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Team Preview: Atlanta Hawks

By Kenn Ruby, RotoWire.comView: All Team Previews

STATE OF THE FRANCHISE

Another season, another last place finish. For the third straight season, the Hawks have finished at the bottom of the division standings, averaging 23 wins a year during that span. Atlanta has had a losing record for eight straight seasons, and they seemingly celebrate their annual ineptitude by selecting a forward in the draft every June.

Well, things are looking up now. They selected Al Horford. He’s a forward, but he might play center too.

Marvin Williams will look to lock down a starting position on a crowded and talented Hawks' roster.
(Scott Cunningham/NBAE/Getty Images)
Seriously though, the Hawks hit 30 wins last year for the first time in four seasons, and they did it with a roster decimated by injuries. Nine regular members of the rotation missed at least 10 games last year, including leading scorer Joe Johnson (25 games missed), starting point guard Speedy Claxton (40 games missed), and top sixth man Josh Childress (27 games missed). Adding second-year forward Marvin Williams and fantasy stud Josh Smith to the walking wounded, it was amazing the Hawks even won 20 games, let alone 30.

This year, the Hawks have a new problem: finding space for all of the talent on their roster. Atlanta added Acie Law and Horford to a young team that is relatively healthy, and the Hawks realize that the time may be right to make a move in the Eastern Conference. They look fully capable of making the leap and getting into the playoff race this year.

PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION

As mentioned above, the Hawks have an interesting problem. While everything in their frontcourt basically sorted itself out last season due to the injuries, they now have no fewer than five starting-caliber forwards on their team this year, and all are healthy. Smith will start at the three, with Childress backing him up or shifting to shooting guard. Marvin Williams probably has the inside track to start at power forward, but Horford and sophomore Shelden Williams might have something to say about that. Atlanta hopes Horford can play in the middle, pushing last year’s starter, Zaza Pachulia, to the bench and making Lorenzen Wright expendable, but it’s unknown if Horford can handle the job yet. Still, the Hawks have to like the versatility and youth of their frontcourt. Maybe drafting all of those forwards will finally pay off.

In the backcourt, things aren’t that much clearer, but the talent level drops off considerably from the collection of big men. Claxton leads a quartet of point guards heading into training camp, but he’s the least healthy of the four. Rookie Acie Law could turn out to be the point guard the Hawks had always wanted, and both Tyronn Lue and Anthony Johnson have the experience to take over as the starter if necessary. The Hawks figure to keep Claxton and Law around, but it’s unlikely both Lue and Johnson will survive training camp. At the two, Joe Johnson will play heavy minutes, giving scraps to Childress and sharp-shooter Salim Stoudamire. However, with Law and Horford now on board, Stoudamire could see the squeeze as well.

PLAYER OUTLOOKS* = Projected Starter

CENTER

* Zaza Pachulia – ATL [C]: Pachulia’s improved on his breakout season of 2005-06 with career highs in scoring (12.2 ppg), field goal percentage (47.4 percent), and free throw percentage (78.6 percent). He averaged a respectable 6.9 rebounds in just 28 minutes a night, but a 6-11, 280-pound center should be able to command the glass a little better. The Hawks are stacked in the frontcourt this year, so Pachulia will be on the bench when the Atlanta goes with a small lineup. However, as a second center on a fantasy team, you can do a lot worse.

Lorenzen Wright – ATL [C]: Wright teased us with potential throughout his career, and even put together a decent three-year stretch when he averaged 12 points and eight rebounds a night. Unfortunately, that was long ago, and he averaged career lows in nearly every category last year. About the only thing he has going for him at this point is that he’s the only experienced true center on the roster. If rookie Al Horford proves he can handle the position, he may steal the few precious remaining minutes Wright has left.

Solomon Jones – ATL [PF,C]: Jones started eight games in his rookie season, pitching in as a center and power forward, but that might be more due to the health of the Hawks than to Jones’ ability. He does have the rare combination of being a shot blocker who can make free throws, but with the crowded Atlanta frontcourt, his only chance to make an impact this year would be if Pachulia gets hurt and Horford proves too small to play center.

POWER/SMALL FORWARD

* Josh Smith – ATL [SF,PF]: At 21 years old and only three years into his NBA career, Smith fills the stat sheet like few others. Smith improved on his promise of 2005-06 by posting career highs in nearly every category, including points (16.4 ppg), rebounding (8.6 rpg), assists, (3.3 apg), steals (1.4 spg), and blocks (2.9 bpg, good for second in the league). His only flaws are his percentages (43.9 from the field, 69.3 from the line, 25.0 on threes), but he has plenty of time to improve. He’s not quite a first-rounder, but Smith is a top-20 fantasy player.

