Over the last few years Atlanta has become the main breeding grounds for pretty much all things hip-hop and R&B.
From artists such as Young Jeezy, T.I. and Soulja Boy to Usher, Monica and Ciara, Atlanta has become accustomed to dishing out chart toppers. Turn on the radio, flip to a music channel or pay the $40 cover charge at your local nightclub and you’ll see or hear what I mean.
It’s not an exaggeration to suggest besides hosting the 2003 All-Star game, probably the biggest contribution to NBA headlines the city of Atlanta had made over the last few seasons has been the Atlanta-based music played at pre-games, intermissions and post games over loud speakers in NBA arenas.
All of that changed last year when Atlanta took the eventual champion Boston Celtics to seven games in the opening round of the playoffs.
So in case you missed it, Atlanta’s professional basketball team has been on the rise the last couple of years, qualifying for the post season each of the last two campaigns after a nine year hiatus.
Things happen in this league, sometimes the unexpected, and sometimes the predicted. No one could have expected the Hawks would go over two presidential terms without smelling the air of the postseason and not many had predicted that to dramatically change for the last two years.
History has a habit of manipulating our minds and the Hawks’ past is a real bad influence on all of us.
Before last year, Atlanta had lost at least 50 games six out of the previous eight seasons and the couple seasons they didn’t lose 50, they tried their best with 49 and 47 losses, so you can reason as to why experts casually don’t paint Atlanta’s future with the same brushes as those used for the Lakers, Celtics and other traditional contenders.
Over the last few seasons, a flurry of trades have seemingly reshaped the landscape of the league, creating powerhouses out of recent so-so teams. The Lakers acquiring Pau Gasol, Mo Williams and Delonte West being shipped to the Cavaliers, the Nuggets reeling in Chauncey Billups and the title changing moves that sent Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen to the Boston Celtics have put strangleholds out East and over in the West.
It’s no coincidence that the four best records in the league this season belonged to these four teams who made the best deals in the last couple of years.
Although they currently find themselves on the confines of their couches, perhaps lost in the background of the allure of the top four teams trade deals was arguably the most underrated trade of the last few years: the Atlanta Hawks' haul of Mike Bibby from the Kings to man the point position that changed the dynamics in Georgia for long suffering fans.
While the Bibby deal didn’t exactly push Atlanta into title talk, it did fortify a loaded roster that was already buzzing with talent, equipping them with a puncher's chance of competing for the next few years. A sweep at the hands of the Cavs was enough to break a few hearts in Hotlanta but the future is still very promising for this group of high fliers.
Joe Johnson headlines an athletic group. A smooth 27-year-old All-Star shooting guard who can play positions one through three and be effective at any one. He has the vision, ball handling and unselfishness to play the point, the stroke to score from deep and at 235 lbs he can bang smaller defenders in the low post and collect rebounds.
Already an All-Star, Johnson is the Hawks’ most explosive scorer and probably would be the second to best player if he ran with one of the more dominant teams.
Some big men receive praise when they run the floor, some big men receive praise when they snatch a much needed rebound, and some big men receive praise when they kick-start the break with an outlet pass.
So how much praise should Al Horford receive?
He can do all of the above and his impersonation of a small forward when he grabs the rebound than pushes it from end to end and finishes with a no-look dish or a nifty bounce pass to a teammate is pretty impressive.
Horford is the 22-year-old big man that switches from power forward to center for the Hawks and if you’re looking for stock to invest in, don’t call your broker, your answer is right here.
He runs the floor like his gym shorts are on fire, he’s already a rugged and tenacious rebounder who is destined to challenge for perennial league leader and he knows how to finish around the rim.
He’s an athletic big who shoots over 70% at the stripe, his 15-foot and in jump shot is effective and still improving, and pair the aforementioned with his contagious work ethic and I nominate him for being the most skilled big man to enter the league since Tim Duncan.
Maybe I’m giving Horford too much praise but if you watch his game you’ll be casting your ballot in no time.
There were 30 starting centers playing professional basketball in the 2007-2008 season and Josh Smith blocked more shots per game than 28 of them. The only thing is Smith was and still isn’t a center, he’s a small forward playing out of position at the power forward slot.
With athleticism rivaled by that of only LeBron James, Smith’s a human pogo sticks and superb timing has enabled him to swat away 2.4 shots each contest for his career.
Although his blocks were down this year, he did average a career high 1.9 steals per game this past season to give a hint that you may be looking at a potential defensive MVP in the making.
What’s scary is that Smith’s offensive game is rather raw and isn’t really refined yet but its rounding into form.
He still doesn’t have a go to move, he isn’t that solid with his off hand at this point and he hasn’t patented his jump shot either.
However, Smith is only 23 but he can post and step out for the occasional three, passes extremely well and his explosive hops and soda-dropping dunks are already legendary across the league. Already a solid defender, its scary to think how good Smith will be once he smoothes out his offensive game.
Ankle injuries zapped Johnson and Horford of their full strength late in the postseason and a wrist injury hampered energetic small forward Marvin Williams, leaving the Hawks sitting prey for a hungry Cavs team.
While James and the Cavs displayed their dominance, Atlanta displayed its immaturity. Although they pushed past Dwayne Wade and the Miami Heat in the first round, the Hawks were blown out in every road game in the playoffs except for their game four win in Miami, showcasing their lack of intensity on the road.
The Hawks are far from a finished product but as demonstrated so far, they have the pieces in place.
When healthy, Atlanta is an athletic and energetic group who possess a nice nucleus in their own version of the big three with Johnson, Smith and Horford.
Barring injury, the Hawks should finish with over 50 wins for the next campaign and Smith and Horford could use some more seasoning to their games. Bibby doesn’t have to be spectacular but just continue his steady play.
The team’s major improvement will come when Horford and Smith improve their games. You can’t ask much more of Johnson who is a proven All-Star and just entering the prime of his career.
The Lakers, Celtics, Cavs and Nuggets have proven you need some seasoned vets and a couple of superstars to help you push through. While Johnson and Bibby are fine players, Atlanta needs either Horford or Smith to develop into that one superstar.
They both have the tools and if they can capitalize on their potential, the Hawks are more than equipped to show that the city of Atlanta is about more than just music.