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 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.

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