Thursday, June 30, 2011

A Happy Thought In Sad Anticipation of the Lockout

I'd have been much more invested in the minicamp the Hawks held had the coming lockout not felt impending and inevitable.

Here's hoping this desire of Larry Drew's comes to pass whenever business resumes:
"We need knock-down shooters. Not the guys that are capable of making shots. We need guys that they are open, they get that ball, the opposition is saying, ‘Uh-oh.’ Those type guys."
The strong side of Atlanta's half-court will usually struggle against better defenses if the weak side of Atlanta's half-court offense consists of Marvin Williams and Josh Smith* spotting up, waiting to get the ball and take a shot the defense is all too glad for them to take.

*Even Al Horford, good though he was at knocking down mid-range-to-long two-pointers, wasn't, in and of himself, improving Atlanta's offense that much, compared to the league, by consistently knocking the least efficient shot in basketball.

Acquiring some personnel better suited to spreading the floor and Joe Johnson making a reasonable percentage of his three-point attempts probably gets the Hawks back to an above average offense even if nothing else changes for the better. Let the "knock-down shooters" be this off-season's "bulky" center.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Atlanta Hawks Draft Keith Benson

There's no hope of a Summer League to make slightly less premature but far more certain pronouncements regarding Keith Benson, so I'll keep this brief. Benson blocked a ton of shots and posted fine defensive rebound rates at Oakland. Given those two facts and the league in which he played, his offensive rebound and steal rates are a concern.

He's skinny and he'll be 23-years-old whenever the 2011-12 season commences. His scoring rate, his age and his superior block rate in college makes him a better back-end of the rotation prospect than the equally unguaranteed Magnum Rolle.

Keep expectations modest and hope for some rookie and proven young professional free agent action to fill out the roster.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Rampant Josh Smith Trade Speculation

The news waits not for the part-time analyst. The essence of my still unfinished Josh Smith season review is that, though Smith had a lesser season in 2010-11 than in 2009-10, the particulars of his lesser performance demonstrated a possible broadening of his skills and there's a plausible chance that Smith has not yet peaked.

In short: If he can defend at the three in reasonable circumstances and if he can keep making more than 70% of his free throw attempts and take many, many, many, many fewer jump shots, then Smith could consistently be a special player over the last two years of his contract. And, if the worrying things about Smith's season, especially the settling for jump shots and the drop in offensive rebound rate, are indicative of an early peak that has already passed, then Smith's contract only runs two more years at a reasonable (at least under the current CBA) cost for a clearly above average player.

Good production? Check.
Room for plausible improvement? Check.
Reasonable contract? Check.

Result: the Atlanta Hawks are, reportedly, considering trade Josh Smith.

It started with Adrian Wojnarowski:
The Atlanta Hawks have started to gauge trade interest on forward Josh Smith, and Smith isn’t averse to ending his seven-year stay with his hometown team, league sources told Yahoo! Sports on Monday.

Smith hasn’t requested a trade, but has privately told league friends that the Boston Celtics, New Jersey Nets, Houston Rockets and Orlando Magic are his preferred destinations should the Hawks decide to move him.

"The relationship has run its course," said a league source with knowledge of the dynamic.
Wojnarowski's report also included this priceless quote coming less than 365 days after the Hawks offered Joe Johnson his current contract:
"They’re looking for a change," one Eastern Conference executive said. "They would die to be rid of Joe Johnson’s contract or move Smith, but they won’t give [Smith] away. They want something in return."
Let's ask the above questions with regard to Joe Johnson.

Good production? If you completely ignore defense.
Room for plausible improvement? He could shoot better next season.
Reasonable contract? No.

Result: the Atlanta Hawks are, reportedly, considering trade Josh Smith.

Trading Josh Smith is a defensible idea. It's at least as plausible that he's going to continue to be stubborn and undermine his talents as it is that he'll improve one more time. But one can't ignore that the consideration as to whether or not to trade Smith is influenced by the indefensible decision to give Joe Johnson $123 million. Trading Smith could improve the team but it's more likely just to change the team. Smith's trade value is at a two-year low and Johnson's contract will continue to limit the organization's flexibility.

