If there were one player that the Hawks couldn't afford to lose, it was probably Al Horford, Atlanta's two-time All-Star center. So the news that Horford is out with a shoulder injury for three to four months effectively the remainder of the regular season is downright crushing news.
It's unexpected news, too.
"I'm still surprised," said Horford. "I was hoping that it was a sprain and I could rehab it for a few weeks and come back."
He plans to get a second opinion, but, either way, surgery is going to be required, which means Atlanta will be without The Boss for much longer than they'd like and maybe longer than the Hawks' playoff hopes can handle.
Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Horford form the Atlanta's "Big Three." Each of them bring their own value and set of skills that the Hawks always a solid playoff team, but not quite elite can't really do without. Johnson is the squad's go-to scorer, Atlanta's clearout option ("Iso-Joe" is what the fans half-sarcastically call it). Smith is the do-it-all Swiss Army dude. He catches alley-oops, blocks shots, pressures the ball, leads the break whatever Atlanta needs.
And then there's Horford.
The Hawks have always been thin up front that's why the barely 6'10 Horford has played his full career in Atlanta at center, even though his more natural position (by his and most opinions) is probably power forward. Zaza Pachulia and Jason Collins are the big guys behind Horford on the depth chart. They hustle, that's for sure, but they don't rate too high on the skills chart. So, this "no Al" thing is an issue.
"He brings something very unique to the table," said Hawks coach Larry Drew before Thursday's game against the Bobcats, still picking up the mental pieces. "He has the size where he can play two positions. He's very versatile and very mobile on the floor. A big strength of his game is he can pick-n-pop and you can always post him up. He's going to certainly be missed."
And it's not just his play on the court. Johnson is probably the quietest All-Star in the league. He can go full games without uttering more than a few sentences. Smith has a reputation (probably only half-deserved) as a bit of a live wire. The Hawks have been described as rudderless more than a few times. It's in this environment that Horford has always stood out as a stabilizing presence and voice.
"His leadership and presence out on the court is certainly felt," said Drew. "And you can see how the guys react and I think that's going to be sorely missed. He's kind of the glue for us. He's a stabilizer. He's a guy that huddles the team, that talks in the huddle. He's not afraid to call people out. He's a leader. The guys respect him."
Well, you can only do so much leading on the bench, in a suit.
So what now?
In an ideal world, the Hawks continue to compete for a playoff spot without Horford, who remains optimistic that he could get healthy in time for the postseason. Drew thinks the current roster is still a playoff caliber team, which is very debatable. He also stated that he will sit down with general manager Rick Sund and the management team to "see where we go from here," indicating that some free agent additions andor trades might be necessary to keep Atlanta from missing the playoffs for the first time in almost half of a decade.
"Everybody's jobs just got a little harder," said veteran Jerry Stackhouse. "From the top to the bottom, from the GM to the players, everybody's gotta pick it up a little bit and figure out what's the next move to keep this team in the position of contending."
Stackhouse seemed to allude to aquiring help.
"The two hardest positions to fill in this league is the center and point guard positions," he said. "But, Al's a little bit different in that a lot of his skills are like a (power forward). So from the standpoint of getting somebody in his place, it doesn't have to be a center, it could be a power forward that we put along side Josh as long as (Horford's replacement) rebounds and protects us the way Al does."
These are the decisions that Sund and Drew will have to make quickly and on the fly. In the meantime, the current Hawks have some stepping up to do.
Smith said the rest of the players on the team are now forced to play "a little outside of their element." He also (very curiously) semi-bristled at the thought that he now bears more "responsibility."
"I have enough responsibilities," he said. "I have to do pretty much everything."
And he's right about that. There's not much on the court that Smith is not asked to do. But, surely,losing Horford means more burden for Smith, right? When pressed on the issue, he simply said "No."
Fair enough. But witness his game against Charlotte, where he scored a season-high 30 points and grabbed 13 rebounds. As has been discussed, Horford is not your garden variety big man, there's an intelligence and sophistication to his game that helps Smith, Johnson and whomever is playing point guard with their playmaking responsibilities. He's not the big man that a team tells to go stand somewhere and "wait for us to shoot and then go try to get the offensive rebound."
Whether or not Smith admits it, all that really matters is that he and his teammates are up for challenge.
Drew said that, although he remains confident that this is still a playoff squad, "one thing that concerns me more than anything is how we respond. Given the talent and depth I certainly think we can make a playoff push. And it's going to be my job to keep these guys mentally strong enough to push through a situation like this."
Pachulia and rookie power forward Ivan Johnson started off the rest of the Horford-less season in promising fashion. The two combined for 22 points, 17 rebounds and two blocks. Stackhouse doesn't expect it to stop, either.
"I don't sense this as a copout group," he said. "It could easily be "woe is us," because Al is out, but I don't see us copping out."
Atlanta has 54 games and about three months to prove him right.