Usually NBA season previews are best read in October, back when football games hardly mattered, Midnight Madness was a few weeks away, and baseball was winding down. Perhaps with the last of the offseason's iced tea in hand, as you whiled away on an too-warm-for-the-season afternoon.
Well, pour yourself a glass of bull shot and tighten those mittens, because it's mid-December and the NBA decided to have a season this year. As such, the exegetes at Ball Don't Lie are previewing the 2011-12 campaign in a mad rush, as if you or us would have it any other way. So put down the shovel long enough to listen to Kelly Dwyer, Dan Devine, and Eric Freeman as they break down each of the NBA's 29 teams, plus Toronto.
This time? It's the Atlanta Hawks.
Kelly Dwyer's Reasons To Be Cheerful
The Hawks made a compelling case for inclusion amongst the best of the Eastern conference last year, putting a good enough scare into the top-ranked Chicago Bulls before bowing out in the second round. Of course, we've seen this dance before. Since returning back to the postseason in 2008, the Hawks have seemed one strong step away from climbing that latter during just about every offseason they enter, but their status as a second-tier team has sustained. Internal development, it appears, hasn't worked.
Now we get to see if the Hawks are going to be better served with addition by subtraction. Last season's fourth-leading scorer, Jamal Crawford, is most assuredly gone. Kirk Hinrich, who sat out the series against Chicago last May, will start the season on injured reserve, while the remnants of Mike Woodson's Joe Johnson-centric offense are still spoiling and soon to be forgotten altogether.
In their place steps up third-year guard Jeff Teague, who impressed with his defense and guile in the postseason, if not a refined offensive game. With Crawford gone, Joe Johnson's seemingly resurrected three-point stroke should come back to life, and it would appear that Al Horford will see more and more looks without Crawford, Hinrich (if briefly), and Mike Bibby (who was dealt last February) sending up long jumper after jumper.
Tracy McGrady is on hand to give Teague and Johnson a break as primary ballhandlers, and Jason Collins will return to frustrate the heck out of Dwight Howard four times this season. Or, if Howard is a Laker by Christmas, Collins might play a total of 18 minutes all year. That's Orlando's call.
One thing Hawk fans likely won't be able to bank on is any sort of bounty in exchange for Josh Smith. Smith has been a frustrating, at times infuriating, and often game-changing talent for Atlanta since 2004, and though the team would like to dangle the talented forward and perhaps accrue a number two scorer that can create an easier shot than Josh, ownership issues may get in the way until the team finds a new boss they can trust.
It might be for the best. The Hawks have been so consistent in their 45-win'ness that you wonder what a significant shock to the system would do to this club. The offense should vault up a tick this season based on the presence of a well-rested McGrady and Johnson's assumed return to form, but unless a whole lot of the East tears a whole lot of ligaments, the Hawks seem safe in their station. Set to look sound for stretches and take in whatever playoff gate receipts away them in spring.
Not too many playoff games, though. That might upset the pattern.
Dan Devine Has Feelings about Your Team: Atlanta Hawks
I'm so excited for you!
Jeff Teague has to play now, right?
Even if exciting-as-bran-flakes coach Larry Drew still really wants to get his I Hate Young People on by again handing the reins of his Hawks to contextually-effective-but-flawed-and-uninspiring veteran guards, it seems like he's largely out of luck. To wit:
Former Hawks point guard/elder Pop-a-Shotsman Mike Bibby was shipped out last season in favor of Kirk Hinrich, and will now be hoisting jumpers in Madison Square Garden;
Hinrich himself will likely miss at least the first month of the season recovering from shoulder surgery;
New import Tracy McGrady can still handle it a bit and is coming off a semi-resurgent 2010-11 season with the Detroit Pistons, but no team looking to make a fourth-straight postseason run can seriously expect him to play a primary facilitating role;
Ditto for 2010 second-rounder Pape Sy, a 6-foot-7 combo type whom Drew says is now the Hawks' backup point guard despite logging just 21 NBA minutes as a rookie and reportedly looking much more comfortable off the ball in the D-League;
And the ranks of available retreads at the one-spot -- as much as the Hawks tend to like those kinds of players -- don't look to hold any arguable starting-caliber solutions. (Unless, of course, the Hawks think Acie Law might be the answer this time around).
Even if the Hawks wind up signing a veteran off the scrap heap, the 23-year-old Wake Forest product -- who opened a lot of eyes when pressed into duty at the start of Atlanta's second-round series against the Chicago Bulls last postseason -- looks like he's clearly Drew's best option at the point. Three years after spending a first-round draft pick on Teague, it's time for the Hawks to give him an actual, honest-to-goodness chance to play starters' minutes.
