[Ed. note -- Matt Tanner is going to check in with his perspective on the Hawks approximately once a quarter this season.]
By Matt Tanner
Thanks to the lockout-abbreviated schedule, we are less than a month into the season but already the Atlanta Hawks have played 17 games, or roughly one quarter of the regular season. While players across the league bemoan the fact they occasionally have to (gasp) play basketball three days in a row! - the nightly slate of marquee games has been rather enjoyable from the fan perspective.
Here locally, the sultry pipes of Bob Rathbun and the familiar non-commentary of commentator Dominique Wilkins are wafting through our living room seemingly every night, so we thought it made sense to pause and take stock of how the team is looking at this stage of the season. We will return 3 more times throughout the year-after every quarter of the season is completed.
A few caveats: My basketball playing days ended in high school and my coaching experience is currently limited to a team of 4th and 5th grade girls, so if you are looking for in-depth commentary on how the team is defending the pick and pop, you are likely to be disappointed. And while statistical analysis was a major part of my professional career for a spell, I know there are those better suited to apply that knowledge to the hardwood so you won't find a lot of that here either.
What will you find? An attempt to take the pulse of this Hawks squad as it navigates a season where most believe they sit precariously on the ledge of that NBA purgatory between the Elite and the Lottery known as Mediocrity.
Without further ado, your Atlanta Hawks so far. . .
The Record: 12-5 (.706)
Current Pace: 47-19 (58-24 in a normal 82 game season)*
*Would be best winning percentage in franchise history. And yes, I know it’s early, but still.
The Opponents: @ New Jersey W, Washington W, New Jersey W, @ Houston L, @ Miami W, @ Chicago L, Miami L, @ Charlotte W, Chicago W, @ New Jersey W, @ Indiana L, Charlotte W, Minnesota W, Toronto W, Portland W, @ Philadelphia L, Cleveland W
The temptation is to go with the night the Hawks went into American Airlines Arena and handed the Heat (at full strength) their first loss, 100-92. However, the more impressive moment came at the tail end of the teams first ever back-to-back-to back, when the Hawks defeated the Bulls 109-94. After playing 8 quarters and 4 overtime periods the two days prior, the Hawks looked fresh and motivated as they outplayed and outhustled the mighty Bulls from the opening tip to the final buzzer. It was a surprising response from a squad that 48 hours earlier had managed to play the least entertaining 3 overtime game in the history of sports.
An easy, if not nauseating paragraph to write. The loss of “glue guy” Al Horford for what looks to be the remainder of the regular season-and maybe longer-was a crushing blow to a team that had raced to one of the best records in the NBA. No one seems to be giving up on this season just yet (the team is actually 5-1 since the injury, albeit against largely inferior opposition) but one does not replace the former number 3 overall draft pick with Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia and not expect a significant drop-off.
Runner Up: The aforementioned night in which the Hawks lost a triple overtime thriller (sic) to the Miami Heat while Charles Barkley spent four hours blasting the Hawks on national television.
Everything in Between
Outside of the impressive wins over the Bulls and Heat, the Hawks essentially beat everyone they were supposed to and lost whenever playing anyone on decent on the road. Wins over the Wizards, Raptors, Cavaliers, Bobcats (twice) and Nets (thrice) were nice, if not expected. Beating a solid Portland squad capped off a four game home winning streak, but that streak was sandwiched with road losses to Eastern upstarts Indiana and Philadelphia. The New Year's Eve loss on the road at Houston was by no means shocking (although the Rockets were on the final leg of a back-to-back-to-back).
At this point it has become cliché to to rip on Joe Johnson and his max contract, and to start the season he was doing little to assuage the criticism. Johnson averaged 16.7 points per game through the first eleven with a healthy Al Horford, and while obviously a small sample size, it would have been his lowest average as a Hawk if he continued at that pace.
Since Horford went down however, Johnson has upped his scoring average to 22 points per game and has been demonstrably more of a leader on the court. Watching Johnson play like Robin when we want so desperately for him to be Batman has always been maddening, but perhaps the Horford injury will force him to seize the spotlight. (And yes, I know that is quite possibly the biggest reach at a silver lining in the history of silver linings).
