For the first time in two years we'll have an orthodox, full-length NBA season to look forward to. No lockout nonsense, and precious little obsession as to whether or not LeBron James will ever win the big one. He's won it, already, and our sanity as NBA followers is probably better off as a result. However big that shred of sanity is remains to be seen, following yet another offseason that once again proved that the NBA is full of Crazy McCrazytons that appear to take great delight in messing with us continually.
As a result of that offseason, and the impending regular season, why not mess with Ball Don't Lie's triptych of Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine and Eric Freeman as they preview the 2012-13 season with alacrity, good cheer, and bad jokes.
We start, as one often should, with the Atlanta Hawks.
Kelly Dwyer's Kilt-Straightener
It's amazing how a deal sending away a well-regarded former All-Star, one that works hard and attempts to live up to his billing, can change a team's outlook and up the positivity surrounding it. Oddly, in the Hawks' instance, the deal that sent Joe Johnson to Brooklyn has us giddy about Atlanta in ways that go beyond the eventual cap space that they're probably not going to be able to do much with.
For such a genuinely cheerful, talented, hard-working and suitably humble man; we really are taking the "addition by subtraction" to a ridiculous regard as we approach a Joe Johnson-less Atlanta Hawks team. It wasn't as if Joe was endlessly stopping ball movement with this team, despite his "Iso Joe" reputation, and it's not like he was at fault for the absolutely ridiculous fee the Hawks paid for him in 2005 in their sign-and-trade acquisition of Johnson from the Suns, or the thrice-what-he's-worth contract Johnson signed with the team in 2010.
Joe did stop the ball, though, as Louis Williams often will with the Hawks this season. The goodness behind this is the fact that Williams scored better per-minute than Joe last season, his efficiency wasn't quite on Johnson's level (though not far off), and he dished more and turned the ball over a remarkable 1.5 times per 36 minutes of play. Decades worth of influence that goes into us giving the short shrift to a shooting guard in a point guard's body, especially in comparison to a sturdy and orthodox-wing like Joe, has to be thrown out the window. The Hawks have made an upgrade, at nearly one-quarter the price; creating cap space for the summer of 2013 while matching Johnson's scoring and passing exploits along the way.
On top of all this, nearly matching the return of Al Horford to the starting lineup, is the spark that comes from realizing that Larry Drew is a real comer amongst his coaching brethren.
We don't blame you if you declined to tune into Hawks contests from night to night on your League Pass feed, the cast of characters was more or less the same and the middle-East outcome was right in line with previous years. Unlike previous years, though, the Hawks were working without an All-Star big man in Horford, and the effort was consistent from game to game. This was especially telling in the team's jump to sixth overall in defensive efficiency last year, a startling number considering the foul-happy ways of Zaza Pachulia and Ivan Johnson, and the amount of minutes handed to slow-footed bench types like Tracy McGrady and Vladimir Radmanovic.
Working with one-year deals on the most middling (and, frankly, anonymous) of playoff teams, the Hawks still repeatedly outworked its opponents; even dealing with the typical Josh Smith trade rumors and Johnson's slightly declining efficiency.
The offense was middling, almost literally as it finished 16th out of 30 NBA teams, but the acquisitions of Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow help in this regard. As will Williams, should he continue on his current arc, and the return of Horford. And, remember, this is supposed to be a rebuilding year, as Atlanta awaits all that cap space.
Why the typical win expectation, then?
So much has to go right, again. Josh Smith has to go right, for once, and avoid bombing away in a contract year. Williams has to bring the same sort of drive this season as he did in last season's contract year. Korver has to continue to hide his defensive shortcomings with Horford and Smith behind him, as opposed to the all-world defensive talents of Omer Asik and Taj Gibson (if you're laughing at that, you clearly don't have League Pass), and Jeff Teague has to keep confidence and retain those defensive smarts amongst all the noise. Devin Harris has to gun for wins, and not one last career-turning contract.
