The Atlanta Hawks are synonymous with mediocrity no more. For years, the franchise reluctantly bore the NBA’s version of The Scarlett Letter, the dreaded “Good But Not Great” label.
There’s no worse place to be in the NBA than the middle. You’re not elite enough to contend for titles and you’re not bad enough to compete for top picks. Instead, you’re marooned somewhere in between, playing respectable basketball but going nowhere in the quest for Larry O’Brien trophies. The hamster wheel of meh.
No team is more familiar with that position than the Hawks. Atlanta has made the playoffs the last seven seasons but never reached a single conference finals. They won between 38 and 53 games in each regular season over that span, but never finished first in their division. The Hawks were always good -- but they were never great.
In order to break through that glass ceiling, Atlanta had to get rid of some of the people that were dragging it down. It waved goodbye to Josh Smith, traded Joe Johnson and cast off coaches who couldn’t bring them to the next level.
Now, and miraculously, the Hawks are the talk of the league. They’ve won 12 straight games and 26 of their last 28 while playing immaculate team basketball. They’ve picked apart the best teams in the league and they’ve dominated on both sides of the ball with stunning efficiency. They don’t have a single household name on the roster, but they’re better than all of the teams you are familiar with. If the season ended today, Kobe Bryant, Carmelo Anthony, Kevin Durant, Russell Westbrook and Anthony Davis would all miss out on the postseason -- but the Hawks would be a No. 1 seed.
Golden State’s supreme play kept Atlanta from reaching the top the past two weeks, but the throne is finally theirs.
The Atlanta Hawks are the best team in basketball. They’re finally great.
Here’s where all 30 teams stand in this week’s NBA Power Rankings.
(Stats and records through Jan. 18).
1. Atlanta Hawks
RECORD: 33-8 (4-0)
How impressive is Atlanta’s 12-game winning streak? Its led by double-digits in each of the 12 victories. That’s a good omen for the Hawks, who are 28-1 when leading by at least 10 points this season.
2. Golden State Warriors
RECORD: 32-6 (3-1)
Golden State suffered its first loss since Christmas last week, but responded the next night by throttling the Rockets by 25. The Warriors have lost just twice this season when Andrew Bogut plays.
3. Memphis Grizzlies
RECORD: 29-11 (3-0)
Jeff Green hasn’t been bashful as a member of the Grizzlies, averaging 14.3 shots and 16 points in his first three games. The ex-Celtics’ offensive talent and multi-positional versatility should not only boost Memphis’ scoring but give relief to a starting unit that logs big minutes.
4. San Antonio Spurs
RECORD: 26-16 (3-1)
Life is good with Kawhi Leonard back in the lineup. San Antonio won his first two games back by a combined 34 points and saw the Finals MVP average 16 points, 6.5 rebounds, 3 assists and 2.5 steals.
5. Houston Rockets
RECORD: 28-13 (2-2)
The Rockets continue to see Josh Smith as a complementary player, not a core one. Smith’s only 30-minute game with Houston came in his debut and he’s played less than 20 minutes in his last two games. The 23.7 mpg he’s averaging with the Rockets are the fewest of his career, another sign that the ex-Piston needs to reel in his free-wheeling ways.
6. Portland Trail Blazers
RECORD: 30-11 (0-3)
Damian Lillard and LaMarcus Aldridge combined to score 154 points in the Blazers’ last three losses. The rest of the team? Just 134. Portland needs more out of its supporting cast, particularly Nicolas Batum, who has scored 4, 5 and 3 points in his last three games.
7. Washington Wizards
RECORD: 28-13 (3-1)
John Wall’s taken his defense to new levels this season, as broken down by Rob Mahoney in last week’s edition of The Fundamentals. Washington’s defense is surrendering just 97.5 points per 100 possessions with Wall on the floor, second among starting point guards.
8. Dallas Mavericks
RECORD: 28-13 (2-1)
Rajon Rondo wasn’t lying about not playing defense for a couple of years. In 22 games with Boston this season, he literally had zero impact on their defensive rating (106.7 with him on the floor and off it). But in 13 games with Dallas, the Mavs’ defensive rating is 108.4 with Rondo off the floor and 98.7 with him on it.
9. Chicago Bulls
RECORD: 27-15 (1-3)
Injuries are catching up with the Bulls, who have lost five of their last seven games. Chicago is 12-3 when it rolls out its usual starting lineup -- Joakim Noah, Pau Gasol, Mike Dunleavy, Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose -- but that hasn’t happened since Jan. 1.
10. Los Angeles Clippers
RECORD: 27-14 (2-1)
Austin Rivers’ first 27 minutes with the Clippers: 0-for-7 from the field, one point, one turnover, one steal, two assists and a never-before-seen -8.0 Player Efficiency Rating, according to basketball-reference.com.
11. Phoenix Suns
RECORD: 24-18 (2-0)
The Thunder need more than just a strong second-half surge to make the playoffs -- they need the Suns to slow down, too. Phoenix has gone 12-4 since a rocky start to the season and holds a 3.5 game lead in the standings.
12. Oklahoma City Thunder
RECORD: 20-20 (2-1)
After getting drubbed by the Dubs earlier this month, the Thunder notched what they’re hoping is a momentum-swinging victory by beating the Warriors at home by double-digits. Not only did OKC successfully suffocate Steph Curry, but it got a big performance off the bench from newcomer Dion Waiters (21 points on 8-of-16 shooting).
