Hawks preview: After Joe Johnson, can Atlanta generate offense?

Paul Abell-US PRESSWIRE

The Hawks' offensive identity for the past seven years has been Joe Johnson-based. What now?

Lots of teams changed dramatically in the 2012 offseason. The Atlanta Hawks are among those teams. But unlike squads like the Magic (who got much, much worse) and the Lakers (who got much better), the Hawks might not be too different in a general qualitative sense. They are just going to be ... different.

FEATS OF STRENGTH

And that is almost entirely due to the end of Joe Johnson's tenure. The Hawks traded Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets for ... not a whole lot, really, since Anthony Morrow and a 2013 first-round pick headline the package. But the sheer excision of Johnson is change enough. Joe has basically been a large piece of Atlanta's offense scheme for so long -- seven years -- that seeing him gone is going to change the ways Al Horford and Josh Smith do business. In his place could be Morrow, Kyle Korver or Louis Williams. The first two are quality shooters, the latter a fireplug scorer. But none of them carry weight like Johnson.

But more than a hero by extraordinary feat, Joe was actually like a hero by dependability. The Hawks went to Joe because, well, they always went to Joe. The team's long lacked a strong playmaking point guard. Atlanta often used Johnson as a crutch -- instead of getting creative or daring offensively, they'd dump it to Joe and let him get a shot. Now the Hawks -- particularly Horford, Jeff Teague and the newcomers -- will be required to make plays for themselves. Smith can do it, and frankly so can Horford. But there are no other options now. I think it puts a good kind of pressure on the players.

Defensively, the Hawks have been good -- they finished No. 6 with Horford (an ace on that end) missing 55 games. Johnson is a good defender, and Korver is not, but the Hawks can survive. Whether the team will be elite defensively depends on how well the Hawks survive the loss of Johnson on offense. Mediocre or bad teams tend to fall apart on defense, where discipline and effort matter so much. If Atlanta is below .500, the defense won't likely survive. But I think they'll be right around .500 and solid on that end.

AIRING OF GRIEVANCES

The removal of Johnson from the rotation means Josh Smith, in particular, will be asked to do more. Traditionally, asking Josh Smith to do more on offense has been a tricky proposition. He's a good passer, a great rebounder, a lovely defender and ... a terrible shooter. There is a great possibility that he will take more terrible shots in the absence of Johnson. I know that Larry Drew knows this, and I expect the Hawks have devised ways to avoid the inevitable result of Smith with a green light. But I still fear for the team.

The Hawks' backcourt is surprisingly stocked with a number of average-ish players ... but it's a bit of a jumble. At the point, you have Devin Harris (acquired for Marvin Williams) and Teague. At the two, you have Lou Williams, Morrow, Korver, DeShawn Stevenson and rookie John Jenkins (another dope shooter). Other than Stevenson, that's a whole lot of average. Given that the Hawks have one of the best forward duos in the league, that's not a bad thing -- the Jazz last year would have killed for some more average in the backcourt -- but it's a thing that Drew will need to sort out, and that could take time. There's also a surprising lack of defense in the backcourt (Harris and Teague are passable, Stevenson has a reputation for being effective on that end) compared to the frontcourt identity, so it'll be something to watch. Smith and Horford can block shots, but do you really want them tasked with covering for the backcourt constantly?

This team has a chance of finishing dead last in assisted baskets. Atlanta was No. 6 in assisted basket percentage last season. (With ISO-Joe!) I see that dropping as the point guards and Williams freelance more, though Morrow and Korver are classic catch-and-shoot machines.

FESTIVUS MIRACLES

It will be miraculous if ...

Josh Smith doesn't have at least one 4-20 night from the field.

Josh Smith doesn't have at least one triple-double or 5 x 5.

The first time Atlanta sits a couple games above .500, some writer doesn't bury Joe Johnson, forgetting that the Hawks with Joe Johnson were constantly above .500 (at least recently).

Larry Drew changes his facial expression.

"Jeff Teague is becoming the pass-first point guard we've always dreamed of!"

Louis Williams is referred to as "gun-shy."

Ivan Johnson wins the NBA's sportsmanship award.

Anyone in the NBA makes eye contact with Ivan Johnson.

THE HUMAN FUND

Let's get sincere.

Team MVP: Al Horford

Team X-Factor: Devin Harris

Team Finish: 2nd in Southeast | 8th in East

Best Championship Hopes: Winner of the 2011-12 Indiana Pacer Memorial "Surprisingly Good" Award

***

The Hook is a daily NBA column by Tom Ziller. See the archives.

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