Most NBA schedules, especially within each conference, are relatively similar. Throughout the course of a full season, teams tend to play more or less the same level of opponents. Although schedules may be (mostly) balanced over time though, individual weeks within them are often much easier or harder than the rest of the season.
The Hawks have one such stretch to open the 2016-17 campaign. While their first ten games include matchups with Washington and Cleveland, the bulk of these early games are against much easier teams like Philadelphia, the Lakers, and Sacramento.
Since Atlanta has a relatively soft opening portion of the schedule, how the team plays out these games could seriously affect the rest of the season goes. Establishing early momentum is important, and the Hawks’ play in October and November could determine more than just an initial win/loss record.
First of all, there is a definite possibility that the Hawks decide to blow the team up during the season in order to start a rebuild. Obviously, one would expect this to happen at the trade deadline, where a middling or even losing record would raise serious questions about the Hawks’ ability to compete in the playoffs.
However, it’s possible that the team could rebuild even earlier. If it is abundantly clear that Atlanta is unable to field a competent basketball team — whether from Howard’s inability to fit in, Millsap’s age or injury, Schröder’s inexperience, or a mix of all three — it’s difficult to see the team’s leadership resigning themselves to a subpar season. Atlanta has a mountain of expiring contracts, and could easily use that flexibility to change course early on if the team struggles.
It would still take a lot for the team to bail on a season early on. While an Atlanta rebuild could happen before the trade deadline, this almost certainly would not be in November or December. However, since Atlanta plays several tough stretches of teams after their easy start, a poor showing in the first 10 games could be crippling. Such a poor start, coupled with an even worse showing against high-level opponents later on, could be the death blow for the team’s current roster.
At the same time, these early games are also important just for this season. A rebuild, however possible, would be a drastic change of direction, and this team clearly has its sights set on April and May. Atlanta will need to play consistently to get there, and racking up wins early wins makes a playoff push more likely.
These games can also be seen as a safety net. It will be far easier for the Hawks to work out any chemistry issues from roster turnover against opponents like the Lakers or Philadelphia than if the opening slate were significantly tougher.
In any case, the Hawks have a great opportunity to start the season with a winning streak. A failure to do that could be costly.