The Atlanta Hawks came out on top in a double overtime thriller on the road against the Cleveland Cavaliers on Thursday night, but the loss of Al Horford to injury was the real story. When Jeff Teague‘s last second shot finally fell through the net after multiple bounces off both the rim and backboard, the Hawks celebrated a “gut-check” win that should have helped to build confidence and momentum going forward. Yet when we reach the end of the season, it’s much more likely that the Hawks will look back at this game as a turning point for all the wrong reasons.
With 1:48 remaining in the game’s first period of OT, Horford reached over Anderson Varejao in an attempt to strip the ball away off the inbounds pass. With his attempt unsuccessful, the 27 year old pulled up grimacing, leaving Varejao with a clear path into the paint. After a Cavaliers miss, the Hawks attempted to move the ball quickly up court, but with Horford in agony, it became apparent they needed to call timeout. Closely clutching under his right arm pit, Horford was briefly examined by Wally Blase, the Hawks Head Athletic Trainer, before heading to the locker room for the rest of the game. The following day an MRI, would confirm Horford’s worst fears. He had suffered a complete tear of his pectoral muscle, just like two seasons ago except this time it was on his right side instead of the left.
Not an injury with a quick recovery time frame, Horford will be injured until deep in the season depending on how far the Hawks progress. In fact there’s every chance that Horford is done until next year anyway. NBA.com’s David Aldridge tweeted that he had received a text from Horford saying that he would “probably not” be back for the Playoffs. This makes sense as having returned after 55 games out from the same injury to play in a post season game against Boston back in 2012, Horford commented that he felt he had come back too soon. With his season likely done, where does this leave the Hawks?
By losing Horford, Atlanta loses their leader and talisman, but unlike in many other cases, his stats also offer evidence of the more tangible ways his absence will hurt his team. Lets take a look at a couple of key stats from both ends of the floor:
- Atlanta’s offense has really stepped up a notch of late and Horford plays a big part in that. He leads the Hawks scoring with 18.6 points per game and a 56.7 per cent field goal rating (ranked seventh in the NBA). His mid range jumper is particularly effective, with 32.7% of his points accounted for from set scenarios within that distance. This is a tool that the Hawks have utilized as a go-to move via pick and pop plays with Jeff Teague.
- As well as being the Hawks offensive leader, Horford acts as a formidable presence for the team defensively. He leads the team in blocks with 1.5 a night (11th in the NBA) and has become one of the toughest defenders of the paint across the league. Horford has held his opponents to shoot an average of 47.8 per cent at the rim, putting him in the same bracket as some of the league’s elite big men.
So how are the Hawks going to replace him, or as its probably more realistic to ask, can they?
With no single player on the roster currently appearing likely to be capable of replacing Horford’s productivity at the five spot, I would anticipate Atlanta to try and play center by committee. This means that each of Elton Brand, Pero Antic and Gustavo Ayon will rotate and share minutes between them on a game by game basis.
Brand is undoubtedly the most complete of the three players, and with a recent upturn in form, appears to be the current choice of Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer to fill the vacant starting spot. The one obvious disadvantage that comes with Brand is that his age makes it unlikely that he will be able to log heavy minutes on a nightly basis. Macedonian rookie Pero Antic is a solid option defensively with intimidating size, while offensively his ability to shoot the long ball will help to maintain the sort of spacing that Horford’s mid range game created. Although growing in confidence and poise with each game, Antic still occasionally show signs of naivety as he tries to settle into life in the US. The Mexican, Gustavo Ayon will likely become a more significant fixture in the rotation as he continues to regain fitness following injury. Ayon represents a talented offensive option, and a capable rebounder, but he can be a liability on the defensive end.
With a severe lack of quality available free agent center’s, it seems likely that Atlanta’s general manager Danny Ferry will stick with these three for production. The likes of Drew Gooden, Jason Collins and Chris Wilcox don’t offer anything that isn’t covered by the three men above or anyone else currently on the Hawks roster. If Ferry was to make a move to add to his current squad, it might be worth his while to consider adding Hawks cult favorite Ivan Johnson. Having been released by the Hawks this summer following two seasons as a valuable role player, Johnson has been taking the Chinese league by storm. If Atlanta are still on track for the playoffs come February, he should be a man they consider calling when the Chinese season comes to its conclusion. Although undersized, his toughness, and athleticism meant Johnson proved more than effective during his last NBA spell.
On the other hand, there has been speculation that Ferry might decide to blow things up and tank for a high draft pick, but that currently doesn’t seem like a prudent move. With the Hawks having the option to swap picks with the Nets in this years draft, and Brooklyn struggling well below .500 at the moment, Atlanta has a rare opportunity to make the playoffs and end up with a top pick. With the East as weak as it is this season, the Hawks should still have more than enough quality in Teague, Millsap, Korver and Williams to make the postseason for a seventh straight year. With this in mind, Ferry would be foolish to trade away assets just yet.
It isn’t going to be possible for the Hawks to be as good as they have been of late without their talismanic center. If their big men can adapt to their new roles and pressures quickly, there is no reason they can’t still be a playoff team though.