It is not controversial to say that the injury to Al Horford -- a torn pectoral muscle will keep him out for 3-4 months, perhaps the entire season -- really hurts the Atlanta Hawks' high hopes for the season. The Hawks had advanced to the second round of the playoffs in each of the past two seasons, and had begun the season 7-4 with important victories over the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls. Horford, though his numbers were down this season, has been Atlanta's best and most valuable player over the past couple of seasons, and one of the best big men -- especially on defense -- in the league. Losing him is a real blow.
How exactly how much of a blow? That's the question that will determine just how wide the impact of the injury stretches. Here are the key questions about the Hawks without Horford.
Will the Hawks still be in the playoff hunt?
It's very difficult to imagine the Hawks falling out of the playoff chase because of the seriously stratified nature of the East right now. After Atlanta's blowout win over the Charlotte Bobcats on Thursday, the conference has seven teams above .500: the Bulls, Heat, Hawks, Magic, Sixers, Pacers and Knicks. You expect that, barring injury, the six teams other than Atlanta are playoff locks. Then the conference has four teams with two or fewer wins -- the Wizards, Nets, Bobcats and Pistons. There's no chance, outside of a major, major trade, those teams are making the postseason. (A Dwight Howard to the Nets trade seems like the only path to the playoffs for New Jersey. The trade deadline isn't until March 15, and Orlando seems to be intent on waiting until then.)
That leaves four teams in the middle who, with the Hawks, will compete for one of two spots. The 5-5 Cleveland Cavaliers and Hawks are in line for those spots now, but the 4-5 Boston Celtics would be favorites to grab one. The 4-7 Toronto Raptors are spiraling, with losses to the Nets, Wizards and Kings in the past week, and should fall out of contention soon. Few expect the Cavs to remain a .500 club for any length of time. That leaves the Milwaukee Bucks, currently 4-6, undefeated at home and winless on the road.
The Bucks will likely pose the greatest challenge to Atlanta, but there's no expectation that Milwaukee is so good it can run up a big lead in the standings over the next couple months. The Bucks are already three games behind Atlanta, and the Hawks showed Thursday that the team doesn't plan to go the Utah Jazz 2011 route and cave against inferior competition. Even if the Bucks do overtake the Hawks for a No. 8 seed at some point, we'd expect Atlanta to remain in contention for that berth; Milwaukee doesn't look like a team ready to run away with it.
Even if the Bucks do improve dramatically, there's no guarantee that the Knicks or Celtics -- or even Pacers, for that matter -- will be much better than .500, which is about where a Horford-less Atlanta team would hope to be. I actually picked the Hawks to miss the playoffs due to the Bucks' improvement before the season, but it's highly unlikely that even without Horford Atlanta will turn into one of the East's sure-thing lottery teams.
If the Hawks remain near the bottom of the East playoff bracket, will Atlanta have a sell-off?
Atlanta's in a perpetually bizarre spot: without a major upgrade, the Hawks aren't competing for a title. While Atlanta is good enough with Horford to make the second round (and maybe even the conference finals, if the matchups are right), and good enough without Horford to make the playoffs, there's little room for internal improvement (short of Jeff Teague transforming into Chris Paul 2.0 before our eyes) that can push the Hawks to that next tier with the Bulls and Heat.
In that sense, with a roster full of pricey veterans -- Joe Johnson at $18 million, Josh Smith at $12.4 million, Kirk Hinrich at $8.1 million, Marvin Williams at $7.5 million -- a standard tactical decision in some NBA cities would be to sell off and rebuild. The Utah Jazz did that in a way by trading Deron Williams for picks and prospects when it became apparent the club wouldn't again compete for a title under his current contract; Kevin O'Connor's work remains in progress, as there are still a ton of pricey veterans (Al Jefferson, Devin Harris, Paul Millsap) on that team. The Wizards or Timberwolves weren't nearly as good as the Hawks when they went these routes, but they did.
But consider this: the Hawks have been in this position for the past two seasons, and at every turn have committed to the current core. That massive J.J. contract was inked just about 18 months ago; the world reacted to it in such negative fashion precisely because with Johnson at a huge, flexibility-killing salary, Atlanta wouldn't have much opportunity to improve. But that didn't stop Rick Sund and the Hawks. So there would seem to be little chance that the Hawks would execute a sell-off at this point, with the playoffs in play and the hope for next year remaining.
So there's no chance the [FAVORITE TEAM] will trade for Josh Smith?
It seems wholly unlikely right now. With Horford out, Smith takes on extra importance on both ends. Should Atlanta want to compete for a playoff spot -- and every indication is that the team does -- trading Smith for picks, prospects or cap relief would be anathema to the goal. Smith's a fine player -- I ranked him No. 10 in the first edition of the 2012 NBA MVP Power Rankings this week -- and Atlanta's most versatile weapon. The Hawks' playoff hopes now rest largely in his lap (though the shooting of Johnson, Williams and Teague will be a huge factor, as well). Unless Atlanta completely falls apart, Smith should remain off of the trade market.
What about the other Hawks? Can the [FAVORITE TEAM] trade for one of them?
If a contender wants to take on Hinrich (an expiring contract) for the stretch run, Atlanta might not even need a first-round pick in exchange. Teague and Tracy McGrady seem to have the point guard spot under control. Williams could be another potential asset to trade if Atlanta has a shot at adding a center more refined than Zaza Pachulia. Johnson is too difficult to trade in such an uncertain environment, in my estimation, and Teague isn't going anywhere. So the answer is probably no. The Hawks should remain one of the least active franchises in the NBA.
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