Why Have the Hawks Struggled
After starting out the season red hot, the Atlanta Hawks have come back to earth. During their 9-2 start, the Hawks looked like a team that could possibly challenge Cleveland and be a top contender in the Eastern Conference. Fast forward to the middle of December and they now are fighting for a bottom playoff spot. The sudden drop off for the Hawks is due to a variety of reasons, not on specific blunder. Most of their faults are due to injuries and simple regression. The team owed much of their excellent start to the dominant play of Howard who was showing flashes of the old Dwight and solid early season performance of Dennis Schroder. Both the former All-Star Center and young point guard have since cooled down since the beginning of the season. Yet, this regression was to be expected and Atlanta could not have expected Howard to continue with 20 point and 20 rebound performances like his younger days or have Dennis Schroder outplay Kyrie Irving with 29 and 6 outputs. Despite this, Howard has proven to be still an effective rim protector and reliable pair with Schroder in the pick and roll. The Hawks were smart to hand Schroder the reigns and let him develop over the inconsistent Jeff Teague. What really has attributed to the Hawks losing slide has been injury to Kent Bazemore and performance slippage of Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver.
The knee injury to Bazemore was devastating as it robbed the team of a versatile defender and 3 point shooter. Without Bazemore, elite guards and wings will continue to have easier nights against the Hawks. Like any good team, pull one main contributor out of the lineup and the team defense/ offense will be impacted.The Hawks are no different and it is why the gave Bazemore 70 million this summer. For them to even have a chance at competing, they have to have the undrafted SG/SF on the floor providing his usual solid 3 point shooting and defense. This has not been the case as Bazemore has missed time with a right knee injury and also seen his shooting percentage fall to 35%.
Another impact for this Hawks slide is issues foreseen in the offseason have finally started to show. The pairing with Paul Millsap with Dwight has not been highly productive. Millsap is a undersized low post bruzer who thrives on facing up slower forwards or bullying weaker ones. The presence of Al Horford and his shooting allowed Millsap plenty of space to operate down low. The addition of Howard limits many of the offensive talents of Millsap and regulates him to a spot up/ stretch four duty. Millsap is certainly capable of this but is definitely able to do much more. Whether it is due to age or the addition of Howard, Millsap is shooting 46% which is well below his usually excellent career average of almost 50%. It is doubtful Millsap will want to stick around in this type of situation in the long term so the Hawks may look to deal the All-Star forward. While he is on an expiring contract, the Hawks should be able to get a lot of value from a fringe contender interested in Millsap.
While the Hawks start was definitely promising, slide back to normal should have been expected and is no reason for the Atlanta fans to panic. The pairing of Howard and Schroder seems to be a good fit so far and just needs to be developed. Solid coaching from Budenholzer, development from Schroder, and smart front office moves to put good pieces around the young Point Guard and veteran Center should have the Hawks back on track.