Letting us Down
Josh Smith and his continued love affair with the 19-foot jumper was going to be our choice for this segment before I remembered the notion that the very definition of insanity was doing the same thing repeatedly while expecting a different result. I have watched Josh Smith repeatedly over the years while expecting him to stop settling for jumpers and instead use his superhuman quickness and jumping ability to become one of the greatest players in the league. He refuses to do it. Continuing to expect this from him is therefore insane on our part, not disappointing.
Since I can’t go with Smith here, let’s just go with Willie Green. Everything about him.
Not a Flash in the Pan?
Though I saw glimpses of his ability during the playoff series against the Bulls last year when he held his own against Derrick Rose, it has been nice to see Jeff Teague step into the point guard role with gusto. His current +/- of +102, while a debatable stat to be sure, ranks among the league leaders and he is averaging 5.4 attempts per game at the rim-while the mercurial Derrick Rose is averaging 5.5. (I am aware that Rose is converting 63.9 percent of these attempts while Teague is converting only 54.7, but expect those to even out somewhat).
The bottom line: While he continues to be a work in progress, through 17 games Teague has done little to dissuade Hawk fans from believing he can be a very good point guard. He is never going to make fans completely forget about passing on Chris Paul and Deron Williams, but he has certainly eased the sting of those mishaps considerably.
Polling the Power Polls
NBA.com's John Schuhmann places the Hawks 13th in his Power Rankings behind Eastern Conference foes Chicago (1st), Philadelphia (4th), Miami (5th), Orlando (7th) and Indiana (11th). SI.com’s Britt Robson also has the Bulls at 1, with the 76ers (3rd), Heat (5th), Pacers (8th), and Magic (9th) all coming in ahead of the Hawks, who he has at 14th. ESPN’s Marc Stein makes it a trifecta for Chicago as he has them at the top of his rankings, followed by Philadelphia (3rd), Miami (5th), Indiana (9th), Orlando (11th) and Atlanta (12th). (Finally, ESPN’s John Hollinger, who does his rankings based on a complex formula and updates them daily, has the Hawks ranked 4th.
The Big Picture
If you looked at things solely on paper (and maybe squinted a bit) you could talk yourself into the Hawks being amongst the East Elite with the likes of Miami and Chicago. (Sorry, we just aren’t buying the 76ers yet). After all, the Hawks split with both of those squads and came tantalizingly close to being 2-0 against both. Of course, in reality, the Horford injury changed the entire tenor of this season and most are predicting the Hawks to fall off considerably the rest of the way.
I doubt the Hawks will rally around the injury of the guy Larry Drew calls the “glue” of the squad and continue to contend for a top seed in the East, but we also don’t anticipate them falling out of the playoff race entirely. But even a precipitous drop in seeding might not be a terrible thing. Is landing the 4th seed and facing off against a Philadelphia or Indiana squad really that great of a reward? There are worse things than landing the 7th seed and getting a healthy Al Horford back in time to open up the playoffs with an exciting series against the Bulls or the Heat. Why put it off a round? This team seems to play better when no one is expecting anything from them anyway.
The Hawks are set to embark on a lengthy road trip that will see them play 5 games in 8 days. And while we doubt flying is as tough on NBA teams as it is on the everyday business traveller, the league office did the Hawks no favors as it will head from Atlanta to Milwaukee, down to San Antonio, up to Detroit, back down to New Orleans then back up to Toronto. If you aren’t good at geography, just trust me, it’s a patently ridiculous trip.
Travelling woes aside, the next quarter of the season figures to be far tougher than the first. The Hawks only left the confines of Philips Arena 8 times through the first 17 games, but 11 of the next 16 are on the road. In addition, the average winning percentage of Atlanta’s 17 opponents thus far was .502-only good enough to be the 18th toughest schedule in the league, while the next 16 opponents are a combined .521.
Whatever happens, we will be watching.
Matt Tanner formerly worked the missing kitten beat for a small daily newspaper in Milledgeville, GA before eschewing the journalism world for a corporate gig. Recently he eschewed that gig to sell popsicles. He is an Atlanta native and lifelong Hawks fan.