Monday, August 29, 2016

Hawks' Offseason: A Master Class in Risk Management



Hey folks. So I'm working to get a magazine off the ground. No progress to report but I want to go ahead and get this piece I've had in the can published. I know there's a limited audience for the sort of longform stuff I like to write but I'm grateful to every person who reads me. Images courtesy of the Atlanta Hawks and NBA.com. Kacy Sager and I couldn't figure out which parts of this were her original ideas, so please consider this a co-writing credit. - Buddy Grizzard

When the rumor first circulated that the Atlanta Hawks were interested in signing former Rockets center Dwight Howard, my reaction was immediate and visceral.

This was the Dwight Howard who put his arm around Stan Van Gundy moments after the coach had confided that Howard was seeking to have him fired. In addition to being painted as disingenuous by that infamous moment, I felt he had committed the cardinal sin for a basketball player: failure to respect the game.


I texted my best friend, BBall Breakdown writer Kacy Sager, to get her take on the rumor. She replied with a link to Howard's appearance with the Inside the NBA crew, which Yahoo! Sports described as an intervention of sorts by Kenny Smith and Charles Barkley. Howard didn't get to speak much during the segment, but he said one thing that altered everything I thought I knew about him.



"I want to change that perception that I don't really take this game serious."

I texted Sager back, "Oh my God, he gets it."

And with that, I instantly went from scoffing at the idea of the Hawks pursuing Howard to being completely on board with it. As an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network and writer for BBall Breakdown, I spent last season attending pre- and postgame availabilities for the Hawks at home and on the road. Of the scores of player and coach interviews I recorded and posted to my YouTube channel, not once did I hear anyone associated with the Hawks iterate with immediacy the desire to pursue a championship the way Howard did in that interview.

Atlanta needed that.

On the final game of the regular season, the Hawks faced a Wizards team that was already eliminated from the playoffs and resting four starters. Atlanta was coming off a stretch of 15 wins in 20 games. A win in the season finale would secure the third playoff seed in the Eastern Conference and back-to-back Southeast Division titles for the first time in franchise history. A victory would also move the Hawks to the opposite side of the playoff bracket from the Cavaliers, ensuring that the teams would only meet if both qualified for a rematch in the Eastern Conference Finals.

The Hawks laid down. Washington prevailed 109-98 and the Hawks dropped to the fourth seed and a first round series with the Celtics. Then, in the second round against the Cavaliers, the Hawks laid down again. Al Horford totaled 14 rebounds for the entire series. Jeff Teague concluded his Hawks career with a five point, two assist, three turnover performance. Teague would later claim that he suffered from an unreported injury. But if Teague was hurt, why was he taking minutes away from Dennis Schroder, who scored 27 points in Game 1 and 21 in Game 4?

The Hawks never had the championship mentality that's required to win a series against a LeBron James team. But think of how things might have been different if Atlanta had defeated Washington on the last day of the season. If the Hawks had instead met the Cavaliers in the Conference Finals for a second year in a row, would Horford have walked away, knowing how close they were to reaching a Finals? The Hawks held fourth quarter leads in three of the four games against Cleveland.

A person close to Horford said that he agonized over the decision to depart to the Boston Celtics. Atlanta's front office likewise faced a number of high-stakes decisions this offseason, and what follows is an attempt to summarize and analyze those decisions.

Risk management

Everything the Atlanta Hawks did this offseason was informed by risk management. With Horford entering unrestricted free agency, the Hawks had no way to mitigate the risk that he might depart to another team. They couldn't be sure if Horford wanted to be here.

As such, Atlanta entered talks with a player, Howard, who absolutely wanted to be here. The Hawks inked Howard to a three-year, $70.5 million contract. The old saying is, "a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush." By getting Howard under contract, Atlanta's front office ensured that the team would have a top five center regardless of Horford's decision.

But they weren't done. Paul Millsap's contract has a player option for a third season. That means Millsap will almost certainly opt out after this season to sign a longer-term deal. Next summer, if he's still on the roster, the Hawks will once again have no means to mitigate the risk that Millsap will walk to another team. To address that risk, the Hawks reportedly offered a contract slightly below the maximum to Horford with the intention of converting him to a full-time power forward and pairing him in the front court with Howard.

Had Horford agreed to terms, the Hawks would have needed to trade Millsap to open cap space for Howard before re-signing Horford via Bird rights. The Hawks reportedly discussed a trade with the Suns that would have returned a young player and draft pick, a nice haul for a player effectively on an expiring contract.

