The Atlanta Hawks hit the All-Star break — which comes nowhere near the halfway mark, we note — at 32-24. If they play at this .571 pace over the final 26 games, they’ll finish 47-35. That’d be a game worse than last season, 13 games worse than in 2014-15.
They’re fifth in the Eastern Conference but only a game behind Toronto for fourth, and if you finish fourth you get the homecourt edge in Round 1. (If you win, you also get to face Cleveland in Round 2, which we’ve seen before.) Those who expected a major decline in the first season post-Horford and post-Teague have been proved wrong. The Hawks haven’t fallen to pieces. Their record, however, flatters them.
Last season’s Hawks had the third-best point differential (3.6) in the East and the eighth-best in the NBA. These Hawks have been outscored. Their differential of minus-0.5 is the eighth-best in the East and 14th-best in the 30-team NBA. When they lose, they tend to get blown out. Of their seven losses since Jan. 13, six have been by double figures; four have been by 20-plus points.
The Hawks have re-averred that they’re not trading Paul Millsap, who not so long ago they appeared eager to trade. There’s a growing feeling that Millsap wants to re-up here for a not-exorbitant price, which would be nice given that he remains their best player. He also just turned 32. If he re-signs for three years and he’s still their best player in 2020, this won’t be much of a team.
(It should be said that, last summer, there was a similar belief in-house that Al Horford wanted to stay for a not-exorbitant price. He now works for Boston.)
The season’s two biggest experiments — Dwight Howard and Dennis Schroder — have been neither smash hits nor abject failures. They’ve both been OK. The Hawks have a slightly better record after trading Kyle Korver (12-8) than before (20-16). Tim Hardaway Jr. has been a revelation — and a testimony to Mike Budenholzer’s powers of player development. Thabo Sefolosha hasn’t played this month. Tiago Splitter hasn’t played this season.
Barring a deadline move for a difference-maker — and it’s likely the Hawks will be dumping expiring contracts if they make any trades — it’s hard to see them moving into the East’s first four. Washington seems to have (finally) figured things out. Toronto just traded for Serge Ibaka. The Celtics aren’t yet what they hoped to be, but they’re demonstrably better than the Hawks. Cleveland just lost Kevin Love but still has the only guy who matters.
That said, the Hawks probably won’t be overtaken for the No. 5 spot, either. The three teams behind them are Indiana, Chicago and Detroit. Only the Pacers are above .500, and they’re only just. For better or worse, the Hawks are probably where they’ll finish. A 4-5 Round 1 series is always a coin flip. A Round 2 series versus LeBron is not.
The point being: For as much as the Hawks have changed — and they’ve changed a lot; four of the five starters from the 60-win team are gone — they’ve haven’t changed all that much from last season. They’re not nearly bad but not quite good. Marc Stein’s latest ESPN power rankings have the Hawks ninth; ESPN’s stat-based Basketball Power Index slots them 14th. I’d guess they’re somewhere in between, which kind of says it all.
Further Hawks reading: