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With Al Horford back, can the Hawks contend in the East?

By Matt Moore | NBA writer

Al Horford returns to the Hawks next season.  (USATSI)
Al Horford returns to the Hawks next season. (USATSI)

The Atlanta Hawks have become darlings of the Internet basketball community even as in the broader mainstream context ... no one really knows they exist. That includes national television (the Hawks appear twice on national channels that aren't NBATV), most marketing materials, and the citizens of Atlanta (28th in attendance via ESPN). The die-hard fans know the Hawks, admire the Hawks, love the Hawks.

No one else even recognizes Atlanta and on the surface, they shouldn't. The 38-win eighth seed in a phenomenally terrible conference that lost in seven games to the imploding Indiana Pacers? What's the reason to get excited about them?

In the first two months of the season, right up until the afternoon of Dec. 27, the Hawks were third in the Eastern Conference. They were already 6.5 games back of first, but 3.5 games up on the fourth place team (the Pistons!). They were 10th in net points per possession, ahead of the Mavericks, Raptors, and Bulls, among other teams. Here was their point differential game-by-game, courtesy of Basketball-Reference, through that afternoon.

In reality, they had largely established themselves as the third-best team in the East, right up until the night before, towards the end of a win over Cleveland.

That's when Al Horford was injured. Horford suffered a torn right pectoral muscle. And that was it for his season. The Hawks went on to finish 22-31, and were 20th in net points per possession for the rest of the season.

I don't know how this got lost in the shuffle, but it did. And it means that outside of the Cavs and their bevy of collections they nabbed this summer, and the Bulls when Rose hopefully gets back into the NBA swing of things, the Hawks may have gained the biggest impact player of any team just by virtue of Horford returning.

Horford, a two-time All-Star, is commonly known as "the other Florida guy" along with the better known Joakim Noah, despite the fact that Horford has had a better NBA career ... right up until that Dec. 26 game when Horford went down. Noah went on to become an MVP candidate and lead the Bulls to the fourth seed before their lack of offense exposed them vs. the Wizards. Noah's significant struggle vs. Nene and the Wizards shouldn't take away from a fantastic season, but it's very likely that both Florida boys would have finished with tremendous seasons if it weren't for the injury.

Horford averaged 18.6 points, 8.4 rebounds, 2.6 assists, and 1.5 blocks in the 29 games he played or Atlanta, shooting a career-high 57 percent from the field, and had career highs in PER, effective field goal percentage (he shot and made a handful of threes), block percentage, and usage rate (he took on a bigger load of the offense while remaining efficient).

So he was having a tremendous season under coach Mike Budenholzer to begin with. What has to leave you so excited, however, is how much he can help not the team that he was with when he was injured, but the Hawks team that they eventually became.

Horford's mobility is the big key to his game. There's a fluidity to his movement that both disguises his strength and augments it. His touch around the basket means that even when defenses scheme to prevent his attack, he finds quality looks.

But then, you also can lose sight of the fact that he comes in at 6-10, 250 lbs. and can back you down, and once he's created space, that tricky skillset comes back into play.

Horford's ability to stretch the floor is what makes him so valuable for this Hawks team, though. The Hawks are all about shooters and Horford shot 48 percent, on par with Chris Bosh and Stephen Curry, from mid-range, according to NBA.com.

His release is quick, and his understanding of spacing out of the pick and roll makes him particularly difficult to defend.

But beyond the mid-range is this, where Horford was expanding his game last season before the injury.

Horford started expanding his game to the arc last season, taking nearly twice as many threes in the first two months of the season as he did in all of 2013. But even that was before the Hawks really found their identity as a spread-floor team. Their five-out attack in the playoffs nearly gave them the upset over the Pacers, but the Hawks averaged significantly fewer threes per game while Horford was around than after his injury. Some of that can be ascribed to Horford' presence, but the team was also learning the system and its own identity.

Horford struggled early but started to develop his three in December ... before tearing his pec. Meanwhile, the Hawks' ball-movement centric system gave their best player quality looks from deep.

That isn't to say that Horford's likely to move into a Chris Bosh role as an emerging three-point threat. But Horford's talent not only as the Hawks' best overall player, but specifically within the Hawks' offensive system, will have dramatic effects. Atlanta could very well return to where they were before that unfortunate injury. The Wizards and Raptors are considered the heirs to the top of the Eastern Conference behind the Cavaliers and Bulls, but Horford's return may make the Hawks a legitimate contender in the East.

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