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Checking in on the projected 2018 Atlanta Hawks first round NBA Draft slots

At the quarter point of the season, how are the likely draft slots lining up?

NBA: Minnesota Timberwolves at Houston Rockets Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Note: projection data valid through Thursday, November 30 prior to scheduled NBA games.

The Atlanta Hawks are likely to have three picks in the first round of the 2018 NBA draft. They own their own draft pick and two protected picks from the Minnesota Timberwolves and the Houston Rockets. The Timberwolves pick is lottery protected (1-14) for this season and two more seasons should Minnesota not make the playoffs this season. The Rockets pick is simply protected 1-3 and given that they have the second best record in the league thus far as well as the second best net rating, it would be challenging to try to guess what the statistical likelihood of them ending up with a top three draft pick is. It is far below a 1 percent probability and I think we can just leave it at that.

We will use projections from 538, ESPN’s Basketball Power Index and numberFire for this exercise. You will notice that the numberFire projections are extremely conservative as compared to the other two models (it has all teams currently projected to win no more than 55.5 games an no less than 29.8 games) but it’s still useful to see the order of team’s by projected wins.

Atlanta’s Own Pick

Projected wins and league standing:

538: 22 wins / 27th in standings

ESPN BPI: 24 wins / 26th in standings

numberFire: 33.7 wins / 25th in standings

The projection models suggest that the Hawks will have no less than the sixth most number of ping pong balls in play in the draft lottery which means the worst pick they would end up would the 9th overall pick. Atlanta has had a tough road to this point in the season with a multitude of injuries including yesterday’s revelation that they will be playing without Dewayne Dedmon for at least three weeks. They have also had the 9th toughest schedule according to ESPN’s statistical model.

No reasonable person roots for injuries. But for those hoping to see the Hawks line up for the highest draft pick possible this season probably could not have started much better that it has from their point of view.

There have been no serious injuries but the Hawks have had enough adversity to start the season that even if they are able to achieve some steady improvement across the rest of the season they are sufficiently upside down in the standings to this point already that they are unlikely to crawl out of the bottom five or so in the league. And if the steady improvement is a result of the young core group of players achieving positive development within their individual and collective play and/or one or more of the players with an undesirable contract enhancing his marketability, that would not be a terrible outcome for the season.

What to watch: Head-to-head match ups with the Bulls, Suns, Kings, Mavericks and Nets. The Grizzlies and Clippers could potentially slide into the periphery of this group as well depending upon when key players return from injuries and how effectively they are able to play upon their return. The current respective net ratings of the Magic and Lakers suggest they are likely to stay ahead of this pack but they are sufficiently flawed teams such that it would not be crazy to keep an eye on them as well.

Minnesota’s Pick

Projected wins and league standing:

538: 48 wins / 8th in standings

ESPN BPI: 44 wins / 12th in standings

numberFire: 44.7 wins / 7th in standings

The Timberwolves have had just the 19th toughest schedule to date and are just 4 games above .500. They continue to be the worst 4th quarter team in the league, which is holding them back performance wise in terms of their record and their overall net rating. They have the fifth worst net rating in clutch situations but somehow have managed to with six of the ten games in which the clutch criteria has been met.

They also continue to struggle defensively and that will be the aspect of their play that is most likely to affect how they perform across the season.

What to watch for: Do they continue to struggle in the fourth quarter and in the clutch? Are their key players able to avoid significant injury. Likely the most interesting thing to keep an eye on is the trade market. They are approximately $14 million under the luxury tax and are carrying just 14 players on their roster right now (13 with fully guaranteed contracts).

Also, even the most ardent tank supporters might want to root for the Hawks to win their games against Minnesota this season. They will match up on January 29 and March 28. Hawks fans should also probably be rooting for Western Conference teams that have been on the periphery of or out of playoff contention the last several seasons. These teams include the Portland, Denver, Utah, New Orleans.

Houston’s Pick

538: 61 wins / 2nd in standings

ESPN BPI: 61 wins / 2nd in standings

numberFire: 52.5 wins / 2nd in standings

The Rockets seem to be widely accepted as the second best team in the league. They also seem to be the only team remotely capable of keeping pace with the Warriors offensively despite the fact that Chris Paul missed extensive time with an injury. They have also been solidly a top ten defense this season.

If the MVP award were to be decided today, it would probably go to James Harden. They have played the 11th easiest schedule to this point so far. They are an impressive 9-1 on the road but only three of the nine teams they have visited would be in the playoffs if the season ended today.

What to watch: Can Harden sustain this level of offensive production? He has never shot close to 40% from three point range in his career since his age 22 season in which he started just two games and his attempts were less than half of what they are this season on a per 36 minute basis.

Can a team or two in the Eastern Conference break away from the rest of the pack and challenge for the second best record in the league? Can the Rockets stay in range of the Warriors in the standings such that they play hard to the end of the regular season in hopes of landing the top seed in the Western Conference playoffs? If not, can another team get and stay within range of Houston such that they have to worry about avoiding a tougher first round match up as potentially the third or fourth seed?

Harden has run out of gas in more than one NBA post-season and coach Mike D’Antoni has openly discussed the need to regulate Harden’s workload in the regular season. How might that impact how much they prioritize regular season games and playoff seeding?

Once the NBA season gets past the trade deadline (February 8) it would be useful to keep an eye on the buy-out market as veteran players on non-competitive teams look to find a spot on a roster that gives them a shot to compete for a championship. Will the Rockets be able to add a difference-maker?

Also, dare I suggest that Hawks fans root for the Celtics and Cavaliers to have wildly successful regular seasons and threaten to finish ahead of the Rockets in overall wins?

There is a lot to track as to try to maintain a perspective of the reasonable projections for the Hawks likely three picks for next summer’s NBA draft. Stay tuned.