Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Put It Back Together

Through a combination of poor play, poor coaching, and poor health, the 60-win Hawks broke in the Eastern Conference Finals. A dreadful Game 4 performance doesn't mean they shattered into an infinite number of pieces, never to be reassembled. Gallows humor was the healthiest response to the events of Game 4, but that single debacle shouldn't overshadow that the Hawks threw away a chance to win Game 1 due to their curious first-half defensive gameplan and (another playoff game defined by) a second-half medley of missed open shots. Poor game management, on the floor and from the bench, cost the Hawks Game 3 in both regulation and overtime. It was a bad week, but not one that guaranteed playoff elimination, much less one that proved or disproved much about a wildly successful regular season.

Basketball philosophy will always tie this version of the Hawks to the Spurs, but their road to an NBA championship will look much more like the Mavericks: win 50 games a year, every year for a decade, and cash in one of your chances. It will take a minor miracle for these Hawks to acquire a player the caliber of Tim Duncan or David Robinson, but it's not impossible (a healthy) Al Horford could approximate the value of early-30s Dirk Nowitzki. Surround him with affordable, productive veterans, turn at least one role player into a difference-maker through context and performance, and you've got a chance. The Hawks weren't far off this season, and the difference may simply have been the cumulative impact of injuries and wounds.

Because of all the wasted resources during the Atlanta Spirit Group's ownership -- trading away first-round picks, making bad draft picks, losing good first-round picks without compensation -- maintaining a 50-win team with an annual chance to win a title will require the basketball side to make consistent good decisions, and that those good decisions work out. The Hawks aren't in as good a place as they are today without the two trades Danny Ferry made on July 11, 2012. They were massively important deals, but they weren't a solution. They solved one problem and created opportunity, but they did not add assets.

The Hawks (once putting a permanent GM in place) will surely explore all trade* and free agency options this summer. Starting the 2015-16 season with three starters 29 or older, coming off career years (that each ended in injury), and paying the trio twice as much for the privilege isn't utopian, but it may be the best case, short-term scenario. Worrying about standing pat with a wildly successful starting five is, admittedly, a strongly pessimistic point of view. Even if it's an unnecessarily pessimistic concern, those five will require significant improvement of roster spots 8-15 to get better. 

*Considering the most enticing (non-Horford) package the Hawks would want to put together would consist of Teague or Schroder, plus Mike Scott, maybe and/or Bazemore, and Austin Daye's unguaranteed deal, they're unlikely to be involved in a blockbuster, but will surely look to shed some cheap, young, dead weight for a contributor or additional assets.

Likely having reached the limit of the value to be derived from creating wide-open threes for competent shooters (which appears to be making 35% of their 3PTAs in the regular season, possibly much less in the playoffs), the Hawks would be well served to acquire good shooters. The problem being that everybody wants good shooters and the Hawks are probably too good already to be helped by adding any one-dimensional shooters. A one-dimensional shooter isn't a significant improvement over Antic, Bazemore, or Scott. The Hawks need a wing shooter who can also defend, a big man who can shoot and defend, or or a big man who can shoot and rebound, a big man who can defend and rebound.

Theorizing out of the way, how could this work? Assume the Hawks re-sign Millsap and Carroll (which both sides want and there's probably a decent-sized band of years and money which makes everybody happy in both cases and both will likely have trade value in future years), Mike Muscala slides into Pero Antic's role, Pero re-signs to fill Elton Brand's savvy veteran who plays 500 minutes role, the Hawks draft a young wing* or playmaking four** in the first round, draft Alan Williams in the second round, plus an international prospect if they keep a second, second-round pick.

*Without having done my research, Sam Dekker, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, RJ Hunter, and Kelly Oubre are all viable candidates and the Hawks may have their pick of the lot.

