ATLANTA — Josh Smith considers himself a realist. And he’s never been one to hold his tongue where his team is concerned.
So while you might hear championship talk from someone in every single training camp around the league this time of year, the Hawks’ forward refuses to play that game in a situation where name tags were actually necessary like they were at media day Monday at Philips Arena.
Only five of the 18 players the Hawks will suit up for their first practice Tuesday were a part of the organization last year. The Hawks jettisoned six-time All-Star Joe Johnson (Brooklyn Nets) and starting small forward and former No. 2 overall Draft pick Marvin Williams (Utah Jazz) as two of the nine players sent packing during a summer makeover/fire sale engineered by new general manager Danny Ferry.
That leaves Smith, All-Star center Al Horford, starting point guard Jeff Teague and back up big men Zaza Pachulia and Ivan Johnson as the returning nucleus of a team that made five straight trips to the playoffs. A sixth is as far as Smith is willing to go with his preseason hype before seeing this new group, complete with as many as in action.
“Every summer I take a look at my team and try to make an educated guess about where we fit,” Smith said. “It’s going to be a challenge, going against some of the top-notch teams in the East when you consider Miami comes back strong as ever. Boston went out and got better, got a couple of steals late in the draft to go with what they already had. Basically, all of the teams that were up there made moves to stay in that mix. I’m not going to lie, it is going to be a challenge. But it’s always been a challenge for us. And we always seem to find our way into the playoff mix. This season is no different.”
The Hawks always answered the challenge, even when the forecast was gloomy. In each of those five seasons they made the playoffs they faced some uncertainty from the so-called experts who assumed their ride was up. They never made drastic changes to the nucleus of the roster until Ferry arrived just before the June Draft.
Johnson’s absence opens things up for many of the new faces, especially guards Devin Harris, Lou Williams, Anthony Morrow and rookie John Jenkins. It also frees up Teague to play at the faster pace he, and Ferry and Hawks coach Larry Drew as well, prefer.
“We have a lot of talent and a lot of depth,” Teague said. “Point guards and speed kill in this league. And we have a lot of that. We’re going to get up and down and play a lot faster now. That suits me and a lot of the guys on this roster. Not to take anything away from Joe, he’s a great player, but he was more of a guy who wanted get in his comfort zone and a comfort area and you have to get him the ball right there. But with these guys, they can break down the defense, play fast and get into the lanes and I think that helps me, Josh, Al and the entire team. It benefits all of us.”
With that freedom, though, comes new pressure.
“I love it, though,” Teague said. “That’s one thing I like. I like a little more pressure on me. And I think our team is built for this, especially with Devin and Lou joining Josh and Al. Everybody is going to get the opportunity they were looking for.”
With two starting spots and basically the entire rotation wide open, Drew said opportunity is going to be the word of the day every day during camp.
“There should be a sense of hunger when you subtract the key pieces we did this summer,” Drew said. “It opens up opportunities for guys who have been here in certain roles to elevate their status and guys who are coming in here for the first time to become a major piece to the puzzle. I want every guy coming in here to embrace that. Change has taken place, we’ve changed our style and who we are. We’re going to make some adjustments and adapt. But the door is open and opportunity is staring guys right in the face.”
Smith said he likes the idea of this team being forced to find out what they are made of now that they don’t have Johnson around as a security blanket/punching bag.
“This is a good thing,” Smith said. “You want to see how people respond in pressure situations. And what better situation than to trade your franchise player, a six-time All-Star, and get some quality pieces for him, and turn this thing over to the guys who have been battling right there all the time. It’s going to be added pressure on myself, Al, Jeff and some of these new guys to perform and excel. It’s going to be interesting to see how people handle it. I promise you this, I’m ready for it.”