In the final days leading up to regular season action, SCH will be posting divisional previews of the top teams in all six NBA divisions. Come back early and often for updates.
The Jazz get an early dose of the Hawks, playing in Atlanta on their first extended road trip of the season – four games against Eastern Conference playoff teams. After visits to Miami and Orlando, Utah will visit Atlanta on November 12th (on the first night of a back-to-back with Charlotte on the back end). Atlanta visits Salt Lake City on January 5th during the New Year home stand.
AK47 vs. Joe Johnson
Granted, AK and Joe Johnson play different positions of the floor, and have completely different games. Still, I’ll be interested to see how Utah’s max contract mistake compares to Atlanta’s max contract man. In the Summer of LeBron, who would have thought that Joe Johnson would have come away with the biggest payday of 2010? Joe Johnson is a solid player, to be sure – consistent to say the least [averaged at least 20 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, and a steal in each of his past five seasons]. Johnson’s offensive success comes primarily from isolation plays – Utah can concede 20 points to Joe Johnson, especially if it means keeping the other players uninvolved in the offense. In the Conference semi-finals last year, Orlando kept JJ quiet (only 12.8 points and less than 30% from the field). That’s a lot of cheddar for someone who essentially choked in the biggest games of the year for his team.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m a big Kirilenko fan… I still remember watching his first game in Utah from the nosebleeds in the former-Delta Center. I turned to my Dad and told him that the young Russian was something special. Following the 2004 All-Star campaign, he definitely made a strong case for max money. His first season after the max deal? Injury plagued – he sat out half of the games. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20, and $17.9 million this year seems a little steep for a 12 points, 4 rebounds, 2.5 assists, and a block. AK only played in 58 games last year, but provided some much needed energy off the bench and found ways to contribute when his number was called. I was worried that the trade rumors might have injured his famously frail ego, but he’s shown quite the opposite in the preseason. AK has been firing on all cylinders, and if he stays healthy, will have a huge impact this season. It doesn’t hurt that its a contract year, either.
Al Jefferson v. Al Horford
Standing 6’10″ and putting up a double-double in points and rebounds, Al is one tough big man. Which Al, you ask? Why both, of course. Al Jefferson is just a year older and averages a couple more points, but essentially, these two players share many of the same traits. Al Horford has less experience in the league (he spent some time developing his game with Joakim Noah and Corey Brewer at Florida – and helping his team earn an NCAA championship). Horford shoots nearly 80% from the free-throw line (Al Jefferson is just 70% from the charity stripe). Horford has posted better numbers during each of his three NBA seasons. It will be exciting to see these two mirror each other when the Jazz and Hawks take the court.
The more things change, the more they stay the same – at least in Atlanta. This Hawks team will look quite a bit like the Hawks teams of the past. Atlanta is not a great rebounding team – and it does not defend very well on the perimeter. The core is young, but they have played together in the same system for a while now. Even with a coaching change (see below), there’s not much different in Atlanta. While the starting 5 are respectable, the bench leaves much to be desired. Expect more of the same from Atlanta – a winning team that is simply not built for the playoffs.
Utah leads the all-time series 47-38. Atlanta swept the season series from Utah last year. Prior to 2010, Atlanta had not won in Utah since 1993 when Dominque Wilkins, AKA the Human Highlight Reel posted 43 points against the Jazz. AK and D-Will watched that home dominance streak end in street clothes – in what was a very close game. Joe Johnson scored 11 points in the final frame to overcome Utah’s lead and guide Atlanta to a victory.
Larry Drew was named Head Coach of the Hawks this summer. Prior to being named Head Coach, Drew served six seasons as lead assistant to ousted Hawks Coach Mike Woodson – in other words, don’t look for any significant changes due to the leadership change.
Drew is just one of the hundreds of coaching changes in the NBA since Jerry Sloan was named as Utah’s Bench Leader. In fact, with the retirement of Bobby Cox (GM of Major League Baseball’s Atlanta Braves), Jerry Sloan is now the longest serving coach in all of professional sports.
Former Number 2 overall pick Marvin Williams will start at SF for the Hawks. Marvin Williams never developed into the all-around player Atlanta had hoped. I’m sure Atlanta would like to have the 2nd pick in 2005 back – leaving both D-Will and CP3 on the table for the Jazz and Hornets, respectively.
Atlanta is mired in the best and deepest division in the Eastern Conference. Atlanta is a playoff team, for sure, but I’d be surprised if they make it out of the first round in the upcoming year. As a lower seed in the East, they will likely be paired with Boston, Chicago, Orlando or Miami – all of whom can beat ATL in a 7 game series. I am not convinced that the Jazz have improved enough on the road to guarantee an early road win in November against the Hawks. I do know, however, that the Jazz are capable of beating the Hawks – and should win both games this year. Utah is too deep to allow Atlanta’s starting five to control a game.
Contact Jefferson W. Boswell at jeffersonboz [at] gmail [dot] com