Yes, we’re back to that again.
I’m sure that as fans we shared quite a laugh at the idea of the Atlanta Hawks morphing into another version of the multi-faceted Detroit Pistons team that was so potent from ‘02-’03 to ‘06-’07 (and arguably a year longer than that). The first objection would be from a defensive perspective, where the Hawks lack a point guard who can not only guard his own position, but guard many shooting guards as well, as Chauncey Billups used to do in the Motor City. The second objection would be that for all the many positives of Al Horford, he isn’t the beast on defense that Ben Wallace once was (of course, Horford doesn’t “juice”, either), and Josh Smith is no Rasheed Wallace (thank the basketball pantheon). In fact, the Hawks have never played team defense the way that Pistons team did.
But offensively speaking?
Under the tutelage of Larry Drew, the Hawks do seem to be headed in that direction. No longer is the team a collection of talent that routinely bogs down in the ingrained habit of isolation plays. No longer are they automatically sentenced to offensive epic failure if Joe Johnson or a second guard off the bench isn’t able to come out with both guns blazing, so to speak. No longer are they led solely or mostly by the backcourt. This Hawks team can score from a number of places, and finds contributions from a number of players. And, it’s happening in every game.
Growing Up Is Hard To Do
For years, one of the common themes has been about the average age of this Atlanta team. How many times have you heard “they’re young”, “we’re waiting for this one to turn the corner and develop into this or that”, or “how far this team goes depends on the growth and maturity of this one”, and what not? Sooner or later, the age factor got old, even if the majority of this roster has yet to do so. The guys grew up. Yet, growing up and developing are two different things. Much of this team’s success and ability to become as dangerous as they can be has depended on the growth and development of their starting frontcourt members.
I don’t like beating the bones of a deceased equine carcass, but Marvin Williams is still a mystery. Who is this guy? What is he capable of? We know what he gives this team, but we don’t understand why he doesn’t always give it. How far does this team go with him as a starter? What in the devil happened to his three point shot? Josh hits 3s now with far more accuracy and frequency. Josh Smith?! Of course, it’s also not fair to kick a man when he’s down. Marvin’s injury is apparently not an easy one to recover from, and maybe the playing time he’s getting right now simply isn’t helping that fact. Whatever happens from here, are we still wondering if this is a position of strength, or one of weakness? And to be fair, is that Marvin’s fault, or that of the front office, who did not see fit to add another wing player of comparable size to the position, until Joe Johnson became injured?
Marvin isn’t the only enigma on the front line, as Josh Smith continues to blend bafflement with brilliance. Every temper tantrum or bone-headed play makes you think you haven’t seen the last of his immaturity and lack of focus, but each season brings far fewer of those. Is this guy really team captain material? Will he ever be an all-star? Is he one now? Maybe the team captain part isn’t the real question. Maybe the real question is whether or not he can play a leadership role. Smith’s ability to take over a game has risen to new levels as he proves that he is the game’s most dangerous shot blocker. You simply never know where he is going to come from, or when. And, it doesn’t just happen at the rim, as more than one jumpshooter has found himself on the wrong end of a ESPN-like highlight. What’s more, Smith has shown an ability to score from a post-up position, occasionally mixing in drives against slower defenders. The part you never thought was coming….it’s now here. One team after the next is finding out that he can’t be left open all the time on the perimeter. I know, I know. You’re not the only one that sometimes sits around biting your fingernails and wondering if that newly effective jumper of his is simply an anomaly, and that one day you’ll wake up to those awful bricks again. Okay, so maybe that’s just me.
Al Horford is no longer the stiff, machine-like presence in the post that he once was. No, he’s not the Tim Duncan of the East, but his inside/outside game has taken strides. The 18-foot jumper is all but a given, and now the baby jump hooks and quick moves to the basket are becoming more and more frequent. The results? Horford pretty much shares the team lead in scoring at 17 points per game, more or less equaling a struggling (and currently injured) Joe Johnson. He’s doing it from the center position, but there is no denying that playing more minutes at the power forward position is lending towards this trend. Only one question: is Al becoming a power forward? Okay, two: is Josh becoming a small forward? It may not really matter, as the versatility of lineups is the ultimate goal, right? However, the more minutes played in these roles, the more it seems that these guys are getting comfortable with them. It’s doubtful that we’ll see Smith play more at the 3 spot, but the same cannot be said of Al Horford, who seems to be quite comfortable at the 4 spot.
That brings up another set of questions. Will the Hawks morph into a team that plays Horford at center only when he is a a clear advantage at the position, or when he is equal to his opponent in size and strength? Or, will they only move him to the 4 when facing Dwight Howard or another larger/stronger center who has clear advantages on him? Having signed Al Horford to a healthy new extension and publicly (and some say, privately) disavowing any Josh Smith trade rumors, Atlanta is not likely going to bring in any “impact” center types of starting caliber. But, might they want to upgrade from the likes of Jason Collins and/or Zaza Pachulia? If this type of lineup strategy works best for the Hawks when they want to go large, can they get to the East Finals as currently constructed?
How Far Do They Go Without Joe?
As some of you have noted, the Hawks are 4 and 1 without Joe Johnson. Surely this is too small of a sample size to come to any solid conclusion. On the one hand, that’s a great record for a team playing without its best player and leading scorer. On the other hand, only one of those four wins came against a team that has a winning record. So how much does this team really miss him? We’ll find out as the Hawks take on the Spurs this friday, and teams such as Charlotte, Golden State, Oklahoma City, and New Orleans as the month rounds out. The Hawks are known for their roller coaster ways, and yet this team has shown an ability to win on the road that it did not have last season. Is this a fluke or not? We’ll find out.
One way or another, the Hawks look like the Detroit model on paper, at least offensively, and at least when they play according to head coach Larry Drew’s specifications. The offense is more spread out among those who are able to take advantage of it. Here’s a question for you: Is this due more in part to Larry Drew’s scheme, or is it due moreso to the timing of Josh and Al’s development?