NBA.
Atlanta has gone a league-best 18-6 against teams with a winning record, including a 13-3 mark versus the powerful Western Conference. With a sizable advantage and the inside track to grab the top stop in the East, Atlanta will have a good chance to finally advance to the final stages of the playoffs, especially as their home building has become an almost impassable location for visiting teams. Atlanta has lost only once at home since that November 26th defeat to the Raptors.
With the Hawks slowly receiving more and more accolades, they are now listed as the league's third-biggest favorite to win the NBA title, curiously tied with the Spurs at 15/2 odds, only behind Golden State and Cleveland. While it would be hard to trust a team with no clear go-to guy, or even a handful of recognizable names, the Hawks will try to become the first team to win it all without a superstar since the 2003-04 Detroit Pistons.
If you get to see them play on a nightly basis, you will find that it is not as farfetched as it sounds.