DimeMag

NBA Power Rankings Week 14: Can The Hawks Turn It Around Again?

The 2020-21 Atlanta Hawks were on a roller coaster ride to the very end. Atlanta famously began the season with a 14-20 record, underachieving in maddening fashion. From there, the Hawks made a coaching change, firing Lloyd Pierce and handing the clipboard to Nate McMillan, and with the help of Trae Young, John Collins, Clint Capela and a suddenly red-hot Bogdan Bogdanovic, Atlanta turned its season around, avoiding the play-in, beating the Knicks in the first round, pulling a well-documented upset over the Philadelphia 76ers, and eventually taking the eventual champion Milwaukee Bucks to six games in the Eastern Conference Finals. That kind of run, especially when paired with a youthful roster and the ability to “bring the band back” inspired confidence for the 2021-22 edition, but the early returns were dismal for the Hawks this season.

In mid-January, the Hawks were floundering with a 17-25 record that was reminiscent of the previous season’s struggles, and Atlanta inexplicably lost ten consecutive home games at State Farm Arena. A stretch of nine losses in eleven games overall left many scratching their heads when attempting to assess the Hawks, but Atlanta has quietly won four games in a row, getting up off the mat at the very least.

On Jan. 13, the Hawks made waves in dealing promising wing Cam Reddish to the Knicks in exchange for a protected first-round pick, and that isn’t the kind of move that a team in “win-now” mode usually makes. The trade also came nearly a month before the deadline, leaving many to wonder if it was simply one piece of an overarching plan from president of basketball operations Travis Schlenk. More practically, the move may have helped to reestablish a hierarchy for the Hawks, with Reddish clearly seeking a bigger role (as noted on the record by Schlenk himself) and struggling on the floor. While he did show encouraging growth in catch-and-shoot situations, Reddish left Atlanta with the team’s worst on-off splits by a considerable margin, headlined by the fact that the Hawks posted a +5.7 net rating in all minutes without Reddish on the court, even amid an ugly win-loss record.

It isn’t only the removal of Reddish that has changed, however, as the Hawks are getting healthier on the whole. This week featured the first game all season in which Capela, 2019 lottery pick De’Andre Hunter, and 2020 lottery pick Onyeka Okongwu were active on the same evening. That trio represents Atlanta’s best defensive talent and, in short, the Hawks must reform a defense that is currently allowing 113.4 points per 100 possessions for the season. Hunter’s return from injury is already paying dividends on both ends and, if McMillan chooses to do so, the Hawks can have quality center play on the defensive end for 48 minutes with Capela and Okongwu.

Moreover, the Hawks still have the bones of a quality team, even with a 21-25 record. Atlanta has been above water with its best players on the court this season, which is best exemplified by a +9.8 net rating with Young, Collins and Capela share the floor. While the Hawks do have intriguing talent elsewhere, those three players are the team’s best and most established, and it is promising for Atlanta to excel when they are deployed.

Four wins in January won’t necessarily change the course of the season for the Hawks, but all four victories came against opponents that entered the night at .500 or better for the season. Atlanta could still have a move (or two) to make before the mid-February trade deadline but, for now, they seem to be playing up to their considerable talent, and Young just earned Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors after lighting it up in each of the four victories. It remains to be seen as to whether the Hawks can keep up this new pace and, if so, whether Schlenk will keep the band together through mid-February. Still, this recent push is a reminder that Atlanta’s early-season scuffles took them off the radar, but not out of the mix.

Where do the Hawks land this week in our DIME power rankings? Let’s find out.

1. Phoenix Suns (37-9, Last week — 1st)

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Phoenix is an extremely comfortable No. 1 right now. The Suns are on a seven-game winning streak with 10 wins in the last 11 games. The Suns also have the best net rating in the league to go along with a 3.5-game lead on the field in the West and a 7.5-game (!) lead over any team in the East.

2. Golden State Warriors (34-13, Last week — 3rd)

The Warriors haven’t exactly been lighting the world on fire recently, but they’ve won two in a row. One of those victories came with Steph Curry converting a buzzer-beater, and Golden State still has the NBA’s second-best record. They will need Draymond Green and Klay Thompson, who didn’t play Sunday, to reach lofty goals, but it’s hard to make a case for another team here.

