The Hawks have lost 11 of 12, and as they progress further into their Western Conference road trip, things don't seem to be getting any easier. Wednesday night's match up against the Trail Blazers in front of arguably the league's most raucous crowd isn't exactly an ideal match up for Atlanta to get back on track, especially considering the injury-riddled Hawks will boast their thin defensive front court against one of the NBA's premier scorers down low, LaMarcus Aldridge.
The Hawks are currently clinging to the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference, holding a three game lead over the Detroit Pistons and a four game lead over the semi-surging Cleveland Cavaliers.
Question (Daniel Christian): The Blazers came into the season with the expectations of a fringe playoff team. After the first month, everyone realized that this team was for real and would compete in the treacherous Western Conference. Is the vastly improved bench and second unit in comparison to last season's primarily responsible for this leap?
Answer (Chris Lucia): It's tough to say. Last year's bench was so terrible, just about anything would've improved it. The continued improvement of LaMarcus Aldridge, Damian Lillard taking his game to another level in just his second year and the underrated -- at the time, at least -- acquisition of Robin Lopez are just a few factors that have allowed this Blazers team to surpass last year's win total by February. I'm not sure if I'd say the bench unit's improvement from last year is the primary reason for the Blazers getting over the hump, but having solid veterans like Mo Williams and Dorell Wright coming off the bench to go along with contributions from Joel Freeland, C.J. McCollum and Will Barton has been a pretty big slice of the pie.
Q: C.J. McCollum was one of every draft experts' favorite candidate to be an instant impact sort of rookie. He suffered injury setbacks and the misfortune of being stuck behind Damian Lillard and Mo Williams in a crowded backcourt. What does McCollum's future look like in Portland?
A: I think there was a contingent of fans hoping he could play serious minutes at backup point guard. At times, McCollum's shown a great knack for creating his own offense and he has solid range, but his ball distributing isn't there right now and I'm not sure that's really what's being asked of him from the Portland coaching staff. I don't know if he'll ever play big minutes at the point, but in the immediate future he is a skilled combo guard off the bench who can come in and get shots off the dribble and kickstart the offense when he's playing well. For next season and beyond, I think he'll continue to be an instant offense-type sixth-man who can come in and not only put points on the board, but really get teammates involved, as well.
Q: LaMarcus Aldridge has been incredible this season when healthy. With Blake Griffin and Kevin Love also having career years, the question people have been asking about these guys for the last two or three years still stands: who is the best power forward in the league? If your pick isn't Aldridge, how do you think he stacks up with his elite peers?
A: I don't want to sound too homer-ish, but I'm going with Aldridge on this one. Griffin has certainly expanded his game this year, but I'm not sure if he consistently commands as much attention from opposing defenses as Aldridge does with his ability to both spread out the floor and do work down low if necessary. Love has all the tools on offense and rebounds like crazy, but I don't think he plays defense as well as Aldridge (who is by no means "exceptional" defensively, but probably better than Love). If we're going with best all-around power forward -- considering offensive game, rebounding and defense -- Aldridge is the guy I'm going with.
Q: Who do you think wins tonight's Hawks-Blazers game and why? Give us a score prediction and something interesting to watch for.
A: Hmmm, that's a tough one. Atlanta has been shooting the lights out from behind the arc recently, but the Blazers have been good at defending the three-point line lately, too. The Hawks' frontcourt doesn't match up particularly well on paper with Portland's considering all the injuries to key players and the Blazers should have a solid advantage in the rebounding department. I'll say Portland wins, 107-102. Keep an eye on that Jeff Teague/Damian Lillard match-up. Both guys are playing high-level basketball right now and the Blazers struggle to stop quick, capable point guards like Teague.