The NBA playoffs started this weekend for the seventh straight year without the Atlanta Hawks in the fold. Worse, the Hawks finished tied with the second-year Charlotte Bobcats for the third-worst record in the league and the Bobcats had a better point differential than the Hawks and took the season series 3-1. 26-56 is nothing to be proud of, even if it is better than 13-69. The unsettling question is this: when are the Hawks actually going to make the playoffs? Similar to Red Sox fans who asked themselves "Am I going to see the team win the World Series before I die?", or Cubs fans who still ask themselves that question, I keep wondering how old I'm going to be before the Hawks actually make the playoffs. 35? 40? How many developmental milestones is my child-in-waiting going to pass before the Hawks make the playoffs? Walking? First day of school? Bar/Bat Mitzvah? These thoughts keep me awake at night. Will there be a payoff for my loyalty? There are no guarantees in the NBA. There's no hard salary cap to force better teams to pick and choose between their prominent players.
There are a few positives from this season to make me feel better:
1. The team can score. According to John Hollinger's pace-neutral stats($), the Hawks ranked a solid 12th in the NBA in points per 100 possessions. Not bad for a team without a point guard. The team did have one of the highest turnover rates in the NBA and only Orlando and New York had an inferior assist/turnover ratio, but how concerned should we really be with that if the Hawks still managed to score plenty? I don't mean to be all revisionist, but if the offense is fine, then is point guard really the biggest concern in the offseason?
2. Joe Johnson is worth a max contract. He's not a true point guard, but there aren't a lot of 20 point, seven assist guys running around. Joe shoots the ball well, he can get into the lane, he regularly draws tough defensive assignments, he plays every game and just about every minute, and he never complains. That reminds me, I should say something nice about Billy Knight...
A sight Knicks fans saw a fair amount this year.
3. A number of Billy Knight's free agent moves look wise in retrospect. For all the bitching that Hawks fans do about not taking Chris Paul, about Boris Diaw's emergence in Phoenix, about the lottery pick that we probably gave to Phoenix to get Johnson in the loaded 2007 Draft, Billy Knight deserves credit for identifying Johnson as a quality target. Last summer, the carping classes complained that the Hawks' cap space was useless because no free agent would take the money. Knight managed to find a player to take the team's cap space and that player turned out to be worth every penny. Furthermore, Knight declined to offer big dollars to a number of free agents who turned out to be significantly overpriced. Remember when Eddy Curry, Tyson Chandler, and Sam Dalembert were the big free agent targets at center? Knight signed Zaza Pachulia for significantly less money and, in Curry's case, didn't need to give up a lottery pick to acquire him. Here are Zaza's numbers compared to the other three:
Chandler - 26.8 mpg, 5.3 ppg, 9.0 rpg, 1.32 bpg, 1.56 turnovers, 56.5 fg%
Curry - 26 mpg, 13.6 ppg, 6.0 rpg, .78 bpg, 2.49 turnovers, 56.3 fg%
Dalembert - 26.7 mpg, 7.3 ppg, 8.2 rpg, 2.4 bpg, 1.62 turnovers, 53.1 fg%
Pachulia - 31.4 mpg, 11.7 ppg, 7.9 bpg, .5 bpg, 2.31 turnovers, 45.1 fg%
Where are you going, little man?
Zaza is a better scorer than Chandler or Dalembert, a far better rebounder than Curry, he's cheaper than all three, and he performed with a bunch of small forwards playing next to him in the power forward position. (Even in a paragraph in which I sing Billy Knight's praises, I still can't help myself for criticizing his roster construction.) Thanks in large part to Zaza, the Hawks got 49.9% of all available rebounds on the offensive and defensive ends, which means that they were solidly average in rebounding, not bad for a team that had no center at this time last year. The bottom line is that Knight made good decisions last summer in regards to the free agents he targeted and those he didn't. That's encouraging because it's better to have a roster missing certain parts than a roster full of players who don't justify their salaries and who will stick with the team like herpes because of untradeable contracts.
4. Josh Smith might be the truth. In January, I crapped on Smith (and by extension Mike Woodson) by pointing out that Smith had clearly regressed in his second year and that the most important measure for the team in 2006 would be how the young players progressed. I implore you to look at his splits by month and notice how his scoring, rebounding, assists, free throws attempted, and blocks all shot up from February on, culminating in a 17.5 ppg average in 11 games in April. He also finished fourth in the NBA in blocks, which is nothing to sneeze at. John Hollinger's statement this fall that Tracy McGrady was Smith's most comparable player statistically speaking seemed like a hoax through the first half of the year, but after getting shown up at the Dunk Contest, J-Smoove lived up to billing. I'm really excited to see where he goes from here.