Now, before we dig any further, let me say that this was the aspect of Atlanta's summer game plan that I liked the least. I love Paul Millsap. When the going got tough in the playoffs, guys pointed the finger at the coaching staff and claimed that needed adjustments weren't made and opponents were able to game plan the Hawks. There may be some truth to that but the reality is that, under Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks have consistently been among the league leaders -- regular season and playoffs -- in manufacturing wide open shots. The issue isn't preparation. The issue is that Atlanta's players have lacked the championship DNA necessary to step up and make those shots with the season on the line. You can't question Budenholzer's championship DNA. He's got the rings.

So while others maybe pointed fingers and gave themselves a pass for their inability to hit open shots in pressure situations, Millsap never pointed the finger. He's the spokesman for the part of the organization that always put the responsibility on players. I deeply regret the perception that the Hawks dangled Millsap as trade bait because he's the player -- not Horford -- that I'd like to see stay with Atlanta on a long term contract once his current deal concludes. Horford, in my opinion, risks being just another guy if you move him to power forward.

[Reading this it sounds like I'm taking shots at Horford cause he's not here to defend himself. I will continue to say he's one of the classiest people I ever got to speak with and there's no questioning his talent. I just like Millsap better. - BG]

Regardless, the Hawks' front office prioritized getting guys under contract. Budenholzer has never been associated with an NBA team that missed the playoffs [that I'm aware of]. He has no rebuilding experience and doesn't appear eager to gain any. He wants to win. Anything can happen in the playoffs but you have to give yourself a chance. That's what these moves are about.

Teague and the draft

For Bud and Wes Wilcox to turn Teague's expiring contract into a lottery pick was a stunning win. Taurean Prince might be Atlanta's starting small forward for the next decade plus. That's a worthy gamble. I watched the draft at Kacy's house with some friends and it was pretty nerve wracking. I didn't have time this year to do my normal draft preparation so I outsourced this year's draft depth chart to my dear friend Jim Gaylor, a retired 30-year veteran head coach at the high school and NCAA level. Jim's highest-rated available player when the Hawks selected Prince with the 12th pick was Skal Labissiere.

Jim acknowledged that health concerns might cause Labissiere to drop and that proved to be the case. He lasted until the third-to-last pick of the first round when the Kings selected him. Gaylor didn't rate Prince among his top 21 prospects and I was unfamiliar with him. Sager had watched him during the NCAA tournament while covering Baylor for the Turner Sports stat team and she immediately liked the pick. Since Gregg Popovich credited Budenholzer as the primary force behind the trade that landed Kawhi Leonard, I'm inclined to trust his judgement about wing players.

Ironically, George Hill was a principal in both the Leonard trade and the three-team trade that landed Prince in Atlanta. Budenholzer had to convince Popovich to part with Hill as the price for Leonard. Years later, the Utah Jazz had the 12th pick in this year's draft but needed an immediate starter at point guard. The Jazz are well stocked with young prospects but want to make the playoffs this year, not wait for another prospect to develop. Teague is an Indianapolis native and Larry Bird apparently saw him as an upgrade over Hill. So Hill went to the Jazz as Dante Exum insurance, Teague got to go home and play with Paul George and the Hawks got a lottery pick for an expiring player who didn't seem like he wanted to be here.

I've gone into exhaustive detail about Atlanta's failures over the years to adequately staff the small forward position. DeMarre Carroll was a revelation but the Hawks failed to get a three-year commitment from him and thus didn't hold his Bird rights. After Labissiere, DeAndre' Bembry was Gaylor's next-highest-rated player. I wasn't familiar with Prince but I loved Bembry because he had the second-highest pure point rating among small forwards in DraftExpress.com's top 100 prospects. Pure point rating is similar to assist-to-turnover ratio. It's a measure of a player's ability to protect the ball while creating for teammates. PPR was a big part of why I rated Rodney Hood as my 11th-best prospect in 2014 while DraftExpress had him rated 16th.

Although Bembry isn't near the shot maker that Hood is, he has a better defensive reputation. Both Gaylor and myself would have been ecstatic if the Hawks selected Bembry with the 12th pick. But with Bud and Wes opting for Prince, watching the draft became torture as we waited to see if another team would snatch the player we loved. If you look at the 2011 draft, a lot had to go right for Leonard to fall all the way to 15th where the Spurs could draft him. There's a lot of picks ahead of Leonard that just look silly now, like Jan Vesely at sixth and Jimmer Fredette at 10th. If Bembry turns out to be the player we think he can be, this year's draft will be a similar story.

