There’s a glass-is-half-full way of viewing the last few years of NBA basketball—probably more than the last few years, probably the last decade and a half—as a thrilling and historic ascendency of Western Conference basketball. Like maybe the consistent, remarkable genius of teams at the top of the Western Conference (looking mostly at the San Antonio Spurs) functioned as a rising tide, lifting and propelling the rest of the pack. Or—as with whatever magical and herein brutally misrepresented intense natural process yields from its chaos a diamond—perhaps the oppressive force of the West’s upper crust toughened and refined everything underneath. Whatever. My point here is this: it is possible to see the spread of excellence among Western Conference teams as the best and most bountiful gift of the latest renaissance of NBA basketball.
It’s hard to know one way or another whether this renaissance ends utterly roughly on whatever line runs longitudinally between Milwaukee to the north and Memphis to the south and defines, for the purposes of NBA conference alignment, the border between East and West. What’s clear, though, is whatever of it can be found in the Eastern Conference is panned from the surrounding mud in precious small amounts. The rise, for example, of transcendent talent among flawed rosters, or the detectable potential in years’ and years’ worth of promising top draft picks, or even the careful and calculated means by which losses are accumulated—these and other silver linings at least bring hope that whatever brand of genius transmitted around the Western Conference will eventually cross the Mississippi and sweep eastward.
But that’s a thin meal, you know? A glass-is-half-empty view of the NBA sees it at least in part in terms of the awkward but mandatory and practically arbitrary process that dumps a group of eight trumped-up tomato cans into a tournament whereby the NBA champion is determined. This view of the NBA sees festering rot underneath the upper crust, in the form of a feeble and hopeless junk-heap of less-than-also-rans practically sprinting away from the playoffs in one doomed get-rich-quick scheme after another. The NBA, sunk into a hole dug by their own people variously misusing their own tools of competitive balance, is a tragically imbalanced and therefore fundamentally screwed and illegitimate operation. Even if everyone in the East opted out—as too many have done too often—the machinery would pull eight back into the boiler for a few rounds of playoff action. If that strikes you as bullshit, you may be onto something.
Whichever view you take of the NBA will, by happy transference, also be the view you take of the 2015 Atlanta Hawks and the particular arc of their season.
For all the intrigue they inspired by gritting their way through injury misfortune and into the 2014 playoff field, the 2015 Hawks were still a team coming off a regular season record of 38-44, and who got bounced from the opening round of the playoffs as another underpowered eighth seed. If there was much popular enthusiasm about their future, it was cautious, and tepid. And it was quickly and completely subsumed by an NBA offseason Eastern Conference narrative dominated entirely by news of LeBron’s return to Cleveland, and Cleveland’s subsequent acquisition of Kevin Love, and the possible return of Derrick Rose to the Bulls, and the decline of the Miami Heat, and the exciting rise of the Washington Wizards, and even Sam Hinkie’s brazen tanking project in Philadelphia.
Maybe that which breaks significantly from expectations is commonly viewed with skepticism, whether or not the expectations had any credible reason for existing or inspiring confidence in the first place. Or, anyway, it’s possible such a blind-spot forms the glass-is-half-empty view of the NBA. If the story of the Eastern Conference was going to be the rising of the Cavs, Bulls, Wizards, and Raptors, and that expectation was born out of our nominally informed assessment of the conference’s particular makeup and each team’s respective strength, then the early season rise of the Hawks and their sustained reign atop the conference revealed, more than any flaw in our reasoning, the fundamental illegitimacy and meaninglessness of any success in the East. Before it ever had a chance to be about Atlanta’s genuine brilliance, it was at least as much about the East being bullshit, and its so-called contenders being, ultimately, frauds.
If that has been your view, it has been fortified by what happened over the last, oh, two months of Atlanta’s season. After blazing their way to a 49-12 record the Hawks scuttled to an 11-10 finish, then needed six games and a few nail-biter wins in the opening round of the playoffs to dispatch a sad-sack Brooklyn Nets team desperately, achingly, glaringly in need of a near-total teardown. And the Hawks seemed at least in real danger of dropping their conference semifinal matchup against the Wizards, before benefiting tremendously from an injury to John Wall, the best individual player to take the court at any point in the series. And, of course, they were unceremoniously and brutally dispatched by a Cavs team playing with just one and a half of its celebrated trio of stars.
The delicious elegance of Atlanta’s offense seemed to mutate horribly into crippling, near-terminal unsophistication when exposed to the close, rigorous vetting of playoff-intensity defense. What some had recently taken as a refined and shining role model of Eastern Conference legitimacy—done without any free-agency haymakers or apparent manipulation of the draft lottery—was now unmistakably a pumpkin under the harsh glare of real daylight. Atlanta’s plucky and admirably interchangeable roster parts suddenly looked like what maybe they’ve always been: a bargain-bin haul of non-dynamic non-stars capable only of what they’ve done, which is rack up wins by being merely competent in a conference full of clowns.
If this is your view, maybe this development is not so much of a bummer. It affirms, perhaps, your sense of the shape of the NBA landscape.
