Going into the 2010-11 NBA season, the consensus was there were three elite teams in the Eastern Conference. The Orlando Magic, Miami Heat, and the Boston Celtics. Then, for the most part, there was everybody else.
However, all three of those teams have done something that the Atlanta Hawks have yet to do. Lose.
Yep, the Hawks are the only unbeaten team remaining in the Eastern Conference, standing at a perfect 5-0 record two weeks into the season. It looks like you can add them to that list of the Eastern Conference elite... right?
Well, that I'm not so sure about. For a multitude of reasons.
First off, and most importantly, the Hawks began their season with about as soft of a schedule as you could ask for. Yes, three of their five games were on the road, and it's harder to win on the road in the NBA than in any other sport, but their road opponents were the Memphis Grizzlies (2-3), Philadelphia 76'ers (1-4), and Cleveland Cavaliers (1-3). All three of these teams will either be a fringe playoff team, or hoping the lottery balls fall in their favor this June so they can start to rebuild with youth.
That puts the combined record of the teams the Hawks have faced early on at 5-17. Clearly, Atlanta hasn't exactly been facing top-notch talent these first two weeks of the season. And it does not get tougher for them, at least for the next two games.
The Hawks visit the Minnesota Timberwolves on Friday, who currently sit at 1-4, and then host the Phoenix Suns on Sunday, who are 1-3. If Atlanta wins in Minnesota on Friday, they'll start 6-0 for the second times in three years.
An interesting tidbit from the Hawks 5-0 start is that in all five games, the leading scorer came from the losing team. Needless to say, that doesn't happen often. I went all the way back to the Hawks 2002-03 season, and it hasn't happened once.
It's impressive. It shows the Hawks have been able to win without having one player take over the game. The wealth has been spread. Six Hawks are averaging at least ten points a game.
But in today's NBA, the teams that win consistently and have a legit shot at a championship have players that can take over. The Magic have one. The Celtics have at least two. The Heat have at least three.
Joe Johnson is the closest thing to a player that can put the Hawks on their shoulder as Atlanta has. But this is his sixth season, and he's never led Atlanta out of the second round. This year, the Eastern Conference playoff bracket will be tougher than ever for a Cinderella team to bust.
The Hawks may be better than ever this year, with Josh Smith and Al Horford combining to create a deadly frontcourt, and nice complementary players like Jamal Crawford and Mike Bibby rounding out the backcourt. They have six players currently averaging double figures in points per game.
That's the biggest difference between the Hawks and the elite teams in the East right now. The Hawks may go on to have a very good regular season, but with the Magic and Heat in their division, the Hawks might- actually, probably, won't get any higher than the fifth seed.
They'll get matched up with either the Heat or Magic (most likely Orlando) in the conference quarterfinals, and more than likely be a first round casualty.
The Hawks are good. Probably very good. Just not great. And in this year's Eastern Conference, "great" is the bare minimum.