Right now, the Hawks are sitting at 9-10, but that record is still good enough for 4th best in the Eastern Conference. The Clippers are headed to Atlanta to kick off a 7-game road trip, where they'll face a Hawks team hungry to get back to .500 on the year.
It's been over a year (!!!) since the Clippers played the Hawks, with both meetings last season coming in November. To get a hometown perspective on the Clippers' faraway opponents, I exchanged some questions with Daniel Christian from SBNation's Atlanta Hawks blog, Peachtree Hoops.
1. The Hawks are in their first season in a long time without star forward Josh Smith. What differences does that make in how they play?
The Hawks most certainly play differently without Smith on the floor, but that has more to do with the coaching change than anything else. Smith was the most versatile defender on the team, a lightning rod on the break, and an enigma in the half court offense. He'd show flashes of sheer brilliance driving to the basket or posting up down low-- his great court vision made him a constant threat to find the open man on the wing, which really only augmented his effectiveness around the basket. Still, the Hawks never consistently got Josh Smith either on the block or moving towards the hoop. He loved to drift on the perimeter, and some of that is attributed to Larry Drew's offensive structure last season, some to the fact that he'd often play the three, and some to the fact that he's just sort of obstinate about shooting jumpers. Those 18-footers-- which he was atrocious at-- often stalled the Hawks' offense and broke the flow of otherwise successful possessions. One of the main positives with Smith gone is that the offense has no hold-up. There is great ball movement, and new coach Mike Budenholzer only enhanced the pace and energy of this team. Defensively, the Hawks greatly miss Smith's versatility to guard both the wing and the post and everywhere in between.
2. Despite being under .500 at 9-10, the Hawks still have the 4th best record in the Eastern Conference. Is it a blessing for the Hawks to play in a conference where they can get homecourt advantage despite having a down year, or a curse that they won't be getting a lottery pick despite struggling?
The East is definitely atrocious this year, but I'm just not sold that a few teams won't rise from the ashes with winning records. The Hawks may be 9-10, but they've been fluctuating over and under .500 all year and I think that will continue to happen. Traditionally, a 41-41 type of record gets an Eastern Conference team a low playoff seed. I thought the Hawks would be near the bottom of the playoff picture this year, but some slow starts by others have vaulted them to the upper echelon. I think the Hawks would have made the playoffs even if the Nets and Knicks and the Bulls had all been performing up to expectations, so this is a blessing. The Hawks weren't getting a lottery pick anyway. But, they have an unprotected right to swap picks with the Brooklyn Nets for the 2014 draft. So, if the Nets continue to struggle, Atlanta might just be a playoff team with a top-10 pick.
3. The Hawks' offense and defense are both in the middle third of the league, but one thing that stands out to me is rebounding. The Hawks are near the bottom of the league in rebounding and no player is averaging over 8 a game.
Losing Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia (at least when healthy) definitely hurt here. Al Horford is a solid rebounder, but outside of him, the Hawks really only have offensive minded bigs that are able to consistently contribute. Paul Millsap is a little undersized at the four. He's never been known for rebounding (although he did grab quite a few his last game out against San Antonio). Pero Antic isn't a strong rebounder, and Elton Brand used to be, but he's just not able to shoulder the load anymore. The bottom line is that the Hawks don't have anyone other than Horford who is a real threat to grab double digit boards every game.
4. During the offseason, Atlanta signed former Clipper Elton Brand to a one year, $4 million contract, but he hasn't even managed to play 10 minutes a night. What's up with FElton?
Well, players get old. That's what's up with Elton. He's just lost a step or two and doesn't have the same stamina to be able to play 20+ minutes a night. He's not dreadful when he comes in and his length can provide some underrated defensive help, but overall he's mainly there to spell the starting bigs a few extra minutes rest.
5. What's the long term plan for this team? Will development from Teague and Horford along with adding in some other pieces put the Hawks in title contention in the next few years, or is it time for them to try to start over?
Well that's the conversation a lot of Hawks fans are secretly (or not so secretly) having. Many thought Teague was a trade chip before the season started, but his strong play through the first bit of the season has turned some heads. But, this isn't anything new. Teague started out blazing hot last year before leveling off. If he shows that this is sustainable (and he is much-improved), then maybe he is a part of the future. It seems that GM Danny Ferry does not want to trade Al Horford, as he shouldn't. Horford is one of the 20 best players in the league. The Hawks have the complimentary pieces there, and they might just strike gold in the draft if Brooklyn's collapse continues. I don't think you'll see Danny Ferry tank, and because I don't see that happening, it renders my opinion of what should happen irrelevant. Ferry wants to be competitive and flexible, to be an attractive free agent destination, to be in all the big trade talks. If Ferry can attain a high pick in the upcoming draft and use some of the team's very moveable contracts and assets, this team could very well be in contention in a few years. Having said that, there is no clear and defined way of how the Hawks will make that leap.
Thanks to Daniel for giving in-depth answers to my questions! You can head over to Peachtree Hoops to check out my answers to his questions as soon as they're posted.