Friday, January 06, 2017

Why Rebuild?

Wins and expected wins (based on point differential) for the Atlanta Hawks over the last two-plus seasons, presented visually:


Despite the current five game winning streak, the Hawks still have a significantly worse point differential than the last two seasons. Two of their top three and three of their top five players by BPM are 31 or older and will be free agents at the end of the season.

I prefer the teams I support to be smarter than me, but seeing a team come to terms with what they really are provides a certain comfort. 

Next: patience to see if enough small decisions are well-made and hope that the opportunity to make a big decision materializes.

NOTE: 2016-17 wins are pro-rated based on the current .556 win percentage.

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

When Did the Atlanta Hawks Succumb To Fear?

Events have overtaken posts-in-progress. The measured tones of "Kent Bazemore in Context" and "Checking in on Dennis Schröder" seem, frankly, inappropriate in the middle of what feels like an organizational meltdown. Time instead to address the question posed above.

Did the Atlanta Hawks succumb to fear when they signed Dwight Howard before Al Horford made a free agent decision? 

I give the front office the benefit of the doubt on not knowing whether their key free agent would re-sign. From the outside, it appears Horford didn't know where he would sign until he signed and the chaos of his representation in the year leading up to his free agency couldn't have helped clarify Horford's intentions. 

The preemptive willingness to replace Horford (or Millsap) with Howard, and to pay rather dearly for the opportunity, exacerbated the roster's bias toward defensive skill and suggested a preference for a simulacrum of elements of the successful 2014-15 and 2015-16 Hawks teams rather than curiosity about what the next 50-win Hawks team would look like (and how soon that could become a reality).

Did the Atlanta Hawks succumb to fear when they re-signed Kent Bazemore? 

This is not unrelated to signing Howard. Once upon a time, Danny Ferry cleared the Hawks' books of bad contracts and acquired good, established, and underrated NBA players: Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, and DeMarre Carroll. Mike Budenholzer's system elevated them to All-Star or near All-Star (in the East, at least) contributors.

Ferry's approach was successful, but his larger strategy -- short, cheap contracts -- was inspired by an NBA with a looming expiration date. Salary cap flexibility becomes less valuable with each additional team which has cap space. The new TV deal recalibrated everything. Salary cap flexibility without a stockpile of trade assets (much of this potential was squandered long before Ferry and Budenholzer arrived in Atlanta) creates further limitations.

The Hawks responded by acquiring (and retaining) not players with the Millsap, Korver, or Carroll two-way potential, but defensive-oriented role players: Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, Tiago Splitter, and Dwight Howard. They spent draft picks* and years of roster spots on players (Mike Scott, Mike Muscala, Tim Hardaway, Jr.) with the upside of "playable* 8th- or 9th-man." For some reason, Kris Humphries ended up on the roster instead of Edy Tavares or literally any other professional basketball player under the age of 30. 

*Which, through no fault of these players' own, becomes less playable as a roster's top-end talent leaves or atrophies.

Korver and Millsap remain on the roster but, due to age and expiring contract respectively, their value to the franchise's future, either as players or trade assets, diminishes daily. The effort to improve the roster stalled, leaving a roster comprised of plus-defensive, minus-offensive players: Howard, Sefolosha, Bazemore, Muscala, possibly plus-offensive, very minus-defensive players: Schröder, Hardaway Jr., Mike Scott, the husk of Korver, the physically unable Tiago Splitter, the even less valuable Kris Humphries and Ryan Kelly, and the TBDs: Malcolm Delaney, Taurean Prince, and DeAndre Bembry. Other than Millsap, no one on the roster can make a shot and stay in front of his man.

*I have not given up on the slim possibility that Schröder proves an investment that pays off and am offering no strong opinion yet on Taurean Prince, DeAndre Bembry, Markus Eriksson, or Isaia Cordinier.

Kent Bazemore is exactly the same player he was last season, but he's suffering from playing alongside two fewer good offensive players than last season. He's making a much lower percentage of corner 3s* (31% vs. 41%), taking a higher percentage of long 2s (more than 20% of his FGAs, up from less than 10% his first two seasons in Atlanta), and turning the ball off the dribble far more often (34 times in 608 minutes this season, 83 times in 3400 minutes the last two seasons).

