There is full-fledged optimism surrounding the Atlanta Hawks as the 2019-20 season approaches and it is easy to see the rationale for it. Travis Schlenk has constructed an intriguing corps, headlined by Trae Young and John Collins, and the future is obscenely bright for a group that also includes Kevin Huerter, De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. For the 2019-20 season only, though, expectations are tempered, with most outlets projecting the Hawks for a win total in the low-to-mid 30’s at this (very) early juncture.
However, the good folks at the Westgate SuperBook in Las Vegas released some intriguing betting odds in late July and one particular number seemed to jump out to many Hawks supporters. Westgate’s over/under (33.5 wins) and playoff odds (+375) were in line with many projections but, when it came to the Southeast Division, an interesting discussion arose.
It isn’t a surprise that the Hawks are seen as the No. 3 team in the division, trailing the Miami Heat and Orlando Magic (in that order) with 8-to-1 odds to claim the crown. However, it isn’t that difficult to see an argument against Miami and Orlando as sure-fire playoff teams and that cracks open the door for a potential Hawks run.
Atlanta has only one outright division title since the NBA realigned its divisions, as the Hawks won the 2014-15 crown by 14 (!) games and hung a banner as a result. Al Horford, Paul Millsap and company did land in a three-way tie for the division title in 2015-16 (memorably losing Game 82 to a short-handed Wizards team) but, for all intents and purposes, there hasn’t been that much modern success for the Hawks through the prism of the division.
It has to be noted that, well, divisions don’t actually matter that much in the grand scheme, but Atlanta will battle with Orlando, Miami, Charlotte and Washington four times each during the season. Beyond that, NBA teams (including the Hawks) are still hanging banners for division titles and you can still wager on the outcomes of these races.
In getting back to the basketball side, the argument on behalf of the Hawks as a “value” play at 8-to-1 is easy in that Atlanta has big-time young talent. Once Collins returned from injury last season, the Hawks easily out-paced their overall performance of 29 wins and, when Collins shared the floor with Young, Atlanta was outscored by only 2.3 points per 100 possessions. That isn’t the profile of a typical playoff team but, with projected internal growth from Collins, Young and Huerter, it isn’t far-fetched to see tangible improvement.
On the more skeptical side, the Hawks did lose real production from Dewayne Dedmon (effectively replacing him with an unproven Damian Jones and a rookie in Bruno Fernando) and, for all his faults, Taurean Prince provided a near-elite shooting option on the perimeter. Atlanta did add intriguing pieces through the draft but rookies are often an adventure and the Hawks’ other additions (Jabari Parker, Evan Turner, etc.) aren’t necessarily going to act as game-changers in the win column.
Hawks optimists might project the team to land in the 40-win range and, honestly, that is perfectly reasonable if the expected growth of Young, Collins and Huerter takes shape. If that outcome does transpire, there would be a bit of pressure on the Heat and Magic to hold off the Hawks in a division race.
Miami did add Jimmy Butler in the off-season and that is the biggest reason why the Heat are seen as betting favorites (4-to-5) to win the Southeast. Butler joins Bradley Beal (and perhaps Atlanta’s duo of Young and Collins) as the best players in the division today and, with Erik Spoelstra at the helm, the Heat seemingly have a pretty high floor. In contrast, though, Butler hasn’t reached the 70-game mark in five of the last six seasons and, without him, Miami’s roster isn’t overflowing with talent.
The Heat do have nice pieces in Bam Adebayo, Goran Dragic and Justise Winslow, but Miami had to give up Josh Richardson to acquire Butler and the upgrade there is smaller than many would like to believe. Miami won only 39 games last season and, if Butler isn’t outstanding, there is every reason to believe they might finish in the same range in 2019-20. In fact, Westgate’s over/under projection is 43.5, even with Butler on board.
As for Orlando, the Magic surprised many (including myself) in racking up 42 wins last season and, on paper, the team should be slightly better in 2019-20 with the addition of Al-Farouq Aminu and expected growth from Jonathan Isaac and Mo Bamba. On the flip side, Nikola Vucevic is coming off a career-best season and the Magic aren’t exactly loaded on the perimeter, with DJ Augustin, Markelle Fultz (maybe?) and Michael Carter-Williams projected for substantial roles.
Are the Magic capable of repeating their 42-win showing (Westgate projects 41.5) or even improving on it? Perhaps, but Orlando has a bit of a smoke and mirrors feel and, for me, it wouldn’t be remotely shocking to see the Hawks finish with a better record than the Magic.
Out of obligation, it has to be noted that the Wizards and Hornets exist. Washington has a tremendous player in Beal but, aside from that, things are (very) bleak in a world without a healthy John Wall. Charlotte lost Kemba Walker and, while the team does have some quality role players, it is almost unfathomable to see the Hornets approaching 40 wins.
Realistically, the Hawks would need to win at least 37-38 games to have a real chance to win the Southeast Division and, in other groupings, that wouldn’t be close to enough. Atlanta does have the firepower to realistically outlast Miami and Orlando if things break right, though, and there is probably more value (at 8-to-1) on this particular wager than a lot of available options on the betting menu... if you want to get frisky the next time you’re in Vegas.
For reference, here is the full list of division odds, courtesy of Westgate.