Season preview: Atlanta Hawks
The loss of Josh Childress could slow the Hawks' momentum created last season
Mike Bibby could be trade bait -- if ownership is willing to make that kind of move
Atlanta's starting lineup is strong, but the bench is a big question mark
SI.com will analyze each of the NBA's 30 teams as regular-season tip-off approaches. For a complete list of team-by-team breakdowns, click here. The information in the "Go figure" category below is provided by Roland Beech of 82games.com.
Hawks at a glance
Last season: 37-45; lost in first round of playoffs to Celtics
Notable additions: Maurice Evans (FA), Flip Murray (FA), Randolph Morris (FA)
Notable losses: Josh Childress (signed with Greece's Olympiakos), Salim Stoudamire (signed with Spurs)
Coach: Mike Woodson (106-222 in four seasons with Hawks)
Reasons for hope
1. Al Horford should build on his rookie season. Though the 6-foot-10, 245-pound Horford lacks the size of a traditional center, he proved as a rookie last season that he could more than hold his own in averaging 10.1 points and 9.7 rebounds. He also seemed to relish the big stage as he averaged 12.6 points and 10.4 boards in the Hawks' narrow first-round playoff loss to the Celtics. The Hawks are expecting the 22-year-old Horford to be a regular double-double guy in his second season.
2. The Hawks have Mike Bibby -- and his contract. Bibby was a stabilizing force for the point-guard-starved Hawks when he was acquired from Sacramento in February. A full training camp should help Bibby get even more comfortable with his relatively new teammates. But if the 30-year-old's skills start to erode or 2007 first-round pick Acie Law develops to the point where Bibby becomes a luxury, the Hawks could try to turn Bibby's $14.5 million expiring contract into another big man. Either way, Bibby has the potential to be a huge asset.
3. A clear chain of command on the basketball side. The Hawks' ownership situation remains unstable; the trial to determine how much compensation former owner Steve Belkin should receive for his 30 percent stake is set for early next year, and something tells me Belkin has yet to abandon hope that he will be able to regain control of the franchise. On the other hand, the basketball operations staff is far more stable today than it was last season, when former general manager Billy Knight and Woodson were working in the last year of their contracts. (Ownership reportedly rejected Knight's recommendation last season that Woodson be fired; Knight resigned in May.) New GM Rick Sund is firmly in control of the front office, and after last season he handed Woodson a two-year extension. If the players believe that their bosses aren't going anywhere, that's one less distraction they have to worry about.
Reasons for worry
1. The bench looks thin. The Hawks lost one of the NBA's top reserves when Childress left for Greece. Evans and Murray will try to fill the void left by Childress, who averaged 11.8 points and 4.9 rebounds in 30 minutes a game last season. Besides replacing Childress, the Hawks have to develop some frontcourt depth beyond Horford and his primary backup, Zaza Pachulia.
2. Will ownership spend to make the Hawks a winner? Letting Childress escape was a mistake. Not because the Hawks didn't match the Monopoly money that Childress received from Olympiakos, but because they tried to lowball the valuable forward and, according to Childress, showed a lack of urgency during negotiations. (The Hawks did a similar thing with fellow restricted free agent Smith, who signed a five-year, $58 million offer sheet with Memphis that Atlanta quickly matched.) Atlanta's wait-and-see approach made it easier for Childress to entertain the possibility of going overseas.
Meanwhile, on the heels of their first playoff appearance since 1999, the Hawks' big offseason acquisitions were journeymen Evans and Murray. The Hawks still have the talent to vie for a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference, but if they aren't players on the trade market or pass on a serious offer for Bibby because of the financial implications, they deserve to struggle.
3. The Smith-Woodson dynamic. Smith has said his relationship with Woodson is fine, but the two have had their issues in the past. Smith certainly has matured since entering the NBA as a raw 18-year-old in 2004. But the explosive forward, who averaged a career-high 17.2 points last season, believes more of the offense should go through him while Woodson has been content to have Smith get his points via putbacks and broken plays. It will be interesting to see how the relationship develops throughout the season.
Keep an eye on ...
Law's progress. Law didn't exactly light up the league as a rookie, averaging 4.2 points and 2.0 assists in 15.4 minutes last season. But Law's development as a floor leader will go a long way toward determining what the Hawks will do with Bibby. The Hawks are hoping to see more performances like Law's preseason debut against Orlando: 20 points (8-of-11 shooting), five rebounds and four assists in 25 minutes.
The Hawks allowed seven fewer points per 100 possessions with Smith on the court last season. That was the best on-/off-court defensive impact of any player in the league.
The Hawks have a good enough core group to be competitive, but losing Childress will hurt their depth. With the improvement of East also-rans like Chicago and Milwaukee, Atlanta probably will have to do better than 37 victories to make the playoffs this season.
Sports Illustrated's NBA preview issue will be on newsstands Wednesday, Oct. 22.