The Hawks finished 40-26 last year (60.6 win percentage), and drew Boston in the first round of the NBA Playoffs, where they were eliminated by the Celtics (who else?) four games to two.
That doesn’t set a good precedence for the Hawks, because it’s doubtful they’ve improved with the subtraction of Joe Johnson, who was traded for Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, Anthony Morrow, Jordan WIlliams, DeShawn Stevenson and a first round pick. The move was a cap-clearing move for the Hawks, and it likely only weakened the team. The question is, by how much did it weaken them?
We’re going to break down the match ups position by position, and attempt to discern when the 2012-13 model of the Hawks stands any better chance against the Celtics.
Rajon Rondo / Dionte Christmas vs. Jeff Teague / Devin Harris
Jeff Teague is projected by John Hollinger to put up 15.7 points per game and 6.5 assists per contest. Hollinger cites Teague as a “quick, scoring-minded guard who can get to the basket,” but who has a “mediocre outside shot” and is an “average distributor.” Save the average distributor part, that sounds a lot like Rajon Rondo, doesn’t it?
Teague showed in the 2011 Playoffs that he was a stud in the making, when he scored 21 points in back to back games against the Chicago Bulls, then after following it up with 12 points in game five, scored 21 again in game six. The 6’2″ guard from Wake Forest had put himself on the map, and primed himself for a bigger role in 2011-12. But expectations may have been too high. Last year, Teague shot 47.6 percent from the floor, but still only averaged 12.6 points per game to go with 4.9 assists. So, that 15.7 and 6.5 prediction from Hollinger calls for a career year from Teague.
Backing Teague up is a former starting point guard in Devin Harris. Harris at one point appeared to have all the makings of a perennial All-Star, but poor shot selection caused his fall to mediocrity. Still, Harris is one of the better back up point guards in the NBA at this point, and could take over if Teague struggles.
How does this match up to Rondo? It doesn’t. Rondo is near an All-NBA First team level type of player and he’s going to have his way with Teague and Harris. He already proved that last year against the Hawks when he posted double-doubles (including a triple double) in the first four games of the series, and then after a decent game five, posted another double double in game six. The triple double in game two included 17 points, 14 rebounds, and 12 assists. Rondo can have his way like this against the Hawks, and this matchup is one of the main reasons that the Hawks are at such a huge disadvantage against the C’s.
Courtney Lee / Avery Bradley / Jason Terry vs. Anthony Morrow / Lou Williams / John Jenkins
If you’ve been following along with these team comparisons, you’ve heard me rave plenty about the depth of the Celtics backcourt. Considering that the Hawks’ starter Anthony Morrow isn’t even as good as the Celtics’ third stringer in Lee or Terry (after Bradley returns from injury), I’m not going to further belabor the merits of the Celtics’ backcourt since I’ve done it justice in enough in previous previews.
Suffice it to say, that though Morrow is an excellent three point shooter and Lou Williams was a sixth man of the year candidate, the Celtics have a huge advantage here. Make no mistake, I’m not discounting Williams; he can get very hot and put up points in bunches—but the Celtics have the defense to counteract that. They have two lock down defenders in Lee and Bradley, and a very good one in Terry.
I don’t expect Morrow to get a lot of quality looks, though he will knock down the ones he does get…and I don’t expect Lou Williams to blow up off the bench, though he often does. The Celtics have the defense to neutralize both guards. DeShawn Stevenson is a non-factor, and John Jenkins is a marginal first rounder who Hollinger cites as a “one trick pony” capable of shooting well from outside but capable of doing much else.
Paul Pierce / Jeff Green / Kris Joseph vs. Kyle Korver / DeShawn Stevenson
One of the Hawks worst positions is one of the Celtics best. Kyle Korver is not a starting caliber NBA small forward and DeShawn Stevenson posted the worst PER of any player to record at least 500 minutes of game play last year.
Korver is a bit underrated, and Hollinger projects a 13.8 point per game average to go with 3.6 assists per game, but I find that a bit optimistic. I think something in the neighborhood of 10.5-11 points per game is a bit more realistic, and I don’t think Korver’s defense is going to suit him too well against a player like Paul Pierce, whose guile and skill will, and has in the past, given Korver fits.
