Thursday, May 19, 2016

Offseason Overview Part II: Roster Evaluation, Free Agent Planning

In Part I, I detailed how the Hawks have failed to address the gaping hole at small forward. In this installment, we'll evaluate the current roster and discuss plans for free agency.

Prior to the playoffs, I wrote for BBall Breakdown that the Hawks this season did things backwards compared to last season. During an historic 2014-15 -- in which the Hawks won a franchise-record 60 games -- Atlanta's top five in net rating through Jan. 15 saw a decline in the second half. I created an Infogram to show these changes and how the players performed in the postseason. I added a second tab to show the same in-season change for the current season. By contrast, most of Atlanta's roster improved in net rating in the second half of the current season. The Hawks appeared to be getting hot at the right time as the playoffs approached.

Sadly, although the Hawks didn't peak too early this time, the playoff results were the same: a sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers. Below is a chart showing net rating for Hawks rotation players for the regular season, each playoff series and overall for the playoffs. It also shows the change in net rating from the regular season to the playoffs.



I've been shouted down on Twitter for making too much out of the limited sample of net rating from a single playoff series. However, I'll argue that those limited samples have more value than a full, regular season sample. As I showed with my graph on BBall Breakdown, it didn't matter if the Hawks finished the regular season hot or cold. The result in both cases was a four-game sweep by the Cavaliers. The regular season is a meaningless exercise in revenue generation. The playoffs are the only season that matters, and each successive series is vastly more relevant than the last.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

'Blow It Up' Is Not a, Or the, Plan

During the first 10 minutes of Monday's Lowe Post podcast, Zach Lowe gave some succinct thoughts on what faces the Hawks this offseason.

"Blowing it up and losing everything is not really a plan," said Lowe. "A plan would be using your cap space to try and get a two way wing who might be able to have a prayer against LeBron James. The Hawks are that kind of player away from being very good."

Lowe was emphatic in saying that the Hawks are too good to tear it all down and start over again.

"They probably are the second best team in the Eastern Conference. Toronto has played like garbage for the entire playoffs."

Let's assume the Hawks keep Al Horford but renounce the cap holds for Kent Bazemore and Kirk Hinrich. With a projected cap next season of $92 million, the Hawks would have just over $76 million committed to 11 players plus a $1.2 million cap hold for Kris Humphries and an $18 million cap hold for Horford. That leaves the Hawks with about $16 million to spend on free agents.

Unfortunately for the Hawks, this is a weak free agent class. With about half the league expected to have cap space to offer one or more maximum contracts, the demand for free agents has never been higher. However, the supply was diluted by last year's free agency, when so many players took the money that was on the table rather than bet on themselves in 2016 free agency. So supply is slim while demand is higher than the NBA has ever seen.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Hawks-Celtics Game 4 Preview

It's been said that a team never establishes itself in a postseason series until it wins a game on the road. Thus far in the Hawks-Celtics first round playoff series, neither team has done so. However, Celtics coach Brad Stevens made the series' first significant and successful adjustments, leading to a Game 3 victory in Boston.

Following Game 2 in Atlanta, Jae Crowder summed up the Hawks' defensive approach in the first two games.

"They fly around," said Crowder. "They are very physical on your cuts. They went under a lot of things, made us make shots and jammed the paint on our drives and protected the rim like they've done in this whole stretch where they've been the best defense in the league."

One glance at Boston's stat sheet for the season makes an obvious strategy jump out: With Isaiah Thomas averaging 22.2 points and no other Celtic averaging more than Avery Bradley's 15.2, the idea is to make Thomas' life hell and make his less-prolific teammates beat you. Stevens' rotations in the first two games lent themselves to this strategy with the earthbound Jared Sullinger in the starting lineup for both games and bricky Marcus Smart replacing Bradley in the starting lineup for Game 2.

