By John Carroll, Scouts Inc.
After a grueling 82-game schedule, the Atlanta Hawks find themselves in the third playoff spot in the East. The Hawks are one of the most talented offensive teams in the NBA. They have athleticism, speed, and scoring. They have a high-level point guard in Mike Bibby, an All-Star in Joe Johnson, who is one of the most-skilled players in the NBA, and an athletic high flyer in Josh Smith. Add the toughness, defense and rebounding of another All-Star in Al Horford and you see why this team wins. In addition, the Hawks picked up Jamal Crawford during the offseason. Crawford is currently averaging 18 points off the bench and has blended in and accepted his role so well for the Hawks that he is the frontrunner for the Sixth Man of the Year award.
The Atlanta Hawks are not one of the premier defensive teams in the league. However, with their athleticism, length and team speed they are able to guard most players without help. Their one-on-one defense is much better than their team defensive concepts. Their overall defensive philosophy is to switch everything. They will switch pick-and-rolls and pin down screening action. They will even switch smalls and bigs. Atlanta feels that they have the athleticism at all of their positions to contain the ball or keep the ball out of the post. It will be interesting to see how effective this is during the playoffs when teams have time to prepare and can exploit any weaknesses offensively.
Atlanta is one of the most talented teams in the NBA. They have proven that during the regular season and in the playoffs in the past three years. They have made incremental strides each year improving their record and seed in the NBA playoffs. Their next goal is to win the East and in order to do that they must get by the two toughest teams in there way Cleveland and Orlando. Atlanta will need to display composure and patience during the playoffs. They are still a young and inexperienced team when it comes to playoff basketball. The Hawks have a tendency to be very emotional and come unglued at times. They will need to lean on Johnson, who is the most consistent and composed player on their team. If they can play consistent basketball throughout the playoffs and not get distracted by the pressure of the game, the Hawks have the talent to upset a higher seeded team.
Injuries have been a problem all year for the Milwaukee Bucks. They have had key injuries to Michael Redd and Andrew Bogut. Redd was lost for the season after the first 18 games with a with a torn ACL, while Bogut, who played 69 games recently, had surgery on his right hand and is out for the remainder of the season. Throughout all of that, Scott Skiles has displayed why he is one of the best coaches in the NBA. His steady hand, and dogged determination have put this team in the playoff picture and made him a Coach of the Year candidate. The Bucks have had a storybook season built on defense and teamwork.
The Bucks have gone 21-8 since the trading deadline and vaulted themselves into a playoff position. There are several reasons that the Milwaukee Bucks find themselves in the position they are in. They play hard and compete every night. That is a testament to the players and the coaching staff. Playing hard for 82 games in the NBA is a skill, not every team can do that. Secondly the Bucks have a defensive system in place. Scott Skiles laid the foundation of their defensive system during training camp and slowly but surely they have improved each month of the season. Their players have bought into Skiles defensive philosophy and it has been the cornerstone of their improvement.
General manager John Hammond made several quiet, but subtle moves that have improved this franchise. He added Jerry Stackhouse earlier in the season and Stack has brought a veteran presence to this team. He has brought a toughness and seriousness about his job that has been good for the Bucks. Secondly, Hammond acquired John Salmons at the trading deadline and he has been a wonderful pickup for this team. His game has picked up since the trade and he is providing the Bucks with a player that can make shots and score. In addition he has brought a nice calming influence to the roster.
Lastly, the play of Bogut, who is injured and out for the playoffs, is a big reason that the Bucks are playing during late April. Bogut has provided the Bucks with a low-post scorer. They can throw the ball into him in the post and play inside out. He became a reliant scorer and facilitator out of the post. In addition, Bogut bought into Skiles’ defensive system and has worked hard to improve his man-to-man and team defense.
The Bucks without Bogut do not have enough weapons to pull off an upset in the first round. They are not an overly talented team and to lose such a low-post threat puts a lot of pressure on them. They do not have a lot of depth and will have problems with foul trouble in the playoffs. Milwaukee was playing so well since the trading deadline that it would have been interesting to see them play someone in the first round at full strength.
