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Posted: Wednesday October 21, 2009 11:01AM; Updated: Wednesday October 21, 2009 11:01AM
SI.com's NBA Enemy Lines
Atlanta Hawks
 
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Hawks

They lost Flip Murray as a free agent [to the Bobcats], and that is going to hurt them more than most people would think. On the other hand, I like their signings of Joe Smith and Jason Collins because the Hawks were lacking in size off the bench. Those are moves a contender would make, and moves the Hawks didn't make in the past.

Joe Johnson is by far and away the best player on this team. I know Josh Smith gets a lot of attention because of the highlight dunks, but he isn't even the team's second-best player. I would say Al Horford is their No. 2 guy, and there is a big drop-off between Johnson and Horford. Everyone would agree that Kobe Bryant and Dwyane Wade are the top two shooting guards in the NBA, and in my mind Johnson would be No. 3. He's in that second tier of stars. You can't build a championship team around Johnson, but if he's the No. 2 guy on your team, now you have a chance to win the whole thing. He would be perfect as the No. 2 player on a contender because he is a quiet, unselfish guy who can do so many things well. But I don't think he's one of those assassins who would do anything to win. I would also think he has to be pleased with the growth of the team in Atlanta, going from the lottery to the playoffs to making the second round last year, which means his move there has been the opposite of a failure.

If Johnson were to leave as a free agent [after the season], it would be a killer because of all the things that would have to be replaced. He can score in a variety of ways -- out of the low post, shooting the ball or off the dribble. But what really separates Johnson from a lot of other guys is that he's a willing passer who makes his teammates better. When the defense collapses, he will find the open man instead of trying to do it all by himself. At the same time, you've seen in the playoffs that he can make shots with deep range even when defenses are scheming against him. He could be an All-Defensive team guy, but he has had to be not only the scorer but also a playmaker who gets the team into offense while being among the league leaders in minutes played. With Jamal Crawford now in Atlanta, Johnson may not have to play 40 minutes a night anymore, and if his defense improves, the team may have a chance to progress further.

At the very least, acquiring Crawford gave the Hawks leverage in their negotiations with Mike Bibby, which enabled them to sign him back at a lesser salary [three years, $18 million]. Crawford is a scorer who takes a lot of shots and his selection isn't great, but there will be nights when his scoring will put them over the top. It's going to help Johnson to have another potential 20-point guy playing with him. But that scoring may be offset by the fact that Crawford has been one of the worst defenders in the league at his position. With his height and length and athletic ability, you have to question why he isn't a better defender.

I wonder what they're going to do with the minutes between Crawford and Bibby. Is Crawford going to accept a role off the bench if coach Mike Woodson decides to continue to keep Bibby as his starter at point guard? Bibby gives them a bit of a calming influence and some veteran leadership, but the main thing he does is make shots. Basically he's a catch-and-shoot guy now, and that has served as a good complement to Johnson. My feeling is that Crawford is more likely to accept the role off the bench than Bibby.

Horford has given them stability and surprising maturity in the frontcourt. It's surprising because he's had only two years in the league and he's been playing out of position at center. But playing center probably helps him because he's not one of these modern big men who wants to shoot from the perimeter. A generation or two ago, he would have been too small to play center, but today there are only a handful of guys who are so much bigger than him to cause matchup problems. I'm not sure how much upside he has because he doesn't have that impressive athleticism. But he will be a very good player for a long time because he rebounds, defends and plays every play. He plays like you want your big man to play, as a physical guy with effort. You'll see him telling teammates where to rotate or covering for them when they get beat. He won't be a great scorer, but his post game is improving and he can make the 15-to-17-foot shot. On a lot of nights, he's quicker than the center who is guarding him and that gives him an advantage.

Then there's Smith, who seems to be focused more on making the spectacular dunk than on doing the things he needs to do to help win the game. To his credit, he has taken fewer threes the last couple of years. But so often the ball just stops when it gets to him, and then bad things happen. The ill-advised three is like a turnover to his team. Not only is he great athletically, but he also has some skill. The problem is that he's trying to make the spectacular play. He'll make that spectacular play look routine, but the easy or simple play is something he can't or won't make, and that leads to more turnovers. But let's be fair: The guy is still only 23, which is why it's still too early to give up on him. He hasn't had veteran leadership in Atlanta. He's a guy who could be a better-skilled version of Dennis Rodman while leading the league in rebounds and blocked shots. Offensively he should focus on rebounding the offensive boards and trying to take bigger players off the dribble. He should also be developing his ability to score in the low post because most nights he'll be guarded down there by a bigger, slower player.

I don't know if Marvin Williams will ever be able to overcome the fact that he was picked too high in the [2005] draft at No. 2, ahead of Deron Williams and Chris Paul. I would argue that Williams has maybe turned into a better pick than Andrew Bogut, who was No. 1 that year. It was a very promising sign that Williams developed his three-point range last year. The difference between shooting the three as opposed to the 17-footer has to do with the spacing. It becomes more difficult for defenders to either suck into the paint to help while still being aware of a shooter like Williams at the three-point line. The Hawks missed him over the second half of the year when he was hurt. He still doesn't have a bread-and-butter move that will allow him to score anytime. He has developed as a catch-and-shoot guy, which makes him a complementary player. He'll occasionally surprise you with a quick move off the dribble to dunk on you, so he's an OK athlete. He can be a 17-to-18-point scorer eventually. At the other end of the floor, he's a decent defender because he makes the effort.

Jeff Teague is an intriguing rookie. He's ultraquick and he can get anywhere he needs to go. The only real question is whether he'll be able to make enough shots on the perimeter to keep defenses honest. His motion is unusual -- he shoots it low and out in front, and he may have to adjust that for the NBA. The other thing is whether he'll gain Woodson's trust by not taking bad shots and turning it over early in the year.

As for their other reserves, Joe Smith still provides offense at power forward. He's a big man who can score in the low post and face the basket and make a jump shot. His veteran leadership may be even more important, though it will be interesting to see if he can have a big enough role to command the respect of someone like Josh Smith. Collins may play only a few minutes a game, but he'll be there to bang and defend the bigger centers. When Zaza Pachulia is inspired, he's a capable rebounder, especially on the offensive glass. Mo Evans may be the fourth guy on the wing, and he might not be happy with the limited minutes.

Woodson is in another lame-duck year. It isn't the first time, so it shouldn't be a big distraction, although it would help to get off to a good start and take the heat off that situation.

 

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