Where do the Hawks go from here?

After a pretty nice show of backbone in Game 6 and Game 7 of Atlanta’s first round series against the less talented but far gritter Bucks, the Hawks were absolutely drilled by the Magic. The Hawks lost the four games by an average of 25 points, including a 43-point loss in Game 1 and a 30-point loss (at home) in Game 3.

Why am I dwelling on the series? Because it’s a good indicator of just how far the Hawks still have to go to be true contenders in the East.

While it’s true that the franchise has increased its win total in each of the last six seasons, it just doesn’t seem like this team is anywhere near contention. Complicating matters, the Hawks’ most steady player, Joe Johnson, is an unrestricted free agent this summer.

Complicating matters further, Johnson has not endeared himself to Hawks fans over the past week or two. After a pretty nice first round (21-5-6) against Milwaukee, Johnson posted just 13-5-4 and shot under 30% against the Magic. That’s not the kind of performance that will convince a team to sign him to a max contract. Moreover, he’ll be 29 at the start of free agency, so one wonders if his best years are already behind him. He was outplayed by a 33-year-old Vince Carter, if that’s any indication.

Johnson is one of those players, not unlike Michael Redd a few years ago with the Bucks, who is not a “max” guy yet will command a maximum contract. I’ve said this over and over — just because a player is the best that a franchise has, it does not make him a franchise player.

The problem the Hawks face is that Johnson will be able to walk this summer with no compensation. He maybe willing to work out a sign-and-trade with his new team, but just like Chris Bosh, why would he agree to lower the talent level of his new team when he can sign with several teams outright?

Either way, between his performance against the Magic and his recently sour relationship with the fans, it does not seem like Johnson is long for Atlanta. Another issue is what to do with Mike Woodson, who has guided the team during its ascension.

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Hawks put away Bucks, 95-74

Milwaukee was cold from the field in Game 6 and that trend continued on Sunday, as the Bucks hit just 33% of their shots (an just 21% of their threes) in Game 7. The Bucks’ defense kept the game from getting out of hand, but without Andrew Bogut, Milwaukee had to hit its shots to keep it close.

Still, the Bucks trailed by just 12 early in the fourth quarter, but the Hawks buckled down and outscored Milwaukee 19-10 over the final ten minutes of the game. Joe Johnson struggled (4-of-14 from the field, 8 points), but the Hawks got good games from Jamal Crawford (22 points), Al Horford (16 points), Josh Smith (15 points) and Mike Bibby (15 points), who combined to shoot 25-of-43 (58%) from the field.

This series probably would have ended differently had Bogut been healthy, but give the Hawks credit for playing well with their proverbial backs against the wall. They played great defense in the last two games, and have all the tools to be a great defensive team. But Atlanta’s problem is focus. The Hawks have a tendency to vary their level of effort depending on the score of the game, and often come apart at the seams when the chips are down. They’re good, but they’re not good enough to turn it on and off whenever they want.

Do they have a chance against the Magic? Sure, but the Hawks are going to have to play an entire series the way they did in their four wins against the Bucks. Against the Bucks, if the Hawks played well, they’d win. That’s not necessarily the case against the Magic.

As for the Bucks, this was a disappointing end to a great season, but like Scott Skiles said in his “wired” segment before the game, when the team was sitting at 18-25 during the season, had anyone asked if they’d take an opportunity to play in a Game 7, they would have jumped on it. The fact that they pushed a far more talented Hawks team to seven games without Bogut is a moral victory.

Looking ahead to this summer, veterans Luke Ridnour, Kurt Thomas and Jerry Stackhouse are free agents. Ridnour played well enough this season to potentially earn a starting gig next season, though he’d likely struggle against the other starting-caliber point guards in the league. Thomas and Stackhouse may come back to give the Bucks a steady veteran presence off the bench, though GM John Hammond would be wise to keep the purse strings as tight as possible.

The big free agent decision may be John Salmons, who could opt out of the final year of the contract ($5.8 million). Despite posting 18-4-4 in the series against the Hawks, Salmons may have played himself out a few million dollars with a woeful shooting performance (8-of-31, 26%) in Game 6 and Game 7, when the Bucks needed him most. Salmons turns 31 in December, so the Bucks should proceed with caution. I can see a three-year deal worth $21-$24 million, but Milwaukee shouldn’t break the bank trying to re-sign him.

