The per-36-minute stats of Atlanta’s backups look nice, but there’s a reason Horford and Smith are the guys actually playing 36 minutes. Atlanta’s other big-man options all have limitations that will get exposed with increased playing time. None even approaches Horford as a two-way contributor capable of greasing the wheels on both ends.Tom Ziller opines that between the horrid bottom of the Eastern Conference and Atlanta's lack of cap and roster flexibility, Horford's injury may not have much impact:
Horford isn’t blameless when it comes to the fact that his numbers are down. Coaching and shot selection have contributed, but Horford still hasn’t developed an efficient post game that would make him a more consistent go-to player on offense. Still, he’s one of the game’s best pick-and-pop threats, and the combination of his jumper, screening ability and passing — elite for a big man — has helped Atlanta’s slow-poke offensive flow. That’s what Atlanta coach Larry Drew means when he refers to Horford as the teams’ “glue guy.”
He’s also talking about defense, where Smith and Horford are used to keeping the Hawks afloat with their combination of quickness, size and smarts. Go through all 30 NBA teams and ask yourself how many have two starting big men they can peg as very good contributors on both ends — two guys who don’t hurt your spacing, rebounding, passing, pick-and-roll coverage or any other key aspect of the game. There aren’t many. Horford can defend the pick-and-roll in lots of different ways depending on the opponent. He ranked as one of the league’s very best defenders last season, per Synergy Sports, and he’s among the top bigs when it comes to jumping out on point guards (or sliding along with them above the foul line) and retreating to cover a big man on pick-and-rolls. He and Smith can switch onto smaller players, and they are both good rebounders.
Remove either, and the house of cards is wobbly.
It's very difficult to imagine the Hawks falling out of the playoff chase because of the seriously stratified nature of the East right now.John Hollinger goes back to 2006 to assess the potential impact of Horford's injury on the Hawks:
I actually picked the Hawks to miss the playoffs due to the Bucks' improvement before the season, but it's highly unlikely that even without Horford Atlanta will turn into one of the East's sure-thing lottery teams.
[T]he Hawks have been in this position for the past two seasons, and at every turn have committed to the current core. That massive J.J. contract was inked just about 18 months ago; the world reacted to it in such negative fashion precisely because with Johnson at a huge, flexibility-killing salary, Atlanta wouldn't have much opportunity to improve. But that didn't stop Rick Sund and the Hawks. So there would seem to be little chance that the Hawks would execute a sell-off at this point, with the playoffs in play and the hope for next year remaining.
If a contender wants to take on Hinrich (an expiring contract) for the stretch run, Atlanta might not even need a first-round pick in exchange. Teague and Tracy McGrady seem to have the point guard spot under control. Williams could be another potential asset to trade if Atlanta has a shot at adding a center more refined than Zaza Pachulia. Johnson is too difficult to trade in such an uncertain environment, in my estimation, and Teague isn't going anywhere. So the answer is probably no. The Hawks should remain one of the least active franchises in the NBA.
Having entered Thursday's play at 7-4, Atlanta likely needs to go 26-29 or thereabouts over the final 55 games without Horford to make the playoffs.
The Hawks don't need to be great without Horford to make the playoffs; they just need to be average. Which doesn't sound that imposing until you remember they're at a .375 pace in the previous 104 games this nucleus has played without him.
For one night at least, they pulled it off. Playing with a skeleton crew -- in addition to Horford, the Hawks lined up minus Williams, Tracy McGrady and Kirk Hinrich -- Atlanta still had more than enough to blow away Charlotte 111-81 on Thursday.
"I think we certainly can make a playoff push," Drew said before the game.
While his tone sounded somewhere south of certain, on paper one can see who might hold down the fort. For starters, Smith is playing like an All-Star and has become the team's top per-minute scorer; he led the way Thursday with 30 points and 13 boards. In his current five-game mini-tear, he's eclipsed 23 points four times and shot 63.1 percent from the floor. Even his 20-footer is finding the net of late, although one fears this will only encourage him.
Johnson has been there the past five years, of course, and he was no slouch either Thursday with 23 points, eight boards and seven dimes. Behind those two, Jeff Teague has solidified the point guard spot, Williams was having a career year before spraining his ankle last week, and the spare parts -- most notably low-rent pickups McGrady and Vladimir Radmanovic -- have been unexpectedly productive.
And of course, the Hawks still have options. Drew talked to the media for 10 minutes, and it was hard not to notice the paper on his desk listing every NBA center. The Hawks have two true 5s on the roster with Pachulia and Jason Collins but clearly will explore their options in the coming days to round out the roster. Unsigned free agent Kyrylo Fesenko would be one potential option.
Unfortunately, their hands probably are tied when it comes to replacing Horford with anywhere close to similar production. Atlanta is already over the luxury tax threshold -- it can get under by paring down a couple of nonguaranteed contracts, but the Hawks gave out all minimum contracts this offseason partly to avoid the tax man.
As a result, it's mostly on these four -- Smith, Johnson, Williams and Pachulia -- to show how far they've come in the past half-decade.
"All the guys are going to have to raise their games," Horford said. "It starts with Joe and Josh."
So far, so good. If they can get this team to the playoffs, hope remains for what they might accomplish afterward with Horford in the fold. But .375 won't get it done.