Guerry Clegg commentary: Which Atlanta pro sports team has best chance to win it all

May 13, 2014 

A couple years ago, I assessed the Atlanta pro sports teams' odds of winning their respective championship. We're still waiting, of course. But given that there's been only one championship among the big three -- Falcons, Hawks and Braves -- in 142 combined chances to date, what's another couple of years?

You may recall, my assessment was the Falcons had the best chance of winning a championship, followed by the Braves, then the Hawks.

Well, that's a little generous. It was more like:

Falcons: Very favorable

Braves: Close

Hawks: About as likely as a Coke-Pepsi merger.

Much has changed since then. The Falcons came within one play of going to the Super Bowl, then had an epic crash. The Braves won their first division title since 2005. The Hawks have undergone an extensive reassembly.

So it seems like an appropriate time to reassess. Again, the exercise here is to evaluate their respective chances of winning it all. And my rankings would be …

1) Falcons

2) Braves

3) Hawks

OK, the order has not changed. But the details have, beginning with …

• The Falcons. This probably doesn't seem logical given the fact that the Falcons are coming off their worst season in six years, and the Braves won 96 games last year and are in first place again this season.

But I am banking that last season for the Falcons was an aberration. Seven of their 12 losses were by a touchdown or less, the most in the NFL. No team in the league was hit harder by injuries. Yet, they remained competitive until the last game. So even without any improvements to the roster, they ought to at least have better fortune this year.

Having receivers Julio Jones and Roddy White, defensive lineman Kroy Biermann, offensive tackles Mike Johnson and Sam Baker, running back Steven Jackson and linebacker Sean Weatherspoon healthy all season should be a huge lift.

Adding Devin Hester and Javier Arenas gives them weapons in the return game. They addressed their biggest needs in the draft. They added depth on both lines through free agency. Several rookies on defense showed significant progress last year and should continue to get better now that they are experienced and more confident.

They will miss Tony Gonzalez's receiving abilities, but the running game should benefit from better blocking at tight end.

There's no reason the Falcons can't return to the elite among the NFC.

• The Braves. Unlike in the NFL and the NBA, just getting to the postseason gives a team a realistic shot at winning it all. Winning a best-of-five or best-of-seven series is about getting hot at the right time.

But …

It's getting harder and harder to believe in the Braves' offense. They've always been streaky because they are built on power hitting. But now the offense has gone from inconsistent to anemic. They rank 29th out of 30 teams in runs, 28th in batting average and 29th in on-base percentage. That's partly because they are drawing fewer walks and hitting fewer home runs.

The worst part is, there's not much they can do about it. Benching Dan Uggla helped some. But BJ Upton, though not as bad as last year, is still a huge liability. But his contract makes him untradeable. Jason Heyward remains an enigma. Justin Upton leads the team with nine home runs but still has a tendency to disappear. Evan Gattis, their best right-handed hitter, has to sit at least twice a week to rest because he's a catcher.

Offense isn't their only problem. The bullpen is no longer the lights-out crew it has been. Oh, it's still very good. But Craig Kimbrel hasn't looked comfortable all season. Luis Avilan may be one or two more poor outings away from returning to the minor leagues to regain his control.

This is still a pretty decent teams. But pretty decent teams don't win the World Series.

• The Hawks: Two years ago, the Hawks were one of the more talented teams in the Eastern Conference. This year, the made the playoffs simply by the virtue of the East being weak. Yet, the record doesn't tell the full story.

It would not be surprising at all if the Hawks win 50 games next year. That generally isn't enough to matter in the NBA. But the Eastern Conference is weaker than it has ever been. The only dominant team is the Miami Heat, and age is catching up with them. The odds of winning the NBA championship remain steep. But for the first time in many years, the possibility doesn't seem ridiculously hopeless.

-- Guerry Clegg is an independent correspondent. You can write to him ar sports@ledger-enquirer.com

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