ESPN has released its long-range forecast for the very long NBA regular season. It projects the Atlanta Hawks, who won 60 games and finished first in the East last season, to win 50 games and be the third-best team in the conference this time around. (Actually, the Hawks and the Bulls are both picked to go 50-32, though Chicago is slotted as the East’s No. 2 team.)
That’s a decline of 10 games for the Hawks, which sounds like a lot. Per ESPN, the Hawks will finish nine games behind Cleveland; last year they finished seven games ahead of the Cavaliers. (The playoffs, as we know, were a different story.) The local team is still picked to win the Southeast Division by three games over Miami, which missed the playoffs last season, and four over Washington, which gave the Hawks all they could handle in Round 2.
In the wake of ESPN’s picks, Bradford Doolittle of ESPN Insider offered his reaction. (That’s how big the Worldwide Leader is: It reacts to its own stories.) Writes Doolittle:
The 50-win summer forecast might seem like a steep descent. After all, as good as (DeMarre) Carroll might be, he’s not worth 10 wins, and Atlanta did add Tiago Splitter and Tim Hardaway Jr. during the summer. Yet the forecast and my system agree that while Atlanta remains a force, last season was an outlier.
Earlier this month, Doolittle’s ESPN Insider colleague Kevin Pelton ranked the Hawks as a “likely playoff team,” which was below the tiers of “championship contender,” which included only Cleveland from the East, and “championship hopeful,” which included nobody from the East. Wrote Pelton:
Atlanta’s point differential (plus-5.4 ppg) was more typical of a 55-win team, and teams like the Hawks, who have improved their record by at least 20 games from one season to the next, have regressed two wins the following season. Add in the loss of starting forward DeMarre Carroll, and Atlanta is likely to return to the 45-50 win range the team has occupied much of the past decade.
Nobody is seriously suggesting — at least nobody I know — that the Hawks won’t still be good. The raging consensus is that they won’t be quite as good, and this correspondent wouldn’t disagree. Fifty sounds about right.