Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Taking Stock of the Hawks after the All-star Break

1. Overall, if you would have told me before the season that the Hawks would be 31-21 and firmly in the #4 spot in the East, I would have been overjoyed. The consensus before the season was that the team would be in danger of not making the playoffs, in light of the fact that they only won 37 games in 2007-08 and several non-playoff teams in the East had gotten better, namely the Sixers and the Bulls. The Hawks are on pace for 49 wins and their record is consistent with their scoring margin, so it cannot be said that the team has been especially lucky. I was a tad skeptical coming into the year because of Josh Childress's departure and the retention of Mike Woodson, but everything has worked out. The young players have developed, the bench hasn't been the disaster that we feared, and Mike Bibby is having a career year.

2. What do the Hawks do well? According to the numbers, they shoot the ball well, they don't turn it over, and they have a good assist rate. Does that sound like a team whose point guard is having an outstanding season? What do the Hawks not do well? Rebound. The Hawks are an above-average offensive team and an average defensive team, but they struggle to get rebounds on either end. Does that sound like a team playing a power forward at center? Or a team with only one quality reserve big man (Zaza)? Oh, and the Hawks are also 29th in the NBA in free throw percentage, which is very hard to explain for a team with a number of good shooters. The primary culprit has been Josh Smith, who gets to the line more than anyone else on the team (good!), but is shooting a woeful 58% (bad!), which is well below his career average.

3. And speaking of our local talent/enigma, Smith has shot the ball better this year than he has in years past, but all of his other numbers - blocks, rebound rate, assist rate - have gone down slightly. It is worth noting that Smith has the second-best plus-minus among the Hawks' regulars. Maybe we should see his performance this season as a "less is more" situation? His scoring, assists, and turnovers are down because his teammates are seeing more of the ball (and why not with Marvin Williams and Bibby having good scoring years?), so maybe Josh is a slightly more efficient player?

4. If I had to point at one reason why the Hawks are where they are, it would be Mike Bibby. Take a gander at these numbers. The Hawks rank in the top ten in the NBA at two positions; they get the sixth best production at shooting guard and the seventh best production at point guard. Bibby shoots the ball well, his assist rate is good, and he never turns it over. His performance has created an interesting dilemma for the Hawks in the off-season. Do they re-sign a player coming off of a great year (in a contract push) who is in the decline phase of his career? As with most free agent topics, the question comes down to the money and the length of the contract.

5. One thought on the rebounding issue: Zaza is a better rebounder than Horford. In light of that fact, it's not especially surprising that the Hawks' best unit (and the fifth best unit in the NBA) is the Bibby-Johnson-Evans-Smith-Pachulia lineup. There are major sample size issues with that lineup, but it would be worth Mike Woodson giving it a little more time to test it. With the back court scoring so well, it stands to reason that the Hawks putting their best defensive/rebounding front line on the court would work out.

6. This stat is, without a doubt, the most surprising one of the season for the Hawks. Not only has the bench not been the disaster that John Hollinger and others predicted before the year, but it's actually been a net positive and ranks 11th in the league in plus/minus. Interestingly, the Hawks' bench has played the second fewest minutes of any NBA bench, but they are third in points per possession. So here's the question: is Mike Woodson making a mistake by not using an asset enough or is that asset valuable because he's using it sparingly. In any event, it would be worthwhile for Woodson to dial back on the starters' minutes a little in the coming weeks, especially if the team has a solid lead for the #4 spot in the East.

7. Because I won't stop being contrary and pointing out that Billy Knight wasn't a bad GM (despite the Chris Paul mistake), note that the Hawks have three of Bill Simmons' top 40 players and none of his 25 worst contracts.


Anonymous said...

maybe his last five games where he is actually averaging more offensive boards than defensive ones are weighing too heavily on me , but I do think Zaza gets his fair share of rebounds off his own (poor) miss.

That is not to say Zaza is a bad rebounder, but I would take Al over Zaza on the defensive glass more times than not. and Al is a better shot blocker, offensive weapon, passer, and catcher.

Anonymous said...

Maybe this is a relevant aside. I used to share an office with Bob Rathbun's younger sister (A Dukie, incidentally), who was the nicest lady and, moreover, a MILF.

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