Thursday November 4th, 2010

Is any home-court playoff team less respected than the Atlanta Hawks? They've improved five years in a row, they've won a playoff series for two years running, they're coming off a 53-win season, they've held on to their top players while staying under the luxury tax, and yet they remain an afterthought.

I understand how this happened: They lost all benefit of the doubt after surrendering heartlessly in a landslide sweep by Orlando in the second round last May. I acknowledge, too, that the conference finals are on the wrong side of their ceiling because the Hawks -- tax-limited as they are -- don't have enough to beat the healthy rosters of Boston, Miami or Orlando in a seven-game series.

But let's give credit to their togetherness: They've pushed themselves out to an East-leading 5-0 start without playing especially well over the last 15 days.

Of course they should be beating Memphis, Philadelphia, Washington, Cleveland and Detroit; in fact, they should be 6-0 after going to Minnesota on Friday. But this start defines a team that has grown up to learn the first rule of NBA success: Win the games you're supposed to win.

Joe Johnson's six-year, $124 million contract is controversial, and Jamal Crawford's expiring deal remains unextended. But don't assume the Hawks will be on the slide anytime soon, not while Johnson and Crawford are in their prime years and Al Horford (who received a five-year extension this week) and Smith are approaching theirs. On Wednesday in Atlanta, the Hawks were outrebounded 17-3 on the offensive glass while affording the hungrier Pistons a 90-67 advantage in field goal attempts. Then, like a veteran playoff team, the Hawks outscored their guests 18-2 down the stretch to pull off a 94-85 victory.

Milwaukee and Chicago made a number of roster-improving acquisitions last summer, while Atlanta's big move was to sub in respected league assistant Larry Drew for outgoing coach Mike Woodson. But don't assume the Bucks and/or the Bulls will turn out to be better than the Hawks: It's no easy thing to win 50 games, and that's probably what it's going to take to steal a home-court seed from Atlanta.

Now, on to the mailbag ...

With Al Horford's new five-year deal with Atlanta, do you think the Hawks will realistically trade away their top player, Josh Smith? It's been brought up, given the new collective bargaining agreement, but such a move makes little sense to me. -- Kevin, Atlanta

Is Smith really their top player, Kevin? I view him as their No. 3 behind Johnson and Horford, which is another reason why the Hawks are so strong. There will be a market for Smith, a skilled 6-foot-9 power forward with enormous defensive potential who will have two years left on his contract totaling $26 million after the collective bargaining agreement expires this season.

Smith can be unruly -- he is, once again, shooting indiscriminately from the perimeter when he ought to be controlling the paint -- so maybe the Hawks will consider trading his upside at age 24 for a more reliable star who can help them in the playoffs. But he also has a 15 percent trade kicker that complicates any deal for him, and then there is the multipronged talent that he displayed Wednesday against the Pistons (22 points on 12 shots, 11 rebounds, four assists and two blocks).

I could see them moving Smith for basketball reasons, but not for financial reasons -- not yet anyway. There is no reason for the Hawks to dump his salary until they see the terms of the next CBA. If the league has its way and player salaries are slashed retroactively going into the next union contract, then it's not unthinkable that the Hawks could hold on to Johnson, Horford and Smith while being able to turn a profit.

John Wall had a near triple-double (29 points, 13 assists, nine steals) in an overtime win over the Sixers on Tuesday, marking the first time in 20 years -- 20 years! -- that an NBA player had recorded at least 20 points, 12 assists and eight steals. It was only the kid's third game in the league. What can we expect from him going forward? -- Martin, Washington, D.C.

You can expect good nights and bad nights. His team has a skimpy frontcourt and there's going to be only so much Wall can accomplish this season. Just think about all of the talented, more experienced point guards who will want to put him in his place over the next five months. Then there is the question of former All-Star Gilbert Arenas and his role with the team, which will also influence how Wall goes about his job as a rookie.

But you're right on this point, Martin: Wall's fast start shows he can become a star and franchise leader. Now the Wizards need to begin rearranging the roster around him, much as the Bulls have been doing around Derrick Rose.

Though it's very early to pass judgment, what team should be the most concerned about its play in Week 1? -- Aaron, Cape Cod, Mass.

The 0-5 Pistons and the 1-4 Clippers have each lost to four playoff teams thanks to murderous opening schedules. But I'm going to say the Clips are in slightly deeper trouble because they've had to deal with Baron Davis starting the year in questionable shape. The question was raised by new coach Vinny Del Negro. "He's got to get smarter about it," Del Negro said of Davis' offseason conditioning when a swollen knee sidelined him Monday for the Clippers' 17th straight loss to San Antonio.

The good news is Davis acknowledges he must improve his conditioning to help him overcome four knee surgeries. The bad news is they need the kind of leadership that he is physically unable to provide at this time. Will Del Negro's straight talk bond his relationship with Davis, or will their relationship crumble?

Do you think Blake Griffin is good enough to make the Clippers halfway decent again? -- Jon, Oakland, Calif.

Who will deliver the ball to him, Jon? Griffin is one of seven forwards in the West averaging a double-double, so he is building up from an explosive base. But point-guard play has become an NBA necessity, which means that Griffin won't make a dent on the Clippers' future until he is able to benefit from Davis running the team. That is, unless they keep getting surprising 17-point, eight-assist performances from rookie Eric Bledsoe, who led L.A. to an impressive win over Oklahoma City on Wednesday.

I would agree that there needs to be some kind of change with the salary cap, but to go from a soft cap to a hard cap all at once would be like pouring ice water (hard cap) on hot glass (NBA teams). The glass will shatter. Why not keep the soft cap for now and have a higher hard cap that is more manageable for now, and reduce it over a three-year period until it matches the soft cap? -- Rex, Manila

The owners want their franchise values to rise, and they believe an operating system that ensures profits will help put them on that track. If they compel the union to accept an instantaneous slashing of existing salaries -- say, for example, that all player contracts are cut back by 30 percent -- then most teams will be able to keep their players while remaining under the ceiling of a hard cap. That's what the owners want to see happen. The players don't want to surrender so much money, but how long will they be able to hold their ground during an extended lockout?

The alternative to slashing those salaries is to grandfather in the old contracts (in conjunction with a more draconian luxury-tax penalty), and that would be more along the lines of your suggestion, Rex. There are too many moving parts to predict the ultimate formula. All I know is that the league will be operating under a new dynamic after this season.

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