October 22, 2010
SI.com's NBA Enemy Lines
Atlanta Hawks
An opposing team's scout sizes up the Hawks

The Hawks are looking through the wrong side of the window of opportunity right now. They've hit their ceiling and they can't go any higher. I want to believe new coach Larry Drew can make a difference because he's been around, he's seen so many different things and paid his dues. But Atlanta has some hardheaded guys in that locker room, and it's at the point where I don't see much improvement in them anymore.

The Hawks played hard for Mike Woodson, even though their offensive execution was poor. They tried to scramble the game defensively and get it out in transition, but I don't see Drew sticking with the exact same system. They've been used to being disorganized for so long that it's going to be hard to change those habits. Too often the pace of the game slowed down and that's when they just weren't focused enough.

They're still going to be good -- I bet they win something like 45-48 games -- but their record will drop from past seasons'.

It didn't surprise me that they paid top dollar to re-sign Joe Johnson, because losing him would have been a tremendous blow to the franchise. They had to keep him, even though he can dominate the ball and that makes it hard for them to have fluid movement because they use a lot of isolation.

Johnson is a max guy financially, but he's not top-tier on the floor. He has carried this team as far as he can carry it. He would be a tremendous complementary player if he could play with someone as good as he is or better. Unfortunately, there's no one that good on this roster. Joe has many strengths ? he uses his size, he doesn't give ground to anybody, he can post up, he has a long jump shot that many players would love to have. He has an in-between game, he can handle the ball and he can pull up on a dime and shoot.

But Johnson just isn't up to par with other max guys who truly are max players. In the playoffs last year, he started forcing shots and opponents were able to shut him down offensively. The Hawks' half-court execution really got stagnant when opposing defenses managed to take away Johnson's post-ups.

I like Al Horford a lot. He is undoubtedly a solid influence on that team -- he plays hard every night, he doesn't take bad shots and he doesn't demand the ball. He plays within the team concept, he defends -- he does it all. He's undersized at center but Atlanta's won many games with him there. Besides, it's not like they can move him to power forward because then they'd have to move Josh Smith to small forward, and he can't play there. And you know Smith won't come off the bench.

You can't say enough about Horford's professional demeanor and impact on this team. Instead of complaining, he comes to work with the attitude that this is his lot and he's going to do the best he can with it. He has toughness, he rebounds, he competes. You can throw him the ball and rely on him to catch it. He'll pursue the ball off the glass and he challenges shots defensively. He talks on defense and you can see him being a good teammate and working with his teammates.

With Smith, though, he's either going to win or lose the game for you. This is where Larry Drew is going to have a hard time: What is going to do with Smith? Is he going to discipline him? Is he going to suddenly expect Josh to be consistent and controlled, and to execute the offense and remember the plays? Smith won't change. There were times when he looked more disciplined last year, but then somewhere along the line something would go wrong. He's one of those guys who is always on the verge of greatness. Sometimes he's spectacular, but he'll follow that up with a spectacularly bad play.

He's a shot-blocker, and a lot of that comes from when he's playing off the ball and coming to help, and you'll see him getting some of those big blocks from where swings and smashes the ball out of bounds and the other team gets it right back on the inbound. It's doubtful a more demanding coach would be able to change Smith, who's made it this far doing just what he always has.

There is going to be some concern about Jordan Crawford and whether he's fully on board while seeking a new contract. The one thing you know is that he's not going to defend.

On a given night, Crawford can hit from anywhere on the court, no matter if the shots are easy or difficult. But he doesn't defend, and if he's not able to get shots, then there isn't a lot he can do to help a team because you can't hide him defensively.

Nonetheless, it was a good idea to bring him in the way Atlanta did last year because Joe Johnson was drawing double-teams. With Johnson now paired with Crawford, the Hawks have a long-distance shooting tandem, and with Mike Bibby on the floor, they have a three-guard rotation of shooters. But Bibby and Crawford on the floor together is a sieve defensively. And that hurts the whole team ; it's hard to buckle down and defend while knowing no one else is on your team.

Marvin Williams is not tough enough to play as a big forward. He's not quick enough to excel at the 3 and he's not a great shooter. He doesn't perform one skill at a high level. He has length and some skills, but he's not going to blow by anybody. If there's a size mismatch, he can take advantage of it by posting up the smaller 3s, and he might be able to go by some power forwards who are not as mobile. He gets his points in transition because he can run the floor, where his athleticism can compensate for his good-but-not-great skills. In certain matchups he'll do well, but most of the time he's out of place.

The Hawks are counting on Jeff Teague to give them minutes as an up-tempo point guard, but didn't they already try that with Acie Law? The problem is they've always needed a Chris Paul or Deron Williams at point instead.

Bibby is not a playmaker anymore. The ball is in Joe Johnson's hands so much, and Bibby is like a catch-and-shoot guy waiting on the weak side as the play is being made. He was never a great athlete -- just a very good basketball player -- and what athleticism is disappearing fast now.

Zaza Pachulia is a tough guy and among the best backup centers in the league. He'll give himself up physically to make the play, but he rarely gets a close call to go his way.

Maurice Evans is a decent utility forward coming off the bench. He can make some deep shots though he's at his best as an athlete finishing fast breaks and going to the basket.

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