Point guard matchup
Mike Bibby is a veteran point guard with good size, and deceptive quicks. He can get to the rim and finish, is a good floor general, can run a team or score according to what the Hawks need. He is an excellent ball handler and passer. He has very good vision and court awareness. He is one of the best scoring point guards in the NBA. He can score off the catch in a spot-up role, can knock down the three-point shot or he can shoot it off the bounce very well. Bibby is an excellent pick-and-roll player. He will go to the rim in transition but in the half court does not have the explosion to blow by opponents.
Brandon Jennings is one of the most exciting young players in the NBA. He has had a very good rookie year. He has had his ups-and-downs just like all rookies, but it is evident that he has talent and that the Bucks made a good choice in drafting him last year. Some of what makes Jennings a good player are his intangibles. He is fearless, and loves to play the game. He will not back down or concede anything. He exhibits tremendous confidence on the court and has a real competitive spirit. Brandon can run a team, is a good playmaker. He has tremendous quickness and can get wherever he wants with the ball. He is almost impossible to contain in the open court. Because he can get anywhere with the ball, Jennings has the ability to create, draw the defense and create for himself and his teammates. He has all the dribble moves and can stop on a dime, change direction or pull up for his jump shot. He is an excellent pick-and-roll player and he puts a lot of pressure on opponents because he is a true scoring point guard.
Brandon has had some big scoring nights for the Bucks. This has been a blessing and a curse. His shot selection and accuracy must continue to improve. He will shoot any shot at any time and this does not help his field goal percentage and his ability to be efficient. Although he has the ability to shoot the three-point shot, Jennings has struggled at times to be consistent from the perimeter. However, there is no doubt that he has the confidence to take and make a big shot even if he has struggled from the field. He is a good pick-and-roll player and as his stroke improves with his shot selection, he will become more and more dangerous coming off the picks. Jennings has a slight body, and is not very physical.
Jennings started the season as a very poor defensive player. He struggled to keep his man in front of him, he gambled for steals and did not understand the Bucks defensive system. But to his credit he has worked hard to become better as the season has progressed. He has the speed and quickness to keep almost all of the better guards in the NBA in front of him. He must continue to work at being disciplined defensively on pick and rolls, screens and playing solid team defense.
Shooting guard matchup
Joe Johnson is one of the most versatile players currently playing in the NBA. Joe has one of the best skill sets of any player in the league. He can handle, pass, shoot, rebound and score. Joe has great court awareness and vision. He handles the ball a ton for the Hawks and is their go-to guy in crunch time. Because of his ball handling skills, height and explosiveness off the dribble, Johnson is a very difficult cover.
Johnson does a little of everything now for the Atlanta Hawks. He is smooth, looking effortless at times, and has a tremendous feel for the game. He plays with poise, does not get rattled or show too much emotion while he plays.
Johnson is a scorer and he scores in so many ways. He can post up smaller matchups, take his man off the dribble and hit the pull ups, play pick-and-roll basketball, and knock down open jumpers. He is excellent taking his man one-on-one and is extremely good utilizing a hesitation move or a tremendous crossover. He is a very difficult matchup for NBA teams because of his height and versatility.
Joe is not a lock-down defender but he is very solid in his defensive fundamentals, has excellent footwork and great length. He will get his hands on balls because of his length. In addition he is willing to go to the glass and get you rebounds from the guard position. He can rebound and start the break himself because of his point guard skills.
John Salmons was a great pickup for the Bucks at the trading deadline. Salmons was having a subpar year for the Chicago Bulls but since the trade he has provided the Bucks with a consistent scorer. He has averaged 20.1 points per game since his arrival. Salmons is a low maintenance player, who brings composure, experience and a calming influence to the Bucks. Scott Skiles gets Salmons a lot of touches and runs a variety of plays to put the ball in his hands. The more touches he has gotten the more productive he has been. John Salmons can make shots. He can come off screens and shoot it, he can take you off the bounce and he can run pick and rolls. In addition Salmons with his length and athleticism has fit in nicely to the Bucks defensive system. He is not a lock-dock defender, but he will work on the defensive end of the floor and give a great effort.