Sullinger's struggles in this series were entirely predictable. Paul Millsap and Al Horford are multi-talented and extremely mobile. One glance at Boston's net rating for the first two games made Stevens' front court adjustment for Game 3 equally predictable. The Celtics were outscored by 17.8 points per 100 possessions with Sullinger on the floor while surrendering a team-worst 112.1 points per 100. Meanwhile, in Jonas Jerebko's 37 minutes, the Celtics were plus-13.2 per 100 and limited opponents to 85.5 points per 100, Boston's second-best defensive rating.

Although Smart scored 15 points in Game 1 on 50% shooting from the field (5-for-10) and three-point range (3-for-6), his hot shooting did not continue in Game 2 as a replacement for Bradley. As an emergency starter, Smart was limited to 1-for-11 from the field, including 1-for-6 from three-point range, and recorded a game-worst minus-20 in the box score. Since Smart performed much better off the bench in Game 1 than as a starter in Game 2, moving Evan Turner into the starting lineup for Game 3 seemed like another wise adjustment by Stevens.

The moves paid immediate dividends. The Hawks were unable to sag off other players and focus on limiting Thomas with Jerebko -- who shot 39.8% from three during the regular season -- pulling an Atlanta big man out of the lane. Although Jerebko has shot just 2-for-9 (22%) from three in the series, he's too dangerous to play off of. Meanwhile Turner is shooting just 1-for-6 (17%) from deep in the series. However, his presence as a starter gave the Celtics a secondary ball handler, which allowed Thomas to play off the ball at times. Turner recorded 17 points and seven assists in the Game 3 victory as the Hawks struggled to respond to Stevens' lineup shuffle.

After averaging just 4.4 points during the regular season, Jerebko rewarded Stevens' confidence by notching 11 points, 12 rebounds, four assists and zero turnovers in 37 minutes. He recorded a game-high plus-14 in the box score and the Celtics outscored the Hawks by 16.2 points per 100 possessions with Jerebko on court. For the series, Boston is plus-14.6 in Jerebko's 74 minutes. The only other Celtic with a positive net rating is R.J. Hunter (plus-15 in a limited 25 minute sample).

For Atlanta, it falls to Mike Budenholzer to respond in kind to Stevens' successful Game 3 tweaks. For Coach Bud, it almost certainly won't involve tinkering with the starting lineup. For Atlanta, the most obvious adjustment would be to shorten the bench. Every Hawk with double-digit minutes in the series has a positive net rating except Dennis Schröder (minus-5.1), Tim Hardaway Jr. (minus-20.6) and Mike Muscala (minus-26). Schröder is indispensable. After a rough first two games, Schröder was second in net rating for the Hawks in Game 3.

Hardaway and Muscala, however, could see their minutes curtailed. Muscala appeared to be coming on toward the end of the regular season but that hasn't translated to the playoffs. He played a key role for the Hawks against the Wizards in last season's playoffs, taking minutes away from Mike Scott. But in these playoffs, Scott has been Atlanta's biggest difference-maker off the bench.

In Scott's 59 minutes for the series, the Hawks are outscoring the Celtics by 10.9 points per 100, a rotation-best net rating. Atlanta is effectively 38 points per 100 possessions better with Scott on court in the series and Muscala on the bench. The Hawks are scoring a microscopic 57 points per 100 with Muscala and Hardaway on court.

Game 4 will be huge for the momentum of the winning team. If the Celtics draw even, it becomes a best-of-three series. If the Hawks prevail, the Celtics would need to win three straight to survive. With those kind of stakes, it wouldn't be surprising to see Budenholzer shorten his bench by extending minutes for Schröder, Scott and Thabo Sefolosha while also leaning heavily on the starters.

The Hawks must also hope to heat up from long range. Although the Hawks are known as a jump shooting team, Atlanta is hitting just 27.5% from three in the series while the Celtics are shooting a respectable 33.5%.

"Three pointers are the equalizer in this league," said Bazemore after Game 2.

Thus far the Hawks haven't shot well enough to deliver a knockout blow to the Celtics. Atlanta shot just 9-for-36 (25%) from three in Game 3 while Boston shot 11-for-32 (34.4%). For the series, the Hawks have three players shooting over 40% from three, including Al Horford (44.4%), Mike Scott (44.4%) and Kyle Korver (43.5%). However, the rest of the roster is a combined 7-for-50 (14%).

