In a lockout-shortened season where so much is in flux and so few certainties exist, we've had one pencilled in for just about the whole season — the Atlanta Hawks will win somewhere between 55 percent and 57 percent of their games, wind up with a mid-level Eastern Conference playoff berth, and bow out of the big picture gracefully sometime within the first two weeks of the postseason.
Sure enough, as I write on Wednesday, the 31-23 Hawks (a .574 winning percentage, if you're keeping score) now sit in the East's sixth slot, a game behind the 32-22 Orlando Magic and 1.5 games south of the third-seeded Indiana Pacers. Atlanta's in a virtual deadlock with the No. 4-seeded Boston Celtics, who are 1.5 games up on the Philadelphia 76ers in the Atlantic Division; whichever Atlantic squad wins out will be assured a top-four slot as a division champ. It's comforting to know there are still some sure things in this life.
But, as befits a topsy-turvy season like this one, the circumstances surrounding the Hawks' predicament are a little different. With the right combination of performance and luck, the door is wide open for the Hawks to jump up out of the lower half of the bracket, and even climb as high as the No. 3 spot, ahead of the winner of the Atlantic.
As Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution wrote, Larry Drew and his crew have the schedule-makers to thank for the opportunity:
The combined winning percentage of Hawks remaining opponents entering Tuesday (.429) was the lowest of the top eight teams in the East. They had the second-fewest games remaining (12) among the group, including eight at home.
There will be a lot of volatility with the standings because the teams clustered together in the standings all play several games against one another. The Hawks, though, are finished playing East leaders Miami and Chicago and have two games each remaining against last-place Charlotte and 10th-place Toronto.
"Everybody is right there," Hawks coach Larry Drew said. "This thing is going to jump around from now until the end the way we are all bunched up. ... It's going to be interesting how this thing shakes loose."
Cunningham's right that the Hawks face the friendliest remaining slate among East playoff hopefuls. As a matter of fact, he actually understated things — according to the strength-of-schedule data on PlayoffStatus.com, the Hawks have the easiest remaining schedule in the whole league.
While the Magic (combined winning percentage of remaining opponents: .456) and Pacers (.479) don't have murderous roads ahead, their paths look to be more challenging than Atlanta's, especially Orlando's — Stan Van Gundy's team has eight remaining games against squads fighting for playoff berths or positioning, including five road affairs.
Indy gets the benefit of nine home games down the stretch, but they won't like some of the visitors. The Pacers will take on Oklahoma City, Boston, Milwaukee, Philadelphia and Chicago in Indianapolis before season's end, as well as a Timberwolves team that's still dangerous even though their playoff hopes have been dashed and a Pistons squad that, quiet as it's kept, has gone 16-13 since its dreadful 4-20 start.
Atlanta will play that improving Detroit team twice down the stretch, too, but they'll get both games at home, where they're 17-8 on the season. Of the Hawks' four remaining road contests, two come against the downtrodden Bobcats and Raptors, against whom they're 4-0 for the year. Another will come against a Magic team that they've owned over the last two years, that just saw emerging star power forward Ryan Anderson sidelined with a right ankle injury that has him listed as day-to-day, and that continues to deal with internal struggles between Van Gundy and star Dwight Howard.
Plus, Atlanta looks to be coming together at the right time. Prior to losing three of four against Eastern Conference playoff teams, the Hawks had rolled up a 10-5 mark in March. Signature stars Joe Johnson (22.1 points per game on 48 percent shooting from the field, hitting 46.2 percent of his 3-pointers, grabbing 4.1 rebounds and dishing 4.1 assists) and Josh Smith (23.4 points, 10.1 rebounds and 4.1 assists per game, plus a much-improved 70.6 percent mark from the free-throw line) have been on form since the All-Star break.
Sidelined backup point guard Jannero Pargo and forward Vladimir Radmanovic should return soon to add depth to the bench. There are even rumblings that All-Star big man Al Horford — out since January with a torn left pectoral muscle and gone for the rest of the regular season, but who returned to non-contact practice Tuesday — could potentially be available at some point in a Hawks playoff run.
I'll grant the premise that it's difficult to get excited about the Atlanta Hawks as a title contender because, as Andrew Unterberger noted at The Basketball Jones, "it's hard to believe that this Hawks movie will have any kind of alternate ending to the one than we've seen the last three years." The "consistent 45-win'ness" that Our Fearless Leader referenced in our Hawks season preview hangs over the team; we feel like we know who they are, what they can do and who they can beat, because we've seen it and the team hasn't undergone a massive change.
But maybe, in a season where the league itself has experienced massive change, that consistency — the ability to hold fast, win the games you're supposed to and force other clubs to do likewise — could be rewarded with a top-four playoff seed and a matchup with either a team they know how to beat, a team reeling from a drop down the ladder, or both. There's worse places to be with less than a month left in the season.