Think that last season's first round dumping of the Orlando Magic at the hands of the Atlanta Hawks doesn't still resonate in the hearts and minds of the Orlando media?
In a lockout-generated ranking of each position across the NBA, concluded late last week after over a month of going over every position, the Big 3 Atlanta Hawks, Al Horford, Josh Smith, and Joe Johnson, all made it onto their top 10 lists.
It's not surprising that they are on there, though Smith's inclusion on the Small Forwards list provided a sense that maybe only the Jason Collins-led, Dwight Howard killa, lineup was the only one looked at by the Sentinel, in that all three are discussed as Eastern All-Star representatives, thereby explaining their appearance on such lists.
You may be surprised at how highly they are thought of, starting at center, where despite the high LA press of Pau Gasol, the energy and Windy City pub of Joakim Noah, and his nice all-around, but not ever dominant game, Horford is ranked right behind Orlando's own at #2 center in the NBA.
Strengths: Horford offers a nice multi-talented package. He can shoot mid-range jumpers and jump-hooks as well as run the floor. A strong offensive rebounder, he can get out and start the break.
Weaknesses: Obviously, he plays out of position at center. Bigger players can shoot over him or muscle inside. His talents are more suited as a power forward.
The future: Horford is a cornerstone player for the Hawks.
Now, I'm never one to question a high ranking for a Hawk (and fellow Gator), but me thinks folks are projecting a bit much when it comes to Al.
He's a terrific guy, a hard worker, and very productive. But to take this kind of step and be worthy of a high rank like this, he has to progress beyond being the solid good guy who is just happy to be there and get more aggressive in games, something that may be stunted by his coach's negative reinforcement of such behavior. Today, he is a role player who is regarded as somewhat of a game changer. He has the clubs in his bag to be that, he just needs to break whatever mental shackles are there and use them.
But Horford is never short on positive press, likely because folks do want to reward his good-guy status and coach pleasing behavior, traits that have likely cost Smith his due on All-Star Weekend.
The fact that this positive press comes from the city that has seen Horford more than most and whose team ushered theirs out before expected might mean that the impact of that upset is still being felt.
While one could point to some statistics to make the case for #2 for Horford, the case for Joe Johnson being the 3rd best shooting guard seems much less certain.
Strengths: Johnson had an off-year, dealing with thumb and elbow injuries, but still made the all-star team. He is one of the league's premier one-on-one players, equipped with size to shoot over or post up smaller players. He averaged more than 20 points per game in Atlanta's first-round ouster of Orlando, and scored 34 points in Game 1 win against Chicago.
Weaknesses: J.J.'s numbers were down across the board, and he had a horrible year from 3-point range (29 percent). At age 30, he'll have to show next season he isn't on a decline.
The future: Johnson isn't going anywhere, not with his contact.
Doesn't exactly sound like a terrific endorsement of your #3 shooting guard in the NBA, eh?
Kevin Martin, who is annually underrated, produces more than Joe, as does Manu Ginobili, Monta Ellis, and younger players like Eric Gordon.
As is with his 5 year run as an All-Star, Johnson grits by on reputation, even as the folks that recognize him so highly note his decline. Projection and familiarity may lend itself positives for Joe here as well. He's a quiet guy who can beat you when he is going good, and provides a difficult matchup at the same time. And no team knows that better than Orlando, especially if one forgets what happened two years ago and only focuses on last year's victory over the Magic.
There is some sobriety, however, in the Sentinel's ranking of Smith:
Strengths: Smith is one of the NBA's most athletic players. That trait, combined with his length, makes him an elite defender - especially from the weak side - and explosive finisher at the basket. He's a rare guy who's quick enough to play small forward while also being big enough to play power forward, giving the Hawks some flexibility to go big or small at any time. He's an above-average scorer and rebounder for his position.
Weaknesses: Smith has an on-again, off-again relationship with his long-range jump-shot. He's a 28.2 percent three-point shooter for his career, but that didn't stop him from taking two such shots per game this past season; the year before, however, he only took seven three-pointers in 81 games. Smith takes an unwarranted amount of long two-point jumpers, as well, and doesn't make nearly enough of them. Smith's decision-making and lack of a polished offensive game hold him back from being a truly elite player.
The future: The Hawks, looking to cut payroll, were reportedly trying to trade Smith before the lockout, so Smith's days in Atlanta appear to be numbered. The Magic expressed some interest before the draft but couldn't strike a deal.
It's refreshing to see the discussion of Smith's jump shots go beyond the shallow "three point attempts" category and include his propensity for long jump shots in general.
Smith's follies are so evident that it will prevent him from attaining his desired status as "All-Star" as long as coaches continue to note his unwillingness to conform. It's not completely fair, considering his high level of production, but understandable considering the popularity contest that is the All-Star game. You must be a winner on the court and off, which is why Johnson and Horford get the love and Smith has yet to bask in the populist glory.
Still, those that know him well, like the Sentinel don't count it completely as loss, though he is ranked lower than those he is clearly more productive then, even through his obsession with the perimeter. Had he been ranked in the power forwards list, he should have bumped Carlos Boozer at same slot as he was among small forwards.