With football winding down, we should pay more attention to basketball. The Atlanta Hawks had our attention when they started 9-2, but a 6-14 stretch since then has people saying, “There go the Hawks again.”
It was so encouraging when Atlanta started strong in the first 11 games. The Hawks had made a big change, replacing Al Horford with Dwight Howard. There was a curiosity about how the team would do with a true center in the middle for the first time in years.
But the past 20 games have been horrible. Earlier this month the Hawks lost seven in a row. During that losing streak, they had embarrassing losses — losing by 27 points to Utah, by 36 to Detroit and by 44 to Toronto.
On Monday, they were down by as many as 29 points to Minnesota, a team that is 10-21. The Timberwolves, who won by eight in Atlanta last week, won by 14 points. But it was not a good performance by the Hawks.
There’s reason to wonder if this horrible stretch is Howard’s fault. He always seems to get the blame when his teams struggle. But Howard has scored 14.4 points and grabbed 13 rebounds per game, so statistically he’s doing probably a little better than expected.
It can’t be that the Hawks are missing Horford. The Boston Celtics have seen Horford’s rebound numbers dip once again. He averaged 10.2 rebounds per game four seasons ago, but that number is down to seven rebounds per game this season.
The other big change was going from Jeff Teague as the starting point guard to Dennis Schroder, but that switch also seems like a positive. Schroder is tied with Paul Millsap for the team’s scoring lead with 17.3 points per game.
The combination of Teague and Schroder worked well the past few years, but there has been a drop off at the backup position. Malcolm Delaney has not provided the same spark off the bench Schroder did when he came in for Teague.
Expect the Hawks to perhaps look for a veteran backup point guard before the trade deadline. They had former Georgia Tech star Jarrett Jack in training camp, but he wasn’t back from his knee injury and was waived.
Atlanta’s bench has been an issue. Mike Scott, who has been a valuable reserve the past several years, has played in just seven games due to injuries. Tim Hardaway Jr. is doing well offensively, but his defense can still be inconsistent. Defense is the main problem with power forward Mike Muscala.
Kyle Korver, who turns 36 in March, is what he is — an aging player who must have his shot to have a good game. And the Hawks must be a little disappointed in Kent Bazemore, who signed a huge contract during the summer. Bazemore’s shooting percentage and rebounding are down from last year.
The Hawks do not shoot free throws well. They have the third-worst free-throw shooting percentage in the NBA. And they are turning the ball over too much, with the third-most turnovers-per-game ratio.
They also need to do better from behind the line, as Atlanta is next-to-last in 3-point shooting, making just 32.8% of it 3-point attempts.
At a game below .500 (15-16), the Hawks are by no means out of it in the weak Eastern Conference. Atlanta is the sixth seed but stuck in the middle. Atlanta is three games out of third place but two games out of 12th place.
The Hawks just need to get it going. Maybe the new rotation of starters is taking more time to adjust than normal, but the 9-2 start showed this team can be impressive. The Hawks just need to find what went right early in the season and get back to that brand of basketball.
Listen to “The Bill Shanks Show” from 3-6 p.m. weekdays on “Middle Georgia’s ESPN” – 93.1 FM in Macon and 99.5 FM in Warner Robins. Follow Bill at twitter.com/BillShanks and email him at email@example.com.