Believe it or not, the Atlanta Hawks have been one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference so far this year.
So maybe the Hawks' 18-17 record nearly halfway through the regular season is merely a product of a weak conference. And it will not get easier from here on out, as it was announced last week that forward/center Al Horford would miss the remainder of the season with a torn pectoral muscle.
For a team that was already not considered a contender, this is a vicious blow. Nonetheless, this squad does have the coaching and the talent to compensate for this loss to a degree.
Here is a look at the top 10 Atlanta Hawks players for the first half of the 2013-2014 NBA season so far.
Pero Antic is still a work in progress, as evidenced by his inexplicable, horrible decision to leave Andre Iguodala wide open for a game-winning three-point shot as time expired, lifting the Warriors over the Hawks.
The 6'11", 260-pound Antic is exactly what the Hawks need right now, a big body who provides an intimidating presence—and a dead ringer for Jason Momoa as Drogo on Game of Thrones (a stretch you say? Probably).
He has shown flashes of promise, especially when he hit a one-footed three-pointer in the waning seconds of a Hawks home game against the Charlotte Bobcats, knotting the game at 101.
His field-goal percentage is not great (39.6 percent), and he needs to up his rebounding numbers (2.9 per game), but ultimately his size and the brief instances of potential he has shown so far earn him a spot on here.
In the twilight of his career now, the once-dominant Elton Brand gives the Hawks a necessary veteran presence in the locker room and a great teacher of low-post footwork to guys like Paul Millsap and Mike Scott.
It is a tad surprising that his career has reached the point of barely seeing the floor anymore, but he still averages 3.5 points and 3.5 rebounds in limited time on good percentages (52.8 percent from the field).
The Hawks love to gobble up slightly undersized but high-motor power forwards who know how to score in the paint, and Brand definitely fits this description.
Brand is a little too small to fill in for Horford at center, but if you need a tough basket in the paint, he can supply you with that. His rebounding will definitely be needed going forward.
The good news for Atlanta? He's not that Michael Scott.
All jokes aside, Scott’s name will most likely be called more than ever with Paul Millsap not having Al Horford by his side anymore.
Scott has had a great year so far, averaging 7.5 points and 3.2 rebounds in limited minutes. Now in his second season with the Hawks and the NBA in general, Scott should feel more confident about himself and his abilities.
His playing time will most likely increase from here on out, and with the Hawks ranking in the bottom 10 in team rebounding, he will really need to crash the boards with force if he wants to carve out some more playing time.
Coming in at 6’8” and 237 lbs, Scott has a great opportunity to take some notes from another undersized power forward like Millsap, who has played like one of the best forwards in the league this year.
This will be an excellent learning opportunity, and I expect Scott to shine with more playing time thrown his way.
A former castaway who been with multiple teams over his short career, Mack has seemed to find a home in Atlanta.
Everybody is well aware of his lights-out shooting during his college days at Butler, but Mack has also been one of the best passers on the Hawks roster so far this year, averaging 3.5 assists per game.
Plus, he's shooting an impressive 36.5 percent from outside to go along with his 7.0 points per game.
Going into the second half of the year and given the Hawks injury situation, Mack will be a player to watch. Will he elevate his game and increasing his scoring? For a team that is right in the middle of the pack for scoring per game (13th out of 30), guys like Mack need to rise to the occasion now more than ever.
This is really his first season ever with regular minutes and a secure spot in a rotation, so it will be fascinating to see how he responds in the later stages of the season on a team with playoff expectations.
Despite having two seasons in Philadelphia where he played at least 80 out of a possible 82 games, Williams has had a difficult time staying healthy in his hometown of Atlanta since signing with the team in the 2012 offseason.
A Vinnie “Microwave” Johnson-type of player who also has the ability to get hot in a hurry, Lou-Will has not found his groove with the Hawks yet. He is shooting a career-low 37.9 percent from the field this year, although he has remained fairly good shooting from outside at 35.9 percent.
I often think of him as a skinnier, smaller version of J.R. Smith with a better attitude but an equally questionable shot selection. But most importantly, he is a player who is liked by his teammates and his community in general.
In fact, while he was a Sixer during the 2011-2012 season, a story was published about how he was almost robbed at gunpoint, but the homeless man who approached him with a gun recognized him, put the gun away and thanked Williams for his work in the community. Then Williams took him out for a burger at McDonald’s. These are the kinds of people you want to have on your team.
After missing most of last year due to a season-ending injury, I think Williams is poised for a dominant second half, as the Hawks will be looking for someone to put the ball in the hoop. He strikes me as the kind of player who takes on more responsibility to step up after a big dog like Horford goes down for the year.
Give Lou-Will some time, ATL, and he will come around.
While I was tempted to put Lou here, Carroll has proven to be a much more dependable player so far this year. He has started all 30 games he has played in so far while shooting 44 percent from the field with averages of 9.1 points and 5.6 rebounds per game.
He only shoots 32.4 percent from three, but he is mainly out there for his defensive grit and toughness, as evidenced by his 1.4 steals per game.
One has to think coach Mike Budenholzer is trying to groom Carroll into a potential Bruce Bowen-esque small forward for the team, given his 6’8” size, his ability to play the shooting guard and small forward positions and the defensive grind that helped earn him a starting spot with the team in the first place.
