After being swept in humiliating fashion by the Orlando Magic yesterday in the Eastern Conference Semi-Finals the Atlanta Hawks will be heading in to this offseason having accomplished no more than they did last year when they were swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers at the same stage of the playoffs.
During last year's series Atlanta's lack of bench depth was exposed and as a result the team traded for the streaky, but explosive Jamal Crawford who responded with a campaign in which he averaged 18.0 points per game off the bench in 79 appearances, good enough to receive the Sixth Man of the Year Award. The Hawks also expected that another year in Al Horford, Josh Smith and Marvin Williams' development would elevate them to the level of a legitimate Eastern Conference power.
However as we all witnessed the Hawks have severe problems that need to be addressed if they want to take the next step into the league's elite teams.The Hawks backcourt has not been built for the long haul with Mike Bibby manning the point and Joe Johnson starting as the two-guard for Atlanta. Their frontcourt, while young and athletic is too small and gets overpowered by teams that have size down low and they could also use a little more bench depth. They also severely need somebody to step up and become a leader after their no-show against Orlando.
At a time when point guard depth may be at its best in the history of the league, Bibby has become such a glaring defensive liability that whatever he provides offensively by helping to space the floor with his ability to knock down perimeter jumpers is offset by the dribble penetration he gives up on the other end. He lacks the capability at this point in his career to keep up with quicker point guards and isn't strong enough to control physical ones.
They drafted Jeff Teague in last year's draft to eventually replace Bibby, but in just over 10 minutes per game this year in 71 appearances, Teague shot an abysmal 39.6% from the field and just 21.4% from long distance. Teague is still only 22, but in his limited time this year he inspired little confidence that he can take over the reins of the offense in the absence of Bibby.
It's also been mentioned hundreds of times, but how good would the Hawks be if they had drafted Chris Paul or Deron Williams over Marvin Williams? At the very least they would be the beneficiary of having one of the league's best young point guards that are having such an immense impact on the game.
The Joe Johnson conundrum has less to do with his production or play on the court, but his impending free agency this summer. As it is the Hawks have never been a franchise willing to dole out the big bucks, but Johnson's case presents a unique situation. Johnson is the team's best perimeter scoring option, has good size, length, speed and agility and plays solid defense. The problem is that he does none of these thing well enough to warrant the max contract he'll be looking for this summer and that some dimwit team (please don't be the Knicks) will be stupid enough to hand him.
Therein lies the problem though, because Atlanta can't afford to lose Johnson and certainly not with recouping anything in the process. At 29 years old, Johnson is in the final years of his prime and a lengthy contract could end up being a messy affair for the team who signs him when he enters the fifth and sixth years of his contract in his mid-thirties. Atlanta should also consider whether they want to make a heavy financial investment in a player who was supposed to be the leader of the team and when adversity struck instead decided to talk about his lack of care about fan support.
If I'm the Hawks I try and swing a sign-and-trade deal with the Mavericks for Rodrigue Beaubois, Erick Dampier and a future first round pick. I'm not sure Dallas would accept this trade, but it would sure help show Dirk that they're willing to do anything to help him win a championship and make them a more formidable team immediately. Johnson would ease the pressure on Nowitzki offensively and would give them a much needed perimeter defender that they could even plug in at small forward when they want to play small.
For Atlanta the benefits would be twofold. First of all they'd be trading for an exciting young point guard who's speed would fit in perfectly with the rest of the Hawks' personnel. They'd also get to take a flyer on Dampier who would give them somebody who could at least make Dwight Howard work for his baskets in the post without getting dominated physically. The best part is that it will be Dampier's contract year which in the past has resulted in career years for Dampier. Even if he flops his expiring contract will be attractive to teams looking to cut payroll next season.
Josh Smith and Al Horford are keepers, but the Hawks just cannot afford to stand pat with what they have in any aspect of their team. Smith and Horford are very good players, but for a team in the same division as Orlando it's imperative they find a solution to at least limit Dwight Howard who had his way with the Hawks. Dampier would be a nice stop gap solution, but the Hawks need to think long term and find a big man who can defend and rebound either via draft, trade or free agency. They may be able to lure Brendan Haywood by offering him the full mid-level exception.
Outside of Jamal Crawford, their bench produces little offensively. Zaza Pachulia's purely an energy guy, but his production dropped this year and Maurice Evans simply doesn't have it anymore. This draft is deep and they may be able to pluck a player late in the first round like Dominique Jones of South Florida, Cincinnati's Lance Stephenson or even Devin Ebanks from West Virginina that could all give them some offensive punch off the bench and contribute immediately.
The most important thing Atlanta must do this summer is look at its team as currently constituted and ask themselves an honest question - Is there a guy on this team that can be the best player on a championship team? In other words do we have somebody on this team that is or can become a top-5 player in the NBA? Looking at their roster currently it certainly doesn't seem so which why Atlanta should actively look to sign and trade Joe Johnson this summer, rather than overspending to keep a core together destined for second round exits.
Every team with true championship aspirations must have a top-5 NBA player on its roster and then must surround him with very good complementary pieces. Atlanta is in a position in which they have a No. 2 and No. 3 option, but until they land a superstar they have maxed out the potential of this squad. After three consecutive playoff appearances with virtually the same roster, the Hawks will need to shake things up this summer and find a new identity if they hope to emerge as true title contenders.