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PREVIEW: New-look Atlanta out to show this isn't same ol' underachieving Hawks

Even though the Hawks cleaned house, one of the players they brought back that's considered to be a cornerstone is Al Horford.

Even though the Hawks cleaned house, one of the players they brought back that's considered to be a cornerstone is Al Horford.

Hawks set for opener against Rockets

ATLANTA — An offseason 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 on Friday night 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.

ATLANTA — No one can say this is the same ol’ Atlanta Hawks.

Tired of one year blending into the next, with little progress in either direction, the Hawks decided to take a dramatically different path heading into this season. Joe Johnson was traded. So was Marvin Williams.

Atlanta was left with a guard-dominated team that could be highly entertaining — certainly, scoring shouldn’t be a problem — but may be hard-pressed to win as many games. New general manager Danny Ferry has put together a roster filled with expiring contracts, making it clear that he’s got his eye more on the future than the present.

Still, coach Larry Drew believes the team has enough talent to make a run at its sixth straight playoff appearance. He refuses to call this a rebuilding year, even though he’s one of those in the last year of his contract. The Hawks picked up his option year, but very pointedly didn’t give him an extension.

“I’m looking at this as a very unique opportunity, not only for me but for this team,” Drew said. “I’m not coming into this thing looking at it like we’re starting over. We’re going to build off what we’ve done in the past.”

Indeed, the Hawks have plenty of talented players. Josh Smith is coming off perhaps the best season of his career. Al Horford is a former All-Star who missed most of last season with a pectoral injury, but made a dramatic return in the playoffs. Jeff Teague is coming into his own as a point guard. Lou Williams, one of the league’s top sixth men, was signed as a free agent.

But the roster Ferry assembled through trades and signings tilts heavily toward the backcourt. In addition to Teague and Williams, the Hawks also have guards Anthony Morrow, Kyle Korver, DeShawn Stevenson, Devin Harris and John Jenkins, the team’s top draft pick. The result is almost certainly a three-guard starting lineup, augmented by a center (Horford) who is probably better suited to play power forward, and a power forward (Smith) who might be more effective as a small forward.

Drew plans to counter the obvious defensive shortcomings with a run-and-gun style that will be a striking break from the isolation plays that were Johnson’s forte on the way to making six straight All-Star Game appearances.

“When you look at us on paper, everybody says we’re a team that has some good players, can make shots, will be able to get up and down the floor, will be able to score,” the coach said. “But will we be able to defend? That will be the big question.”

The most intriguing player on the court figures to be Smith, an often-enigmatic figure who took on more of a leadership role after Horford went down early in the season. J-Smoove put up career bests in points (18.8 a game) and rebounds (9.6), while being much more prudent about his shot selection. But this is the last year of his contract, and it’s not clear how much longer he’ll be playing for his hometown team.

Smith certainly considers himself one of the league’s better players and expects to be compensated like one. Ferry may not be willing to dole out that sort of money, fully aware of how Johnson’s maximum contract left the Hawks with little financial flexibility but didn’t produce any major success in the playoffs.

That’s why Johnson, only two years into a six-year, $119 million contract, was dealt to the Brooklyn Nets for little more than a bunch of players who will soon be off the books. That’s why Williams, a former No. 2 overall pick with two years left on a $40 million deal, was dealt to the Utah Jazz for Harris, a point guard the team didn’t really need.

“You obviously build a relationship with those players,” Smith said. “Joe and Marvin had been on this team for a long time. To see them go, it is different. But you knew something was going to happen with a new GM coming in, looking to try to turn this program around.”

The Hawks finished 40-26 last season, the fourth-best record in the Eastern Conference and a better-than-expected showing after Horford went down. But they were eliminated in the opening round of the playoffs by Boston, ending a streak of three straight appearances in the second round.

Atlanta has never advanced past the second round since moving to the Deep South in 1968. That’s the sort of blight Ferry was looking to change when he started wheeling and dealing.

