Hawks have dilemma between playoffs, draft lottery

Nine games remain in the Atlanta Hawks’ 2013-14 regular season as of Wednesday afternoon. From the looks of it, they will need all nine before determining their ultimate fate. Atlanta stands one game ahead of New York for the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Will the Hawks make the playoffs? That’s a very real question with exactly two weeks remaining. But it may not be the most important question. More interestingly, do the Hawks want to make the playoffs?

MISS THE SHOW …

There are some perks to missing the playoffs. Least importantly, the Hawks would be spared from almost certain humiliation at the hands of either Miami or Indiana. Atlanta beat Miami 121-114 at home on Jan. 20, but it is still 1-9 in its last 10 games against the Heat and the recent win came with Dwyane Wade on the sideline. The Hawks have lost four of their last five against Indiana dating back to last year’s playoffs and its Jan. 8 victory came at the expense of a Pacers club that was playing its fourth game in five days and missing Lance Stephenson. In other words, a postseason ap- pearance could get ugly in a hurry.

A greater benefit of elimination, of course, is that the Hawks would find themselves in the lottery for what is an enticingly top-heavy NBA Draft. Kansas freshman Andrew Wiggins declared on Monday and he is expected to be joined by teammate Joel Embiid, Duke’s Jabari Parker and Kentucky’s Julius Randle. Almost every move general manager Danny Ferry has made since June of 2012 suggests he is more concerned with the future than the present, so wouldn’t he prefer a shot at Joel Embiid than a shot at the Miami Heat?

If the season ended today, Atlanta would own the 15th pick as the worst playoff qualifier behind the 14 lottery teams. All three CBS mock-draft gurus currently have the Hawks taking a shooting guard—two votes for Michi- gan’s Nik Stauskas and one for Michigan State’s Gary Harris. Stauskas and Harris are nice, but they aren’t Wiggins, Embiid, Parker, or Randle.

WINNING IS EVERYTHING ...

Those names may be on the minds of woeful teams like Milwaukee and Philadelphia, but Atlanta’s players are in a different business. Although they have not won much of late (1-6 in their last seven, 7-20 in their last 27), they are leaving everything they have on the court despite a myriad of injury issues. Their effort fi- nally paid off with a come-from-behind 103-95 win over the Sixers on Monday at Philips Arena.

“Well, myself and everybody else feels like this game and every game from here on out is a must win,” Paul Millsap told the team’s website after the victory. “We need these games. It’s as simple as that.”

There is, of course, something to be said for winning. In the famous words of former New York Jets’ head coach Herman Edwards, “You play. To win. The game.” You also play to make the playoffs, because that’s where any- thing can happen, right? Well, if we’re talking about the eight-team Major League Baseball free-for-all, yes. In the NBA, not so much. No team seeded worse than fourth in its conference has reached the NBA Finals since the lockout-shortened 1998-99 campaign, when New York accomplished the feat as the East’s No. 8 seed.

But could this year be different in the Eastern Conference? Miami and Indiana are once again dominant, but both teams have recently been dreadful by their standards. While a series upset is way too much to expect, com- petitiveness to the point of luring fans to the Highlight Factory for two (or dare I say three?) games is not entirely out of the question.

Landing a top three draft pick is also not entirely out of the question if the Hawks miss the playoffs, but it’s close. If New York and New York alone passes the Hawks and knocks them out of the postseason, they would end up being the 10th worst team in the league. That would give them a 1.1 percent chance of winning the lottery, a 1.3 percent chance of snagging the second pick and a 1.6 percent chance of selecting third. For those counting, that means Atlanta would have a four percent chance at a top-three pick and a 96 percent chance at picking 10th or worse.

Those numbers are nothing Hawks’ fans have had to concern themselves with since 2006-07, the last time their team failed to make the playoffs. Atlanta’s streak of six straight postseasons is tied for fourth best in the entire NBA, trailing only San Antonio (16, all with Mike Budenholzer as an assistant), Denver (10) and the Los Angeles Lakers (eight). None of the six has resulted in a championship or even in an NBA Finals appearance, but this is still a com- mendable stretch of success.

THE VERDICT …

Like it or not, the Hawks are probably go- ing to make the playoffs. They play six of their final nine games at home, where they are 21- 14 compared to 11-27 on the road. All nine are against the Eastern Conference and four of those opponents are currently on the outside looking in on the playoff picture. The Knicks, meanwhile, have seven games to go and all seven are also against the Eastern Conference. However, every one of their remaining oppo- nents (counting Toronto twice) is comfortably in playoff position.

“I think the only thing they have going for [the Hawks]…is [playing at home against bad teams],” Chris Vivlamore, beat writer for the Atlanta Journal Constitution, said last week. “When you look at this recent slide and the eighth spot slipping from their grip a little bit, I think that’s what they’re relying on. If they can beat those bad teams…they might just be able to keep the Knicks at bay.”

Ah, the classic back door into the playoffs. Vivlamore’s attitude isn’t defeatist; it’s realist. And the reality is that these Hawks are not going to win a championship. If a championship is the ultimate goal, what result gives them the best chance of reaching that goal sooner rather than later? You know the answer.

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