For the third straight season, things just don't look too good when it comes to the Atlanta Hawks through the eyes of one of Atlanta's own, ESPN's John Hollinger.
From his 2011-2012 Eastern Conference preseason predictions:
9. Atlanta Hawks (33-33)
The Hawks won 44 games and made the second round of the playoffs in 2010-11, but that's misleading. They gave up more points than they scored in the regular season, went 10-17 after the All-Star break, lost one of the top sixth men in free agency and didn't do much to replace him, and will be without Kirk Hinrich for nearly half the season.
Pressed face-first against the luxury tax thanks to the bad contracts they lavished on Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, the Hawks were left to fill in around the edges with veteran retreads such as Tracy McGrady and Vladimir Radmanovic. These weren't bad pickups for the price, but they don't offset losing Crawford and Hinrich.
John is around the ATL enough to know where all the faults lie with the hometown Hawks. In his prediction, he offers some service to Jeff Teague playing more and the frontcourt of Al Horford and Josh Smith, but mostly laments the usual Hawk issues: lack of depth and lack of championship caliber roster.
More from Hollinger:
As a result, this is going to be a harder slog for the Hawks than they might think, especially with a schedule that does a short-benched team few favors. Unless they're blessed with outstanding health, they're in danger of falling out of the playoffs entirely. After three straight trips to the second round, that's going to be a jolt.
True, any sort of injury bug to anyone's starting five would understandably lower the team's level of play and, therefore, the number of wins one must acheive, but I think John is too well aware of the team's weaknesses and dismisses the team's strength as a regular season winner, and it's not the first time, as mentioned in the lead.
Let's take a quick look back through the last three season of Hollinger's prediction's about the team.
The Hawks were coming off a sub-.500 season but their first playoff game since the lockout-shortened 1999 season. The seven game series against Boston was an alert that the Hawks were indeed relevant again, having given the soon-to-be-champs all they could handle in what was supposed to be a quick, eventless, sweep of a woebegone franchise.
Still, Hollinger was way less than impressed:
Atlanta's starting five might be the best in the division, but its bench might not win the D-League. Triangulate between those two extremes and you end up with a team that's unlikely to repeat its playoff appearance of a year ago unless it enjoys an unusually good run of health, because the subs just aren't up to snuff.Additionally, it's naïve to think the tumult in the rest of the organization isn't going to have some effect on the floor. Woodson is back even though multiple players -- most notably Smith and Pachulia -- had issues with him a year ago, and he's working under a new general manager who may not have his back. Meanwhile, the ongoing lawsuit between the current ownership and renegade partner Steve Belkin is still dragging on with no end in sight.
Plus there's the issue of whether the organization can address in-season problems. While Sund almost has to be an improvement over his predecessor, particularly on draft day, the concern remains that Atlanta's ownership will prevent him from making aggressive moves if it involves taking on more salary.
Sum it all up, and it appears this club is ready to take a step in reverse. The Hawks look like they'll be stuck in the NBA's netherworld --- neither good enough to make the playoffs nor bad enough to get a high lottery pick -- and with little young talent in the pipeline beyond the current starting five, they could be in this pickle for a while.
Prediction: 31-51, fifth in Southeast Division, 13th in Eastern Conference
Save for being off by a whopping (16) games in the win column (47 to 31), (4) spots in the division (2nd to 5th), and (10) spots in the conference (4th to 13th), was there anything he said that wasn't true?
Not really, but in the end those things didn't matter as much as Johnson, Horford, Smith, Mike Bibby, and Marvin Williams making a solid starting five, even if the next three off the bench were Zaza Pachulia, Maurice Evans, and Ronald "Flip" Murray.
After getting taken to (7) games by Dwyane Wade and the Heat and then getting wiped clean by the LeBron James-led Cleveland Cavaliers, the Hawks came into the season with some momentum, the same starting five (courtesy of the three re-signings of Bibby, Marvin, and Zaza), and the offseason theft of Jamal Crawford for the fabled magic bean combo of Speedy Claxton and Acie Law.
