At the risk of using my first sentence for this site to make an incredibly obvious statement, this has been a thoroughly enjoyable Hawks season. The team leads the Warriors by a game and a half for the best record in the NBA, the Raptors by seven for the best record in the East, and the Wizards by nine in the Southeastern Division. Atlanta has shot to the top of the NBA with an attractive style that continues to get plaudits from a national media that has typically ignored the team and is just now adjusting to a world in which the Lakers, Celtics, Knicks, and Heat are all varying degrees of bad. The Hawks can shoot (first in the NBA in three-point percentage; fourth in effective field goal percentage), pass (first in assists), and defend (third in defensive rating).
And best of all, this slick, effective team has come from nowhere. The Hawks were 38-44 last year, sneaking into the playoffs only because of the weak East. There were glimmers of hope, most notably the strong performance against the Pacers in the playoffs. Also, Al Horford missed the season, so the team had an excuse to finish below.500. It was reasonable to expect the Hawks to improve on finishing eighth in the East; it was not reasonable to expect them to have the best record in the NBA as the calendar turns to February.
This experience of watching an Atlanta team suddenly come together and experience great, unexpected success has a precedent: the '91 Braves. That team came from an even deeper, darker hole, as the Braves had finished fifth or six in the NL West every year from 1985 to 1990. The team was 188 games under .500 during that six-year stretch. We can complain all we want about the Joe Johnson-Josh Smith teams making a deep playoff run, but they were orders of magnitude better than the Rafael Ramirez-Rick Mahler Braves.
When the Braves suddenly got good in 1991 and vied with the Dodgers all summer, Atlanta got behind the team and Fulton-County Stadium was suddenly packed with chopping fans. Similarly, Philips Arena - a facility that for years was half-empty unless the Hawks were playing a marquee opponent that brought a big fan base - is now full of happy, loud fans who are, gasp, cheering for the home team. Fans of the '91 Braves and the '14-'15 Hawks both get to experience the new sensation of not having whole rows to themselves at home games.
Unfortunately, the parallel between these Hawks and the '91 Braves also brings with it the cloud that still hangs over Atlanta sports fans: the feeling of crushing disappointment in the playoffs. The '91 Braves beat the Pirates in the NLCS, took a 3-2 lead in the World Series, and then lost a pair of gut-wrenching games in the Metrodome. Mention the name "Charlie Leibrandt" to a Braves fan and you'll immediately hear about the homer he allowed to Kirby Puckett in Game Six. Mention the name "Lonnie Smith" and you'll hear about Smith inexplicably stopping at second base when he should have scored the first run of Game Seven.
At the time, the Braves' narrow loss in the '91 World Series couldn't wipe the collective smile off of Atlanta sports fans because the season had been such a pleasant surprise. The team got a parade despite finishing second. However, it was the start of a 14-year stretch in the which the Braves were consistently dominant in the regular season and then lost to demonstrably inferior opponents in the playoffs. The team did give Atlanta a championship, but they also found ways to lose to teams that they dominated in the regular season. For instance, the Florida Marlins won two World Series titles during the Braves' run. Those titles came in 1997, when they finished nine games behind the Braves in the NL East, and then 2003, when they finished ten games back. The Braves were knocked out of the playoffs 13 times in 14 years and only twice did their vanquisher have a better regular season record.*
* - And if you want a mini-me version of the Braves, the Mike Smith Falcons made the playoffs on four occasions and lost to a team with an inferior regular season record each time.
This constant refrain of playoff disappointment, of the Braves being labeled as "chokers" because they would be great for 162 games and then come up short in a five- or seven-game series, affected the fan base. Braves fans stopped coming to playoff games en masse, knowing that the end result was likely to be the visiting team celebrating at Turner Field. And for me, the Braves' sad Octobers caused me to focus my emotional energies on college football and European soccer, two sports that do not feature an irrational system where the large regular season sample size is ignored in favor of the small postseason sample size. Sports that do not permit the 9-7 New York Giants or the 83-78 St. Louis Cardinals to proclaim themselves to be World Champions make more sense to a sports psyche damaged by the Braves' playoff miseries.
And so, it's my suggestion that we all just enjoy the Hawks' fantastic regular season for what it is: a dominant team outplaying the rest of the league over an extended period of time. Enjoy watching the Hawks turn good coaching, a cohesive system, and unselfish play into wins, all the while serving as a counterpoint to years of NBA seasons being dominated by the teams with the best individual players. Enjoy watching ESPN try to wrap their heads around marketing a team that cannot be reduced to one or two recognizable faces. Enjoy an electric home arena after years of Ryan Cameron pleading for noise and only getting it when Harry the Hawk was shooting t-shirts into the crowd.
You can drive yourself crazy thinking of ways that this can go to hell in May. When the Hawks struggled with the Pistons twice during the unbeaten January, I confronted the idea of Atlanta winning 60+ games and then losing in the first round because of the match-up problems presented by Andre Drummond and Greg Monroe as a more recent version of Kerry Wood and Mark Prior. When the Cavaliers got hot, I imagined the Hawks again coming up short of the Eastern Conference Finals with Lebron James killing the Braves like Barry Bonds. And the bit players on these teams all lurk as echoes of Ed Sprague, Jim Leyritz, and Brad Ausmus.
Don't let these thoughts control the way you view the Hawks. This Atlanta team is the best Hawks team of our lifetimes. It's the best Atlanta pro sports team since the Braves dynasty. By the time the Braves got good again in 2010, I had stopped letting October dominate my thoughts. Just enjoy the regular season and then take everything in October as gravy if the Braves win and evidence of the media's recency bias if they lose. There's no rational reason to think that the Hawks will disappoint in the playoffs like the Braves did, but the local baseball collective's experience ought to make us appreciate the local basketball collective's regular season accomplishments even more.