This could be a first: an analyst is picking the Hawks to finish over .500 and make the playoffs. And the analyst in question isn't Terrence Moore. Rather, John Hollinger, who makes his arguments on the basis of actual numbers and evidence as opposed to "Frank Robinson was traded once from Cincinnati and I'm from Cincinnati, so therefore, the Braves shouldn't trade Andruw Jones," has gone on record as predicting the Hawks to go 42-40($) and sneak into the playoffs as a #7 seed. His reasoning is three-fold: (1) the Hawks had a lot of injuries last year and it's unreasonable to think that this bad luck will continue; (2) the Hawks gave significant minutes to Speedy Claxton and Lorenzen Wright last year, both of whom were dreadful, so simply giving their minutes to replacement level players will lead to improvement; and (3) the Hawks are young and their players can be expected to improve. I sincerely hope that Hollinger is right.
In discussing last season, Hollinger spends a fairly significant amount of space addressing the Hawks' deficiencies in terms of three-point shooting, both offensively and defensively. He makes a fairly strong case that the Hawks might have simply been unlucky in that their opponents hit a lot of threes. Personally, I think the Hawks' defensive problems all start with their inability to stop penetration (especially from the point guard spot) and the rotations that result from penetration create open threes. I'm not high on Acie Law, nor is Hollinger, but if he can keep opposing guards out of the paint without being an offensive liability (see: Ivey, Royal), then he'll be a major improvement. Hollinger also notes that the Hawks didn't shoot the ball well from outside last year and this, I think, is a more significant problem. Like John Thompson's 1988 Olympic team that had a host of athletes and no shooters, Billy Knight has put together a team of 6'9 runners, but Joe Johnson is the only one among them who can hit from outside (although Josh Childress is decent from behind the arc). The Hawks desperately need someone to hit open shots to penalize opponents for doubling Johnson. Again, if Law is that guy, then Hollinger and I will both be wrong and the Hawks will be a better team. Another person to pay attention to is Marvin Williams, who got better last year at scoring, but needs to show some outside shooting to help the team more.
The long-term solution to the Hawks' three-point woes could be Al Horford, not because Al has any ability to hit an NBA three, but rather because Al might be the Hawks' first legitimate post threat since Dikembe. If Horford proves to be a good inside scorer, then he'll force doubles and then Joe Johnson could be the guy receiving the ball on the perimeter as opposed to handling the ball and drawing a double. My greatest anticipation for the opener against Dallas is to see Horford play. (Speaking of the opener, the Hawks' first five games are home dates against Dallas and Phoenix and road games against Detroit, New Jersey, and Boston. Oy vey.)
The note of pessimism that Hollinger strikes is a significant one, namely that the ownership squabble could prevent the Hawks from locking up Josh Childress and Josh Smith long-term. I can't put into words what a major problem this could be. Rebuilding takes such a long time in the NBA because the system is weighted in such a way that teams have an advantage in retaining their players. Thus, when the Hawks were bad, there were very few quality players available around whom they could rebuild. The Hawks have gone through years of suffering to accumulate a good young nucleus of players. The genius of the NBA system is that the Hawks can now retain them, as opposed to having to let some of them go for cap reasons (the NFL method) or watch as the biggest market teams outbid them for those players (the MLB approach). The nightmare scenario for the franchise is that the Hawks piss away their accumulation of young talent because Steve Belkin won't agree to any long-term commitments, either because he's cheap or because he views the entire roster as tainted because it was assembled by Billy Knight. It's one thing for Belkin to stop the Hawks from trading for an expensive player like Amare Stoudemire; it's quite another for him to prevent the team from keeping its existing players.