Did Tawanna tell you to do that?
5. Josh Childress became the glue guy. Childress emerged to do several things well this year. For one, he can hit shots from behind the arc (49.2% on 65 attempts), which he couldn't do last year, even in warm-ups. He can finish at the basket consistently. (I betcha' didn't know he led the NBA in dunking percentage.) He became the Hawks' designated defensive stopper at the 2/3 positions, thus leading to a lot of minutes down the stretch. On the other hand, for a team that sucked defensively like the Hawks did, he couldn't have done a very good job at that. For another, with Joe Johnson the likely off-guard once the team gets a point and Josh Smith and Marvin Williams appearing to be the future at the three, Childress looks like the odd man out, which might explain why other teams are so interested in trading for him.
So why did this team finish 30 games below .500? Why should I be pessimistic? I'm glad you asked...
1. They can't play defense. Only Seattle, Toronto, New York, and Portland gave up more points per possession. Billy Knight said at the start of the season that the poor defense was a function of the team's youth and he did have a point. This team is plenty athletic and they play hard, but they don't know the tricks of playing defense, especially how to function as a unit and help one another. Previously, I attributed this problem to the Hawks' lack of a point guard and it's true that the team struggled mightily against opposing point guards. (Want to know why they could beat the Pacers four times? Take the Pacers' weak point guards, add in a pinch of luck to win a number of close games, and you have 4-0.) Marvin Williams was another offender. Opposing teams went after him as soon as he came off the bench and he is lost on how to play team defense right now. Maybe the team will play better defense once they grow up. Maybe Mike Woodson can't reach them on the defensive end and a new coach would be better. Maybe this group of players just can't play defense. I don't have the answers, but I am very certain that this is a bigger deal than getting a point guard, although the two subjects are related.
2. We're close to getting nothing for Al Harrington. Part of the justification for drafting Marvin Williams, given his redundancy with Al Harrington, was that Harrington could be flipped for a point guard or a big man. Ten months later and Harrington is still a lame duck on the roster. The Hawks got Harrington two years ago by flipping Stephen Jackson, who was in a similar lame duck status, so it's quite possible that Billy Knight is going to turn Harrington into something good this summer, but it's concerning that he could leave for nothing. The presumed lack of interest in Harrington demonstrates how fungible an 18 ppg small forward is in the NBA, so my expectations might be excessive that the Hawks are going to get a good part back for him, but surely he's worth a mid-range first round pick.
3. Even if we get rid of Harrington, the roster still doesn't make that much sense. The basic problem is that neither Marvin Williams, nor Josh Smith play power forward. Maybe one of them can bulk up and the Hawks can play them together at the forward spots, but the basic issue is that the team might not have room for its two most promising young players. I'd like to imagine that in three years, Johnson, Smith, and Williams can play the two, three, and four with Childress backing them up and with a good point guard and better interior depth, the Hawks will be a playoff team, but that requires Marvin or Josh to get to a place where they can bang with players like Chris Bosh or Jermaine O'Neal.
4. Zaza does not have good hands and good hands aren't something that can be developed. Just my humble opinion. He gets to the hoop a lot and doesn't finish that well. If he ever gets better, he could be a 15 ppg guy, a level at which he'd be the biggest bargain EVER!!!
5. Have I mentioned that we missed a chance to draft the next Isiah Thomas?Or that we drafted the "French Scottie Pippen," got buggerall from him for two years, and then found out that Boris Diaw is indeed the French Scottie Pippen? Incidentally, Diaw can shoot much better this year. That's either a coaching technique issue or a confidence issue. Either way, it doesn't bode well for this coaching staff.
Overall, I feel pretty good about this team. The Hawks are way ahead of where they were when Billy Knight arrived. He's off-loaded a horribly flawed roster and built a team full of promising young players, albeit players who play similar positions. Absent additions, this team will get better, but the next two off-seasons will be critical for filling in around a bunch of promising twos, threes, and fours. Building in the NBA requires patience, absent a shot from the blue like winning the lottery when LeBron James is available.
One other note: I genuinely enjoyed being a season ticket holder this year. It's easy to get to Philips Arena (especially if you know where to park), the concessions are quite good (my wife, the pretzel fanatic swears by the pretzels at the BBQ stand on the main level), the wall of TVs in between the lower and upper levels is a sight to behold (especially when the game gets boring, although there aren't enough different options on the TVs - why the hell were the Braves not on any of the hundreds of TVs last Tuesday night?), and the team does everything they can to fill the stoppages in play with KissCam, Home Depot Price Check, Sprite Jam Cam, and a host of other chances for fans to check their dignity at the door. I would certainly renew if not for the child on the way.