30 Teams, 30 Days
Atlanta Hawks Season Preview.
We conclude the Southeast Division previews with the Atlanta Hawks. You can read past previews here.
The Atlanta Hawks are coming off their most important summer since 2007. That was the summer when the Hawks asked me to write a weekly column about my favorite team on Hawks.com. I agreed to do it because I was certain I was the only member of the national media who cared about the Hawks. They were a combined 69-177 in the three previous seasons, and hadn’t had a winning season since 1999-00. But since the Hawks hired me in the summer of 2007, they haven’t missed the Playoffs since. Coincidence?
Not really. Now people are watching the Hawks, although the Hawks becoming a good team had nothing to do with me. The Hawks became a Playoff squad mostly because of Joe Johnson. We got our star player and built around him, picking up Josh Smith, Al Horford, Marvin Williams and Mike Bibby. We got Zaza Pachulia under market value, added Mo Evans and Flip Murray, and somehow finished 3 games shy of a Curtis Jackson in wins.
But the truth all along was that the Hawks were a severely undermanned team. Besides the 8 players I mentioned above, the Hawks really didn’t have anyone else who could be counted upon to contribute consistently. This doesn’t mean Acie Law or Speedy Claxton or Othello Hunter or Solomon Jones aren’t good players, just that they weren’t able to win the trust of Mike Woodson. Earning Woody’s seal of approval is like trying to decode The Lost Symbol; many try, few can pull it off.
The Hawks had a 15-man roster last season, but the reality was we played every game with 8 players. No depth and no rest left the Hawks so beat up by the time the Playoffs rolled around that the Hawks barely squeaked by Miami, and then played Cleveland with a one-legged Joe Johnson, a one-legged Al Horford and a one-armed Marvin Williams. It bothers me when I read about the Hawks getting “crushed” in the Playoffs by Cleveland. We got swept, yes, but we didn’t have our A-team out there. Not even close.
This summer, the Hawks finally added reinforcements. They re-signed Zaza and Bibby to completely reasonable contracts. They traded two guys who couldn’t get off the bench in exchange for Jamal Crawford, basically a way better Flip Murray, who can back up Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby, and averaged 20 ppg last season. We signed Marvin Williams to an extension, and we added Joe Smith and Jason Collins, two veterans who should provide that depth we’ve lacked in the post. (Goodbye, Solo Jones.)
Most people have assessed the Bibby/Zaza/Marvin extensions as good signings — which they were — but I think it’s important to realize that any of those dudes could have gone elsewhere for comparable money. That they all stayed suggests to me that they want to be in Atlanta, that they’ve bought into what the Hawks are and what they can be. So many guys in the NBA are out for self, and any of these guys could’ve been, but they wanted to be Hawks and did what it took to stay on the team. To me, that speaks not only to the kind of teammates they are but to what the Hawks have built. We have a real team now.
Still, as I wrote the other day, everything revolves around Joe Johnson. As it should. When you have one of the top 15 players in the NBA, you give him the ball and get out the way. We need to Joe to play huge every night, and usually he does. I’m glad he’s in a contract year this season, because hopefully it will spur him to have an even better campaign.
So how do the Hawks improve this year? Here’s three quick things to look for:
1) Mike Woodson has to get better. Stop being so tight with the rotation, stop demanding we switch on every pick, stop making reactionary substitutions and instead force teams to react to us, run at least a couple of plays for Horford and Josh Smith in the post. Thing is, Woody’s defense-first system and controlled halfcourt offense has provided the Hawks with stability and lifted us from the hood to the suburbs. But if we want to move to a penthouse, Woody has to grow, just like his players.
2) The Hawks spent a ridiculous amount of time on defense trying to cover for Mike Bibby, who was picked on like a scab by other teams. Hopefully Bibby has improved his mobility this season, or he got stronger, or something. Because Mike was…the weakest link.
3) Get Josh Smith an IV drip of Red Bull. When Smoove is energized and playing with intensity, he makes the Hawks a completely different team by getting driving, getting defenders in foul trouble and being dominant on both ends on the glass. It’s easy to forget he’s still a kid — he’ll turn 24 in December — but he can do better than averaging 15 and 7. And he should do better this season.
What should we consider a successful year for the Hawks this season? I think 50 wins is a completely realistic goal, as is retaining home court in the first round of the Playoffs. Realistically, these Hawks are still a few players away from being a Championship contender — they could use another point guard besides Jeff Teague, and maybe another swingman.
But just as realistically, the only thing holding these Hawks back from being a title team? Themselves.