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Tuesday, September 30, 2008
Updated: October 2, 9:21 AM ET
Hollinger's Team Forecast: Atlanta Hawks

By John Hollinger
ESPN.com

Joe Johnson
Joe Johnson and the Hawks are out to prove that last year's playoff appearance wasn't a fluke.
GO TO: 2007-08 Recap     Offseason Moves     Biggest Strength/Weakness     Outlook

2007-08 Recap

For one week, at least, the Hawks mattered. Atlanta limped into its first playoff appearance of the century with a 37-45 record, but shocked the masses by taking the eventual world champion Celtics to seven games in the first round.

That might get you thinking the Hawks were just one win away from being world champions, but in truth it wasn't a "close" series. The Hawks didn't have a prayer of winning any of the four games in Boston -- they lost by 23, 19, 25 and 34 -- and were outscored by a whopping 84 points over the seven games. But it did, momentarily, give the team its first national exposure in eons and brought thousands of dormant Atlantans out of the woodwork for the three unexpectedly raucous home games.

HOLLINGER'S '07-08 STATS
W-L: 37-45 (Pythagorean W-L: 35-47)
Offensive Efficiency: 104.0 (16th)
Defensive Efficiency: 105.9 (18th)
Pace Factor: 93.6 (18th)
Highest PER: Josh Smith (19.08)

Beyond that week, however, the scene in Atlanta wasn't much different. Once again, an impressive young nucleus suffered from a lack of supporting parts, tepid crowds, horrid draft choices and squabbling upstairs.

It's hard to know to what extent the Hawks' inability to field a decent supporting cast was a result of the horrors of the Billy Knight era, and to what extent it merely represented ownership tying management's hands with a low-cost approach.

What can be stated unequivocally, however, is the Hawks under since-deposed general manager Knight continually screwed up the draft. His most famous blunder was taking Marvin Williams ahead of Chris Paul and Deron Williams in 2005, but his next two picks were arguably even more damaging. Knight used consecutive lottery picks on Shelden Williams and Acie Law; at this point it seems possible neither will even become a credible rotation player, much less justify their lofty draft position.

At least one of Knight's draft picks worked out -- Atlanta selected Al Horford with the third overall pick in 2007, and he finished second in the Rookie of the Year voting despite playing out of position at center all season. His addition was of huge importance because the Hawks had lacked a rugged post defender and a strong defensive rebounder; Horford was both, and just in the nick of time given the sharp decline by incumbent center Zaza Pachulia.

Nonetheless, between Knight botching two other picks and another lost year from Speedy Claxton, the Hawks went through much of the year with a paper-thin rotation. The rot was most noticeable in the frontcourt, but the point guard situation wasn't much better. Veteran retread Anthony Johnson started for half the season, until Knight played the final card in his deck and traded Shelden Williams along with all his expiring contracts to Sacramento for Mike Bibby.

That trade was a surprise on two fronts -- first, that the notoriously cautious Knight made a deal at all, and second, that ownership approved paying Bibby $15 million in 2008-09 to bring him aboard. The deal cost Atlanta nothing of value and upgraded the point guard spot enough to pull the Hawks out of a midyear tailspin and push them into the East's final playoff spot.

However, Knight may have overplayed his hand. While he completed the Bibby trade he also lobbied ownership to fire coach Mike Woodson; the owners declined and backed Woodson instead. With the relationship between the two unsalvageable, Knight was sent packing while Woodson got a two-year extension.

At least Knight's final move was a helpful one. The Bibby acquisition not only filled the point guard spot, but also solved a glaring need for 3-point shooting. Atlanta was 29th in 3-point attempts per field-goal attempt, as the team's one true 3-point threat, guard Joe Johnson, was too busy having to run the offense and create shots off the dribble to benefit from catch-and-shoot chances for 3s. Bibby relieved that pressure by taking nearly six 3-pointers a game as a Hawk, and even made 37.7 percent of them.

In fact, the Hawks seemed to undergo a wholesale personality change once the trade was made. In the 25 games with Bibby the Hawks played a whole lot better on offense … and much worse on defense (see chart). On balance it worked out as a break-even, as Atlanta went 15-17 after the break, but this a worrisome omen for the coming season.