They need to find out if he can be the brand of explosive backcourt creator they've so desperately needed since choosing Marvin Williams over Deron Williams and Chris Paul in the 2005 NBA Draft. (And if you've always viewed Jason Terry as more of a two-in-one's-clothing than a real point guard, you might even argue that they've needed that type of player since Mookie Blaylock went west.) If Teague can prove that his play against the Bulls was the rule rather than the exception, he could be just the sort of spark that can help a relatively stagnant, middle-of-the-pack team finally break through that second-round ceiling.
I'm so worried for you!
Here's what I wrote about Marvin Williams in last year's Hawks season preview:
Another middling year of 30 minutes, 10 points, five rebounds, too many jumpers with a league-average-at-best conversion rate and virtually across-the-board declines in performance, and it's close to curtains for Williams.
Basketball-Reference and Hoopdata tell me that in 2010-11, Williams averaged 28.7 minutes, 10.4 points and 4.8 rebounds per game, shot a tick below league average from the field (again) and several ticks below from 3-point range (again), and took more than half of his field-goal attempts from 16 feet out and further (again). In his sixth season, Marvin Williams disappointingly continued to be a nowhere man.
What's more, the Hawks' coaching staff showed that they knew it -- Williams went from starting all 81 games he played in 2009-10 to making 13 appearances off the bench in 2010-11. And while the shrewd decision to start Jason Collins to check Dwight Howard in the first round led to some extra lineup-shuffling in the postseason, Williams didn't cover himself in glory when he did see the floor, all but playing himself off the stage to the tune of a paltry postseason Player Efficiency Rating of 8.9 in just 18 minutes per game.
On one hand, the long-in-the-offing decrease in Williams' minutes and role seems like good news for Hawks fans who've grown increasingly frustrated with six years of bland forgettability. But then you remember that Hinrich's out at least a month, and that free agent Jamal Crawford is unlikely to return, which probably means Joe Johnson's going to have to spend more time at off-guard. And that the Hawks still haven't added another starting-quality big man, which means Al Horford will again mostly stay at the five, which means Josh Smith will again mostly stay at the four, which means there look to be a fair amount of small-forward minutes out there.
Before you know it, just like that, you're back to trying to talk yourself into him still being just 25 years old, and feeling "ten times better" after offseason back surgery, and thinking that this could be his year. But really, all you're back to is 25 to 30 nightly minutes of lukewarm water and stale bread crusts. Bad pennies and No. 2 draft picks, you know?
I have no idea what to make of you!
Hey, Josh Smith, what do you think your team needs?
"I think we need a for real, for real knock-down shooter … a guy that can just spread the floor and that's just gonna knock the shot down."
Good news, Josh -- you guys just agreed to terms with noted sharpshooter Vladimir Radmanovic!
"Oh. … Yaaaay."
Eric Freeman's Culture Club
The worlds of the NBA and popular culture intersect often. Actors and musicians show up at games, players cameo in their shows and movies and make appearances at their concerts. Yet the connections go deeper than these simple relationships — a work of art can often explain the situation of an NBA team. Eric Freeman's Culture Club makes these comparisons explicit. In each installment, we'll assign one movie, TV show, album, song, novel, short story, or filmstrip to the previewed team.
Atlanta Hawks, "Kicking and Screaming"
In Noah Baumbach's first (and still best) feature, "Kicking and Screaming" (which isn't the Will Ferrell soccer movie), a group of friends graduate college and spend the rest of the movie doing very little else with their lives. One pines after his absent girlfriend, some join book clubs just to feel relevant, and pretty much everyone starts dating much younger women. The majority of hope is felt in remembering good things that happened in the past. It'd all be depressing, if not for Baumbach's extremely clever script and great performances from Josh Hamilton (who isn't the baseball player) and especially Chris Eigeman.
The Hawks have effectively graduated from promising young playoff team to postseason mainstay, but in doing so they've seen their trajectory flatten considerably. They're really not building towards anything anymore -- it's all cool Josh Smith dunks, 25-point games from Joe Johnson, and quality all-around play from Al Horford in the service of another middling seed and a less-than-stellar playoff series.
On the other hand, they can still be pretty damn entertaining. "Kicking and Screaming" is terrifying for any recent college grad with no long-term plan, but it's also a hilarious movie with impressive rewatchability. The Hawks will likely never challenge for a title, yes. Still, it's possible to extract some joy from the experience. Sometimes that's enough.