Expectations have risen by making the playoffs and having a great showing against Boston. Yet they only won 37 games last year. Keeping things in perspective, they've got to find a way to improve, because winning 37 is not going to make the playoffs in the improved East.
Who is their lead player? Joe Johnson tends to not take the last shot as much as you'd expect from a franchise player. You can tell a lot about him from his decision to go to a losing team by leaving a team that could've paid him good money and helped him win a championship. He hasn't done much in recent years to change that opinion. I've watched them play a lot, and he's a talented kid. But I'm not a fan. He's a good third player on a contending team. But he's not the guy you build around.
Al Horford was great. He would have been my vote for Rookie of the Year. Last year you did what you could to keep him off the boards. This year people have seen him, and they're not going to let him get as many free looks. People know he can shoot mid-range jump shots. He's a little jerky in his stroke, but he can make them. I think he's a Buck Williams-type guy in a lot of ways. Every time I've seen Horford, he has played hard the whole game. When he took out T.J. Ford on that layup [after which Ford missed 24 games with neck and back injuries], he didn't do it maliciously, but he made a hard foul. Some of his histrionics you can do without, like when he pounds his chest and waves his arms too much after he makes a play early. But that's not bad for this team because they don't have a lot of guys with that intensity.
For them ever to be a championship team -- not just a playoff team -- Horford needs to play the 4, and they find a 5 who can really play up front alongside him. You shift Josh Smith to small forward and bring Marvin Williamsoff the bench. But until they go in that direction, they'll be the best 6-foot-8 team in the league with too many forwards on the roster.
When Smith played well last year, it was mainly because he quit shooting threes. He seemed to say, OK, I'm going to have a great mismatch at the 4, I'm going to just run the floor and let the game come to me. He can be a dominant player who can change the game, and when he's focused he is very good and a tough matchup. But he also goes through games where he seems lost, and if he makes a couple of mistakes and coach Mike Woodson starts yelling at him, then he's gone. The whole key to whether they're a 35- or 45-win team depends on him being able to figure it out every night. We see him and his team get keyed up to play Detroit or Boston, but they don't get up against teams like Charlotte. Smith can have a big influence on his team by not settling for jumpers and instead becoming more of an attacker.
Mike Bibby has issues: Can he stay injury-free, be consistent and also be committed to playing defense like Woodson wants him to play? As a defender, he plays the passing lanes. But Woodson wants his players to be solid defenders rather than steals defenders, and the coach knows it all starts with the point guard. Bibby enjoys having the ball in his hands, yet sometimes I think he shoots the ball a little quickly. Bibby knows his contract is coming up [he's a free agent after the season], so he'll want to have a good year and get some points up.
Backup point guard is another issue. Acie Law didn't produce like they would want as a high draft pick last season. But there were games where he did enough. He beat his man shooting off the dribble, he was good in all kinds of pick-and-roll situations, he got into the paint and he had late-game ability. But Woodson is more of a half-court guy who likes to call every play, and that works against Law, who is a good but not great shooter from the three-point line.
Marvin Williams improved his jump shot last year and became more of a threat. He needs to use his size to post up small forwards more often and not just be a tall, big body on the perimeter.
Flip Murray is going to be an open-court guy who will put the ball on the floor, but if he has to be backup point or run plays, then he's not as good. There's a reason he's played for so many different teams.
I don't think they get any value from Maurice Evans coming off the bench. He isn't a tough-minded kid, which is why he's bounced around. He was a starter for a winning team last year [in Orlando], but I wonder if he has the makeup to go from starter to backup. I wonder if they might be better bringing Williams off the bench where he can play both forward spots. Then they won't miss Josh Childress as much.
The problem with losing Childress is that they have a lot of guys who need the ball. He didn't. He just played. He was a stable personality and he could be effective playing without the ball.
I'm a Woodson fan. But he gets too frustrated at times, and it's too long a year with too many possessions in each game -- especially with all of his young players -- for him to be on them all the time. That can wear on a team. The main thing is that he has a great up-and-down team, but he's so conscious of them not turning the ball over and making sure the right guy gets the right shot that he calls plays like a half-court team. If they played looser, they might turn it over once or twice more, but their guys would stay more focused and be more involved at both ends of the court.
But look at the other side of it: They're not a very good team yet he had them in most games last year and gave them chances to be successful. He's a good defensive coach who tries to get the guys to respect the game, and when they don't, he gets frustrated. I'd really like to see him coaching a veteran team.
If you know GM Rick Sund and you look at Bibby's [$14.5 million] contract, I think you'll see a trade from them as the year goes on. I bet they try to trade for an impact player, probably to get either a point guard or center. I think they have to make a trade in order to get back to the playoffs.
We've Got Apps Too
Get expert analysis, unrivaled access, and the award-winning storytelling only SI can provide—from Peter King, Tom Verducci, Lee Jenkins, Andy Staples, Grant Wahl, and more—delivered straight to you, along with up-to-the-minute news and live scores.