3. Memphis Grizzlies (32-17, Last week — 2nd)

Memphis hasn’t played quite as well recently, which is understandable after an 11-game winning streak came to a close. The Grizzlies are 2-3 in the last five, though, and they’ll need to pick it back up to stay in the top three long-term.

4. Dallas Mavericks (27-20, Last week — 5th)

The Mavs have been awesome lately. They’re 11-2 in the last 13 games and, in a rather surprising turn of events, Dallas is in the top five of the NBA in defensive rating. They also have a nice measuring stick game on Tuesday against the Warriors on the road, and that is one to watch.

5. Cleveland Cavaliers (29-19, Last week — 6th)

After a narrow win over the Knicks on Monday, the Cavs have won seven of the last eight games. It helps to have a top-five defense, and Cleveland held New York under a point per possession to keep the winning mojo going.

6. Miami Heat (30-17, Last week — 7th)

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Miami is 12-4 in the last 16, and the Heat came within two different Jimmy Butler misses of beating the suddenly hot Hawks on the road this week. The Heat have Bam Adebayo back, which obviously helps, and Miami continues to play good basketball despite missing key pieces intermittently.

7. Milwaukee Bucks (30-19, Last week — 12th)

The Bucks put together a 3-0 week, bouncing back from some uneven play. Honestly, though, the main thing is that Milwaukee is 18-3 in games when Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jrue Holiday and Khris Middleton appear together. It turns out the reigning champs are (still) very good at basketball when healthy.

8. Utah Jazz (30-18, Last week — 4th)

Some of it is explainable with a glance at the available roster, but Utah is 2-8 in the last 10 games. That is jarring for a team in its position, and while the Jazz still own the NBA’s best offense, Utah has a tough upcoming schedule with games against Phoenix, Memphis, Minnesota, Denver and Brooklyn in the next two weeks.

9. Philadelphia 76ers (27-19, Last week — 8th)

Joel Embiid has scored 32 points or more in five straight games, including a three-game stretch in which he averaged 42.7 points per game. He’s quite good, though most of the discussion around Embiid and the Sixers still revolves around the ongoing Ben Simmons trade saga.

10. Charlotte Hornets (26-21, Last week — 9th)

We highlighted the Hornets’ run a week ago, and most of that still applies. Charlotte had an epic flop on Sunday against Atlanta, shooting 4-of-36 from three-point range, and that led to a lopsided loss. That is a result to throw out given Charlotte’s previous shooting prowess, so there isn’t much to worry about.

11. Brooklyn Nets (29-17, Last week — 11th)

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The Nets are No. 2 in the NBA in offensive efficiency (117.2 points per 100 possessions) this month. That brings Brooklyn into the top five of the league for the season and, well, that feels more “right” than the mediocre numbers early in the season. Unfortunately for the Nets, the previously stingy defense has regressed and the absence of Kevin Durant is hurting.

12. Chicago Bulls (29-17, Last week — 10th)

Chicago badly needed a victory on Monday, and Oklahoma City eventually obliged, though the Bulls nearly blew a 28-point lead. The win came after a 1-6 run for Chicago, and it was truly a nail-biter that didn’t need to be one. To be kind, it isn’t as if the Bulls are at full strength, but the January results are at least mildly concerning.

13. Denver Nuggets (24-21, Last week — 16th)

Nikola Jokic and company are plugging along. The Nuggets don’t have a “bad” loss in more than a month, and Denver is 9-5 in the last 14 games. There is definitely a gap between No. 12 and No. 13 in terms of full-season profile, but Jokic is truly preposterous and it shows.

14. Minnesota Timberwolves (23-23, Last week — 15th)

Minnesota lost in Atlanta this week, but there is no great shame in that. The Wolves are 7-3 in the last 10 games and, in that span, Minnesota has the best offense in the NBA, scoring more than 1.19 points per possession. It’s been a fun season, even if not the most consistent.

15. Boston Celtics (24-24, Last week — 13th)

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Losing a pair of home games this week stings for the Celtics. Boston did make up for some of that with a road thrashing of Washington, and the .500 mark is good enough for solid play-in position in the East.

