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Best teams to never win an NBA championship: 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks

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One clear choice for the Hawks.

Atlanta Hawks Media Day Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

The great Mike Prada of SB Nation is rolling out a 64-team “bracket” of the best teams to never win an NBA championship. As part of that journey, teams are broken up into 16-team regions, with the Atlanta Hawks making a few appearances along the way. The 2014-15 edition was included in Tuesday’s “overachiever” subregion, fitting the criteria of a team “that went further than their seed and/or their talent level suggested they should.”

While there is room for discussion on this point, one thing seems clear in that, if the Hawks have to submit one clear contender for the big-picture list, it is the 2014-15 team.

In short, the 2014-15 Hawks are the franchise’s best team since the organization moved from St. Louis to Atlanta.

The players

Because of the way it all ended (we’ll get there later) and the weird nature of the rollout, it has almost become a punchline that the entire starting five was named as the NBA “player of the month” for January 2015.

Yes, that really happened.

While it was a clear response to an unbeaten month and red-hot play, the 2014-15 team had a bunch of players operating at their highest possible levels. For example, Kyle Korver enjoyed the best season of his career, earning an All-Star appearance and shooting a blistering 49.2 percent from three-point range. He was the grease for one of the league’s best offenses and, short of Stephen Curry, there was no better shooter on the planet that season.

Paul Millsap enjoyed his most efficient offensive season. Al Horford was, well, Al Horford and in the middle of his prime in his age-28 campaign. Jeff Teague enjoyed his best defensive season (by a lot) and his advanced numbers were never better than in 2014-15. From there, supporting pieces like Pero Antic, Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schröder and Thabo Sefolosha contributed at a high level. Also, DeMarre Carroll put together the best season of his career by a comfortable margin, eventually earning a big-time payday in free agency.

If anything, this group is now underrated from a talent perspective, simply because they became known as the ultimate collection of team play over individual brilliance. Keep in mind that both Millsap and Horford were top-30 players in the NBA, Korver was a dynamic weapon, Teague made the All-Star team and much more.

Let’s just say it went pretty well.

The accomplishments

Would you believe it if I told you that the Hawks opened the 2014-15 season with a 1-3 record? How about the fact that Mike Budenholzer’s team was just 7-6 on Thanksgiving?

It is easy to forget that slow start because... it got crazy from there.

After starting 7-6, the Hawks won nine games in a row. Then, they extended that run to 16-2 to end calendar year 2014, playing at an exceptionally high level.

Hilariously, they were just getting started, because January was coming. That stretch of 16 wins in 18 games came before January, where the Hawks famously posted a 17-0 record. Atlanta finished that January with a +12.4 net rating that included top-four units in the NBA on both ends of the floor and, overall, the Hawks turned a 7-6 record into a 40-8 mark with a blistering 33-2 stretch.

Over the course of that 35-game onslaught, the Hawks had the best defense in the NBA, allowing 98.5 points per 100 possessions, and they posted a top-five offense for good measure. Even though things inevitably slowed down, Atlanta was still quite good (20-11) over the next 31 games before pedaling off and losing the final three contests.

The 17-0 mark in January is the single thing that is remembered about this group, but it’s crucial to remember they were (very) good before and after it. For the full season, the Hawks finished in the top-six in both offensive and defensive rating and, from Thanksgiving on (the final 69 games), Atlanta had the NBA’s best defense.

Missing Thabo Sefolosha

We’ll get to the playoffs in a moment but, first, Thabo Sefolosha’s season-ending injury — at the hands of the NYPD — looms large. The Hawks were 58-19 when Sefolosha played his last game and, while he was an unsung hero of that group, Atlanta was at its best when he was on the floor.

Only Korver had a better net rating than Sefolosha (+11.2) during the 2014-15 campaign and the Hawks were impossibly good defensive when he was on the floor. Atlanta posted a 94.6 defensive rating with Sefolosha playing, which was more than three points better than anyone else on the roster.

It would be over-the-top to suggest that Sefolosha would’ve fixed everything in the playoffs. A lot of other things went wrong, including injuries to Korver, Millsap, Carroll and Horford at different times. Still, it would’ve been nice if the Hawks had their best defensive wing for a playoff run that included a showdown with LeBron James.

The way it all ended

A lot was made of the first two playoff series and how much “trouble” the Hawks had advancing to the Eastern Conference Finals as the No. 1 seed with 60 wins. Yes, the Brooklyn Nets took the Hawks to six games in round one, but Atlanta never lost at home and outscored the Nets by 5.7 points per 100 possessions in the series. Considering Brooklyn was, by definition, a playoff team, that’s not too bad.

As for round two against the Washington Wizards, a Game 1 loss at home caused some panic, and the Hawks did lose Game 3 to fall behind 2-1. Still, Atlanta was the better team and, while many point to the injury to John Wall as “why” the Hawks advanced, the Wizards were actually much better without Wall in the series, posting a +1.2 net rating without him and a -8.5 rating with their All-Star guard on the floor.

It is fair to say that the Hawks weren’t playing at their January level in the playoffs, but the right team met LeBron and company in the conference finals. What happened next is well-chronicled, but context is important.

For one thing, the Hawks were battered by injuries by this point. Sefolosha was gone for good, Horford and Millsap both suffered ailments earlier in the run that limited them, Carroll could barely walk prior to Game 2, and Korver missed the final two games of the series. Would full health have saved the day entirely? Probably not, but things would’ve been more competitive.

Overall, the Hawks shot 24 percent from three-point range in the series and, honestly, that stat paints the entire picture. Throw in the fact that Cleveland shot 40 percent in their own right and the stage was set. Without diving into full detail, the series was effectively over after back-to-back losses at home and, while Game 3 was a valiant effort (without Korver) on the road, an overtime loss actually slammed the door.

Epilogue

In short, this was quite clearly the best team in Atlanta Hawks history. Bob Pettit won a title, of course, but that took place in St. Louis and, while Dominique Wilkins is the best player to suit up in Atlanta, those teams didn’t quite match what the 2014-15 squad was able to accomplish.

Were they “supposed” to beat a Cavs team with one of the best players of all-time involved? Probably not, but this was a 60-win team that probably had its run end exactly when it was supposed to end. The clear black mark was the sweeping fashion in which the Hawks fell to the Cavs, but it would be unwise to weigh that series result more than the full body of work.

The 2014-15 Hawks were insanely fun to watch on a nightly basis, and it remains wild that a team known for its ball movement and shooting finished the season better on defense than offense. If anything, this team is now underrated because of the way it ended but, while there are worthy contenders in the “best team to never an NBA championship” bracket that includes 64 options across history, the 2014-15 Atlanta Hawks are the No. 1 nominee from this franchise.