Toughest? This roster, above all, knows that most of the rotation is due for a new contract in the summer of 2013; and there's a significant difference between Devin Harris and Josh Smith playing for a contract, and Tracy McGrady and Kirk Hinrich playing for a new deal. That's not a shot at Devin and Josh, or relaying an expectation that we have of them to play selfish ball. It's just natural, as a player in his athletic prime who is due some new cash in July, to worry and press and deal with conflicting emotions. And as great as Larry Drew was in 2011-12, he'll truly have his work cut out for him this season.
There is hope, for once. Thank Danny Ferry for that scratch of the record in the summer, and Drew for his work in fall, winter, and hopefully deep spring.
Projected record: 45-37
Fear Itself with Dan Devine
It is tonally appropriate that the NBA season tips off just before Halloween -- because on any given night, each and every one of the league's 30 teams can look downright frightening. Sometimes, that means your favorite team will act as their opposition's personal Freddy Krueger; sometimes, you will be the one suffering through the living nightmare. In preparation for Opening Night, BDL's Dan Devine considers what makes your team scary and what should make you scared.
What Makes You Scary: Change, options and artillery. The offseason trade of former focal point Joe Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets means that the Hawks now officially belong to their big men, which could result in a more interesting and dangerous Atlanta offense than the one that has finished 20th and 16th in the league in offensive efficiency (points scored per 100 possessions) in two years under head coach Larry Drew.
Josh Smith put up should-have-been-All-Star numbers last season, leading the league in Defensive Win Shares and posting a career-high Player Efficiency Rating. Now, the beastly power forward is in a contract year, which could convince him to finally stop trying to convince us he's a good jump shooter (although the "call me Midrange Shawty" thing is troubling) and merely find satisfaction in being a monster down low. After missing nearly four months with a torn pectoral muscle, Al Horford is healthy and eager to build off his postseason cameo against the Boston Celtics, which reminded us he's one of the most gifted centers in the game. And following a breakout sophomore season, point guard Jeff Teague will now reportedly have the freedom to push the ball, drive the lane and attack the basket, potentially opening the door to a drive-and-kick game that activates the slew of shooters that Atlanta imported during the offseason.
While the Hawks will likely run much of their offense through Smith and Horford -- at least, they should, given their fantastic combination of low-post prowess and estimable passing gifts -- what could make them most deadly starts with the 24-year-old Teague, all quick-twitch and giddy-up, running more screen-and-rolls and collapsing opposing defenses off the dribble. Because once defenders commit to cutting off his penetration, he'll be able to find the likes of Kyle Korver (43.5 percent from 3-point range last season), Anthony Morrow (37.1 percent, in a "down" year), Lou Williams (36.2 percent), Devin Harris (36.2 percent), DeShawn Stevenson (a year removed from a 37.8 percent mark in Dallas), Anthony Tolliver (40.9 percent in Minnesota two years ago) or first-round pick John Jenkins (who shot a scorching 43.8 percent from deep in his three years at Vanderbilt) behind the arc, forcing defenses to stretch to contest or die trying. After so many years of stagnant, slow-down, clear-out isolation offense, it's that fluidity, those options, that potential barrage that enchants the mind's eye when thinking about what this Hawks team could look like.
Atlanta was by no means averse to bombing last season -- they took the league's 10th-most 3-pointers and finished eighth in makes -- but if Drew takes the restrictor plate off last year's ninth-slowest offense, makes good on his promise to move away from all those Johnson isos and lets his young point guard run amok some, I expect both of those numbers to go up this season. And on the nights when the shots are falling, opening up interior space for Smith and Horford to use their strength, speed and touch to terrorize opposing big men, Atlanta will be really tough to stop.
What Should Make You Scared: That there's no one on the wing. Danny Ferry's first two major moves upon becoming the Hawks' new general manager -- shipping out Johnson and career underachiever Marvin Williams -- both made sense. But they also carved a clearly defined hole at small forward that opponents should be able to exploit.
