Monday, October 22, 2007

2007-2008 Atlanta Hawks Preview

Alright boys and girls, it's time to answer that age old question again: Who has the biggest balls in the NBA? Simmer down Sam Cassell. You're gonna be 38 next month, so why not pass the torch to a new generation? I realize that there really aren't a lot of guys to choose from right now. But if I could just recommend someone, think about this kid from the Atlanta Hawks. His name is Acie Law The Fourth. Why does he qualify? First, his jersey says Law IV. That takes big balls right there. Need more proof? Take a look at this...and this. Those are some big balls, Sammy. I know, I know, he missed that layup in the NCAA tournament against Memphis. But that was a fluke. He's still got the goods to make you proud.

I've heard that Hawks General Manager Billy Knight loves Las Vegas (along with popcorn and the touch of a woman, but who doesn't like those things?). Those rumors must be true because he gambled with the team's future by trading a protected first round draft pick along with Boris Diaw to the Phoenix Suns for Joe Johnson. This particular pick was Top 3 protected in the 2007 draft. In the current state of the NBA, you have to be really bad to be in the Top 3, folks. Knight continued his roulette-wheel-spinning style of management by trading Al Harrington to the Indiana Pacers for a Top 10 protected draft pick. So in the middle of last season, Knight was telling us, "hey as long as the Pacers are bad, and we are worse, we might have a shot at this thing!!" By some incredible stroke of luck, the ping pong balls bounced Billy's way and the Hawks kept both picks in what most experts predict as the deepest draft in the last 10 years. Must have been all that Keno practice in Vegas.

From those ping pong balls to Acie's elephant-sized balls, things are looking up for the maligned franchise (not to mention Billy's job security). With the 3rd pick, the Hawks drafted Al Horford from the University of Florida. Why is that significant? Because UF just won back to back NCAA titles. Last year, the Gators won 35 games. The Hawks won 30...after playing twice as many games. That means Horford is used to winning, and that is exactly what the Hawks need because they haven't made the playoffs since the 1998-1999 season. Those are Mookie Blaylock years!

Horford also seems to be the most NBA ready rookie drafted. Recently he had a double-double in a preseason game and has looked very impressive in his young NBA career. Horford will immediately step in and lead this Hawks team in rebounds. Of course that shouldn't be very difficult when Josh Smith led the team last year with 8.6 rebounds a game. With Zaza Pachulia banged up with a knee injury and Shelden "The Landlord Statue" Williams standing still in the paint, Big Al should also contribute significant scoring in the post, something the Hawks have also lacked in recent years. Look for the #3 pick to average 17 pts and 10.5 rebounds per game. Horford should also bring much needed defensive aid to a thin inside platoon. The Hawks have been able to negate some of their inside weakness by playing Josh Smith at Power Forward. Because Smith is so quick off his feet and has a powerful lower body, he is able to block shots easily (2.9 blocks per game - 2nd in NBA) and can help slower defenders (see Shelden) on the weak side.

The infusion of offensive talent around the basket should result in better offensive play all around. Scoring only 93.7 points per game, the Hawks were dead last in that category in '06-'07. Defenses will have to respect the post a bit more this year, with Horford possibly commanding double teams later in the year. This will give Joe Johnson more opportunity to get to the basket on the drive, as well as from 3 pt range. Therefore, the Hawks should be able to get more passes out of the post and on drives to guards for open looks and threes, increasing their FG% and 3 pt%. Again, the Hawks were last in 3 pt% in '06-'07 with just 32.9% from beyond the arc.

Given the rookie talent and veteran playmakers, the Hawks lineup should look like this in '07-'08:

PG - Acie Law IV
SG - Joe Johnson
SF - Marvin Williams
PF - Josh Smith
C - Al Horford

Key Reserves:
PG - Anthony Johnson
G/F - Josh Childress
F/C - Zaza Pachulia
PG - Craig "Don't Call Me Speedy" Claxton
SG - Salim Stoudamire
PF - Shelden Williams
C - Lorenzen Wright
SG- Mario West

This particular starting lineup is built to be a very uptempo squad. The Hawks have enough depth and versatility to put several lineups on the floor, but this one has the most potential in my mind. The big question surrounding this team is how Coach Mike Woodson will utilize his players. Will he go with the uptempo, high scoring ability lineup? If he wants to win games, and keep his job in the process, I think he should. Because they do not have a lot of size, or a space-eating center, this Hawks team MUST push the ball up the floor and play pressure defense. With the very flexible depth the team has acquired, this is easily possible.

What could derail the luck Billy's Vegas Vacation bestowed on Hawks Nation?

Smoove's 'Tude. Smith is really the key to the success of this team. If Woodson employs a high tempo offense, J-Smoove will be the catalyst. Remember, he'll be just 22 years old in December. He has the ability to become a superstar and he is already well on his way, but his attitude and lack of leadership have derailed team chemistry and led to distractions on the court. Smoove needs to mature this year and be a leader on and off the floor. Hopefully the winning attitude brought by Horford and the gritty example Law sets will have a positive impact on Josh.

Mike Woodson. Will he adjust his coaching style to this team? If he does, I believe the Hawks will finally make the playoffs for the first time in over a decade. But Woodson has shown he prefers a half court offense and slower play. However, he has never had a capable point guard to run an uptempo offense. Finally with a decent selection of ball handlers, Woodson should put Acie up to the task of pushing tempo. If the Woodson draws it up and Law can implement the style, the Hawks will have no problem scoring points this year. Otherwise, I fear it will be another year in the perpetual rebuilding phase, and a likely end to Woodson's coaching job in Atlanta.

Marvin Williams. Hi Marvin! Remember when you were the second pick in the draft? You were the guy taken over Deron Williams and Chris Paul. Remember?! Well that was 2005, and its your third year. I know you're only 21, but come on, if I'm putting all this pressure on Smoove, it wouldn't be fair for me to ignore you. You need to shoot better than 24.4% from three and we'll allow you to continue starting over Chills.

Lack of Fan Support. Even with two very competitive, intense rookies, how will this team be motivated without a consistent fanbase? The Hawks have played in front of only a few thousand fans (sometimes a few hundred) night after night. Putting a winning team on the floor is the first step in putting people in the seats. It seems like the team is finally headed in that direction, but will the franchise be able to leverage any success the team has? Can they connect with a widespread metropolitan area? That is the challenge I have for the Atlanta Hawks front office and ultimately how the NBA will view this year's success of the Hawks.

Overall I believe this team will be markedly improved and should be able to score more efficiently while maintaining the same level of defense as last year (98.4 pts allowed per game). That should improve on their -4.7 pts per game differential (29th in the league) and lead to roughly 15 more victories. I believe this team has the talent and ability to challenge for the 7th playoff spot in the East with a record of 45-37. But do they have the coaching? For the sake of Billy Knight's gambling addiction, I hope so.

Edit: It looks like Coach Woodson is already taking my advice

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