Friend and fellow Bleacher Report writer Zach Harper has a saying: "Never trust the Hawks." There is something about this team that feels disappointing, depressing even.
Blame the years of an "Iso-Joe" style in which Joe Johnson made basketball look like a slow game of H-O-R-S-E. Blame Josh Smith's insistence on taking hideous jumpers for no reason whatsoever.
The fanbase is rarely energized, the media coverage is lacking. Despite this team's repeated recent competence, the public does not care much for hyping Atlanta.
So I was not shocked to see Atlanta open up the betting season as 50/1 to win the East. Obviously Miami should be heavily favored against any other outcome, but 50/1 was surprising when teams like Brooklyn and Philadelphia were getting pegged at 15/1.
I happen to believe that Atlanta should be better than both Brooklyn and Philly, if not better than all but two Eastern Conference teams over the course of the regular season. While I would not pick them to beat Miami, I do find the Hawks to be an underrated team this time of year.
Much of that underrating can be traced back to the loss of Joe Johnson to Brooklyn. Johnson is a good player and presents unique matchup problems with his size at the two guard spot.
I'm just not convinced that the Hawks are so much lesser for his absence, though. "Iso-Joe" dominated the entire offense, but only offered a career 52.9 true shooting percentage (Note: "True Shooting" is often higher than field goal percentage, which is why James Harden had a 66% TS mark last season).
With Johnson gone, there will be new opportunities for the emerging Jeff Teague. The fast Wake Forest point guard fits perfectly in a pick-and-roll game that often felt compromised by Joe's high usage rate. Look for Teague and Devon Harris to run a lot of pick and roll with Atlanta's talented frontcourt players.
Speaking of these talented frontcourt players, the Hawks were a fourth seed last year, despite missing their best guy.
Al Horford is back this season, and his presence should more than make up for Johnson's departure. Big Al can hit long twos as well as any center in basketball and he possess elite mobility on defense.
The only flaw in his game is that Horford is really a power forward, forced to play center because Atlanta also has Josh Smith on the roster. Regardless, the 26-year-old is still developing as a talent and should help the Hawks to at least another playoff berth.
I expect Josh Smith to take fewer dumb shots next season, even if that's become something of a calling card for Smitty. With Horford out, Smith launched a career-high 6.2 long twos per game (via HoopData). Now that Big Al has returned, Smith can cede some of those jumpers to a more capable shooter with playing his standard brand of excellent defense.
The Hawks were the sixth-ranked team on defense last year, and they haven't had a year where the defense was markedly better with Joe Johnson on the floor. Johnson's best defensive plus-minus was -1.12, back in 2007-2008 (via Basketball Value).
So long as they maintain their defensive tenacity and play passable offense, Atlanta could surprise people next year. Should something catastrophic happen to the Miami Heat, the Hawks would be among those best positioned to benefit.