In five of the last six 82-game NBA seasons, the Eastern Conference has sent a team with fewer than 40 wins to the playoffs.
The 38-44 Atlanta Hawks continued the dubious tradition this year.
A 6-2 push in their final eight games propelled the Hawks into the eighth seed despite stiff competition from the New York Knicks (37-45). In the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals, the squad put a scare in the No. 1 seed Indiana Pacers but eventually lost in seven games.
The question is: Can the Hawks get back to the playoffs in 2014-15?
Let's take a look their situation heading into next year.
They Were Unlucky in 2013-14
In 2013-14, Hawks players missed 180 games due to injury, according to ManGamesLost.com.
That total ranked eighth-most in the NBA. Of the 2014 Eastern Conference playoff teams, only the Charlotte Bobcats (now Hornets) had more games missed to injury than the Hawks.
Of course, 53 of those 180 games belonged to two-time All-Star center Al Horford and his pectoral injury.
In the first 29 games of the season with Horford in the lineup, the Hawks were 16-13. They sat third in the East at that point, according to ShrpSports.com.
Backup guard Lou Williams, Atlanta's No. 4 leading scorer in 2012-13, also missed 22 games as he worked himself back from a torn ACL.
Will the Hawks have terrible luck with injuries again in 2014-15?
Maybe, but probably not.
If their luck evens out next year, they will be a lot closer to the No. 3 slot they held for a good portion of 2013-14.
They Are Young and Improving
Statistically, the Hawks aren’t that young of a team. According to Real GM Basketball, the squad's average age is 26.9 years old. That figure ranked the Hawks as just the 19th-youngest team in the NBA.
However, their best players are young.
Seven of the team’s top eight scorers from 2013-14 are under the age of 30. And 33-year-old Kyle Korver’s game is not built on youthful athleticism, so it’s hard to see him declining significantly next season.
The team's 25-year-old point guard, Jeff Teague, is the most intriguing young talent. I outlined his potential in an article earlier this month, but I believe he will be an All-Star as early as next season.
Expect improvement from most of the Hawks’ key players in 2014-15 as they continue to gain valuable experience.
They Have Cap Room to Work With This Summer
According to NBA Business Analyst Eric Pincus of Basketball Insiders, the Hawks are one of 10 teams likely to be under the salary cap heading into the summer.
Aside from the Hawks, the Charlotte Hornets are the only 2014 playoff team in that group.
With about $12 million of cap space to work with this summer, according to Pincus, the Hawks will have the freedom to sign a prominent player (or players) in free agency that many of the other playoff teams in the East will not possess.
My suggestion for the use of this money is pursuing Utah Jazz shooting guard Gordon Hayward, a move I outlined in an article last week. Hayward fits the Hawks' need for wing scoring well, but if the team cannot bring him in, it should still be able to find another free agent who can contribute positively on the court next season.
The Hawks have a leg up on many other playoff hopefuls in the East with their cap room this summer.
Mike Budenholzer Is a Great Coach
Rookie head coach Mike Budenholzer was a big reason the Hawks made the playoffs last season. Atlanta Hawks writer Andrew Shaw of Rant Sports said the following about Budenholzer:
Instead, under the leadership of Budenholzer the team stuck together and fought hard despite everyone writing them off, which is a sign of a great coach. The fight Atlanta showed in order to even make the playoffs proves that its players have bought into what their head coach is trying to do here and this could mean great things are on the way for this franchise.
In his second year as the Hawks head coach after 17 seasons as an assistant with the San Antonio Spurs, Budenholzer will be more familiar with his players' strengths and weaknesses. And, in turn, Budenholzer's players will be more acquainted with him.
The Hawks Have Been Here Before
If Atlanta's valiant effort against the Pacers in the playoffs seemed a bit familiar, it's because it did essentially the same thing six years ago.
The last time a No. 8 seed with fewer than 40 wins presented any sort of a challenge to its first-round opponent was in 2008, when the 37-win Hawks took the 66-win, eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games before losing.
That Hawks team showed a lot of heart that series, especially in Game 4 when they came back from a double-digit deficit in the fourth quarter to win 97-92. Highlights from that game are below (courtesy of YouTube).
The next year, the Hawks tacked on 10 wins to their season total and moved up to the No. 4 seed in the East.
Could the Hawks take a similar path next season?
Their confidence certainly isn't lacking. All-Star power forward Paul Millsap said the following in a postgame press conference after Game 1 against the Pacers:
"We don't think we're an eight seed. We think we're better than an eight seed. Throughout the season, we had injuries, and for whatever the case may be, we'd drop games. But to us, our confidence is high, because we don't really think we're an eight seed."
Hawks players know that they belong in the playoffs, and they will be hungry in 2014-15 to continue their streak of seven consecutive postseason appearances.
The East Is Weak
Barring huge changes to the NBA landscape this summer, the East will be the weaker conference again in 2014-15.
The Miami Heat and Indiana Pacers should be locks to return to the playoffs next year. The young Toronto Raptors and Washington Wizards showed promise and the veteran Brooklyn Nets and Chicago Bulls had nice seasons, but there is still a large gap after Miami and Indiana.
The lack of many elite teams in the East will once again make it easier for the Hawks to qualify for the playoffs.
So, can the Hawks get back to the playoffs in 2014-15 for the eighth straight year?
Yes, and they will.
The Hawks should be a much better team in 2014-15, based on the reasons mentioned above. In fact, if they play to their potential and avoid the injury bug, they might even nab the No. 3 seed in the Eastern Conference.