It's Time to Accept Atlanta Hawks as Definitive Playoff Contenders in 2012-13

Conner BoydCorrespondent IDecember 20, 2012

ATLANTA, GA - DECEMBER 19:  Al Horford #15 of the Atlanta Hawks drives against Nick Collison #4 of the Oklahoma City Thunder at Philips Arena on December 19, 2012 in Atlanta, Georgia.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)
Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

I don't think anyone really knew what to say about the Atlanta Hawks prior to the start of the 2012-13 NBA season.

They took the collar in losing their perennial-All Star shooting guard Joe Johnson, and didn't draft wisely with their pick in the 2012 draft, selecting a second-round prospect in John Jenkins at 23rd overall.

Was it a good offseason for the Hawks? I'm still not sure, and their backcourt is still looking fairly weak.

But Josh Smith and Al Horford are carrying this team; these two players are the reason that the negativity surrounding the Hawks' offseason should be squelched.

Smith, though being somewhat off-pace offensively for the Hawks, has emerged as a defensive star, and Horford is more reliable than ever at scoring in the paint and collecting rebounds.

They have guys coming off the bench to help support these two players in the front court as well, including most notably Zaza Pachulia and Ivan Johnson.

With a starting backcourt of Jeff Teague, who is developing nicely into a solid point guard in the NBA, and Kyle Korver, who seems to be improving every time I watch the Hawks play, there should be no doubt that this team is, at the very least, a playoff contender.

Louis Williams coming off the bench as a combo guard doesn't hurt either, as he's been one of the most effective players on the roster averaging 14.3 points, 3.1 assists and 1.3 steals per game in only 21.1 minutes.

All Atlanta has to do is keep playing their brand of tough, paint smashing basketball, and stay healthy. If the latter does not happen, I'm not sure that this team could sustain a playoff run this season.

Sure they have some depth. Not a lot though, and especially not outside of the front court.

I mentioned Pachulia and Johnson at power forward and center, Williams off the bench and an under-performing Devin Harris in the backcourt. But if Horford or Smith are injured this season, the team will not be able to perform at the same level that they are at now.

As underrated as Pachulia and Johnson are, they can't come close to duplicating or replacing the production of Smith and/or Horford. 

It will also be interesting to see if the Hawks will pursue a stable shooting guard as the trade deadline approches by dangling Johnson or Pachulia to teams in need of a solid front court contributor that plays significant minutes.

The trade that sent Johnson to the Nets was a necessary move for the Hawks. The contract was bloated, and as good of a player as Johnson is, he is not worth the max-contract he was getting in Atlanta. Brooklyn can afford his paycheck; Atlanta couldn't.

The return of talent the Hawks got for Johnson was not good enough, though.

I don't think there's a person on the planet that would argue that the Hawks could have gotten more out of that trade. Jenkins was a reach in the draft, and Atlanta lacks serious depth at the one, two, and three spots.

Further, the Hawks should not (at this point) be considered contenders to be a top-three seeded playoff team or a true championship contender. They'll likely stay in place as a middle-tier playoff team as they have for the past few years.

But without Joe Johnson, I'd say that's surprising for most people, including myself. 

With Smith and Horford paving the way, this team is no joke. They should not be taken lightly or as anything less than a playoff contender.

Josh Smith might have something to say to anyone who doubts them.