One could label this bunch with any sort of cliche: tough, rugged, blue-collar, or any other synonym you could think of that oddly enough describes a redneck’s truck. Depending on how far you want to dive into it, that’s what this group was.
But why relegate them to cliches? Why speak in generalities and not give this group of centers their due, both good and bad? If I wanted to heap on praise about the toughness of players, validated or not, I’d hop on First Take or the ESPN NBA Countdown crew and bark about subjective and unproven viewpoints that I’ll never be able to truly know or prove.
These guys were tough, but what does that really mean? Sure, they fought for loose balls, grabbed some rebounds thanks to some extra effort, embraced contact at the rim, and head-butted people (alright, that was just Zaza), and that’s all good and well, but contrary to what we believe, it’s not like toughness breeds winners. If it did, our center rotation would be one of the best in the league, but it’s not, because toughness unfortunately doesn’t mean all that much.
Nevertheless, Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia, Jason Collins, and Erick Dampier performed admirably this season, especially in light of Horford’s injury. So let’s break them down. We’ll start with the worst of them, Erick Dampier.
Erick Dampier: Hopefully, no one expected a renaissance season from grandpa Dampier. Not only has his weird oval of a goatee been overtaken by gray hair, but his limbs have been overtaken by age, and while he was once seen as the nitty gritty backbone of the Dallas Mavericks’ front court, he’s lost just about every useful skill he once held dear and is about as useful as a cucumber on the court. Inexplicably though, Larry Drew had the balls to play him in the fourth quarter of what turned out to be an incredibly close playoff elimination game. Now, I can’t help but wonder if those costly 3 minutes he spent on the court to start the fourth quarter of Game 6 would have been better utilized by someone like Ivan Johnson, but I digress, I am no Larry Drew. If Damp hadn’t been the sessile liability that he was in the fourth quarter, you have to wonder if the Hawks could have won the game. Every point counts, and I have a feeling that we allowed more and scored less nearly every minute he was on the court. A surprisingly productive 2-minute stretch in the first half from Damp shouldn’t mean an increase in playing time. You need to take what you can get, and Coach Drew pushed for more.
Alas, that’s no criticism on Dampier. He came in and played to the best of his abilities, and there is a sense of nobility and honor in that. Unfortunately for the Hawks, “the best of his abilities” aren’t much more impressive than Juwaun Howard’s (who is an NBA Champion!). The thing is, though, you know what you’re getting every time he comes in: zero offense, minimal defense, a few quick rebounds, a hard foul, and a turnover. You live with it because it’s all he can do at this point, and you only play him if you have to. I’d be remiss to say that the circumstances didn’t at times call for him. With Horford still recovering and Pachulia out of the game, the big man rotation was less than stellar. He came in and moved his aging body as fast as he could move it and grabbed as many rebounds as he could gather, but for the millionth time, his best isn’t enough to win a playoff game, regardless of the injury circumstances.
He was on the team for “veteran leadership,” and I give him credit for swinging when he was unexpectedly lined up at the plate. He provided what just about everyone expected: a butt on the bench and (hopefully) a voice in the locker room (I don’t really know if he did, but let’s give him the benefit of the doubt).
Given the limitations of this team (in large part due to injury), Collins performed just a hair under satisfactory given the low expectations. After he was dubbed the “Dwight Howard stopper” in last year’s playoffs, he’s actually had a little bit of a reputation to defend. He was inserted into the starting lineup after Pachulia was injured late in the regular season, officially putting the Hawks in a hole so big that Shia LeBouff couldn’t even dig his way out (it’s a weak reference to the movie. Let me have this one.) as our 2 most useful centers sat on the bench in suits. Jason Collins playing extended minutes is a weird thing to see because, like Dampier, his mobility has essentially decreased to nonexistent. Yet still, he had limited success against Garnett in the opening game of the playoffs and even found a way to score 6 points. His Hack-a-KG strategy wasn’t exactly reminiscent of his New Jersey days when tried to body up Shaq, but nonetheless, it was the best the Hawks could muster with such a dilapidated front court.
Collins played 73 minutes in the first 3 games of the playoffs, only to play a grand total of 12 in the last 3. Thankfully, Horford was able to relieve Collins of his duties when he came alive in Game 5. Still, Collins’ effort in the opening 3 games is not to be diminished. The Hawks won the opener and had a chance in games 2 and 3. Offensively with Collins on the court, the Hawks were playing 4 vs. 5, but when a player has known limitations and a coach is forced to throw him in the fire, it’s not really fair to hold those limitations against said player. Collins did what he could on KG, and gave us a body to throw out on the court when our 2 most used centers went down. Even if it looked like human sacrifice as KG stole his lunch money, I’m proud of Jason Collins’ awfulness.