Johnson gave the Hawks a legitimate All-Star scorer for seven years, but his bloated contract locked the team into a capped-out stasis in which significant roster overhaul was virtually impossible; shedding the final four years and $89.3 million owed him was essential. While Williams' deal wasn't especially onerous (two years, $15.8 million left), his seven years of consistently lukewarm, fringe-average-or-worse play had eradicated any confidence that he'd develop into a force; it was time to exorcise the ghosts of 2005.
But their exits, while logical, leave a void at small forward, where Williams started and Johnson often played in sort-of-small-ball lineups. In fact, with 2011-12 reserves Tracy McGrady, Jerry Stackhouse and Vladimir Radmanovic all set to play elsewhere this year, too, the Hawks are basically starting from scratch at the three, and looking over Atlanta's present roster, the potential replacements look … dicey. Both swingman Korver and tweener-type Tolliver can be useful players, but both are much better suited to reserve roles than heavy minutes. Tough injury luck prevented training-camp invitee Damion James from taking advantage of chances to start in each of his two seasons with the New Jersey Nets, but when healthy, he hasn't shown much; ditto for fellow third-year swingman James Anderson, formerly of the San Antonio Spurs.
Given the dearth of options at the three and the influx of backcourt talent in trade, free agency and the draft this offseason, the most likely solution for Drew seems to be deploying more three-guard lineups while relying on his All-Star frontcourt to clean up any defensive messes that might result. But even assuming health and continued brilliance from Horford and Smith, the myriad matchup problems that will come with relying on small units featuring combinations of Teague, Lou Williams, Harris, Stevenson and Morrow could cause Atlanta's defense (sixth-best in the league last year in points allowed per 100 possessions a year ago) to slip. If the slide's too precipitous for the speed/fluidity/shooting gains to overcome, the first year in the new era of Hawks basketball could result in the franchise's first lottery trip in six years.
Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis
There is no more important asset for a basketball team than talent, and yet the more loaded squad does not always win. What we've seen in recent seasons isn't only that the best team wins, but that the group with the clearest sense of self, from management down through the players, prevails. A team must not only be talented, but sure of its goals, present and future, and the best methods of obtaining them. Most NBA teams have trouble with their identity. Eric Freeman's Identity Crisis is a window into those struggles, the accomplishment of realizing a coherent identity, and the pitfalls of believing these issues to be solved.
This summer, Danny Ferry began what should be a useful rebuilding process for the Hawks. In shipping out Joe Johnson, his massive contract, and Marvin Williams, Ferry cut salary and broke up a stagnant team in need of change. That he managed to keep the team fairly competitive (at least on paper), all while opening up options for the future, speaks well of his skills and foresight.
Sadly, one of those options, hometown boy Dwight Howard, went off the market soon after Ferry made his moves, and that's where things get a little tricky as this newest incarnation of the Hawks takes flight. Ferry has created a lopsided, frontcourt-heavy team in need of reinforcements, no matter if they make the playoffs or not. Although the Hawks have the cap space to add those pieces, they also have very little chance of adding an elite star. It's nice to imagine Atlanta nabbing free agent Chris Paul and undoing the long-discussed failures of the 2005 draft, but that's a long shot.
All of this is to say that while the Hawks are clearly hoping for some better tomorrow, they're also poorly positioned to enter that upper echelon and simultaneously compete for a playoff spot. As long as Al Horford and Josh Smith are around, the Hawks are going to be fairly good. At the same time, those players will ensure that the team doesn't lose so much that they get a good draft pick. So, even as Ferry has made moves with the hopes of remaking the Hawks into a championship contender, he hasn't yet done much to help them escape the NBA's gooey middle tier.
Cap space can be useful, but it only translates to championships if the franchise that owns it has other qualities likely to attract a superstar. In the contemporary NBA, with superstars taking control of their futures with increasing regularity, a team like the Hawks looks increasingly unlikely to succeed in that pursuit. Ferry, via his experience with LeBron James as general manager of the Cleveland Cavaliers, has presumably learned this lesson already. If he has, he knows this rebuilding process has many more steps, and that one of his two stars might need to figure into it.
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