It's been a season of firsts for the Atlanta Hawks.
Mike Budenholzer, as he learned when former instructor Gregg Popovich gave him a memorable call, won his first Coach of the Year award. All five starters were named Players of the Month in January; it was the first time the league gave such recognition to a quintet. Kyle Korver made his first All-Star appearance—during his age-33 season, no less—and he was one of four Hawks to represent the Eastern Conference.
But those are all firsts on a smaller scale.
From a macro perspective, this surprising squad achieved quite a lot, especially when compared to most of the lackluster history of this franchise. With a 2-0 lead over the Brooklyn Nets as the first-round series moves to the Barclays Center, the Hawks are still on pace to have their best season ever.
That's not the least bit hyperbolic. Plenty must break right over the next couple of months in order to solidify such an accomplishment, but Atlanta has done all it can so far, just by putting itself in position for greatness.
Best Regular Season in Franchise History
Prior to this campaign, two iterations of the Hawks were tied for the most wins in the franchise annals.
Led by Dominique Wilkins, Doc Rivers and Kevin Willis, Atlanta's 1986-87 squad won 57 games, thanks to some remarkable play during the stretch run. After a Feb. 24 loss to the Chicago Bulls, the team's record fell to 33-21, but then the wins quickly started piling up. Eleven games later, the Hawks were 44-21, and that actually marked one of two unbeaten stretches during the season's second half that lasted at least nine outings.
But that '87 Atlanta squad, which dethroned the 56-win St. Louis Hawks from 1967-68 for what was then the record, wouldn't stay alone atop the leaderboard for too long.
In 1993-94, a talented team that featured Wilkins, Willis, Mookie Blaylock, Danny Manning and Stacey Augmon—at various points in the season—matched the 57-win mark. Amazingly, that collection of talent did so despite Wilkins moving to the Los Angeles Clippers for Manning halfway through the year.
Now, those two squads have to settle for second. And the same is true if we're looking at winning percentage, which gives the older teams from the St. Louis, Milwaukee and Tri-Cities days a chance to shine despite playing fewer than 82 games in the regular season.
As you can see below by clicking over to look at winning percentage, the 2014-15 Hawks are tops in both categories:
But there's more that made this such an historic campaign.
Subjectively, it was remarkably entertaining from start to finish.
We had the 17-0 month of January—the first undefeated segment of the calendar for any franchise, ever. As NBA.com's Fran Blinebury wrote, "So what was your New Year's resolution? Drop a few pounds? Quit smoking? Can't touch those Hawks. All the NBA's hottest team has done since ringing in 2015 is shed its reputation for being bland and gave up losing altogether."
Throw in a remarkable shooting campaign from Korver, who even threw down a few unexpected dunks in transition. Add the Feb. 6 win over the Golden State Warriors—an intense battle between the top team in each conference that more than lived up to the hype. Bring into the mix some of the league's most beautiful basketball, with every member of the roster more than willing to make the extra pass and turn a good look into a great one.
But it will all be forgotten as quickly as the Hawks burst onto the scene if the playoffs don't cement the legacy. After all, this is the first team from the Peach State in quite some time that feels as if it has a legitimate chance of ending Atlanta's tortured playoff history.
A History of Early Exits
Would you believe that Wilkins—widely hailed as one of the two best players in franchise history (we'll get to the other one in a bit), as well as a top-50 standout in the historical league-wide hierarchy—never played in the Eastern Conference Finals?
It's a bit easier to swallow because not a single member of the Hawks has advanced that deep into the Association's second season since the NBA and ABA merged.
When Joe Johnson was leading the charge and helping the Hawks improve their record each and every year, the team never advanced past the second round of the playoffs. When Wilkins was in town, the same thing was true, even if Atlanta rarely exited before winning at least one postseason battle.
In fact, since moving from St. Louis in 1968, the Hawks have only gone to the penultimate round twice—when Lou Hudson led them to the Western Division Finals in 1969, and when a remarkably similar squad made the same trip in 1970. The former fell to the Los Angeles Lakers in five games, while the latter was swept by the Purple and Gold.
But here's the crazy part: Back in the late 1960s and early '70s, a team only had to win two series to advance into the NBA Finals, which means this franchise has never "won" three consecutive matchups ever.
And in 1961, the Hawks had a division semifinal bye, so they only had to win one series to reach the Finals.
Back then, it was Bob Pettit leading the charge. The legendary power forward was an unstoppable machine on offense, throwing up some tough shots from all around the basket while thriving on the glass, and he sparked St. Louis to four different appearances in the Finals. The last came during that 1960-61 campaign, but it was 1958 that saw the Hawks earn the first and only title in franchise history.
Granted, it came partially because Bill Russell was injured for the Boston Celtics, but there are no official asterisks on the trophy. Pettit still led his team to a title, recording a jaw-dropping 50 points against Russell in Game 6 to clinch the championship.
This is what the current Hawks are fighting to beat.
The Next Goal
They're trying to let Korver, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll and everyone else on the roster earn the gold patch on the neckline of their jerseys, no longer content to wear one that represents a title from nearly six decades ago, when the franchise wasn't even located in Atlanta.
These Hawks know they have a legitimate chance to do so. They've been setting their sights on that goal for a while now, as Kent Bazemore made clear after clinching the No. 1 seed, per Chris Vivlamore of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution:
The most important thing for us right now is to play like we are still chasing something. It's a bad time to relax. You never know who you are going to face in the first round. Teams are going to be hungry. Target has gotten even bigger. Right now, we need to keep doing what we are doing, acknowledge it and move on because we are just starting to pick it back up and get back to our brand. It's a bad time to relax.
He wasn't the only one refusing to relax.
"I think it's a credit to our players and all the good work they've done all year," the now-Coach of the Year told Vivlamore that same night in late March. "Obviously, I'm proud of what they've done. Our focus is that there is a lot more to be done."
Nearly a month later, there's still a lot more work left in front of this squad. The Nets have given them a few scares during the opening round, even if both outings thus far have ultimately been successful. Then, the Washington Wizards or Toronto Raptors will be up, and the Hawks can't look past them in anticipation of a heavyweight fight with a star-laden squad like the Cleveland Cavaliers.
And so long as they aren't upset by a lesser team, there will be a matchup against a club brimming with star power. Maybe it's the Cavs, boasting their vaunted Big Three of LeBron James, Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love. Perhaps the Chicago Bulls will come calling, pushed higher up in the NBA hierarchy by the return of a certain former MVP.
Even after that, the Western representative will be waiting. It could be the Golden State Warriors, fresh off a historic regular season that saw them win 67 games. Then again, it could be the defending champions, once again morphing into a playoff juggernaut, or even the Chris Paul, Blake Griffin and DeAndre Jordan show from the Staples Center.
Regardless, there will be tests—trials that leave the Hawks with no choice but to prove their ball-sharing system and superior team play can overcome greater collections of individual talent.
But again, they've leapt over every hurdle thus far, clearing most in effortless fashion.
First, the best regular season in franchise history, even if the underlying metrics do suggest a bit of overachieving. Now, a 2-0 lead in a series for the first time since a 2010 opening-round matchup with the Milwaukee Bucks.
What comes next, though, determines whether this unforgettable year will really stand the test of time.