The Unbeatable Hawks Finally Lost

Was their winning streak an aberration or the beginning of something beautiful?
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Was their winning streak an aberration or the beginning of something beautiful?
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Forget LeBron and the Cavs, Carmelo and the hapless Knicks, or Durant and the injury-riddled Thunder -- for the past two months, the no-name Atlanta Hawks have been the story of the season in the NBA. Buoyed by a 19-game winning streak, the Hawks are seven games ahead of the closest team in the Eastern Conference and are a lock to have home-court advantage for almost the entirety of the playoffs. They just completed the greatest month in NBA history

This is a stark change of affairs for an Atlanta team that has long been a doormat used by other teams on the way to deep rounds of the playoffs. There’s no greater NBA true-ism than the idea that there’s nothing worse than being a middling team that secures no great draft picks and consistently puts up winning records, only to fail in the playoffs. But for the past decade, that’s exactly what the Hawks were. They had the ninth best record in the NBA since 2010, and yet never left the first round. On top of that, they've been supported by a somewhat apathetic fan base and a dysfunctional ownership group (that is in the process of selling the club).

So what’s different about this year? On first look, the roster appears fairly intact from last year. So why are they playing better? Probably because last year’s roster looks almost identical to this year’s.  Continuity is rare in the NBA, with big names jetting off to a new team every 3-4 years and journeymen playing huge roles on teams in search of a larger contract next season. The Hawks feature a genuine young star in guard Jeff Teague, now in his sixth season (and his second under head coach Mike Budenholzer). Teague has been able to play with Al Horford his entire career, a center who has recovered nicely from injuries last year to return to being a perennial all-star. Between those two alone, the Hawks would be a good team, but with the development of Paul Milsap -- a power forward the Hawks picked up on the cheap two years ago and has blossomed into yet another all-star -- the Hawks have a roster that has both experience and continuity going for it. If you want to see how effective that can be, check out the Spurs track record over the past two decades.

On top of that, The Hawks have been able to receive tremendous contributions from young players like the German Dennis Schroder, who they signed to a D-League deal last year only to find him an integral part of their team this year, and Kyle Korver, who has become the greatest three-point shooter in the league. Korver is an interesting case, as he’s long been a journey-man in the league, with good defense and a great shot, but never a vital part of any team. Because the Hawks so relentlessly move the ball, Korver has often been left wide open this year from beyond the arc. More often than not (yes, he’s shooting 52.5% from beyond the arc), he’s been finding the net.

Between Horford, Milsap, and Teague all developing in unison (like girls during the summer between 7th and 8th grade up in here), a coach who learned his craft in the relentless ball-movement and defensive system of the Spurs, and a Eastern Conference in disarray, the Hawks seem not only poised to continue winning at their current clip, but should be taken seriously as contenders for the NBA title. If you told anyone that back in November and they would have thought you were crazy -- crazy like a Hawk.

Photos by Nathaniel S. Butler/NBAE/Getty Images