13. Detroit Pistons
RECORD: 16-25 (3-1)
Brandon Jennings is averaging 20.7 points while shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 43.8 percent from deep over Detroit’s last 13 games (11-2). In the 13 games (2-11) leading up to that, he was averaging 9.4 points and shooting 30 percent from the field and 25 from deep.
14. Toronto Raptors
RECORD: 26-14 (1-3)
It wasn’t too long ago that the Raptors were No. 2 in these rankings. Now they’ve lost seven of their last nine and appear in complete disarray. Toronto’s defensive rating ranks No. 27 in January (108.6) and their offense, which was tops in the NBA (112.9) last month, has plummeted to No. 19 (101.9).
15. New Orleans Pelicans
RECORD: 20-20 (2-2)
Injuries are pounding the Pelicans, but Monty Williams’ bunch found a way to beat the Raptors despite the absence of Anthony Davis and Jrue Holiday. Tyreke Evans, who has been hobbled himself, poured in 26 points on 9-of-14 shooting and hit the game-winning basket.
16. Milwaukee Bucks
RECORD: 21-19 (1-0)
If the Bucks can’t get the new arena they’re looking for in Milwaukee they looked plenty comfortable in the O2 Arena in London. Or maybe it was just the competition.
17. Cleveland Cavaliers
RECORD: 21-20 (2-1)
After failing to hit the century mark in seven straight games without LeBron James, Cleveland has done it in all three games since he’s returned. The Cavs’ offense needs to click in order to right the ship.
18. Denver Nuggets
RECORD: 18-22 (1-2)
Reprising the role of Andre Miller in Denver is 32-year-old Jameer Nelson, sent to the Nuggets after shooting 22 percent in six forgettable games with the Celtics. Nelson was hoping to be a valuable backup point guard for the Mavericks this season, but his 2014-15 campaign has taken a strange twist after struggling in the first half. It’s been a quick and steady decline for Nelson, who has seen his PER drop from 14.4 in 2012-13 to 13.9 last year and 10.2 this season.
19. Miami Heat
RECORD: 18-22 (2-1)
After riding third wheel the last four years, Chris Bosh is tying his career high in usage rate (28.7 percent) this season and responding like a leading man. In his 12th year in the league, Bosh is putting up numbers (21.6 points, 7.7 rebounds, 47.5 FG%) right in line with his averages during his seven years in Toronto (20.2 points, 9.4 rebounds, 49.2 FG%).
20. Charlotte Hornets
RECORD: 16-25 (1-1)
The Hornets won a game last week despite shooting 30.7 percent from the field and scoring only 68 points in regulation. That’s… something.
21. Sacramento Kings
RECORD: 16-24 (0-3)
Kings’ winning percentage under Ty Corbin when DeMarcus Cousins plays: .384. Kings’ winning percentage under Mike Malone when Cousins played: .600.
22. Brooklyn Nets
RECORD: 17-24 (1-3)
Mason Plumlee’s Rookie of the Year campaign may have been far-fetched, but there’s little question the No. 22 overall pick was the steal of the 2013 draft. Plumlee leads his class in Win Shares (7.9) by a sizable margin (Kelly Olynyk is No. 2 at 5.3) and is averaging 10.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 1.0 block in just 22.8 minutes per game this season.
23. Orlando Magic
RECORD: 15-29 (2-2)
With Orlando’s rebuild plan somewhat stuck in limbo, the Magic are desperately looking for someone to take the lead. Victor Oladipo might be the man. The second-year guard topped 30 points in back-to-back games last week and is averaging 21.5 this month.
24. Indiana Pacers
RECORD: 15-27 (0-3)
The defense -- No. 8 in efficiency -- is there, the offense is not. The Pacers rank in the bottom three in offensive rating, effective field-goal percentage and true shooting percentage.
25. Utah Jazz
RECORD: 14-27 (1-2)
Trey Burke is having his best month of the season even though his three-point shot (31.1 percent in January) is as bunk as ever. The sophomore is averaging a season-high 16.5 points this month and owns a positive plus/minus rating for the first time.
26. Los Angeles Lakers
RECORD: 12-29 (0-3)
The Lakers have as many wins in 2015 as Nick Young has shoe butlers.
27. Minnesota Timberwolves
RECORD: 7-32 (2-1)
Mo Williams set a franchise record with 52 points against the Pacers last week, but we’re more excited about Andrew Wiggins’ career-high 31 two games later.
28. Philadelphia 76ers
RECORD: 8-32 (1-3)
Michael Carter-Williams’ sophomore slump has been a quietly troubling storyline to the 76ers’ season. The point guard has seen his shooting numbers dip (38.8 FG%, 24.3 3P%) with a significant drop in PER (15.5 to 12.4). He’s also leading the league in turnovers at 4.4 per game.
29. Boston Celtics
RECORD: 13-25 (1-2)
Marcus Smart’s jumper is trending in the right direction, even if the Celtics aren’t. His field-goal and three-point percentages have increased each month, with the rookie currently shooting 42.6 percent from the field and 40 percent from deep.
30. New York Knicks
RECORD: 5-36 (0-1)
Bringing Knicks basketball “global” might have been a mistake. We’re sorry, London.