(AP Photo/AJ Mast)

The Atlanta Hawks have quietly ascended the Eastern Conference leader board, winning seven of their last eight games. They now sit two games back of the Cleveland Cavaliers for the top spot in the conference.

“I think the team is starting to [jell],” Kent Bazemore recently told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “What the coach and front office saw in the summer in putting this team together is starting to come to fruition.”

Last season’s banner year for the franchise gave way to the departure of DeMarre Carroll, the team’s harrying two-way small forward who started 165 total games over his two-year tenure with Atlanta. Red flags were raised and questions asked about whetherthe franchise could continue its success without him — and whether Tiago Splitter, a cog in the San Antonio Spurs’ machine for the past five seasons, could be infused in a positive way.

However, Bazemore, who is on pace to obliterate his career high in minutes played over the course of a season, has filled in nicely to patch the void left by Carroll. As The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s Chris Vivlamore noted, the Hawks are 16-6 with him in the starting lineup. Splitter, who is now injured, has been relegated to the second-unit and is averaging near a career low in minutes, but provides a much-needed rim-protecting service when available.

Although the Hawks are a tepid 9-7 on the road, they are again among the teams with the best record in the league (21-13).

It’s worth clarifying that of the seven teams Atlanta hasn’t beaten since Dec. 16, only three have winning records. ESPN pegs the team’s strength of schedule 11th in the league, and the franchise is staring down a number of upcoming tough matchups in January. That being said, FiveThirtyEight still forecasts that the team will end the season with a record of 48-14, giving the team a 91 percent chance of qualifying for the postseason.

“We didn’t start off the season great last year either,” Kyle Korver said after a game in November. “I think everyone remembers it was after Thanksgiving we had a really good run.”

The same holds true this year: Weeks after Korver’s comment was made, the Hawks are surging, and the cause of the team’s success is two-fold:

  1. The ball is rarely getting stuck on the offensive side of the ball.
  2. The Hawks’ defense is clamping down on opponents.

These two elements have been shown, historically, to be sustainable, too. Golden State rode its points-off-turnovers machine and clamp-like defense all the way to a title last season, and the Miami Heat did the same to earn an appearance in the NBA Finals the season before.

Early on this season, Mike Budenholdzer’s motion-heavy offensive ecosystem grew stagnant. The team failed to eclipse the 100-point threshold in four of its first five games. Uncharacteristic turnovers were made, and poor shots were taken.

“There is really not much positive from us,” Al Horford said after the team’s 20-point loss to San Antonio, a game in which the team shot just 42.5 percent.

This month compared to November, however, Atlanta’s attempting three fewer field goals per contest with a defender less than two feet away from the shooter — what NBA.com defines as a very tightly contested shot — and is hoisting more shots when a defender is four to six feet away from the shooter, or, a more open shot.

The more optimal attempts aren’t just magically appearing, either: aside from the utterly dominant Warriors and San Antonio Spurs, no team in the league is facilitating like the Hawks are. Atlanta averages more than 25 assists per contest; assists generate nearly 60 percent of the team’s points on a given night. On average, the Hawks produce 59.3 points off assists each game.

With the Hawks firing passes at warp speed and more than 10 percent of them leading to an assist, a secondary assist (a pass made to a player who earned an assist in the possession) or a free throw assist (a pass made to a player who was subsequently fouled while attempting the shot), Atlanta is getting better looks than it did earlier on in the season. Perhaps it’s no surprise that the team ranks fourth in points per 100 possessions over the past eight games (109.5), while ranking second in potential assists (50.4), or passes that would be credited as an assist if the player had successfully made the shot. Below is the team’s shot chat on shots that were assisted, and, as you can see, the shots are widely spread out across the court.


Defensively, the Hawks rank second in the league in steals per 100 possessions (9.5), and are generating 3.4 percent more steals per contest compared with a season ago.

In turn, Budenholzer’s outfit leads the league in points off turnovers (20.3), seeing two more points per contest off turnovers than it did in 2014-15.

Atlanta’s hounding defensive presence is forcing opponents into a middle-of-the-road overall field goal percentage (44.7 percent, No. 15 in the NBA), and a vapid percentage from beyond the arc (36.6 percent, No. 23 in the NBA). The Hawks aren’t where they were defensively a year ago — in efficiency — but they’re beginning to find ways to mitigate the success of opposing offensive systems.

“What wins is consistency and competitiveness,” said Spurs Coach Gregg Popovich, Budenholzer’s former boss. “He understands all of that. He’s done a masterful job of getting a group to buy into the system. The unselfishness, the playing for each other, number of passes made, the number of open shots that are great shots and not just good shots. It’s execution and repetition day after day until it becomes habitual.”

Popovich’s high praise is warranted, and Budenholzer’s team isn’t taking its collective foot off the gas this season. The rest of the Eastern Conference should take note: Atlanta is a contending team.