**Same caveat: Kevon Looney's the only real candidate in this category who will potentially be available at 15, I think.

That gives a no-trades, free agency loss-less version of the Hawks an asset roster of:

PGs: Teague, Schroder, Mack
Wings: Korver, Carroll, Sefolosha, #15 pick, Bazemore
Bigs: Millsap, Horford, Muscala, Antic, Williams, Scott
Non-guaranteed contract for non-player: Daye
Draft rights: Walter Tavares*, Lamar Patterson
All their own draft picks
Extra future draft picks: Brooklyn's 2017 second-round pick, Miami's 2017 or 2018 second-round pick**, a top-14 protected first-round pick from Minnesota (2018-2020) OR Minnesota's 2020 and 2021 second-round picks

*I don't think Tavares comes over next season if the Hawks keep Millsap, while also trying to integrate Muscala and a first-round pick into the rotation. Then again, the Eastern Conference champion didn't get above .500 for good until mid-January so maybe next season the Hawks punt November and half of December instead of the end of March and the first half of April.

**Pick is protected from 31-40 in 2017, unprotected in 2018.

There's probably enough there at the margins to consolidate a few pieces into a real contributor that's superfluous to or under-appreciated by another team, while also creating player development opportunities. The flip side is that there's probably nothing there that will have multiple teams picking up the phone to instigate a bidding war, though the Hawks will surely listen to any team willing to overpay for anyone or anything, even Horford.

Even if the Hawks lack a clear path forward in terms of personnel decisions, the organization has a very clear idea* of how they will achieve success. However, that clarity is no guarantee of success. There's no way to plan so well as to eliminate injuries, fully control developmental curves (for players, coaches, and the front office), or always overcome the other team's desire and ability to beat you in a seven-game series.

*And make no mistake: that idea begins with acquiring a superstar before, failing that, working its way down to something that resembles the 2014-15 Hawks.

It's difficult, in the wake of a clear vision of exactly how the Hawks reach the NBA Finals, a vision subsequently proven profoundly out of touch with actual events, to embrace the uncertainty of the offseason, with its countless actors, seen and unseen, conflicting agendas, and strange bedfellows. Whatever anticipatory comfort one finds takes the form of trusting in the Hawks knowing what they want to be and the entire organization's ability to learn from their mistakes and shortcomings.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Distant Voice Previews the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals

The 60-win Atlanta Hawks are underdogs in this series.
   
This makes some kind of sense. David Griffin made the gold-standard GM move this summer by signing LeBron James as a free agent. He made a big, bold offseason trade to add Kevin Love. He made two good in-season trades in a three-day period* to add JR Smith and Iman Shumpert and a first-round pick while simultaneously shedding Dion Waiters**, then acquire Timofey Mozgov to fill an Anderson Varejao-shaped void for the OKC first-round pick they got for Waiters and another future, protected first-rounder. 

The Cavaliers are good. They have the ten-time reigning best player in basketball, they’ve consistently been in the news for positive and/or interesting transactions, and they’re much better on offense than defense.
 
*Coming six and eight days, respectively, after Cleveland’s second loss to the Hawks this season.

**WOAT

 
The 2014-15 Hawks came into being in the summers of 2012 and 2013. They have done nothing interesting off the court (which, sadly, isn’t the same as saying they’ve had nothing interesting off the court done unto them) since. They balance an obviously above-average offense with an atypical above-average defense. The Hawks lack* a franchise player, and they lack direct, or indirect, franchise success.

*NOTE: Does not apply to Al Horford during the 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
 

What’s different about the Hawks this year? They’re healthier, mostly, and that enabled them to trust the processes they put in place. Feel that excitement. No? Try this...
The Atlanta Hawks are going to win the Eastern Conference Finals in 5 games.
So. Hmm. How?
   
Short version: the Cavaliers are a poor defensive team that doesn’t match up well with the Hawks.
   
Long version: Lacking the best player in the series (clearly), the Hawks will counter with the second- through sixth-best players. While David Blatt et al. face the unenviable task of identifying Cleveland’s best five-man unit for this series on the fly, Mike Budenholzer knows. More importantly, he has slooooowly demonstrated a willingness to deploy his five-best players for long minutes.  

