PrintPrint

Chisholm: Hawks looking to take the next step

Tim Chisholm

9/5/2009 10:41:40 AM

Season Preview: Atlanta HawksTeam Preview Archives

Despite improvements by teams like Denver and Orlando last season, no team exceeded expectations laid out in these previews like the Atlanta Hawks did. It wasn't that they suddenly became a Conference power, because they didn't, but they did manage to turn a startlingly unlikely 2008 Playoff berth into a launching off point for a return to respectability in the NBA. That, my friends, is not easy to do.

See, it doesn't take a ton of skill to do what Atlanta did in 2008. They snuck into the Playoffs in a dreadful Eastern Conference with a 37-45 record – which basically says that they were not good but there were seven teams worse than them that year. However, what does take a certain amount of skill and dedication is making that Playoff berth mean something.

Typically when a team sneaks into the Playoffs like that they let it go to their heads and crash back down to Earth very quickly (consider the '06 Bucks), but Atlanta appeared to be reborn last season as a franchise that not only believed they were relevant, but they played like they were, too. They didn't assume they were better than they were; they actually went out and worked for (and earned) the fourth seed in the Conference. On top of that, they won out in a very oddly played first round series against Miami, demonstrating a will to win that Miami (outside of Dwyane Wade) showed none of.

That, however, was last year. This season is going to be a whole new test for these Hawks. On the plus side, they managed to retain their key free agents (Mike Bibby, Marvin Williams and Zaza Pachulia) while also adding depth at some key positions (Jamal Crawford and Joe Smith). On the negative side, the Conference around them has improved again, with Toronto and Washington seemingly poised to re-enter the Playoff fray, putting more contenders into play for the East's coveted fourth and fifth seeds (the ones that don't lead to a first round matchup against heavyweights Boston, Cleveland or Orlando). So while Atlanta may have done everything right in an attempt to improve upon their recent gains, that still might not have been enough to reach their logical goals.

Think of it this way: last year, Atlanta was the sole team that sat between those aforementioned powerhouses and the virtually indistinguishable crew that made up slots five-through-fourteen below them. They had too much talent and execution to be considered one of the pack, but they were also a far cry from the three teams that sat in front of them, as their second round walloping by Cleveland demonstrated. So, logic would dictate that they would make moves this summer to move them closer to the teams that sit in front of them. However, the moves made by Boston, Cleveland and Orlando this summer outstripped those made by Atlanta, while the teams below Atlanta like Toronto, Washington, Indiana, Chicago and even Charlotte believe that they are narrowing the gap between themselves and the Hawks. So, despite their best efforts to have a summer that by all accounts stands as a positive, the Hawks will have to redouble their efforts on the court just to keep pace with their output from a year ago.

The Hawks, though, have one thing going for them that no other team on that list does, and that's momentum. Two straight years of Playoff ball is more than any of those clubs can claim, and none of those teams has been to the second round in that time. While several clubs below Atlanta are looking to get their legs under them to try walking with the big boys, Atlanta is already walking and starting to nip at some heels. Who knows how much that will count for when the season wraps up, but it's time to start taking Atlanta seriously going into the season.

PROBABLE STARTING LINE UP

PGMIKE BIBBY

It's pretty remarkable that when Bibby was acquired from Sacramento, he was seen as a temporary fill in; he was massive upcoming cap relief and little more. However, in his first year-and-a-half in Atlanta he fit what they were trying to do so remarkably that the club actually opened up their typically tight wallets and gave Bibby a new three-year deal. While his numbers aren't near his career-highs from Sacramento, his leadership has proven invaluable to a team so overloaded with (at times) directionless youth. However, he's going to need to be more of a leader in the post-season going forward if he wants this team to have a fighting chance to upset one of the big boys.

SGJOE JOHNSON

Johnson is one of those players that people feel is either criminally underrated or verging on overrated. He has the rare ability to be unstoppable offensively while also playing a complete game, but he also has the ability to become frighteningly inconsistent for stretches of the season. There are those that would say that the Hawks are only where they are because they acquired him, others would say the reason they can't reach higher is because he's not capable of taking them there. He's not the kind of player who elevates his game in the post-season and if the Hawks ink him to a max-level extension this year it would seem unjustified by today's economic standards. However, Johnson is an upper-crust player in the NBA (even if there is debate as to how upper) and there is no denying that without him the Hawks wouldn't even warrant mention as an also-ran.

SFMARVIN WILLIAMS

In a way the Hawks should consider themselves lucky with Marvin Williams. Is he Chris Paul or Deron Williams? No, but it's long past time to get over that. Williams, though, has emerged as the kind of player that you just don't let walk away for nothing, and in his draft class that is a remarkable thing. While top-20 picks like Charlie Villanueva, Hakim Warrick, Channing Frye, Ike Diogu, Sean May, Rashad McCants, Antoine Wright, Gerald Green, Joey Graham, Yaroslav Korolev and Julius Hodge were all let go without ever seeing a qualifying offer (well, Warrick saw one and then saw it taken away), the Hawks rewarded Williams with a handsome extension this summer to start for them. It's unlikely, given both his play thus far and his role on the team, that he'll ever reach the highs most were projecting for him before the draft, but just having the kind of long-term faith in the player that they drafted is almost a home run when discussing this draft class.

PFJOSH SMITH

It's safe to say at this point that we know Josh Smith. After five years in the league, the ‘potential' tag can finally be stripped away and the ‘reality' tag can be firmly affixed. Smith is the kind of guy that will frustrate coaches with his shot selection and his spotty post-season play, but he's also the kind of guy that will ignite his whole team with a single ‘how'd he do that!' play. He'll never be Shawn Marion, because he doesn't track the ball well enough or commit enough effort to position defense, and he'll never be Gerald Wallace because he'll never be asked to score as much as him, but he will be Josh Smith, and it's nice to finally have a firm grasp on what that means. Is it everything everyone hoped he would develop into? No. However, he is still a great support piece that fills a lot of gaps on his club and the club fortunately has him tied into a contract that pays him according to those expectations.

CAl Horford

The Hawks have been lucky in the Playoffs so far because they've never had to face off against a team that could exploit Horford as an undersized centre. That would be just about the only knock one can apply to Horford at this point in his career – that he could be a liability as an undersized centre on a club that doesn't have a true starting-caliber centre to start in his place. On a team so full of inconsistent entities, Horford is as dependable as a Swiss watch. On a team full of risk-takers, he's as safe as a life preserver. If there is one player this team is not designed to lose, it's Horford. The club went 5-7 without him for a stretch last January, and two of those wins came against lightweights Milwaukee and New Jersey. Joe Johnson may be the guy that elevated this team to their current height, but he did it partly by standing on the shoulders of this man right here.