Georgios Papagiannis is a huge question mark. Jim and I both liked Juan Hernangomez, Jakob Poeltl and Domantas Sabonis. The Hawks were rumored to have tried to trade up to get Sabonis but OKC got there first. Wade Baldwin and Malik Beasley were on Jim's list but I wasn't familiar with them. There's always a player Jim and I don't see eye-to-eye on and in this draft it was Henry Ellenson. Jim had him rated 10th but I saw massive bust potential. Ellenson is a stretch four who can't shoot or protect the rim. When Stan Van Gundy selected Ellenson for the Pistons with the 18th pick, I breathed a sigh of relief. Beasley went next to the Nuggets and then there was just one pick left before the Hawks would pick 21st.

The Brooklyn Nets traded starting power forward Thaddeus Young to the Pacers for the 20th pick. I didn't like the trade because it increased the odds of Brooklyn handing yet another top three pick to the Celtics. Brook Lopez later told NBA.com that the Nets needed a culture change since, under the previous regime, players were showing up late for training sessions. Obviously nobody pointed the finger at Young but you have to wonder about the decision to trade a starter for a prospect.

With Bembry still available, it was agony wondering if this was the player the Nets had targeted. Finally Adam Silver stepped to the podium and announced that Brooklyn had taken Michigan's Caris LeVert, a wing prospect that was considered a lottery talent but who fell due to injury concerns. But the agony didn't end there. Did Bud and Wes love Bembry as much as Jim and I did? The minutes ticked by and finally the word "DeAndre'" came out of Silver's mouth. I pumped a fist and texted "high freaking five" to Jim. Although selecting a pair of wings might create a bit of a log jam, the Hawks have suffered from wing deficiency for so long that I loved the moves.

Depth

With Atlanta's roster currently at 16 guaranteed contracts (last I heard ... one player will have to be cut to reach the roster maximum of 15), let's take a look at the Hawks' depth chart:

Point guard: Schroder, Jack, Delaney
Shooting guard: Bazemore, Korver, Hardaway
Small forward: Sefolosha, Prince, Bembry
Power forward: Millsap, Scott, Muscala
Center: Howard, Splitter, Humphries, Tavares

Edy Tavares and Mike Muscala will likely battle in training camp for the final roster spot. The Hawks could trade or waive the player that doesn't make the final roster. Since Kris Humphries is able to stretch the floor, he provides additional depth at power forward where he could play alongside Howard and Tiago Splitter. That gives the Hawks solid three-player depth at every position. I'm really impressed by everything that brought it together and I'm anticipating that this is going to be my favorite Hawks team ever.

The above depth chart assumes that Kent Bazemore will become a full time shooting guard. Budenholzer may opt to stay with Bazemore as the starting small forward and Kyle Korver as the starting shooting guard. If that's the case, Bembry can simply switch wing spots with Bazemore. Although Bembry shot only 31% from three for his college career and 26.6% in his final season at St. Joseph's, he may not have ideal size for an NBA small forward. At 6-6 and with an elite handle, Bembry could end up at either wing slot or splitting time between them. The Hawks consistently manufacture wide open shots at a higher rate than any other team over the last two seasons, so Bembry's three point percentage could go up as a result. He'll be like a second point guard on the floor regardless of which position he ends up occupying.

Questions abound at backup point guard since Jarrett Jack is coming off a torn ACL and Malcolm Delaney has no NBA experience. If healthy, Jack could be a huge difference maker. During the 2015 playoffs, the Brooklyn Nets outscored the Hawks by 18.5 points per 100 possessions with Jack on court. Delaney is known as one of the best guards in Europe, but it remains to be seen if that will translate to the NBA. A scan of his highlights with Lokomotiv Kuban (hat tip to Slim Jr.) shows that he's not only adept at hitting pull-up shots but he's also capable of producing highlight assists. In my opinion, Dennis Schroder is an upgrade at starting point guard over Teague. If Jack is healthy and Delaney's game translates, this is a deep point guard corps.

Prediction

Prior to last season, Kacy and I were invited by Hawks PR to a luncheon to get acquainted. I sat with Hawks VP of PR Garin Narain and told him that, if Tiago Splitter was healthy, the Hawks could have a season similar to their 60-win campaign in 2014-15. Garin looked at me like I was from Mars.

