The Hawks lost in overtime yesterday against Portland and while it's never a good idea to put too much emphasis on any one game over the course of a long season, this was a really big loss. The Hawks are now headed out on a five-game west coast road trip to play Denver (who will be looking for revenge after the Hawks swatted them last week), Seattle (who beat the Hawks early in the season), Portland (one of the best teams in the NBA right now), Phoenix (you may have heard of them), and the Clippers (OK, they're terrible). The Hawks are three games under .500, losers of five of seven, and now headed out on an extended road trip with a 5-11 road record. If the Hawks couldn't win last week in Milwaukee, then how am I going to expect that they'll win these games out West? Even if they go 2-3 on the trip, which any Hawks fan would take at this stage, they'll return home four games under .500 and needing a hot streak just to get back to the break-even point.
The way the Hawks lost yesterday was also frustrating. Zaza Pachulia was apparently sent to the locker room for whining about minutes. Mike Woodson called a timeout in overtime just as Josh Smith was about to release Josh Childress for a breakaway dunk. (Steve Holman had to catch himself when he was calling the play, as he clearly had a "I'm might get fired if I say what I'm thinking right now" moment.) A critical possession in overtime ended with Josh Smith taking a three, which, as Mark Bradley points out, was "the shot an opponent on the sixth stop of a seven-game trip was praying he’d hoist." Bradley blames the facts that the Hawks don't know where their strengths lie and that they still don't have a true starting point guard. Both of these are reasonable points and the latter point was drilled home yesterday by Brandon Roy's presence in the building, as he is the player the Hawks passed on to take Shelden Williams. Roy is not a true point guard, but he's a markedly better player than Williams. I'm not totally convinced by the point guard explanation, as both Anthony Johnson and Tyronne Lue have assist/turnover ratios in excess of 2.5/1 (Johnson is at 3.86/1), but it's still out there.
Leaving the meta issues aside, here are my thoughts on why the Hawks have slowed down in recent weeks:
1. Al Horford is hitting a bit of a rookie wall. His scoring is down, as is his field goal percentage. It's natural for rookies to tail off a little at this stage in the season, as they're not used to playing this number of games and the rest of the league is starting to figure out what a rookie's weaknesses are. Here are Horford's field goal percentages by month:
November - .520
December - .480
January - .413
I don't see anything to worry about long-term with Horford, but he needs to find his second wind.
2. Joe Johnson isn't shooting the ball very well. This isn't a recent issue. Rather, his decline in shooting percentage has been a season-long phenomenon, but with the rest of the team struggling a little more, it's more of an issue. He was excellent yesterday, but he's turned in some poor games this month: 3-11 in the loss to Indiana, 4-16 in the loss to the Nets, and 4-16 in the loss at Milwaukee. He shot seven free throws total in those games, which is a very low number for a primary scorer. The Hawks are 4-12 this year when Johnson shoots four or fewer free throws. There's probably a cause/effect issue here, as Johnson shoots more free throws in some games because the Hawks already have the lead and the opponent is intentionally fouling him, but I've personally observed that Johnson is a better player when he gets to the hoop. Dennis Scott made this very point yesterday when he noted that Johnson got the Hawks back into the game by getting to the line and then he settled for a long jumper on the last possession of regulation. Personally, I'd prefer having the ball in the hands of Josh Smith and Marvin Williams at the end of games because they're better at getting to the line and that's the best way to score on critical possessions in the NBA.
3. Marvin Williams has also struggled offensively this month. He's shooting 39.*% from the field after being over 50% for the first two months. He's been over 50% from the field exactly twice out of ten games this month. More than any other player, the Hawks' improvement this year was tied to Marvin becoming the 20 point per game scorer that he should be as the #2 pick in the Draft. He's regressed in that department in January. Pay attention to him on this West Coast swing.
It bears noting that Josh Smith has played really well in January. He's scoring 20.7 points on 50.9% shooting. He misses a few too many free throws for my tastes and is still a bit of a turnover machine, but overall, he's been great this month.