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Competition Discussion: Atlanta Hawks

The season is still not here, 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, we're 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 record53-29 (Pythagorean record: 54-28)
Playoffs: Defeated Milwaukee Bucks 4-3 in first round, lost to Orlando Magic 4-0 in second round.


Offensive Rating: 111.9 (2nd)
Defensive Rating: 106.7 (13th)
Pace: 90.1 possessions/game (27th)

In: Larry Drew (coach), Jordan Crawford, Josh Powell, Etan Thomas
Out: Mike Woodson (coach), Joe Smith

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

Five big questions:

  • Can Larry Drew make the necessary coaching adjustments to push this team over the top?
  • How will Joe Johnson respond after receiving his huge contract?
  • Will we see the Josh Smith we saw in the regular season or the Josh Smith we saw in the playoffs?
  • How will the contract situations of Jamal Crawford and Al Horford affect their play?
  • Will anyone other than Crawford emerge as a reliable threat off the bench?

Does anyone remember what Ernie Grunfeld said right after he consummated those two big trade-deadline moves? If not, let me refresh your memory:

Maybe that group got stale. Not maybe, I think it got stale, and went about as far as I think we could go.

As I think about the Atlanta Hawks, Grunfeld's words are the first thing that come to mind.  The Hawks' offseason, much like their offseasons in the previous two years, was all about maintaining status quo.  Joe Johnson was kept with a ridiculous contract, all but ensuring the Hawks were wedded to this core for the forseeable future.  With all their money tied up in Johnson, the Hawks' only other personnel additions were minor, meaning the same nucleus that won 53 games before crashing and burning in the playoffs returns this year.

The Hawks do have one big addition: a new coach.  Longtime assistant Larry Drew takes over for Mike Woodson, who clearly lost his team by playoff time.  But while I wasn't the biggest fan of Woodson, to me, the jury is still out on Drew.  Sure, he has lots of experience as an assistant, but this is his first head coaching job, and there's a big difference between the two.

Worse, this is the kind of situation that can be so difficult for a first-time head coach.  As much as many of the Hawks (save for Johnson) were frustrated by Woodson's isolation-heavy, Johnson-heavy offense, it will be very difficult for Drew to fundamentally change Atlanta's style when it's been this successful thus far.  It would be one thing if Drew had a proven track record of success as a head coach, but he doesn't.  How will he build up enough respect to demand the kind of changes necessary to push the Hawks to the next level?  Frankly, the situation reminds me a lot of when Michael Curry came in to coach the Pistons after Flip Saunders left.

The other problem with the Hawks is all the built-in chemistry issues that already exist.  Jamal Crawford has already asked to be traded, because he wants a new contract before the new CBA kicks in.  Al Horford, who has been the model player for this team for the last three years, is up for a new contract after this year, and if he doesn't get an extension before the season starts, you have to think he might begin to think about getting his own numbers, especially after the deal Johnson just signed.  There's a potential issue at point guard, with Mike Bibby slipping and Jeff Teague poised to take the reigns, and you never know about Josh Smith, a guy who behaved all season until the playoffs, when it mattered most.  All this is daunting for even an experienced coach, much less a first-time one.  

To be fair to the Hawks, a lot of these questions were asked last year, and all they did was improve their record by six games.  But at least there was some newness then with Crawford.  This season, there's really not much room for upward mobility.  At 29, Johnson is unlikely to improve, especially with all the minutes he's played over the last couple years.  Smith had a career year last year, so it's hard to see him getting better.  Crawford also had a career year, and he's definitely due for a tumble because his shooting percentages were so flukey last year.  I suppose Horford and Marvin Williams could be better, but that would require them getting shots, which would require others sacrificing shots.  There's no breakout youngster on the horizon, unless Teague and/or Jordan Crawford are way better than advertised.

In the end, Atlanta will make the playoffs, but I expect them to have a very disjointed year.  I wouldn't be surprised to see them play unevenly for the first few months, finish strong and emerge as a "dangerous" team, then flame out in the playoffs.  

Mike's prediction: 45-37, fifth in the Eastern Conference.

BF editor predictions:

Team Mike Prada CJ Hempfeld Sean Fagan Rook6980 Jon Kelman Jake Whitacre
Atlanta 45-37 44-38 44-38 46-36 48-34
Golden State
LA Clippers
LA Lakers
New Jersey
New Orleans
New York
Oklahoma City
San Antonio