By Sekou Smith, NBA.com
Posted Sep 18 2012 12:51PM - Updated Oct 16 2012 1:59PM
ATLANTA -- Josh Smith spent all but his first season in the NBA working alongside Joe Johnson. Al Horford has never experienced a season in the league without Johnson, the six-time All-Star, to take the big shot or wear the burden of responsibility when that big shot doesn't fall.
It's Smith and Horford's show now, though.
"We can't look around that locker room and expect anybody else to take the heat," Smith said. "Anybody that tells you Joe didn't carry us in those early years is lying. He had to. We were so young and guys were still trying to figure out where they fit. But I think we can all agree that the past few years this team changed, and we changed in ways that made it necessary for some of us to assume leadership roles and become more vocal because that just wasn't his thing. We're going to find out what guys are made of now that the pressure is all on us."
With Johnson shipped to Brooklyn via trade, the Hawks began a new era without the player whose arrival as a controversial free agent pick up in 2005 marked their rise from doormat to Eastern Conference playoff regular.
As Smith said, Johnson was a bellcow early in his Hawks' tenure, only to become a convenient scapegoat for so many of their postseason failures in his final three seasons. Signing that huge deal three years ago only intensified the scrutiny on a star reluctant to embrace a vocal leadership role.
Now that Johnson's gone, Smith and Horford are left to lead a team with significantly diminished expectations.
Marvin Williams was traded to Utah in the offseason and nine other regulars from last season's playoff team did not return. That left five holdovers -- Smith, Horford, point guard Jeff Teague, veteran big man Zaza Pachulia and second-year forward Ivan Johnson -- as the only survivors of new general manager Danny Ferry's initial house cleaning.
"Honestly, this doesn't feel much different than what it did the past couple of years," said Horford, the two-time All-Star. "We always seem to be the team that's not expected to do a whole lot and then we find ways to make our case. I'm not going to sit here and tell you we're a championship team right now, because we've got so many new players that it's just too hard to tell how it plays out. But we know we're a playoff team. We know what it takes to get there and we have the players to be in that mix."
Ferry and Hawks coach Larry Drew (who, like Smith, is in the final year of his contract) are believers in change being a positive thing. They didn't tear this team apart in an effort to rebuild via the lottery.
Many of the new faces are veterans, specialists like Kyle Korver, Devin Harris and DeShawn Stevenson. But the Hawks have younger talents, too, like Lou Williams and Anthony Morrow and even rookies in John Jenkins and Mike Scott.
"Our depth is going to be good. We're going to have some speed and we're going to be able to shoot the basketball," Ferry told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. "I do expect us to be very competitive this year."
The way they are constructed, this year is the only thing the Hawks can focus on. Smith will be a free agent at season's end and there have been no discussions about a new contract. Or for Drew, either, for that matter.
That gives Ferry an opportunity to evaluate his head coach and his best player. He gets to see if they are up to the task of leading the franchise into this next phase, the era without the six-time All-Star around to use as a crutch/punching bag.
"I think it's a good thing, I think it makes a team better," Stevenson said. "When I was in Dallas I think we always had five, six, seven, eight guys were up for contracts the year we won a championship. It makes guys play harder and go out there and do the things they know they have to do."
Drew said he's fine with walking that tightrope, which is a good thing considering he has no choice.
"I think that gives everybody a little edge that we're going to need this season," he said. "You can get comfortable sometimes in this league. And that's not always a good thing. Things are the way they are for a lot of us. All we have in front of us is an opportunity. And it's up to each and every guy here, every single one of us, to seize that opportunity."
Nowhere is that opportunity greater than for Smith and Horford, the two new undisputed leaders of a team in dire need of leadership.
Smith should have been an All-Star in each of the past two seasons. Those snubs still fuel his fire, even though he's made peace with the fact that he won't be fully accepted until he proves himself a true franchise player. Horford is coming back from a season that was derailed by injury. He tried to save the Hawks from their first round playoff fizzle against Boston but ultimately could not complete the deal.
"It's on us now," Smith said. "It starts with me and Al and really, it starts and ends there. We know it and we're ready to handle everything that comes with it."
1. Drew has so many backcourt options that he might spend the entire preseason experimenting with the possibilities. In his final two season in Philadelphia, Lou Williams wasn't a starter and wasn't really a point guard. But he was the man with the ball in his hands with games on the line on a regular basis. With Teague, Harris and Williams as options, the competition for late-game minutes should be fierce.
2. Pachulia's role as Horford's backup could take an interesting twist this season as well. When the Hawks traded Marvin Williams, they didn't exactly find a replacement for the starting small forward. That means Smith could swing between both forward spots and Pachulia will be used at center when they go with a bigger lineup. It all depends on the matchups, of course. But Pachulia's an extremely valuable piece for a team with paper-thin frontcourt depth.
3. The best 3-point shooting contest this season might be at the end of a random Hawks practice. Korver, Lou Williams, Morrow and Jenkins are all deadly from distance. Drew loves the idea of having an abundance of outsider shooters in an attack that he promises will be much more up-tempo than what we saw out of this team the past two seasons.
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LAST YEAR: 40-26, 2nd in Southeast
FINISH: Lost in first round of playoffs
2011-12 TEAM LEADERS
|Complete 2011-12 Stats|
JEFF TEAGUE, POINT GUARD
12.6 PPG | 2.4 RPG | 4.9 APG
Teague took another dramatic step last season, his first full year as the starter. In the more up-tempo attack the Hawks will employ this year, he could be devastating.
DEVIN HARRIS, SHOOTING GUARD
11.3 PPG | 1.8 RPG | 5.0 APG
Harris is the best option for now. His speed, experience and ability to swing between both guards spots are assets. He's a defensive and size liability in the backcourt with Teague.
ANTHONY MORROW, SMALL FORWARD
12.0 PPG | 2.0 RPG | 1.0 APG
A shooting guard by trade, Morrow might have to start here after Marvin Williams was dealt. Morrow can shoot it with the best of them, but has work to do defensively.
JOSH SMITH, POWER FORWARD
18.8 PPG | 9.6 RPG | 3.9 APG
Smith says he's done shooting 3s, ready to embrace his mid-range game and resume his role as the all-court force Hawks fans have always wanted him to be.
AL HORFORD, CENTER
12.4 PPG | 7.0 RPG | 2.2 APG
Horford is healthy and finally free from the headaches caused by Dwight Howard. The Hawks will play faster, giving Horford more opportunities to exploit his advantages.
|Zaza Pachulia||6-11||275||C||Veteran a staple of Hawks' five-year run.|
|Lou Williams||6-1||175||G||Explosive scorer from Philly.|
|Kyle Korver||6-7||212||G||Another dangerous shooter.|
ADDED: G John Jenkins, F Mike Scott, G Lou Williams, G Devin Harris, F Kyle Korver, C Johan Petro, F Anthony Morrow, F DeShawn Stevenson
LOST: C Jason Collins, G Kirk Hinrich, F Vladimir Radmanovic, G Jerry Stackhouse, G Jannero Pargo, G Willie Green, G Joe Johnson, F Marvin Williams
JOSH SMITH, POWER FORWARD
Much of the heavy lifting in Atlanta could fall on Smith after the Hawks decided to move on without Joe Johnson. Arguably one of the biggest All-Star snubs the past couple seasons, Smith could be poised to finally make that breakthrough.
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