The Hawks open the 2013-2014 NBA season on the road against the Dallas Mavericks on Wednesday and, in order to gauge the nature of Atlanta's first foe, Kirk Henderson of SB Nation's Mavs Moneyball has provided us with some useful information.
Question (Daniel Christian): Dirk is finally healthy. It's his first game of the season. He's playing against the Hawks. What should we expect from him to start off the basketball year, and what's your assessment of how he stacks up against Atlanta's defensive frontcourt?
Answer (Kirk Henderson): By the final 20 games of last season, Dirk was on fire, despite having to play with a host of inept backcourt mates. From what I've been hearing this summer, Dirk got in the gym earlier than he ever has working on his game. This last training camp was the first Dirk's had since 2011 (and the first time he's been healthy), so I expect huge things from the Big German this year.
The Hawks are an interesting first test for Dirk; to be honest, the only defenders who bother him anymore are taller forwards with excellent lateral movement. Serge Ibaka and Nick Collison frustrate him the most these days, but if Horford gets the call he could bother Dirk just enough to throw him off his game. Ayon also plays with the kind of energy to get under Dirk's skin. I'm not sure Brand has the quickness anymore to keep up with Nowitzki, but he certainly has the arm length and strength.
Q: Who is the Mavs' sleeper this year? Is there a guy that national media hasn't given much attention to but that Dallas expects big things from this year? What should we expect from him against the Hawks?
A: I don't think there are any sleepers on the Dallas roster. With an overhaul like the Mavericks had this off season, just about everyone's been discussed at length. Monta Ellis and José Calderón were the flashiest off season additions and there are enormous question marks surrounding their games. Samuel Dalembert has been brought in to plug the hole at center, but he's on the downhill part of his career and it could very well be a disaster for Dallas.
DeJuan Blair might qualify as a sleeper, but the thought that a 6'7" power forward might be a key to the Maverick season makes me mighty uncomfortable. Against the Hawks I expect he'll play the role he's to play all season: he'll be the guy to ugly up the game. Blair will be expected to grab rebounds, score garbage buckets, and play physical. I'm not sure how effective he'll be against a front court as rugged as Atlanta's.
Q: What's the most important match-up in this game?
A: It's going to have to be the backcourt match up. Historically, Calderón and Ellis have been poor defenders, so if they can't stay in front of the Hawk guards it's going to start a cascade effect for Dallas, which could get out of control. Penetration results in foul trouble for the Maverick big men and if you look at the roster, the depth in the front court is really poor, particularly with Brendan Wright out with a should injury.
Q: What's your prediction on how this game plays out? Who wins and why?
A: I'll go with Atlanta. I can't say I understand the national Hawks hate. Just because a team gets less talented (Josh Smith is uber-talented) doesn't necessarily mean it gets worse. If anything, I think the Hawks will be a much better team unit, anchored by Horford who should be an all-star this season. Truth be told, past Tyson Chandler or Dwight, I think Horford would be a perfect frontcourt match with Dirk. Atlanta might not boast a bunch of flashy players, but I think the Hawks have a solid top eight. It could be a frustrating opening night for Mavs fans.