October 25, 2012
NBA Enemy Lines
Atlanta Hawks
2011-12 Record: 40-26
Power forward Josh Smith will make $13.2 million in the final year of his contract. (Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Losing Joe Johnson hurts the Hawks' immediate aspirations. On the other hand, taking advantage of an opportunity to trade that contract [Johnson has four years and $89.3 million left on his deal] was the right move for their long-term outlook.

For years Hawks fans have complained that Josh Smith has not made an All-Star team. Last year they finally had an argument. He really took a step forward as a player, and a lot of that was due to the responsibility that all of a sudden was thrust upon him. Sometimes players need to be the guy. They need the weight to be on their shoulders to perform. When Al Horford went down [with a pectoral injury that limited him to 11 games], Josh needed to be the guy in the frontcourt, and he played like it, to his credit. The changes have been subtle -- not taking as many bad shots, not being as careless with the ball, making the easy play instead of trying to make the spectacular play -- and his game has grown because of it. He's just more sound fundamentally.

What that means for Smith and the organization is going to be a key this year. Up until Danny Ferry came on board as general manager in June, Smith was telling anyone and everyone that he wanted out of Atlanta. I think he felt the organization never fully supported him. Now he's changed his tune because with Johnson gone Smith senses that it's his team. Smith relishes that. He's always wanted to be the guy, and now he's got the chance as he enters his contract year. Let's see if he continues to improve or if things don't go as well and they look to move him.

[Chris Mannix: What to expect from the Hawks this season]

Horford is a building-block type. He's always in the right place, he's always communicating on defense and he covers for teammates' mistakes. He does those critical things that don't often show up in the box score. He knows the scheme, knows the opponents. You could say that about a lot of role players, but Horford is a hell of a player; we're not talking about Omer Asik here. He isn't getting by just on guile. He's efficient in what he does.

Last year they were desperately trying to move Horford to power forward, but once he got hurt that changed. He has the ability to play either power forward or center. Having to combat centers every night defensively certainly has to take a toll because Horford is going to give up size most of the time. But except when he's facing Dwight Howard or Andrew Bynum, it's not a guy who's going to work him over for 30 points.

A big part of Jeff Teague's breakout last season was confidence. He would get tastes his first couple of years, but he wouldn't get enough playing time to really air it out and to show himself. With Johnson and Smith, he wasn't going to be the guy initiating the offense or handling the ball. Now Teague is going to be the third cog in the wheel with Smith and Horford.

He's always been a much better penetrator than jump shooter, and in the past you played him almost solely to drive because he was not confident in his shot and was a reluctant to take it. His form is unorthodox. It almost looks like a shot put, and he shoots it from near his mid-chest. But he really improved his perimeter shot in the last year. It's no longer a liability. He was good enough on the perimeter that you had to guard him.

Lou Williams doesn't fit the traditional NBA positions. He is point-guard-sized, but he's really a shooting guard in terms of his game. With guys like that, the best role is to come off the bench and give your second unit an offensive punch at either guard spot. Trying to make those players full-time point guards doesn't work because they are more inclined to look for their own offense. They can certainly score enough to be full-time shooting guards, but they're a little bit of a liability against front-line starters at the position. By bringing him off the bench, Williams is more apt to be matching up against other backup players. As a coach, you hate to sub your starters out and leave no scoring on the floor. Williams can help ease that move.

[Paul Forrester: Southeast Division preview]

Between Anthony Morrow, Kyle Korver and Devin Harris, it seems a little bit like a group of misfit toys. But that's what you get when you take players to make the money work in trades. Morrow and Korver are better served on good teams that need shooting and that's all they're asked to do. If Atlanta is better than most think, those guys will be a big part of it. They can spread the floor and give the team balance and put defenses in compromising positions because they either have to stay home on the Morrows and Korvers or they are going to have to help off them and face the consequences.

Harris has been a starting point guard most of his career when he's been healthy. That's the key: He has not been able to stay healthy, and as a result teams have gotten tired of never knowing if he can be in the lineup. I can't imagine him unseating Teague, but he is going to put a lot of pressure on Teague because you can make the argument that Harris is better if he's healthy. They're similar in that they are both penetration-oriented and offensive-minded. You could play them together some, but you'd be giving up some shooting. Harris has an attractive expiring contract [$8.5 million], so I have a feeling he is more valuable to them as a trade asset than as a player.

Guys like playing for coach Larry Drew. He does a nice job with X's and O's and he's creative offensively. Don't get me wrong, he's not tolerating misconduct, but Drew was a player and he treats players like grown men. There's a comfort zone with the guys who have been there and they know what to expect. Some players respond to that, but on the other hand, some take advantage of that, and that's why there are times they don't look ready to play. But last year Drew did a hell of a job to get them to the playoffs with Horford out most of the season.


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