Cleveland has a choice: prop up their subpar point-of-attack defense with a heavy dose of the Thompson/Mozgov duo (added benefit on the other end of the floor: many offensive rebounds) to protect the paint, or play a single big in order to spread the floor on offense to punish the Hawks for helping each other as much on defense as they do on offense, and reap the whirlwind on the defensive end.  

Neither option is ideal for Cleveland because neither option offers a satisfactory answer to the question, “Who does Kyrie Irving attempt to guard?” Does he defend the Atlanta point guard, leaving Cleveland vulnerable to the pick-and-rolls that bedeviled the last three times the teams met during the regular season? Does he attempt to hide on DeMarre Carroll, which doesn’t really seem a recipe for limiting Atlanta’s open three-point attempts or layups, and may create the only scenario wherein Mike Budenholzer encourages offensive rebounding?  

The Cavs' issues cascade from there: JR Smith* or Shumpert forced to chase Korver for 38 minutes, multiple Cavs forced to cross-match in defensive transition, every potentially devastating instance of LeBron helping on D carrying a risk that could be exploited by one pass from the pass-happiest team in the league.

*Smith has serious defensive scapegoat potential in this series, even if he does little wrong, if Korver starts making 47% of his 3PTAs again.
 

Beyond that, as long as Irving is limited by injury, the Cavaliers become easier for the Hawks to guard. Basically, the Hawks should defend LeBron James the way they defended John Wall in Games 5 and 6:
  • Let him create for himself (jumpshots encouraged)
  • Do not help off shooters in the corners
  • Live with everyone but Kyrie Irving taking above-the-break threes
  • Do help late at the rim
Well, actually: LeBron James is much better than John Wall and the rest of what's left of the Cavs is arguably better than Wall's supporting cast.

Well, actually redux: the latter difference is not as great as the defensive difference between the two teams. That’s where the Hawks have to punish Cleveland.  

However, Cleveland’s defensive limitations pose a risk to the Hawks in this series. Unlike their matchup against the Bizarro Playoff Wizards, the Hawks will have to turn the math of two- and three-point shots into their favor this series. Cleveland will likely be willing to give up pick-and-roll created layups rather than pick-and-roll created threes. The Hawks need to make the same trade when LeBron creates in isolation.  

Furthermore, a willingness to let LeBron James attempt to single-handedly outscore the Hawks might, in one fell swoop, help mitigate Thabo Sefolosha’s absence, help keep DeMarre Carroll out of potentially devastating foul trouble, and limit the available energy for James to be an effective help defender. 

These Hawks will never be as good as they were from November 28th to January 30th this season* but that Hawks team is not their opponent. Nor is the Cavs team that didn't get above .500 for good until January 16th, or the Cavs team that went on its own 32-7 run (with 21 double-digit wins). What's left of the Hawks just has to be better than what's left of the Cavs for four of the next seven games.

*And nothing should diminish the unadulterated joy 33-2 brought so many right-thinking people. Not even whatever the Warriors might do to the Hawks in the NBA Finals.

Friday, November 02, 2012

It's Been Pleasant

For the first time in five years, I'm not going to write about the Atlanta Hawks' first game of the regular season. For the first time in five years, I have no specific plans to write about the Atlanta Hawks at all.

First of all, I appreciate the irony of stepping away from the keyboard at the precise moment the franchise made a decision I've been advocating since 2008, just as the Hawks presume to be interesting and new in ways they haven't been over much of the last five seasons.

I'm here because the Kansas City Kings left town when I was 8 years old. As a result of that, I channeled my basketball interest into the college game. I have many great memories because of college basketball but, as a fan and writer, it turned out to be an aesthetic and intellectual dead end.

Secondly, I deeply appreciate everyone who took the time to read anything I wrote about the Hawks.

When I began writing about the Hawks, I didn't have a lot of things in my life that satisfied me. I didn't have anything that provided me a useful and interesting outlet. Writing about the Hawks, interacting with Hawks fans, and entering the genuinely pleasant community of the NBA blogosphere was (this is in retrospect, not something I consciously understood or appreciated at the time) profoundly important in my life.

