Guerry Clegg

Guerry Clegg: Hawks can win the NBA East

So that leaves one team to give Atlanta fans some hope of contending for a championship. The Hawks are no strangers to being No. 1 in Atlanta by default.

A reach? Of course it is. But we are talking about Atlanta pro sports teams, after all.

It will be at least another year before Braves fans can even think about winning a World Series. The Falcons, theoretically, are a little closer simply because they finished .500 and it doesn't take long to soar to the top in the NFL. Case in point: Carolina was 7-8-1 last season. But you can also crash overnight, as the Falcons did in 2013.

So that leaves us with the Hawks.

Are the Hawks the best team in the NBA? Not even close. Golden State, San Antonio and Oklahoma City are on a different level. Barring injuries, the Hawks wouldn't stand a chance against any of those teams.

But the good news is all three of those teams are in the Western Conference, so the Hawks don't have to worry them until the very end. I'd take an NBA Finals sweep right now.

Just getting there would be a victory itself. It's more possible than it might seem. Sure, the Hawks have regressed from last season, when they won the top seed in the Eastern Conference but were swept by Cleveland in the conference finals.

But the playoffs are still a long way off. The Cavaliers just fired head coach Dave Blatt despite having the best record in the East. That is a sign of internal problems. Maybe Tyronn Lue, the new coach, can bring them together. But going from being the well-liked assistant to being the man in charge is a huge transition, and Lue has zero head coaching experience.

The Cavs may have the best record in the conference, but they have been terribly inconsistent. If the problem was Blatt, then Lue might be the solution. But if the problem runs deeper than coaching, then the East is up for grabs.

So if not the Cavaliers, then why not the Hawks?

Yes, they are third in the East behind Toronto. But they trail the Raptors by only 2½ games. Besides, seeding isn't the end-all, be-all. Sure, it's nice to play at home, but that can be a bit overrated.

Other than Toronto, who else is there in the East? The next five teams are Chicago, Indiana, Detroit, Boston and Miami. None of those teams are imposing.

The Hawks will have to play better or none of that will matter. They're not as good as they were this time last year. They miss DeMarre Carroll, the consummate role player who left to sign with Toronto. Kent Bazemore has been a nice replacement. Kyle Korver is not the player he was last year. Jeff Teague has regressed, as he has a habit of doing from time to time.

But they might be better than they were last year in the playoffs. Korver was playing with a sprained ankle. Paul Millsap had a bad shoulder. Carroll sprained his knee in Game 1 against Cleveland. Thabo Sefolosha was out.

So the Hawks could be healthier this year for the playoffs. The difficulty of winning the conference can be simplified like this.

Get through the first round without stumbling, then worry about Toronto or Cleveland in the second round. Toronto is beatable. Cleveland might be as well.

Again, it's a stretch. But it's Atlanta pro sports. Sometimes that's the best we can do.

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

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