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Can the Hawks stave off mediocrity as final leg of season looms?

The Hawks soon embark on the last leg of their season, but can they make a run for the playoffs?

San Antonio Spurs v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Scott Cunningham/NBAE via Getty Images

It’s safe to say the 2022-23 season hasn’t been the season the Atlanta Hawks have hoped for so far, now highlighted by the recent move to dismiss head coach Nate McMillan and GM Landry Fields’ comments after the decision to move on from McMillan.

The Hawks made the big move for Dejounte Murray over the summer but the addition hasn’t lifted the Hawks to the level they would have hoped heading into the season; a level higher than the 43-39 record that saw them have to fight through the play-in tournament before flatly falling in five to the Miami Heat, their flaws very much exposed. The Murray addition was supposed to shore up the weakness the Heat series exploited as Young was taken out of game, for the most part.

Almost a year later the Hawks are headed for basically the same reality, unless they can string together a strong run-in to make up 3.5 games on the sixth seeded New York Knicks in the final 23 games, while hoping the Miami Heat — three games ahead of the Hawks — also falter.

The road in front

Let’s take a look at the Hawks’ final run-in on the schedule and see how plausible it can be looking at their own schedule.

Starting with the end of February:

Total games: 3

Home games: 3

Road games: 0

Back-to-backs: 0

Longest road trip: 0 games

Longest homestand: 3 games

Average opponent winning percentage: 56%

The Hawks continue their February homestand and every single one of these games is critical.

The Cleveland Cavaliers will be a tough start to the final stretch, but for the Hawks’ remote chances of overhauling the Brooklyn Nets they absolutely need that game on the 26th. The Washington Wizards game is also significant because as much as the Hawks will want to look ahead in the standings the Wizards are only half a game behind Atlanta with a 28-30 record. If those first two games against Cleveland and Brooklyn don’t go their way, all of a sudden the Wizards game has a lot more significance — as will all four of the meetings these two will play before the season ends and a tiebreaker to be established, with a possibility that it could matter come the end of the season.

Let’s move on to March:

Total games: 15

Home games: 8

Road games: 7

Back-to-backs: 4

Longest road trip: 4 games

Longest homestand: 3 games

Average opponent winning percentage: 50%

An action-packed month and obviously one of huge significance, especially to start the month — a four game road trip against the Heat and the Wizards, the latter followed by a game on the second night of a back-to-back against the Boston Celtics.

The Hawks’ intentions for the postseason will likely be defined by then: if they have a good run through this stretch they can be in contention for a top-6 seed (providing some other results go their way and they’ve made up at least a game or so). If not, if they falter at home and struggle on the road in Miami and Washington you can get close to locking them down they’re likely just jostling for play-in position.

That said, the Hawks face a lot of average/bad teams after that stretch tough stretch to begin the month — if they can tread water at worst and beat some of those winnable teams then perhaps they could still be lingering (two games against the Minnesota Timberwolves should be fun).

Let’s look at the end of the season in April:

Total games: 5

Home games: 3

Road games: 2

Back-to-backs: 1

Longest road trip: 1 game

Longest homestand: 2 games

Average projected opponent winning percentage: 56%

Not the easiest stretch to end here, the only crumb of comfort is that it’s possible that the Celtics and/or Sixers could be locked into seeds by that point and may choose to rest their stars on those nights. But it’s very possible all five of those teams could be fiercely jostling for seeding.

When you look at certain parts of the schedule you do think to yourself it’s not too bad, and then you look at the strength of schedule and find out the Hawks have the third most difficult strength of schedule remaining in the entire NBA — that is not ideal. The first couple of weeks after the break will be the toughest part of it with the most important fixtures being those Miami and Washington games. There are plenty of winnable games after that Boston game just after the Wizards stretch.

The Hawks can bring themselves right up to the Heat with three wins there but they will be reliant on the Nets/Knicks tripping up as well.

The road of the others

The Hawks play the Nets twice but with the Nets having a 5.5 game head start on the Hawks in the final 23 games it would take a large implosion for Brooklyn to fall below Atlanta. Though they may have lost Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving, the Nets are still a very talented side that should not be underestimated. The Nets can basically end any threat that may exist of the Hawks overtaking them immediately should they emerge victorious on the second game back after the break at State Farm Arena.

We’ll focus more on the New York Knicks and the Miami Heat, given they are the more likely competitors here for the Hawks to finish in the top-6. Both are either 2 or 2.5 games adrift of the Nets for the 5-seed and can both reasonably aim for either the 5-seed or the 6-seed and are currently 3.5 and 3 games clear of the Hawks respectively heading into the final stretch of the season.

While New York play both the Nets and the Celtics before beginning a stretch of six road games in seven — including another game against the Celtics and visits to Sacramento and L.A. — their end to the season is quite favorable with two games against the Indiana Pacers and a game against the Pelicans and Wizards as part of their final four games.

Their strength of schedule remaining is the 8th hardest, a three-way tie in fact for 7th hardest guessed it, the Brooklyn Nets and the Miami Heat.

