NBA Handicapping: Atlanta Hawks as Serious Championship Contenders
by Robert Ferringo - 2/16/2015
Heading into the All-Star break the Atlanta Hawks were grudgingly the biggest story and the best team in the NBA. At 43-11 they posted the second-best pre-All-Star game record in league history. That outstanding start included a 19-game winning streak and an undefeated (17-0) month of January, which resulted in the team's starting five being named, collectively, as the league's "player of the month" for their record-setting start to 2015.
But despite their unquestioned dominance, the consensus seems to be that the Hawks are not realistic title contenders. That isn't just the word on the street from fans and media bobbleheads. Even the oddsmakers are relatively unimpressed with Atlanta's record-setting surge as the Hawks aren't even the current favorites to come out of the East.
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Sportsbook.ag currently has the Hawks at +250 to win the Eastern Conference . Atlanta currently has a 6.5-game lead over Toronto for the No. 1 seed and home-court advantage throughout the playoffs. Despite that their number offers twice the payout as Cleveland, who is currently the No. 5 seed in the East and 10.5 games off Atlanta's pace.
Chicago has the third-best odds at +360. No other Eastern Conference team is available at better than +1200.
Atlanta is currently +800 to win the NBA Championship. They have the third-best odds to win the title behind, again, Cleveland (+400) and the West's leading team, Golden State (+450). Atlanta's championship odds are barely distinguishable from San Antonio's (+850) and Chicago's (+850).
You can bet on the Hawks to NOT win the Eastern Conference championship at -320 odds, and they are -1250 as a wager against Atlanta to win the NBA Championship.
The Hawks' 43 wins and .797 winning percentage put them on pace to win 65 regular season games. Only 16 teams in NBA history have reached that plateau, and 13 of those went on to win the championship.
The team with the best regular-season record to not win a title was the 1973 Boston Celtics at 68-14. Recently the 2007 Dallas Mavericks (67-15) and the 2009 Cleveland Cavaliers (66-16) also failed to win a title despite winning at least 80 percent of their regular-season games.
That seems to be the key number: 65 wins. While 81.2 percent of teams to reach 65 wins won the title, the odds drop off considerably for teams that came up just short of that mark.
There have been 27 teams in league history to win between 60-64 regular-season games. Only eight of them ended the season as champions. That includes recent examples like the 2011 Bulls (62 wins), 2009 Celtics (62) and the 2006 Pistons (64 wins), none of whom earned the crown.
Atlanta starts the second portion of the schedule with 43 wins and 28 games remaining. They would need to continue at their current pace to make it to 65 wins.
Having seen the Hawks in person this year I can attest to the fact that they are brilliant to watch. Their unselfishness and ruthless efficiency is devastating to opponents. They are in the Top 5 in the NBA in field goal offense and defense. They are No. 6 in scoring (103.4 points per game) and No. 4 defensively (96.8), and Atlanta is the best 3-point shooting team in the league, making 38.9 percent from deep.
Most importantly, the Hawks have been by far the best bet in the NBA this season. They are 37-17 against the spread this season. The next best team is Milwaukee at 34-19 ATS.
So the question remains: is the value betting on or against the Hawks in the second half of the season?
I don't recommend leaping off the Hawks bandwagon. But I do think that, regardless of their actual results, this team will become a weaker and weaker bet as the season progresses. They open the second half of the year with five of their next seven games at home. That includes big games against Toronto on Feb. 20 in their first game back and an interesting game with Houston on March 3.
Atlanta also has a key West Coast road swing through the heart of March. They play six games in 10 days between March 11 and March 20. That includes a Wednesday-Friday set at Golden State and at Oklahoma City to wrap up the trip, followed by a date with defending champion San Antonio that Sunday when they get home.
Besides the schedule there are other ancillary developments that will directly impact Atlanta's odds after the break. The first is the trade deadline on Thursday, Feb. 19. Any move by one of the major contenders in the East will have a major impact on the odds. The second is Atlanta's status in the race for the No. 1 seed. If the Hawks clinch home court early in April it will be interesting to see how much they rest their starters to keep them fresh for the postseason.
Depth and versatility has been crucial to Atlanta's success. But I don't think that they will get to 65 regular season wins, and they simply don't have the top-end talent required to win the NBA title. I do think that Atlanta will win its first postseason series since 2011. But they haven't even reached the conference finals since 1970. I think it is a huge leap to go from no postseason success to winning a championship seemingly overnight.
The secret is obviously out on this Hawks squad. And while I still think that they are being slightly undervalued in the NBA marketplace, I also have to say that I fall in with the majority on what I think of their long-term (in regards to this season) prospects. So I hope you've enjoyed cashing in on Atlanta's amazing run to this point. Because as the stakes, expectations and intensity rise down the stretch I fear that the Hawks are going to come crashing back to earth.
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