Never-Ending NBA Preview: Have the Hawks Peaked?

The NBA season is upon us… or at least it would be if this lockout were not going on. Nobody is quite certain when the NBA season will start. But if the collective bargaining agreement gets figured out soon, we will see a flurry of moves to make up for our lost offseason. So, with that in mind, it is time to begin opening the book on the 2011-12 season and to take a look at what the season might have in store — especially when it comes to the Magic. Be sure to look out for more of these team capsules and to check out all the blogs taking part in this year’s NBA Blog Preview (don’t worry, I will be linking to all of them in the next few weeks).

Atlanta Hawks
Last Year:
44-38
Last Year vs. Magic:  Lost 93-89 in Orlando; Won 80-74 in Orlando; Won 91-81 in AtlantaWon 85-82 in Atlanta. Playoffs: Game 1- Won 103-93; Game 2- Lost 88-82; Game 3- Won 88-84; Game 4- Won 88-85; Game 5- Lost 101-75; Game 6- Won 84-81.
This Year vs. Magic: Feb. 10 in Orlando; Feb. 23 in Atlanta; April 13 in Orlando
Magic Connection: Zaza Pachulia (Player, 2003-04)

The Previews: Kris Willis/Peachtree Hoops 

We know this Hawks team all too well. For two weeks of pure misery, this team that the Magic had dominated for several years confounded the team’s shooters and one of the best coaches in the league. In one series we saw Jamal Crawford bank an improbable 3-pointer off the glass to seal Game Three and J.J. Redick miss a completely wide open three to force overtime in the decisive Game Six.

It was an interesting series for sure.

A lot of credit should go to Larry Drew. He made the one adjustment that Mike Woodson was unwilling to make in the second-round sweep of 2010: he moved Al Hofrod to power forward, Josh Smith to small forward and started Jason Collins to guard Dwight Howard. It did not stop Dwight Howard at all. But it knocked Hedo Turkoglu out of rhythm. Atlanta was able to score in a bigger variety of ways as Turkoglu, Jason Richardson and Jameer Nelson struggled to score.

The only bright spots in that series were Dwight Howard and the cameo from Gilbert Arenas late in the series. Hopefully both of those were signs of things to come whenever the 2011-12 season starts.

But it was a familiar refrain for Atlanta after the first round. The Bulls simply outclassed them in a five-game romp. Derrick Rose was able to weave his way inside and Joakim Noah and Carlos Boozer were able to dominate down low. Atlanta was gone just like that.

There are a lot of questions that will remain for these Hawks to answer once the season starts up though. Jamal Crawford will be one of the most sought-after free agents. Will he remain happy with his role as a sixth man? Joe Johnson is beginning a slow decline, but expectations for him will continue to increase as his salary does? What will the Hawks do with Josh Smith?

Atlanta is in the strange nether world that is the middle of the Playoffs. It is not quite as bad as mediocrity — they still make the Playoffs and get out of the first round just about every year — but it is going to leave those limited number of Hawks fans wanting more if the team does not take that next step and contend for a title. And very few people probably believe the Hawks are at that level.

 

So what is missing? That is extraordinarily tough to say.

 

The way the roster is currently made up you have to ask whether the Hawks have hit their peak. Joe Johnson has that large contract to live up to, but he is hardly the superstar his salary would suggest he is. He is a very good player, but really more of a secondary piece than a leader. You have Josh Smith who seems to have a good year every other season before falling in love with his jumper and minimizing his true effectiveness — as a super athletic small forward who can post up players not used to playing down low. The problem with Smith, though, is his ceiling stops wherever his jumper does.

Al Horford is probably the best player on the team (certainly the one with the most value), but even with him you have to ask is he a secondary or primary option offensively? Is he really a power forward or is he really a center.

These are critical questions the Hawks have to answer to take that next step and get to the second round. In all honesty, they may not do it without some major changes and perhaps even taking a step back.

Atlanta needs to get quality young players off its bench to replace the expected loss of Jamal Crawford and eat up as little cap room as possible while Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford (three potential all stars in any given year) eat up a healthy chunk of that space. It is a difficult situation for a team like Atlanta to be in.

Whenever the season starts, we may find if the Hawks have reached their peak.

How the Hawks Will Beat the Magic: They had a pretty good formula in the Playoffs last year. Go big and try to keep the score down by locking out the 3-point shooters. Larry Drew made some great adjustments by bringing in Jason Collins to guard Dwight Howard one on one and shift Josh Smith to the 3 to play Hedo Turkoglu. Turkoglu struggled to get anything going and could not get to the basket against the long and athletic Josh Smith. It was a great decision. Orlando was frustrated (outside of Howard) offensively and could not even make open shots. Maybe some lingering injuries had something to do with that — especially to J.J. Redick — but that is just an excuse. Atlanta won that series with timely shot-making and a great team strategy to neutralize the Orlando’s strengths. The Hawks could create offense when they needed, the Magic could not. Simple as that.

How the Magic Will Beat the Hawks: The Hawks won all the close games in the Playoffs and so the key for the Magic has to be to try and get out to the lead and rely on the defense to hold on to it. Orlando does not have the players (right now at least) to get points when the team absolutely needs it in the crunch. That was painfully proven in the Playoffs. Dwight Howard was an obvious advantage, but something Orlando could explore doing more of is getting out on the break. The Magic played from behind in all four of the losses to the Hawks in the playoffs and needed frantic comebacks to make those games. A big part of those comebacks was Gilbert Arenas getting the freedom to run the fast break and create on offense. There was a lot of optimism about Arenas following solid performances in Games Four, Five and Six. We will see how that carries over to the next season. Maybe getting back before Atlanta’s defense can get set is the right strategy to create offense. Again, we will see how Stan Van Gundy adjusts his strategy to fit his new roster.

Photos via DayLife.com.

Philip Rossman-Reich

About Philip Rossman-Reich

Philip Rossman-Reich is the managing editor for Crossover Chronicles and Orlando Magic Daily. You can follow him on twitter @OMagicDaily

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