At 27 years old and making only $2.6 million this year, the incentive to give his all for this team as he rounds into what should be his prime is certainly there. The next area of Carroll’s game, if in fact Bud wants him to be his Bruce Bowen, is to work on his corner-three-ball game. This is a part of the game he must master.
As a resident of Delaware and having no professional teams to root for, I follow Philly squads rather closely. I remember vividly being in high school and seeing Korver light it up as a Philadelphia 76er early in his career. You could tell that if this guy fell into the right situation, he was going to have a long, successful career in the league.
After bouncing around a bit and being mostly a role player off the bench for the Sixers, Jazz and Bulls, Korver inked a four-year, $24 million extension with the club during the offseason after starting 60 games for them last year.
Korver is off to a hot start, already breaking Dana Barros’ record of consecutive games with a three-point field goal by reaching his 90th against the Cavs. Currently, he averages 12.2 points on 48.7 percent shooting from the field and a ridiculous 47 percent mark from three.
While he is far from the best defender in the league, he is not that bad either, averaging 1.1 steals. For a guy with his shooting percentages, it is shocking that he is averaging under 13 points. He should be getting a lot more looks, given the hot-shooting season he is having so far, a season that is strongly cementing the case that he is the best shooter in the league.
It was considered a little surprising by some when the Hawks matched a four-year, $32 million offer sheet for Teague this past summer, as they were unable to come to an agreement on an extension with the guard during the early stages of last season. Josh Smith already appeared on the way out, and letting Teague go would have really jump-started a rebuilding effort by the franchise.
Nevertheless, the Hawks felt it necessary to bring him back, and the results so far have been fairly positive. Teague is averaging 16.9 points per game, which is a 2.3-point improvement from last season. He is also averaging 8 assists, leading the No. 1 team in assists per game.
The bad news is his field-goal percentage is only 42 percent with 27 percent shooting from outside, which is not good for a starting point guard.
Perhaps Coach Bud should elect to go the Tony Parker route with the 25-year-old Teague, ditching the three-ball altogether except for wide-open corner looks and focusing on trying to develop his mid-range game and drives to the basket. He is also posting 3.5 turnovers per game, which needs to improve.
With all of that said, Teague is still a very important player and is playing mostly very good basketball for his team, making the $32 million they sunk into him look like a good investment. However, there is still plenty of room for improvement, and with the recent injury to Al Horford, Teague will need to elevate his play if his Hawks hope to maintain the No. 3 seed in the East.
Unfortunately, Millsap's name was added to LeBron James' list of serial dunk victims last week after attempting to take a charge only to get posterized.
Despite that embarrassment, Millsap is quietly having a very impressive season for ATL in his first year with the club. Millsap posted season highs of 34 points and 15 rebounds in a 92-91 victory over the Celtics to cap off 2013.
Also, just like his now-injured buddy Al Horford, Millsap comes in ranked as a top-20 player in the league in PER/efficiency at No. 19. His numbers are very similar to Horford’s, averaging 17.6 points, 8.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists, but the surprising aspect Millsap has added to his game is a consistent three-point shooting clip of 40 percent.
For a career 33.2 percent three-point shooter, it is safe to say no one expected Millsap to be this good from outside coming into this season, especially on a brand-new team where most players often just try to play their game and not experiment too much in their first year.
The clear-cut best player for the Hawks is unfortunately scheduled to miss the rest of the season after suffering a torn pectoral muscle during a 127-125 double-overtime win against the Cavs.
Horford is currently ranked No. 11 in PER/Efficiency for the entire league while posting averages 18.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 1.5 blocks per game, all while shooting a torrid 56.7 percent from the field and a surprising 36.4 percent from outside.
To put it simply, losing him for the rest of the year is a devastating, potentially season-turning blow to a team that currently ranked third in the struggling Eastern Conference. It was evident once Josh Smith signed with the Detroit Pistons this past summer that Big Al would become the alpha dog and leader of this team after years of arguably sharing that title.
The good news for Hawks fans is that the East is in really sad shape, with the 14-21 Detroit Pistons being good enough to be the eighth seed right now. So the Hawks will still be in the playoff mix.
Losing Horford is definitely a tough blow, but I still expect Atlanta to remain competitive in the East.
The rest of the team is made up of little-known players such as center Gustavo Ayon and guards Jared Cunningham, Dennis Schroder, and John Jenkins.
Out of all of these players, Ayon will probably get the most burn due to the Hawks' lack of a starting center right now. Cunningham, Schroder and Jenkins could see some playing time but probably not much, as the guard rotations are fairly set at this juncture.
One thing that must not be forgotten given the Hawks' recent struggles and injury situation is that rookie coach Budenholzer spent many years as an assistant for the San Antonio Spurs, a team which relied heavily on its system. So when the bigs got hurt or needed a rest, the Spurs were ultimately successful at plugging guys into the rotation and coming away with wins.
But the Hawks will most likely play a lot of small ball going forward, given Coach Bud saw a lot of that in San Antonio while under Gregg Popovich. So far, Bud's game plan has worked out relatively well, as the Hawks are currently 18-17 and third in the Eastern Conference.