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Posted: May 12, 2009 6:14 p.m.

Ponder this

Hawks showed they're still a work in progress

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Dumbfounded, Atlanta's Flip Murray (left), Zaza Pachulia and Mike Bibby sit and stare as the Cleveland closes out the four-game series Monday at Philips Arena. The Hawks won 47 games in the regular season and defeated the Miami Heat in round one.

The NBA is the one league where one player -- one out-for-this-world player can make all the difference. The Atlanta Hawks saw that first hand in the Eastern Conference semi-finals. The Cleveland Cavaliers/LeBron James dispatched the Hawks with ease in four games with the clincher coming Monday -- an 84-74 loss at home.

We learned several things from this series. One, James is unstoppable. Two, the Hawks have no half-court offense. And three, Josh Smith can’t shoot. We learned some other things as well. Like, James can get away with pushing off every time he drives past his man. Whether he goes left or right, he either pushes his man off with his left forearm (if he goes right) or wraps his left arm around the defender (if he goes left). I’m not making things up. Watch any highlight, you’ll see what I mean. But more than that, James is just the latest example of how one player can turn a mediocre team into a championship contender. It only happens in basketball.

A great hitter or pitcher may win you more games and a dominating quarterback will certainly improve your chances, but a guy like James, Shaquille O’Neal, Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain can win a championship. That will happen this year for Cleveland. With the Lakers on the ropes and Kevin Garnett hurt, only Denver has a snow ball’s chance in hell of knocking off the Cavs. But enough about them, let’s take a look at the Hawks performance.

Atlanta probably played better during last year’s playoffs. True, the Hawks won a series and I pretty much figured they would. But they really didn’t show me anything against Cleveland. I didn’t expect them to win the series but I certainly thought they would win a game or two. Instead, Atlanta laid an egg. But even against the Heat, the Hawks struggled with consistency. Why? They have no half-court game.

Good teams will keep a game close, no matter who its opponent may be. But a good team can score in the half court set. That’s the only way you can consistently score. The Hawks on the other hand are comprised of a bunch of athletes who get up and down the floor and make things happen against broken defenses. But if a team plays disciplined defense, the Hawks are forced to rely one a Joe Johnson play or a Smith dunk. It’s easier to shut a team like that down. That’s why athletic teams that get up and down don’t get very far in the playoffs. Everyone plays defense in the postseason and scoring is always at a premium.

The Hawks know this. It’s not like head coach Mike Woodson isn’t trying. It just takes time. But the Hawks need to learn from this experience.

A month or so ago I said the Hawks would win a playoff series then bow out in the second round. I also said not to worry because it was just the next step in their progression. Now Atlanta’s brass needs to make some changes. Look at what Denver did. The reason the Nuggets are on the verge of reaching the Western Conference Finals is because of the move they made to not only get rid of "The Canswer" Allen Iverson, but acquire Chauncey Billups. Someone in Detroit should be fired over that move. In any case, the point is Denver made a possible championship-winning personnel move. The Hawks can do the same thing.

The Hawks have $41 million in salaries next season. With the luxury tax yet to be determined — it was $71.5 million in 2008-09 — the Hawks should have some flexibility. So what exactly do they need?

Before game four, I would have said the Hawks need to re-sign Mike Bibby immediately. He just finished up the final year of the deal he signed with Sacramento in 2002 and is set to be a free agent. Bibby made $15.2 million this year, more than anyone else including Johnson. Based on his performance Monday, he isn’t worth the money. But realistically Bibby is a major reason the Hawks won nearly 50 games (47-35) and made it past the Heat. He did have a good playoffs overall so one bad game shouldn’t be held against him. The Hawks need to resign him, just not for that much money.

Zaza Pachulia falls off the books this summer as does reserve guard Ronald "Flip" Murray. Pachulia has value. He’s tough and can score around the basket. He needs to come back. Murray proved his worth all season and deserves to come back. The question is how for how much. Teams will most certainly be looking to snatch him up and he may cost in the neighborhood of $6 million.

Look at the recent dominant teams throughout the NBA and several things pop out. The San Antonio Spurs won their championships with a great big man (Tim Duncan); solid point guard play (Avery Johnson, then Tony Parker); key role players (Bruce Bowen, Malik Rose and Michael Finley) and defense. It’s a blueprintfor success. It worked for Los Angeles too. These teams score in the half-court set and play solid defense. It’s something the Hawks don’t do.

The Hawks lost money with reserve point guard (that never played) Speedy Claxton. He doesn’t fall off the books until 2010-11. Acie Law hasn’t worked out and with Bibby’s defensive liabilities; the Hawks need another point guard. Indiana’s Jarrett Jack would be a great fit but he is under contract until 2011 as well. The other thing to consider is what to do about a big man. To score in the half court set, you need a player that can play with his back against the backboard. Al Horford isn’t the answer at the five spot. He’s better at the four. You can keep him at the five if you have a player like Garnett or Duncan that can play the four. Right now the Hawks have a log jam at the power forward spot with Marvin Williams, Horford and Smith. Atlanta already managed to dump Sheldon Williams and Williams might be next. Smith is probably more suited to play the small forward spot but that means the Hawks would need a shooter somewhere else. Right now, Johnson, Murray and Bibby make up the Hawks’ shooters. That isn’t very strong as each guy is streaky at best. Atlanta could use a guy like Kyle Korver who can spread the floor and make teams guard the perimeter. The Cavs left Smith open all series and he proved he couldn’t make them pay. A guy like Korver can, so long as the Hawks also have a big man down low who needs to be defended.

I’m sure the Hawks are well aware of their deficiencies and like I said, fans should be pleased with the progress they’ve made so far. Make no mistake though, next season Atlanta will be expected to contend for the Eastern Conference title. Finding all the pieces is what general managers are paid the big bucks to do. The fact that Atlanta seems to be on its way to being a consistent winner will help lure free agents. Atlanta has always been a place players enjoy to live. Now that the Hawks are winners, maybe some of the big names will want to play in the city too.

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