The biggest surprise at last week’s NBA trade deadline was that Atlanta Hawks power forward Josh Smith stayed put. Smith is in the final year of a contract worth $13.2 million and he’s looking for a max deal for next season. Either Atlanta thinks they can re-sign him or the team thinks it can make an extended playoff run and is shoving its chips on the table for this year. It’s the latter question that will be the focus of our NBA commentary today—can these Atlanta Hawks make a good showing in the postseason?
Let’s begin by defining what a good showing would be. No reasonable observer thinks anyone other than the Miami Heat are coming out of the Eastern Conference and placing that as the standard on the Hawks wouldn’t be fair. But on the flip side anything short of the conference finals would just be par for the course.
The city of Atlanta could be forgiven for questioning the existence of the Eastern Conference Finals—after all, they’d have to take it on faith, not as something they’ve actually seen. It’s one thing for the apostle Thomas—“doubting Thomas”– to overcome his doubts and believe in the risen Christ—asking the city of Atlanta to believe in life after the NBA playoffs’ second round might be a bridge too far.
Atlanta’s playoff frustrations are littered with first and second-round exits. That includes epic battles, such as Game 7 in the Boston Garden back in 1988 when Dominique Wilkins and Larry Bird staged an epic battle that the Celtics ultimately won. It includes 1994 when Atlanta was the #1 seed in the East, but fell to Indiana and Reggie Miller in the second round. It includes expected losses to Jordan’s Bulls, Shaq’s Orlando Magic and LeBron’s Cleveland Cavaliers. What it all boils down to is that simply getting into the playoffs and winning a series does not justify keeping Smith—again, with the disclaimer that perhaps the Hawks are going to be able to re-sign him.
Smith is the kind of player who can carry a team in the playoffs. He averages 17 points and 8 rebounds per game. While he’s currently only shooting 34 percent from three-point range, he has, at different points in his career, shown the ability hit the trey with consistency. He pairs up down low with Al Horford, an elite post player himself, averaging a 17/10 per night. Horford was injured for most of last year’s first-round series with Boston, a series where Atlanta lost a close Game 6 on the road. Had Horford been healthy, Atlanta likely wins that round and would have been a solid favorite against Philadelphia to get that elusive conference finals berth.
The Hawks get their three-point shooting from the small-forward position, where Kyle Korver and DeShawn Stevenson each hit better than 40 percent from behind the arc. Neither are great scorers in terms of raw volume, but their ability to open up defenses gives Horford and Smith a place to go with the ball if defenses double-down too quickly.
It’s the backcourt that’s going to be the real challenge to overcome. Atlanta suffered a bad injury loss in January when Lou Williams was lost for the season. He was a double-digit scorer and another perimeter-shooting threat. Atlanta gets pretty good point guard play from Jeff Teague, but Devin Harris just does not cut it in the main role he now has to assume in the wake of Williams’ injury.
But every team in the East is flawed—frankly, that includes Miami, who lacks a good interior game, although the presence of LeBron James forgives more sins than the average priest in the confessional (I guess that second theological reference makes this article my Catholic Parlay of the Month—what can I say, it’s Lent). So even allowing for Atlanta’s flaws, can Smith and Horford push Atlanta through two playoff series and into the Eastern Finals?
The final 27 games of the regular season are going to decide. Right now, Atlanta is #5 in the East. Even without homecourt advantage I think they can beat Brooklyn, but there is no way they’re knocking off Miami in the second round. The Hawks have to get off the 4-5 grid and into the bottom half of the bracket. I suppose a cynic could say they could tank some games and “catch” Chicago for the 6-spot. The Hawks are only a game up on the Bulls as it is.
But why take the negative route, when the positive is there for the taking? Atlanta is only two games back of New York, who’s currently in third, but not playing well. What if the Hawks finish reasonably strong, grab the 3-seed, defend their home floor in the first round and then set up for a second-round showdown, presumably with Indiana. Win that, and keeping Smith was worth the price.
I don’t see any reason to think Atlanta can’t do it. Smith is only 26 years old and has gotten the necessary battle scars that it takes to advance in the NBA playoffs. I’m not saying they’d be the favorite to reach the conference finals, or even that I’d pick them. But they would have a legitimate shot and is the NBA culture of Atlanta any chance at the conference finals can’t be lightly passed over.