*Are the attempts less open this season? An avenue for additional study.

The Hawks have been outscored by 8 points per 100 possessions with Bazemore on the floor this season. The Hawks have been outscored by 8.1 points per 100 possessions with Bazemore and Howard on the floor this season. Kent Bazemore does not have the offensive skill set to survive with less spacing or one less passer on the floor, much less both. 25 games haven't killed Bazemore's trade value, at least among smart teams, but smart teams aren't really who you prefer to trade with.

Did the Atlanta Hawks succumb to fear while watching the Cleveland Cavaliers make 77 three-pointers last May? 

I don't know if it's specifically pride or arrogance* that turns Mike Budenholzer into Randy Wittman when faced with the very, very difficult puzzle of the Cleveland Cavaliers in a playoff series, but the refusal to take extreme measures to try to overcome an extreme talent deficit baffles me. 

*I suspect something similar motivates the organization, in one of its few widely communicated principles, to brag that it is not interested in vast swathes of NBA talent they do not consider to be "Hawks players."

Perhaps it's just a manifestation of the limits to which one can make an impact on an organization. Establishing principles and implementing a clear system? Yes. Improvising in an attempt to succeed in a situation where that system limits you? Maybe not.

Which brings us to my final thought on this subject...

Did the Atlanta Hawks succumb to fear in the fourth quarter of Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers?

Be it pet theory or bête noire, 31 months hasn't not been enough to shake my fears that the Hawks faced their Rubicon on May 1, 2014 and failed to cross it. In the other 27 quarters of the series, 42.4% of the Hawks' field goal attempts were three-pointers. Entering the fourth quarter of Game 6, up 3-2 in the series, up 67-64 in the game, the Hawks attempted just 5* three-pointers (out of 21 field goal attempts) in the fourth quarter.

*And one of those coming with 6 seconds left and the Hawks down 7.

At the most important juncture of a series ruled, to that point, by extreme, borderline bizarre events such as Pero Antic dramatically changing Roy Hibbert's career path while making just 3 of 25 three-pointers, the Hawks became normal, conservative. 

Should we have known then that success, when it came, and -- boy, howdy -- did success come a few months later, would be possible only when the universe aligned to meet all their terms and conditions? In all other imperfect circumstances, pursuit of the comfort of feeling in control would drive behavior.

Sunday, November 20, 2016

Notes on Rebounding

As I've written previously, no NBA team could draw more marginal value from Dwight Howard's rebounding ability than the Atlanta Hawks. The freedom (which wasn't certain, at least in my mind) Budenholzer has granted him to attack the offensive glass is massively valuable and may well buoy the offense to league average levels, rather than languishing in the bottom third of the league, as I expected.

But, because of how rebounding works, Howard's gaudy, legitimately valuable rebounding totals are two-thirds defensive rebounds and, though he has improved the team's defensive rebounding, therefore broadening the solidity of the defense, all of those defensive rebounds he's grabbing aren't exactly new defensive rebounds for the Hawks.

The joint defensive versatility of Paul Millsap and Al Horford both mitigated the on-the-ball perimeter defensive limitations of their teammates and pressured the opposition into turnovers. The risk of this utility was that at least one of those two was often out of defensive rebounding position when opponents got a shot off. This put tremendous pressure on the wings to box out larger and/or more athletic players. Effort-wise, the wings were exceptional. Results showed the limitations of asking the willing to do something slightly beyond their physical capabilities.

With Howard on the court, the wings aren't asked to do this. Thus, Howard is getting both new defensive rebounds and some of the rebounds for which Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver used to battle.

-->
Defensive rebound %
Name 2015-16 2016-17
Horford 18.2% --
Howard -- 31.4%
Bazemore 18.0% 10.3%
Sefolosha 17.1% 13.7%
Korver 10.9% 9.3%

(Source: Basketball-reference.com)

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Friday Night Playoff Preview

The fourth quarter in Charlotte on Friday night wasn't a portent of playoff doom, but I suspect we'll see something similar again in April. Not the spectacle* of Dwight Howard getting ejected, but the mostly empty offensive possessions the Hawks managed from 5:54 to 1:17 of fourth quarter.

