Monday, October 26, 2009

THHB Season Preview, Part One: The Season

Finally. We can see it. The lights, the glamour, the fireworks, and the residual smoke filled arena at tip off.

It's time for the regular season. The 12th man has had their time in the publicity sun, but the now is to focus on the guys who will play and more about what we think is in store for the club in the 2009-2010 season.

Part One: The Season

As we left our heroes at the end of the 2nd Round Defeat at the hands of the Cleve-land Cavaliers, we summarized the season that had been, laid out the issues, and made the following observations regarding key pain points:

Josh Smith and His Many Ways to Confound, Frustrate, and Entertain (and produce).

Constant slow starts at the beginning of games as the Hawks would try to take the other team's basketball temperature to see how hard they would have to play for that night. This would be commonly referred to by the team themselves as "coming out flat".

Offensive game plans that amounted to little more than dribble down, make a pass, and then stand around and watch that chosen player break his man down one-on-one and see what happens. At the end of games, this would be referred to as "Watching Joe Johnson".

Poor defensive efforts that would start with Mike Bibby struggling to maintain his man or, worse still, constant switching that would create whatever matchup the other team wanted to see. It's no Rubik's Cube when everybody knows how to solve that little mystery.

The Atlanta Hawks feature a talented young roster that on some nights can out-athleticize and out-shoot most teams in the NBA. This works against less talented teams in the league, but it doesn't scale to good teams, or on the road, and certainly not when both those factors are in play.

Then, the Hawks entered the offseason, and we lent our thoughts about the moves the Hawks made to our prehistoric friends over at Heels on Hardwood:

The Hawks made a lot of headlines in the off season by fully accomplishing their own “To Do” list.

They acquired Jamal Crawford from GS for two reasons; Insurance in case Mike Bibby didn’t resign and to ensure they would get at least some productivity from the first bench guard position that Ronald “Flip” Murray provided on last season’s (47) win team. They drafted Jeff Teague with the #19 pick, a player they highly regarded for his ability to handle the ball and create for himself. They then went about resigning Bibby and backup center Zaza Pachulia, both for either at or below market value. Marvin Williams was the last of the Hawks own free agents to sign and, despite his restricted free

Last season the Hawks grabbed home court advantage by beating the lesser teams in the conference, but stalled significantly when it came to the better teams in the East (read: better defenses, too), mustering only a 2-10 record against the Celtics, Magic, and Cavaliers. Part of the problem was a dependence on isolation and 1 on 1 offensive basketball, often leaving them too late in the shot clock to get good shots. It worked out against teams that struggled defensively, but was a prominent issue against the good teams who don’t have a problem holding down half court D for 24 seconds. Another regular issue for the Hawks is defensive rebounding, where the Hawks again finished in the second half in the league in the category.

Bringing in Crawford and Teague highlighted that the team is alright with the strategy offensively, as both players fit that dribble and shoot motif. But, the additions of Joe Smith and Jason Collins, do little to address the rebounding needs. Essentially, the Hawks have decided to double down on last year’s strategy and success, leaving THHB to believe it will be more of the same in 2009-2010: A talented team that will achieve similar win column success, but will do little to raise itself to the next level.
That was a little over a month ago. Since then, THHB has had time to get away from the think tank, the war room brainstorming arena, and various other rooms of the office and let the past season and subsequent offseason breathe with the intent to gather again, discuss things anew, and mark fresh opinions and bring forth perhaps a change of heart regarding the outlook of this season's Hawks.

And while we were gone, there was plenty of reasons to think that we might change our minds (in no particular order):

Josh Smith reigning in the temptation to launch

The rookie, Jeff Teague, making an impact

A Basketball Prospectus endorsed optimistic (for the most part) look at the franchise

And, of course, the proof that the Hawks were serious about improving their bench--no, not a link to the Joe Smith signing, but the last days of Flubber West (for now).

So now--armed with a month's worth of optimism and momentum, would THHB be able to see around their earlier summation and deliver a flowery preview of what's to come?


