By John Clemeno
STATE OF THE FRANCHISE
On the surface, a 13-win improvement is an impressive accomplishment for an NBA team. But perspective sets in when that team won just 13 games the previous season and finished tied with Charlotte for next to last in the Eastern Conference, three games better than the laughable Knicks. The Hawks did make some strides last season as Joe Johnson turned into a legitimate fantasy stud - and for what they gave up to get him, he should be. Younger players like Josh Smith and Marvin Williams developed in the second half of the season, giving us a peek into 2006-07, and center Zaza Pachulia emerged as one of the bargain free agent pickups of the year.
Atlanta featured a lineup of talented and athletic perimeter players, with multi-position ability, but had holes at point guard and a dearth of bigs on the front line. The lack of big men drove them to draft Duke's Shelden Williams with the 5th overall pick in the 2006 NBA draft. You can argue they could have traded down and still got their man, but Williams is the type of player that can help a team that allowed opponents to shoot 47.8 percent from the field.
Despite what looks like a promising on-court future, the front office is a mess. The Atlanta Spirit, the entity that owns the franchise, was embroiled in an internecine legal battle for control of the team that handcuffed its ability to attract free agents and jeopardizes future success. At one point, the organization was forbidden from taking on contracts longer than a year, but that restriction was relaxed, and the team took steps to address its needs. Speedy Claxton was signed as a free agent to be the team's starting point guard, while Lorenzen Wright adds another big in the frontcourt.
General manager Billy Knight may not have assembled a balanced team, but there is some offensive talent in Atlanta that can contribute to fantasy squads. Younger players like Smith, Williams and Josh Childress will get the minutes needed to develop in 2006-07, regardless of their growing pains. And if they can resolve the ownership issue, the Hawks will have room under the cap next summer and be in a position to continue the organization's growth.
PLAYING TIME DISTRIBUTION
We'll start with what we know. Joe Johnson will reprise his role as the Hawks' shooting guard and will play 35-40 minutes per game. The plan is for Speedy Claxton to be the point guard, but an offseason finger injury will keep him out until the beginning of the regular season. In his stead, Tyronn Lue and Royal Ivey will get most of the point guard minutes, though Johnson could be used there in a pinch. Salim Stoudamire should get some backup minutes at shooting guard, but not the 20 minutes-a-night he averaged last season. Trying to decipher the playing time at small and power forward is less certain. Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Josh Childress are ideally suited to the three, but all are athletic enough to play at least two positions. We presume Smith will be the starting small forward, averaging 30-35 minutes, with Childress first off the bench at both small forward and shooting guard. And when Atlanta wants to go small, Childress will serve as the three and Smith as the four. At 6-9, Marvin Williams will likely become the team's starter at power forward, as coach Mike Woodson brings first-round draft pick Shelden Williams along slowly. Zaza Pachulia will start at center with veteran Lorenzen Wright heading back to Atlanta to be the backup.
Zaza Pachilia: Pachulia answered a lot of questions last season about whether he could keep up his per-minute production once becoming a full-time starter. Although the Hawks added veteran Lorenzen Wright, that only means Pachulia has a capable veteran backup. And he'll need it because he was tied for fourth in the league in fouls per game (3.7). Despite the foul trouble, Pachulia managed to play 31.4 minutes a game while averaging respectable scoring (11.7 ppg) and rebounding (7.9 rpg) numbers, in addition to being one of two true centers to average more than a steal per game (1.1, Shaquille O'Neal was the other). Be wary of his field goal percentage (45.1% in 2005-06, 44.2% career), which is a category we've come to expect better of from a center, and the development of the younger players around him may mean less scoring chances. He's a decent option once the top centers are off the board.
Lorenzen Wright: Though a bit undersized for the position, Wright provides Atlanta with a capable backup to Zaza Pachulia at center, something the team didn't have last year. He has some offensive skills, and is a good rebounder despite his slight frame. He probably won't get enough playing time to be valuable.
Solomon Jones: Like Shelden Williams, Jones was drafted to shore up the Hawks' gaping front line wound. He's a good leaper, who can rebound and block shots, but is no better than third on the depth chart at center.
Marvin Williams: We don't blame Williams, selected second overall by Atlanta in 2005, because he's not Chris Paul. He's a great athlete and runs the floor well, but he plays the same position as two other highly regarded players: Josh Smith and Josh Childress. His second-half numbers from 2005-06 (30 games, 11.1 points, 5.4 points, 47.0% FG in 28.0 mpg) make us believe the potential is there, and he'll have the opportunity to play a lot of minutes as Atlanta's starting power forward now that Al Harrington has moved on.
