Whither the Atlanta Hawks? There are four real contenders in the Eastern Conference (and yes, I still include the Orlando Magic in that group), while the New York Knicks just made their bid for relevance. That leaves Atlanta, which is currently just 1.5 games back of Orlando for home-court advantage in the opening round but is beginning a brutal stretch run that figured to expose the Hawks as pretenders.
Atlanta GM Rick Sund is reportedly close to making his move, and I’m dubious whether it’s going to be enough. The Hawks are sending their starting point guard, Mike Bibby, to the Washington Wizards for Kirk Hinrich. To even up the swap, Atlanta is sending rookie Jordan Crawford and its 20111 first-round pick to Washington, while veterans Maurice Evans and Hilton Armstrong were thrown in on each side for cap purposes.
Hinrich is better than Bibby, let’s be clear. The latter has a slight advantage on the offensive end, where he remains a superb three-point shooter (44.7 percent from beyond the arc this season to Hinrich’s solid but less spectacular 38.4 percent) and the rest is pretty much a wash. Both Hinrich and Bibby are largely spot-up shooters and facilitators at this stage of their careers. Neither is doing much to set up teammates or get to the rim off the dribble.
At the defensive end, Hinrich more than evens up that difference. He is one of the league’s better defenders at guard, and while Hinrich does not excel against quicker guards, point guards of all varieties torched Bibby at the defensive end. According to Basketball Prospectus’ counterpart numbers, the Hawks have defended point guards as poorly as any team has defended any position. Hinrich’s size and strength will also help Atlanta switch at the defensive end.
How much is that upgrade worth? I’d say maybe a game or two over a full season. Ordinarily, that’s an enormous difference. But the gap between the Hawks and the East’s best teams is so large that I’m not sure this move makes much of a dent. Atlanta still looks to me like first-round fodder for the Magic. That’s when you have to start wondering about the Hawks’ future. This deal means giving up two years’ worth of young contributors on cost-effective rookie deals. Backup point guard Jeff Teague is the only growing player of note on the Atlanta roster, and this deal along with rumors involving Teague seem to indicate the Hawks don’t view him as a starter any time soon. So Atlanta isn’t good enough right now, and can’t count on adding young talent. That’s a pretty bad recipe for long-term relevance.