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Healthy Bibby a Difference-Maker In Atlanta?

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Mike Bibby remains persona non grata among Celtics fans, and that isn't likely to change anytime soon. 

The green faithful did not quickly forget the disparaging comments Bibby made about the fans in Boston during the Hawks' first-round series with the Celtics last year, and the point guard was serenaded with booming choruses of "Ron-do's bet-ter!" throughout the games played in Boston last spring.  There is assuredly more of that to come when the Hawks make their visits to the TD Banknorth Garden in the season to come.

What remains in question - for both the Hawks' two trips to Boston and their other 80 games as well - is whether improved health will allow
Bibby to be a bigger factor than he was a year ago for the Atlanta.

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When the Hawks acquired Bibby in the midst of last season, it was done to bring in a veteran leader and add some stability at the point guard spot in order to help the team make a push for the playoffs.  The Hawks not only got to the postseason but gave the Celtics quite a bit more of a scare than virtually anyone could have expected, taking the eventual champs the distance before getting whacked in Game 7.

While Bibby's arrival was helpful so far as helping guide the abundance of youth on this Atlanta team was concerned, he was far from spectacular on an individual level.  Bibby shot just 41.4 percent from the field in 33 games as a Hawk (his 41.1 for the season was the second-worst mark of his career) and averaged just a shade better than 14 points while dishing out 6.5 assists per game over that span.  He didn't get to the rim all that effectively, went through long cold streaks from the outside and turned the ball over 2.5 times per game, which is a bit high for the season in which he played his fewest minutes, averaging just 32.8 per game between Atlanta and Sacramento.  It didn't help that Bibby consistently looked a step slow on defense as well.

At 30 years old, it seems a bit early for this guy to be definitively over the hill.  Just two years ago, Bibby put up 21.1 points per game and 55.4 percent true shooting.  A season before that, he handed out 6.8 assists while scoring 19.6 points per game.  He could make plays around the rim and loved to take the big shot, spotting up comfortably from mid-range.  He was also at the very least capable defensively and seemed to be one of the better floor generals in the game. 

Watching him struggle miserably in the playoffs against the Celtics in 2008, it was hard to believe this was the same guy.  But that's just it: His boosters will have you believe it wasn't.  Bibby tore a ligament in his thumb prior to the start of last season, and it held him out of the lineup until January, limiting him to 48 games on the season.  Though he played out the second half of the year, the buzz around the Hawks was that the injury lingered and affected him throughout the stretch run, which would explain some of his shooting and ball-handling woes.

But the thumb on its own doesn't remove all the concern about the fact that the guy looked a step slower at both ends of the floor than he had in previous years.  A part of that could no doubt have been the fact that the injury got him off to a slow start on the season and that not getting into game action until January prevented him from truly getting comfortable all year.  But at 30, it's also possible that he isn't as quick as he once was, and that's all there is to it.   There remain some expectations around the Hawks that a fully healthy Bibby will be a different player this season, that he'll be a more dynamic playmaker and a more consistent shooter from mid-range and the outside. 

If he is in fact a better all-around player, there is no telling how much of a difference Bibby could make for this Atlanta team.  He could add another big-time scoring threat and could make all those around him better in the process.  Or he could just easily have the thumb heal but never get that lost step back, in which case he will be a defensive liability and less of a threat on the offensive end - in which case the Hawks are unlikely to take much of a step forward from what they were a year ago.

Which Mike Bibby will we see this year?  It could make a huge difference in Atlanta.

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