One More Surprise Team

In last week’s five-part series about the surprise teams of the NBA, I failed to mention the Atlanta Hawks. I originally left them out because they were a young playoff team from last season, so the fact that they improved isn’t too surprising. With that being said, they were a marginal postseason team that lost one of its key players in Josh Childress in the offseason. Their 20-10 record through Monday puts them fourth in the Eastern Conference and they may challenge the Magic for the Southeast Division title this year.

The Hawks rank sixth in the league in offensive efficiency at 107.4, but their defense is also at least mediocre, ranking 14th. The biggest reason for their offensive success is the number of high-percentage shooters they feature. All of their starters except Josh Smith have posted strong true shooting percentages thus far. On defense, their effective field goal percentage allowed ranks seventh in the league. Combine the two and you see that Atlanta generally wins the field goal percentage battle, the most important factor in winning games. They also do a good job of not sending the opponent to the charity stripe, allowing just 19.8 free throw attempts per 100 field goal attempts.

Nobody on Atlanta has a PER above 20, which speaks to the number of good but not great players they possess. Joe Johnson is the current leader at 19.9 with Mike Bibby not far behind at 19.4. The rest of their starters also rate above the league average and reserve Solomon Jones is close as well. None of their players have wildly exceeded expectations thus far, so this success definitely seems sustainable. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to expect Smith to get better as the season progresses. He’s having one of his worst seasons statistically in a few years and if he regains his old form the Hawks will feature a very strong starting lineup, one of the best in the NBA.

So will the Hawks win the Southeast Division and make some noise in the playoffs? I’m going to say close but no cigar on both counts. However, that’s more of a consequence of the strength of the top of the Eastern Conference than the weakness of the Hawks. Although their expected win percentage is lower than their actual win percentage thus far, they should only get better as the year goes on, especially if Smith improves. The problem is that Boston, Cleveland, and Orlando are just too good. However, if the Hawks keep their core, they could be a perennial contender in the near future.

Information from the stats page was used in this report.

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Atlanta at Indiana: Hawks
New York at Charlotte: Knicks
Cleveland at Miami: Cavaliers
Washington at New Orleans: Hornets
Phoenix at Memphis: Suns
Minnesota at Dallas: Mavericks
Milwaukee at San Antonio: Spurs
Boston at Portland: Celtics
L.A. Clippers at Sacramento: Kings

Prediction Record: 268-122

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