HANG TIME HEADQUARTERS — Hawks All-Star Joe Johnson is either crazy or a man of serious basketball faith when he says his team “still has enough talent” to be one of the Eastern Conference elites after losing Al Horford for the remainder of the regular season with a torn pectoral muscle.
No one was sure they were “elite” even with a healthy Horford. And no team in the league causes more head-scratching than the Hawks. Who else follows a rousing road win in Miami, handing the Heat their first defeat of the season, with two of the more remarkable meltdowns of this young season in back-to-back losses to the Bulls and Heat? And then they rebound by the weekend and run the Bulls off the floor in Atlanta?
While most everyone assumes that the Hawks will struggle just to make the playoffs without their two-time All-Star center, I think the Hawks become an infinitely more dangerous team without him. Before you spit that coffee all over your computer screen, walk with me for a minute (and remember that this is the Hawks we’re talking about, a team that has found a way to become a postseason staple the past four years in spite of all of their Draft gaffes, enigmatic play and general dysfunction).
Despite Johnson’s belief in the Hawks’ elite status, I can promise him they wouldn’t have been considered elite by outsiders even if they did finish in the top three or four of the standings this season. Honestly, that might not matter anyway. To succeed in the playoffs during an abbreviated season such as this one, a team’s regular-season finish might not be the most telling factor.
The Hawks proved that last season, faltering during the regular season and then surprising with a win over the Magic in the first round and pushing the Bulls to the brink in the conference semifinals.
What the Hawks do have that can’t be measured is the undeniable ability to defy all expectations and common sense. They’ve been doing it since Horford entered the league, backing into the playoffs during his rookie season and then pushing the eventual champion Celtics to seven games in a first-round series.
Every season since then, the Hawks were supposed to stumble and fall back to the pack or fall out of the playoffs completely … and each time they’ve made a mockery of those predictions. Every metric, measurement and statistical analysis designed to study this team has been turned inside out.
For better or worse, the Hawks never follow the script.
I panned this team a bit in the preseason, suggesting that their refusal to tinker with their core all these years would finally cost them this season. So it only makes sense that they would race to 8-4 during their first 12 games and score significant wins over the two teams that played in the conference finals last season. (After seven years of watching this crew up close, it warms the heart to know that the Hawks continue to confound at every turn).
Still, this is a wicked blow for a team and a town that is currently reeling from the failings of its professional sports outfits, as Jeff Schultz of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution states clearly here.
Only a fool would dismiss what they’ve lost in Horford, a player that Hawks coach Larry Drew described this way Thursday night: “He’s kind of a glue for us. He’s a stabilizer. He’s a guy who huddles the team, who talks in the huddle. He’s a guy who’s not afraid to call people out. Certainly the guys respect him. You can see how guys respond to him.”
The Hawks are losing more than just the numbers (12.4 points, 7.0 rebounds and 2.3 assists), leadership, presence and stability. They’re losing the one player on their roster that is universally regarded as their most “important” player.
Yet, their top scorer (Johnson), rebounder and shot blocker (Josh Smith), assist man and steals leader (Jeff Teague) remain healthy and ready to go. By all accounts, Smith (and not Hoford or Johnson) has been the Hawks’ best player this season and really since that series loss to the Bulls in the playoffs. (No matter how many times you get frustrated with him, that’s the way it is. Go back and watch the games and see for yourself.)
Truth be told, the Hawks’ supporting cast is arguably the best it’s been since Horford entered the league. And Drew gives the Hawks a measured presence in a crisis that will pay dividends in ways that won’t be obvious to the casual observer.
The same teams the Hawks were going to jockey with for playoff position if Horford was in uniform — the 76ers, Pacers, Celtics, Knicks and Magic –will be the exact same teams they deal with without him.
Bottom line: Don’t assume anything with these Hawks.
My guess is they aren’t going anywhere. And it would be a foolish move to write them off now, before we know exactly what they will try to do to compensate for Horford’s absence.