Wednesday, February 02, 2011

Inside the Bubble of the Atlanta Hawks

It's maddening (and repetitive) to write about an organization that appears to have little interest in objective reality or critical self-assessment.

As for the former, there's no shame in being a good-but-not-great basketball team, not even one that falls short of greatness despite nuzzling up against the luxury tax line and possessing just two above average players under the age of 29-and-a-half.

As for the latter, there's no need for a public recitation of failings (I don't know where or what my next job is going to be, either.) but the willingness of those within the organization to insult the intelligence of the fan base with which the franchise has a less than stellar relationship historically.

There's no benefit to Rick Sund describing the Hawks as "elite" based on a highly personal and in no way exclusive interpretation of the term.

Nor to him calling his team "analogous" to the NBA's model franchise, the San Antonio Spurs.

Nor to the continued self-congratulation for the team taking more than half-a-decade to go from the low 13 wins to the high of getting swept in the second round of the playoffs.

Assume Sund convinces one casual fan with any of these public statements. Does he create realistic expectations for that hypothetical fan when said fan chooses to watch the Hawks? Does the damage such dubious statements do to the perceptions and confidence of the team's relatively small but hearty fan base* outweigh the gains made with this hypothetical casual fan? I think it might. Given the lack of local media coverage, I think a casual (or potential) Hawks fan is far more likely to interact with a serious Hawks fan in their day-to-day life than to read Rick Sund quotes buried inside in the sports section of the AJC, or on Michael Cunningham's blog, or at Peachtree Hoops, or here.

*This deep lack of trust can perhaps best be exemplified that ownership, despite over-spending for practically every member of the roster not named Smith or Horford, is still accused of being cheap. The failure to couch the discussion of this organization's failings in terms of objective reality goes both ways.

Larry Drew appears not to have made the adjustment from thinking, during his 18 seasons as an assistant, about how he would coach an NBA team in the abstract to coaching the particular team he was hired to lead.

In the abstract, there's absolutely nothing wrong with Larry Drew believing in using the bench or wanting energetic defense but he's struggling to adjust his platonic ideals to the reality of coaching a team with a bad bench and a team whose limited individual defensive ability cannot be overcome by any amount of effort.

When Drew says about Jamal Crawford, as he does in this morning's paper:
"I don't want [poor shooting] to dictate how the rest of his game is going to be. He has the ability to break defenses down and get into the interior and make some nice passes, and I look for him to do that as well. Not just to go out there and sit on his shot."
Is he convincingly discussing how Jamal Crawford plays basketball?

Shooting is Crawford's game. There is no rest of it. His assist rate sits in a similar range to those of Al Horford and Josh Smith, not those of lead guards. Crawford is almost 31 years old. He is the player he is at this point and that's a useful player if a head coach leverages his strength and remains aware of the potential damage his weaknesses could cause the team.

This isn't the only instance of Drew (or his assistants) describing a team or player completely different from the one everyone else sees.

There's Drew's apparent belief that Josh Smith is one of the best spot-up shooters in the league.

There's the deeply painful sideline interviews during television broadcasts where an assistant calls for a commitment to defense...while Jamal Crawford, Josh Powell, and Etan Thomas are all on the court. Or for the Hawks to overcome a second-half deficit by having the guards drive the basketball and get to the line. As if the last season-and-a-half of guards* not being able to drive the basketball and get to the line (the latter problem extending to most of the roster, to be fair) was either anomalous or the result of lack of direction to do so.

*There are two Hawk guards who have demonstrated an ability to get to the line, but neither one starts.

And there's the contest scapegoating of "energy" for poor defensive performances.

Energy's not going to improve this team's defense. Better defensive players are going to improve this team's defense.

Spending more money is not, in and of itself, going to improve this team's results. Spending money more wisely is going to improve this team.

This is why the Hawks are not analogous to the Spurs. Both teams are spending about $69 million on player salaries this season. The Spurs are winning (and have won) more because they spent that money on better players, because they don't miss on the majority of their first round draft picks, because they find the occasional useful player in the second round of the draft, because they draft players with a plan as how to use them in the NBA in mind, because they fill their Summer League team (and field a Summer League team every year) with potential assets rather than players already signed to foreign clubs for the upcoming season, because they operate a D-League team to provide extra depth on the cheap.

The Hawks aren't the least analogous team to the Spurs in the league but one would have to squint to find a strong similarity between them beyond each employing a great post player who doesn't want to be called a center.

The public comments of Sund and Drew are not disconcerting because I assume either of them to be disingenuous, they're disconcerting because I assume them to be honest and it's the self-serving and/or impractical expression of their honesty that enervates.

13 comments:

CoCo said...

This is one of your best posts Bret, I couldn't agree with it more.

CoCo said...

Here were some of my favorite excerpts:

"In the abstract, there's absolutely nothing wrong with Larry Drew believing in using the bench or wanting energetic defense but he's struggling to adjust his platonic ideals to the reality of coaching a team with a bad bench and a team whose limited individual defensive ability cannot be overcome by any amount of effort."
"Shooting is Crawford's game. There is no rest of it. His assist rate sits in a similar range to those of Al Horford and Josh Smith, not those of lead guards. Crawford is almost 31 years old. He is the player he is at this point and that's a useful player if a head coach leverages his strength and remains aware of the potential damage his weaknesses could cause the team."
"The Hawks aren't the least analogous team to the Spurs in the league but one would have to squint to find a strong similarity between them beyond each employing a great post player who doesn't want to be called a center."

