Few people expected the Atlanta Hawks to do much of anything this year. People expected a drop-off, a descent into something less successful than their very solid last few seasons.
Instead, they’ve held steady, amassing 41 wins with eight games still remaining, ensuring that they will finish with a winning percentage of .500 or better for the fifth straight season.
Last Wednesday, the Hawks accomplished another milestone, clinching their sixth consecutive playoff berth with a win against the Toronto Raptors at the Air Canada Centre. It’s the fifth-best active streak in the NBA.
“A lot of people said we weren’t going to make the playoffs and didn’t give us a chance at all,” Hawks forward Josh Smith said afterwards. “Here we are, for the sixth-consecutive time, making a playoff appearance. It definitely is a surreal moment because of the fact that a lot of players don’t get the opportunity to even reach the postseason.”
A mainstay in the Eastern Conference playoffs but not quite a contender, the Hawks remade themselves last summer. New general manager Danny Ferry traded Joe Johnson, an all-star for the past six seasons, to the Brooklyn Nets. In return came DeShawn Stevenson, Johan Petro, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Farmar, Jordan Williams, a 2013 first-round pick and a 2017 second-round pick.
It made sense financially, ridding Atlanta of the almost $90 million owed to Johnson over the next four years. From a talent perspective, though, it appeared to be a step back.
As a result of the deal, the Hawks reinvented themselves without their No. 1 option, something that head coach Larry Drew worked tirelessly with his players to accomplish.
This proved particularly challenging given that there were only five holdovers from last year's squad on Atlanta's opening day roster.
"We had to move in a whole other different type of offensive mindset in losing Joe (Johnson)… it was tough," Drew said. "All I asked the guys to do was to be patient with me because this was all new to me and I'm sure it was all new to them."
Instead of relying heavily on one scorer to anchor the offence -- last season, Johnson scored 18.8 points per game on 15.5 shots with a usage rate of 24.9 -- Drew placed an emphasis on sharing the basketball and playing unselfishly. His team bought in wholeheartedly.
The Hawks are second in the league in assists per game at 24.6, a 2.4 jump from last season.
"We are very unselfish, we play with a ton of confidence and we believe in each other," Smith said. "As long as we have a unified locker room where we come together and we aren't playing as individuals, normally it equals success."
Despite the team's newfound selflessness they still needed a go-to scorer that they could rely on to take and make baskets when they needed them most. Enter Al Horford.
"I felt that it has been part of my game (that is) evolving and I felt that I needed to be more aggressive in order for us to be better as a team," Horford said. "I pride myself on taking high-percentage shots and shots that I have been practicing and that I make. I have been trying to be more aggressive offensively."
Horford, an all-star in 2010 and 2011, still remains arguably the Hawks' best defensive player but has become more well-rounded by adding the extra offensive aggressiveness to his repertoire.
The 6'10" centre has stepped up his scoring from 14.1 points per game last season to a career-high 17.4 this year. He is also rebounding at the best rate of his career, pulling down 10.2 per game.
"He has certainly stepped up and I think he realizes and understands where he is in his career," Drew said. "He is a guy who can impact both ends of the floor. His presence out there, particularly on the defensive end, when he is playing at a high level makes everybody else so much better."
The Hawks have clinched a playoff spot, but their work is not yet finished. They continue to jockey for playoff position and are currently tied with the Chicago Bulls for the fifth seed.
Atlanta also still has an opportunity to snatch up home court advantage, needing to make up just a game and a half on the fourth-place Brooklyn Nets.
The final stretch will present yet another challenge for Atlanta. But, if the Hawks have proven anything this season, it's that you shouldn't count them out.