Before the season started, I wrote that the Atlanta Hawks needed to play very well over their first ten games. Because of a relatively easy slate to start the season (and thus more difficult stretches down the road), a hot or cold early start could define how this season plays out.
So far, after 11 games, the Hawks have easily taken advantage of their early season stretch and have played very well. As of Thursday afternoon, the Atlanta Hawks sit at first place in the Eastern Conference (ahead of the Cleveland Cavaliers because of the head-to-head tiebreaker).
Here, a word of caution is necessary. The Hawks have looked and played like a great team. According to Basketball-reference, they rank second in the league in defensive rating and net rating. These numbers (98.45 and 9.68, respectively) trail only the L.A. Clippers in each category. However, these numbers mean far less over 11 games than they do over the course of an entire season, and Atlanta still has many games remaining. In large part, these elite numbers benefit from playing the Philadelphia 76ers twice and drawing the Miami Heat and the Milwaukee Bucks for the team’s last back-to-back.
The Hawks’ only two losses, to the Lakers and Wizards, also haven’t looked great. Even an improved Lakers team can’t match Atlanta’s talent, and the loss to the Wizards was marked by exceptionally poor offensive play. No team can play to its highest potential every night, but neither loss looks particularly good on the team’s resume right now.
At the same time, though, one would expect a team with playoff ambitions to pad stat lines against easier opponents, and the Hawks have easily passed that bar. In other words, while this team still has a lot to prove, they have performed exactly how they should based on who they’ve played. It’s also interesting to compare the team’s defensive and net ratings when adjusted for strength of opponents. While the Hawks’ numbers dip in these areas — a defensive rating of 99.09 and a net rating of 8.08 — they are still second in the league in each category.
Soon, the team will face much tougher opponents. Although the statistics that adjust for strength of opponent are useful, they don’t tell the full story of how Atlanta will match up with teams like Golden State, or a less-than-ice-cold Cavaliers team. Friday night’s game against the surging Charlotte Hornets, for example, will be a good test of how good the Hawks really are.
Starting a season off with a 9-2 record is great, and is a great start regardless of the quality of opponents. Encouraging as it is, though, it’s good to remember that the road is about to get much rougher.