Zaza Pachulia: This guy. I mean, what do you say about him? He’s the MVP of the Hawks’ season, really. Sure, Josh Smith was the driver, but with no Zaza all regular season, we’re sitting in the lottery about to trade the 13th pick for Mouhamed Saer Sene (Rick Sund jokes!).
Anyway, Pachulia meant so much to this team in every single facet of the game this season. His rebounding, defense, and in my opinion underrated craftiness around the hoop allowed the Hawks to keep their head’s above water in a regular season without Al Horford. Mainly though, Pachulia prevented the Hawks from having to rely on the aforementioned Dampier and Collins a whole lot more than would have been necessary. He produced while keeping the 2 aging tall guys off the court. It’s like a 2-for-1.
When Horford was announced out for the season, I really did wonder if this team was lottery bound, and in a terrible sense, I kind of hoped it was. I even tried to start a #TankForTRob hashtag on twitter. It didn’t catch on, but mainly because Pachulia wouldn’t let it. He’s really what kept this team from sinking like the Titanic. He was the last line of defense before we had to give up hope. Without him, any big with a lick of a post game would come in and dominate the Hawks. And how much worse would it have been when Los Angeles or Memphis came to town? Pau or Marc Gasol would tear this hypothetical Zaza-less team to shreds with their passing ability, and Andrew Bynum or Zach Randolph would march all over the corpse of any defender we threw their way. Josh Smith picked up the slack with increased rebounding and a more quintessential role in the offense (which he unfortunately interpreted as invitation to shoot a jump shot every time his defender gave him 4 inches of space). Pachulia, however, picked up the slack by playing more post defense, playing more minutes, and doing all the small but big things like setting good screens, drawing charges, and annoying opponents so much they almost snap mentally and choke their coach like Latrell Sprewell.
That’s what I’ve grown to love the most about Zaza. The fact that he just pisses his opponents off by excessively pestering them and getting right up in their face, hoping for another opportunity to head butt someone. He thrives off of his opponents’ annoyance. That doesn’t make him a good player, it makes him fun. And when he single handedly kept a dead fish of a rotation alive while being fun at the same time, I grew to love him even more.
Al Horford: If you don’t count his incredible Game 5 and his nice 4th quarter of Game 6 in the Boston series, Horford’s season was an incredible disappointment. Most of that was beyond his control as Roy Hibbert blocked him into the ground, ending his regular season on the spot. However, let’s not act like he was playing like the All-NBA Al we’ve known him to be before the injury. He was averaging a measly 11 points and 7 rebounds, hardly indicative of the all-star title that he’s attained.
Because he played only 11 games, I’m going to let those numbers slide. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt and say he turns it back around, because really, he can make a very compelling case to be the 2nd best center in the league when healthy (Oh I can make the arguments, Andew Bynum and Marc Gasol). His playoff performance in Game 5 and the 4th quarter of Game 4 were magnificent, reminiscent of Al before the injury, but still not quite there. Yet watching a hobbled player play such a smart game rejuvenated my love for the man. He had to play well in Game 5 or the Hawks were finished. What did he do? He played his face off and even strapped up Rondo on a switch, not even allowing him to get a shot off as time expired, sealing a victory. Game 6? He was the victim of a rule mix-up when he was fouled before Marvin Williams inbounded the ball, but his heroics down the stretch kept the Hawks afloat before he ultimately missed a free throw to put a nail in the season.
He showed us what we were missing all regular season, and man, was that about as beautiful as Hawks basketball can be (which isn’t really saying much). Let’s hope that he has fully recovered and that he’s able to play healthy all of next season, because Lord knows we’ll need him.
Well, the Hawks center rotation wasn’t much to truly behold in the 2011-12 season, but the guys gave it a run. It’s remarkable that the Hawks were able to survive 6 games with the minutes shouldered by both Collins and Dampier, but it’s even more remarkable that Zaza Pachulia saved a season from certain doom. Did you ever think you’d read the words savior and Zaza together? Neither did I.
Tags: Al Horford Andrew Bynum Atlanta Hawks Boston Celtics Erick Dampier Featured Jason Collins Josh Smith Kevin Garnett Larry Drew Los Angeles Lakers Marc Gasol Memphis Grizzlies NBA Playoffs Pau Gasol Popular Zaza Pachulia