Bazemore, who has shot 4-for-18 from deep (22%), predicted that nothing would be easy in Boston.

"We're going into one of the toughest playoff environments ever."

Monday, June 16, 2014

Why Europeans Fear American Soccer

So I read this screed by Jonathan Clegg on WSJ.com titled "Why I Hate American Soccer Fans," and I figured it was time to respond to Europe's unending football snobbery. Clegg's main issue is Americans "aping" the behavior of soccer fans in Europe. Since I've never been guilty of this heinous act (the only team I've ever cared about is the United States men's national team), I can't respond to the specific charges. However, I do have a theory about why Europeans are so worried about having their pastime co-opted by Americans. First, some background:

I became a soccer fan watching the American Underdogs (that link goes to an amazing 4-part series you should read every word of) perform miracles during the 1994 World Cup. The most riveting moment of the tournament for me was a missed goal, Marcelo Balboa's bicycle kick that would have put the United States up 3-0 on Columbia (a side the Yanks weren't supposed to be competitive with). What's really amusing all these years later is to view the old, low-def Youtube video and watch Balboa muttering every cuss word in the book to himself. He was PISSED it didn't go in.

To really appreciate the degree to which American soccer has been nay-sayed and underestimated, we must fast forward to the present. One of Europe's leading soccer snobs is the USMNT's very own coach, Jürgen Klinsmann, who has stated unequivocally that the USA cannot compete for a World Cup championship. Klinsmann is one of the leading goal scorers in World Cup history and a former World Cup champion. Surely we can take his word for it that Americans are unable to compete on the global soccer stage, right?

But wait. I seem to recall a quarterfinal match during the 2002 World Cup in which the United States sprayed the face of goal with shots, most turned aside by German goalkeeper Oliver Kahn. But there was one shot that got past Kahn. Claudio Reyna, whom I wrote about during his college years at Virginia, sent a perfect cross in to Greg Berhalter. His shot went through Kahn only to be stopped by the hand of... God? No... of defender Torsten Frings. Had a penalty been awarded for the hand ball, it was anybody's match. A victory against Germany (and I remind you, the Americans, including a young Landon Donovan, were absolutely SHELLING the German goal) would have left only an over-achieving South Korea between the United States and a World Cup final. But Americans can't compete on the global soccer stage, can they Jürgen?

It all makes me wonder if this isn't a ploy by Klinsmann to put some American backs up. Is Klinsmann trying to reprise the tactics of Herb Brooks, who coached the US Olympic hockey team to the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980? Brooks was so acerbic that his team of college rivals banded together with Brooks as the common enemy. Could Klinsmann be playing similar mind games, trying to unite his team in its resentment of him? Who knows? Maybe Klinsmann is just a run-of-the-mill European soccer snob after all.

While Clegg bemoaned the preponderance of Arsenal fans among Americans, the English Premiere League side may have inadvertently strengthened North American-based Major League Soccer by snubbing America's best player: Michael Bradley. Before transferring from Italian Serie A side Roma to Toronto FC of MLS, Bradley was considered by Arsenal, which ultimately signed Sweden's Kim Kallstrom. The latter proved ineffective for Arsenal and former USMNT manager Bob Bradley (Michael's father) opined that Arsenal signed a lesser player due to ingrained European bias against American players.

And that brings me to my theory on why Clegg and other Euro's are weeping so many bitter tears about the growing popularity of soccer in America. The reason they hate American soccer fandom is because they know that when MLS begins to wield more financial power, those European sides will be competing directly with MLS for the top soccer talent in the world. Bradley, Clint Dempsey, English striker Jermain Defoe and Spanish striker David Villa have all signed big-money contracts to play in MLS. The money is already starting to flow and expansion is on the way, including a new club for my beloved ATL. More money and more rosters to fill... you know what that means, don't you Europe? 

