Monday October 10, 2010 11:55 p.m.
By Frank Hanrahan
After getting run out of the gym by Orlando in the second round of the Eastern Conference playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks head into the new NBA season clearly with the goal of going farther in the postseason than they did last last spring but that may be a tall task with the likes of Miami, Orlando and Boston in their way. The same cast that laid an egg in that Orlando series returns swingman Joe Johnson but will have a different coach as Mike Woodson got fired after the team was swept by the Magic. Longtime assistant Larry Drew takes over a talented group but even with the likes of Johnson, Josh Smith, and the ever improving Al Horford, I think the Hawks would surprise everyone if they go farther in the playoffs in 2011 than they did last season.
It was Joe Johnson, and not Lebron James, who got the eye-popping payday in the big summer of free agency by signing the most lucrative deal, 6 years for 120 million dollars. After a dismal series against Orlando and now the maximum payday, Johnson has plenty to prove this upcoming season. He averaged 21.3 points a game last season but just 12.7 points a game in the playoffs versus the Magic. Johnson got the money, now can he take the Hawks to the next level?
Obviously Johnson can't do it all by himself so he will need Horford and Smith to equally elevate their games. Elevation will not be an issue with Smith whose athleticism around the rim offensively and defensively is one of the best in the game. Smith averaged 15 points 8 rebounds, 4 assists and 2 blocks a game in his sixth pro season and still can get better. Only 24 years of age, Smith still needs to work on his outside shot and consistency which likely has prevented the 6'9 forward from being an all star. Al Horford made his first all star team last year and for good reason. The tenacious rebounder and defender improved his average to 14 points a game to go along with his nearly ten rebounds a contest and he will only improve as he is still very young.
The Hawks won 53 games last season, so they are no slouch but concerns certainly lie at point guard position and in the middle because they are solid at shooting guard and the forward spot. Point guard Mike Bibby is back but he is not looking like the Mike Bibby of 2002 in Sacramento as an older Bibby is now more content to shoot three pointers and seldom drives to the basket. Expect second year player Jeff Teague to get more minutes to spell Bibby this upcoming season. Jamal Crawford will also play a lot of minutes at either guard spot but he's more of a scorer at 18 points a game last year.
Atlanta was so desperate for help down low, they brought in former Wizard Etan Thomas into camp this fall. Lacking size up front, the Hawks will have to out finesse and outrun opponents this upcoming season -- and with the personnel they have, they could do it.
Expect Atlanta in the 50 plus win category again this season but the team will ultimately be judged by the level of success in the postseason. If they get hot they are capable of playing with anyone in the east. But if they get cold like they did against Orlando it will be an early exit again.