ATLANTA — An off-season of change led to a preseason of experiments for the Atlanta Hawks.
Finally, coach Larry Drew must decide on a starting lineup.
The Hawks open their season tonight against James Harden and the Houston Rockets. Drew hasn’t announced a starting lineup from the long list of combinations he sampled in the preseason.
All-Star guard Joe Johnson and forward Marvin Williams were traded in the offseason. New general manager Danny Ferry’s additions include Devin Harris, Lou Williams, Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow and rookie John Jenkins.
Three returning starters – point guard Jeff Teague, center Al Horford and forward Josh Smith – could be joined by Harris and Korver in Drew’s first lineup.
Drew said he decided before the start of the preseason to constantly try different combinations.
“I wanted to get a feel for what I had,” Drew said. “From quarter to quarter we mixed it up as well. It really was an evaluation time for us to see what would work for us and what wouldn’t work for us.”
Drew said his team lacks size but has good shooters and will emphasize strong defense. The experiments with different lineup combinations could continue into the season.
“There’s going to have to be a level of patience until we bring this whole thing together,” Drew said before adding “It’s a challenge, but it’s a challenge that I embrace. We’ll have speed and quickness. We’ll be a little smaller.”
Lou Williams led the team with his average of 13.7 points per game as the Hawks finished 3-4 in the preseason. He averaged a career-best 14.9 points a game last season for the 76ers.
The Hawks’ backcourt will be small with any combination of Teague, Harris and Williams.
Harden will be a challenging matchup for the Hawks. Harden, traded to Houston from Oklahoma City on Saturday, had 37 points and 12 assists in the Rockets’ 105-96 opening win at Detroit on Wednesday night. Harden signed a five-year, $80 million contract extension with Houston.
The 6-foot-7 Korver may start at small forward in what could be called a three-guard lineup. DeShawn Stevenson, a 12-year-veteran, also adds size as a 6-foot-5 guard.
Two more newcomers on Atlanta’s roster are forwards Mike Scott, a rookie, and Anthony Tolliver.
The Hawks traded Johnson, who averaged more than 20 points in five of his seven seasons in Atlanta, to the Brooklyn Nets in July for five players and a draft pick. Johnson was a six-time All-Star who was the team’s go-to scorer at the end of the game. At 6-7, Johnson also provided matchup problems on the perimeter even when the Hawks faced size disadvantages on the front line.
Drew will have to find ways to overcome matchup problems throughout his lineup.
“We have speed, we have quickness, we have guys who can make shots,” Drew said. “We have guys who can defend and that’s going to be our mindset every time we come out on the floor.”
Teague said the team’s strengths can make up for the size disadvantages.
“We’re going to play defense,” Teague said. “That’s how we’re going to get our fast breaks. We’re going to be in the passing lanes. We’re going to get deflections. That’s going to be our biggest thing, our defense.
“We’re going to be an organized fast-break team. We’re not going to be out there just running and gunning.”
Drew is relying on Smith and Horford to fill the leadership void left by Johnson’s exit. Drew said that begins with setting an example on defense.
“They’re going to have to be the two guys who set the tone for us defensively,” Drew said.
Smith, one of the league’s top shot-blockers, averaged 18.8 points and 9.6 rebounds last season, when the Hawks won 40 games before losing to the Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.