(This is another in a series of 30 guest columns that will run in October, when optimism reigns supreme across the NBA. The theme will be “Five Reasons to Feel Positive About … ” We encourage you to follow the authors on Twitter and visit their sites. – CS)
The Atlanta Hawks spent the last seven years developing a contender in the Eastern Conference and the last five cultivating a core of Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford and Marvin Williams. Dubbed the “core four,” this group was saddled with the offensive ineptitude of coach Mike Woodson, the enhanced learning curve of Larry Drew, and the constant financial limitations of ownership and management.
All of the progress made since the acquisition of Johnson in 2005 — the start of an era — was reconstructed this summer. It’s a much-needed fresh start in Atlanta after leveling out as a second-round squad over the past four seasons, becoming the league’s model of complacency and mediocrity.
The summer kicked off with the Hawks not electing to bring back incumbent GM Rick Sund, instead hiring Danny Ferry who previously served as VP of basketball operations for the San Antonio Spurs and GM of the Cleveland Cavaliers. Ferry’s experiences in Cleveland and San Antonio (under R.C. Buford) gave him the necessary pedigree to be given the reins by Atlanta’s ownership – a course of action they had been reluctant to explore in the past, particularly with the aforementioned Sund.
This newfound freedom in the front office allowed Ferry to examine the roster from an outsider’s perspective and propose a fresher, more open-minded direction. His top priorities were creating financial flexibility for the future while maintaining a competitive roster. Clearly, his goals were achieved as he shipped Johnson’s gargantuan contract to Brooklyn and rid the team of arguably its largest enigma in Marvin Williams.
With a new regime in Atlanta, there’s a lot to look forward to this season. Thank you, Danny Ferry, for giving me (at least) five reasons to feel positive about the Hawks.
1. Al Horford is back …
… And thank God for that. Horford played in only 11 games last season before suffering a torn pectoral muscle that kept him out until the playoffs. Once he returned in Boston for Game 4, we were all reminded of just how much we missed every single aspect of his game: the efficiency, the pick-and-pops, the pick-and-rolls, the defense — it all came rushing back to us brainwashed Hawks fans who were convinced Smith was the only player we needed in the frontcourt.
Unfortunately, it was too little, too late. Horford singlehandedly won Game 5 and came alive in the fourth quarter of Game 6, fueling a comeback that fell just short and ultimately ended their season.
The good news, however, is that the Hawks now have a full season of Horford. He will be one of the three main cogs in the offense and be heavily utilized in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop scenarios with Jeff Teague. Furthermore, he is a perfect fit for the Hawks’ new spread pick-and-roll offense that will feature both him and Smith setting screens and flashing to the top of the key for open jumpers.
Defensively, Horford’s presence gives the Hawks one of the most impressive frontcourt rotations in the league. The combination of Horford, Smith, Zaza Pachulia and Ivan Johnson, if not the most adroit, is definitely the most intimidating.
2. Ivan Johnson was re-signed, and everyone is scared
The legend of Ivan Johnson continues to grow. After bouncing around a few colleges and being banned from a Korean league for life due to an overtly obscene gesture, he found himself on the Hawks’ training camp roster last preseason. His irrational confidence, brute strength and short temper made him an instant fan favorite.
Of course, he has developed somewhat of a cult following. Fans can fondly remember him stating that he didn’t really watch basketball, so he didn’t know who any of the players were. He also has diamond grills, received five technical fouls and an ejection in his first nine D-League games, and recently cracked a backboard at Butler’s practice facilities because he was dunking too hard.
What’s better? He actually plays! He’s not a terribly efficient offensive player, but he’s an energy guy – the blue-collar type who’s willing to work in the trenches. He can score in bunches, rebound effectively and finish in transition. Some nights he will take more than he will give, but regardless, he is always great theatre and might just be the scariest player in the league, because, well, he doesn’t really know that he’s supposed to be scared of anyone because he only knows “the main guys.”
That’s what we love about Ivan Johnson. He doesn’t care what you think and he doesn’t care what he’s supposed to think.
