This year’s version of the Atlanta Hawks was never considered a championship or even conference title contender. Rather, Atlanta was assumed to be a sound and playoff-worthy experiment of sorts as well-regarded rookie head coach Mike Budenholzer got his feet wet. When Derrick Rose went down with a season-ending injury in Chicago’s 10th game, the Hawks were assumed to be fit to take on the mantle of the East’s third-best team; hardly something to brag about in that terrible conference, but a rank worth building upon, especially with a second round appearance seemingly in the offing for just the fourth time in 15 seasons.
Even when center Al Horford went down with what should be a season ending injury – a torn right pectoral muscle – the Hawks seemed to have enough to sustain things. After all, Paul Millsap was in the midst of an All-Star campaign, Jeff Teague had shot way ahead in terms of development and production, and Budenholzer’s forward-thinking in terms of offense seemed to have the Hawks more than fit to circle the wagons. On top of that, when Horford tore his left pectoral during the 2011-12 season, the team managed to go 33-22 without him.
This year, however, the Hawks have fallen badly without their go-to force on either end, chalking up a 10-18 record without Horford, while working in the midst of a 1-10 swoon currently. Things got especially embarrassing in Boston on Wednesday, when the Hawks gave up an early 15-point lead to let the rebuilding Celtics come back to down Atlanta. Raw rebound numbers are rarely the way to go, but the Celtics did outrebound Atlanta by 17 in a telling stat, as Millsap had to watch from the sidelines with a right knee contusion. This was against a Celtics team playing without leading rebounder Jared Sullinger, mind you.
As a result of this dip, the Hawks are now stuck with the East’s eighth seed, though the team still has more than enough cushion to hold off the ninth-place Detroit Pistons – stuck at 3.5 games back – a squad that still can’t seem to get things right on either end. Even more cruel to Atlanta’s early-season hopes is the ascent of the Brooklyn Nets, a team that seemed on its way to the lower ranks of the lottery earlier in 2013-14, but one that has managed to vault over the fading Hawks in the standings. The Hawks have the right to swap 2014 picks with the Nets, which meant they could have vaulted from 20th or so in the draft to possibly the top five. Now it’s Brooklyn that wouldn’t mind the chance to swap with Atlanta.
Horford is gone for good, Pero Antic remains out with a stress fracture in his right ankle – an injury that you don’t risk career altering comebacks with while dealing with big men. Millsap should return eventually, but this is cold comfort for a team that is still starting the tweener-ish Elton Brand at center, and the tweener-ish DeMarre Carroll at big forward. Not only is that duo being destroyed on the boards, but the whole frontcourt (featuring the defensively game but slow Kyle Korver) just can’t help much alongside the team’s short backcourt featuring 6-3 Shelvin Mack and the badly declining Jeff Teague.
And the next four opponents? The Phoenix Suns, Portland Trail Blazers, Golden State Warriors, and Los Angeles Clippers. All on the road. Eee-gawds.
The Hawks had their eye on former Bucknell star Mike Muscala anyway, dealing for the versatile center and second-round pick on draft night last June. Muscala struck out to Spain’s ACB League for 2013-14, turning into a star of sorts, which has the Hawks well pleased that they’ll be able to bring the rookie over this week when things appear to be at their most dire.
Muscala had played the 2013-14 season with Blusens Monbus Obradoiro of the ACB League in Spain. The 6-foot-11, 230-pound center averaged 14.6 points (seventh in the ACB) on .546 shooting, a league-leading 7.8 rebounds and 1.1 assists in 26.3 minutes per game through 20 games. He shot .871 from the free throw line.
“We are really excited that Mike was available to join our team. We’ve closely monitored Mike and his progress throughout the ACB season. Coach Fernandez and his Obradoiro CAB club did an excellent job with his continued development,” Hawks general manager Danny Ferry said. “Due to our current injuries, Mike’s representatives presented the concept of Mike joining us for the remainder of the season.”
“League-leading 7.8 rebounds.” I don’t care if that number may pale in NBA comparison (fewer minutes, fewer possessions overseas), the “league-leading” part is straight out of central casting.
This isn’t to say that Muscala will start, much less turn into a savior for the month of March, but anything helps. In his prime, Elton Brand was a devastating defender that could both chase down pick and rolls, alter shots, acquire steals and blocks, and manage the boards. These days, the soon-to-be-35 year-old has to pick his spots, which means he’s either getting no help on the chase, the block, or the glass. Any big man can change things, really.
Things haven’t been completely shot to hell, either.
Budenholzer knows what he’s doing, and he’ll be a fine asset for this team moving forward. Horford remains one of the league’s best centers, and you just can’t be counted on to adapt to a loss like his twice in three years. Guard Lou Williams can’t help but rebound better when his knee is fully healthy in 2014-15, the team will still have a solid enough mid first-round pick this June, they’ll be able to swap picks with the aging Nets again in 2015, Jeff Teague is quite tradeable, and Danny Ferry has secured plenty of cap room once again for the team this summer.
No, this isn’t currently pretty, and things don’t feel like they’re going to turn around on this Western road swing. The team will be in the postseason, though, while retaining flexibility, all while Budenholzer learns on the fly. That’s all that Danny Ferry wanted this year, and despite what could turn into a 1-14 run in February and early March, this can be overcome.
Right now? It’s ugly. Real ugly. Hurry up and learn the plays, second-round rookie from Bucknell.
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