Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Atlanta Hawks: What To Look For In 2010-11

2009-10 Regular Season: 53-29
2009-10 Playoffs: #3 seed; lost in Eastern Conference Semifinals to the Orlando Magic in four games
Additions: Jordan Crawford, Josh Powell, Etan Thomas
Key Losses: Joe Smith
Projected Rotation Players: Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, Jamal Crawford, Mike Bibby, Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachulia, Jeff Teague, Maurice Evans, Jordan Crawford

After their recent ascent to the Eastern Conference’s top tier, look for the Hawks to fall back to the pack in 2010-11.

Not really going out on a limb here, but it’s virtually impossible to see anything different for the Hawks. Not after this core quit on itself and its coach in a conference semifinal sweep at the hands of the Orlando Magic, losing by an average of 25.3 points per game, including a humiliating 43-poit drubbing in Game 1.

Ordinarily when a 53-win, #3 playoff seed returns its top seven payers, it’s viewed as a good thing. Not here!

In the interest of maintaining “continuity,” the Hawks made a nine-figure commitment to a player that, in his prime, has been unable to lead a team past the second round of the playoffs and is ill-suited to be a team’s primary option. In committing to pay Joe Johnson (or “iso Joe”) $123.7 million over the next six seasons, the Hawks not failed to improve their team for the 2010-11 season, but have locked a ceiling of mediocrity for the next half-decade.

Joining Johnson for another go-round in the A-T-L are an aging defensive liability (Mike Bibby), a failure of a #2 overall pick with four years and $30 million left on an ill-advised contract (Marvin Williams), an aging shoot-first sixth man in a contract year (Jamal Crawford) and an excellent young big man that’s in line for a new contract extension, but may not get it thanks to a deal that will pay an almost 36 year-old Johnson just under $25 million in 2015-16.

Not mentioned above is Josh Smith, one of the best and most athletic PFs in the NBA- particularly at the defensive end- and the only member of the Hawks core whose age-contract-production combo won’t make you sad. Based on the matchup, Smith is capable of playing all three frontcourt positions, and creating problematic matchups himself. He’s an outstanding rebounder and plays strong interior defense.

In 2009-10, Smith enjoyed the best of his six NBA seasons, averaging 15.7 ppg (50% FG), 2.1 bpg and career-highs of 8.7 rpg, 4.2 apg, and 1.6 spg in 81 games. Smith became a more efficient scorer in 2009-10, in large part because he finally ditched the 3-point shot, attempting just seven 3-balls after trying at least 87 in each of the past four seasons, but never connecting on more than 30%. On a related note, according to Basketball Prospectus, Smith’s percentage of shots at the rim jumped to 54% (from 43%).

Bottom line: Vegas has the over-under on regular seasons wins for the Hawks at 46.5. This number seems to take into account continued deterioration in Mike Bibby’s game, uncertainty about the second unit (Jamal Crawford plus Zaza Pachulia, Mo Evans and a pair of rookies), the possibility that Josh Smith can’t top last season’s performance and the fact that one of their division-rivals, the Miami Heat, improved dramatically.

With the possible exception of Smith’s performance (that could be his new normal), all of these factors will conspire against the 2010-11 Hawks. My only disagreement is that this will likely shave more than six wins off of last season’s win total. Look for the Hawks to win at least 10 fewer games in 2010-11 than they did in 2009-10.

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