The Atlanta Hawks are in the midst of their worst stretch in (at least) the past two seasons and, with that, many fans are beginning to fear the worst.
Could the Hawks actually miss the playoffs entirely?
In short, the answer is yes.
Statistical projections are always flawed in some way, but two of the major entities that place a percentage on the likelihood of the Hawks making the playoffs paint a rosy but somewhat unstable picture for Atlanta. ESPN's Basketball Power Index, which replaced John Hollinger's "Playoff Odds", puts forth that the Hawks have a 88.2% chance to reach the Eastern Conference Playoffs as of Feb. 23. In contrast, FiveThirtyEight's team-by-team forecast assigns a 76% probability that Mike Budenholzer's team finishes in the top eight with the same data and Basketball-Reference uses 7,500 simulations to generate a playoff likelihood of 83.8%.
These numbers still look favorably on a team that sits with a 31-27 record and a 2.5-game cushion on the 9th-place team (the Detroit Pistons) in the standings, but considering the recent play of the Hawks on the floor, the concern is reasonable from the fan base. Atlanta has lost five of its last six games, a few of which have come in spectacular fashion, and over that time period, the Hawks are scoring only 99.0 points per 100 possessions to land among the ten worst offenses in the league.
It must be noted (and emphasized) that we are dealing with an incredibly small sample here, but for as much as the focus has been on defense and, in particular, defensive rebounding, this simply isn't an excellent offensive team right now. There were, of course, flashes of brilliance as the Hawks produced a 36-point third quarter against the defending champion Warriors on Monday night, but Budenholzer's repeated references to a lack of consistency have been warranted throughout the year.
A quick look at the standings does not provide any additional "help" for Atlanta in terms of optimism. The two teams currently sitting in the 9th and 10th spots in the East improved, at least in theory, at the deadline as Detroit added Tobias Harris and the Washington Wizards acquired a talented forward in the form of Markieff Morris. That combined with a nice addition for the Hornets (Courtney Lee) leads to a scenario in which that trio of teams "gets right", leaving the Hawks in a spot where they must play improved basketball to stay afloat in the race.
Throughout the season, the prevailing theme in this space has been that the Hawks are as dangerous as anyone in the Eastern Conference with the exception of the Cleveland Cavaliers. At this point, the Toronto Raptors have also separated themselves from the pack, but until more evidence of success manifests with this group in 2016, the Hawks should be nearly as worried about missing the playoffs entirely than they are about landing a top-four seed and homecourt advantage in the first round of the Eastern Conference Playoffs.
A few weeks ago, the notion that a healthy Hawks team could land outside the top eight seemed utterly ludicrous, but the fringe teams improving and Atlanta's current cold streak, it isn't nearly as crazy as you would think. On the bright side, though, the projection systems continue to like the chances of the Hawks and there were signs of real life in the much-publicized game against the Warriors.
Only time will tell, but winning head-to-head matchups against the Bulls and Hornets (both at home) this weekend would do wonders for Atlanta's actual and statistical position in the race.