As NBA training camps get underway, we preview the upcoming season with the “Highs and Lows” system — predicting the respective ceiling and basement for each team.
Added: Jordan Crawford, Josh Powell, Etan Thomas
Lost: Joe Smith, Randolph Morris, Mario West
Ceiling: Eastern Conference Finals
Before the 2010 free agency dust settled, did anybody predict Joe Johnson would be the guy with the fattest contract in his hands? While a lot of people think $120 million was too much, don’t downplay the fact that Johnson is an elite player in the League. Last season he averaged 21.3 points, 4.6 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game, solid across the board as usual, and was the featured player on a team that won 53 games; the most since Steve Smith, Dikembe Mutombo, Mookie Blaylock and Christian Laettner led the ’97 Hawks to 56 wins … Josh Smith (15.7 ppg, 8.7 rpg, 2.1 bpg, 1.6 spg) finished second in NBA Defensive Player of the Year voting and was one of the East’s notable All-Star snubs. He is the finisher when the Hawks run, and personally won them a few games with timely putbacks and big defensive plays. I ran into J-Smoove at the NBA 2K11 launch party last week, and he said one of his goals this year is to win DPOY … Al Horford (14.2 ppg, 9.9 rpg) made his All-Star debut, and may have been Atlanta’s MVP in their first-round playoff series win over Milwaukee. He’s also entering a contract year … The Hawks were 10th in the NBA in scoring defense and 9th in three-point percentage defense last season, and their D could get even better as Jeff Teague takes more of the point guard responsibilities from Mike Bibby. The second-year pro Teague is able to stay in front of opposing PG’s better than Bibby, which should cut down dribble-penetration and make things easier for the rest of the ATL defense.
Basement: 6th seed in the East
But how much will Bibby’s diminished role hurt the offense? Bibby’s greatest assets are his outside jumper and veteran savvy running the show; Teague is still learning the pro game and made just 21 percent of his threes last year … A constant issue with the Hawks is fighting stagnation on offense and remembering to share the ball. The team ranked 12th in the League in assists, but too many times in the playoffs they were stuck playing isolation basketball. When Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford are hitting, that’s fine. When they’re not, the Hawks struggle … Crawford is one of the primary ball-handlers, a go-to option in crunch time, and one of Atlanta’s few deep threats. He has to play well for them to threaten the upper echelon of the East, but he’s unhappy right now because the team hasn’t given the 30-year-old reigning Sixth Man of the Year a contract extension … After flirting with Shaq and some other 7-footers over the summer, the Hawks never got that true center to allow Horford to slide to power forward and Smith to small forward. In a conference where the road to a championship goes through Dwight Howard, Kevin Garnett, Shaq, Jermaine O’Neal, Amar’e Stoudemire, Andrew Bogut, Carlos Boozer and Joakim Noah, having that extra size would have helped … New coach Larry Drew is entering his first year in charge of an NBA team. He was the “player’s pick” of a replacement for Mike Woodson, but we’ve seen those situations combust before … Even though they’re a relatively young group — the average age of Johnson, Smith, Horford, Crawford, Teague and Marvin Williams is 25.5 years old — you get the feeling that the Hawks have plateaued. With the East as top-heavy as it is with Miami, Orlando and Boston, can Atlanta go any higher than the 4th seed? Can they get any farther than the second round of the playoffs? Hawks announcer Dominique Wilkins must feel like he’s watching a replay of his career; the team being good, but not quite great.
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9/27 — Portland Trail Blazers