So, with such an embarrasing miss on the previous season's prediction on the Hawks, Hollinger surely saw the bench addition of Jamal (a key piece missing according to himself the previous season) and the obviously improved team and had an optimistic take on the home team.
Hawks filled out their roster after only going eight deep last season, but that's really all that changed. And they're no longer young enough to bank on internal improvement. Looks like another year atop the East's pretender heap.
Hollinger predicted 2nd place in the division (correct) and 4th in the conference (too low by one, Hawks finished 3rd). He also predicted (44) wins for the Hawks. Not so close. The Hawks finished with (53) wins, and predictive stats indicated they might've/should've had more, not less.
But was he wrong? No, he just once again discounted the value of the guys that were on the court the majority of the time (otherwise known as starters--and Crawford).
So after two straight seasons, surely John was a regular season believer again, right?
It's hard to be too dismissive of the Hawks' chances -- they won 53 games last year in an accredited basketball league -- but as I mentioned at the top, that seems to be the absolute ceiling of how far this team could go. Moreover, they did virtually nothing to change the mix in the offseason.
There might be some upgrades if you look hard enough. Under Drew, it's possible we'll see less Iso-Joe and better transition defense; while it's hard to see the offense improving from last year's heights, the defense offers plenty of room for improvement. Teague could move ahead of Bibby as the starting point guard and provide some relief, while Williams could also rebound from a disappointing 2009-10 campaign.
However, much larger tidal trends are pulling the Hawks the other way. Crawford had a Fluke Rule last year and is unlikely to repeat it, while Johnson is at an age where performance can slide suddenly. More importantly, the Hawks are virtually assured to have more injuries this time around. We know they won't have less, let's put it that way. And if and when they do happen, management won't have the dollars to throw around to fill holes.
As a result, the big picture remains the same: They'll easily make the playoffs but have no chance of participating in them for more than three weeks. If you sense a pattern here, there's a reason. The Hawks made the conference finals in their first year in Atlanta; since then they have made the second round of the playoffs 14 different times and lost all 14 of them, including sweeps the past two seasons. There's a decent chance they'll get No. 15 this year, and an even better one that they'll fall a round short this time. While it's unlikely they'll hit last year's ceiling, they'll remain in the same neighborhood as long as the frontcourt stays healthy.
Prediction: 46-36, 3rd in Southeast Division, 6th in Eastern Conference
Ok--now we're getting somewhere--(46) wins was actually two more than the Hawks pulled out. 3rd place in the Southeast was correct, and was only one place pessimistic with the Hawks actual 5th place finish.
The Hawks did make it through the first round because the Magic, who were the worst possible matchup the year before when they practically erased all relevance the Hawks had enjoyed for 2 seasons, were the absolute best matchup last year for the Hawks, with Jason Collins at center and the athletic Hawks running out on their three point shooters.
Now let's go back to this year, 2011-2012:
John doesn't say anything he hasn't seen for many seasons or isn't actually reflected on the Hawks' roster. But he doesn't mention that, while, yes, in a shortened season bench depth could come into play in a few games this season, the Hawks lost some decent time last year and nearly everyone short of Teague, Horford, and Marvin slipped in their production from a year before.
Josh Smith has lost weight and should be more healthy this season, as is Joe Johnson. In such a quick change season, the continuity that the Hawks enjoy and playoff caliber basketball that core has established can not and should not be washed away this season any more than in the previous seasons that John underestimates that value. If anything, that familiarity should help them early in the season as other teams adjust to changing rosters and starting lineups.
One should not confuse championship chances with playoff chances or regular season acumen. The Hawks are built well for the regular season and the spectrum of teams beyond the elite the Hawks struggle with so much in the second round of the playoffs.
Hollinger deploys an accurate take on a team he knows all too well, but that familiarity has betrayed him in the past, and I believe confuses the prediction on the present. He misses the positives the team gives in trying hard to make sure everyone understands the faults. The Hawks aren't title contenders, but they are better than a .500 team.
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