HANG TIME MIDWEST — The Atlanta Hawks and their fans (hey, they know who they are) probably are too busy enjoying this nine-victories-in-10-tries ride to focus on teams other than the one they’re facing that night. But if they wanted to, hoo boy, could they have some laughs at the Los Angeles Lakers’ expense.
While Lakersland wrings its hands over its glamour team’s 9-11 start, the Hawks are flying below pretty much everyone’s radar at 12-5. That puts them third in the Eastern Conference, slotting in where we might normally expect to see the Boston Celtics or the Indiana Pacers.
Even as the Lakers were going through their massive offseason makeover – adding Dwight Howard and Steve Nash, among others – in pursuit of an insta-contender, the Hawks were undertaking a more traditional tear-down-and-rebuild. Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, two central pieces of a squad that made five straight playoff appearances, were traded away more for salary-cap maneuverability than talent returned. New Atlanta GM Danny Ferry appeared to just be getting going.
Now he and the Hawks might be closer to a destination than they could have predicted. Coach Larry Drew, whose job security was bandied about during a 2-3 start, sounded in an Atlanta Journal-Constitution story like he hadn’t seen this coming.
“I knew these guys as individuals,” Drew said. “I knew what their skill level and their talent was. The big question was, would it all fit? Would they mesh together?”
The offense, with Drew opting to speed things up now that the “iso-Joe” focus through Johnson is gone, still is coming along. The Hawks rank just 13th in offensive rating (104.6) and are 28th in offensive rebounding, while making only 69.6 percent of their free throws.
But defensively, Atlanta is a unit. Sixth in defensive rating, second in opponents’ turnover percentage (16.5 percent), all the while giving away points through fouls and free throws at a stingy pace (Hawks opponents average only 20.4 FTA).
Point guard Jeff Teague ranks 10th in assists percentage. Al Horford already has played more games than he did in 2011-12 (torn pectoral muscle), at a higher level (16.6 ppg, 10.2 rpg) than in his first five seasons. Then there’s Josh Smith, finally looking like a cornerstone player even as he heads toward unrestricted free agency. Smith is making more 3-pointers (38.1 percent) while taking fewer, his blocked shots are back above 2.0 and he’s enjoying himself so much that signing elsewhere might not appeal to him the way it once might have. As Smith told the AJC’s Jeff Schultz:
“No disrespect to anybody else. But when you’re willing to do stuff [together] off the court, it creates a different kind of bond. Guys really care for each other. It makes us want to help each other out on the defensive end that much more.”
And to think, it’s all happening without Howard, the All-Star center Atlanta coveted but a fellow who has his hands full now – and his freedom looming – out West.
If the Atlanta native wants to add the Hawks to his short list of possible destinations for 2013-14, it will be a different club than the one he and others anticipated a few months ago.