Things have become quite dire in Atlanta.
The Hawks have lost seven of their last eight games, with the only win coming against the lowly 76ers, and for the first time this season are on the outside of the playoff bubble looking in. However, according to John Hollinger of ESPN, Atlanta still has a 63.6 percent chance of finishing as the 8th seed in the East.
As it stands, there are three teams in contention for the final playoff spot in the East: New York (33-43), Atlanta (32-42) and Cleveland (31-45).
Though the Hawks currently hold a one-game advantage over the Knicks in the loss column, New York would make the playoffs if the season ended today, with a .434 win percentage compared to .432 for Atlanta.
The Knicks really helped their cause with a commanding 101-81 victory over the playoff-bound Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday night, making them winners of four of their last five games. Meanwhile, the Hawks dropped a game they desperately needed against the Chicago Bulls the same night, 105-92, to push them out of the playoff picture for the time being in favor of New York.
“We want to get there, that’s the goal,” Carmelo Anthony said. “Despite this emotional season, an up-and-down season, I think it would be a big deal for us to get in the playoffs.”
One reason John Hollinger still has Atlanta as the favorite to secure the final playoff spot in the East is because of its favorable upcoming schedule. Atlanta will play five of its final eight games at home to close out the regular season, where it has a 21-15 record, compared to a dismal 11-27 record in road games. Also, the Hawks are more in control of their destiny with eight games remaining compared to only six for New York, all of which will be played against playoff-bound teams from the Eastern Conference.
This brings up the question: assuming the Hawks can make the playoffs, should they?
As part of the aftereffect of the Joe Johnson trade, Atlanta holds the right to swap first round picks with Brooklyn in this year’s draft, which would become moot should it miss the playoffs and fall into the lottery. This certainly wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world, as this draft class is considered to be the strongest since the 2003 draft that included the likes of LeBron James, Carmelo Anthony, Dwayne Wade and Chris Bosh. With players like Gary Harris, Tyler Ennis, Doug McDermott and even Aaron Gordon predicted to be late lottery picks, having a lottery pick of any kind is as enticing a prospect as ever.
The Hawks have already declared that Al Horford will not try and return for the playoffs if they make it to the postseason, so any thoughts of an inspired playoff run with a rejuvenated Al Horford leading the way can be put to rest. With not much left in the tank at this point in the season, many believe it would be best for the Hawks to lay down and allow the Knicks to secure the final playoff spot.
Danny Ferry, GM of the Hawks, issued a statement that has many believing this will be the route the Hawks ultimately choose. “We’re not focused on trying to be the eighth seed in the playoffs because that’s not our goal,” Ferry told USA Today earlier this week. “We’re trying to build something that’s good, sustainable, and the components are in place for us to do so.”
People on the pro-playoffs side of this debate will point to Atlanta’s current streak of six consecutive playoff appearances dating back to the 2007-2008 season. It is the fourth longest active playoff streak in the NBA, and if the Hawks make the playoffs, it would jump to the second longest streak (behind only the Spurs) since the Lakers and Nuggets will miss the playoffs and see their respective streaks come to an end this season. Not only would this place Atlanta in a prestigious position and force experts to acknowledge the franchise as consistently successful, it would also give the team momentum heading into next season.
It also doesn’t hurt that Miami and Indiana are more vulnerable than people may be willing to concede and are in prime position for an early exit from the playoffs. Atlanta has a 1-2 record against each team this season, and will play both teams one final time before the season if over.
Regardless of how you feel the Hawks should treat their final eight games of the season, it may be a moot point. If you have watched the Hawks play lately it might be hard for you to imagine where these wins will come from, even against the bottom-feeders of the Eastern Conference.
If you believe Ferry’s statement to be true and not just a strategic ploy to lull the Knicks into a false sense of security, then Atlanta will not be in the playoffs this season. How the Hawks treat Friday’s game against Cleveland will be all-too telling for how their season will play out, so for now we will wait and see.