Unfortunately Splitter's season ended with hip surgery before he could make an impact. In his final season with San Antonio, Splitter posted an 18.9 Player Efficiency Rating, well above the league average of 15. I don't think it's a stretch to say that the Hawks could have won over 50 games if Splitter had been available and healthy. Nevertheless, I hate making predictions because anything I say is going to be colored by the fact that I'm a life long Hawks fan. I'm emotionally invested in this team. It makes me happy when they win and sad when they lose.

But with so many people seeing Al Horford as a franchise savior for the Celtics, I can't hold my tongue. The AJC's Jeff Schultz wrote that he would pick the Celtics over the Hawks if they met in the playoffs in their current iterations. ESPN.com is projecting the Celtics to be the second best team in the East this season. So let's take a position-by-position look at a hypothetical playoff match-up between the Hawks and Celtics. For purposes of this exercise, we'll assume that all players on both teams reach the playoffs healthy.

Point guard: Advantage Hawks

Isaiah Thomas is not an elite NBA point guard. He struggles to defend and takes too many shots. In last season's series, the Hawks outscored the Celtics by 8.7 points per 100 possessions with Thomas on the floor. This gave Thomas easily the worst net rating of any Celtic to play at least 100 minutes. I'm on record saying I think Dennis Schroder has superstar potential. I think he's going to make a leap this year. Isaiah Thomas can't guard him.

Shooting guard: Advantage Hawks

Marcus Smart is another candidate to make a leap this season, but the likely starter is undersized shooting guard Avery Bradley. Atlanta's wing situation is fluid and difficult to project, but an improved Bazemore could see minutes at shooting guard and the Hawks outscored the Celtics by 8.3 points per 100 possessions in his 193 playoff minutes. Don't underestimate Kyle Korver in a contract year. Bembry is multi-positional and Tim Hardaway Jr. could have a big season.

Small forward: Advantage Celtics

Jae Crowder is 5th among NBA small forwards in Real Plus-Minus. Backing him up is Jaylen Brown, the third pick in the draft. Bazemore was 39th among small forwards in RPM last year. Even with Sefolosha and rookies Prince and Bembry providing depth, the Hawks can't match the firepower that's available to Boston.

Power forward: Advantage Hawks

Paul Millsap was third in RPM among power forwards last season and fourth among all players in the Eastern Conference. Millsap is one of the most under-appreciated players in the NBA and is effectively entering a contract year. Amir Johnson rated fifth in RPM among power forwards but he's clearly outclassed by Millsap, from whom I'm expecting a monster season. Jonas Jerebko is a nice option as a stretch four and led the Celtics in net rating for the series among players with at least 100 minutes. But if Boston tries to guard Millsap with Jerebko, Kelly Olynyk or Tyler Zeller, Millsap will have them for breakfast.

Center: Toss up

The primary basis for those who think the Celtics are the second best team in the East is the addition of Al Horford. There's no doubt that Boston significantly improved by signing Horford and getting Jared Sullinger's bad defense off their roster. Every minute Sullinger played in the series was a gift to Atlanta as the Hawks outscored the Celtics by 15.4 points per 100 possessions in his 81 minutes. He never had a prayer of being able to guard the mobile tandem of Millsap and Horford.

But now with Horford changing sides, Boston improves. But are they really stronger at the center position than Atlanta? Horford may again struggle to get 14 rebounds in a playoff series but it wouldn't be a surprise if a healthy Dwight Howard had multiple 14 rebound games while matched up with him. Horford has historically struggled to score inside against Howard and may be forced to pull him away from the basket, something Budenholzer can game plan. And there's no other center on Boston's roster that is close to being as good as a healthy Tiago Splitter.

It doesn't stretch my imagination to envision the Hawks winning this match-up as well.



Bench: Toss up

Let's assume a Boston starting lineup of Horford, Johnson, Crowder, Bradley and Thomas and a Hawks starting lineup of Howard, Millsap, Bazemore, Korver and Schroder. That leaves the Hawks with a second unit of Sefolosha, Humphries, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jarrett Jack, Mike Scott and Splitter. That's without even mentioning rookies Prince, Bembry and Delaney. The Celtics counter with Zeller, Jerebko, Brown, Smart, Olynyk and Rozier. Here again I'm tempted to give this match-up to the Hawks. But we'll call this even for the sake of argument and say the Hawks are definitely better at three of the five starting positions and could be better at four.

So here's my prediction. The Boston Celtics won't be the second best team in the East this year. The Hawks are better.

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