Just don’t expect an immediate turnaround.

The Hawks might have to take a step or two back before they can start moving forward again.

“We’ve been winning for some years now, but we’re trying to take it to another level,” Smith said. “I’m on board with the decisions and the moves that were made. I’m pretty sure everyone around here is, too.”


ATLANTA HAWKS' 2012-13 SCHEDULE:

Today: Houston, 7:30 p.m.

Sunday: at Oklahoma City, 7 p.m.

Wednesday: Indiana, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 9: Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 11: at L.A. Clippers, 3:30 p.m.

Nov. 12: at Portland, 10 p.m.

Nov. 14: at Golden State, 10:30 p.m.

Nov. 16: at Sacramento, 10 p.m.

Nov. 19: Orlando, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 21: Washington, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 23: at Charlotte, 7 p.m.

Nov. 24: L.A. Clippers, 7 p.m.

Nov. 28: Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Nov. 30: Cleveland, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 5: Denver, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 7: Washington, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 8: at Memphis, 8 p.m.

Dec. 10: at Miami, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 12: at Orlando, 7 p.m.

Dec. 13: Charlotte, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 15: Golden State, 7 p.m.

Dec. 18: at Washington, 7 p.m.

Dec. 19: Oklahoma City, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 21: at Philadelphia, 7 p.m.

Dec. 22: Chicago, 7 p.m.

Dec. 26: Detroit, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 28: at Cleveland, 7:30 p.m.

Dec. 29: Indiana, 7 p.m.

Dec. 31: at Houston, 7 p.m.

Jan. 1: at New Orleans, 8 p.m.

Jan. 4: at Detroit, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 5: Boston, 7 p.m.

Jan. 8: at Minnesota, 8 p.m.

Jan. 9: at Cleveland, 7 p.m.

Jan. 11: Utah, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 12: at Washington, 7 p.m.

Jan. 14: at Chicago, 8 p.m.

Jan. 16: Brooklyn, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 18: at Brooklyn, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 19: San Antonio, 7 p.m.

Jan. 21: Minnesota, 2 p.m.

Jan. 23: at Charlotte, 7 p.m.

Jan. 25: Boston, 7:30 p.m.

Jan. 27: at New York, 6:30 p.m.

Jan. 30: Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 2: Chicago, 7 p.m.

Feb. 5: at Indiana, 7 p.m.

Feb. 6: Memphis, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 8: New Orleans, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 11: at Dallas, 8:30 p.m.

Feb. 13: at Orlando, 7 p.m.

Feb. 20: Miami, 8 p.m.

Feb. 22: Sacramento, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 23: at Milwaukee, 8:30 p.m.

Feb. 25: at Detroit, 7:30 p.m.

Feb. 27: at Utah, 9 p.m.

March 1: at Phoenix, 9 p.m.

March 3: at L.A. Lakers, 9:30 p.m.

March 4: at Denver, 9 p.m.

March 6: Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

March 8: at Boston, 7:30 p.m.

March 9: Brooklyn, 7 p.m.

March 12: at Miami, 7:30 p.m.

March 13: L.A. Lakers, 7:30 p.m.

March 15: Phoenix, 7:30 p.m.

March 17: at Brooklyn, 8 p.m.

March 18: Dallas, 7:30 p.m.

March 20: Milwaukee, 7:30 p.m.

March 22: Portland, 7:30 p.m.

March 24: at Milwaukee, 3 p.m.

March 25: at Indiana, 7 p.m.

March 27: at Toronto, 7 p.m.

March 29: at Boston, 7:30 p.m.

March 30: Orlando, 7 p.m.

April 1: Cleveland, 7:30 p.m.

April 3: New York, 7 p.m.

April 5: Philadelphia, 7:30 p.m.

April 6: at San Antonio, 8:30 p.m.

April 10: at Philadelphia, 7 p.m.

April 12: Milwaukee, 7:30 p.m.

April 16: Toronto, 7:30 p.m.

April 17: at New York, 8 p.m.