Peachtree Hoops writers Jason Walker and Kris Willis take a look back at the first half of the season and discuss what some of their surprises, disappointments and their predictions for the second half.
What has been the storyline of the first half of the season?
JW: The up and down season, from starting among the top of the East to settling down into the pack, thanks to dealing with key injuries to Al Horford and Joe Johnson and a --- ummm --- uniquely compressed schedule.
KW: The injury to Al Horford overshadows everything else but the struggles heading into the break put a damper on what was a great start to the season. The roller coaster ride has been in full effect from the outset with the Hawks sometimes looking like a team capable of cracking into the elite of the Eastern Conference and other times looking like they could slide out of the playoff picture entirely.
What is the biggest surprise of the first half?
JW: The biggest surprise for me is the continued development of Josh Smith's defensive rebounding rate. Last season was a career high for Smith, with 23.1% and this season he is currently at a healthy 25%. With Horford's injury, Josh has stepped in and kept his finger in the hole that has long been the Hawks very average defensive rebounding, which has led to the Hawks largely being able to stay in the top 10 in defensive efficicency.
KW: My biggest surprise is how well the veteran bench has come together and played throughout the first half of the season. By themselves a bench of Jannero Pargo, Willie Green and Vladimir Radmanovic isn't that impressive and even drew the usual jeers from critics around the NBA as the Hawks were adding them. Despite some ups and downs the pieces while not impressive individually have fit well together for the most part. That and the emergence of Ivan Johnson is the biggest surprise for me in the first half.
What is the biggest disappointment of the first half?
JW: No question, besides the team injuries, it's the lack of quality minutes Kirk Hinrich has provided thus far. He was counted on to be a significant sixth man contributor, but has instead seen his production slip from an already low level last season (12.3 PER) to an abysmally low 7.3 PER this season, thanks largely to an awful 38.6% eFG%, off 12 points from his career averages. The second unit has to have Hinrich improve his aim during the second half of the season to keep the pressure off.
KW: My biggest disappointment is no doubt the injury to Al Horford. With this compressed schedule, teams that had a core group together held advantages over less experienced clubs. While the Hawks may not have the talent even when healthy to be regarded as a championship contender, Horford's presence and their continuity could have provided a tough matchup for several teams in the playoffs. It is possible that Horford may return in time for the post season but the Hawks will likely be in a much less favorable position in the Eastern Conference.
Jeff Teague was regarded as the X-Factor for the team coming into the season. What are your thoughts on his play from the first half?
JW: As you would expect from a point guard getting his first really serious rotation minutes, Teague has been up and down on the court. However, his advanced numbers are up across the board, save for -- ironically -- his usage rate. Teague has sometimes blended into the background too much, but he has shown his importance to the team that when he does, the team is noticeably affected by it. He is creeping up on Josh Smith as the main, as he goes, the Hawks go player on the team.
KW: Overall I have been satisfied with Teague's performance. He has struggled of late and many relate that to the return of Kirk Hinrich. I am not necessarily in that camp but Teague probably could stand to see a bump up in minutes over the second half of the season. To warrant that he is going to have to do a much better job of getting over the top of screens and become much more assertive on the offensive end of the floor. If I am disappointed in anything it has been his indecisiveness of late even with Joe Johnson out of the lineup.
If he's not the biggest disappointment, what is our take on Larry Drew's first half performance?
JW: Between the difficult schedule, the injuries and a brand new bench, Drew has had a tough task in balancing all of it. That disclaimer firmly in place, I believe he has too short a leash with Teague, especially considering his visible impact on the team, which has been exacerbated by Hinrich's lousy play so far.
Also, his handling of the small forward minutes, a mutually exclusive time share between Marvin Williams and Tracy McGrady, has made both unhappy and neither are producing like at the beginning of the season. Drew has to be more creative that that -- a better manager of his people.
Last thing on Drew, while noting that despite losing Horford after 11 games and all of these other items, the team is still 20-14, is his reticence to trusting Zaza Pachulia more. Pachulia has proven now that he is capable of doing the same "Howard stopper" defense that Jason Collins is well known for, but with much better production overall. That Zaza is still averaging less than 30 minutes per game since Horford got hurt (27.8 mpg since) tells you that Zaza is not being used even close to full throttle.
KW: I have been a supporter of Drew from day one but I can't say that his performance in the first half has been overly inspiring. While he has had to manage a shortened season with a virtually new bench, Drew has still apparently struggled in clearly defining roles for his players and his substitution patterns seem at times inconsistent which has led to some reported discontent from some players.
Still one area I would like to see improved is more imagination on the offensive end of the floor. Often times it seems as though the Hawks are completely predictable and indecisive in their play calls and execution.
What moves do we believe the Hawks will make, if any?
JW: Unless the Hawks drop below the playoff line and forces Rick Sund and Drew, who are on short contracts, remember, to panic and make a move to keep the Hawks in the playoffs, I don't expect anything to change beyond the 10-day contract endgames.
KW: Despite recent rumors to the contrary, I am not convinced that the Hawks will make a move at the deadline. If Atlanta does make a move then it will likely be a deal that leads to some salary relief next season.
Biggest moment of the first half?
JW: You can make the case for the 4-1 road trip that the Hawks hadn't accomplished since 1968 and did it without Al Horford, but the more relevant high point was the 109-94 beatdown of the Chicago Bulls which brought the Hawks forward in league relevance for a time and provided temporary hope, until the lowest point happened (see below), that this might be the year the Hawks could get past the second round.
JW: This. At one moment, you could hear the window of opportunity for this core of players slam shut. They've played well, since, but there is no upside, only survival.
KW: Most disappointing loss for me was the 116-109 triple overtime loss to a Miami Heat team without LeBron James and Dwyane Wade. Most disappointing stretch for me was the 1-4 road trip in which they were hardly competitive. From a big picture perspective though, you can go all the way back to Al Horford's injury.
JW: They look on pace to match or exceed our modest predictions before the season, but the inevitability of what will happen should they make it that far is heavy. Even if Horford gets back for the playoffs, can he be a 19-20 PER guy as if he had been healthy all year? Likely not, which will mean the Hawks will get a solid rotation player back, which will help, but ultimately not enough to get past the second round if they are lucky enough to get a good matchup in the first.
KW: Not knowing whether they will make a substantial roster move, I predict another up and down second half which was much like the first. Given their competition in the Eastern Conference, Atlanta should be able to stay in contention for the No. 5 seed but could slide lower if they can't snap out of their recent struggles.