What would happen if the salary cap for MLS teams was raised from the current $3.1 million to somewhere around the current NBA salary cap (projected to rise to 63.2 million)? About half of Clegg's beloved Premier League teams would be picking from the leavings of players who opted against the States' warmer climates and higher standard of living. 


All MLS needs is one last push to get over the hump. That could happen as soon as today when the United States gets its opportunity for revenge against Ghana, the team that has eliminated it from the last two World Cups. A result for the Americans in this match would set up a showdown with Portugal, ranked 4th in the world and led by Christiano Ronaldo, possibly the best soccer player in the world. We're going quickly discover the truth of Klinsmann's anti-American decree. This is about to get good.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

Was the D-League more than Royce White could handle?

(Editor's note: Hey folks! I let this blog die after I was welcomed to the stable of writers for HawksHoop.com, but I may still use it from time to time for stuff like the below piece on Royce White. I find his story fascinating, so here are my observations about his time in the D-League.)

The ominous silence from the Houston Rockets regarding Royce White's departure from the team's D-League affiliate makes it pretty clear that it was not a mutual decision. White may be returning to Houston, but an analysis of his performance as a pro thus far will show that the RV ride from Hidalgo probably doesn't get him any closer to the NBA.

Let me start by saying that I am an unabashed Royce White fan. Kenny Anderson's freshman year at Georgia Tech made me a basketball fan, and I've loved passing more than any other skill since then. White makes passes I didn't even know were possible.

However, White's self-announced departure from the D-League leaves unanswered questions, including questions about White's attitude, his commitment to conditioning and his dedication to improving the numerous deficiencies in his game. I have watched and taken notes on several of his D-League appearances, all of which are archived for viewing at nba.com/dleague. As a fan, I would like nothing better than to see White prove himself at the NBA level. I have no doubt that White can be a rotation NBA player, but what I've seen of his career thus far leads me to question if he ever will.

First, let's look at White's game. In 26 minutes per game, White averaged 9.6 points on 42% shooting from the field and 62% shooting from the free throw line. The official stats show that he missed all six 3-pointers he attempted. He also averaged 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.7 turnovers per game. While his passing is spectacular, he tends to fall in love with the showy play and force passes that aren't there. In fairness, he would average more assists if his teammates converted more of the wide-open looks he routinely manufactures.

In White's first few games, I felt his teammates froze him out and limited his shot opportunities. As time went on, his teammates seemed to warm up to the fact that if they gave him the ball, he would create open shots for them. Possibly his best game came against the Idaho Stampede March 13th when he had 19 points, six rebounds and three assists. After several spectacular passes, White started to over-pass and ended up with more turnovers (four) than assists.

Now let's talk about White's emotional state. It quickly became clear to me that D-League refs are not there to simulate the way games are called in the NBA. If White ever makes it to the NBA, it will take about two games with the attitude he showed D-League refs for him to become a marked man. I thought the D-League refs showed remarkable restraint and appeared to give players every opportunity to stay in games.

In a March 2nd game against Santa Cruz, White completely overreacted after the refs failed to call a borderline over-the-back on Hilton Armstrong. After the 2nd quarter expired, White continued to jaw at the refs as he walked off the court and earned a tech. In the second half, a big-time rejection by Armstrong seemed to cause White to lose his composure. The refs let a shove by White go, but on the next trip down court he was called for throwing Travis Leslie to the floor and ejected.

After the game in Idaho, White seemed to be coming on strong. He was averaging better than a double-double per 36 minutes with good assist numbers, albeit with high turnovers. But in White's last game on March 16th, he put all of his shortcomings on display.

White was called for a questionable foul on Jerome Jordan in the 1st quarter and the poor body language began. White consistently failed to get any elevation when attempting shots and was blocked by Jordan with 7:35 to play in the quarter. Less than a minute later, on one of the rare occasions when White was ahead of the ball in transition defense, he made no effort to stop the ball handler and allowed Lazar Hayward an uncontested layup. 

