While they haven’t taken the NBA by storm like they did last season with 60 wins, the Atlanta Hawks have been a steady force in the Eastern Conference and are replicating the style of play that allowed them to be the NBA’s buzz team just a year ago.
No one predicted the Hawks onslaught last season. A team that has been stuck in mediocrity for about half a decade, Atlanta used San Antonio Spurs-like ball movement (not surprising considering Mike Budenholzer learnt under Gregg Popovich), red-hot three-point shooting and an elite defence to reach the Eastern Conference Finals.
The NBA loves and adores new trends. The latest superstar, great team or even the freshest shoes and jerseys can take the league by storm within a matter of seconds with the influence of social media.
As the Hawks were making their surge during the regular season last year, the team’s Twitter account became a cult hero. Fancy puns, the use of emojis and adding an extra ‘W’ in ‘Hawks’ to represent a winning streak, Atlanta was turning into the league’s hottest property.
However, as the cycle of the NBA goes, the 2015-16 season has brought along new Cinderellas and stories, leaving the Hawks in the dust. In the East, the Toronto Raptors and Boston Celtics have replaced Atlanta as the feel-good teams.
The Cleveland Cavaliers make headlines daily, whether it is about a cryptic tweet from LeBron James or an effortless loss to the Brooklyn Nets. Even the bad storylines, like the epic downfall of the Chicago Bulls and the Carmelo Anthony saga with the New York Knicks, have overshadowed the Hawks.
Out in the Western Conference, the Golden State Warriors are closing in on history, the San Antonio Spurs keep on keeping on and the Oklahoma City Thunder and the Los Angeles Clippers enter make or break playoff runs.
Oh, by the way, it’s that Kobe Bryant guy’s final season, which has made a few headlines along the way.
So, within this crazy, wild world of the NBA, where do the Hawks fit?
The role of playing spoiler in the playoffs fits like a glove.
As mentioned before, ball movement, long range shooting and a suffocating defence were the elements which allowed Atlanta to win 60 games last season. What people are failing to realise is that the Hawks are using the exact same playing style to gain momentum heading into this year’s playoffs.
“I think the main thing we have to do is stay focused on winning as many as we can,” forward Paul Millsap told Michael Lee of The Vertical. “I don’t think we care where we fall. As long we’re in [the playoffs] and we have an opportunity to play for a title, it doesn’t matter where we fall. Because at the end of day, we’re going to have to go through everybody. And whoever it is in the first round, hopefully, we’ll be ready.
“I think we’re on a pace toward being the team that we want to be, especially on the defensive end,” Millsap continued. “We still got some games left. We want to continue to get better. We don’t want to just peak. We want to go higher and higher, get better and I think we’re capable of doing that.”
The Hawks currently sit third in the East with a 44-30 record, so they are going to fall well short of the 60-win mark they set last season. It isn’t about the regular season victories for Atlanta though, as they have the pieces to make a playoff run similar to last season’s.
Let’s start with that ball movement. The ‘Spurs of the East,’ as some dubbed them last season, have played with unselfishness and willingness to pass up a good shot for a great shot, even with a slightly different roster. The loss of DeMarre Carroll has definitely had an impact, but not in terms of ball movement.
The Hawks are averaging 25.7 assists per game this season, second in the league. Atlanta also ranks second in assist percentage (the percentage of field goals which are assisted, at 66.4%) and assist ratio (number of assists a team averages per 100 possessions, 19.3). The Warriors lead the league in all of the above categories.
A by-product of these assist numbers is that Budenholzer runs one of the league’s most potent offences. The Hawks score 103.4 points per 100 possessions, which is just a modest 14th in the league. However, Atlanta has a true shooting percentage of 55.4%, fifth in the league and they possess an effective field goal percentage of 51.9%, sixth in the NBA.
It is a simple formula. Pass the ball and create better shots. Atlanta excelled at this last season and is still one of the league’s benchmarks in this area, which is sure to be a difference maker come playoff time.
Atlanta knocks down an average of 9.8 three-point shots per game, sixth in the league. In March, however, that number has increased to 11.6, fourth in the NBA, which shows how the Hawks are slowly regaining their three-point expertise as the season heads into the playoffs.
The Hawks’ three-point shooting has stayed steady all season long, even without having a 40 percent long-range shooter on their roster. Kyle Korver, a celebrated three-point marksman, leads Atlanta in three-point shooting, going at 39.8% from downtown. This isn’t a bad percentage at all, but it is below standards for someone of Korver’s skill.
However, just as the team’s three-point shooting has improved in March, so has Korver’s. The 12-year veteran is shooting 47.1% from beyond the arc in March, a sign that he is finally finding his shooting touch, a scary thought for the rest of the league.
So, the Hawks offence is still soaring and their defence hasn’t been left behind.
Atlanta concedes just 98.8 points per 100 possessions, which is the second-best mark in the league. This metric, known as defensive rating or defensive efficiency, is the main stat used to judge a team’s defence. The Hawks’ is elite on multiple levels.
Teams shoot the ball at a 43.3% rate against the Hawks, which places Atlanta first in the league for opponent field goal percentage. Atlanta also ranks in the top six teams in the league for opponent’s three-point shooting percentage and opponent’s points per game, rankings that scream championship contender.
This is what makes the Hawks so hard to figure out. All of their numbers and ranking, on both sides of the ball, are ones representing a legitimate championship contender. They have a balanced roster, led by the ever-reliable Millsap, Al Horford and Jeff Teague. Throw in the x-factors of Korver, Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore, and Atlanta seemingly has all the elements to cause a stir in the Eastern Conference playoffs.
Does anyone truly believe Atlanta is a threat to win the title? Of course not. In fact, just reaching the Eastern Conference Finals would be considered a success for the Hawks.
With an effective offence, suffocating defence and well-rounded roster though, could Atlanta shock the NBA world and fly into June?
The numbers on paper suggest yes, but championships aren’t won on paper. Atlanta has all the ingredients to send shock through the NBA, now it’s up to them to go out and actually do it.