Draftees of high risk/reward are described as “boom or bust” picks. The 2012-13 Atlanta Hawks will be a boom AND bust team. They’ll have nights when the pace is fast and the shots drop and they win by 30. They’ll have others when those shots get rerouted to Brick City USA and nobody guards anybody and they lose by that much.
In sum, this will be a scary team in both senses — scary to play because of its firepower, scary to coach because of its defensive liabilities. For those of us who have only to sit and watch, these Hawks should be tons of fun.
“Clearly our strength is our speed and shooting,” said Danny Ferry, the general manager who arrived in June and redid a stagnant roster in the course of a coffee break. “We have three shooters (Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow and rookie John Jenkins) who are as strong as any team’s.”
You could argue all day as to which of the three shooters is the sharpest, and this doesn’t take into account Lou Williams, the import who’s among the NBA’s most ardent hoisters. Toss in guards Jeff Teague and Devin Harris, and then recall that Josh Smith and Al Horford have been known to make a hoop or two, and you’ve got a team capable of playing fast and scoring big.
“It’s very exciting,” said coach Larry Drew, speaking after Wednesday’s practice. “We’ve played a certain way for a number of years, but obviously our personnel changed.”
Here Drew paused a beat, perhaps for effect. “But I also want to defend. It’ll be fun to play (fast) like that, but we don’t want to turn it totally into an up-and-down thing.”
Given that true centers are nearly as rare in today’s NBA as left-handed third basemen are in the major leagues, you’d think more teams would spread the court and bank on quickness and shooting. You would, alas, be wrong. The league has become a numbing series of pick-and-rolls, the intent being to put the ball in a superstar’s hands and let him work some wonder. By trading Joe Johnson, the Hawks shed the closest thing they had to a superstar. It was a great move financially, and perhaps aesthetically.
“We don’t have a ball-stopper,” Ferry said, meaning a guy who gets it and dribbles (and dribbles, and dribbles). Horford and Smith, the nominal big men, are superb passers, and they’re also capable of taking a rebound and leading the break. Not many teams have two such guys, and trying to go with a bigger lineup (meaning moving Horford to power forward and Smith to small forward) would lessen the effect. Not many teams should beat these Hawks down the court.
But here we come to the caveat: The new-look Hawks are tiny. There’s no real small forward on the roster — Korver, who has long been an off-the-bench gunner, might start at 3-spot here — and the guards are puny: Harris is listed as 6-foot-3, Teague as 6-2, Williams as 6-1. The Hawks will face the classic dilemma of a tiny team: Its quickness makes it hard to defend, but its lack of size makes it tough to guard the other guys.
If the Hawks are forced to play half-court games, they’ll lose most of them. (As good a shooters as Korver and Morrow and Williams are, defensively they’re swinging gates.) Since the holdover Hawks are accustomed to playing half-court, the temptation will be great to slow down. That’s an urge that must be resisted. The only way this team will be good is to play to its strengths and see what happens; we can already guess what will happen if it doesn’t.
“I totally trust them,” Drew said, perhaps overstating. “This is the way they’re going to have to play. We’re going to take some bumps and lumps, and there will be times when I’m going to be mad when we’re turning it over. But I’m hopeful these guys enjoy playing this way and can be confident we can play this way.”
With so much salary having been offloaded by Ferry, the outlook beyond this season is rosy, and the season itself needn’t be a raging dud. The Hawks are trying something new, and if they get it right more nights than not they could go 48-34.
Said Ferry: “I think we can be competitive. If we build an identity of playing fast and solid and smart, I’m hoping we can get a rhythm and a momentum.”
The bad news is that this way might not work. The good news is that Ferry will have cap space to remake this roster again next summer if it doesn’t. But here’s hoping this stylistic experiment doesn’t blow up in the lab. Here’s hoping this little team plays big.
By Mark Bradley