Dec 20, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks shooting guard Kyle Korver (26) and small forward DeMarre Carroll (5) and point guard Jeff Teague (0) and center Al Horford (15) walk on the court against the Utah Jazz in the third quarter at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

Atlanta Hawks Have Viable Path to Playoffs, Future Contention

Jan 25, 2014; Milwaukee, WI, USA; Atlanta Hawks forward Mike Scott (32) during the game against the Milwaukee Bucks at BMO Harris Bradley Center. Atlanta won 112-87. Mandatory Credit: Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

Through all kinds of adversity, the Atlanta Hawks keep fighting. And there is reason to believe that this fact will not change anytime soon. Despite countless setbacks, the Hawks have a very realistic chance to continue playing basketball into late April.

These aren’t your fathers or even your older brother’s Atlanta Hawks. The Hawks are in the midst of a major rebuilding and rebranding effort. Gone is being handcuffed to a core whose potential maxes out at a second round exit. Gone is sloppy cap management that leaves the front office with little to no wiggle room to add or change pieces to help the team.

For the last almost 2 seasons, the franchise has sought to shed the goals of mediocrity that lowered the expectations of a fan base just recovering from a handful of putrid seasons in Atlanta. The biggest transformation towards a flexible, multimodal regime was the notable 6 player trade with the Brooklyn Nets. Off the court, Joe Johnson was handed a contract that was one of the largest handed out in NBA history for merely being an above average player bound to decline as he entered his 30s. At a contract that would eventually top out at $25 million in 2015-16, it portended a Hawks team stuck with no path to the top. Along came a trade opportunity that in its wake has left many around the league saying it’s the steal of recent years among NBA trades. In effect, it laid the path for the pressing of a veritable reset button on the franchise.

On the court, it represented a sharp rebuking of isolation heavy offensive sets. What Danny Ferry truly seeks to bring to Atlanta from his stints in Cleveland and San Antonio is a collective team that buys into a system, whether it be offensive, defensive, or a code of conduct on and off the floor. One year before, General Manager Ferry was installed with complete control in the Atlanta front office and this past offseason he brought in a number of former connections to run the coaching staff. As a result, despite average talent and in the first year of a new offensive system, the Hawks are first in assists per game by sharing the ball more than ever.

The building blocks are there. The Hawks have a great player in Al Horford, solid to great contributors in Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver, as well as wild cards with intriguing upsides in the form of Jeff Teague, Dennis Schröder and even Brazilian international player Lucas Nogueira. Pieces need to be added without question, and a max level player may be truly necessary to build around, but as a consistent playoff participant, the Hawks have the right formula.

The Hawks have had a few unexpected hitches in that progression, as three players, Al Horford, John Jenkins, and Gustavo Ayón, have suffered season ending injuries. As it stands, the Hawks find themselves 8th in a weak but improving Eastern Conference. For much of the first half of the season, Hawks fans were licking their lips over the possibility that they could swap their first round pick for the Nets, who were toiling in the lottery area as they tried to work in Jason Terry, Paul Pierce, and Kevin Garnett into a core that decisively aimed for championship contention. While that chance has passed as the Nets have regained form, it’s clear the focus is not on this year’s playoffs but rather what lies ahead.

Should the Hawks qualify for the playoffs, most likely they’ll have the worst record of any playoff team. They are 9 games away from any Western Conference team slated for the playoffs and 2 ½ from the 7 seed Charlotte Bobcats, as of Monday. A probable swift exit to either the Miami Heat or the Indiana Pacers would leave them with the 15th overall pick in a loaded 2014 NBA Draft.

However, if the Knicks or even Cavaliers or Pistons get hot over the last month and pass the Hawks, they would find themselves most likely with the 11th to 14th overall draft pick. There is an incredibly slim likelihood of the Hawks nabbing a top 3 pick in the draft with the 14th worst record, due to the lottery system. The Hawks would have a .7% shot at the 3rd overall pick, .6% for the 2nd overall pick, and .5% for the top pick in the draft. It has been done in recent history, for example, when the Bulls went from a .500 record that was 14th worst in the league to the first pick in the draft that resulted in a homecoming for Derrick Rose. Given the minuscule 18 in 1000 chance of landing a top three pick from that position, however, it is best Hawks fans not dream about landing Andrew Wiggins, Joel Embiid, or Jabari Parker. The lottery gives slightly better rates for the 11th, 12th, and 13th pick in the draft but the same caveats apply.

The Hawks’ remaining schedule has a winning percentage of about 49%, which is 20th hardest in the league and 7th hardest in the Eastern Conference. The Knicks, the main competitor for the 8 seed in the postseason, sits at 3 1/1 games back of Atlanta and has a slightly tougher remaining schedule.

The remaining Hawks schedule is heavy on Eastern Conference teams, with only matches against the New Orleans Pelicans, Minnesota Timberwolves, Phoenix Suns, and Portland Trailblazers remaining and only the Timberwolves match is on the road. Add in the fact that of the Hawks last 18 games, only 6 are on the road and it means the Hawks should be able to ride the home court advantage to a playoff spot. Given this and the 3 ½ game cushion in regards to New York, as well as the sorely needed returns of Paul Millsap, and Pero Antic who have helped lead a 3 game winning streak, I see a 7th straight playoff appearance for the Hawks.

In the end, landing a top 3 pick may not what it is all cracked up to be. Some teams like the Sacramento Kings have routinely been in top lottery position but unable to climb the ladder toward contention. In addition, missing on a top pick in the light of Derrick Williams, Hasheem Thabeet or other example may leave the team with no production and a $5 or $6 million hole in the salary sheet. The fifteenth overall pick, while almost certainly promising less talent and production, is due a salary of about $1.5 million, a lot less risk and more flexibility given for a team that has a propensity to looking overseas for draft help. There are a few intriguing names the Hawks could look at, including Dario Saric who fills a need at small forward and has point guard-like ball handling abilities.

With the new CBA restricting the length of maximum level contracts as well as neutralizing the point of pre-free agency extensions, there will be more and more top players on the market every offseason. The Hawks have the right formula in keeping a clean cap sheet going forward. As it currently stands, the Hawks have almost max level cap space in this offseason and with Paul Millsap’s deal coming off the books in the next offseason, the same could be said about all future offseasons. It may only take one key free agent to vault a team into the top echelon of contenders, as Houston is attempting to show this season. In the meantime, the team will continue to employ heavy scouting and analytics in helping to draft and develop players as either contributors or trade assets. Flexibility. It cannot be overstated. In 2014, it is undoubtedly the name of the game.

As for this season, there is much merit in just qualifying for the playoffs, even as the 8 seed with virtually no shot at advancing farther. Playoff revenue and continued fan support is important. The NBA is a multi-billion dollar business and many teams seek Hawks-like continuity and sustained success. With 18 games left, the Hawks will seek to build upon what has been a long process. There no reason to look back now. There’s no doubt the immediate goal is yet another playoff experience for the city of Atlanta.

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