ATLANTA — Josh Smith calls it “semi-rebuilding.”
Lou Williams goes with the term “restructuring.”
Whatever the description, there’s no denying that the Atlanta Hawks will look a lot different this season.
The group that begins training camp on Tuesday includes only five holdovers from last year’s team, which made its fifth straight trip to the playoffs but was eliminated in the opening round by the Boston Celtics.
Gone is Joe Johnson, the centerpiece of the team since 2005. Marvin Williams also was sent packing, a former No. 2 overall pick who never lived up to expectations.
“It’s definitely going to be a challenge because we’re semi-rebuilding,” said Smith, one of the few familiar faces. “You hate to see those guys leave. But we’re going to be playing with different teammates now, so we’ve got to try to make things work.”
Stuck on a seemingly perpetual loop of being a good team that didn’t have any trouble making the playoffs, but was never stout enough to get past the second round, the Hawks decided on a dramatic makeover after their latest postseason exit. They hired a new general manager, Danny Ferry, who immediately put his stamp on the team by making two striking moves that were designed to give the team enough maneuvering room financially to chart a new course.
He sent Johnson, a six-time All-Star but also the team’s highest-paid player, to the Brooklyn Nets for what amounted to a bunch of soon-to-be expiring contracts. Williams’ hefty salary was sent to the Utah Jazz for point guard Devin Harris.
“It’s kind of startling,” Smith said. “But you knew something was going to happen when they brought in a new GM.”
On Monday, as the new-look Hawks gathered on the practice court for media day, everyone wanted to know how Smith felt about the changes. Born and raised in Atlanta, he’s spent his entire eight-year career with the Hawks. But he’s heading into the final year of his contract and has been the subject of persistent trade rumors and reports that he’s not happy with the direction of the team.
Not so, said Smith. He declared himself “on board” with the changes Ferry made and believes the team is now better positioned to make a jump in the standings – if not right away, certainly in the future.
“I’m all for change,” Smith said. “The last five years, we were kind of stuck in one place. We couldn’t get out of it. It’s like we were stuck in cement.”
Not that the team has been totally dismantled. Smith is coming off the best season of his mercurial career. He’s joined by two-time All-Star center Al Horford, who missed most of last season with an injury before making a dramatic return in the playoffs, and point guard Jeff Teague, who put up solid numbers in his first year as a starter. Zaza Pachulia and Ivan Johnson are solid contributors off the bench.
Everyone else is new.
“The term we’re using is ‘restructuring,’” said Williams, who averaged a career-best 14.9 points a game last season for the 76ers. “We’re not rebuilding. We’ve still got plenty of guys here who are more than capable.”
Especially in the backcourt. For this transitional year, Ferry has assembled a roster that is heavy on guards and plans to play at a frenzied pace, which might be necessary since there’s not a whole lot of size and depth in the frontcourt.
Williams left Philadelphia to sign with his hometown team. Anthony Morrow, who played collegiately at nearby Georgia Tech, was acquired in the blockbuster deal with the Nets. So was DeShawn Stevenson. Kyle Korver, a 3-point specialist, was acquired from Chicago for a trade exception and cash. John Jenkins was drafted in the first round out of Vanderbilt, where he was known for his outside shooting.
The Hawks will likely spend a good deal of time with three guards on the court, setting up a run-and-gun style of play.
“I told the guys they better come to camp in shape,” coach Larry Drew said. “I think this fits Jeff Teague to a T. I think the rest of the guys are going to enjoy playing that way. That’s the way the game should be played.”
While Atlanta shouldn’t have any trouble scoring, the situation looks much bleaker when the other team has the ball. Horford is a center better suited for power forward. Smith is a power forward better suited for small forward. Pachulia, Ivan Johnson, newcomer Anthony Tolliver and second-round pick Mike Scott are likely the only other potential contributors in the frontcourt.
“We’ve got to have active hands,” Pachulia said. “We’ve got to help each other out.”
Smith isn’t the only one who could be in lame-duck mode. The team picked up the option on Drew’s contract, but notably didn’t give him an extension. The coach wasn’t happy with the decision and knows it could make it easier for the players to tune him out – especially if the Hawks get off to a slow start.
No one is quite sure how it will all shake out, which makes this training camp the most intriguing one in years for the Hawks.
“I’m ready to get it started and see what happens,” Williams said. “Everything is so jumbled around. Usually you have seven or eight guys who know what they’re going to do. We only have two, three or four guys like that. It will be interesting to see how we put it together.”