To win in baseball, a team needs pitchers who can get outs with several pitches, a splitter being one of them.
Without Tiago Splitter, the Atlanta Hawks have less depth and rim protection.
The first two games after the All-Star break have painted the worst possible picture for a team whose postseason prospects are getting darker by the day. Yes, the weather changes every five minutes in the 2016 Eastern Conference, but with that having been said, Atlanta might be running out of rosy scenarios. The home stretch of the season isn’t upon us, but it’s just around the bend.
Atlanta’s wheels might be on the verge of falling off.
It’s not just that the Hawks have lost home games to start the second “half” (we know, it’s really the final third) of the season. What’s particularly alarming for Atlantans is that on Friday, their team fell to a Miami Heat roster which did not include Chris Bosh, Dwyane Wade, or the suspended Hassan Whiteside. The Hawks had to be steamed heading into Saturday’s home date against the lowly Milwaukee Bucks, but if players were upset and intent on doing something about their situation, they sure didn’t show it.
Hitting only 9 of 41 threes, the Hawks — so proficient and potent as long-distance shooters last season — couldn’t find the added offense they needed. Milwaukee, one of the biggest disappointments in the league this year, found a way to the finish line first in a 117-109 double-overtime victory. The inability to rebound from the brutal loss to the Heat is a punch to the gut.
It’s not the end of this team’s problems.
Jeff Teague’s wrist is a point of concern — it limited him to 18 relatively ineffective minutes (5 points, 2-of-8 shooting). While Paul Millsap, Dennis Schroder, and Al Horford carried most of the workload, Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore combined to hit just 4 of 16 field goals. The Hawks flourished last season because several players were able to pull together on a consistent basis. Depth and widely-shared production made the Hawks hard to guard, and no one person felt he had to be the man. That portrait of depth no longer exists this season. The reality of diminishment is not a surprise, nor is it a disappointment. No one expected the Hawks to match the standard they set a season ago.
The extent of the drop-off, however, is beginning to become a little more pronounced than many levelheaded Hawks fans probably imagined.
That’s STILL not the end of this team’s list of woes.
Golden State appears twice on the schedule over the next week and a half. A long road trip soon follows, one which will limit this team’s ceiling in the Eastern Conference standings. Beyond the next three weeks, the entirety of the schedule is generally a beast. Only four teams left on the slate (Phoenix, the Lakers, Denver, and Milwaukee) are worse than four games below .500. The Hawks have already played the Nets, Sixers, and the (diminished) Knicks. They won’t be able to feast on scraps.
All this should underscore the extent to which the Hawks — more than most teams in the 3-to-8 seed range in the East — face a noticeably gloomy postseason future. However, one more detail drives home the point with greater clarity and specificity.
The path to the East Finals (opposite the Cleveland Cavaliers) depends on the ability to avoid the 4-versus-5 first-round matchup. The prize for the 3-8 teams in the East is that third slot, currently occupied by the Boston Celtics. Atlanta is just 1.5 games out as of Sunday, but with the Warriors on the schedule twice, and other tough roadies down the line, the idea of getting the third seed is becoming much more remote for the Hawks.
If a team does want to steer clear of the 4-5 series, it also needs to stay away from the 8 seed and the 7 seed. No one wants to play Cleveland, and few probably want to handle Toronto at this point, though a few teams might still think they can take out the Raptors, given their snake-bitten postseason history. The ideal landing spot for each of the third through eighth teams in the East playoffs is the 3-6 series: no Cavs, no Raptors, and no 4-5 series feeding into a second-round meeting with Cleveland.
What is Atlanta’s path to a fruitful postseason? Right now, the only realistic answer is to survive the next month and settle into the 6 seed. If any of the 3-8 teams in the East can’t get the third seed and the 6 seed becomes unrealistic, those clubs would much rather get into the 4-5 than fall to 7 or 8. At least the 4-5 series offers a good chance of advancing to the second round. A 7 or 8 seed means a likely first-round exit and an early trip to the golf course (or the NBA on TNT fishing photoshop center… or both).
Atlanta’s ability to reach for the third seed — and in the event of failure, settle for a 4-5 ticket — is now a lot more limited. The Heat, the Celtics, and even the Indiana Pacers probably have more upside right now than the Splitter-less Hawks, with Jeff Teague’s health now a source of additional worry.
Can the Hawks — their wings clipped — heal and fly higher before this season is done? In the wacky East, one doesn’t need to write off any possible scenario with nearly two full months still left in the regular season. That said, Atlanta’s window of opportunity in 2016 is shrinking.
We’ll see how well this team can survive the next three weeks and beyond.