*Howard wasn't playing especially well before the ejection, his frustration with Cody Zeller causing him to call for the ball in the post which, at best, wasted several seconds of half-court possessions. The Hornets could afford to over-defend Howard, fronting him in the post and sagging toward him from weakside because the only Hawk you absolutely can't help off of (someone tell the Bucks this) is Kyle Korver.

Mike Muscala missing everything on a wide-open corner 3, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schröder losing the ball in the lane after working to beat the initial defender aren't examples of a flawed process, something that can (or needs to) be fixed. They're examples of useful players butting up against the limits of their abilities. Sometimes they will convert those opportunities but more often they simply won't be able.

Swarm Millsap, don't help off of Korver, and force the other Hawks on the floor to make plays will be the default defensive strategy against this team on every possession that matters. Dwight Howard's freedom to go after offensive rebounds offers something the Hawks have not previously had on the back-end of initial possessions that end in a missed shot, but he doesn't add much on the front-end* of them.

*The Schröder/Howard pick-and-roll may develop enough to change my mind, but right now, teams can throw one to one-and-a-half help defenders toward it safe in the knowledge that Schröder largely operates on a binary - shoot or throw a lob to Howard - decision tree.

Running out Malcolm Delaney, Tim Hardaway, Jr., Thabo Sefolosha, Mike Muscala, and either Paul Millsap or Dwight Howard to grind down opposing second units is a good thing, and a viable path to 50 regular season wins. An effective second unit will be less valuable in the playoffs, where the margins are narrower*, and the team's inability to put multiple multi-dimensional offensive players on the court simultaneously will strangle a fair number of crucial offensive possessions.

*Unless you draw a clearly inferior version of yourself, as the Hawks did in the first round last season.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Explore Your Limitations

At some point Monday night, I saw the future and it was ironic. May 2017: A 50-win Hawks team loses in the first round of the playoffs (despite excellent defense across the 6 games). This is the punchline, many pitch their own setups to the joke about the team that maximizes its potential over six months, then submits to variance over two weeks.

Two nights later the Hawks, as a 12-point favorite and -1000 to win outright, allowed 123 points on (approximately) 102 possessions to the Los Angeles Lakers. They lost a home game, as overwhelming favorites, wherein Dwight Howard and Tim Hardaway, Jr. combined for 57 points (on 26 shots, no less!). This result did not assuage my fears* about how the team might struggle once the schedule gets more difficult.

*This result recontextualized things for me a bit.

Based on the evidence of their professional basketball careers, the Hawks have two good offensive players: Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver. I suspect that will become an issue, above and beyond collective tactical buy-in and competence, once the playoffs begin AT THE LATEST. 

One could argue it became an issue another two nights later when the Hawks followed up the 13 points on 16 shots from Millsap and Korver in the Lakers game with 19 points on 23 shots from them in Washington. Add in a team effort of 16-57 from beyond the arc (11-47 for non-Hardaways) across the two games and the margin for error bends toward definition.

This is a really good defensive team. The Lakers game proved that doesn't guarantee 82 instances of success, but the Hawks will be difficult to score against more often than not. Many nights, they will be absurdly difficult to score against. Especially as long as Thabo Sefolosha and Mike Muscala provide enough decent offense to solidify themselves as (offense) consequence-free primary reserves.

The Houston Rockets may or may not turn out to be a good team this season. I suspect they will be the inverse of the Hawks, perhaps even more extreme in their lack of balance between offense and defense. The Rockets, despite the brilliance of James Harden, could not score easily against the Hawks. This is a very good sign. Scoring against the Rockets moves me not a whit. Preventing them from scoring? That warped optimism from Monday returned.

Bonus rational thought section
Showing my work, here's the Hawks against the closing Pinnacle moneyline through six games:
-->
Date Opponent Closing xWin% Result xWinSum Wins Diff
27-Oct Washington -172 63.2% 1 0.63 1 0.37
29-Oct at Philadelphia -365 78.5% 1 1.42 2 0.58
31-Oct Sacramento -290 74.4% 1 2.16 3 0.84
2-Nov LA Lakers -1000 90.9% 0 3.07 3 -0.07
4-Nov at Washington 102 49.5% 0 3.57 3 -0.57
5-Nov Houston -155 60.8% 1 4.17 4 -0.17

Four wins is roughly par against this schedule, per the betting market. Fair enough.

