It wasn’t on full display on October 27, but the Atlanta Hawks and Washington Wizards are quietly developing a strong rivalry that could have serious playoff implications this spring.
NBA rivalries (for the most part) aren’t as solid as those in college football, or even the NFL to a degree. While college teams hate each other no matter how good each of them are, rivalries in the NBA depend much more on the skill levels of each team.
For example, most people would say that the greatest rivalry in the NBA right now is the Cavaliers/Warriors. This isn’t to discount other historically great rivalries, or to claim that they don’t exist. Some teams in this league will always dislike each other more than others, and that may never change. But right now, the tension between Golden State and Cleveland dominates the basketball landscape.
While it may not approach the level of title-driven fury between those two teams, Atlanta and Washington are building their own rivalry, one that depends on both recent history and the skill level of each team.
Consider the 2015 playoffs. Atlanta won a 4-2 series against an injured Washington team, grinding out several tough wins after losing the first game. Washington star John Wall sat out most of the series, leaving an aging Paul Pierce to make several critical shots.
Given how well each team played in 2014-15, the 2015-16 season should have seen these two teams battling for a playoff spot in the East. Instead, Washington stumbled to a 41-41 record and missed the playoffs while Atlanta finished fourth in the East. These two teams were clearly in different tiers for most of the season, taking away most of the potential for rivalries or important games.
However, despite Washington’s struggles, they took a key game from Atlanta at the end of the year. The Hawks, battling for the third seed in the East, fell to a team of Washington reserves on the final day of the season.
As has been well-documented, that loss dropped the Hawks to the fourth seed (and into Cleveland’s half of the bracket). The Wizards, despite a disappointing season, could at least take some solace in knowing that they knocked their division rivals down a playoff spot.
Now, just after the start of the 2016-17 season, both Washington and Atlanta have strikingly similar projections for the year. Both teams could easily make the playoffs (and probably should), but either team could also conceivably fall out of the postseason picture as well. There are anywhere from six to eight teams vying for five playoff spots after Cleveland, Boston, and Toronto, and Atlanta and Washington both fall into that mix.
Atlanta doesn’t finish its season in Washington again this year. The last regular-season matchup between these two teams comes in late March. Throughout this year, though, these two teams will play each other several times, and could make or break each other’s playoff hopes. Each matchup will become more important as the season progresses, and these two teams should continue to establish a rivalry that they’ve been building for years.