Complicating matters is that blocks and steals are so rare. Big-time shot blockers will record a rejection on about one in ten possessions. We don't know their impact on the other nine. That's just talking about the top shot-blockers in the nation. What about the less proficient big men who still rack up blocks, but on one in 20 possessions? It's even more difficult to assess a player's impact based on his steals. The best at forcing steals will do so on about one in 20 possessions. That leaves 95% of the player's possessions unaccounted. What if a player is going for steals all the time, and putting himself out of position when he's not successfully causing a turnover?
So it's difficult to accept that block and steal rates are a foolproof way to identify who is making an impact on the defensive end. I am more than willing to accede to traditional scouting in this area. However, one thing I have noticed in the brief time I have been gathering tempo-free individual defensive statistics is that being proficient at both blocking shots and forcing steals is a strong indicator that a player is doing disruptive things on those possessions where he doesn't get credit for doing either.
Smith is now first in the NBA in blocks and seventh in steals. If he keeps those numbers up and the Hawks continue to show as an above-average defensive team, then Smith will deserve serious consideration for the NBA's all-defensive team. This post about the Magic also has some applicability to the Hawks, specifically this paragraph:
Few teams could afford to play [Rashard] Lewis full-time at power forward, given his poor rebounding--Lewis has grabbed only 7.1 percent of available rebounds this season, about half the league average for power forwards (14.0 percent). The Magic can get away with it in large part because [Dwight] Howard is such a good rebounder.
As I mentioned on Sunday night, Josh Smith is tremendously disruptive on the defensive end of the floor, but the downside is that he often leaves his man open for offensive rebounds. Adding Al Horford to the team makes Smith better because the Hawks now have an excellent defensive rebounder to cover for Smith. Horford's back-up, Shelden Williams, is also a very good defensive rebounder. (Speaking of Shelden, he was outstanding last night and then promptly got hurt and couldn't build on a 12-point [on six-for-six shooting], seven rebound start to the game.) In retrospect, playing Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia together was a defensive problem because Zaza isn't a great defensive rebounder (he's much better on the offensive end) and Smith needs to play with a center who can clean up the defensive glass. Horford was in foul trouble last night and only played eight minutes, so his first match-up with Dwight Howard was not a success, but the rest of the team pitched in well. The defense did a good job on Dwight Howard and an even better job on Orlando's three-point shooters. Stan Van Gundy gave credit to the Hawks' defense for making his shooters' lives difficult:
We did make some mistakes, but I actually thought a lot of it was them. They've got great, great quickness as a team, and good length. I thought they made it very, very difficult on us to get quality shots -- they contested shots better than anybody that we've played against.
One other note on the game last night: the Hawks turned the ball over only eight times, which was a major factor in the victory. Josh Smith took care of the ball better than he normally does and the team's point guards were pretty flawless. Horford missing time also kept the turnovers down, as his excellent start to his NBA career has also been marked by frequent turnovers (not at all surprising for a rookie).
In sum, the Hawks now have relatively comfortable wins over the Magic, Suns, and Mavericks to their credit. The Hawks are a young team, so it's reasonable to worry about a let-down. The Hawks lost five of six (including home games against Washington and Seattle) after they beat Phoenix and Dallas in the first part of the season. That said, the team identified their stretch of games this week as a critical measuring stick and they got off to an ideal start last night.