The Atlanta Hawks in 2006

The Atlanta Hawks have been one of the worst franchises in the NBA (and perhaps professional sports) over the last decade. The Hawks have squandered first round picks, free agency opportunities, and promising young coaches on their way to poor attendance figures and a place in the Eastern Conference cellar. Coach Mike Woodson and the Atlanta front office are trying to set a new standard for Hawks basketball, starting last season with the signing of superstar shooting guard Joe Johnson. As well, the Hawks seemed to have picked better players over the last few years, with young players like Josh Childress and Marvin Williams performing well in their rookie seasons the last two years. The 2006 season needs to be one where the Hawks show signs of life or another decade of futility may be in the works for Atlanta basketball.

Front Court
The interior of the Atlanta Hawks’ starting lineup is stacked in terms of talent, but is too young to dominate in the 2006 NBA season. At center, Woodson will go with solid interior player Zaza Pachulia with new acquisition Lorenzen Wright playing significant minutes in relief. However, Pachulia is a soft player for an interior defender and needs to become a more prolific rebounder to stay a regular starter for the Hawks. At power forward, second year player Marvin Williams can jump through the roof and slash through the interior but needs to become a more polished scorer. Williams will get some pressure from rookie Shelden Williams, who is a more mature and polished player with similar athletic ability to Marvin Williams. Look for a tough fight between Marvin and Shelden, with Shelden outworking and outperforming Marvin in the early season. At small forward, Coach Woodson will likely go with a platoon of the athletic Josh Smith and the sure shooting Josh Childress. The Hawks may end up dealing one of these two before the end of the season, looking to acquire a better point guard or at least capitalize on their upside to get a future draft pick.

Back Court
Shooting guard Joe Johnson had a great season for someone who was trying to carry the Hawks on his back and, as difficult as it may seem right now, he should improve his numbers in 2006. Johnson is a good all-around player and with improving talent he will be able to get more creative offensively. However, Johnson will never be able to fully reach his potential without a solid point guard to take on the Hawks’ play making responsibilities. Speedy Claxton is a capable point guard who can distribute the ball and play defense but is certainly not in the same league as Johnson. Claxton will be good enough until Wilkins can pull a deal bringing in a better point guard. Look for Johnson to be an MVP contender as the Hawks improve slightly, while Claxton and Tyronn Lue will share most of the minutes at the point in an effort to get the Hawks offense moving.

Bench
Off the bench, the Hawks have some spare parts and unpolished players that need to step up if Atlanta is going to win late in close games. Point guard Tyronn Lue will probably press Speedy Claxton for time and starts at the point, with Lue more experienced and more of a pure point guard than Claxton. Free agent signing Lorenzen Wright will be a big body off of the bench and a veteran presence in a young Hawks locker room, but is not strong enough to stay in the game for too long. Second round pick, forward Solomon Jones, is athletic and a decent scorer who needs to bulk up in order to get more time in the paint. The loser of the battle at power forward, either second year player Marvin Williams or rookie Shelden Williams, will play valuable minutes off of the bench in relief of the other.

Intangibles
Mike Woodson is a good young coach and his team showed signs of life in 2005, playing better teams closer and winning a few close games against the lower echelon of the National Basketball Association. Woodson needs to take them to the next level, meaning that they need to get closer to the .500 mark in 2006 or he may be on the chopping block. With a legitimate star like Johnson and an outstanding young nucleus in the front court, Woodson needs to prove his ability to manage his talent and get the most out of his bench. As well, vice president of basketball operations and Hall of Fame inductee Dominique Wilkins needs to prove his skill at finding young talent and making the right moves during the season to shore up the roster. There are a lot of ifs and needs for the Hawks and 2006 will be the season where certainty needs to come into the picture. Otherwise, expect a salary dump and a few more years of bad Hawks basketball.

2006 NBA Projection
The Hawks will improve on their 26 win season of last year and will stay out of their divisional cellar, staving off the improving Charlotte Bobcats and winning around 30 games this season. If they get more wins in 2006, it will be because they find a more capable point guard than the serviceable Speedy Claxton.

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