So I'm also here because Atlanta Hawks fans were passionate and generous with their time and attention to one who adopted their team. Whether you agreed or disagreed with me, whether you let me know of said agreement or disagreement, the semi-public platform I created was an important and valuable part of my life for five years.

What comes next are the thank yous I probably should have expressed more often in the moment. Feel free to read the following, skim it for you name, or skip to the end, as applicable.

I'm here because, after one season of blogging about the Hawks here, Matt Bernhardt invited me to start a Hawks blog at SB Nation. Without that encouragement and opportunity, there's a very good chance I would drifted in yet another different direction after that first season.

I'm here because of the example Henry Abbott set at TrueHoop and the investment of his time, energy and talent in establishing the TrueHoop Network.

I'm here because Kevin Arnovitz called me, told me that Henry Abbott was starting a network of NBA blogs under the TrueHoop banner, and asked if I'd like to write about the Hawks for them. The call surprised and flattered because of my admiration for Kevin, first through his writing at ClipperBlog, even moreso as I've gotten to know him over the years.

I'm here because, on that first phone call, Kevin told me they were getting Kurt Helin and Mike Kurylo for the TrueHoop Network. Both fine writers and, if it hadn't been for Kurt and Mike taking me up on my offer to contribute at CourtsideTimes.net, I might never had made the transition to writing about the NBA.

I'm here because of the people who have made up the TrueHoop Network, because of the colleagues I saw once a year (if that), because of those I've never met in person, all of whom remain comfortably simpatico. There are tens of people I now know with whom I fondly remember sharing a drink, a conversation, and laughs and look forward to doing so again at some unspecified moment in the future. I'm not so foolish as to start a list and leave off one of the many, many friends I've made through the TrueHoop Network. Thank you all.

I'm here because the NBA editors at ESPN.com are really super, generous with both their time and assignments. There is no doubt the opportunities I received there, from being a part of the TrueHoop Network, added legitimacy to the time I spent writing about basketball. Same goes for Bradford Doolittle and Kevin Pelton inviting me to share a little corner of the Atlanta Hawks section of three editions of the Basketball Prospectus annual.

The longtime and old-time Hawks bloggers deserve their own paragraph. A special thank you to Drew and Larry and CoCo and Jason and Kris for the conversations and arguments we've shared, as well as the unexpected delights the Hawks have provided us over the last five years amidst the somewhat more predictable* disappointments. Hawks blogs are as strong as they've ever been, in my opinion, and I look forward to getting to know better the emerging writers. I think this is the spot where I should say I'll still be on Twitter, pitching woe and delight in unequal measure as the Hawks play.

*The Hawks will win 47 games this season. Josh Smith will not be traded, but Devin Harris will.

I'm here because Buddy Grizzard, James Goeders, and Mark Phelps stepped up and recapped a bunch of games this season. Without their efforts, Hoopinion probably would not have survived the lockout.

I'm here because a part of me -- not the best part, mind you -- draws energy from critics, willful mis-readers, and those troubled by my conscious rejection of certainty. One doesn't follow this path for five years because of the money. One follows this path due to some need for attention.

I'm here because Alison Weldon has been tremendously patient regarding the amount of time I've spent watching, thinking, and writing about the Atlanta Hawks over the last five years.

I'm going because I'm marrying Alison and because I found a real job. These two things are related, and wonderfully so. Miraculously, really, when it comes to the former. Both of those developments are an outgrowth of the work I've done here. Hoopinion has served as a way station between an old, uncertain self and one embracing adult life, for better and worse. Mostly better. It is bittersweet that, as my life has developed in these wonderful ways, it crowds out the time necessary to give this effort, which I also love, the attention it deserves.

I don't think I'm going because I'm running low on valuable things to say about the Hawks, but I've been spectacularly, hilariously wrong before and better to leave the party early than for your host to find you passed out on the bathroom floor. Or so I've heard.

Regarding that, if anyone reading this is on the fence about starting out in this, or a similar arena, especially anyone young, my advice is to write. Make yourself do the work. The rewards will often seem ephemeral, at best. Then, looking back, they appear vast. And unending.

