It’s been almost two weeks since the cornerstone of our franchise, Al Horford, went down with a season-ending injury. Two weeks since any thoughts of a late-season championship push came to an abrupt halt. True, Atlanta is still in decent shape to land a high playoff seed, but the potency of its arsenal and the threat it carried as a team has been severely dampened. The magnificent two-headed frontcourt monster that was supposed to take the Hawks to the Promised Land has had one of its heads chopped cleanly off, leaving Paul Millsap to fight alone in the paint. Though the negatives abound, there is hope that this might not be the lost season that many perceive as inevitable.
Firstly, let’s take a look at how the Hawks have faired since Al Horford suffered the season-ending tear to his right pectoral muscle on December 26th. Horford had been on an absolute tear in the 5 games prior to his injury, posting 22.6-8.8-3.6 averages and propelling the Hawks to a 4-1 record over the span. In the six games since, Atlanta is only 2-4, though it is noteworthy that all four losses came by 7 points or less and that the team could’ve easily gone 3-3 over this stretch if not for an Andre Iguodala buzzer-beater that lifted the Warriors to a narrow 1-point victory over the Hawks on January 3rd.
The two other members of the Hawks’ key triumvirate- Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap- have both witnessed inflated statistics since Horford went down. Millsap, as expected, has been the primary beneficiary of Horford’s absence with averages of 21.3 points and 10.3 rebounds in the six games since the injury, a noticeable upgrade from the 17.6 points and 8.7 rebounds he averages on the season. He (single-handedly) boosted the Hawks to a 1-point victory over the Celtics on December 31st with a monstrous 34-point, 15-rebound performance. Millsap could conceivably bump his averages up to the double-double range by the end of the season.
Taking Horford’s place in the starting lineup has been offseason addition Pero Antic. The Hawks gave veteran journeyman Elton Brand a chance in the first three games after Horford went down, but it quickly became clear that Brand is no longer starter material. In stepped Antic, who over the past three games has averaged 11.0 points and 5.7 rebounds, and cemented his role in the starting lineup for the time being.
As gloomy as this situation might still feel, Hawks fans should seek solace in the notion that perhaps the loss of Horford won’t be as devastating to the Hawks’ season- from a record standpoint, anyway- as many assume. Despite a 2-4 record since Horford’s injury, the Hawks have played with impressive resilience and still look like they could give any team in the league a run for its money. It also doesn’t hurt that the Eastern Conference is shaping up to be so incredibly dismal this season that many analysts actually believe Atlanta is in more or less the same position that they were in when Al Horford was healthy.
Jason Patt of SBNation.com went as far as to move the Hawks up in his NBA power rankings to number 13 overall:
"The Hawks haven’t exactly been lighting the world on fire since Al Horford went down, but they move up two spots thanks to the issues with the teams around them. Kyle Korver’s three streak is still alive and now stands at 103 games."
Jimmy Spencer of FoxSports.com also views the Hawks season with a glass-half-full perspective:
"Everything is relative in the East, and playing slightly above .500 all season long has the Hawks positioned in that third spot out East. Playing at this pace could actually result in home-court advantage in the first round."
Others are not nearly as positive.
Matt Moore, of CBSSports.com, takes a gut shot at Atlanta fans with his analysis. He paints a picture of the painful possibility that exists on the other side of the spectrum of how the Atlanta’s season might unfold. His belief as to how the Hawks will fare without their star:
"This is the problem with losing Al Horford. They can’t mount comebacks and they can’t hold leads. Things could get worse before it gets better. So, they lose, basically."
Take these quotes as you will, but deep down I think we all have the same feeling: this turned from a win-now season into a building-for-next-year season as soon as Horford went down
You can choose to deny it or painfully embrace the fact; I personally try to find the lighter side in situations like these. For instance, I am given some semblance of contentment in considering how much worse losing Al Horford would have been last season. Could you imagine the pressure Josh Smith would have put on himself to be “The Man”? How many appalling 20-shot games he would have had? What about all the innocent Atlanta children whose perception of how to truly play basketball would have been poisoned by watching half a season of Smith running the show?
See, it’s not so bad anymore.