Al Horford – ATL [PF,C]: With all of the draft-day focus on Greg Oden and Kevin Durant, there were a few whispers that the most NBA-ready player was Horford. The Hawks are hoping those experts are right, and expect the No. 3 pick to contribute immediately at power forward and center. Horford brings his winning attitude and strong rebounding skills – both sorely needed in Atlanta – from the University of Florida. He’s still a bit raw offensively and may be too small to play center, but he’s considered coachable and should have a very bright future at whatever position he plays for the Hawks.

Why? If Horford can man the center position, he’s capable of winning Rookie of the Year. Horford might already be the best rebounder on the team and is the most athletic Hawk this side of Josh Smith. If he can get his offensive skills in order, he could be a double-double machine.

Josh Childress – ATL [SG]: Childress backs up Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, but he’s no ordinary backup. He averaged 36.8 mpg last season (31st in the NBA), and in the 42 games he played off the bench, he shot 52.7 percent from the field, scored 12.8 ppg, and hauled down 6.5 boards a night. In short, this was one of the best sixth men in the league. He’ll come off the bench again this year, but those minutes might be harder to come by with Johnson, Smith, and Marvin Williams now healthy and Al Horford on board.

* Marvin Williams – ATL [SF]: Williams started 63 games last year – averaged 13.1 points and 5.3 rebounds – and should be a starter this season. He just turned 21 in June and already has logged over 4,000 minutes in the NBA, but he’s still a below-average rebounder for someone of his size and athletic ability. The 2005 No. 2 pick probably has the edge over Horford at the four, but it’s a training camp battle worth watching.

Shelden Williams – ATL [PF]: Williams, who averaged only 18.7 mpg last year, still led all rookies in rebounding and double-doubles (including five in April). The arrival of Horford will push Williams down a notch on the depth chart, but he should still be able to find about 20 minutes a night at power forward or center, especially if he continues to rebound better than Marvin Williams.

Why? We still like Williams, but he’ll be caught up in a numbers game this year. Horford will take some of his playing time away, and the continued improvement of Marvin Williams could push him down even more. It would be prudent to hold off on the lofty projections for Shelden, at least for one more year.

POINT/SHOOTING GUARD

* Joe Johnson – ATL [SG]: Johnson was second in the NBA with 41.4 mpg and has improved his scoring average each year he’s been in the league, hitting 25.0 ppg in 2006-07. He’ll be hard pressed to top those numbers, now that the Hawks have a few more healthy weapons than they had last year, but Johnson clearly enjoys being “The Man” on this team. Johnson missed 25 games last year, mostly due to a calf injury, but he hadn’t missed a game in the last four seasons. There’s no reason to believe he won’t be his old durable self this year.

Speedy Claxton – ATL [PG]: Speedy may enter training camp as the starter at point guard, but he’ll have a lot of competition for the role. Tyronn Lue and Anthony Johnson each started 17 games last year while Claxton missed half the season with knee problems, and Acie Law wasn’t drafted in June to sit on the bench. Claxton had arthroscopic surgery in June and should be ready for the season. If he wins the starting job, he could be a cheap source of assists and steals, but don’t expect him to fill the box score in any other categories.

Tyronn Lue – ATL [PG]: Like Claxton, Lue also had arthroscopic surgery on his knee this summer. Lue brings a different skill set to the table than Claxton, as he’s shown he can be a scorer if given the chance, but doesn’t play the defense or hand out the assists that Claxton does. The Hawks have one too many point guards on the roster, and someone like Lue might be attractive to a contender that needs point guard depth. If he sticks with the Hawks, he’ll likely back up Claxton and play about 20 minutes a night.

* Acie Law – ATL [PG,SG]: Law, the 11th pick in the 2007 draft, was one of the most exciting players in the nation last year, averaging 18.1 points and 5.0 assists for Texas A&M. A natural leader who wants the ball during crunch time, Law will man the point, but he could also play the two when the Hawks go with a small lineup. Law will need to impress during training camp to win the starting job from Claxton, but he’ll be given every opportunity to do so.

Salim Stoudamire – ATL [PG,SG]: Despite his small stature, Stoudamire is a shooting guard in a point guard’s body. He’s averaged about one assist a game throughout his two-year career, but he takes about three three-pointers every game. Stoudamire will never be confused with Reggie Miller, but 90 percent from the line and 37 percent on three-pointers make him one of the better shooters in the league. He’ll come off the bench and be the designated shooter again this year.

Anthony Johnson – ATL [PG]: In Johnson’s 10-year career, he’s never averaged more than 10.0 points and 5.0 assists, but he’s the kind of veteran that can really help an NBA team by stepping in as a starter if necessary. Unfortunately, the Atlanta roster is getting pretty crowded, so it would not be a surprise to see Johnson get moved before the season starts, particularly if Law plays well in October.

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