16. Atlanta Hawks (21-25, Last week — 21st)

The Hawks have five home games in the next nine days, and Atlanta might be favored in four of the five, with the exception being a visit from Phoenix in early February. It will be interesting to see if the Hawks can keep up this pace, but there’s still time to salvage a playoff position.

17. Toronto Raptors (22-22, Last week — 14th)

Following a six-game winning streak to close 2021 and open 2022, the Raptors hit a rough patch. Toronto is 2-5 in the last seven games and, in that span, only the Magic have been worse on offense.

18. Los Angeles Lakers (23-24, Last week — 17th)

The Lakers are on national TV three times this week. The pressure cooker is heating up after five losses in seven games, and there could be real fireworks if the skid continues. The good news is Anthony Davis is back, and that is a considerable boost.

19. Portland Trail Blazers (20-26, Last week — 22nd)

Kudos to the Blazers. Portland finished a road trip at 4-2 without Damian Lillard, and the odds of that before the journey started seemed lopsided. Of note, Anfernee Simons is averaging 25.0 points and 7.2 assists per game in January while shooting 44.3 percent from three-point distance.

20. L.A. Clippers (23-25, Last week — 18th)

A 5-7 record in January isn’t damning for the Clippers, especially when remembering the injury issues. However, L.A. has a -5.2 net rating this month, and that might be closer to reality when you glance at the available roster.

21. New York Knicks (23-25, Last week — 20th)

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Julius Randle is 138-of-356 from the field in the last 22 games. If you’re wondering, that isn’t very good, and Randle hasn’t led the Knicks in scoring since Christmas. That seems unfathomable for a clear No. 1 option, but it’s been a struggle, especially when realizing that Randle led New York in scoring in 45 of 72 regular season games last season. In related news, the Knicks are 1-4 in the last five games.

22. Washington Wizards (23-24, Last week — 19th)

Washington just posted an 0-3 week that was capped by a blowout home loss to Boston. That isn’t the worst thing in the world, but the Wizards are back under .500 and the team’s statistical profile (-2.0 net rating) doesn’t paint the prettiest picture.

23. New Orleans Pelicans (18-28, Last week — 23rd)

It wasn’t anything earth-shattering, but the Pelicans picked up a nice home win over Indiana on Monday. It was the second straight victory for New Orleans, and the Pels were able to get the victory without Brandon Ingram.

24. San Antonio Spurs (17-30, Last week — 24th)

The Spurs are still losing more games than they should, and they are struggling badly to beat good teams. That has been the case all season but, for context, San Antonio has a better net rating than the Lakers right now.

25. Indiana Pacers (17-31, Last week — 26th)

Indiana definitely had to rise in the rankings after beating the Lakers and Warriors on the road. It’s not as if the Pacers are right in the mix of the play-in race right now, but the talent (and point differential) continues to be better than the record — although health has not cooperated of late.

26. Sacramento Kings (18-30, Last week — 25th)

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The Kings played only twice between power rankings editions, and Sacramento lost both games. One of them was at home to Detroit, which is a tough scene. Sacramento keeps popping up in trade rumors but, hey, they’re only three games behind Portland for the No. 10 seed.

27. Houston Rockets (14-33, Last week — 28th)

As noted above, Houston dropped a (very) close game to Golden State recently, and the Rockets went 3-2 on a road trip. That’s fairly impressive for a team that is generally underwhelming in terms of statistical profile, and the Rockets are also a very interesting team to monitor in the trade market.

28. Detroit Pistons (11-35, Last week — 27th)

The Pistons are 6-7 in the last 13 games. It’s been ugly at times, but Detroit was even competitive in road losses to Denver and Utah this week. Beyond the results, it really helps the Pistons to get Kelly Olynyk back on the floor.

29. Oklahoma City Thunder (14-33, Last week — 29th)

Six losses in a row and 11 losses in the last 12 games. Oklahoma City’s 12-20 start feels like a lifetime ago at this point.

30. Orlando Magic (9-39, Last week — 30th)

It wasn’t the full-strength Bulls, but Orlando beat up on Chicago on Sunday. That isn’t enough to get the Magic out of No. 30, but it was a nice datapoint. It’s also nice for Orlando to have a top-five pick back in Jalen Suggs, making the Magic a lot more watchable if nothing else.

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