Moments after that, White used a quick first step to the baseline to lay it up over Jordan. Feeling there should have been a foul, White hurled the ball out of bounds resulting in a delay of game warning. The refs showed restraint to not call a tech, especially as White continued to jaw at the ref afterward. White finished out the quarter by bricking a baseline jumper, missing a dunk, missing a runner with no elevation and making a layup after a nice crossover at the 3-point line.

White got an extended break and checked back in just before halftime. He ended up with a dunk because L.A. turned the ball over on a fast break and White was still standing under the offensive basket. In the second half, White's effort was undistinguished other than a pick-and-roll layup when Jordan helped on the ball handler.

Again, I must emphasize that I love White's game and hope that he succeeds. He was consistently among the top players on his team in plus/minus, even if his point and rebound totals weren't high. On the question of what is best for White's mental health, I will, as White has requested of Houston officials, defer to medical professionals. But on the question of what is best for White's professional basketball career, I feel qualified to voice some opinions. White is very engaging in interviews and seems to be having fun when he's not sulking over calls. He's somebody that I can relate to because of his progressive politics. If I ever had a chance to sit down with White and tell him what I think, this is what I would say.

"Royce, you need to hop in the Winnebago and head back to Hidalgo to finish the season. If you let Rockets management think that the emotional strain of playing in the freaking D-League was too much for you to handle, you will N E V E R get called up to the senior squad. You're athletic, but if you dropped some weight and got in NBA shape it would help your explosiveness. Your ball skills are elite, but you need to prove that you can be trusted not to over-dribble or over-pass. And you need to stop with the refs. D-League refs don't have the egos that NBA refs have. If you get called up and go in with a Kobe-level sense of entitlement, they will eat you for breakfast."

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Catching Up With the Numbers as the Hawks Flounder


Since we last checked in with Mid-Range Shawty, his shooting numbers have shown positive trends in multiple areas. Through 14 games, Josh Smith was shooting 22% outside the paint while attempting almost six long 2-point attempts per game. In the 10 games since, Smith has shot a blistering 26-for-72 (36%), raising the Mid-Range Shawty Meter to 29% for the season. Meanwhile, according to Hoopdata, Smith is down to only 4.5 long 2-point attempts per game (tied for 17th in the league) while his percentage from this distance has ticked up from 24% to 27%.

To update some other numbers I've been tracking, here's a look at the aggregate +/- numbers in 9 losses this season:

Player / total minutes / aggregate +/-

Full time starters:

Al Horford / 289 / -77
Josh Smith / 330 / -75
Jeff Teague / 265 / -43

Part time starters and reserves:

Anthony Morrow / 79 / -34
Lou Williams / 234 / -60
Devin Harris / 140 / -44
Kyle Korver / 188 / -36
Zaza Pachulia / 179 / -37
DeShawn Stevenson / 201 / -37
Ivan Johnson / 99 / -8
Anthony Tolliver / 92 / +3

As I wrote previously, these numbers continue to suggest that Jeff Teague and Ivan Johnson are being under-utilized while Devin Harris is being over-utilized. I also noted that Johnson had yet to post a negative +/- in a Hawks loss as of Dec. 2nd. Naturally, Johnson has posted a negative +/- in each of the three losses he has appeared in since. Trending in the opposite direction is Anthony Tolliver, suddenly back in the rotation, who has yet to post a negative +/- in a loss since Dec. 2nd. Among reserves, Tolliver and Johnson have clearly hurt Atlanta the least. 

The other stat I've been tracking is the Hawks' won-lost record in games in which DeShawn Stevenson starts. The Hawks are now 7-7 with Stevenson in the starting lineup, meaning Stevenson has started in seven of the Hawks' nine losses. How much of a finger am I trying to point here? Stevenson has been the most heavily-utilized (except Lou Williams) among the reserves and part-time starters in the losses and his +/- total has been respectable in comparison.

However, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Hawks beat writer Chris Vivlamore is now reporting that Larry Drew is pondering changes to his starting lineup. Of course, we all know that Drew hasn't been very consistent with his starting lineup throughout the season, preferring to wait until just before game time to announce his starters. But Drew's solution seems obvious: The Hawks are 4-2 in games in which Zaza Pachulia starts, including the team's last quality win over Memphis.

