The prevailing question following the Atlanta Hawks first-round exit in the NBA playoffs last spring their first in four seasons was whether the club bumped up against its ceiling.
Ownership, through the hiring in June of new general manager Danny Ferry, answered that with an emphatic, Yes!
Ferry took a sledgehammer to the roster, trading two of the teams starters, including perennial All-Star Joe Johnson and his albatross of a contract. Only five players remain from the 2011-12 roster.
Ferry is in the for the long-term, looking to remake the organization whether its player development, strength and conditioning or through the use of analytics and scouting in the image of San Antonio, the franchise from which he came and with which he spent so many years in two different stints.
So, its a new beginning for the Hawks. In moving Johnson and Marvin Williams, Ferry took on a slew of players who are in the final season of their contracts. Over and over, Ferry has stressed the word flexibility, so as revamped as this seasons roster is, it could look completely different again next season.
Among the lingering questions facing the Hawks is the status of coach Larry Drew, who enters his third season. Drew is in the final season of his contract and must show to Ferry that he is the person who can make the Hawks into a championship contender, as the GM demands.
Additionally, the status of forward Josh Smith, the teams leader last season in rebounds and co-leader in points, remains up in the air, as Smith is in the last season of his contract. Ferry has stated publicly that it is the interest of neither Smith nor the team to agree to a new contract until after the season.
In the end, the roster may have talent, but questions abound.
Last season: 40-26, lost to Boston in the first round of the playoffs.
Coach: Larry Drew (third year, 84-64)
Top returnees: PG Jeff Teague, PF Josh Smith, C Al Horford.
Key additions: G Devin Harris, G Lou Williams, G John Jenkins, G DeShawn Stevenson, G-F Anthony Morrow, F Kyle Korver.
X-factor: Harris. Since 2008-09 when he was an All-Star with New Jersey, Harris has generally been on the decline since he averaged 6.9 assists and career-highs in points (21.3), rebounds (3.3), steals (1.6) and minutes (36.1). Set to turn 30 this season, Harris might benefit from a backcourt that includes Teague and Williams, two players of similar size and with somewhat similar skillsets, as he might not have to play as many or as hard of minutes. If he is highly efficient, even with reduced minutes, it could provide the Hawks with a big boost.
Strengths: The Hawks might be small, but they will be fast. They could play the true version of the up-tempo game that Drew has always sought to play but that was thwarted at times by Johnson, who tended to pound the air out of the basketball in the Hawks infamous Iso-Joe offense. In addition, Ferry has assembled a slew of shooters. Korver and Morrow rank top 10 among active players in career three-point percentage. Jenkins, the teams first-round pick out of Vanderbilt, also was picked for his shooting prowess. In short, if the preseason is any indication, the Hawks ought to be able to score. They have averaged 99.7 points per game in the preseason.
Weaknesses: The Hawks will have to find a way to compensate for their lack of size, especially with Drew seeming ready to start Zaza Pachulia, the teams most natural center, on the bench. As a result, defending could be an issue, especially against bigger teams. For three straight games in the preseason, the Hawks allowed an average of 104.3 points, which concerned the coach. It looks as if Drew is settling in on Stevenson as the starter at shooting guard for his size and defense, which could create tension with the teams ability to score, as much of that will come from the backcourt. The Hawks will have to rely on their quickness to create steals as an integral part of their ability to defend.
Outlook: With such an overhaul, the Hawks are a tough team to read. Drews task is to meld the talents he has, develop chemistry among the players and oversee a somewhat new stylistic approach. Its not a simple task. But the roster does have talent and should be exciting to watch. If nothing else, fans ought to be refreshed by the new approach. The Hawks should finish second in the Southeast Division behind defending NBA champion Miami, especially with Dwight Howard gone from Orlando.