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, 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, 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.


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.

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