Hawks With Bibby: Before/After

BEFORE TRADE AFTER TRADE CHANGE
Offensive Efficiency 101.0 109.2 +8.2
Rank 20 9 +11
Defensive Efficiency 102.7 111.5 -8.8
Rank 10 26 -16

Normally, teams that are jostling for one of the final playoff spots will see their defensive ranking improve in the second half, as the rest of the league has little left to play for in the final weeks of the season. For instance, Golden State went from 24th to 17th in defensive efficiency, Charlotte from 26th to 16th, and Indiana from 16th to 12th. But the Hawks went in the opposite direction -- even while vying for a postseason berth, they had the defensive stats of a team that was mailing it in and heading for the golf course.

Offensively, the Hawks shot a poor percentage and made too many turnovers, but they kept themselves in the middle of the league as a whole because of their rebounding and free throws. Atlanta was fourth in the league in offensive rebound rate, pulling down 29.1 percent of its own misses; Horford, Josh Smith and bench ace Josh Childress were the key culprits, combining for more than seven offensive boards a game.

Similarly, Atlanta was seventh in both free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt and free-throw percentage; Smith and Childress joined Marvin Williams in providing most of the juice in this category.

Unfortunately, Atlanta completely reversed itself on the defensive glass. The Hawks were just 26th in defensive rebound rate, pulling down 71.7 percent of opponent missed shots, and that helped them finish just 18th in defensive efficiency. The undersized frontcourt was a huge factor, as Horford and Smith often found themselves giving up inches and pounds underneath.


Biggest Strength: Starting five

The Hawks will have their problems this year, but not in the first quarter. Atlanta's starting unit can hang with just about anybody's, with the lack of a superstar being the lone thing separating them from the truly elite starting quintets.

OFFSEASON MOVES
What roster moves did the Hawks make over the summer? Were they the right moves? John Hollinger breaks it down. Insider Insider

Johnson and Smith are the two stars, with Johnson's smooth shooting and ballhandling a nice complement to Smith's open-court finishing but erratic half-court game. Johnson had made consecutive All-Star teams and should Smith overcome his weakness for 20-footers he'll join him, as few combine Smith's shot-blocking ability with a talent for taking opposing big men off the dribble.

In the middle Horford is a bit undersized, but he's a beast on the glass and knows how to position himself defensively, while Smith's shot-blocking makes up for Horford's inability in this area. On the wings, Marvin Williams is the top on-ball defender of the bunch and had a nice breakout offensively last season by sizzling with his midrange jumper. And at the point, Bibby settled a spot that had been a weakness ever since Jason Terry left, while providing some much-needed perimeter shooting.

All told, it's a playoff-caliber unit. Darn shame about the guys backing them up.

Biggest Weakness: Bench

Childress was one of the best sixth men in basketball, and about the only thing that kept Atlanta's second unit from being a complete horror show. Of the reserves on the roster at the end of last season, he was the only one with a PER (player efficiency rating) above 11.

Looking at this year's gang, the only difference seems to be that Evans replaced Childress. Otherwise it's the same mix -- a barely adequate backup point guard, no quality size, and only one wing player worth his salt. Once you get past Evans and Pachulia, Atlanta is counting on other teams' discarded players -- folks like Murray and Morris -- to be rotation players. If there are any injuries then they're into the real dregs (Solomon Jones, Law, Thomas Gardner, etc.), and that's likely to happen at some point in the 82-game grind.

One thing that would help is if Claxton can come back from his knee injuries. He's been working out in preseason and supposedly looks good, though we heard the same thing a year ago.


Outlook

Atlanta's starting five might be the best in the division, but its bench might not win the D-League. Triangulate between those two extremes and you end up with a team that's unlikely to repeat its playoff appearance of a year ago unless it enjoys an unusually good run of health, because the subs just aren't up to snuff.

Additionally, it's na´ve to think the tumult in the rest of the organization isn't going to have some effect on the floor. Woodson is back even though multiple players -- most notably Smith and Pachulia -- had issues with him a year ago, and he's working under a new general manager who may not have his back. Meanwhile, the ongoing lawsuit between the current ownership and renegade partner Steve Belkin is still dragging on with no end in sight.

Plus there's the issue of whether the organization can address in-season problems. While Sund almost has to be an improvement over his predecessor, particularly on draft day, the concern remains that Atlanta's ownership will prevent him from making aggressive moves if it involves taking on more salary.

Sum it all up, and it appears this club is ready to take a step in reverse. The Hawks look like they'll be stuck in the NBA's netherworld --- neither good enough to make the playoffs nor bad enough to get a high lottery pick -- and with little young talent in the pipeline beyond the current starting five, they could be in this pickle for a while.

Prediction: 31-51, fifth in Southeast Division, 13th in Eastern Conference

John Hollinger writes for ESPN Insider. To e-mail him,
click here.