With a 20-10 overall record and a current standing as the #3 seed in the Eastern Conference, it is safe to say that the Atlanta Hawks have surprised most people through the first 30 games. This is obviously an impressive record, but there is one particular area where Atlanta’s place in the standings shines even brighter. This year’s version of the Hawks is winning on the road.
Through 14 games away from Philips Arena, Atlanta is a wildly impressive 9-5, and that road record is the best mark in the Eastern Conference, surpassing even the vaunted Miami Heat in this category. At first glance, my reaction was to doubt this mark, assuming it was schedule-related, and while this is partially true, Atlanta has also managed to defeat both Oklahoma City and Memphis away from the friendly confines of Philips Arena. Even with the realization that those are the only two “big” road wins for Atlanta so far, the much more important factor is the fact that Atlanta has simply beaten the teams they should beat. The five road losses were (in order): LA Clippers, Golden State, Cleveland (the lone outlier), Miami, and Philadelphia. Obviously, the Cleveland loss is an inexcusable one, especially considering the absence of Kyrie Irving, but Atlanta has taken care of business against lesser opponents and that is the mark of a veteran team.
The use of the term “veteran team” isn’t one that the general NBA public would associate with the Hawks, but they’d simply be wrong. Of the top nine players in the Atlanta Hawks rotation, the least experienced player is Jeff Teague, and he is in his fourth full season in the NBA. That is the picture of experience, and even though their isn’t “championship” pedigree among the core group, there is a ton of NBA acumen. Josh Smith, Al Horford, and Kyle Korver anchor the starting lineup with 7+ years of experience each, and they have undoubtedly had a steadying influence on the younger guys like Teague, Morrow, and even 2nd-year player Ivan Johnson. In addition, Larry Drew deserves big-time credit for preparing his team on a nightly basis, and trying desperately to shed the “same old Hawks” label of a team that was unpredictable from night-to-night.
A third, and critical, point in the Hawks’ road success has come on the defensive end. Although Atlanta’s defense efficiency numbers have slipped in the recent week or so, the Hawks are still at #8 overall in this metric, and defensive prowess is much more consistent than offensive production. Even on nights where the ball hasn’t fallen through the rim, Larry Drew has gotten this team to defend, and that is key to sustained road success. There is a reason that when scrolling the standings for elite road records, teams like Chicago, Memphis, Milwaukee, and even Indiana have outperformed “better” teams like Brooklyn, Houston, Denver, and Minnesota, as the better defensive units outperform offense-first squads.
In the end, the fact that Atlanta is winning on a consistent basis on the road is encouraging on many levels. However the credit falls between Larry Drew and the core of veteran players led by Smith and Horford, sustained road success is a great indicator of teams that will threaten to go deep into the playoffs, and this is an area where Atlanta compares favorably to more high-profile teams. After performing as basically a .500 team on the road over the past two full seasons, it is too early to assume that this record is fully sustainable, but there is certainly evidence of a positive change, and reason for excitement going forward.