After the Al Horford injury, there was much speculation on what the Atlanta Hawks should do with this season. Nine game without Al and these questions still persist. The solution the front office appears to have come up with is to stay the course, but many of the team’s followers wonder if that decision is sound. The luxury of a top pick is tempting, and many see the postseason lost without Al Horford.
While some seasons this is sound logic, the 2014 Eastern Conference is a very different beast. With only four teams over .500, and every non-playoff team bolstering a record below the .400 mark, it’s going to be more competitive to land in the bottom seven than the top eight. Even without Horford, Atlanta has a projected 3.2% chance to miss the playoffs by ESPN’s Hollinger’s Playoff Odds. That’s only to miss the playoffs; even if that was actually achieved, there is a strong chance the pick would still be in the double-digits with Western teams struggling such as the Lakers, Kings, and Jazz.
That’s not the only way to chop up the extremely low odds for Atlanta either. The team has 14 games left against the more difficult Western conference, while having 30 games against the East. At the current projections, the Hawks would only need to finish with thirty-three wins — assuming that Detroit, Boston, or Charlotte wouldn’t be specifically be influenced by Atlanta underachieving — to get the eighth seed. Five games are against Indiana and Miami, but they also still have three games against Milwaukee, another western game against the Jazz, two more against Philadelphia, and one more against Orlando. The chances that this team could find a way to only win 12 of their last 44 games — and lose the tiebreaker against Detroit — are low, and that is just to get a draft pick around 10.
Meanwhile, the Hawks can swap picks with Brooklyn. However, if they perform this swap they will send their own pick to the Boston Celtics. There are zero scenarios — excluding the oft chance they trade a player — that the Hawks would end of with two first-round picks. So why not play the better odds that the Nets miss the playoffs? As of today, there is a 46% chance Brooklyn misses the playoffs. Far from a sure deal, especially with how talented the team is, but unlike Atlanta, they aren’t too far past .500 for it to be such an extreme scenario that they miss the playoffs.
With Brook Lopez out for the year and Deron Williams in-and-out of the injury report on what almost feels like a nightly basis, there is not a lot of room for error. Plus, the health of the other players is of utmost importance. With Garnett, Johnson, Pierce, Kirilenko, Terry, and Anderson — weird he’s even on a list such as this — all on the wrong side of 30 and being heavily used, it’s hard to believe they will stay healthy the entire year. It’s possible, because they had such a bad string of injuries early, but I’d put those odds higher than the Hawks 3.2% chance to miss the playoffs. There are plenty of variables that could set the train off the tracks, but I think Danny Ferry is safe playing the odds and hoping Brooklyn folds. The differences seems to come down to having a very low chance to win the lottery, owning the 10th pick, the 15th pick, or the 20th pick. It’s hard to imagine any scenario where Atlanta slides past 9th in the East, so their best chances to win the lottery come in at 1.1%. Is breaking down everything the team has built up worth it for a 1.1% chance to win the lottery while having the ability to flip picks to a team that has a higher chance to be in that exact scenario? Is forgoing any playoff revenue worth that type of risk? It’s hard to believe so, even with the added control the team has over their own fate.
The last huge reason why the Hawks shouldn’t tank is the fact that as long as they escape the seventh or eighth seed, there is no reason they can’t be a second round team in the playoffs. It’s hard to truly believe that Atlanta has a chance of stopping the seemingly inevitable Heat-Pacers Eastern Conference Finals, but if the Hawks can stay afloat to coast to even the sixth seed there isn’t an undeniable force stopping a second round playoff appearance. It’s not as if the Raptors or Derrick Ross-less Bulls are strong enough favorites that a trip to the second round is out of the question.
Losing unarguably the team’s best player puts every team in the NBA in a position that is hard to find many silver linings. But with the pick swap and the weak conference, this is about as good as it will get for exactly that. With another team being able to potentially play out the tanking scenario, and Atlanta being able to keep the course, there is no need to panic in the ATL.