The Hawks entered the All-Star break on a two-game win streak.
Now the second-half push begins, starting Wednesday against the red-hot Heat, as the Hawks (29-22) try to improve their sixth-place standing in the Eastern Conference amidst the speculation about the future of its best player, Josh Smith, as Thursday’s 3 p.m. NBA trade deadline looms.
Coach Larry Drew said the All-Star break came at the right time for the team.
“I know the players were looking to get away from the game and get away from each other and just trying to get ... a fresh mind and finish the season on a strong note,” he said.
Here are three things to watch as the second half of the season begins:
What will happen to Josh Smith?
There seems to be more speculation than substance at this point as to what will happen to Smith. He is averaging a team-high 17.4 points and 8.6 rebounds per game as he enters the final months of his contract. He is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent this summer.
Smith said leaving Atlanta isn’t something he discussed with his family during the All-Star break.
“We were just worrying about not getting sunburned,” Smith said. “We didn’t talk about anything related to basketball.”
Smith said that he hasn’t thought about Thursday, nor will he.
“I think y’all are worried about more than me,” he said to the media. “It’s been a blessing to be able to play in the NBA and my dream job. I’m not worried or concerned about anything.”
Point guard Jeff Teague said it will be a relief when the deadline passes, but it’s not something that anyone is discussing in the locker room.
Will the schedule help the Hawks?
The Hawks will start by hosting Lebron James and Miami (36-14), winners of seven consecutive, at 8 p.m. Wednesday. The Hawks haven’t defeated the Heat this year.
“It’s a challenge that I’m embracing,” Drew said. “I know my players will embrace it and we will be prepared.”
From there, it will get slightly easier.
The second-half schedule features teams with an average winning percentage of 49.9.
“We can definitely move. We just have to try to put a string of wins together,” Smith said. “If we keep playing the way we’ve been playing we can get something good started.”
The toughest stretch will occur in early March when Atlanta goes to Boston (28-24) on March 8, hosts Brooklyn (31-22) and former Hawks standout Joe Johnson on March 9, and travels to Miami on March 12.
Should the Hawks find themselves fighting for their playoff lives, the end of the schedule should help. After a visit to San Antonio (42-12), which has the league’s best record, the Hawks will visit Philadelphia (22-29), host Milwaukee (26-25) and Toronto (21-32) before finishing at New York (32-18) on April 17 in what may be a preview of a first-round matchup.
Teague said the key to improving will be to play better on the road where they are 12-13 season, noting that result against Orlando is an indicator of the team’s potential when they are focused on defense. The Hawks held the Magic to 76 points.
“Hopefully that can continue,” Teague said.
Will the Hawks strengthen the point guard spot?
Jannero Pargo’s second 10-day contract expired before the Hawks’ game at Orlando, the last before the All-Star break. The Hawks’ only option with Pargo is to sign him for the rest of the season. League rules dictate they can’t sign him to another 10-day contract.
Pargo appeared in seven games for the Hawks, averaging 5 points, 2.7 assists and 1 rebound in 16.1 minutes.
A decision may not be reached on Pargo, or if not him who will back up Teague, until after the trade deadline expires.
Drew on Buss
Drew called longtime Lakers owner Jerry Buss, who died on Monday, a "genius." Drew played two years for the Lakers and was later an assistant coach for the team.
"The NBA has lost a great pioneer," Drew said. "Dr. Buss was a phenomenal person. My brief stint there with the Lakers, having an opportunity to be around him and sit and talk to him, he was a basketball genius with what he did for the city of Los Angeles bringing basketball there.
"He was someone I totally respected. He was someone who was very nice and very professional with me. He was a guy you just enjoyed being around. He was a very energetic guy. What he brought to Los Angeles, he was looked upon as a genius. Putting it together the way he did, he will be sorely missed."