Shelden Williams: Williams is just what the Hawks needed in the frontcourt. A defensive-minded big that can block shots and be a presence in the paint. He's strong and athletic and should be a rotation member, backing up Marvin Williams at power forward and possibly serving as the team's center in a smaller lineup. He won't be a contributor on offense and may not get enough minutes to make a difference as a rebounder, but he may have single-category value in blocks (3.8 bpg in 2005-06 at Duke).
Josh Smith: Another athletic swingman the Hawks can throw at teams, Smith came on in the second half of 2005-06. The then second-year forward was a multi-category producer in the 32 games after the All-Star break, averaging 15.0 points, 7.8 rebounds, 4.1 assists, 3.1 blocks and 1.0 steals in 38.2 minutes per game. Smith is turnover prone (2.0 per game), so we'd like to see him handle the ball better, but that's something we can live with if he continues to be a five-category producer while keeping his shooting percentage in the 44 percent range. He will be the Hawks' starter at small forward, and could emerge as this season's Gerald Wallace.
Joe Johnson: The Johnson-as-point-guard experiment didn't exactly go according to plan (1.96 Assist/TO ratio), so we expect to see him exclusively at the two this season. Which isn't such a bad thing, considering he averaged 20.2 points per game in 2005-06 while shooting 45.3% from the field and 35.6% from 3-point range. In addition to Johnson's explosive scoring ability, he can do a little bit of everything, posting a career high in assists (6.5 apg) while providing solid rebounding (4.1 rpg) from the guard position. Though those assist numbers may decline if point guard Speedy Claxton stays healthy. Johnson's also a durable player, not having missed a game in four years while averaging over 40 minutes per game over the last three seasons.
Josh Childress: Childress is another of the Hawks' talented swingmen looking for playing time. He's boxed out of the two by Joe Johnson and the three by Josh Smith. The big question is if Atlanta coach Mike Woodson can find him 30 minutes a night again. Childress can do a little of everything for the team coming off the bench, and should provide good rebounding and steal numbers from the guard position if given enough playing time.
Salim Stoudamire: Stoudamire is a pure shooter and isn't bashful about taking his shot, hoisting 8.1 FGA in just 20.3 minutes per game. We don't see him getting that kind of playing time this season, as the Hawks possess a five-guard rotation (Speedy Claxton, Tyronn Lue, Joe Johnson, Josh Childress and Royal Ivey) ahead of him, but he has the range to develop into a 3-point specialist (38.0%, 3.5 3PA per game) in short minutes.
Speedy Claxton: Claxton's slight frame makes him an injury waiting to happen. And this year's no different as he's going to miss most of training camp after fracturing his finger. Once healthy, he'll be Atlanta's starting point guard. He's very quick and good in the open court, but has never had the chance to be a full-time floor general. He had a nice stretch for Golden State in 2003-04 (13.6 points, 5.3 assists in 29 starts), but the question remains can he produce over the course of a full season, and will he fall in love with his shot (career 15.8 FGA per 48 minutes) instead of feeding the Hawks' perimeter threats.
Tyronn Lue: Lue will be Atlanta's backup at point guard, but with Speedy Claxton's injury history, he could eventually move into the starting lineup or at least get more minutes than your average backup. He's quick, defends well, and keeps the turnovers down.
Royal Ivey: Ivey, you may be surprised to learn, started 66 games last season, mostly at point guard. He was possibly the least-productive starter in the NBA, averaging 3.7 points and 1.1 assists in 14.3 minutes per game in his starts. Ivey's not a gifted offensive player, but can play both guard spots and defends well.
Lionel Chalmers: Chalmers is the fourth point guard on a bad team, which is all that needs to be said. After playing minimally for the Clippers in 2004-05, Chalmers spent last season with Tau Ceramica and was part of the Spanish Cup winning team. Three-point shooting is his best attribute, but Chalmers, who signed a non-guaranteed contract in September, may not get the chance to put that skill to use.
Josh Smith: Smith rewarded uber-patient fantasy owners that stuck with him through an inconsistent first half of 2005-06. By season's end, he was averaging close to 38 minutes and taking 15 shots per game, while contributing in all of the counting categories.
Speedy Claxton: We like Claxton, the player, but he'll need to stay healthy. His 71 games in 2005-06 were a career high, but a fractured finger has already cost him training camp. Having never had a full-time starting job, Claxton does not have track record upon which we can rely.
Article first appeared on 10/11/06