After the loss to Philadelphia, Coach Larry Drew did not have kind words for his team.
“Here we are 77 games into the season, and we don’t know who we are. When we go all the way back to training camp, with all of the changes that we made, one of the things that I made a point for our guys to understand who we had to be. We had to be a team that would be gritty, we’d have to be a team that would bring a blue-collar mentality every night we step out on the floor, particularly on the defensive end. And somewhere along the line, we have forgotten who we have to be.”
That wasn’t it, either. When asked what led to the breakdowns against the Sixers, Coach Drew called his team’s effort soft, and then harped again about the team’s loss of identity.
To top it all off, Josh Smith vehemently agreed with his head coach.
“I think it’s too late in the season to still be trying to find what our identity is; we have to figure it out right now, as of yesterday… Yeah, I would agree [with Coach Drew].”
The next day against San Antonio, the team responded… well, sort of; with Smith, Horford, Korver, and Stevenson all sitting out, the Hawks only had eight guys available to play. However, they took the punches from one of the best teams in the league, and had a shot to win the game before losing 99-97.
The effort was there. The heart was there. Despite being undersized, Ivan Johnson was doing everything he could to try and contain the venerable Tim Duncan. Mike Scott and John Jenkins looked like seasoned veterans, not rookies that weren’t exactly flashy draft picks. And hell, even Johan Petro played out of his mind by grabbing a career-high 15 rebounds.
Where has this effort been? This is not because the usual Atlanta starters are not effective; this was because the Hawks actually got production from the bench guys.
Mike Scott and John Jenkins combined to score 45 points off of the bench. The last time the Hawks even got 45 total points off of the bench? March 29th against the Celtics, where Al Horford was out and Larry Drew benched his starters in the fourth quarter after his bench squad started to make a rally. The time before that? March 25th against the Pacers, where, SURPRISE, Drew sat his starters because the bench was making a late run after the team fell behind early.
Is this what it has come to for the Hawks? They can only get production from the bench when the coaches go all-in on those guys to try and make something out of a game with Horford, Smith, etc. being glued to the bench? Maybe it’s just me, but that doesn’t seem like a winning formula.
The first course of action for someone might be to look at Lou Williams’ ACL tear, and claim that his numbers are exactly what the bench are missing. While that is true to a point, he’s probably not the biggest member of the bench that the Hawks are missing. Remember all of those buzzwords that LD used when talking about what he aspires for this team to be? Gritty, blue-collar, defense…
Those words point more at Zaza Pachulia than Lou Williams.
For the last 20 games, the Hawks have played without their backup center due to an Achilles injury that required surgery. How have the Hawks done in those games? Well, their defensive rating has been 103.1 during that stretch; before, it was around 101. Both offensive and defensive rebounding rates have dwindled, and the team has a losing record for that span at nine wins and eleven losses.
It’s even more telling when you look at the last stretch of games Pachulia played in. For the month of February, the last month Zaza had significant playing time, the Hawks were 6-2 in games where the Georgian center played. While his offense wasn’t exactly killing anyone, he had a profound effect on the glass; Zaza was grabbing over 13 rebounds per-36 minutes, and February represents one of two months were the Hawks were essentially breaking even on rebounds.
Without Zaza, the Hawks are essentially left with two potential centers off the bench: Johan Petro and Ivan Johnson. While Petro has the size at seven-feet tall, he’s never really been a volume rebounder at any point in his career. Ivan has the strength and hustle to be an elite rebounder, but he lacks the height, and often fouls when trying to compensate for that.
One of the Hawks’ best defensive combinations this season was when they decided to go big, with Smith, Horford, and Pachulia all on the court together. The main reason it worked was because it allowed Smith to play perimeter defense without having to sacrifice rebounding and post defense. Without Pachulia, Atlanta simply doesn’t have a lineup that can match that.
When it was announced that Zaza was going to be out for the season, Coach Drew said the Hawks would miss him because he’s a “playoff player”; a guy who loves to do all the dirty work. Well, the playoffs start in a little over a week, and the team still hasn’t found a replacement “playoff player” that matches the consistency of Zaza.
If they want to avoid first-round playoff exit, I recommend that Larry Drew and his team find that replacement, because they are running out of time.