The Hawks join the rest of the NBA tonight by kicking off their season in New Jersey. Now that the dust has settled on a condensed offseason, what are the items to watch this season in Atlanta?
Here now is Kris Willis and Jason Walker previewing the 2011-2012 season for our Atlanta Hawks:
Q: What is the single most important thing to watch this season about the Hawks?
JW: Jeff Teague is a good answer, but I think an equally vital piece of the Hawks chances of improving or even holding steady this season is how much will Joe Johnson be able to produce and how efficient will that production be?
Last season, he fell off somewhat predictably, but injuries might have exaggerated his slide. If Johnson continues to trail off and doesn't have at least a modest bounce, the Hawks are going to have a hard time achieving even the 35 win pace (44 wins into an 82 game schedule adjusted for 66 games) from last season.
KW: The most important thing that I will be watching will be Jeff Teague and whether or not he can nail down the Hawks starting point guard job. Atlanta needs him to carry over his success in the playoffs if they hope to improve from within and if he can accomplish that it will finally end Atlanta's decade long search for a permanent solution at the point guard position.
Q: What effects will the compacted schedule have on the Hawks?
JW: The negative is that the bench depth can arguably be exploited here, but the Hawks starting five and some combination of one-dimensional talents that have been brought in this year should be good enough on some of those nights to beat the lower third of the league.
The positive is that, in a compressed season, teams that have kept their core intact should have an easier time getting things going consistently throughout the season. The Hawks are just such a team, changing only Jeff Teague into the starting lineup and we saw how that worked in last season's Chicago playoff series.
KW: Atlanta battled various injuries to many key players last season and any bumps and bruises suffered this season are going to be magnified by the compacted schedule. The Hawks are already down Kirk Hinrich to start the season and can ill-afford a rash of injuries to key players.
Q: What are the Hawks biggest strengths?
JW: The Hawks biggest strength is the production and efficiency of their starting five. Al Horford, Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, and Jeff Teague make a good, solid unit, one more than capable of propelling the Hawks into (SPOILER ALERT!) playoff territory.
Even with their individually well-noted flaws, this group generally takes care of the ball and makes shots, adding in a better defensive overall, something that should continue to grow given the replacement of the eternally awful defense of Mike Bibby with Teague and Kirk Hinrich and the slimmed down aggressiveness of Josh Smith.
KW: Atlanta has invested heavily in its core and that should remain a strength in Larry Drew's second season as head coach of the Hawks. Add in a switch to a more defensive approach in the backcourt and the Atlanta should be in pretty good shape if they can keep everyone healthy.
Q: What are the Hawks biggest weaknesses?
JW: When a team spends almost all the way to the luxury tax on half a roster, depth will be an issue. There will be no 6th man of the year consideration here, though Hinrich, when back, should provide a boost to the rotation. Zaza Pachulia is a good backup big, giving the Hawks offensive rebound, free throw rate, and getting under the other team's skin. Good times!
Separate, and yet related issue is the defensive rebounding of the team. Despite Al Horford being very good here, the rest of the team struggles to match Al's proficiency on the glass, making defense more difficult. The Hawks have never taken a statistical look at filling this void and every big they bring in seems to not help in this area, nor had they in their previous stops. This is one place that losing Jamal Crawford won't hurt the team---Tracy McGrady/Jerry Stackhouse/Willie Green/Jannero Pargo/Your grandmother could outpace Jamal in this category.
KW: I think Jason sums this one up nicely with the bench being the biggest concern for the team going forward. Perhaps Willie Green becomes this season's Flip Murray who lessons the sting felt by the loss of Jamal Crawford.
Q: Who, outside the starting five, is most important to the Hawks' success?
JW: Has to be Hinrich, who will both improve the team's defense while simultaneously reduce the reliance on minutes from McGrady/Stackhouse et al. Hawks should be fine until Hinrich returns, and my guess is that the rotation and starting five will be seriously ready for his minutes when he is finally able to play.
KW: I agree that Hinrich is important but I am going with Zaza Pachulia who by all accounts has had a great camp. Pachulia was up and down last season and the Hawks need a more consistent performance from him this season backing up Al Horford.
Q: The Most Valuable Player on the Hawks will be _________?
JW: The Hawks, for good or bad, are a solid team with solid players. The annual X-factor is Josh Smith. If he improves back to his 20+ PER level and continues his growth as a player rather than setting camp at his current level, then there is no doubt Smith will both experience his first AS game and be the Hawks' MVP.
This pick is to both show that possibility and to provide extra hope since all of fingers are already crossed this season.
KW: I love Josh Smith now that he looks to have his speed and quickness back. I also like the intangibles that Al Horford brings to the table but I am once again going with Joe Johnson to bounce back from what he himself described as a bad season. Johnson came to camp lighter and by all accounts in great shape and most importantly motivated.
Q: Final Predictions
JW: I truly believe, even against the face of solid statistical showings from Bret at Hoopinion and the guys at Basketball Prospectus, that this team, heavily reliant on their starting five as they are, and limited as they may be on the upside, is a playoff team, and thus will be above .500 for the season.
I would put the high side at 37 wins (a 46 win equivalent in an 82 game season) and another first round win in the playoffs, but I just can't say that the Hawks have enough overall talent to push past a better team in the second round. Their only hope there for a first round upset and then play a "lesser" team than they in the second round.
My prediction: 36-30, Second round exit.
Let's Go Hawks!
KW: I have already ranted out loud about several national writers picking the Hawks to miss the playoffs. Barring an unforeseen injury I just don't see this group regressing that far. They are who they are which is an experienced team that will be good enough on most nights to finish in the top half of the Eastern Conference.
There is no doubt that the Eastern Conference is improving though and the Hawks will enter the season as one of the league's oldest units. If they remain healthy then they could once again reach the second round and perhaps make some noise depending on the opponent. However, if the wear and tear starts to catch up with them, escaping the first round may just be too big of a task this time around.
My prediction: 37-29, First round exit