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Competition Discussion: Atlanta Hawks

The season is still a ways away, but most of the rosters are set, barring the requisite Michael Jordan comeback rumor (just kidding, but only a little).  We have an idea where our team stands, but we can't really know unless we discuss everyone else.  In that spirit, I'm going to throw up a "competition discussion" thread for each of the other 29 teams over the next couple months or so.  We'll go in alphabetical order from A to Z.  Today's team: Atlanta.  Jump to the comments to discuss the Hawks and make a prediction on their record.

Last year's record: 47-35 (Pythagorean record: 46-36)

Playoffs: beat Miami 4-3 in first round, lost to Cleveland 4-0 in second round

Offensive Rating: 109.3 (10th)

Defensive Rating: 107.6 (11th)

Pace: 89.6 possessions/game (24th)

In: Jamal Crawford, Joe Smith, Jeff Teague
Out: Flip Murray, Acie Law, Speedy Claxton's Expiring Contract

Projected starting lineup: Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford

Key themes:

  • How much more can this team actually improve?
  • Will Mike Woodson open up the offense more to get more people involved?
  • Can Josh Smith truly channel his immense athleticism into smart on-court play?
  • Was bringing back Mike Bibby the right move?
  • What happens to Joe Johnson after the season?
  • Can Jamal Crawford match the output we saw from Flip Murray last year?
  • What type of development are we going to see from the three young forwards (Smith, Marvin Williams, Al Horford?
  • Can Joe Smith be a veteran leader to help teach this team how to take the next step?

It's often said that it's much easier to go from 25 wins to 45 wins than it is to go from 45 wins to 55 wins.  The Hawks are going to be a good test for that theory this year.  They've improved slowly and surely over the years (their win totals since 2005: 13, 26, 30, 37, 47) and are hoping to improve again through internal growth.  While the rest of the East made big moves, the Hawks did small things, trading a couple out-of-rotation guys for Jamal Crawford, drafting raw rookie point guard Jeff Teague and signing veteran big man Joe Smith. 

All in all, it's hard to see how Atlanta got worse.  Crawford is normally an improvement over Flip Murray, though Murray was so good relative to the rest of his career last year that he actually approached normal Crawford production.  Teague replaces Acie Law as the young point guard du jour, though it's an open question how good Teague actually is and how much coach Mike Woodson plans on using him.  The only major upgrade seemingly is Joe Smith, who adds a lot more as the fourth big man on the team than Solomon Jones.

And yet, it's hard to see how Atlanta got better.  Their frontcourt of Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Al Horford remains young, but the backcourt of Joe Johnson and Mike Bibby is pretty established.  It's possible Williams, Smith and Horford each improve their games substantially, but that would be fairly shocking at this point.  It would require Smith developing a brain and playing to his strengths, which he hasn't shown he can do.  It'd require Horford getting more touches in the post, which Woodson hasn't shown he'll allow.  It'd require Williams developing some real one-on-one chops, which probably won't happen because he hasn't yet and because Woodson's guard-oriented offense won't allow it. 

In short, they're stuck, and the East isn't getting any worse.  Last year, the Hawks raced off to a hot start and then plateaued.  In the meantime, Philadelphia struggled to adjust to Elton Brand, the Raptors fell off, Wizards suffered all sorts of injuries and Detroit fell off the face of the earth.  Someone needed to claim the fourth spot and Atlanta ended up being that team.  Now, the Wizards are (hopefully) healthy, the Pistons and Raptors are reloaded and Chicago might be brimming with confidence after their own seven-game upset bid fell just short.  The point is, any internal improvements the Hawks make seem likely to be counteracted by the return of several other Eastern Conference teams to the picture.

This isn't to say the Hawks stink.  They're a pretty good team with some very solid talent.  Like the Wizards, they're pretty deep in rotation-quality players, with nine guys (the starters, Crawford, Zaza Pachulia, Mo Evans and Joe Smith) who belong in a playoff team's rotation.  It's just that they're ceiling has probably been reached. 

So get ready for more of the same in Atlanta.  Get ready for Woodson to overwork Joe Johnson to the point where he again becomes the game's most overrated featured player instead of one of the league's best complimentary scorers.  Get ready for the Hawks to switch every screen, putting Mike Bibby on bigger players in terrible spots on the floor.  Get ready for Josh Smith to tantalize, but then leave you with something more.  Get ready for Al Horford's solid contributions to go unnoticed by his own coach. 

The end result is a team that plays pretty well, but always leaves you wondering whether they can do something more.  Just like last year.

My prediction: 47-35, third in the Southeast, fifth in the East.