I'm not hating on DeShawn Stevenson. I was glad the Hawks were able to obtain him given his defensive reputation and championship pedigree. But let's look at where Stevenson is as an NBA player. Firstly, he's at the tail end of his career, being rested on the second night of back-to-back games. He's coming off one of the worst seasons, statistically, of any player to wear an NBA uniform last season. He's a shooting guard playing out of position at small forward, giving the Hawks a 3-guard lineup against teams that typically have three front-court players on the court at any given time.

And let's face it, DeShawn Stevenson is not part of the long-term future of the Hawks organization. Call him what he is. He's a stop-gap at small forward. Unfortunately, he's not stopping the gap. The Hawks continue to rank near the bottom of the league in rebounding while Pachulia, an elite per-minute rebounder, plays sporadic minutes off the bench. Hello? McDrew?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Hawks Found a Small Forward: His Name is Josh Smith

Last night's convincing win over the Memphis Grizzlies, previously owners of the NBA's best record, calls for a re-evaluation of the potential of the Atlanta Hawks. I've already acknowledged that these Hawks are better than I anticipated they would be. That Josh Smith so thoroughly outplayed Rudy Gay, one of the league's emerging stars at the small forward position, indicates that my previous criticism of the Hawks' roster construction may have been overstated.

It seems that Danny Ferry has pulled off another miracle. He went out and found an All-Star candidate to fill the hole at small forward and didn't even have to execute a trade to do it. I was concerned that Smith's precipitous drop in shooting percentage on long 2-pointers might be attributable to playing out of position (Smith has played small forward due to Al Horford's desire to play power forward, Smith's natural position).

The revelation from Bo Churney at HawksHoop.com that Smith has been absolutely dominant defending small forwards has resulted in something of a paradigm shift in how I view these Hawks. If Smith is that good defensively at small forward, you can live with some of his struggles on the perimeter.

Although I previously noted that Smith's long 2-point attempts remain high while his percentage has dropped badly since last year, his overall shooting percentage is just off his career average. Meanwhile his 38% shooting from 3-point range has him on pace to set a career high from that distance.

The Achilles heel for Smith and Horford has been free throw shooting, where Smith is shooting 15% below his career average and Horford is shooting a disastrous 22% below. As much as these Hawks have exceeded expectations during the young season, imagine how dangerous the team could be if these two start shooting free throws closer to their career averages.

Meanwhile the win over the Grizzlies once again illustrated what a bargain Lou Williams is for the mid-level exception. His 3-point percentage, free throw attempts, rebounds, assists and points per game are slightly lower than last season, when he was runner-up for Sixth Man of the Year, but his free throw percentage, overall shooting percentage and steals are up. In my opinion, Williams, Smith and Horford have all struggled early in the season. If the win over Memphis is a harbinger of things to come, this team may be starting to adjust to its new personnel and shifted roles.

And that means it's time to re-evaluate Larry Drew's coaching as well. I've stated before that Smith's All-Star snubs are as much an indictment of coaching as they are of the player. Drew has acknowledged that it is his responsibility to coach Smith up and get him to play at an All-Star level. Given Smith's performance last night against Gay, it seems that Drew may be farther ahead in that goal than I previously gave him credit for.

I have long acknowledged the step forward the Hawks took in execution of plays out of time outs since Drew took over as head coach. My major criticisms of Drew have centered around personnel decisions that seemed to be based on personal favoritism and the fact that Smith takes so many outside shots as a result of his placement in the flow of Drew's offense.

Smith's placement early against Memphis resulted in several wide-open shots that he missed badly. However, as the game wore on Drew appeared to make a conscious effort to call plays with Smith receiving the ball in the post. The results were devastating to the Grizzlies and did significant damage to my long-standing biases against Drew as a coach.