Of course, there exists the opposing view, and if this view is yours, whether you’re a fan of the Hawks or not, your feelings sting a little at the team’s ugly demise. The Hawks were good, dammit! They won 19 games in a row from December into January. They beat the Rockets in Houston and the Mavericks in Dallas and the Blazers in Portland and the Clippers at Staples. They thumped the Raptors in Toronto and humiliated the Cavs in Cleveland. They finished the regular season with just three fewer road wins against the Western Conference (nine) than the Portland Trail Blazers had (twelve). Their top-5 regular season Net Rating (5.6) was no joke—they dropped 115 points on Portland’s top-10 defense, 120 points on Washington’s fifth-ranked defense, and 124 points on Golden State’s terrifying league-best defense. They held the Clippers to 98 points, the Raptors to 89 points, and the Mavericks to 87 points. They were good! These are all impressive things they did on their way to 60 wins.
So what the hell happened? What they ran up against, perhaps, follows and perhaps confirms the common and long-held notion that playoff success generally comes down to having dynamic players who can make something out of nothing. While the Hawks were certainly a professional outfit with tough, skilled, and versatile players, the popular consensus seemed to hold that they were somehow more than the sum of their component parts, and while that’s certainly an admirable quality, it runs ominously against what conventional wisdom has to say about playoff success. Paul Pierce hinted at this potential flaw in a wide-ranging conversation with Jackie McMullen and in subsequent follow-ups, suggesting the Hawks (and, for that matter, the Toronto Raptors) lacked an “aura where we’re afraid of them” and were missing “a guy that can really turn it around by himself.”
The sense, then, is that a player who can single-handedly turn the tide of a tough game is a necessary component of a real contender. Who the hell can really say whether the Hawks have Such A Player on their roster—what matters is that no one they did have could pull it off when they needed it. The signs were always there—the NBA took the unprecedented step of naming their entire starting five the Eastern Conference Player of the Month for January, certainly an honor and a Hoosiers-esque affirmation of team-centric basketball, but nonetheless an omen and signifier of the absence of a transcendent star among them. Four Atlanta Hawks players made the 2015 Eastern Conference All Star team, but, tellingly, not one of them was made a starter.
These things are mostly subjective, and mostly wildly subjective, but they align neatly with what we all watched happen in the Eastern Conference Finals: the team with the dynamic star, even with a hobbled Kyrie Irving and a completely absent Kevin Love, undressed and summarily dismissed a Hawks team also suffering from important injuries, but injuries that befell guys who are indisputably role-players. And that’s sort of the point—both teams lost role-players, and the relative importance of those role-players is up for debate, but what is not up for debate is what each team was left with absent those role players. The Cavs had LeBron James and flotsam, while the Hawks had...more role-players.
If you view the NBA primarily through a lens shaped and colored by the perception and fact of Eastern Conference shittiness, it’s possible to see the Hawks as the primary benefactor of something like the NBA’s version of the Peter Principle—they were good enough to rise steadily through their conference simply via basic competence, and while basic competence is generally sufficient for NBA respectability, in 2015 it elevated the Hawks into the number one seed in the Eastern Conference, which, depending upon your view, is a role they were manifestly unqualified to hold. The number one seed is (or should be) for a real contender, and being a real contender means having something the Hawks have not had and have never much been defended as having.
There’s an honesty to the NBA playoffs that upholds this view at both the macro and micro levels: by definition, of course, but also by dint of the series format—which reliably and historically favors the better team by removing the randomness of single-game, single-elimination tournaments—a team will necessarily rise exactly and only to the point of failure. This both formalizes the mechanics of the general Peter Principle and gives the lie to inflated regular season accomplishments, particularly if you buy the conventional wisdom that playoff basketball is distinct from regular season basketball for having new and tougher criteria for advancement. True contenders therefore can’t be identified by regular season accomplishments, making the accumulation of such seem smaller and sillier. Trivial, even.
Those dynamics will tell you whether a team is a “real contender,” whether they were the rightful number one seed in their conference, whether they’re missing the transcendent player type thought to be crucial to playoff success, but they will not go much further. They will not, for example, tell you whether a team is good. If the playoffs really do have distinct, tougher requirements, then the regular season does not and cannot differentiate contenders from pretenders. All it can do, by process of elimination over a long-ass sample size, is tell you which teams are good. Losing in the playoffs illuminates a weakness that is specific to the playoffs—all the rest of what determines good from less good is long settled.
So who were the 2015 Hawks? They were exactly good enough to rise to prominence in the Eastern Conference, and exactly deficient enough to not be the rightful higher seed in the conference finals. Using the latter to diminish the former takes the bulk of what we observed over the course of 82 games, douses it in flammable hindsight, and lights a match. The Hawks were good! If they lacked a key requirement for advancement, c’est la vie—pin their seeding on the shitty conference around them, if it matters to you how it all breaks down and squares in the end. In a better conference, the Hawks would still have played a fast and beautiful brand of basketball, would still have wrung every drop of potential out of their blue-collar roster, would still have entertained Atlantans and gripped the city’s interest in professional sports in a way that no other local team has in a long while, would still have put meaningful beatdowns on contenders from both conferences. Their final record is contextual, sure, as was their seeding, and that can tell you a story that suits your view, so long as the story acknowledges how significantly beyond their control those plot points ultimately are.
Viewed only through their seeding, maybe the Hawks were a fraud, but by any other measure, they were a really, really good basketball team, and one of the best to watch in the whole sport. That’s the only part of this unencumbered by context, and the only part worth remembering.