Notwithstanding that 15 games is a small sampling size, it’s worth noting that the Hawks don’t appear flummoxed or discombobulated this season, even without the former king of clutch and locker-room glue that was Joe Johnson.
(I thought I’d open with a joke. Try the veal.)
The Hawks are 10-5. They have the third best record in the Eastern Conference. They are running. They are moving the ball. They are playing unselfishly. They are having fun. They seem to actually like each other. So this is what it looks like.
Welcome to Fantasy Island.
“I’m surprised. I’m shocked,” Josh Smith said. “When teams have a lot of new faces like we do, it usually takes until about December or January to click and gel. But we’re doing it right away.”
There’s a temptation to suggest the Hawks have been greater than the sum of their parts. But that would suggest that when general manager Danny Ferry unloaded Johnson and his contract in the offseason, he removed a franchise centerpiece. In fact, it was closer to removing a rain cloud from a beach view.
Johnson’s 20 points a game and All-Star designations too often were overshadowed by his disappearances in important moments (like playoff games). Equally important, he was reluctant and maybe just not well-equipped to take on a leadership role. He wasn’t a bad guy. He just wasn’t a come-on-and-jump-on-my-back guy.
It would’ve been like asking Eeyore to lead the parade.
Without Johnson, the Hawks look different, feel different, act different. They may lack a big man, but they function well together. It doesn’t mean they’re going to continue winning at a .667 pace. There’s certainly a possibility that as the season wears on, they will wear down from an overall lack of size and struggle against more physical teams.
But for now, it is fun to watch. Everybody shoots. Everybody passes. Maybe not everybody defends, but it really hasn’t been as bad expected.
Al Horford has taken on an increased scoring role, averaging a career-high 16.6 points. Smith (16.1), Lou Williams (14.1) and Jeff Teague (13.3) are close behind. Six guys on the roster can hit threes: Williams, Teague, Kyle Korver, Devin Harris, DeShawn Stevenson and Anthony Morrow.
The team ranks third in the NBA in assists per game (23.5). Also third in steals (9.4). That screams: teamwork and effort.
Coach Larry Drew wasn’t sure what to expect this season. He didn’t really know what he had. Only five players returned after Ferry’s first roster makeover.
“I knew these guys as individuals,” Drew said. “I knew what their skill level and their talent was. The big question was, would it all fit? Would they mesh together?”
When asked what has pleased him most, Drew said: “How fast we’ve come together, even when we’ve gone through some shaky times. We have not fragmented. We’ve stayed together. We’ve closed the doors in the locker room and talked about things. I can see these guys are committed to pulling together.
“Sometimes you can look at a team and look at individuals and know it’s going to be a real good vibe, a good mix. I got that feeling very early with this group. I hadn’t seen that before.”
Smith and Horford, both of whom have been here for a while, will tell you it’s different this season — on the court, in the locker room and even away from the arena.
Without mentioning names, Horford said the chemistry is “better, compared to past teams. We’ve had a group of good guys before, but the chemistry wasn’t there this year. It’s encouraging to see when you’re a part of the team.”
From Smith: “No disrespect to anybody else. But when you’re willing to do stuff off the court, it creates a different kind of bond. Guys really care for each other. It makes us want to help each other out on the defensive end that much more.”
What does Smith mean by off the court?
“We hang out,” he said. “We do a lot of activities together. We went to Andretti’s. On the road we may go to dinner or catch a movie. That’s more than we’ve done in the past.”
Don’t underestimate the importance of liking each other.
By Jeff Schultz
Recent ramblings from the digital jukebox