The Atlanta Hawks were the darlings of the league last year. They made the playoffs for the first time since 1999 with a record of 37-45. After sneaking into the postseason, the Hawks played a stellar series against the 66-16 eventual Champion Boston Celtics, which brought the fans back to Philips Arena. Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, and company have brought entertainment and winning back to Hotlanta, but this year they may have some trouble. The 76ers, Heat, Bucks, and Bobcats have all improved, and they will be vying for some of the last playoff positions in the East. Atlanta made the playoffs last year, but had trouble in the process. Despite the constant development, and bright future, this year should be no different.
Offense: Atlanta has one of the better backcourts in the game with Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson, who are both good playmakers, ball-handlers, and are not afraid to take the big shot. The team is also full of great finishers including Marvin Williams, Al Horford, and of course, Josh Smith. When the Hawks get a fastbreak opportunity, it is truly a pleasure to watch. The Hawks donít run as much as they should, but when they do, they win. Against the Celtics, the Hawks were pushing the break constantly, and what happened? They pushed the superpower to seven games. If the Hawks run, they have a great chance at winning, and possibly making the playoffs. With their veteran, smart backcourt, and unbelievable finishers, this team has no excuse not to run.
Defense: With his eye-popping blocks, Josh Smith is the heart and soul of this defense. The team has some other solid defenders, but Smith makes the momentum changing plays that can ultimately lead to a victory. Al Horford was impressive on defense last year, though he went mainly unnoticed by opposing teams and the media. This year, watch for Horford to step up big on the defensive end, and provide a key stopper in the post along with Zaza Pachulia. Atlanta was 28-21 when holding opponents to under 100 points, so when the team puts a strong attempt into shutting down the opponents, they win more often than not. With the continuing development of both Josh Smith and Al Horford, the Hawks should only be more of a force this next season, and holding opponents to under 100 points will occur at an even higher rate.
Strengths: As I stated before, when the Hawks, run they win. Atlanta has the speed and durability to play an up-tempo style of basketball, but for the most part play within a half-court system. Atlanta shocked the media and basketball world by pushing Boston to seven games, and the reason they put up such a great fight was because they pushed the ball at every instant. If Mike Woodson can instill this kind of offensive mindset into his playerís heads, Atlanta could not only make the playoffs, they could even make a push into the later rounds.
Weaknesses: Aside from Mike Bibby and Joe Johnson, this team is still very young, and lacks the experience necessary for a big playoff run. Last year, the team got a taste of playoff success, but even their series with Boston, inexperience and immaturity was their downfall. The team may be a year older, but until they can prove that they have finally grown up, and can play the game at a consistently high level, they are just not ready for the big games.
Five Players to Watch:
Joe Johnson - The leader of this team is Joe Johnson, and unless someone else steps up to take his spot, he will be the leader once again this year. Mike Bibby has hit his fair share of big shots, but when the game is on the line, the ball is always in the hands of Joe Johnson. Johnson played magnificently against Boston in the playoffs, and has proven that he is ready to take that next step for the Hawks. For Joe Johnson to succeed, though, he needs his teammates to step up and share the burden of leading this team. Johnson averaged 40.8 minutes per game last year, which was second in the league. He may be the leader, but he can not be expected to play 40 minutes every night. If some of his teammates play a bigger role this year, though, Joe Johnson will be an even deadlier player in the clutch, and wonít have to play every minute for this team to win.
Josh Smith - The most exciting player on the Hawks, and maybe the league, is Josh Smith. This summer, the Hawks signed Smith to a five year, $58 million deal, and he is going to have to prove that heís worth the money this season. The fear of players being signed to big contracts for the first time is that they might lose motivation, but Josh Smith seems like he only wants to get better. With his unique skill-set, Smith will be a superstar in this league, if he isnít already. He just needs to stay confident and motivated. His shot-blocking electrifies the crowd more than any player since Hakeem Olajuwon, and each one of his blocks can be a literal game-changer. If he can work on his man-to-man defense, and become a consistent shooter, Smith will have no weakness to his game. There is no limit to what Josh Smith can possibly become.
Al Horford - Many people felt that Al Horford deserved the Rookie of the Year Award last year, and Iím sure he was shocked that he didnít get more consideration. Al Horford will be a star in this league, and being passed over for the Rookie of the Year Award only adds fuel to the fire. Horford has the chance to be an absolute beast this year, and donít be surprised if he takes a huge step in the right direction. Horford is a very intense player, as the Boston Celtics were all witness to his fierce play. Horford is still a little raw, but if Mike Woodson can fine tune his game, he may be unstoppable.
Marvin Williams - Back in 2005, the Hawks needed a point guard, or at least someone to run the team on the floor. Luckily, they had the second pick in the draft which had great point guard prospects in Deron Williams, Chris Paul, and Raymond Felton. Instead, the team went with another forward - Marvin Williams. Both Deron Williams and Chris Paul are leaders on their teams, and considered two of the best overall players in the game. This has led to many people declaring Marvin Williams a bust. Last season, Williams stepped his game up, and had a nice year for the Hawks, but that wasnít enough to dispel the remarks of failure. Marvin Williams is a superb talent, and potentially is another Carmelo Anthony style of player in the making. Williams has size, speed, and a nice touch under the basket which just screams superstar. Williams has the talent, he has the ability, but this season is do or die for the former Tar Heel, and this may be his last chance to warrant his being selected over two superstars.
Mike Woodson - Sure, he isnít a payer anymore, but he has a huge effect on the success of this team. Woodson will be back this year after an impressive showing against the Celtics, but not without problems. Mike Woodson had the attention and trust of his team only every once in a while last year, which seemed to spell the end of his tenure in Georgia. In the playoffs, however, he got through to his team, and convinced them that they could win. They responded by nearly knocking off the eventual champs. That saved Woodson, but for how long? Woodson needs to get through to his players every night, and be a leader from the bench that this team needs him to be. Mike Woodson is a good coach, but this year he needs to be great. If he isnít, heís gone.
Also, the signing of Maurice Evans to replace Josh Childress may prove to be a better acquisition than people give Atlanta credit for. Childress was a key player in Atlantaís rotation, but Evans has a game that seems perfect for the Hawks, especially if they start running. Evans is just as good as Childress, and more than likely, Childress wonít be missed at all.
Playoff Hopes: There is no guarantee that the Hawks will make the playoffs again. To get there, it will take hard work, and they need to ride the motivation of people calling their playoff series against Boston a fluke. With a widely improved conference, and division around them, though, getting back will be anything but easy.
Prediction: 3rd Place, Southeast Division