The Hawks are what they want to be: A talented, quick team that will do very well against those who they can out-talent to win games and struggle against the teams that are truly worthy of championship consideration.

We partially come to this conclusion based on the truth (our truth, we admit) that the Hawks approach to the offensive end of the floor cannot pass muster against solid defensive teams---the types of teams you see in, oh, you know, the higher rounds of the playoffs.

It came as no surprise to us to watch the Hawks final preseasonal effort in Orlando--a game which does not in itself condemn the franchise, rather confirms it. The team looked the same as it ever did the season before, with new players playing the parts of those who are no more--which was Jamal Crawford for RFM and Jeff Teague for Acie Law. They stayed on the outside offensively,  couldn't get shots to fall, got drilled on the inside and outside on the defensive end, and showed little fight or energy while doing it. In short, it looked like a reprise of the games the Hawks played against the Elite of the East last season. Yes, it was a preseason game, but one in which it was clear both teams were trying as if regular season--at least until it was out of hand. And we aren't the only ones who thought so..

Why should we have expected anything different? The coaching staff did not change, so why guess that the philosophy of isolation and up top hand-offs would differ? This team will dribble-dribble-dribble-pass-shoot more often than not, and due to their advanced talent level will be able to overcome lesser teams, but the teams that matter--the teams they will face once they make the playoffs--will be set defensively and grateful that the Hawks have made their jobs considerably easier by holding the basketball in a single space on the floor as long as they do.

That the front office doubled down on the status quo with their moves in the off-season while not extending the chief architect's (Mike Woodson's deal ends at the end of this season) contract was telling in that they believe they have the talent to win big, but not sure about the basketball philosophy that's wrapped around it. You can't expect a different paradigm from the same people--that's why organizations make changes even while winning. If this style doesn't scale up again this year, THHB would expect a change in approach before the next season begins.

Defensively, the Hawks have yet to address their most glaring need over the off-season---the need to defend the glass. As the Hawks plucked a considered upgrade to their backup PG position (Teague v.Law), they passed on a player that could have helped them in this perennially problematic area (Dejuan Blair). In the free agency period, they signed their own, traded for a reasonably sure bet to repeat RFM's input from last season (since RFM himself was unlikely to), and brought in more seasoned front court players (Joe Smith, Jason Collins) who add experience, but not that which will impact change for this season on the glass.

Also, as Mike Bibby will continue to be a liability on the defensive end, they will either play Bibby less, which could impact the offensive efficiency even more, or hope for Josh Smith to be a larger presence in deterring shots inside when teams inevitably take advantage. Should Smith take more chances defensively to that end, the Hawks must be better at rotating defensively, lest they be even worse on the glass and give up more second chance baskets. This could certainly fall under the category of wishful thinking.

Why so glum, chum? Well, re-read those last few paragraphs---and tell us to start dreaming of conference finals. Oh, we'll enjoy the season that is (we promise!), as it will likely be filled with wins and great plays by a team with great talent.  But we're not under the illusion that we'll be taking "The Next Step" under the same flawed basketball premises.

Now, as far as actual win totals guesses go, we're not good at predicting wins, else we would be practicing a different vocation. But given the relative shakiness of the health of the team last season, and the talent that lay still within, it makes sense to us that the Hawks should be able to attain the same amount of wins that Pythagoras deemed the Hawks worthy last season (46), even if other teams have stepped their rosters up as well.

From a Hawks historian angle, this is a good thing---consecutive winning seasons and relevance in the NBA are items that should be on every fan's checklist. They will on the majority of nights be the better team and perform as such, but will lack the fundamental basketball strength to push past the better teams consistently. If you have watched the team since the beginning of this decade, these are not things upon which to sneer---but if you have a desire to see more from the team you love, you should be braced for disappointment.

Hey, at least they'll mostly do it in HD.

Official THHB Record Prediction: Playoff Bound Atlanta Hawks, 46-36.

THHB wants to make it clear that they once again welcome the lack of stink emanating from the Philips Arena floor--and we are not talking about the Circus. Coming Tuesday--Part Two: The Starters

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