Speaking of the Heat, their schedule is one that seems worse than the others when you initially glance at it. Some of their games after the All-Star break include:

A game on the road in Milwaukee
A home-and-home against the Sixers
Two games against the Cavaliers
The Grizzlies
Another game against the Sixers
A game against the Nets

While they have the same strength of schedule than the Nets and Knicks, of everyone in this gaggle for 5th/6th they have the most important fixtures of any team and can directly control their own destiny.

They play the Knicks three times and Atlanta twice in this final stretch, meaning they can ensure the Hawks are not even a thought behind them and leapfrog the Knicks and seal both tiebreakers in the process. While two of those three games against the Knicks come at MSG, a great opportunity lies before them to jump up the standings should they make the most of it — they certainly have some tough games, however, to make it happen.

Atlanta’s issues

This is the one of the problems for the Hawks, however...

Because both Miami and New York play each other three times it’s a lot more difficult and unlikely for both of them to fall below Atlanta in the race for sixth as the winner — given how close they already are in the standings — gets to consolidate position over the other for that 6-seed. Again, both Miami and New York could end up in the 5/6-seeds but it’s going to be hard for Atlanta to have the same opportunity to do that given the ground they’re already behind. Not impossible, mind you, but not looking great as of right now.

They could possibly jump Miami: they’re currently tied 1-1 in the season series, play them twice more (albeit on the road), the Knicks could take games directly from Miami in their own series, and the Heat play some other tough opponents. The Hawks could make up those three games.

The Knicks are the larger problem the Hawks face and overtaking them is going to be far more challenging if they’re aiming for a top-6 seed.

It’ll be tough to overturn a 3.5 game deficit in 23 games, especially when the Hawks have already finished their season-series with New York, play some tough opponents, and have been just average all season.

They have to hope to beat the Heat at least once on the road and hope Miami can take two or three of their games against the Knicks. They could have helped themselves significantly by winning that Knicks game, not just in terms of having one less game to make up but it would have given the Hawks the season-series tiebreaker (tied 2-2). Now that’s out of their hands, but the Heat series still is.

The Hawks have likely already blown their best chance to catch the Knicks with that loss right before the All-Star break. That was such a critical game for their playoff hopes and it was an opportunity that just came and passed them by, all while they were just limping towards the break, desperate for the break. The Knicks came out with purpose and intent. They knew it was the last game before the break but were intentional to play it as though it weren’t. The Hawks played like they were already on holiday, seemingly understanding little of what was on the line that night.

All of the postgame comments after that loss were dominated by their need for rest and a break, and no one seemed to acknowledge how costly that loss was; that the Knicks game was just a formality to go through to get to the break rather than an absolutely must-win game, especially after the Charlotte shambles the previous game.

Either the Hawks didn’t understand how important that Knicks game truly was with where both teams lie in the standings and with the tiebreaker to play for, or they’ve already settled for a play-in fate. It was staggering to see how little they seemed to understand what the big picture was here. The Knicks seemed to get it, the Hawks did not.

What also perhaps doesn’t bode so well for the Hawks’ is that their opponents all recently made stronger acquisitions.

Josh Hart was a great addition for the Knicks and the Heat just signed Kevin Love from the buyout market, and you’d expect the Heat to be players as buyout season continues — they always are. I just don’t think the addition of Saddiq Bey will be enough to rival what their opponents have added to their rosters at the trade deadline/buyout market.

Trae Young in his comments postgame after the Knicks game talked about his hopes for a ‘special run’ to end the season. The issue is that the Hawks have not shown themselves to be on the cusp of discovering something on the court — it’s been one step forward followed by two steps back. They are who are they have been for most of the season: a few wins here and there to get a game or so above .500 followed by a few losses to return them to or below .500.

They have been, to almost an exact tee, average.

Maybe in the final 23 games they can put it together? Maybe a change of coach will help inject more effort? Maybe all they truly needed was this break? Maybe they can win 13 or 14 of those 23 games? 15 of them are at home and they play a number of bad/average teams. You can talk yourself into it, heck, they did it last year to finish.

To capiltalize on their home-heavy schedule the Hawks cannot look like their average selves that they have for 59 games so far. Can they get up to beat average teams? They’ve struggled to all season long consistently but now their season depends on it.

We’ll see how much changes under interim head coach Joe Prunty in the immediate aftermath of McMillan’s dismissal here — and again if the reports about Quin Snyder becoming the Hawks’ next head coach end up coming to fruition — and if that gives them the zest they need. The coaching change gives the variable that the Hawks might need for them to discover something — anything — because you just got the feeling that nothing was really going to change as it currently was, and McMillan was likely heading for the exit one way or the other, either on his own terms or the Hawks’, so why not get a head start?

The Hawks will need to play with more effort and consistency but it’s urgency that they need the most, urgency they’ve lacked all season and most critically lacked against the Knicks before the break.

Can the Atlanta Hawks stave off the shadow of mediocrity that has followed their every movement all season long and, if they can, is it too little, too late for it to materialize into an automatic playoff berth?

Time will soon tell...