Small forward matchup
Josh Smith is the poster boy for the new NBA. He is a big-time athlete, with tremendous height and length for a small forward. Smith is one of the most explosive athletes currently in the NBA. Smith is a big time talent and an important piece of the puzzle for the Atlanta Hawks. He is excellent in the open floor, getting out on the break, filling lanes and finishing on the break. Smith is fearless taking the ball to the rim, and he will elevate and throw it down on opponents when the opportunity presents itself.
Josh Smith is an aggressive offensive player. He can stroke the jumper and step out to the three-point line. His ability to step away from the basket causes opponents to come away from the basket. He is much better open court one-on-one player than he is in a half court set situation. If he can just attack the rim, take his man off the dribble and play one-on-one he is much more comfortable. When he is half court situations Smith is less comfortable because his game is not that tight yet. He is not a good enough ball handler or passer versus the top flight playoff teams defenses. He can post up a bit and score around the basket with a jump hook. He also attacks the offensive glass and causes a lot of problems for his opponents with his athleticism and elevation.
Smith is one of the best perimeter defenders in the NBA. His quickness, athleticism, and length make him a terror on the defensive end of the floor. He is not necessarily a lockdown defender or sound in principles, but Smith utilizes his athletic gifts to get his hands on passes. In addition, he has the ability to get back into the play. He tends to be a bit foul prone because of his aggressive nature. He loves to come out of nowhere on the break defensively to contest and block shots. He will get on the defensive glass and rebounds well for the small forward position utilizing his hops and length.
Carlos Delfino has provided the Bucks with a reliable, tough, hard-nosed small forward. Delfino, is from Argentina and he has worked his way through several NBA teams in order to get a starting position with the Bucks. He is a skilled foreign player who is trying to find consistency in his game. Delfino can handle the ball, pass and shoot. He is a knock-down perimeter shooter, with three-point range. Delfino make open spot up shots off the catch, and he can run some pick and rolls also.
Defensively, Delfino provides the Bucks with a perimeter player that can defend and rebound. He is fairly tough and rugged. He has a good, strong body and he uses it to defend some more athletic wings. Delfino is a terrific rebounder. He gets to balls outside his area and tracks the flight of the ball and can rebound in traffic. Carlos has averaged 11 points, while playing 30 minutes and grabbing 5.3 rebounds..
Power forward matchup
Marvin Williams is a young, talented basketball player who has improved steadily in the last year or two. One of his biggest problems initially was exactly what position he could play in the NBA. He is not a true post-up player in the NBA and his perimeter skills are suspect. He does not have much range on his jumper. Teams can play off him and play him for his drive. He needs to continue to become more aggressive offensively and not settle for jumpers. He needs to display an explosive drive game, post-up some mismatches and get to the free throw line more consistently. He is very good in the open court, runs the floor and can finish.
Williams needs to continue to improve on the defensive end of the floor. He needs to constantly utilize his athletic gifts on the defensive end of the floor. He is a solid defender because he has good fundamentals and knows how to play. Problem is he has a tough time guarding the post versus big, strong post players and he additionally has a problem keeping the quicker forwards from blowing by him off the dribble. Williams rebounds the ball decently from the forward position, but should be better with his athleticism and length.
During the course of the 2009-10 season, Skiles decided to move Luc Mbah a Moute exclusively to the big forward spot and play small. Luc is 6’8” 225 pounds and may be the best overall athlete on the Bucks team. He is in the starting lineup for two reasons: defense and rebounding. Mbah a Moute is a tremendous and versatile defender. He can guard multiple positions, in fact in a pinch, he can guard point guards through the power forward position. He has the athleticism, speed and toughness to defend all types of players.
Luc is a real liability on the offensive end of the floor. He gives the Bucks next to nothing on offense. He is not a skilled offensive player, has questionable hands and can only score via cutting, moving, being aggressive and persistent on the offensive glass. Mbah a Moute has aveaged 2.3 offensive rebounds per game this season. His defense has really helped the Bucks to a tremendous record since the trading deadline, but his offense will put a lot of pressure on his teammates during a playoffs series. When opponents do not have to even guard or worry about a particular player, they can load up and make life real difficult on the other four.
