As you have seen from a few posts over the last couple weeks, I am participating in a large blogosphere preview of every NBA team. The time has come for the Hawks, and I am one of the people representing. Thanks to CelticsBlog for putting the whole thing together. I am rehashing my thoughts for the most part so feel free to rehash yours and/or old arguments. For the visitors, hello. Thanks for stopping by.
Team Name: Atlanta Hawks
Last Year's Record: 47-35
Key Losses: Ronald "Hot Flip" Murray, Acie Law IV, Solomon Jones, and some guy named Craig.
Key Additions: Jamal Crawford (trade), Joe Smith (FA), Jeff Teague, and the enormous butt of Jason Collins.
1. What Significant Moves were made during the off-season?
The Hawks resigned Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia, and Mike Bibby. Getting each of them back was not overly surprising due to the stagnant free agent market and abhorrence of a handful of teams to even be in the same room as added salary let alone contemplate adding it. More pleasantly true though was that Hawks got them all back under long term deals that were at worst near market value and at best slightly under. Outside of the third and final year on Bibby's contract, Rick Sund did quite the job this off season.
Zaza is what he is and that is awesome. And by awesome, I mean an unathletic, hustling, rebounding, traveling, get under your skin defense, barely can dunk Eastern European machine. Bibby can still stroke it from outside, provide leadership from inside the locker room, and mentor Jeff Teague on his way out. Marvin just improves every year. He may be past that "big jump" year, but he is entering the prime of his career and the Hawks have front row seats at a very reasonable price.
Some people did not come back though. Flip Murray being one of them. The good thing about having Flip for one of his most successful seasons in the NBA was that the fans fell in love. We shouted "hot Flip!" like school kids. It was a summer lover affair in the dead of winter and those are hard to say goodbye to. We never knew any of the horror stories those Pacer, Piston, and Cavs' fans threw out. Not our Flip. It couldn't be so. It wasn't so.
Which has made the Jamal Crawford trade a bit of a mixed bag. People are excited and ready to believe he is an upgrade, but that nine times cheaper old summer fling is tough to shake. Still, there is a lot to be excited about with Jamal. For one, we got him for nothing (at least for the first year). Plus, Crawford provides ball handling and free throw shooting at the end of games, which the Hawks sorely missed last year. And then there are those 50 point games, that crossover, and the scoring off the bench. The question is whether those pluses will outweigh his lack of any defense and questionable shot selection. One thing we know the trade did though was, barring an improbable sign and trade, make it so the only big name the Hawks can sign next year is the one they already have, Joe Johnson.
Finally, if you would like to live in a world where preseason is a perfect indicator for future performance, Jeff Teague is about to take this league by storm. If you want to live in optimistic reality, he has the tools to be very good. And if you take preseason for what it is and that is fake games, he can jump and is fast and that is all we know. Personally, I have always liked the taste of kool-aid.
2. What are the team's biggest strengths?
The teams biggest strength is that you have to be exceptional to beat them in any one area. Not great, or all-time anything, just really, really good. If your team has a better starting five, you have a really good starting five, and when they play the Hawks, they will have to play as such. If you have a better bench, that bench is far above average. A lot of people look at the Hawks and say, "there is no super star!" which is true, but there is also no weak link. You are going to have to bring your game to beat this team. And if your game is better on the whole, you can certainly win. This Hawks team will not all-star themselves to many victories, but they can beat anyone. And on rare nights, even when a better team is playing up to their potential, the Hawks have the athletes to throw "what's suppose to happen" to the wind and beat you anyway.
In that, Joe Johnson is the personification of this team's identity, and also its must likely villain. Joe is a borderline all-star who hangs more on the border of being included. He is a guy that is consistent on both ends of the court, and for an organization that desperately needed anything in the same ballpark as consistent, fans and media give him rightful praise and recognition for leading them out of the dredges of the league. Joe will beat you. He can drop a quiet 35 with the best in the league. But he is not a super star. He needs teammates. A Joe Johnson team will not make the eastern conference finals. A Joe Johnson led team could.
And that is the rub. Joe is still learning to lead without dominating. It is unclear if Mike Woodson is learning to coach that way, but to be an elite team without elite players, the Hawks will need to play to the strength that they have few weaknesses. Because playing to a strength that is not really there will only undermine the only strength the team really has.
And that was the most confusing sentence I have ever written.
Other strengths in no particular order are home court, running against older teams, a built in food court outside the arena that sells beer, Dominique Wilkins doing color commentary, and Josh Smith dunks.
3. What are the team's biggest weaknesses?
Rebounding. Or put another way Josh Smith accepting a role that fits his skill set. The Hawks are never going to be an exceptional rebounding team. Not with Al Horford playing center and Mike Bibby at point. But they could certainly improve. The Hawks ranked 23rd last year. I don't know stats that well and I am horrible at memorizing things, and I didn't have to look that one up. That is how important it is.
The Hawks could be decent at rebounding. Al Horford is an excellent boarder despite his size. Zaza Pachulia has one of the best offensive rebounding rates in the league. Joe Johnson pulls down boards at an average clip. Marvin could get more but gets enough. It will be a team effort to overachieve here, but Josh Smith must step up. He had his lowest offensive rebounding numbers since coming into a league and was off a full board a game on the defensive end from his rate the past two years. When it comes down to it, the onus is on Josh to end his daydreaming around the three point line and attack the boards like a bat out of hell. Yes, a literal bat out of hell. I have been sending him Meat Loaf cds for weeks in preparation for this season. Hopefully, he has been listening.
The Hawks are simply not good enough at shooting or defense to leave rebounds for the taking. If they stay below average in this category, the improved east will make it very hard to keep the fourth seed and that clear division everyone talks about between the big three and the rest of the league will be so distinct you will think the Hawks are the best team in minor league ball.
The Hawks also must win more games on the road, but that is true for any non-elite team.
4. What are the goals for this team?
Mike Woodson is in a contract year so the goals for this season might easily be marked by what it will take for him to get a new contract. And that might be lower than some Hawks fans want. There will be riots in the street if a first round playoff loss garners a new contract, but a competitive second round exit should secure an extended stay in Atlanta for Woody.
However, one can only rebuild for so long and a conference finals appearance may be wishful thinking around these parts but it is not unheard of thinking. It is still a goal and not an expectation, but in two years, if the Hawks are saying goodbye to the playoffs in early May, fans will not be happy and Phillips Arena will go back to the sparse look it held for the early part of this decade.
The Hawks have improved every year under Woodson, and hope and excitement is built around that very fact. Improvement on 47 wins is a goal and a very reachable one at that.
5. Who will break out this season?
The Hawks are slowly dwindling down their list of potential break out stars. A few years ago you could go six deep easy. The team is settling into roles and skill sets. It makes people excited about competing and nervous about that final form not being enough.
And while Marvin Williams and Al Horford still have the chance to make improvements and maybe even leaps in terms of their game (I actually expect both to be better players this year), neither is likely to become an all-star this year or next. Josh Smith though is the x-factor. His talent is so immense that naming him the potential breakout star is never cliché. And I say that with a firm understanding that he will never be a good jump shooter.
No, Josh Smith is a commitment to rebounding, defense, and not shooting jump shots away from being a clear cut all-star. And those are three things, three big things, but they are less new skills to learn and more a mindset to adopt. That is all Josh Smith needs to become a dominating force. It is scary that the Hawks put their chips in this enigma, but it is also pretty dang exciting.
Predicted Record: 49-33 and 4th seed in the East.
Other player previews: Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Mo Evans, Mike Bibby, Jamal Crawford, Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Josh Smith, Joe Johnson