If you bet it hit rim, proceed to the window and collect your money.


Thanks for reading, everybody. It's time for me to go. 

Tuesday, August 21, 2012

ESPN.com: Doolittle: East win projections

Friend of the blog Bradford Doolittle published the Basketball Prospectus win projections for the Eastern Conference yesterday (Insider). Therein, the current state 2012-13 Atlanta Hawks projected to win the second-most games in the Eastern Conference. The (pleasant) surprise of the ordinal rankings make it possible to overlook that the projections have the Hawks winning games at a lesser rate than their 2011-12, fifth-best record in the East performance. This isn't an argument that the Hawks get better, it's that the East gets worse.

As for why the Hawks project to win* almost 49 games after trading away their two best wing players in salary dump deals, I think the explanation is fairly simple. Because Marvin Williams is such a low usage player and Joe Johnson is not an especially efficient scorer (and surely projects to decline in any forecasting system given he's on the age precipice for good but nor great shooting guards), a collection of fairly efficient low usage players (Morrow, Korver, maybe John Jenkins) and a couple of not especially efficient high usage players (Devin Harris and Lou Williams) simulates to be similar to the Hawks having kept Williams and Johnson.

Nor should we overlook in the upheaval that a (healthy) primary post rotation of Josh Smith, Al Horford and Zaza Pachulia with the fully competent Jordan Williams and Ivan Johnson in reserve, is a really nice post rotation.

I don't think it will play out along the lines of this projection because of the uncertainty of the practical changes in usage and roles for so many players. Plus, until Ferry acquires a good perimeter defender, Smith and Horford will have their work cut out to make this an average defensive team and team defense has to have a similarly large margin for error in any forecast. And there's always the chance that Danny Ferry makes a conscious decision to win fewer games in 2012-13 in order to improve the franchise's program's chances of winning a championship thereafter.

In the accompanying Summer Forecast, the ESPN.com NBA team collectively picks the Hawks to win 40 games and finish eighth in the East next season. Assuming the Hawks try to win for the entire season, I pegged them at 45 wins, envisioning them playing an offensively entertaining but defensively abysmal style.

Thursday, July 05, 2012

Once More, With Feeling: Reviewing Marvin Williams' Years in Atlanta

Previously: Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Larry Drew, Rick Sund

In retrospect, Marvin Williams' time with the Atlanta Hawks never made more sense than the night he was drafted. Oh, in hindsight it was a mistake to take Marvin ahead of Chris Paul or, to a significantly lesser* extent, Deron Williams, but it was a mistake 28 other teams likely would have made. It's only in pairing hindsight with selective memory, forgetting Deron Williams' college playing weight, forgetting how bad Wake Forest was defensively, forgetting the final two weeks of Chris Paul's college career were lowlighted by both his punch to Julius Hodge's groin and a second-round loss in the NCAA Tournament as a 2-seed, that drafting Marvin Williams becomes a singular, spectacular act of incompetence.

(I understand you may disagree. For me to take you seriously, you'll need to cite your work. An unsupported "I knew back then" is not convincing. Here's mine. There is much wrong within.)

There were questions about Paul and Williams. Marvin Williams was potential. He didn't fulfill much that potential as an Atlanta Hawk. It's unclear how much of that was due to his limitations, unrecognized during the 22 minutes a game he played during his lone season at North Carolina, and how much was due to organizational dysfunction.

*In hindsight, Utah made a pretty sizable mistake in taking Williams ahead of Paul, too, though that generally goes unmentioned.

On his rookie deal, Williams often played ahead of the superior Josh Childress. Once the Hawks, quite reasonably, chose the younger Williams over Childress and signed Marvin to a sizable extension, the team, quite inexplicably, became disillusioned with him almost immediately. Despite the sizable extension and Williams being the only legit small forward on the roster, he found himself in a reduced role that never gave him a chance to justify the contract. Not that he would have justified it, given the chance. His almost tragically poor playoff performances added to the impression that Williams was not one to seize the moment.

