The Atlanta Hawks are an enigma wrapped in a riddle, a team that has as much depth as ever but that at the same time relies on five key players to make the difference between “mediocre and irrelevant” and “surprising and exciting.”
There is optimism in the air in Downtown Atlanta since the Braves made the playoffs and the Falcons are the only remaining undefeated team in the NFL with a 6-0 record, so that carries over to the Hawks as well.
The best representation of the expectations that people have for the Hawks can be seen in the various predictions made for the upcoming season.
Nobody seems to really see them imploding and being a lock for the lottery, which sort of turns them into the Phoenix Suns of the Eastern Conference.
Let’s take a look at the quintet that will carry the burden of allowing the Hawks to soar or crash and burn in the Southeast Division.
What does it say about a player when, despite well-known anger management and inconsistency issues, the said player gets a contract extension in the offseason?
That can be defined in three words: unlimited, untapped potential.
Johnson may be seen as sort of a basket case but, when he is not busy breaking backboards, he can actually be Atlanta’s X-factor for the 2012-13 season.
The San Bernardino product got his first and only preseason start so far against the Memphis Grizzlies on Sunday and befriended the basket with 10 points on 4-for-7 shooting in 15 minutes.
The same could be said for Tuesday’s game against Indiana, when he came off the bench to score 12 points on 4-for-10 shooting.
Johnson had had a rough time in the first two games, scoring a total of 10 points going 4-for-17 from the field.
Johnson averaged almost 17 minutes per game last year, and that time on the court should hold steady or could even increase if Josh Smith goes down with an injury or gets traded.
His numbers should go up accordingly and could help the Hawks immensely.
Then again, it all depends on Johnson being a more disciplined player, something that, in his case, is a bit of a toss-up as we near the start of the regular season.
There is no doubt that the Hawks will be in the upper half of the league when it comes to scoring with their up-tempo offense and their wide array of shooters.
However, whether that offensive output will be consistent or come in spurts could largely depend on how much of an impact Lou Williams will have in Atlanta.
The Georgia native will more than likely be the team’s spark with the second unit, coming off the bench to become the focal point of the offense when Josh Smith and Al Horford need some rest.
Williams should also benefit by making opponents pay, with his outside shooting taking advantage of the double-teams both Smith and Horford could draw when they are on the court .
The former Sixer amassed more minutes than anybody in Sunday’s 110-102 loss to the Grizzlies, but his aim was off as he accumulated only 10 points and made just one of his seven attempts in his 28 minutes on the court.
However, we are barely halfway through the preseason and there is no reason to think that Williams’ stroke won’t be just fine when the games start to count.
Teague had an encouraging performance last season in his second year as a Hawk, improving in each and every one of the meaningful statistical categories on offense.
The ones that stood out the most were his 16 percent gain in three-point shots made (22% in 2010-11, 38% in 2011-12), increased points per game (from 5.2 to 12.6) and, of course, starting in all 66 games last year after starting only seven of 70 in his previous campaign.
Teague seems to be poised to beat Devin Harris in the battle for the starting point guard spot. However, in order to be truly impactful, the 24-year-old Wake Forest product will have to go from making strides to making The Leap.
The Leap means taking personal responsibility for the success or failure of Atlanta’s offense.
It means being conscious that Josh Smith and Al Horford will be the primary scorers but that it is his primary duty to get them the ball to do so.
More than anything it means that minimizing turnovers will be a key principle of Larry Drew’s up-tempo offense.
Only time will tell if The Leap is within Teague’s reach or if everything good that happened last year was just a mirage.
Al Horford is Atlanta’s conscience.
His veteran savvy allows head coach Larry Drew to know that if the offense is struggling, he can always rely on his center to ask for the ball down in the post and restore order with an easy basket.
The former third pick of the 2007 NBA Draft didn’t play against the Pacers in the Hawks’ fourth preseason game, but rest assured he is fully healthy after a torn pectoral muscle almost completely derailed his season last year.
Horford will surely be one of Atlanta’s main weapons both defensively and offensively.
His main defensive responsibilities will be to protect the rim and rebound, and those same rebounds will be a key factor to establish the Hawks’ fast-break opportunities, which should be plenty this season.
Josh Smith is a versatile player and Atlanta’s most important piece of the puzzle for what they hope will be a sixth straight playoff appearance this season.
If the Hawks are an enigma, then J-Smoove’s performance this year should be the answer to all or at least most of the questions that surround this team before the regular season.
If Smith plays like he is capable of, showing the hunger and desire he showed in that 22-point, 14-rebound performance against the Boston Celtics in last year’s playoffs, 45 is not an unreasonable number of wins for Atlanta.
However, this season could become troublesome in a hurry for the Hawks if he doesn’t step up, gets injured for an extended amount of time or gets traded before he can become a free agent next summer.
Those factors are what make him the most pivotal player for the Hawks as his combo of points, rebounds and blocks make him a staple of an opponent’s game plan.