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The Atlanta Hawks’ First 18 Games Have Been Confusing

After a 9-2 start to the season, followed by a 1-6 stretch, the Atlanta Hawks are defying all attempts at evaluation

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Los Angeles Lakers Kelvin Kuo-USA TODAY Sports

Undoubtedly, the high point of the 2016-17 season for the Atlanta Hawks was the 110-106 victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers on November 8th. After that game, though, the Hawks won four more in a row to establish a six-game win streak and push their record to 9-2. Since that point, Atlanta has lost six of its last seven (falling to 10-8), a much less impressive streak capped off by a 105-100 loss to Golden State on Monday night.

Put together, these two halves of the young season are quite confusing. The “real” version of the Atlanta Hawks lies somewhere in between these two outcomes, since this team is clearly better than 1-6 but not quite as good as 9-2. Finding out where, though, could be a process that takes much longer than the 18 games we’ve seen so far.

First of all, the Hawks’ 9-2 start was slightly misleading since it came against mostly mediocre opponents (something I noted in an initial appraisal). Few expected the team to meet that high standard over the course of a full 82 games, but Atlanta had played well and the statistics backed that assessment up. For example, Atlanta ranked near the top of the league in both defensive rating and net rating, trailing only the L.A. Clippers in each category. Even when adjusting these numbers for strength of schedule, the Hawks remained near the top of the NBA.

However, per NBA Stats, the numbers from November 17 (the day after the Hawks won their sixth straight) onward are decidedly less rosy. The team’s defensive rating takes a hit (falling to 7th at 101.7), but the offensive rating and net ratings are the most concerning. Atlanta’s offensive rating (92.6) ranks dead last in the NBA over the last 12 days, falling immediately behind the Orlando Magic and Dallas Mavericks. Predictably, the net rating (at -9.0) suffers as well and ranks 27th.

One doesn’t need these numbers to know that the Atlanta Hawks have played very poorly over the last several games. Watching contests like the losses to Utah and New Orleans are proof enough of this, showing a team that looked disorganized and completely unable to score for large stretches.

Admittedly, the Hawks have played (in general) much better teams than they did over the first 11 games, but Atlanta should still be able to beat the Lakers and Pelicans, and at least be competitive with teams like Utah. The Golden State game, ironically, was one of the better performances of late.

A full 18 games in, there are reasons to be both optimistic and worried about the Hawks. Atlanta still boasts the best defensive rating in the league (narrowly ahead of the Clippers) for the entire year. On the other hand, though, the starters have posted a net negative rating, recording a -2.3 rating so far for the season.

Ultimately, it seems clear that the “real” version of the Atlanta Hawks lies somewhere between the sizzling hot squad that beat Cleveland and won nine of its first 11, and the struggling team that has lost six of its last seven. The team’s stellar defensive play for the year suggests that Atlanta may be able to recapture at least some of its early-season magic, but other dubious numbers (like the starters’ negative rating) are much more foreboding. The Hawks are still finding their footing in the 2016-17 season, and only more time will show how good this team really is.