On the other hand, the Hawks have lost two games by 10 points combined while not winning a game by fewer than 11 points yet. They're +63 through 6 games (+31 in non-Sixers games, which is, perhaps, an over-correction given that the Sixers haven't lost any other game Joel Embiid has participated in by more than 6 points). The schedule will get tougher, but, however you cut it, that's a pretty nice margin of victory rate against any other professional collective.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Notes On 100% of Something

Sure, I could have looked at the schedule before blurting out that you should check this space every Monday, but I didn't and now I have to gin up some perfunctory conclusions after two games, one of them against a legitimate NBA team. Not that winning both of these games, and by healthy margins, should be taken for granted. I say this as someone deeply skeptical of the idea that Bradley Beal is a good NBA player.

The Hawks closed at -172 to win against the Wizards and -365 to win against the 76ers, implying a 63% probability of a Hawks win on opening night and 78% on Saturday afternoon. They should have won both games but, by actually winning both games, they outperformed market expectations by 0.58 wins through two games. (I'm now predicting 44 wins.)

What news there is is all good news so far. In brief:

  • Paul Millsap is still excellent (extra credit due for providing another argument in favor of shortening the pre-season).
  • Kyle Korver, too.
  • Dwight Howard looked like a good role player (this is actual praise, not a smart ass and cutie pie faint praise gag).
  • Thabo Sefolosha keyed some really good bench play against a couple of benches one would hope your team's bench would look good against.
  • Will Mike Muscala finally be able to convert being in generally good places on the offensive end into good offensive play?
  • Tim Hardaway, Jr. played pretty well. Not pretty well just by his standards, but by the objective norms of NBA reserves.
  • No conclusions drawn about point guard play until at least half of their minutes have come against stiffer competition than Trey Burke, Sergio Rodriguez and TJ McConnell.
  • Joel Embiid has faced Steven Adams and Dwight Howard. He scored 34 points in 38 minutes with a 56.1 TS%. Passing will come (he was credited with 3.6 assists per 100 possessions at Kansas), his defense will tighten up, and, eventually, the turnovers will decline. It is so nice to have him back.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Foundational Guesses: A 2016-17 Atlanta Hawks Season Preview

A summary for the busy reader
I'm going with 43 wins, with the understanding that small differences in player projections multiplied by varying minutes estimates for this mystery aggregation of familiar, aging quality and new bets made at confusingly short odds makes any Atlanta Hawks projection between 38 and 48 wins defensible. 

Sticking my pin in the mid-point of this (proposed) reasonable range isn't just pessimism in action. I think of the 2014-15 Hawks. I suspected they would be quite good upon Al Horford's return from injury. However, I also suspected that if they again suffered a serious injury (or injuries) they would divest themselves of good players in the final year of their contracts for future assets. (Remember, the Hawks made a belated, futile attempt in March 2014 to miss the playoffs.) Even if we take this summer's activity as a reluctance to rebuild for an entire season, that doesn't preclude one or more mid-season moves in pursuit of longer-term goals followed by actively pursuing free agents - an in-season, on-the-fly rebuild (a refresh? a trade-in?).

Bear in mind, the Hawks strongly considered blowing up the team nine months ago while, from December 16 through the end of the season (56 games), posting the same 55-win scoring differential as the 60-win 2015-16 team. This organization is conservative but not incurious. 

Foundational guesses
This is the first of what I intend to be (roughly) weekly dispatches published in this old, familiar space. Below, I lay out some suppositions about a roster I don't understand (or strongly believe in, frankly, though that's due more to skepticism than certain disbelief) that will provide a framework for me to revisit as evidence about this team accrues over the course of the season.

In rough order of importance, but with reflexive rejection of certainty intact:

D----- H-----
First, on the court: He hasn't been good since he was in Orlando five years ago. He hasn't been useless in the years since, but his value* is strictly as a rebounder and a rim protector. It's undeniable that no team in the NBA is positioned to gain greater marginal value from improved rebounding (offensive and defensive) than the Hawks. If some of those extra defensive rebounds he turn into transition offense**, then one of his remaining skills will have a positive knock-on effect for the offense. However, expectations for him, fair expectations for him at this point in his career, should be "healthy Tiago Splitter." 

