If somebody had assured you at the outset of NBA free agency that the Hawks’ consensus title odds for next season would soon be the same as Oklahoma City’s, it would’ve caused excitement in a city known more for shoes being thrown at television sets during local pro sports events.
But it’s true. The Hawks and Thunder have the same chance to win the championship next season, according to Pregame.com. The problem is those odds are only 60-1. The Hawks’ odds didn’t budge after signing Dwight Howard. Oklahoma City’s odds fell from 7-1 after losing Kevin Durant to Golden State (now at 5-4).
The Falcons are 40-1 to win the Super Bowl. The Braves are 200-1 to win the World Series. Taking the second bet will get you declared legally insane in 49 of 50 states, except Nevada, where they’ll simply give you complimentary drinks to keep playing.
I bring this up now because it seems like a good time to outline what it would take for the Falcons, Hawks and Braves to achieve, if not a championship, at least some level of success that restores fan confidence. All three have a ways to go. But following are the three biggest keys to success for the three teams, at least in the view of one overly caffeinated columnist. I’m listing the teams in order of how I would rank them today.
1. Matt Ryan: He acknowledged in a recent film session with yours truly that he needs to be better, which isn’t to suggest there weren’t problems elsewhere. Ryan is a strong leader and has the respect of his teammates, but he needs to cut down on turnovers and be better in close games and tough situations.
2. Pass rush: Their first two picks in the draft were spent on defense (Keanu Neal and Deion Jones). Free-agent signings were more significant on offense (center Alex Mack, receiver Mohamed Sanu) than defense (end Derrick Shelby). Was this enough to improve the NFL’s worst pass rush (19 sacks)? If things don’t get better, they’re going to have problems against next season’s opposing quarterbacks (who include Aaron Rodgers, Cam Newton, Russell Wilson, Carson Palmer, Drew Brees and Jameis Winston).
3. Offensive rhythm: Offensive coordinator Kyle Shanahan struggled to get on the same page with receivers last season, at least in part because of his own obstinance. Communication needs to improve. Shanahan is a smart guy, but if he’s not more open to accepting ideas the offense will struggle.
1. Dennis Schroder: The decision to commit to Schroder at point guard and deal Jeff Teague for a draft pick (Taurean Prince) wasn’t unexpected, given Teague’s inconsistency and that he was a year from free agency. But the Hawks’ decision works only if Schroder provides more offense, and he plays under control.
2. Dwight Howard: He can rebound and block shots. But he also needs to stay healthy (which has been a problem), defend and be a greater offensive force than he was in Houston. Most of all: He has to act like he wants to be here and accepting coaching. He doesn’t have to be a leader. He just can’t be a divisive figure.
3. Mike Budenholzer: What he helped build could be on the verge of falling apart if he doesn’t hold this together. This isn’t about mere X’s and O’s, it’s about getting a reconstructed team to buy in and developing chemistry on and off the court. Offense was a problem last season. He also may need to smooth things over with Paul Millsap, who was central to trade talks during the Al Horford negotiations.
1. Starting pitching: Most of this rebuilding project was about organizational depth in pitching. But after Julio Teheran (2.72 ERA), the best current hope for success is Matt Wisler (4.16). Aaron Blair, Mike Foltynewicz and Williams Perez are among the young arms who’ve had their struggles. Not unexpected. Also not comforting. But it’s early.
2. Offense: The Braves rank last in the majors in runs, batting average (.237) and OPS (.642). The goal in seasons like this is to identify keepers. Mallex Smith (now injured) and Jace Peterson have a shot. Ender Inciarte needs to stay healthy — and a .236 batting average won’t cut it. The lineup is devoid of power. So much work to do on this roster.
3. Manager: The scapegoating front office determined this year’s team was underachieving and that Fredi Gonzalez wasn’t the right manager to lead this team in the future. I’d be stunned if Brian Snitker keeps the job, which means the Braves will need to find a manager who can massage young egos, have a vision for what this team can be and inspire a jaded fan base going into next season.
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