The Atlanta Hawks started the preseason on a good note, defeating the Dwayne Wade-less Miami Heat 92-79. The win—nice as it was at home—doesn’t mean the Hawks are ready to become a championship contender.
However, it did offer us glimpses of what Larry Drew’s team could look like.
The team’s mantra is defense, more defense and being fast on offense, in that order—at least for now.
Allowing a potent offensive team like the Heat to score only 79 points sounds impressive, but let’s remember that 26 of those points came in the first quarter, when the starters were on the court.
Starters. That is the key word for the Hawks as the roster continues to come together with Joe Johnson gone and a plethora of new players, a total of 14, trying to find their place in an up-tempo offensive system.
So let’s take a look at the main storylines and position battles that will take place in training camp throughout this month, before the regular season starts on November 2 at home against the Houston Rockets.
“With Joe Johnson gone from the Hawks, the over-under on Josh Smith shots this season is a gazillion.”
That was a quote from Ira Winderman’s Miami Heat blog for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel after Sunday’s game.
Smith took 17 shots and made eight of them on his way to 21 points in 27 minutes. None of the other Hawks took more than seven shots in the game.
Smith is an outstanding player who can score and rebound basically at will.
The thing is, that is not enough.
Smith is going to need to be a leader, not just a scorer, if the Hawks plan to silence the skeptics that have them at the fringe of playoff contention.
A scorer is someone who only looks out for his numbers, and cynics might think that is all that J-Smoove is going to do in a contract year.
He has the capability to be a leader, someone who makes his teammates better, who draws the double team and dishes the ball out to Korver, Jenkins, Lou Williams, Devin Harris or Anthony Morrow.
Let’s also not forget that Al Horford took only five shots against the Heat on Sunday. That is obviously going to change once the games mean something, so ideally both Horford and Smith will share the offensive burden equally.
Leader or scorer? The Atlanta Hawks’ season could hang in the balance based on the choice that Smith makes.
This is the most intriguing position battle of all, a fierce competition that could turn into a three-headed monster for opposing teams.
Jeff Teague, Devin Harris and Lou Williams can be difference-makers if used effectively together.
Teague was the starter in the preseason opener, and he was merely alright with five points and five assists in 27 minutes.
Teague certainly seems to have gained confidence after starting each and every regular season game last season, and if Sunday afternoon is any indication, he has a leg up in the race for the starting point guard spot.
Meanwhile, Lou Williams had a very good game against the Heat, with 18 points on 83 percent shooting.
Williams will more than likely be a spark off the bench and, as I noted previously, he should be a very important offensive weapon for a team that could use timely shooting.
Meanwhile, Devin Harris is nursing a knee injury and was held out of Sunday’s game.
Harris’ absence was merely a precautionary measure, but the longer he is unable to compete at full strength, the harder it will be to wrestle the starting job away from Teague.
Talking about important injuries, Zaza’s groin ailment might be one that is flying under the radar for Atlanta.
Pachulia is Horford’s backup, but the Dominican center is back but not at 100 percent just yet.
Zaza’s presence is particularly important considering that Johan Petro is the team’s only other player at that position.
The 28-year-old big man may not be subtle or artistic in the paint, but he stepped up last season, averaging 7.9 rebounds per game as a starter while Horford was sidelined.
Keep in mind that his career average for rebounds is 5.4.
Pachulia has been a staple of the Hawks since 2005, and his veteran presence on the court is more important than many people would think.
Morrow came off the bench on Sunday against the Miami Heat
Take your pick: Stevenson’s lockdown defense (in theory) or Morrow’s outstanding shooting.
That is the dilemma that Drew currently faces as he aims to determine who his starting shooting guard should be.
Stevenson got the nod to start against the Heat but played only 18 minutes, three less than Morrow, who came off the bench.
The 31-year-old guard did have the better performance, contributing 11 points on 4-for-7 shooting.
Morrow, meanwhile, went 0-for-5 from the field and finished the afternoon with zero points. Zilch, nada, squadoosh.
Stevenson told the Atlanta Journal Constitution that he plays better when he is on a playoff team.
However, Morrow is capable of putting up points at a tremendous rate when he is at the top of his game, so that should ultimately give him the edge.
The difference is that the Warriors never tried to do that until recently, while the Hawks have made it the main point of their training camp.
The problem is that, besides Josh Smith, Al Horford and Stevenson, the rest of the roster is defensively adequate, at best.
The game against the Heat was a good start for Atlanta.
Words are one thing, actions are another, and we won’t know how consistently committed the Hawks are to this philosophy until we see them play in the games that count.
The defense will have to shine when the stakes are high, and every basket is precious for a team that won’t overwhelm anyone this season.