The NBA preseason is underway, meaning it’s time again for Dime’s team-by-team season previews. Last year we debuted the “Highs and Lows” system — predicting the respective ceilings and basements for each team. In other words, what is the realistic best-case and worst-case scenario for the 2009-10 campaign?
Added: Jamal Crawford, Joe Smith, Jeff Teague, Juan Dixon, Courtney Sims
Lost: Flip Murray, Solomon Jones, Acie Law IV, Speedy Claxton
Ceiling: 2nd round; homecourt in the 1st
Josh Smith claims he spent the summer working on his jumper and his decision-making. If the second part of that is true, hopefully he’ll decide to take less jumpers. The sooner Smith figures out he’s at his best working closer to the rim, the sooner he’ll reach All-Star status. J-Smoove and Al Horford make for an undersized 4-5 tandem, but they’re strong enough, long enough, quick enough and tough enough to make up for the height disadvantage. What they need more than anything is to stay healthy: neither they nor small forward Marvin Williams cracked 70 games last season. On the positive side of consistency, you can pencil in Joe Johnson for his 20-22 points and some combination of 9-10 assists and boards. Depth had been a glaring weakness for Atlanta in recent years, but this year the bench looks solid. Jamal Crawford is an instant Sixth Man of the Year contender, and first-round pick Jeff Teague gives starting PG Mike Bibby a backup with fresh legs (unlike Speedy Claxton) and potential to be the impact player Acie Law never was. Joe Smith strengthens the second unit up front with backup center Zaza Pachulia and SF Mo Evans, and reigning D-League MVP Courtney Sims has a chance to make the roster and contribute. Bibby’s steady floor leadership and clutch shooting will keep the Hawks in plenty of close games, while Johnson takes his shots at winning them.
Basement: 1st-round exit via sweep
After going one round farther in the ’09 postseason than they did in ’08, the Hawks may have hit their peak as presently constructed. A top-four seed in the East is a reasonable goal, but top-three is a stretch, and knocking off one of the Cavs/Celtics/Magic triad in Round 2 is a pipe dream. The Hawks folded up like a chair against Cleveland in the conference semis, getting outworked inside, out-shot outside, and outclassed by LeBron all over the place. Johnson’s inability to respond in that series put his abilities as a legit franchise player in question, but he is in a contract year and could be on a mission to prove himself. Durability is another key, especially in the frontcourt. The Hawks have too much talent and, as young as they are still, too much experience to miss the playoffs in the East. But at the same time, they have just enough red flags to exit quickly and quietly.
*** *** ***