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2011-12 Atlanta Hawks Preview

When you take a look back at the Atlanta Hawks last season, is- full type of person or whether you think that same carafe might be half- empty.

During the regular season, Atlanta took a significant step backwards under first year coach Larry Drew, falling from 53 wins in 2009-10 to just 44. But if you take the postseason into account, things start looking a little bit rosier.

A year after Dwight Howard and Orlando jettisoned Atlanta out of the playoffs, recording the largest victory margin in a four-game sweep in NBA playoff history in the process, the Hawks at least solved the Magic in the East quarterfinals before bowing out to top-seeded Chicago.

It was the fourth straight trip to the postseason for the Hawks and the third consecutive time Atlanta checked out in the second round, meaning the real answer as to where the team stands is probably not drive or reverse -- it's neutral.

Drew will again have a solid, athletic core at his disposal led by All-Star big man Al Horford, shooting guard Joe Johnson, the always dynamic Josh Smith and emerging point guard Jeff Teague.

The team's big change last season was giving up on veteran point Mike Bibby, a player whose gas tank is nearing empty, and handing the team over to Kirk Hinrich.

Hinrich, however, injured his hamstring against the Magic in the playoffs and also underwent offseason shoulder surgery. The ultra-quick Teague took advantage of Hinrich's bad luck and had a bit of a coming out party against Derrick Rose and the Bulls.

This season, seven-time All-Star Tracy McGrady replaces high-scoring sixth man Jamal Crawford, who found a new home in Portland.

2010-11 Results: 44-38, third in Southeast; Lost in East semifinals to Chicago.

ADDITIONS: G Tracy McGrady, G/F Jerry Stackhouse, F Vladimir Radmanovic.

PROJECTED STARTING FIVE:

PG- Jeff Teague SG- Joe Johnson SF- Josh Smith PF- Al Horford C- Jason Collins

KEY RESERVES: C Zaza Pachulia, F Marvin Williams, G Tracy McGrady, G Kirk Hinrich

FRONTCOURT: Smith, who has been on the trading block at times, is an extraordinary athlete that has always relied far too much of his natural athletic gifts and may have reached his ceiling as a player. More attention to detail and a better work ethic could have turned the high-flying Smith into a superstar but he'll likely always be regarded as a bit of an underachiever in the ATL. That said, he's always a tough matchup since it's so difficult to handle his pure athletic gifts in the open floor. On the minus-side, Smith is a below average free throw shooter and passer with a shaky jumper. During the offseason, however, Smith changed his workout routine and lost about 25 pounds so Drew has high hopes.

"He's getting off his feet a lot quicker, getting to the rim and exploding, even more than he has in the past. I'm seeing and hearing a passion I haven't seen before," the coach said.

"I've been in the league a while," Smith added. "My main concern now is winning. I want to win, no matter what the cost is. I want to be one of the elite teams in this league. My window isn't closing, but it's slowly going down. Before I get out of here, I want to accomplish some things."

Horford has developed into an All-Star despite playing out of position much of the time. A natural power forward, the Florida product spends most of his time in the pivot and despite being undersized is a beast on the glass. Horford also possesses superior quickness and strength, enabling him to be a top-tier interior defender. Like most young bigs, Horford never really developed a go- to move on the blocks and that is the lone missing ingredient in his game. Meanwhile, limiting his minutes in the pivot is always a plus.

That's where the limited Jason Collins comes in. A traditional center, Collins really helped against Howard in the playoffs last season using his big body to bang on Superman. He's too limited a player offensively to expect more than 20 minutes a night but a daily, consistent solid stint of defense and rebounding from Collins could be the difference in turning the Hawks back into a 50-win team.

BACKCOURT: With Hinrich out of training camp, Teague will get every opportunity to seize the job and prove his play in the East semifinals against league MVP Rose and the Bulls was no aberration. The blazing first step is there and the former first round pick spent much of the offseason trying to get stronger and working on his jumper since teams are sure to sag off after seeing his penetration skills against Chicago.

"I feel like my jump shot has come a long way," Teague said at training camp. "It's a matter of putting more arch on it. I could always shoot. I've always relied on my ability to get to the basket but now I am more confident in the shot."

After signing a max contact before last season, Johnson probably had his worst year in Atlanta but the skill is still there and a bounce back year is certainly possible. Johnson has a vast array of moves off the dribble, can stick the jumper out to 20-feet and is also an underrated defender when motivated.

"I've never been a guy to make excuses. I had a down year and I'm looking forward to bouncing back," Johnson said

BENCH: The depth in Atlanta remains solid even without Crawford, a yearly contender for the league's Sixth Man of the Year Award. Age and injuries have robbed McGrady of superstar status but the veteran knows how to play the game and had a bit of a resurgence in the Motor City last season, amassing 8.0 ppg, 3.5 apg and 3.5 rpg in 23.4 mpg. Similar production in Dixie should be expected and McGrady should offer Drew a more well-rounded, albeit less explosive option than the departed Crawford.

Hinrich is perhaps better served as a two-way option off the bench and should be back in January. Missing training camp robbed Hinrich of a chance to get more comfortable with his teammates but the 30-year-old is a savvy player that can handle either guard spot. Hinrich brings a plus-jumper, solid ball-handing skills and a hawkish defensive intensity to the table and will enable Drew to utilize a very solid three-man rotation in the backcourt when he gets healthy.

The team does need a backup while Hinrich recovers, however, so they signed journeyman Jannero Pargo to hold down the fort.

Marvin Williams has never lived up to the lofty expectations expected when the Hawks selected him over stud point guards Chris Paul and Deron Williams in the 2005 draft. The pressure to develop into an All-Star level player seems to have dissipated over the years, however, and Williams has settled in as a solid if unspectacular player. Williams also had back surgery in June to alleviate an isolated bulging disk and claims the procedure alleviated a lot of pain.

Backup center Zaza Pachulia is just an average rebounder and his commitment to defense is lacking but the big man does have some solid skills on the offensive end and is one of the better reserve big men in the game.

Rookie Keith Benson, a slight 6-foot-11 project selected in the second round of the 2011 draft out of Oakland University, and veteran swingman Jerry Stackhouse could also earn situational minutes from Drew.

COACHING: Drew is regarded as a solid X's and O's guy that took basically the same roster Mike Woodson had and won nine fewer games in the regular season. He did, however, what Woodson couldn't -- beat Orlando in the playoffs and got his players to buy in when things counted most. The continued development of a player like Teague could solidify things long term for Drew in Atlanta.

OUTLOOK: The Hawks are certainly a playoff-ready team but it's hard to imagine them challenging Miami for Southeast Division dominance. Crawford's departure means the club will lack a proven scoring option after Johnson but any possible upheaval in Orlando could have Atlanta climbing the ladder and finally taking a step up in the East, especially if Johnson regains his prior All-Star form.

"[Johnson] has to bring that confidence and swagger because we are all following his lead," Drew said. "There are no more excuses at this point of our careers. It's time to take the next step."