*Q: How can you be a net negative on offense with a TS% of 60 and Usage Rate around 22%?
A: Turn the ball over on 17% of the possessions you use and get credit for an assist every 50 possessions you're on the court. 

**For maximum optimism, best not to linger too long on thoughts of the Hawks' wings dribbling.

The obvious questions about him fitting into a healthy, functioning team system will only be answered in time:
  • Will he commit to rolling hard to the rim and, if so, how does this help the half-court spacing? 
  • Will a higher volume of rim protection paired with Paul Millsap's defensive versatility be as effective* as the two-headed, all-court disruption Millsap and Al Horford provided? 
*My guess is yes, if this leads to the Hawks finally making an effort to suppress three-point attempts rather than living with allowing three-point attempts taken late in the shot clock. Of course, they won 60 games two seasons allowing the most three-point attempts in the league so there may be other alternatives in play that lay beyond my ken.

Regarding off the court issues, theories and speculation about team building and fan psychology: It hasn't become any less weird that the Hawks signed him before they knew* Horford was leaving. To be clear, offering Horford the max up front (and him taking it) to keep this team together (while low-key stockpiling assets as part of a shadow rebuild) wasn't a high-upside strategy or even a guarantee of establishing Mavericks East. It was a path that made sense given what we know about the front office, whereas locking up an inferior center, perhaps increasing the chances Horford chooses to leave, and quite possibly looking to trade Millsap for the best immediately available package (which could very well have led to additional, subsequent moves) made us question what we really knew.

*I'm not especially concerned the organization didn't know whether or not Horford was leaving. The chaos of conflicting reports in the minutes immediately before Horford announced he was going to Boston suggests that changing agents twice in the final year of one's contract doesn't necessarily lead to a smooth free agent process.

The pessimistic view (the one that came naturally to me) is that it was a move made out of fear of losing something and an absolute refusal to consider a rebuild (at least a year-long rebuild). More optimistic observers saw it as a calculated gamble wherein rehabilitating D----- H-----'s value would make Atlanta a viable free agent destination for current All-Star free agents, not just ex-famous people.

I have no doubt such a turn of events would benefit the perception of the organization*, but I think that has more to do with how far D----- H-----'s actual and perceived value has fallen than any three-dimensional chess the Hawks front office is playing. Of course, the world might be so irrational as to make stoking the faint flicker of H-----'s former fame more compelling than Kyle Korver and Millsap becoming All-Stars and DeMarre Carroll and Kent Bazemore becoming very rich men in Atlanta.

*Gag, "Basketball Club"

The "good for business" argument in favor of categorizing signing H----- as a clever touch moves me even less. Assuming "former All-Star" is a brand that provides a short-term box office boost, that's not a sustainable business model in an industry that keeps score to literally determine winners and losers.

Dennis Schröder
A series of rational decisions have brought us to the point where Dennis Schröder is the most important player on the Atlanta Hawks roster. The Hawks traded from their sole source of depth to pick up an extra first-round pick and hand the ball to their younger, cheaper point guard option.

The vast range of potential outcomes for Dennis Schröder, starting point guard, could keep the team in the vicinity of 50 wins or encourage the organization to go ahead and blow the team up before the trade deadline. The latter, darker scenario is more straightforward: Schröder doesn't get any better and, in an increased role, his offensive weaknesses adversely affect Korver, Millsap and Bazemore, making a below average offense a bad offense.

The silver lining of Schröder not yet being an above average point guard is that he can get to that level through any combination of potential improvements:
  • Playing consistently good defense for 2000+ minutes
  • Improving his finishing at the rim
  • Getting to the free throw line more often
  • Becoming a league-average three-point shooter
  • Not locking into a pass/shoot decision when he turns the corner on the high pick-and-roll
  • Developing sufficient chemistry with just D----- H----- to create a significant number of ultra-high percentage, cathartic field goal attempts
Assuming this is still a conservative organization, that Schröder's improvement could take various forms likely assures him of a full age-23 season to prove himself. Assuming Schröder hasn't gone corporate in the offseason, I fail to see how this state of affairs won't be tremendously entertaining.