How can we begin to compare this position, though, really? The Hawks have two guys that are both not worthy of starting, and the Celtics have two who are—Jeff Green could start on a number of teams. In fact, the only really interesting thing would be to see if third stringer Kris Joseph could out play both Korver and Stevenson as an unheralded second round pick rookie. It’s not out of the question…
Advantage: Celtics, by a mile
Brandon Bass / Jared Sullinger / Chris Wilcox vs. Josh Smith / Ivan Johnson / Mike Scott
Ah, finally, a position at which the Hawks have themselves an advantage. Somehow, Josh Smith has still never made an All-Star team, but he is an All-Star level talent, to be sure. One of the best defenders in the game, he might eventually end up playing in green and white come next season, as he is a free agent this summer and Danny Ainge could get creative with the cap and find a way to get Smith in Beantown.
Smith is projected to have a career year by Hollinger: 20.6 points per game, 10.5 rebounds per game, 4.2 assists per game, with a PER of 19.9. I don’t disagree with Hollinger here, because with Joe Johnson gone, Smith will be the man offensively. He’s not particularly skilled offensively, he dribbles too much and takes poor shots, but he is a superior athlete to just about every other forward in the league, so he finds ways to score, anyway.
Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger are gifted offensively (especially Sullinger), but we’re talking about an Second Team All-Defensive player in Smith (2009-10), and a guy who draws votes for Defensive Player of the Year on an annual basis. Smith has blocked 2.2 shots per game over his career, and averages 1.3 steals per game too.
That disruptive influence will cause problems not only for the Celtics power forwards, Brandon Bass and Jared Sullinger, namely, but for other C’s starters at all. It is Smith who will change Rondo’s shots. It is Smith who will contest KG on the glass. It is Smith that keeps this Hawks team relevant.
Ivan Johnson and Mike Scott are not big factors, though Johnson is a tough player who can provide some hustle off the bench. It’s basically just Smith against Bass and Sullinger, to simply things (since I doubt Chris Wilcox sees many minutes now with the addition of Darko Milicic), and that doesn’t look good for the Celtics. Thankfully, it’s only one position.
Kevin Garnett / Darko Milicic / Jason Collins / Fab Melo vs. Al Horford / Zaza Pachulia / Johan Petro
Kevin Garnett may not see the bulk of his minutes at center with the addition of Darko Mlicic, but for the time being, we’re dealing with it as though KG is the go-to guy at center. Ideally, Doc Rivers would like to shift The Big Ticket back to his natural position of power forward, but that will only be if the Celtics have that luxury, and against a team like the Hawks, they may be able to.
Al Horford is undersized for a center, and belongs at power forward like Garnett. KG may be best off covering Smith, so bringing in Darko to cover Horford certainly makes some sense. Horford made the All-Star team in 2010 and 2011, and ranked ninth in the league in win shares in 2009-10 with 10.9. He spent most of last year injured, but came back for the last 11 games of the season and played in the playoffs.
It’s hard to decide who has an advantage here, with so many unanswered questions regarding the Celtics’ rotation following the acquisition of Milicic, but if we compare it as-is, and pit KG against Horford, I’m hard pressed to declare a victor. KG is old and Horford is in his prime, but Garnett’s defense is still top notch and Horford isn’t overwhelming offensively, just pretty good.
Doc Rivers vs. Larry Drew
I’m not going to get into bad mouthing Larry Drew. He’s done the best he could with the team he’s had, but I don’t see much of a comparison to be made here between Drew and Rivers. Drew has a head coaching job, and Rivers is an elite coach. That’s about the main difference. Still, Drew did take the Hawks to a 40-26 record, which isn’t bad considering that the team still really never had a guy who should be considered a true alpha dog. Joe Johnson is a second option type offensively, and he will be just that now in Brooklyn. Either way, give Larry Drew the team that Doc Rivers had in Orlando and expect him to coach it to a .500 record. It’s just not happening. Even with a more talented Hawks team, he wasn’t able to do much better.
The more things change, the more they stay the same. The Hawks made a cap cutting move and jettisoned Joe Johnson, and they’re going to pay for it.
Pay for it? Pay what? Well, the Hawks were already nowhere close to being contenders, so all that really happens now is that they go from mediocre to marginally bad. That is to say they can find themselves in a 7th or 8th seed position come playoff time, but not much better. And they certainly don’t stand much of a chance against a top shelf Eastern Conference team like the C’s.
Series Prediction: Boston Sweeps ‘em