Atlanta Hawks, Not Cavs, Are Biggest Contender In Eastern Conference


The Atlanta Hawks and the Cleveland Cavaliers are the class of the Eastern Conference, and if all goes right, they’ll be the teams battling in the Eastern Conference Finals. But who’s the alpha dog of the East right now? 

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Can we please slow our roll a little bit on this whole “Cavaliers are a lock for the NBA Finals” bandwagon that seems to be growing by the minute?

I get it — I have been impressed by the Cavs, who are finally reaching the level of play we all expected them — too. But let’s not get blinded by a strong stretch of play, one in which Cleveland has played a majority of games against teams with records below .500, and lose sight of what we’ve seen all season long.

What about the Atlanta Hawks? It’s not like they’ve relinquished their dominance over everyone in the NBA. They tend to get thrown aside by ESPN and the casual fan because they don’t make ridiculous full court alley-oop passes, or have any stars that appeal to the casual fan (I know how good you are Kyle Korver, don’t worry), but the Hawks can play with, and beat, anyone in the NBA. I truly am glad

Mar 12, 2015; San Antonio, TX, USA; Cleveland Cavaliers forward

LeBron James

(23) celebrates with guard

Kyrie Irving

(2) after hitting a three point shot against the San Antonio Spurs during overtime at AT&T Center. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

that the Cavs have finally figured things out; LeBron playing well, and a stout Cavaliers team is good for the NBA and everyone who watches it. But I still have some doubts. So before we start buying our plane tickets to Cleveland for June, we need to establish where the current iteration of the Cavaliers really falls into the Eastern Conference landscape.

To assess the Eastern Conference landscape, you need to go from the bottom to the top. For starters, let’s remove the Knicks, Sixers, Magic, Pistons, and Nets from the conversation; they are all astonishingly terrible and dysfunctional, and don’t deserve any of our attention. Each of the conferences’ remaining 11 teams falls into three categories:

“They’ll make the playoffs with a record under .500, but are sneakily dangerous” 

This group includes the Celtics, Hornets, Heat, and Pacers. These teams have no business being in the playoffs, and wouldn’t be if they weren’t playing in a historically weak conference. But despite their poor records, they could all be a little dangerous in round 1.

If Paul George comes back and performs for Indiana, or Isaiah Thomas over achieves even further in Boston, or Dwyane Wade goes Benjamin Button on us, and ages 10 years in reverse, the conference’s top teams could be given a scare. I don’t expect any major upsets, but any of these teams is capable of winning a few games early in round 1, and forcing a game 6 or 7.

Mar 6, 2015; Charlotte, NC, USA; Toronto Raptors guard

DeMar DeRozan

(10) shoots the ball over Charlotte Hornets guard

Gerald Henderson

(9) during the first half at Time Warner Cable Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeremy Brevard-USA TODAY Sports

“Middle of the pack teams who overall won’t do major damage”

Here you have the Bucks, Wizards, Raptors, and Bulls. These teams have all had their moments at one point or another this season. But whether it’s due to injuries (Bucks, Bulls), lack of depth (Raptors), or inept coaching (Washington’s Randy Wittman is an underratedly bad coach), each of these teams has fallen off.

There is nothing keeping any of them from winning a series, and maybe giving a contender a scare at some point, but I don’t expect them to do any major damage…that is unless the Greek Freak acquires Thunderstuck-like powers…then everyone in the East is screwed.

(Yes, I did just make up the word “underratedly.” I wanted to make sure were still paying attention)

“The Upper Echelon”

Finally, we have the Hawks and the Cavaliers. These two teams are the class of the Eastern Conference, and if all goes right, they’ll be the teams battling in the Eastern Conference Finals. But who’s the alpha dog of the East right now? Who is the upper crust of the Upper Echelon?

Atlanta Hawks
Atlanta Hawks /

Atlanta Hawks

I fear that the LeBron hubris is once again blinding some of the sharpest NBA analysts out there. Yes, the Cavaliers have looked good; their OT win over the Spurs a couple nights ago showed us that they can hang with one of the league’s best teams. But I still have a few major concerns.

First off, their transition D is atrocious, and unless it magically improves in the next month, it will get torn apart by some of the league’s faster paced offenses (Like whose? Oh yeah, the Hawks’). Their lack of bench depth is also troubling. Past Iman Shumpert, Matthew Dellavedova, and Tristan Thompson, the Cavs don’t have much coming off of the bench. And if Timofey Mozgov gets into foul trouble, the only big man who Cleveland has to play inside is the walking ray of sunshine himself, Kendrick Perkins.

But my chief concern lies with Kevin Love. In a season where his points per game have dropped 10 points, Love has looked lost in Cleveland. Against the Spurs, Love spent the entire 4th quarter on the bench. A defensive liability, Kevin Love cannot be trusted down the stretch, a factor that will hamper the Cavaliers in the playoffs. The Cavs have stepped their game up significantly, but they haven’t reached an elite level yet.

For now, it’s still the Atlanta Hawks.

They are the most complete team in the conference, and until they take their foot off the pedal, they’ll remain at the top. Their team play is second only to the defending champion San Antonio Spurs, and their lineup runs 10-men deep, also akin to last years Spurs team.

They’re being led by the NBA’s coach of the year candidate Mike Budenholzer, who, wow, look at that, was an assistant under Gregg Popovich, with the Spurs. Other than playoff inexperience, I don’t see many gaping holes with this team.

A lot can change over the next month as we head into the playoffs. But at this point, I see the Hawks as the frontrunners in the East, and the frontrunner as the team to represent the conference in June.

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