One additional area where Drew's coaching must be acknowledged is in the Hawks' handling of unfavorable treatment by the referees. Ivan Johnson played well in limited minutes, but after he picked up a technical foul for arguing with the refs over an obvious foul that was not called, Drew did not play him again. I've previously noted that the Hawks coaching staff needs to convince Johnson of the value of avoiding negative attention from the refs.

That effort seems to still be a work in progress with Johnson, but the rest of the team appears to have gotten the message. Smith and Horford were also the victims of egregious non-calls by the refs, but both managed to restrain their emotions and play through it. If Drew's ability to get through to Smith is to be a referendum on Drew's overall ability as an NBA coach, present returns indicate that Drew will be around for a long time.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Congrats to New TrueHoop Hawks Affiliate HawksHoop

If you head over to HawksHoop.com, you will see in their banner that they are the new Hawks affiliate for the ESPN TrueHoop Network. I recently linked some excellent analysis from HawksHoop's Bo Churney. Last year I was fortunate to be invited by Hoopinion founder Bret LaGree to contribute to his site, the TrueHoop Hawks affiliate for the preceding 5 years. HawksHoop has some big shoes to fill, and I wish them well.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Bo Churney Explains Hawks' Stupefying Defense

The Hawks' loss on Friday to the 4-13 Cleveland Cavaliers represents the first bad loss of the season. The other 4 losses for the 9-5 Hawks came at the hands of teams presently in playoff position, including three teams that would have home court advantage if the playoffs started today. What especially sucks about losing to the Cavaliers is that a win would have kept the team even in the loss column with the Knicks, currently ranked 2nd in the Eastern Conference.

Several familiar issues cropped up in the loss, including nine missed free throws and indifferent perimeter defense.The Hawks were out-rebounded 49-28, which is unsurprising since the Hawks rank dead-last in total rebounds. What is surprising is that, in spite of the team's glaring flaws, it somehow manages to rank near the top in several defensive categories.


I'm at a complete loss to explain how this is possible. Fortunately, another Hawks blogger, Bo Churney with HawksHoop.com, was able to break it down. Here's the key passage of his excellent analysis (hat tip to TrueHoop's Henry Abbott for the link on Friday Bullets):

Looking at the numbers, Horford and Smith have been absolutely dominant defensively when they are on the floor together. According to NBA.com, when the two are on the court, the Hawks have a D-Rtg of 93.7, which is five points better than the team’s overall, league-leading D-Rtg. Individually, Josh has been a terror upon opponents, holding opposing power forwards to a PER of 11.7, and opposing small forwards to a PER of 3.1. (!!!)
I personally am not an analytics guy. I tend to see things more in terms of the big picture. Hopefully we'll see a lot more of this from Bo, because thus far this season there hasn't been a surplus of good Hawks analysis.

In the meantime, I did take a look at the Hawks' +/- numbers from the 5 losses, looking to do a bit of finger pointing. In my opinion, the +/- numbers from losses are more significant than the totals from wins. Whereas a player might pad this figure in a comfortable win where other teammates played well, in a loss, any single player might have contributed to a win by playing better.


Player / total minutes / aggregate +/- in 5 losses this season


Full time starters:


Josh Smith / 199 / -32

Al Horford / 150 / -29
Jeff Teague / 146 / -8

Part time starters and reserves:


Devin Harris / 101 / -28

Lou Williams / 121 / -23
Anthony Morrow / 33 / -15
Zaza Pachulia / 111 / -14
Kyle Korver / 113 / -12
Anthony Tolliver / 58 / -12
DeShawn Stevenson / 115 / -9
Ivan Johnson / 50 / +18

Before the season I wrote with grudging admiration about Larry Drew's acknowledgement that it is his responsibility to get Smith to play at an All-Star level. I think it's pretty safe to say that if All-Star reserves were picked today, Smith would once again be left off the team, and that it would elicit less controversy than it has the past two seasons. Smith remains among the top 15 in the league in attempts from long 2-point distance (16-23 feet). Last season only Kobe Bryant took more long 2-pointers than Smith's 6.3 attempts per game. Smith's attempts are down to 4.6 this season, but his percentage has plummeted from 37% last year (comparable to Monta Ellis) to 24% this year.


