Through 50 games, the Atlanta Hawks are 41-9.
They started the season 9-6 – a respectable record, but nothing to get all hopped up on goofballs about. The fact that they’ve only lost three time since and rattled off a perfect 17-0 record in January? That’s a different story.
But a funny thing has happened in the midst of everyone praising Atlanta for the incredible season they’re having: the basketball talking heads have actually taken it too far. They’ve turned what should be a “How about these Hawks?” story into “The Hawks the best team in the NBA and no one is even close,” even though the Western Conference is demonstratively better than the East.
How much better? Let’s compare records:
Eastern Conference: 345-398 (.464)
Western Conference: 392-341 (.535)
The second-best team in the East (your Toronto Raptors!) would be the sixth seed in the West if the playoffs started today. While a pair of teams with sub-.500 records (Charlotte and Miami) are currently in position to qualify for the Eastern Conference Playoffs, a pair of teams with winning records (New Orleans and Oklahoma City) are on the outs in the Western Conference Playoffs.
Atlanta is benefitting from moderate pre-season expectations and the “No Superstar Effect,” where becaue the team doesn’t have one player you can single out as being more responsible for their current success, everyone gushes over them for playing “tremendous team basketball” and being “selfless” and other superlatives that get tossed around in these situations.
It’s true – they do play really well as a unit and no one is out there looking to get their 15-20 shots a night, results be damned, but the problem is that there are people pretending that this is something new and unique, when San Antonio has been doing it for years and Golden State plays a very similar brand of “find the open man” offense. It’s just not cool to heap more praise on Coach Pop and the Spurs and the Warriors have Steph Curry and Klay Thompson splashing nets on a nightly basis, so forwarding the idea that they’re as “unselfish” as the Hawks is unacceptable in right now.
The Hawks went 17-0 in January and people were tripping over themselves to shower them with praise. LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers are currently riding an 12-game winning streak and appear to have righted the ship after a rocky start (save for Kevin Love, who continues to struggle), but that was expected, so talking about how good they’ve looked of late is framed in an entirely different way.
Atlanta’s opportunity to really prove themselves comes tonight when the Hawks welcome “The Splash Brothers” and the rest of the Golden State Warriors to town. (Note: how in the name of all things good and right in the world is this game not on TSN? C’mon! You’re killing me, Smalls!)
“The Dubs” are coming off a 128-114 win over Dallas on Wednesday night where Curry had 51 points. They’re 39-8 overall, 25-7 in their own conference and they’re only non-conference loss was a two-point, overtime setback against the Chicago Bulls, a team many pundits picked to win the East. The Hawks have been a fun story and a really good team up to this point, but tonight’s showdown with Golden State will go a long way to either validating all the “best team in the NBA” talk or quieting it down for a good couple of weeks.
And here’s the part no one seems to be talking about: none of this matters once the playoffs roll around and historically speaking, teams like Atlanta tend to struggle when the second season begins.
Yes, San Antonio have done very well for a very long time running the same system – Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer spent 18 seasons with the Spurs before accepting the head coaching job with the Hawks – but they’re the exception, not the rule. Traditionally, you need that one dude that can put the team on his back and be counted on to make the tough shots down the stretch. Not having that guy is fine when you’re playing Milwaukee on a random Tuesday in the middle of the season, but it’s a lot different when you’re stuck two in Game 7 and the clock is winding down.
As impressive as Atlanta’s run has been thus far, everyone showering them with praise would still take LeBron James and the Cavs to beat them in a heartbeat and a handful of Western Conference teams to beat them in the Finals if they manage to make it that far. That’s why all this over-the-top love about the season they’ve put together is kind of ridiculous.
Atlanta has been a pleasant surprise and far better than anyone thought, but if it doesn’t translate to something significant in the playoffs, no one is going to go back and talk about their magical January and feel better about how the season ended.
Pump the brakes on proclaiming the Hawks the best team in The Association – there is still a lot of basketball to be played.