1. They can match depth with any team anywhere. The Hawks didn’t change a starter, but they redid their bench almost completely. Zaza Pachulia and Mo Evans are still around, but Jamal Crawford represents an upgrade over Flip Murray and Jeff Teague seems more NBA-ready than Acie Law was. And even if Joe Smith doesn’t have much left, Jason Collins could be the hidden hinge to the second unit.
2. Mike Woodson has no choice but to deploy his subs. Contrary to popular belief, the coach isn’t a fool. He saw how Joe Johnson wearied at the end of last season, and he concedes he ran his starters too long. But Woody, like most coaches, trusts experience over youth, and that means he’ll give Crawford and Smith and Collins longer looks than he gave Law and Solomon Jones. And Woodson appears to have warmed to Teague already, which never happened with Law. (The feeling was mutual.)
3. Johnson won’t have to play as long or do as much. The Hawks are tinkering with a lineup that deploys Johnson at small forward, which means he won’t be asked to distribute and score — just to score. The belief around the team last season was that Al Horford didn’t the get the ball nearly enough, which could change if Joe agrees to delegate more responsibility. Which he must. He’s one of the league’s 20 best players, but he’s not LeBron James.
4. The teams above the Hawks in the East geared up but didn’t necessarily improve. Shaquille O’Neal will slow Cleveland and clog the lane for LeBron, who operates best in the lane. The Magic lost more with Hedo Turkoglu’s departure than they gained with Vince Carter. And the Celtics, who were already old, got older still with Rasheed Wallace.
5. It’s time to take the next step. The Hawks have improved over each of the past four seasons, and when last we saw them they’d grown from an eighth seed with a sub-.500 record to a 47-game winner that advanced to Round 2. Round 3 is the Eastern Conference finals. The Hawks will win 54 games, claim the East’s No. 3 seed and upset Boston in the second round.