Sunday, April 23, 2006

The Complete Hawks Post-Mortem

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.

5 comments:

Fox said...

Mikey, I know you're trying to put a positive spin no things but your defense of Billy Knight sounds like rationalization. Sure, Joe Johnson is a good player and puts up nice numbers. And MAYBE he's even worth a max contract. but there's absolutely no way that he is worth a max contract AND 1st round picks. (And I'm ignoring the Boris Diaw screw-up--maybe he Nash has magical powers and maybe he just needed out of Atlanta but he's given Phoenix everything Johnson gave them last year.) And his insistence in hoarding swingmen--the most fungible position in the league--is ridiculous. If Marvin can't play the 4, what the hell was Knight thinking? I thought that was the whole point.

I do agree that he's better than Isiah though.

nixforsix said...

As for the defense, a good center will make all the difference in the world. Did you notice how many layups we gave up because other teams were completely fearless of driving to the lane. Between not having a center, and no one that could guard a PG (especially when Lue was out) this is why it's understandable that we lost to Charlotte.

My biggest problem from a non roster viewpoint, is that Woodson doesn't allow/force the team to run more. What's the point of having 5 guys who can run the floor, dunk, and handle the ball if you're going to play in a half court set the entire game. Do you think Jason Kidd wouldn't be pushing the ball up the floor and throwing ally oops all day?

Also, Josh Smith is the one who is going to have to become the PF. With his jumping and shot blocking skills it just makes sense. Plus he stand too upright defensivley anyways and can't guard quicker SFs. Did you realize he's only an inch shorter than Amare? Whereas Marvin is a straight up SF, and a much better shooter than Josh.

At some point we should be able to cause tons of matchup problems.

Eric said...

Good analysis. Glad I found this blog...an Atlanta sports homer, and a soccer fan...just like me!

I feel good about the Hawks...very young, Woody seems good at developing these young guys. Chris Paul miss aside (and why don't the Bucks and Jazz get crap for that, too?), I think Knight is doing a serviceable job.

This draft could be his most important, with a chance to build on the youth we already have.

Michael said...

Eric,

I'm glad you like the blog. Milwaukee doesn't get shit for passing on Paul because they already have two point guards and they made the playoffs this year. Utah should get the most shit because they decided that Paul wasn't even the best PG in the Draft.

As for this off-season, the question to me is whether Smith or Williams are going to become PFs. If they are, then taking a PF like LaMarcus Aldridge makes little sense. If they aren't, then a good PF is as important as a PG. Personally, I'd like to see them take Tyrus Thomas because they need a shot-blocker. There aren't any PGs to justify a top four pick, although trading down to take someone like Marcus Williams and getting an extra first rounder would be nice.

Eric said...

True
True about Milwaukee...I don't see why the Jazz aren't criticized for it. If you really think about it, Marvin will be at the point in his career next year (3 years out of HS) that Paul was this year. I think then is when you can truly make a comparison.

I see Josh as the PF (albeit not a huge one). Yes, he can shoot a little, but his real strength lies in shot blocking and rebounding.

Doesn't really have a lot of post moves yet, but you need to have him on the floor with either Childress and Johnson or Marvin and Johnson...Plus, he's got more of a PF body than Marvin.

But who cares about that now? The two most electrifying footballers in the world are dueling to day, and my DVR is ready to go! Please, God, don't let anyone ruin the outcome for me...