A huge key to success in life is about being lucky. You can be the smartest cookie of your generation, but if the stars aren’t aligned in your favour? Good luck, literally.
The same thing applies to professional sports teams and championship dreams. Not only does the journey require a perfect storm of team culture, player chemistry, on-court execution and talent (long list there!), health and luck come into the picture as well. A freakishly bad landing might end up in your franchise player tearing some ligament or other, and where would the team be? We relive the nasty memories and shattered hopes. Remember Russell Westbrook’s torn meniscus last season, and his frustration at the betrayal of a body that had served him perfectly throughout his NBA career (he’d played 439 of 439 possible games at that point)? How about Derrick Rose’s ACL tear in the 2012 playoffs? A dollop of misfortune is all it takes to wind the season up.
A tale of hope
Sadly, the same thing happened to Atlanta this season. While they weren’t exactly the kryptonite to Miami’s championship reign, the Hawks were poised to have a solid run. With J-Smoove’s departure, floor spacing was looking to be hugely improved. They had a solid long range threat in Kyle Korver, and the complementary interior firepower with Al Horford. Jeff Teague would man the helm as always, with former D-League standout Shelvin Mack as a backup. The bench was fleshed out over summer with solid veterans like Macedonian import Pero Antic, defensive-minded stalwart Elton Brand, and returning hometown boy Lou Williams, who was known for his explosive scoring during his tenure with the Sixers. Their biggest acquisition however, had to be power forward Paul Millsap, who left the Jazz to ink a two-year deal with Atlanta.
Things however, were not meant to be. On 26 December 2013 during an overtime victory over the Cleveland Cavaliers, Al Horford suffered obvious pain while trying to disrupt a pass to Andersen Varejao.
What was initially diagnosed as a “right shoulder injury” became a pectoral muscle tear. Horford was subsequently ruled out for the remainder of the regular season while preparing for surgery, with a postseason return a faint hope more than anything else. This possibility too, was dismissed later on.
“No, I think it would be hard. This injury, honestly, was a little more severe than the other one,” he explained Thursday in his first meeting with reporters since the injury. “And it’s my right side, shooting arm, and I need to feel 100 percent confident with it, so I think it’s going to be a little bit slower.” – Al Horford, Hawks’ Horford won’t return this season (AP)
The loss of Horford dealt significant damage to the team right then. While not a death blow by any means, the loss of a mobile two-way big man at the All-Star level left a gap that the team has not managed to bridge. Truly, a large part of the Hawks’ game centered around the dominance of Al Horford.
For starters, he was also a major factor when it came to rebounding. Out of 263 offensive rebounds the team had in their first 29 games of the season, Horford was responsible for a quarter of them. I could be wrong, but that’s a goodly source of second chance points right there.
Next up, offense. Although Horford only averaged 18.6 points a game, his elite shot efficiency more than highlighted the value of a player who did not squander possessions. Observe.
Whilst Horford wasn’t exactly Dirk Nowitzski, he had a solid all-around game. He could hit the long twos on the pick and pop, and roll hard to the rim for easy points. He had a respectable post game and was comfortable attacking both face up and with his back to the basket. The best part? Al almost never forced a shot and knew to hit the open guy, trusting in the team and allowing the ball to flow back to him at a better moment.
With his absence, the team has gone from a potential playoffs contender, to a likely first-round exit as an eighth seed against the potentially three-peating Miami Heat. Can you imagine Atlanta upsetting Miami in a 7-game series? I certainly don’t. To add to that, Atlanta’s playoff berth is happening only by virtue of them being in a lottery-bound East. With a 34-42 season record so far, the Hawks would be placed 11th in the competitive West, having absolutely no prayer of a postseason journey.
Such is the cruelty of fate. When you get down to it, everything is but a juggling act between talent and health. We have prime contenders like Miami and San Antonio, resting up their core for the playoffs; their concern is health and not much else. Potential contenders like Indiana are desperately working out the kinks in their chemistry. The scrappy Chicago Bulls rise to the challenge despite repeated setbacks and roster depletion. They fight against adversity, giving every game their best shot and leaving it all on the floor. Some others are resigned to the inevitability of circumstances and choose to hit rock bottom. They dwell in the depths, awaiting the luck of those lottery balls some months away.
Atlanta? They got unlucky with the Horford injury, but yet weren’t awful (or determined) enough to plummet to the lottery depths. Owning a first-round pick that’s out of the lottery and yet, merely hovering on the edge of playoffs respectability is the no man’s land teams do their utmost to avoid. Then again, the Hawks have $47 million invested in the coming season, which gives them about $11 million of space to play with if this season’s cap is any indication. There’s room to improve the roster, and most importantly: the next season can only get better behind a healthy Horford.