The good people of Las Vegas anointed the Atlanta Hawks as the team to beat in Southeast Division (by proxy) in setting the team’s over/under higher than any other squad among the quintet. While that proclamation may seem a touch off the mark to some (myself included), ESPN’s Marc Stein echoes that sentiment in his preseason NBA power rankings.
Stein is a veteran of the power rankings games, taking the responsibility for ESPN for many years, and he pegs Atlanta at No. 12 overall:
We're all on the same quest in the East. We're all on the lookout for a team or two that can legitimately prevent a third successive Cleveland trip to the Finals that again looks like such an inevitability. Nominating the Hawks to do just that means you think Dwight Howard and a promoted Dennis Schroder can give Atlanta more than Al Horford and Jeff Teague did. We're trying to talk ourselves into it.
In addition to having relative positive thoughts about the Hawks, Stein is also quite low on the rest of the division. The Charlotte Hornets come in next at No. 17 overall, with the Wizards (No. 19), Heat (No. 20) and Magic (No. 23) in succession.
As for the Atlanta-centric part of things, it is certainly true that NBA pundits are searching for a team to challenge Cleveland, and the changes made to the Hawks roster could (in theory) create a more favorable match-up if everything goes to according to plan. Still, the regular season product could take a step back and it is hard to disagree with Stein in placing the Celtics and Raptors ahead of Mike Budenholzer’s team.
The Pacers at No. 11, though? That we can debate.