The old, good reliables
Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver have been terrific (when fully healthy) for the Atlanta Hawks the last three seasons. With Millsap coming off a career year and Korver looking much more like himself in 2016, once his two off-season surgeries were several months behind him, continued belief in both is well-founded. However, it must be acknowledged that any positive prediction for the Hawks this season posits that Mike Budenholzer has unlocked previously latent value such that both will age relative to their performance as Hawks rather than to their career averages. Follow this line of inquiry far enough and one might conclude that their performances this season (assuming good health) will tell us as much about the Hawks' player development capabilities as the younger players.

To remain a top-5 defense (given how quickly the wing depth moves into totally unproven/totally unproven to be any good territory) the Hawks will need one more great defensive season from Thabo Sefolosha. There's also the chilling possibility that Sefolosha's ability to impersonate a useful offensive player until the ball leaves his hand (to shoot or dribble) may exceed the offensive value of any other wing coming off the bench.

Kent Bazemore, rich man
There isn't anyone easier to root for or to celebrate getting paid. The Hawks spent a pretty penny to lock in the relative certainty of a familiar and average-ish player for the next couple years. Given the free agent alternatives, it's an eminently fair decision made better by how the Hawks used the 21st pick in the draft. If Bembry develops in his first two season, the Hawks, with he and Bazemore, will have something like Teague/Schröder 2.0 and the ability to trade from a position of strength.

Rookies
With the exception of 27-year-old, experienced professional, yet NBA rookie Malcolm Delaney, I expect the Hawks rookies to be, at least initially, limited to garbage time appearances and short reserve stints when a regular rotation player gets a night off. Patience will be key and, given the amount of time invested in Mike Scott, Mike Muscala and Tim Hardaway, Jr. over the last three seasons, I expect the two first-round picks to get plenty of it from the organization. 

Above, I mentioned expectations for Bembry to develop into a younger, cheaper replacement* for Bazemore by 2018-19. Taurean Prince might be on a slightly more accelerated timeline to become a more active version of Mike Scott by the start of next season.

Delaney will be the most immediately interesting rookie, not just guaranteed backup point guard minutes but fourth-quarter point guard minutes should Dennis Schröder still demonstrate his capability for existential malaise during work hours.

*From a team-building point of view, I can't overemphasize the importance of not spending on wings unless they're regularly going to make All-NBA teams. You can get fairly close to the value of the tenth best wing in the league with a good 3-and-D (or playmaking-and-D) wing for a fraction of the cost and use the savings to invest in a primary ball-handler/scorer and two-way bigs.

Other centers
Should D----- H----- not be rejuvenated and remain a slightly above average, one-way player, the Hawks are going to have redundant defensive centers taking up at least 20%* of the roster. Mike Muscala's floor spacing will look a little more valuable, and the question I wrestled with this summer: "Would you rather have D----- H----- or Edy Tavares and $70 million to spend on other players?" will be posed more broadly, even if it's rarely considered polite to utter in public.

*25% if Tiago Splitter is ever healthy. (I have no expectation that Tiago Splitter will be physically able to contribute this season. Any quality minutes he provides of the bench will be found money.)

Kris Humphries is also on the roster. He is 31 years old and has never been a good NBA player. Yes, he played 56 good minutes for the Hawks in the playoffs last season.

The system
Despite all of my uncertainty and my disappointment that the Hawks have not addressed their biggest weakness* in either of the last two off-seasons, I'm fairly confident the Hawks retain a solid foundation. I just can't envision a healthy version of this roster imploding over an 82-game season.

Through three seasons, one fundamentally hampered by injury, one a magical** example of possibility, and one a mix of the two, I'm extremely confident that Mike Budenholzer's offense will create (over the course of the regular season at least) enough open three-point shots (even if too many of them are created for slightly below average three-point shooters) to win the math against all but elite opposition.

*Three-point shooting ability

**No storybook ending, granted

On the other end of the court, even though adjustments will need to be made in how they swap Al Horford's defensive versatility for more traditional defensive center play, the Hawks will give a lot of minutes to above average and very good defensive players at four positions. There's slightly more certainty to good defense (at least if you're aiming for competence, first, then excellence, if applicable) and I expect this team to take comfort in that, grinding out results while in the process of integrating new elements.

Let's watch basketball and find out.