From Salmons’ point of view, he should give the Bucks a hometown discount, because he wouldn’t even be in the position to sign a lucrative new deal this summer if Hammond hadn’t traded for him at the deadline and Skiles hadn’t given him the freedom to be the Bucks’ main scorer on the wing.

Milwaukee projects to have a ton of cap space next summer (2011), so assuming the deal lasts at least two years, whatever contract they sign Salmons to will cut into that projected cap space.


Photo from fOTOGLIF

Who will win the NBA Most Improved Player award?

When handicapping the NBA MIP award, I always like to look at the player’s original draft position. Here’s a table with the last 20 winners of the MIP award. Take a look:

Notice anything? Only one MIP winner in the last 16 years (Tracy McGrady) was drafted in the first 12 picks.

It appears that the voters don’t just look at overall improvement, they also take into account unexpected improvement.

Looking at TrueHoop’s list of MIP candidates that received more than one vote from a panel of voters, here are draft positions for each player: Kevin Durant (2), Andrew Bogut (1), Corey Brewer (7), Joakim Noah (9), Josh Smith (17), Russell Westbrook (4), Aaron Brooks (26), Anderson Varejao (30), Channing Frye (8), Al Horford (3), Andray Blatche (49) and Zach Randolph (19).

Can we safely cross Durant, Bogut, Noah, Westbrook, Frye and Horford off the list?

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Line of the Night (11/13): Al Horford

I thought about giving this honor to one of the Nuggets in their rout of the Lakers, but isn’t the young Hawks’ 97-86 win over the Celtics in Boston more impressive? Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford all played well, but it was Al Horford that held down the middle against Boston’s formidable front line.

Horford posted 12 points (on 6-9 shooting), 13 rebounds, three assists, three steals and a block. On the season, he’s averaging 13.3 points, 10.8 rebounds and 2.1 blocks, and his subtle game meshes perfectly with Atlanta’s “stars.” The Hawks are now 7-2 and look like they are ready to take a step forward this season. Horford is a big reason why.

No Love?

The rosters for the T-Mobile Rookie Challenge have been announced and there are a few surprises.

The rookie roster consists of Derrick Rose, Russell Westbrook, O.J. Mayo, Eric Gordon, Rudy Fernandez, Michael Beasley, Brook Lopez, Greg Oden and Marc Gasol.

The sophomore roster includes Rodney Stuckey, Aaron Brooks, Kevin Durant, Wilson Chandler, Jeff Green, Al Thornton, Luis Scola, Al Horford and Thaddeus Young.

Kevin Love isn’t on the nine-man roster for the Rookie Challenge, and it’s a big, glaring snub. ESPN’s John Hollinger agrees.

For starters, the decision to select Eric Gordon ahead of Kevin Love for the rookies was completely inexcusable.

Don’t get me wrong; Gordon is going to have a fine career, it seems, and in almost any other year he’d be a shoo-in for the team. But he made this squad mainly because the forlorn Clippers have no choice but to play him extensive minutes.

As good as he’s looked, Gordon is the only rookie team member with a Player Efficiency Rating below the league average, while Love has a better PER than every player on the rookie team except Greg Oden. Love leads the league in offensive rebound rate, as I mentioned the other day, but his prodigious work on the boards has gone largely unnoticed because he plays only 23.2 minutes a game, far less than Gordon’s 32.2.

Love’s absence is especially surprising considering how the rookie roster is loaded with four guards (Rose, Westbrook, Mayo, Gordon), one G/F (Fernandez) and only one true forward (Beasley). You’d think that if it were a tossup between Gordon and Love (which it isn’t) that they’d at least want to get another true forward on the roster to balance things out.

Hollinger goes on to rail against the sophomore roster snubs, which included Wilson Chandler over Jamario Moon, Al Thornton over Carl Landry and the worst of all (he says) — Aaron Brooks over Ramon Sessions.

Interestingly, seven of the top 11 picks of the 2007 draft — Mike Conley, Yi Jianlian, Corey Brewer, Brandan Wright, Joakim Noah, Spencer Hawes and Acie Law — did NOT make the sophomore roster. (I counted Greg Oden amongst the four since he made the rookie roster.) Conversely, six of the top 11 picks in the 2008 draft did make the rookie team.

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