Until they met up with the Cleveland Cavaliers in last year’s playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks had been enjoying a banner 2014-15 campaign. The team won a franchise-record 60 games during the regular season, and made its way to the conference finals for the first time ever. Then LeBron James and the Cavs dismantled the Hawks in a lopsided series sweep. Now Cleveland is in Atlanta’s path again, with the teams’ second-round series beginning Monday night, and we have to ask: Is there any reason to expect anything different?
Broadly speaking, things don’t look good for the Hawks. Since the NBA expanded its playoff structure to eight teams in 1967, there have been 141 instances of teams facing off in the postseason two years in a row,1 and the previous year’s loser has won the rematch only about 41 percent of the time. Teams that were swept flipped the script only about 30 percent of the time, versus a 44 percent success rate for teams that avoided the brooms. And if the previous year’s loser doesn’t have home-court advantage — which, unlike last season, the Hawks won’t — it tends to win just 30 percent of the time, compared with 62 percent for teams that lost the year before but came to the rematch armed with a home-court edge.
Statistically, though, the Hawks are hotter on the Cavaliers’ heels now than when the two clubs faced off last season. Going into Game 1 of their series a year ago, our Elo ratings — which estimate a team’s “form” at any given moment based on its wins, scoring margin and strength of schedule — considered Atlanta to be about 2.3 points per game worse than Cleveland. Now, Elo thinks the Hawks have sliced that difference down to about 1.3 points per game in the Cavs’ favor.
But although Atlanta has shrunk the gap, it hasn’t erased it completely — and, historically, that’s been an important distinction for previous-year losers trying to flip things around in the rematch. Teams who trailed in Elo and lost one year, but managed to surpass their opponent in rating before they met in the playoffs again, won the rematch 54 percent of the time. Teams who lost the first time around and failed to pass their opponent’s Elo in the intervening year — even if they, like the Hawks, reduced the gap between the teams — got their revenge only 23 percent of the time.2
So the big-picture indicators say the Cavs are relatively strong favorites to win again. But then, you probably knew that. According to Elo, the Cavs have a 67 percent probability of winning the rematch — though just an 8 percent chance of another sweep — and none of the factors above provide much reason to think Atlanta will be able to defy Elo and tell a different tale against Cleveland this time around.
Stylistically, though, the Hawks have changed quite a bit since last season. During the 2014-15 season, Atlanta was an evenly balanced machine — sixth-ranked in both offensive and defensive efficiency.3 This year’s Hawks have struggled on offense, ranking in the bottom 10, but they propelled themselves to a four-seed with lockdown defense, holding teams to just 101.4 points per 100 possessions. That was good for second best in the league, trailing only the Spurs.
If the Hawks are to upend the odds and beat the Cavs, that defense is going to have to do something special, particularly against James. In the sweep over Atlanta last year, James nearly averaged a triple-double — 30 points, 11 rebounds and 9 assists. And the Hawks have a new wrench to throw at LeBron: Thabo Sefolosha, who was absent for last year’s series after suffering a broken leg in a confrontation with police in New York City. In 74 possessions where Sefolosha was matched up with James, he held him to 22 points per 100 team possessions, the third lowest among players with at least 50 matchups against LeBron. (Granted, the Cavs as a team generated 1.19 points per chance against Atlanta with Sefolosha and James on the floor, versus 0.82 with the former not on the floor, but by definition, much of that damage came from players other than James.)
However, Sefolosha is just one player. Kent Bazemore is also likely to get the pleasure of going against LeBron, and that hasn’t gone as well this year. James torched Bazemore for 38 points per 100 team possessions, and he shot more than 20 percentage points better than expected — according to SportVU data that estimates shot difficulty using distance and defender location, among other variables — when checked by Bazemore.4 Paul Millsap, the Hawks’ best player, is another — arguably better — option against LeBron, but the Hawks have used it very sparingly this year. Millsap covered LeBron on 20 matchups this season, down 74 percent from last year.
This year’s Hawks defense is much more stout than last year’s, but the Cavs still have the ultimate trump card: LeBron. And until the Hawks have an answer for him, be it one defender or many, it’s unlikely Atlanta can overcome the historical odds and get its revenge this time around.
Check out our latest NBA playoff predictions.