If you would have asked me before the season what the chances were that the Atlanta Hawks would make the playoffs, I would have said 99.9 percent. The .1 percent of doubt came from some unlikely injury happening to a star player that would sideline him for the rest of the year.
Now, a team that once seemed destined to have the No. 3 seed in the East appears to be in some serious trouble.
The Hawks currently stand at 31-37, good for the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference. They are three games ahead of the recently surging New York Knicks, and 5.5 games ahead of the shockingly bad Detroit Pistons.
While they recently put together a five-game winning streak, they have dropped their last two matches to the New Orleans Pelicans and Toronto Raptors. Those are two teams the Hawks have to beat in this stage of the season if they have any hopes of doing anything in the playoffs, let alone make the final cut.
The main problem with this team ever since Horford went down has been rebounding.
They were never a great rebounding team, but since his injury they have slipped all the way to 28th in the league.
To put it simply, you can't be third worst in the league in this category if you want to be viewed as a bona fide playoff team.
Antic is a rookie who is known more for his scoring than anything else, while Millsap, Brand and Scott are all considered slightly undersized at the power forward position.
Because of this, they have been beaten up on the boards in many games, which has in turn cost them important results.
All hope is not lost, though, as they have done a lot of things right despite their injury-filled season that has kept them in the playoff mix.
It is clear they made the right choice in hiring Mike Budenholzer to be their head coach this past offseason. With most other coaches, the Hawks would have been out of the playoff picture by now. However, Coach Bud’s attention to detail and fiery competitive spirit have been a blessing to a team full of young, inexperienced players that desperately needs a strong-willed coach to lead the charge.
Considering the injuries to Horford, Millsap and Jeff Teague, arguably their three best players, Coach Bud has done a masterful job educating his players on his system and how to run it correctly. This has allowed the team to win some games they probably wouldn't have otherwise because every player comes in trying to obey the system Budenholzer has implemented.
As a result of this high-energy, motion-offense system, the Hawks are the best passing team in the league, leading the NBA in assists with 25.2 a game.
You can also never count out a team with an All-Star talent like Paul Millsap on their roster. Millsap has been spectacular in his first year with Atlanta, posting averages of 17.9 points, 8.2 rebounds and 3.1 assists per game, to go along with 46 percent shooting from the field and a deceptive 37 percent mark from outside.
Millsap, sometimes single-handedly, has kept the Hawks in the playoff mix, and has really stepped up his game since his post partner Horford went down for the year. This is evidenced by his first career triple double (19 points, 13 rebounds and 10 assists) in a March 18 victory over the Toronto Raptors.
In terms of their remaining schedule, I think it's realistic for the Hawks to go 7-7 in their final 14 games.
The Knicks, the biggest threat to snatch the 8 seed from them, have a much more difficult schedule by comparison. This includes games against Golden State, Miami, Toronto (twice), Brooklyn (twice), Chicago and Phoenix.
Throw in the added pressure of Phil Jackson coming on board, and the Knicks are definitely feeling some heat considering the roster they have and the expectations for them to sneak into the playoffs.
If the Hawks somehow miss the playoffs, no one would blame them due to the Horford injury and the overall makeup of their roster where role players such as Antic, DeMarre Carroll and Kyle Korver have been asked to play above and beyond what is normally expected of them.
The pressure element favors Atlanta big time in this respect.
The Pistons do not pose much of a threat, as their remaining games include playing Miami, Oklahoma City, Chicago, Brooklyn, Toronto and Indiana. They are already 5.5 games back, and I do not expect them to come close to making a serious run for the 8 seed.
The Hawks' two-game losing streak is definitely concerning, considering that they went 2-10 in the month of February, and are currently under .500 for the month of March (5-6). This is a squad that also suffered eight- and six-game losing streaks not too long ago.
One could look at their situation two ways.
The negative side would be to view this team as ready to give up. With an abysmal 7-16 record over the last two months and no one counting on them to do much in the playoffs even if they got there, it would be easy to just start losing hope. After all, their best player is out for the year, and no one was taking them to beat Miami or Indiana in a seven-game series anyway.
The positive side would be that this recent trend of losing and the ability to just give up and tank was there for the taking. However, the Hawks never folded and they are still more than alive and have a three-game lead on their nearest opponent for the final playoff seed. Antic recently returned to the starting lineup after battling an ankle injury over the last couple of months, and they recently won five games in a row to help restore confidence that they are still a good team.
In a conference full of tanking teams gunning for a high pick in a supposedly stocked draft class, the Hawks have remained steadfast on being competitive no matter what, and not just doing what is popular right now out East. There is definitely some honor and pride that goes with that.
If the Hawks make the playoffs, sadly they will not do much.
Their best bet would be to draw the Toronto Raptors in the first round and hope for an upset. Unfortunately for that scenario, the Raptors currently have the 3 seed and virtually no chance of catching Miami for the second spot. Atlanta is currently four games behind the Washington Wizards for the 6 seed in the East. In all likelihood they will not catch them.
The most likely outcome is that the Hawks stand pat with the 8 seed, and play the Pacers in the first round. The best case for this would be to avoid a sweep and make the series go at least five games, but even that will be difficult though.
I give the Hawks an 80 percent chance to make the playoffs, but less than a 5 percent chance to upset either the Pacers or Heat in the first round.
This is not to sound like I am blasting the organization, it is merely a realistic look at what any team should expect if they get either the 7 or 8 seed in the Eastern Conference.
By all accounts, they have had a largely successful season, and getting to the playoffs would be a triumph. You cannot put a price on having that experience, and seeing your younger players get their feet wet against the likes of LeBron James or Paul George in the first round.