Every NBA season needs a feel-good story—some kind of sugary sweet note to cut the blasé base of the plainly predictable.
For the first few months of the 2013-14 season, that was the Atlanta Hawks: a charming mix of grizzled veterans, productive players in their prime and promising rookies capable of wooing even the most callous basketball heart, until it straight up broke them all.
After surging to as high as third in the Eastern Conference during the season’s salad days, the Hawks—with eight games left to play—are holding on for their playoff lives.
To recover, they’ll need to leapfrog the suddenly surging New York Knicks, over whom the Hawks would presumably own the conference tiebreaker at season’s end.
Given Atlanta’s remaining schedule, which includes only three road games, the task seems far from an impossible one.
Until, that is, you look at the disparity in momentum: While New York has won 12 of its last 15, the Hawks are a putrid 7-21 dating back to February 4—not exactly the mark of a team with mojo on its side.
In reality, Atlanta’s been trending this way for a while now—more specifically since the loss of Al Horford to a season-ending pectoral injury in late December:
|Oct. 31 - Dec. 27||104.7||102.3||19.4||16-13|
|Dec. 28 - April 3||101.8||106.2||18.4||16-29|
Marshaled by first-year coach and longtime Gregg Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks made early hay thanks to a potent, San Antonio Spurs-y offense predicated on precise spacing, quick ball movement and steadfast unselfishness—and a passable defense to boot.
Now, Atlanta’s general manager, Danny Ferry, is openly admitting that making the playoffs this season aren’t exactly on the team’s immediate radar. From an interview with the New York Times’ Mike Tierney:
Candidly, I don’t pay the amount of attention to the standings that you would expect. Our goal is not to be the eighth seed. We’re really just focused on building our habits. I know the standings. There’s not a lot of time and energy I put into it. Getting in or not getting in, I don’t think of it that way.
The admission isn’t without its logical underpinning: With a first-round pick ahead of a deep—if slightly overhyped—draft pool, Atlanta has plenty of reason to bow out and continue building its youth movement.
Those seeking a particular impetus for the Hawks’ sudden dive might point to the loss of Horford. And in a way, they’d be right: Since December 27, Atlanta has cratered somewhat on both sides of the ball—2.9 points per possession on offense and 3.9 on defense, per NBA.com (subscription required)—accelerating its slide from conference upstart to fledgling also-ran.
But there’s an even easier explanation for the Hawks’ noteworthy regression: Maybe they just weren’t that good to begin with.
Yes, Atlanta was, for a time, perched near the top of the conference standings, but with a record of 18-14. Which, at the time, would’ve put them squarely outside the Western Conference playoff picture.
Indeed, no amount of coaching potential or offensive creativity can make up for the fact that, at the end of the day, your team’s two best players are Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague—a borderline All-Star and a good, but far from spectacular, point guard.
So perhaps it’s time to revisit Ferry’s comments with a more nuanced eye, as the New York Daily News’ Mitch Lawrence did in a column penned early Thursday:
Ferry might not be rooting for his team to lose, as the Hawks have since contended after his comments caused a stir. But it also doesn’t sound as if he’s cheering them on like mad to make the playoffs. He’s been around long enough to know a first-round disaster when he sees one, and his team would be a major underdog heading into the playoffs. But a high lottery pick would certainly help his rebuilding program.
Considered in the context of overall franchise stability, the Hawks are actually in a pretty good place: A handful of solid staples at the helm, a young coach eager to test his creative mettle and enough assets to put any rebuilding effort on a relatively fast track forward.
Unlike with the Knicks, who tacked their 2014 first-rounder onto the bounty of young talent sent to the Denver Nuggets in the Carmelo Anthony trade, the Hawks not making the playoffs won’t spell disaster.
Even if the Knicks get bushwhacked in Round 1, which they most certainly will: That, for them, would mark success, albeit a twisted version of it.
So when the story of Atlanta’s 2013-14 season is written and “What happened?” becomes the endlessly reflective refrain, let’s stop short of overanalyzing the loss of Horford and on-court shortcomings and defer instead to Ockham’s razor.
What happened? Reality happened.
All stats courtesy of NBA.com and current as of April 3 unless otherwise noted.