Monday, December 19, 2005

...But Those Other Birds Sure Are Hot!

Thrashers: 4-0-1 in their last five. Hawks: 4-1 in their last five (and got legitimately screwed in the fifth.)

The Thrashers' season got off to a disappointing start for a very simple reason: because of injuries to their top three goalies, they were forced to do the equivalent of the Braves starting a AAA rotation. Imagine if Kyle Davies would have been the ace of the staff last year. That's the equivalent of the Thrashers having to play Michael Garnett and Adam Berkhoel every night. The team is next to last in the NHL in save percentage and it's virtually impossible to win in the league when your goalies' collective save percentage is .876.

Fortunately, Kari Lehtonen is close to returning (although, as the article's title makes clear, this isn't the first time we've heard that song. Also, Michael Garnett seems to be getting the hang of this whole stopping the puck business, which has allowed the Thrashers to be patient in returning Lehtonen to the lineup. (The team's last two wins represent the first two wins this season in which the team scored fewer than four goals. Garnett's save percentage in those games was .944, which is as good as his previous stats were bad.) More importantly, Garnett's improved play has allowed the team to be patient in returning Lehtonen to the fold.

The team is now a mere three points out of the last playoff spot, although 8th placed Toronto has two games in hand over the Thrashers. The good news is that the season is very young. On the day after Christmas two years ago, the Thrashers beat the Lightning to take an eight-point lead in the Southeast Division. The Thrashers responded by winning two of their next 21 games, while the Lightning went on to win the Stanley Cup. The point is that a lot can change over the next several months and the team certainly isn't out of the running for a playoff spot, despite their goaltending issues at the outset of the season. The rest of December, after what ought to be a gimme at home against Washington on Thursday night, is tough: four games against teams ahead of them in the Eastern Conference (New Jersey, Montreal, Philly, and Buffalo.)

As for the Hawks, the win over San Antonio does appear to have been a springboard, as the team followed up with wins over Cleveland, New York, and Denver, along with being the victim of a complete screw job at the hands of Steve Javie's screw in Philadelphia. Joe Johnson is stepping into the role of team leader, averaging 24.6 points and 6.4 assists over that timeframe. Al Harrington and Tyronne Lue have been playing fairly well on offense, which has generated open shots for Johnson and his offensive game seems to flow from the threat of hitting threes. (I might have that backwards.) The team struggled for the first quarter of the season because they didn't have a third scoring threat and in their recent hot streak, that third threat has emerged in the unlikely persona of Lue, who has averaged 15.4 points per game during the hot streak, including some big late shots against the Spurs and Nuggets. Given that Lue is probably the same player who answered to that name over the first 7+ years of his career, a sustained period of scoring at that clip (or hitting over 55% from behind the arc, which Lue has done this year) seems unlikely. Still, it'll be fun to see how long the Hawks can ride this whole "Lue as very good player" thing.

Of more import to the Hawks' future, Josh Smith played his best game of the year yesterday. He's developed a reliable jumper, which he didn't have last year, and his passing skills are progressing. (He had a nifty behind-the-back feed to Zaza yesterday on a critical possession towards the end of regulation.) He's always been a good rebounder, but his game seems to be maturing, which is nice for a player who John Hollinger said before the year was statistically most similar to Tracy McGrady after one season at age 18. This leads us to the Al Harrington question. The Hawks are clearly a better team with Harrington, although the upside for the squad is probably 30 wins or so, whereas they're a 20-win team without him. He's a free agent at the end of the year, which means that they need to make a long term decision on him. To my mind, there's no way that they can keep him, since they are committed to Joe Johnson long-term and keeping Harrington would crowd out minutes for Smith, Josh Childress, and Marvin Williams. The only alternative would be to give up on Marvin, but that seems a tad rash 23 games into his NBA career. (Don't think that every Chris Paul highlight doesn't make me wince.) The most likely result is that the team is going to trade Harrington to free up minutes for their young players at the three and the four. The team will be worse initially before the trade and there is a concern that at some stage, they need to start creating and sustaining momentum, rather than continuing to build for the future. Still, I can't see how they can build for the future and keep Harrington long-term.

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