When I woke up on Tuesday morning, there was a striking note in my twitter inbox. The Atlanta Hawks were #7 in ESPN’s Power Rankings (which can be read here), as Marc Stein (the provider of said rankings) had bumped them up to season-high levels. Initially, I was taken aback by the ranking for a few reasons. My first thought went immediately to the glorious day in the Summer of 2012 when Danny Ferry pulled off the heist that sent Joe Johnson to Brooklyn. Every Hawks pundit that I saw/read absolutely loved the move (myself included), but did anyone actually think it wouldn’t hurt Atlanta for the 2012-2013 season? At least initially? Secondly, going into the season, if I was doing a top-10 projection of “power rankings”, there wouldn’t have been more than 3 teams from the Eastern Conference in them (Miami, Boston, Indiana), and Atlanta would’ve fallen squarely in the mid-to-low teens. Alas, here we are.
Stein’s major “note” on Atlanta references the Hawks’ new perch atop the defensive efficiency rankings for the league. This actually made me laugh out loud simply because of how much Atlanta’s potential defensive struggles, especially on the wing, have been mentioned in this space. That said, the Hawks are really guarding this year, and while it is unquestionably a product of a soft early-season schedule, there’s no denying that Atlanta should be overjoyed with the early season defense. Is it sustainable? Absolutely not in my opinion, but with that said, a top-10 performance on the season isn’t out of the question with the way Atlanta has been playing, and if Deshawn Stevenson continues to see more minutes than Anthony Morrow (which he shouldn’t), defensive efficiency is the only place where he would help.
The major question (and the one you are all screaming at your computer screen already, I’m sure) is whether Atlanta is really the 7th best team in the NBA, and if not, how far down would they actually land. In my opinion, there are six teams that I would, without any question, pick for a full-season over Atlanta and they are as follows: Miami, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Memphis, Los Angeles Lakers, and Boston. That’s the entire list of “absolutes”, and there’s no denying that the Hawks have played decisively better than LA or Boston this season, which is reflected in their #8 and #10 rankings respectively. After that, things get a little more dicey. With a gun to my head, I’d also pick New York, Brooklyn, the Clippers, and Denver for better records/higher rankings this season. That’s 10 teams, with debates surrounding teams like Chicago (with Rose, they would be higher), Utah (they have a move to make), Golden State (with Bogut?), Dallas (ditto for Dirk), and Indiana (Granger, etc.).
What does it all mean? Well, in short, Atlanta is in good position. I don’t believe that they are the #7 team in the NBA, or really that they are in the top-10, but if this newly-found defensive level continues (even approximately), it would be a safe bet to pencil in the Hawks for an Eastern conference playoff berth. Just remember, even when the Hawks go on a 5-game losing streak in February, that the playoffs are simply a bonus in the year we were all freed from Joe Johnson.