Around this time of the season, a team featuring only three players who have made a total of five All-Star appearances, and with the fifth lowest payroll in the NBA, typically packs it in and vies for draft picks and salary cap space while looking to the possibilities of next year.
Instead, the Atlanta Hawks are far and away the hottest team in the NBA. They’ve won 13 straight and at 34-8 hold a five-game lead over the second-place Washington Wizards in the Eastern Conference.
Now, after three straight first-round-and-out years, the Hawks might be poised for a deep run in the postseason.
Let’s take a look at six reasons why the Hawks are for real.
Jeff Teague, Jeff Teague, Jeff Teague
Six years after Atlanta selected him No. 19 overall out of Wake Forest, Teague’s gradually blossomed into one of the top point guards in the league. The Hawks are seventh in the league in scoring and first in defense, largely thanks to the 26-year-old Teague. He leads the squad in points (17.2), assists (7.3), and steals (1.8), making Teague one of only six point guards in the league to do so this season.
Teague’s work on both sides of the court, especially against top East guards like Kyle Lowry, John Wall, Derrick Rose, and Kyrie Irving, should make the Hawks a threat throughout the second half of the regular season and the playoffs. He may garner some attention for MVP as well.
Shooting the Lights Out
The Hawks have found that rare blend of impeccable defense (96.3 ppg) and offense (103.1 ppg), by forcing turnovers and with efficient long-range shooting.
The Hawks are tied for seventh in the league in turnovers forced (15.4), and complement denying opponents opportunities with the third highest three-point shooting in the NBA.
As a team, Atlanta shoots 38.6 percent from beyond the three-point arc, and its fifth overall at 47 percent. Teague’s 47.2 percent from the field goes a long way, but the career year from veteran shooting guard Kyle Korver is making all the difference.
Tops in the league, Korver’s matched his career-high by knocking down 53.6 percent of his 5.8 three-point attempts per game.
Atlanta also gets excellent presence inside from center Al Horford, who has a solid 54 percent shooting percentage.
Defense Wins Titles
When the postseason rolls around, the NBA game can get much slower with coaches turning to their defense in the half court. The Hawks defense should handle the test well. Thanks to Horford and power forward Paul Millsap clogging up the middle and the wings, Atlanta’s fourth in opponent field goal percentage.
But Atlanta's defense isn’t one dimensional, and runs deep on the bench. Teague and Millsap are each averaging 1.7 steals a game, and small forward DeMarre Carroll and guard Thabo Sefolosha each contribute a steal a game, as well. The Hawks are fifth in the league in steals as a result, and could wreak havoc on opposing backcourts or big men sloppy with the ball inside.
Way of the Spurs
The NBA is a copycat league, and many teams have tried to emulate the San Antonio Spurs. The Hawks went out and plucked a long-time Spurs assistant to make emulating the defending champions just a little easier. Now in his second season as head coach Mike Budenholzer spent his first 18 years in the NBA as an assistant for San Antonio Spurs, the majority of which were under five-time champion coach Gregg Popovich.
The Hawks seem to have much of the Spurs style down pat: team defense, long-range shooting, and excellent team passing. Budenholzer's squad is also second in the league with 26 assists per game.
Winning on the road is tantamount to a deep postseason run, even if you are the top seed in the conference. Assuming they hold on to home court advantage throughout the postseason, the Hawks still need to win on the road and they’ve already proven capable of doing so.
Atlanta has the best road record in the NBA at 17-5, and eight of the wins during their current streak have been on the road. Over the last two months, they’ve beaten playoff contenders like the Cleveland Cavaliers, Houston Rockets, Dallas Mavericks, Milwaukee Bucks, Portland Trail Blazers, the L.A. Clippers, Toronto Raptors and Chicago Bulls, all on the road.
Beating Good Eastern Conference Teams
Not only have the Hawks won, but they have convincing victories against some of the top teams in the East. After a slow start, when they began the season with a 1-3 record and then sputtered to a 7-6 record, Atlanta bulldozed through the East, defeating teams like the Bulls by seven and eight points, the Cavs by 29 and eight points, the Wizards by 31 points, and the Raptors by 21 points.
The East is lacking in depth beyond Washington, Toronto, Chicago and Cleveland. Yet, the Hawks have proven they can hold their own with the probable top seeds. When the playoffs roll around, those teams will almost certainly be watching plenty of game tape on Budenholzer's squad.