Al Horford injury cripples Hawks front line

Kevin C. Cox

The Hawks are without their best player for the rest of the season — again — and will have to find production from a group of veterans an inexperienced big men.

Hawks big man Al Horford is done for the season, or at least most of the season, and the East's third-best team will again be forced to do without their best player because of a torn pectoral muscle. Even if the Hawks make the playoffs, Horford told NBA.com's David Aldridge he "probably" would not return.

Behind Horford, an unimpressive cast of centers and power forwards will be called upon to fill his 33 minutes per game and the Hawks could be in the market for another big man, or they could start selling off assets, depending on how GM Danny Ferry responds. Here are three questions facing the Hawks as they head into a Horford-less 2014.

Who gets Horford's minutes?

Other than being a sure-fire All Star, Horford brought perhaps the only solid rim protection to the Hawks' roster. Horford's opponents are shooting 47.8 percent at the rim against him, according to the NBA.com player tracking database, good for 15th among players defending more than seven field goal attempts at the rim per game. That puts him above Miles Plumlee, Andre Drummond and Derrick Favors.

No one else on the Hawks is even close to those numbers. Pero Antic, who is as terrifying-looking as Nikola Pekovic, has the Hawks' best Net Rating -- the Hawks outscore their opponents by 11.7 points when he's on the floor and by just one point when he's off -- but he's only played 10.5 minutes per game in 18 games. Elton Brand has also played well, but he's averaging just 11.3 minutes per game.

Brand will get the start Saturday night for the Hawks at center next to Paul Millsap. Gustavo Ayon, a capable offensive big man but not a great defender, just returned from an injury that has kept him out since November. He's played in just 10 games this year, but if he can work himself into shape and stay healthy, he'll figure to slide into that starting center role, putting the 6'8, 34-year-old Elton Brand back on the bench where he's far more effective.

As far as acquiring a big man, the Hawks haven't really been part of the Omer Asik trade discussions, but it's hard to picture a scenario where they could acquire him without giving up Millsap, which would be a terrible trade. The list of free agent centers is comically underwhelming. Ferry could blow it up, but he should probably stay the course because...

How far could the Hawks fall?

This is a tricky question. The Hawks will assuredly be worse without Horford; he's one of the five best centers in the league, behind Dwight Howard, Roy Hibbert and Brook Lopez, depending on whether you think Tim Duncan is a center.

However, the East is terrible. The Hawks are 16-13, the third seed as of Saturday and 2.5 games up on the Bobcats and Wizards who have the next best records. The Hawks will still have Jeff Teague, Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver, three above-average players for their positions. Lou Williams is finally hitting his stride as the bench scorer he once was, and DeMarre Carroll has found a role as the dirty-work role player he's always been meant to be.

The issue with Horford out will likely not be on offense; more shots for Teague, Millsap and Korver is fine. The established defense they lose will be the big issue. But will that be enough for them to fall very far? The Celtics are 12-17 and currently hold the eighth seed. It's nearly impossible to envision a scenario where this Hawks team misses the playoffs if everything holds. They might lose home-court advantage in the first round, but anything below the sixth seed seems too low for this team, even without Horford.

What's next for Horford?

This is the second time Horford has torn his pectoral muscle. He's a no-doubt All Star when healthy -- in the Eastern Conference, at least -- and he's just 27. Other than these two major injuries, he's been a healthy player. It's hard to find any example in sports of chronic pectoral injuries. They don't tear on their own, like a hamstring if you step funny, but two of the same injury to the same muscle starts to become worrisome.

Before the injury, Horford was playing the best ball of his career, on both ends. He has a PER of 22.4 this season, per Basketball-Reference, better than his career high of 20.7. He was on pace for career-highs in scoring at 18.6 points a game, blocks with 1.5, field goal percentage at 56.7, and he was fouling less than ever.

The Hawks still have him under contract until 2015-2016 at $12 million a year, so it doesn't appear he's going anywhere. He's a frequent discussion among league observers in terms of trade rumors, but he hasn't actually come up in leaks of discussions between the Hawks and any other team.

This is a young team with a bright future. Millsap is signed through next year, and Teague and Korver are locked up long-term. Danny Ferry has proven to be a savvy general manager, not that it's a surprise to anyone considering he came from the Spurs school of front office management. This year, the injury stinks for Hawks fans and basketball at large. But the Hawks are still positioned to break through in the future, and Horford continues to be a huge part of that potential.

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