HAWKSVILLE - For those of us pro basketball loyalists, we always know when it’s time to readjust the schedule to get ready for the NBA season.
Labor Day is my reminder.
I know that in the days immediately following the holiday players will start trickling back into town and showing up for voluntary workouts (go ahead and get your jokes about my Wolverines out of the way now so we can move on to basketball matters) on the track and at the Hawks’ practice facility.
It’s as much as a part of my late summer/fall routine as watching football on the weekend. So I’ll be making my way downtown all week to see who shows up and what kind of work they’re doing in anticipation of the start of training camp, which believe it or not is just roughly three weeks away.
The prognosticators already have an idea of what things will look like once the season starts and how the Hawks will do, for example, our friends at HoopsHype have the Hawks pegged for a return to the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference standings.
I prefer to wait until I actually see someone on the move before offering up any sort of hypothesis about where this team might be headed. So while I was standing over my grill Sunday afternoon, basking in the glory of a decisive win for my team Saturday and enjoying the neighborly ambiance of the world’s greatest bedroom community (neighbors bring over steaming hot crawfish pies and ice cold Arnold Palmers when they see the first sign of grill smoke in Smyrna), the conversation turned to the Hawks.
Specifically, the Ridge Road crew wanted to know who has to have the biggest year for the Hawks to continue their climb up the conference ladder and back into the playoffs and perhaps beyond the second round?
It’s a question, I explained, best answered by those of us that spend far too much time worrying ourselves with these things on a daily basis (if you’re reading this, you know who you are). So before I ask for your take, please allow me to offer my five-point answer:
MIKE WOODSON - the Hawks’ sixth-year head coach has weathered every storm that’s come his way thus far, which is a testament to not only his team’s continual improvement but also his ability to compartmentalize during tough times and rally his troops. But this season will provide perhaps the harshest spotlight he’s faced during his tenure. In each of his five previous seasons few people – fans, pundits or anyone else outside of the city of Atlanta – viewed his team as a playoff player. All that has changed in the past 16 months. Woodson’s entering the final year of his deal, which always adds a little extra drama to the situation, with oversized expectations. The roster is 11-deep with proven NBA players (Randolph Morris is still waiting on the chance to prove himself), the deepest the Hawks have been since Woodson arrived. The bottom line, this team goes where Woodson leads them.
JOE JOHNSON - In the same situation as his coach, in terms of heading into the final year of his deal (until further notice, of course), the Hawks’ captain and All-Star faces an interesting dilemma this season. As his younger teammates have matured and the veteran cast been upgraded, Johnson will have to decide how much of the burden he is willing and able to shoulder this season. Physically, the extended minutes have taken a toll the past two seasons, when his playoff performances weren’t consistently up to his own lofty standards. Crazy as this might sound; if his numbers decreased across the board (especially his minutes) I could see him having a better season than any of his first four with the Hawks.
JAMAL CRAWFORD - Anytime you fleece a team the way the Hawks did when they snatched Crawford from the Golden State Warriors for Acie Law IV and Speedy Claxton, folks expect big things. And Crawford has to deliver, whatever his role ends up being. If he “leads the league in scoring off the bench” as one Hawks’ staffer joked to me in the hours after the deal went down, we’d have some story. But if he just maintains his nearly 20-point scoring average this season he’ll make that deal worth it. Any concerns about Crawford’s fit on this team have been assuaged by multiple in-house sources this summer that insist Crawford developed an instant chemistry with everyone within the organization that’s dealt with him. If the on-court chemistry comes as easily, this could wind up being one of the Hawks’ best personnel moves in years. If not …
RICK SUND - You’ll be hard pressed to find anyone that isn’t convinced that the Hawks’ GM has done a masterful job in his first 13 months on the job. He’s made all the right moves and steadied the organization through one of their best seasons in years. But the toughest challenge comes this season. Sund will have to gauge the Hawks’ progress by the February trade deadline and decide if this team, as presently constituted, provides the best chance for long-term success or not. If not, he’ll have to pull the trigger on the right deal to push the Hawks over top (sort of like his predecessor did two years ago when Billy Knight pulled the trigger on the Mike Bibby deal). Gone are the days when the Hawks’ GM could simply suspend the franchise in rebuilding mode or just maintain. The next step is moving upward and onward, and that almost always requires a deft personnel move one way or another.
JEFF TEAGUE/JOE SMITH/JASON COLLINS - These three guys represent everything the Hawks have needed in the form of depth at their two most crucial positions the past five years. Just a rookie, Teague’s ability to adapt to the NBA game and assume a position backing up Bibby is crucial. If his assimilation comes off without a hitch, and we honestly have no way of knowing how it will go, the need for that third point guard won’t be nearly as urgent as it might be otherwise. Smith and Collins are known commodities in the NBA. You get a versatile scorer and defender in Smith, a veteran frontcourt performer that’s always played much bigger than his listed size. In Collins, the Hawks have a 7-footer capable of lending quality minutes in a situational role, particularly on the defensive end. They have to be the support system, along with Zaza Pachulia, that Josh Smith and Al Horford have had to work without the past two years.
You know what I think.
What say you?