I’m on vacation right now, squeezing in a few days of peace and quiet before the season gets cracking, one week from yesterday. And while I should be hanging out thinking about nothing, instead I find myself here sharing some thoughts about the Atlanta Hawks. Which, actually, I’m OK with. As a lifelong Hawks fan, I think about the Hawks most of the time anyway.
Last season the Hawks finished 53-29, were the third seed in the Eastern Conference, and advanced to the second round of the Playoffs. Joe Johnson and Al Horford made the All-Star team, Josh Smith should have made the All-Star team, and Jamal Crawford was named the NBA’s Sixth Man of the Year.
These tidbits are all facts, supported by hardware and statistics, and looking at them, at least on the surface, you might think the Hawks would have considered last season a success.
Well, the Hawks allowed coach Mike Woodson to walk as soon as the season ended, which would seem to indicate the Hawks ownership/front office thought the Hawks had room to improve on a couple of things and become an even better team in 2010-11. Hawks fans would probably mostly agree with this sentiment, as many of us grumbled from time to time during Coach Woodson’s six year tenure. The two points that received the most airtime were these:
1. Switching on defense — The Hawks have a lot of interchangeable parts, and Woodson tried to take advantage of that (as well as simplify the Hawks’ basic defensive schemes) by having the Hawks switch defenders pretty much every time an opposing team set a pick against them. This was successful to some degree, although the better teams in the NBA, knowing the Hawks’ plans, would often simply run picks to create mismatches and get buckets.
2. Stagnant offense — Under Woodson, the Hawks were one of the League’s most efficient offensive teams, largely due to their lack of pace (and resulting lack of possessions). For a team that with so many athletic players, the Hawks seemed to prefer slowing down the ball and then allowing Joe Johnson to dribble down the shot clock and go one-on-one against his defender. If the NBA improbably decided tomorrow that from now on there were no more teams and every “game” would now be replaced by a one-on-one competition, Joe Johnson would fare really well. But the NBA is not and will not be a one-on-one League. As a result, the Hawks had to work very hard — harder than most teams — to create chances on offense, particularly in their halfcourt offense.
And so the Hawks replaced Mike Woodson with his former lead assistant, longtime NBA assistant coach Larry Drew. Giving Drew the big office is the most relevant move the Hawks have made this summer, at least in terms of the upcoming season. They didn’t sign LeBron James, didn’t even sign Shaq, so any significant improvement is going to have to come from within.
Pretty much immediately upon being hired, Drew began talking about the Hawks adopting a new motion-based offense, while simultaneously noting that they will no longer be switching every pick. Which would seem to indicate Drew has an eye for what needed fixing. Implementing those changes will be the first test for Drew.
Another indicator for Drew will the play of rookie Jeff Teague. Mike Bibby still has plenty of savvy and smarts, and in a halfcourt defensive set he knows how to position himself, and he did an admirable job fighting against bigger players when posted up. But Bibby was too often beaten off the dribble by athletic point guards. Last season, the Hawks had then-rookie Jeff Teague behind Bibby, but Teague never received consistent playing time and, as a result, he was often inconsistent and wasn’t able to contribute with any regularity. Drew has said he wants Teague to win the starting job from Bibby. Now it’s up to Teague to seize the job and give the Hawks a shot of caffeine at the point, and it’s up to Drew to put Teague in a position where he can be successful.
One thing I came to appreciate about the Woodson era was the constancy of his approach: switch picks, don’t turn the ball over, win mostly low-scoring games. It wasn’t very exciting basketball, but it certainly worked, and in six seasons under Woodson, the Hawks methodically went from a 13-win team to a 53-win team.
I think there’s something to be said for a group of guys all improving from season to the next, growing in their skills, being more used to playing with each other. What’s to say Josh Smith and Al Horford won’t improve as much this summer as they did last summer? Maybe the new offense and defense will click, Teague will slide right in, rookie Jordan Crawford and Jamal Crawford will give lots of buckets off the bench, Josh Powell will move into the rotation at forward/center, and the Hawks will improve enough to win somewhere between 57-60 games. Or, worst case scenario, the Larry Drew era doesn’t work out, and the Hawks slip somewhere back below last season’s 53-win threshold.
The last few years the Hawks have played with the slimmest of margins of error, and they’ve actually done pretty well, all things considered. This year they’ll again be living on the edge. At least it gives us Hawks fans something to think about.