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NBA

Pretty Much Screwed: The Atlanta Hawks


Welcome to “Pretty Much Screwed,” our 2012-13 guide to the upcoming NBA season, in which we identify the reasons why your favorite team might have to start looking forward to 2013-2014 — and highlight at least one reason for you to be hopeful. Today: the Atlanta Hawks.

Holy offseason overhaul, Batman! Hope you Hawks fans didn’t blink this summer, because if you did, you might be opening your eyes to a basketball team you aren’t quite familiar with. You may be asking yourself, “Who are all these new guys?” “Where’s Joe Johnson?” “What the hell is an Anthony Morrow?” “Korver? I just met her!” But have no fear twitchy Hotlanta faithful, this is your basketball team, same as it ever was.

Atlanta was infused with a little dose of the Alamo this offseason after hiring former Spurs exec Danny Ferry to be their general manager/president of basketball operations. It might be just what the doctor ordered for the Hawks, a perennial playoff team five years running with the inevitable knack for getting knocked out in just the first or second round. Can a brain from basketball’s greatest front office brain trust bring in the pieces necessary to push this team over the threshold and deep into playoff basketball?

Don’t answer that question, have you even been reading these previews?

Goodbye Joe Johnson, adios Marvin Williams! Hello Anthony Morrow, Devin Harris, Lou Williams and Kyle Korver! Now you too get to experience those classic Atlanta playoff blue balls!

There’s been a culture change in Atlanta. There’s been a substantial personnel change in Atlanta. There’s been a massive front office change in Atlanta. But there hasn’t really been any change in talent. Ferry’s signings were a veritable who’s who of “Where have I heard that name before?”, which isn’t to say that they’ll miss Joe Johnson or his contract — they won’t — but this roster is absent of stardom. There isn’t a single guy on this team who I can envision going into a huddle with the score tied with 30 seconds left in a second-round Game 7 and reassuring his teammates with a cool “I got this” and putting his team on his back to victory. It sounds like a pipe dream, an intangible that doesn’t really have any bearing on a team’s success, but a having a true superstar is the difference between a really good team and a championship team.

After their third straight playoff disappointment in 2010, the Hawks fooled themselves into thinking Johnson was that star by giving him a max contract, but he’s never been of star caliber, let alone worthy of a ridiculous contract that the Hawks fortunately got another team to take on. And that’s the story of these Hawks: full of fine players, but not transcendent stars who can go pound-for-pound with the Jameses, Wades, Roses and (formerly) Howards of the Eastern Conference.

So don’t let that whole “pretty much screwed” moniker fool you. From November-April, the Hawks are not screwed. Starting with your incumbents, Al Horford will be healthy, and without his torn pecs, is arguably the best center in the Eastern Conference now that Dwight Howard has pioneered West. At point guard, Jeff Teague isn’t much of a passer (4.9 APG last season), but can certainly score when he wants to (12.6 PPG). And the most important returnee, Josh Smith can be counted on to score, rebound, even block, so long as he doesn’t do stupid things like pull up and take ill-advised contested fade-away jump shots with your season on the brink.

(Still think he’s that “superstar” you need, Atlanta fans?)

And the newbies. Anthony Morrow will most likely be the starting shooting guard, and if you can get past his ineffective rebounding and assisting, be grateful that he’s an effective shooter, particularly from beyond the arc. You know who else is a good shooter? That Kyle Korver guy. He should be a solid option on the wings, at least on offense. On the bench, Lou Williams and Devin Harris should rotate in nicely in the backcourt, keeping legs fresh all around.

Hey, this seems like a pretty good team. Couldn’t you argue its striking similarity to the Spurs’ winning formula?

You could, but they aren’t there yet. And it’s not just because of the absence of a superstar (which the Spurs certainly have in Tim Duncan). But look closely at what the Hawks are missing. Found it yet? If you’ve said “passing”, you’d be correct. Maybe you could make the case that a team without any “transcendent superstars” could win a title — it’s been done. But a true, elite passer is an indispensable cog. Forget “elite”, the Hawks just need someone who can notch more than five assists a game. Because Joe Johnson isn’t here to bail them out and Josh Smith sure as hell doesn’t know what to do with the game on the line, it’s a piece the Hawks have never needed more.

One reason you might not be screwed: A wide open Eastern Conference.

OK, that’s a little misleading. It’s not wide open. Clearly those dastardly Miami Heat are the class of the East. But it gets cloudy after that. The Bulls have question marks across the board, the Celtics aren’t getting any younger, and the Pacers, Knicks, Nets and 76ers have yet to separate themselves from each other. In fact, the Hawks might have more collective experience than that whole bunch. Should they secure a top-half seed, their path towards playoff success gets that much easier. A team can only hope.

Actual prediction: Fourth in the East. As these things go, it could be higher or it could be lower, so fourth is really the mean of all the different scenarios that could play out in the Eastern Conference. These new-look Hawks will be back in the playoffs, make no mistake. But can they elude the Eastern Conference semifinals and find themselves still balling past Memorial Day? The fresh faces haven’t convinced me.

Read the rest of our NBA previews here.

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