3. The Hawks stole all the snipers
No, but really, they did. Atlanta pulled off a sign-and-trade that sent Kirk Hinrich back to Chicago for Kyle Korver. Anthony Morrow came over from Brooklyn in the Joe Johnson trade. Lou Williams signed with Atlanta via free agency. John Jenkins, the best 3-point shooter in college last season, was Atlanta’s first-round pick.
When you look at the roster, you may feel like it’s a tad redundant to stack up on so many one-dimensional, defensively helpless 3-point shooters. But if Drew institutes the spread pick-and-roll offense, then they have created one of the most deadly offensive attacks in the league. With Horford, Teague and Smith flanked by snipers in both corners, the Hawks have the makings to pick teams apart through a penetration-based system.
If Teague is able to get into the lane, then the court is his oyster. He will have either Smith or Horford rolling to the basket, the other flashing to the top of the key, the defense scrambling to cover those two, and the wing defenders having to choose whether or not to collapse on Teague.
If they do help on Teague, they leave Korver, Jenkins, Morrow, DeShawn Stevenson or whomever else wide open in the corner for a 3-pointer, at which point it becomes a simple penetrate-and-kick. With so many knockdown shooters on the wing, if one is having an off day, you just sub him out for another one. Chances are that at least one or two among the sniper committee will be on target every night.
4. More offensive flexibility
There are several pros and cons to losing Johnson, but the biggest pro is the well-deserved death of stall ball and “Iso-Joe.” After years of watching Johnson pound the ball into the floor while staring at the shot clock, waiting 15 seconds before committing to a move that his teammates in the corner might appreciate, there is finally freedom. There is finally a chance for effective ball movement, for efficiency and a fast-paced system, for open looks and penetration.
The Hawks are no longer a jump shooting team. In just one summer, Ferry assembled a roster that has all the components of an up-tempo team with three essential parts of positionless basketball: slashers, shooters and finishers.
With Teague, Devin Harris and Lou Williams, the Hawks have three guards that love to push the ball. Teague and Harris are faster than Williams and noticeably itch to get the ball upcourt. Williams is more of a half-court, isolation scorer but can be deadly in transition or semi-transition as a spot-up shooter.
An offense with a primary goal of quick, efficient and high-percentage shots is a new concept in Atlanta, but it’s been something fans have been clamoring for. The Hawks have seemingly had the personnel to implement this style for years. Finally freed from the offensive time-gobbler that is Joe Johnson and his pesky isolation tactics, the Hawks just might be able to actually put it to use. Horford and Smith running the floor will be a tantalizing cover for any team, assuming the Hawks properly utilize the assets at their disposal.
5. The rumors that will come at season’s end
In case you didn’t know, the Hawks cleared enough salary cap space to sign nearly two max contracts next summer. With Horford, Williams and Teague already on the books, Atlanta has the potential to build a real contender. The inverse could also be true as next summer might turn out to be a complete disaster with a return to the lottery the following year. However, the rumors will be exciting, and they’ve already started popping up.
Speculation of Chris Paul and Dwight Howard together in Atlanta, however unlikely it may be, has made headlines. And while that sounds impossible and ridiculous in every way, just take the time to imagine what that would be like for a star-starved city. Again, that’s not happening, but suddenly there’s a whole world of possibility for the Hawks to explore in the free agent and trade markets.
When was the last time the Hawks had any leverage or any desire to make a splash in the league? The last major free agent signing in Atlanta was Dikembe Mutumbo in the 1990s, and while he was great, he wasn’t quite the star that everyone was hoping for. Options abound for this season and the next, and something tells me that Ferry will preserve this flexibility until he stumbles upon a roster that he likes; one that he can lock up for the future to ensure prolonged competitiveness.
The current roster is exciting, but what makes this team so interesting is that within two years, everything will have changed. The Hawks are heading in a new direction, and Ferry is leading the way. We don’t know where he is taking us, but after a strong summer in 2012, no one is asking any questions.
Daniel Christian is the editor of Soaring Down South, the FanSided Network’s blog covering the Atlanta Hawks. He has been writing about the Hawks and NBA for two years. You can follow him on Twitter @DChris_Hawks