Al Horford is a strong, physical big man. He is more of a power forward than a center but that is the position that the Atlanta Hawks need him to play and his high level performance this season earned him a spot on this years All-Star team. Horford has carved out a nice niche for himself in the NBA. Al plays extremely hard and helps make the Hawks a better team. He is their glue guy in their frontcourt. He is a steady and consistent presence for the Hawks.
Al is best known for his ability to defend and rebound. Horford is a very reliable defender. He can guard in the low post one-on-one without help and double teams. In addition he is a tenacious rebounder. Horford goes after every missed shot and is the Hawks most consistent rebounder.
The Hawks are a very talented offensive team and don’t look to Horford to be a scorer. He is not a go-to player in the low post. He can score in the low post and has a decent skill set but he is not a dominant back to the basket player yet. What Horford can do is pass. He can face up his man and knock down the short 10-to-15 foot jump shot. He is a very willing and able passer. In fact Horford might be the best passing center in the NBA.
Kurt Thomas has played a backup role for the Bucks for most of the season. This 38-year-old veteran has been forced into the starting lineup because of the recent season-ending injury to Bogut. The Bucks are incredibly lucky to have the services of this veteran power forward/center. Kurt is tough, physical and strong as an ox. The Bucks will have to play him extended minutes in the playoffs and Skiles must monitor his minutes and his production in the next week or two.
Thomas has always been known as a very good defender. He brings a wealth of defensive knowledge as well as the intensity to play the game. He is experienced, knows all the tricks and how to use them. He will grab, and hold in order to get his job done.
In addition Thomas has always been a very good rebounder. He has great hands, and although he only rebounds in his area, he has put up some big rebounding numbers in the past.
Thomas should be able to help the Bucks offensively. He has great hands, can catch and has a good feel for the game. He will provide Skiles with a reliable low-post player in the playoffs. He can play with his back to the basket or he can step off the post and knock down the short jumper. He has 17-to-19 foot range on his jumper.
Jamal Crawford was the NBA’s top sixth man. He has accepted his role off the bench after being a starter for a number of years. He is a perfect player for this team. He is long and athletic. He can defend and score. He is a player who can create his own shot and put up points on the board. When he gets in a zone, he can carry a team on his back. He has the ability score from anywhere and everywhere. Jamal is a very dynamic and explosive offensive player. He has the ability to shoot with deep range and the quickness off the dribble to get to the basket no matter what the matchup may be. Crawford is a lethal isolation option with the ability to pull up at any point into his jump shot. He has a terrific hesitation move and an outstanding left to right crossover dribble. On drives, he is able to protect the ball, get to the rim and finish or get fouled. Crawford must continue to be a more efficient scorer. Sometimes his shot selection gets him in trouble. Jamal can also be a playmaker for his teammates, and he is willing get others involved. He sees the floor and can find the open man. With his ballhandling and playmaking skills he has been able to set up teammates for open shots and easy scores this season.
Crawford has never been looked at as a tough on ball defender. In addition, he has never had the consistent effort and mentality to be a lock-down defender. He does not have the body frame that can take a pounding, and thus, he struggles defending stronger shooting guards in the post. He does possess very good instincts that can be utilized away from the ball. He plays passing lanes well, and with his length and quickness he is a disruptive defensive presence.
Luke Ridnour has fought to be a starter in the NBA, but this year he has accepted his role of coming off the bench for Skiles and has had a very consistent and productive season. Ridnour has embrace his role of either coming off the bench to relieve Jennings at the point or sometimes the Bucks play a small but talented backcourt of Jennings and Ridnour together. When Jennings has struggled as a rookie or he has not shot the ball very well, the Bucks have had an answer at the point position. Ridnour, playing in the final year of his contract, has played with great energy for Milwaukee.
Ridnour is a very good playmaker. He is crafty with the ball and gets where he wants with it. He is a very good shooter. He can score off pick-and-rolls or screens. Ridnour has averaged 10.3 points in 21.4 minutes and is also stroking the 3-point shot at a .371 percent clip.
Ridnour looks like he would have problems at the defensive end of the floor but he understands Skiles system and he has done exactly what he was asked to do defensively. Obviously Ridnour will struggle with the best NBA point guards, but he gives a big-time effort and the Bucks are glad to have Luke.
Prediction: Atlanta in six