Saturday, October 27, 2012

Hawks Cut Only Small Forward on Pre-Season Roster

The Atlanta Hawks will enter the 2012-13 season without a small forward on the roster. Today the Hawks released Damion James and will enter the season with 14 players, one below the regular season maximum.

In my first detailed analysis of the Hawks in the wake of the trades of Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams, I had this to say:
How Ferry addresses the small forward position is going to have a significant impact on overall front court depth. This in turn will have an impact on the amount of hustling, help defense the front court will be able to play in trying to overcome the limitations of the wing defense. Ferry must find a starting-caliber small forward.
In August I wrote that "pending the acquisition of a starting small forward and getting Ivan Johnson under contract, the Hawks can again contend for home court advantage in the first round of the playoffs." Then, on Oct. 14th after the Hawks' 110-102 pre-season loss to the Grizzlies, I wrote this:
I think this game further strengthens my previous contention that Damion James should be the opening night starter at small forward. He's presently the only natural small forward on the roster, and Korver had no chance to guard Rudy Gay. The criticism of James' offensive game is completely valid. But there is no denying the on/off numbers that prove his defensive impact. Through three pre-season games, Damion James is a team-best +28.
This season I will be using +/- frequently in my analysis of the performance of Hawks players. It is my opinion that point, assist and rebound totals do not tell the whole story about a player's impact on a game. For example, in the Hawks' 110-94 pre-season win over the Mavericks, rookie forward Mike Scott was the team's leading scorer with 17 points. However, for the game, Scott was -5. That means that during Scott's 21 minutes on the floor, Dallas outscored Atlanta by 5 points. During the other 27 minutes that Scott sat on the bench, Atlanta outscored Dallas by 21 points.

To put it another way, despite Scott leading the team in scoring, the Hawks played losing basketball while he was on the floor. I used +/- last season to analyze Willie Green's performance in the playoffs against the Celtics. For the regular season, Green was a team-worst -75. He was one of only two Hawks to post a negative +/- total for the season. During the playoffs I pointed out that his +/- against playoff-bound opponents last year (-97) was even worse than his total vs. all opponents.

Last season, based on the on court/off court numbers, Green was obviously the worst-performing Hawks player. His performance was consistently bad in both the regular season and playoffs, where he once again posted the team's worst +/- total for the series against the Celtics (-40 in 63 total minutes). It begs the question, why would you play your worst player 63 minutes in a playoff series when Kirk Hinrich, whom the Hawks traded two 1st-round picks to obtain, could have played heavier minutes?

As noted above, through the first three pre-season games, Damion James had the team's best +/-. Although James has obvious limitations as an offensive player, the Hawks nonetheless played winning basketball while he was on the floor. This was in part, no doubt, due to the fact that James led the Hawks in rebounding for the pre-season with 6.8 per game. Below are the +/- totals for the pre-season, excluding the 97-68 blowout win over the Hornets:
Tolliver +38
James +31
Morrow +20
Stevenson -4
Williams -12
Anderson -14
Korver -14
Jenkins -19
Johnson -20
Scott -26
I have excluded point guards and power rotation players from this list except Anthony Tolliver and Ivan Johnson. Tolliver led the Hawks in this category for the pre-season (he was +20 in the Hornets game in which James did not play). The decision to cut James and carry only 14 players into the regular season completely mystifies me, especially considering that he was the only small forward on the roster.

In light of this, I must adjust my expectations for these Hawks. I said that if the Hawks obtained a legitimate small forward the team could compete for home court advantage in the playoffs. It's hard to imagine the roster will remain in its current form for the duration of the season. However, if the Hawks must go through even half the season with shooting guards and power forwards playing out of position at small forward, this is a fringe playoff team at best. The fad toward "position-less basketball" works great if you are the Heat and have a guy who can play all 5 positions.

Thus far, Mike Scott appears to be this season's Willie Green. To save a roster spot for Scott, the Hawks cut a player, James, that the team scored about 10 points per game more with than it did with Scott on the floor.