ATL_Hawk_Luv said...

uh, do we see why I haven't written a post in a month. It's too hard to come up with interesting things to say. Like how many times can I say - let's stop talking about Teague cuz he's dead to the organization. Or hey, the Hawks will be the 5th seed - let's not fool ourselves otherwise. Or my fav...Larry Drew is Mike Woodson (give or take 5%). How can I say that two-three times a week without sounding bitter? So...I'm waiting for something to move me to write again.

Emile Avanessian said...

I have read some of Sund's quotes (hadn't seen the stuff from Drew) and had asked a lot of the questions you addressed here, namely "what the hell team is he looking at when he says these things?"

Fantastic post!

Adam said...

This is a great post, and I think your conclusion brings it all home: these guys are being sincere. As many (cynical) fans will note, Sund is well served by not copping to his mistakes and saying things like "Hey, we messed up with singing Joe," or "Hey, we aim to be good, not great." But it is just as likely that both Sund and his myopic head coach actually believe this team is, or at least can be, great. They very well probably don't see their mistakes as mistakes.

How else can we explain the bizarre roster construction that has continued unabated? The commitment to a clearly inferior core? How else should we judge a coach that gives Al Horford only the 4th highest usage rate and refuses to admit Bibby/Crawford/Johnson's defensive shortcomings? How else can we explain the perpetual signing of guys like Powell/Thomas/Collins instead of affordable players who can mitigate the team's lack of depth and bad perimeter defense?

Clearly, Sund just doesn't get it. Because even with a do-able budget he isn't doing it.

Bret LaGree said...

Adam --

I should have included links to Sund and Drew praising Joe Johnson's defense this season.

CoCo said...

@ atlhawkluv That is the reason I haven't had much to say about the team. AT this point, it's just beating a dead horse, so I applaud Bret and the other Hawks bloggers for their commitment. I just don't have it in me. I'm waiting for something to motivate me.

Jesse said...

I guess I am a bit different than most readers in that I disagree with some points you make. I wholeheartedly agree that Sund is out of his mind and that this team is not like the Spurs. I also agree that Drew has to change his plan to fit his personnel to some extent. However, it's not ridiculous to ask players to step into a different role partway through their careers. Shooting is Crawford's game, but why shouldn't Drew want Crawford to stop taking long 2's off of isolation situations? It is reasonable for him to ask his players to play a more efficient brand of basketball. As for defense... I could not agree less. While there is natural defensive ability, most great defenders work their way to becoming great defenders. Effort definitely plays a big part. If you watch the better defensive teams in the league, you will hear them communicating. Communication is key on defense and is something that ANY defender can do. One on one defense might take supreme discipline and an athletic body, but team defense simply requires a team that is in sync. The Hawks have been playing with this core for several years and if they cared more about defense and put more effort into it, they would undoubtably be a better defensive unit. Maybe it is that Drew isn't inspiring his players enough, but what he is asking for is by no means too much. Just my thoughts, at least...

Bret LaGree said...

Jesse --

Thanks for disagreeing. The level of approval was making me uncomfortable.

If Crawford were younger (or, say, Josh Smith where you could run plays for him in the post to keep him off the perimeter), I'd agree but at his age, and given that he's probably had his two best years in Atlanta, I think you have to take the good with the bad and mostly put him in positions to succeed rather than try to change him. This may be my pessimism talking.

As for effort, I don't deny its import in quality defense or really disagree with anything you wrote but I'd also counter with the example of Mike Bibby who does give a good effort on defense, possesses a high basketball IQ (almost all of his good defensive plays are wholly down to anticipation), and cannot play good defense.

There are some coaching/accountability problems with the team's defensive performance but you can't put Bibby and Crawford on the court together night after night, or play Josh Powell for the first four minutes of fourth quarters and then blame a lack of effort for poor results.

Steve said...

I agree with your post, especially illustrating all the ways we aren't like San Antonio. Most of those ways are ones that aggravate me to no end because making smart draft picks and spending money on player development is how you compete and stay within salary constraints. We've wasted over half a decade of 2nd round picks by not even attempted to make good use of them.

The only thing I can think of that would prompt mentioning the Spurs with respect to us is that both teams maintained their cores from last season. However even in doing that the Spurs added Tiago Splitter and Gary Neal. Furthermore they've gotten major minutes from players on rookie deals like George Hill and Dejuan Blair. Meanwhile the Hawks sold the 31st pick in the draft instead of seeing the future impact that the pick could make. Horribly shortsighted.

ethanlchandler said...

This is unreadable. Would you prefer Drew and Sund speak poorly of their work. I don't believe anyone has said this team will be an NBA Championship team but overall this team is not a one man band like many other in the league and I believe that is something Atlanta Hawks fans should be proud of just like Drew and Sund.

Bret LaGree said...

ethanlchandler ---

I do not expect the head coach or the GM to badmouth the team. The problem is, their actions align with their rhetoric.

The GM does not acquire better (or even good) defenders to improve the the team's defense. The head coach keeps running Crawford and Bibby out there together for fourth quarters then bemoaning the lack of defensive effort.

Sorry it was so unreadable. Had you made it two clauses into the first sentence of the second paragraph: "...there's no shame in being a good-but-not-great basketball team..." you'd have recognized that we are in some agreement.

Miló Omaña said...

Hawks are steadily improving. Now sit above the Magic in the standings. I even think the Hawks could be the Heat in a 7-game series, and this group of misfits even took the Celtics to a 7th game as the 8th seed. You can focus on all the bad, but then you just are envisioning your own destiny, bad. I doubt there is one perfect team in the NBA right now, though there are a lot better teams than the Hawks and a lot more exciting players than the Hawks players. What it will come down to is the playoffs. Until they get to the Eastern conference championship, they'll always be chumps.