After an offseason that saw the Hawks lose their starting point guard (Kirk Hinrich) to an injury, their only bench scorer (Jamal Crawford) to budget constraints and a would-be new owner (Alex Meruelo) because the NBA didn’t trust his financial house of cards –you know, as opposed to the model of stability that currently exists in the front office – here comes the new NBA season.
Ready? Or not?
Maybe the Jeff Teague we saw in the postseason wasn’t an aberration. Maybe the new slimmed-down Josh Smith really is as motivated as he seems. Maybe Tracy McGrady (year 15) and Jerry Stackhouse (year 17) and other remnants of players on the bench can make up for the loss of Crawford’s scoring. But that’s a lot of maybes to count on.
Hopefully, you like mysteries. Two-game preseasons don’t offer much in the way of preview.
This much, we can be fairly certain of: Whatever the Hawks – and this core in particular — are capable of, this is the season they need to show it. Smith has only two years left on his contract. The means the organization will need to make a decision on whether to extend him or trade him after this season. So this could be the final roundup for the core of this team, particularly with ownership still in flux.
“This is a very important year for us to see what we can do,” Al Horford said. “ We can’t just take it for granted [that the team will be kept together]. We know we have to do something.”
Let’s define “something” as getting past the second round and into the Eastern Conference finals. It’s something this franchise never has done since moving to Atlanta in 1968.
Owner Michael Gearon, fighting a credibility battle, can cling to silly statistics like the fact the Hawks, Boston and Los Angeles Lakers are the only three teams to advance past the first round in the last three years. But what does that mean exactly?
In the real world, the only thing that matters is having a sense a team can compete for a championship. The Hawks made progress in the playoffs last season, but it’s going to be difficult to make a case that they’ve gotten better since their last game, and they probably have gotten worse.
They just lost a guy, Crawford, who was the league’s seventh-leading bench scorer last season at 14.2 points per game (and scored 20 or more 18 times). Ownership’s decision to not spend over the salary cap basically forced general manager Rick Sund to search the table of markdowns and slightly irregulars to fill out his bench.
There are some positive signs. Players responded to coach Larry Drew last season far more than they did at the end for Mike Woodson. They eliminated Orlando, which now appears on the slide. They took Chicago to six games. Those things are not without significance.
“There comes a time when people tell you, ‘You have potential, you guys can be so good,’ but sometimes the guys in the locker room don’t really believe that,” Horford said. “I think last year in the playoffs we finally started to believe that.”
Sund added, “The [previous] two years, we made the playoffs but didn’t compete at the level we needed to compete at in the second round. This is their best opportunity to see if they can take the next step now.”
An improbable long playoff run depends on several things. With Hinrich (shoulder) sidelined for at least another month, Teague has to take charge and play like he did in the playoffs. Smith needs to hit mid-range jumpers (limiting the three-point attempts) when he plays small forward and dominate the paint when he’s at the power spot. Horford needs to be better and more consistent offensively. The bench, probably led by McGrady, Vladimir Radmanovic and Willie Green need to score better than you would expect a bench of McGrady, Radmanovic and Green to score.
Drew admits the Hawks will “limp into the season.” That’s a problem when you play nine games in 12 days.
But he said he learned something about his team last year: “We’ve gotten to the point where we’ve handled adversity pretty well.”
They’ll need to continue that — especially given the backdrop of the past few months.
By Jeff Schultz