Williams took grief for being an okay player drafted two spots ahead of an all-time great. For being offered a long, large extension despite being, in his brighter stretches, no more than a useful player. For his usefulness coming in ways likely to be unappreciated. In Atlanta, Marvin Willliams came to tick many of the boxes on the list of ways to be an underrated player: an efficient, low-volume scorer who didn't turn the ball over, a slightly above average defender, and a fine rebounder who played only 30 minutes a game.

Much like Joe Johnson, but at a lesser cost, Marvin Williams couldn't hope to match the organization's over-investment in his talents, especially given how he was utilized. Exactly like Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams is not his contract, nor is he what might have been had the Atlanta Hawks never acquired him. Marvin Williams is an adequate player who, in fresh circumstances, could, in his age-26 and age-27 seasons, justify the final two years of his contract. For his sake, I hope he gets that chance in Utah.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

The Future

Through two trades announced within a couple of hours of each other on Monday, Danny Ferry transformed the Atlanta Hawks from one of the most capped-out teams in the league to one that will have $30-40 million in cap space next Summer when Chris Paul and Dwight Howard and Andrew Bynum and James Harden and Serge Ibaka will all be free agents. And cap space isn't just for signing free agents. It gives an organization the flexibility to take advantage of other teams' dysfunction to add quality players and assets. A numbingly cautious and predictable organization became bold and opened itself up to countless possibilities.

The Hawks are going to be far more interesting now that their ambitions extend beyond hosting a couple of second-round playoff games but greater ambitions and smart management provides no guarantee of greater success. Kevin Pritchard couldn't turn and Daryl Morey hasn't turned sound methodology into a championship contending team. Sam Presti runs a model franchise but it's got to be better than even money the Thunder don't win an NBA title on his watch. Danny Ferry was there as the Spurs saw what might be their last hurrah turn from two months of glorious basketball into playoff elimination in the course of a week. For all the ambition, talent, and hubris collected in Miami, Pat Riley and the Heat felt both accomplishment and relief in winning the NBA title. It's terribly difficult to win a championship.

Here's the thing: reaching the Eastern Conference Finals for the first time in franchise history won't be all that satisfying if the Hawks lose that series. That's the nature of fandom. Team success breeds desire for more success. For now, for the first time in a very long time*, the desires of the Atlanta Hawks and the desires of Atlanta Hawks fans are in sync. I think we have to enjoy that, embrace the possibilities or the playoff losses and the injuries (in various degrees, both will come) will won't make it feel like a better place. For Hawks fans, it is.

*I don't count the Joe Johnson sign-and-trade. That was a move made out of desperation and insecurity, one that diverted resources which could have been used for rebuilding into the acquisition of an above average player. It laid the foundation for an era of competency despite mismanagement, realized only through moving up in the 2007 lottery and drafting Al Horford to pair with Josh Smith. The Hawks didn't have a winning record until you could honestly argue that one of those two, rather than Johnson, was the best player on the team.

Monday, July 02, 2012

Great Trade. Who'd We Get?

So ends an era. One wherein terrible management turned a good player into a profound organizational handicap. Michael Cunningham reports:
The Hawks and Nets have agreed to terms on a trade that will send All-Star guard Joe Johnson to Brooklyn for expiring contracts and a first-round pick, according to a person with knowledge of the deal.
Let's hear it for Danny Ferry, who performed a miracle. And let's hear it for Billy King, who saw the post-prime years of (presently) an above average score and passer who doesn't rebound, whose defense can best be described as "won't kill you if you put him on the other team's second-most dangerous wing" and thought to himself, "That's worth $90 million and a first-round draft pick."

The cost of the Joe Johnson era was only, it turned out, $105 million, one first-round pick, and one league average player. Danny Ferry turned a potential disaster into something that didn't work out as planned.

The Hawks have moved on. This trade doesn't improve them in the short-term, it only makes improvement possible in the future. Ferry will have to make several good decisions (and have them work) to get the Hawks to win two playoff series in a season for the first time since they moved to Atlanta.

Tonight, though raise a glass to Ferry, to Joe Johnson, to Billy King, and to the future.