Meanwhile, among the three players who have started every available game, Teague has obviously hurt the Hawks the least. It's very possible that the 5.6 fewer minutes per game that Teague plays compared to Al Horford is also going to be the difference in whether Teague gets serious All-Star consideration this season. Teague's 21.1 points per 48 minutes ranks ahead of Deron Williams.


Among Hawks who are not every-day starters, Harris' -28 in 101 minutes stands out. The fact that Harris starts so many games at shooting guard when Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow are available seems like a transparent ploy to increase Harris' trade value. But here's another interesting statistic. Although DeShawn Stevenson's -9 in 115 minutes speaks to his effectiveness as a defender, the Hawks are only 4-3 with Stevenson in the starting lineup.


And in another wonderful example of Small Sample Size Theater, Ivan Johnson is the only Hawk with a positive aggregate +/- in the 5 losses. Not only have the Hawks outscored opponents by 18 points in Johnson's 50 minutes over 4 losses he appeared in (largely thanks to the 17-2 run the Hawks closed the half with against Cleveland during 3 of Johnson's 9 minutes), but Johnson has yet to post a single negative +/- in a loss.


The takeaways from this are obvious. Teague should play more. Johnson should play more. Even though it's a small sample size for Johnson, when the results are that dramatic, you put it to the test and see if regression to the mean takes hold.


I understand that the Hawks organization wants to get something for Harris at the trade deadline. But I also understand that this team is better than I predicted. I said before the season that this was a fringe playoff team, but thus far the team looks as if it might again compete for home court advantage in the playoffs. I hope to see this Hawks team maximize its potential now, not at some future point after Danny Ferry has a chance do some more tinkering with the roster.


UPDATE:

To update the Mid-Range Shawty Meter, Josh Smith is now shooting 18-for-81 (22%) outside the paint for the season. This includes a 1-for-11 game against the Trail Blazers and a 1-for-7 game against the Wizards. Smith is shooting 73-for-124 (59%) inside the paint this season. But his six attempts per game outside the paint accounts for 14% of the 82 total shots per game taken by the Hawks.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hawks Barely Escape Wizards

The first words out of my mouth when the pre-season opened were "Teague looks terrible on defense." Possession after possession in this game, AJ Price got dribble penetration against defense from Jeff Teague that was barely-existent.

So that's one story. Another story is the struggles the Hawks have experienced at backup point guard. Before the season began, I opined that "the Hawks will be the deepest team in the league at point guard." In spite of this depth, I have chronicled Devin Harris' struggles to help the Hawks win games as the backup point. Harris has since been used as the starter at shooting guard, and now Lou Williams is struggling in the backup point guard role.

For the game against the Wizards, Williams was -19. He checked in for Devin Harris with 4:45 to play in the 1st quarter with the Hawks leading 17-9. By the time Harris checked back in for Williams with 6:35 to play in the 2nd, the Hawks trailed 37-32. Williams checked in for Teague with 3:46 to play in the 3rd and the Hawks sporting a 66-57 lead. By the time he checked out for the last time with 9:00 to play, the lead was down to 76-73.

Part of Williams' lack of effectiveness was his failure to attempt a free throw for only the 3rd time this season. But the biggest part was the stagnation of the offense with Williams in the game. It also didn't help that Ivan Johnson, who has been coming on as of late, had possibly his worst game of the season (-13 in 6 minutes).

Yet another story is the fact that free throws have gotten into the heads of both Josh Smith and Al Horford. Smith is shooting only 32% from the free throw line this season but made all three attempts. Al Horford came into the game shooting only 67% from the line and shot 1-for-10 on free throws.

Thus far the Hawks have lost only one game to a team not presently in playoff position (Houston). But the team was lucky to get this one after Martell Webster's layup as the clock expired in overtime was waived off. Last year the Hawks beat up on non-playoff teams on the way to the 4th-best record in the East. The team will need improvement in all the areas cited above if it is to replicate that success this season.