Can We Envision The Atlanta Hawks In The NBA Finals?

Let’s really, really, really, REALLY think about this for a moment.

This entire season, the Atlanta Hawks have raised eyebrows in a way not seen in the NBA in quite a while. Georgia’s NBA franchise has played some sterling basketball from nearly the first tip-off of the season — the Hawks actually started 0-2, lest we forget — and did so after an offseason in which two division foes made significant roster additions in hopes of taking advantage of the LeBron James-less Miami Heat.

(And yeah, these are the same Hawks who had themselves a Donald Sterling-like controversy. Doesn’t it seem like eons ago?)

For those who constantly criticize Atlanta for being lukewarm to pro sports, the Hawks’ fan base has been reinvigorated since former Turner Broadcasting executive Steve Koonin took over as team’s CEO last spring. Outside of this louder and prouder flock, many of us now should ask ourselves the right question. Are any of us ready to see the Atlanta Hawks in the NBA Finals?

The collective shake of your heads obviously says no, especially after some uneven play over the last three weeks. Yet, that’s based on us still trying to believe in the Hawks. After 74 games, though, we could just be in denial of the evidence in front of us.

They have been properly lauded for playing selfless offense, one that ranks 6th in offensive efficiency. With the exception of a recent blowout at the hands of the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, their defense (8th in efficiency) has been stellar against the top-tier teams. On both sides of the court, they are even better on the road, ranking 5th in both efficiency metrics. The Hawks rank 2nd in assists and lead the league in assist percentage (67.1%). And those are just a handful of the “fancy stats.”

The eye test tells us that Atlanta has the best big man combination in the East, underrated depth, one of the best long-range shooters of all time and the great blend of youth with veteran experience.

This team has a longtime bearer of the “most underrated player in the league” label in Paul Millsap, a free agent to be who very well might stick around if a new owner comes forward before next season begins. A strong rebounder with a diverse, if exactly not smooth, offensive repertoire, Millsap’s greatest asset may be making life easier for the roster’s longest-tenured player, Al Horford, who returned from missing most of last season.

Horford (knock on wood) has been fantastic this season, his first relatively healthy season since 2012-13 when posted career-best numbers in points per game, rebounds and minutes played. This year, on a team with depth and confidence in its perimeter offense, the center has been able to stay fresh as he hasn’t had to work as hard to grab every rebound or score in the post.

In Kyle Korver, Atlanta has a player who is the epitome of the modern NBA game. Combine the shooting form with his length, and for every moment he’s on the floor, he is a feared defensive assignment for the worst teams and a pain in the ass to keep up with for the best. Because of the fluid ball and off-ball movement on this team, Korver can heat up quickly with absolutely no warning, as he did last night against Milwaukee.

Jeff Teague should no longer be an “under-the-radar” floor general, but when you’re not the archetype like Chris Paul, you will most certainly be overlooked. Second on the Hawks in points per game to go along with averaging 7 assists on a team that’s 2nd in the NBA in dimes should put him in higher praise. Yet, that seems to work well in Atlanta as head coach Mike Budenholzer trusts him to pick his spots carefully when it comes to his own scoring. The fact that he can also play well while sharing the floor with the emerging Dennis Schroder tells you plenty about his ability to flow with the team’s style.

Round out the squad with DeMarre Carroll having a terrific second season in Atlanta, solid play from Kent Bazemore, Pero Antic, Shelvin Mack, Thabo Sefolosha and the seemingly ageless Elton Brand, and this is a team that has more than the makings to run with the assembled on-the-fly Cleveland Cavaliers or the tested Chicago Bulls. The Hawks ran away with the top seed in the East for a reason, and not just because the Southeast Division fell a bit short of the preseason hype with Washington’s schizophrenia, Miami without Chris Bosh and the struggles in Charlotte.

Sure, much is said about the fact that this team does not have a bona fide star, though it is proven than those kinds of teams can win and contend for championships if they have something that works against the multiple styles opponents present on a night-to-night basis. After all, remember the Detroit Pistons of the mid-2000s? And though there will be questions about what the Hawks are able to do in a best-of-7 series when teams see one another for at least four games in a row, this isn’t a team in its first playoff rodeo. Atlanta’s eighth straight playoff appearance marks the longest streak in the Eastern Conference and second-longest in the NBA behind San Antonio’s 17.

Now, this would be the time where whomever is reading this will be tempted to discuss the television and marketing implications of having the Hawks in the Finals. Well, as someone who spent six years in media research, having examined and compiled those very numbers for a living, let me just say so very kindly … so f***ing what?

It’s not meant to be completely dismissive; every sports league with a grand and expensive ecosystem — merchandise, equipment, media, in-arena and television advertising and sponsorships, etc. — knows that ratings and viewership play a significant role in its business prospects. Yet ideally, we are a more sophisticated sports viewing public than we were even five years ago as the heavy reliance on market size has been somewhat minimized by the fact that some small market teams are among the league’s most entertaining (Oklahoma City, San Antonio, Portland, CLEVELAND!) while a few larger market teams are aesthetically uninteresting (Brooklyn, Boston and, to some, Chicago without Derrick Rose).

What, they don't have TVs in Marietta?

The fact that some people will still allow that age-old self-fulfilling prophecy to cloud their vision on the potential of a Finals series including the Hawks isn’t surprising. And it hasn’t helped that until this year, Atlanta had always been one of those placeholder teams when it came to the playoffs.

The Atlanta Hawks have the chance to change perceptions in a way that their model the San Antonio Spurs did over the last few years. That they could run with the high-octane offenses of the Western Conference and counterpunch the top contenders in the East says that they could succeed against any style of play in this season’s NBA.

But maybe you still need some time to see if they are for real. Maybe you need to see how the Hawks contend with those sharper elbows in the paint or questionable calls in a tight playoff game. Since there’s a strong chance that they will be playing into June, take all the time you need.

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