Furthermore, a defensible idea does not guarantee competent execution. It was perfectly reasonable both for the Hawks decide they could keep just one of Marvin Williams and Josh Childress and to choose Williams. However, giving Williams $35 million to remain the team's fifth- or sixth-option and getting a lone second-round pick four years later in exchange for Childress are both terrible allocations of resources.

Trading Josh Smith for a superior player or for a collection of young players and draft picks could help the Atlanta Hawks. Trading Josh Smith for a lesser player and using any leftover money to re-sign Jamal Crawford will almost certainly not.

It should be noted that, of the four teams Wojnarowski lists as Smith's "preferred destinations," at least two (Boston and Orlando) make little practical sense (at least as part of a two-team trade). Making salaries work, Houston could offer Luis Scola and one of Terrence Williams, Goran Dragic, Courtney Lee or Patrick Patterson while any deal involving just the Nets would almost have to begin with Travis Outlaw a state of affairs that could only serve to bolster Marvin Williams' reputation.

It should be further noted (and mostly has not) that Josh Smith still has a 15% trade kicker, further complicating any responsible speculation.

Monday, June 20, 2011

Some Atlanta Hawks Thoughts Inspired By the 48th Pick

1) It's not flippant to say the Hawks should draft the best player, regardless of position, with the 48th pick of the 2011 NBA Draft. That's really all a team can do in that position. (Ignoring, for the moment, how a team got itself in that position.)

Looking at the most recent mock draft at DraftExpress, there are some potentially useful (potentially useful being defined, for the purposes of the 48th pick, as a likely bet to make the roster and a non-zero chance of becoming a rotation player within two seasons) players available with the 48th pick: David Lighty, Isaiah Thomas, Cory Joseph, and Andrew Goudelock.

2) The Hawks should consider buying the 32nd or 34th pick from Cleveland or Washington. There's relatively little chance the Hawks will get an immediate rotation player at that spot in the draft but it's still preferable to wasting roster spots on older, non-rotation players like Josh Powell or Etan Thomas, and, given the team's cap situation, they're not likely to have any really good options when it comes to filling out the bench.

3) All of my off-season speculation about the Hawks assumes the existence of a 2011-12 NBA season and that the Hawks bring back (or, at least make a serious attempt to being back) Jason Collins as a defensive specialist in the post, at least one of Damien Wilkins or Pape Sy as a defensive specialist on the wing, and give Magnum Rolle a chance to make the roster as an emergency backup in the frontcourt.

4) Though I assume the Hawks will explore the trade market for both Marvin Williams and Kirk Hinrich and would listen if, say, Cleveland or New Orleans inquired about making an immediate upgrade at the 2-guard, let's say the Hawks don't make any trades. What kind of players would they need to acquire to fill out a balanced roster?

In order of importance...
  • A backup two-guard who can either defend or spread the floor, preferably both
  • A legitimate backup power forward to fill the fourth spot in the post rotation
  • A third-string point guard
5) Barring a significant trade that fundamentally reshapes the roster, the Hawks should not consider, at any price, re-signing Jamal Crawford as he duplicates many of Joe Johnson's strengths and weaknesses while being less good than Johnson, takes possessions away from Josh Smith and Al Horford, of whom more must be demanded* if the Hawks are going to improve, and takes minutes away from Jeff Teague (younger, possibly better) and Kirk Hinrich (a better complement to Teague, to Johnson, and to Smith and Horford should the Hawks choose to start playing through them in the post more often).

The Hawks got all they could have expected, if not more, from Crawford over the past two seasons but it's time to move on.

*And, if more is demanded and Smith or Horford is found wanting, the Hawks must then explore trading one or both as means to make the team better.

Sunday, June 12, 2011

2010-11 Season Review: Al Horford

Previously: Rick Sund, Larry Drew

The frustration felt and criticism expressed as a result of Al Horford's inability to score consistently against Joakim Noah and the Chicago Bulls in Atlanta's second-round playoff series loss furthers the notion (one supported both by eyes and data) that Horford has emerged as the team's best player. Following a disappointing, if possibly explicable, post-season performance and an outstanding regular season that reinforced Horford's defensive aptitude and versatility and saw him take on larger, albeit far more perimeter-oriented, role in the offense without sacrificing efficiency, it's a fair question as to whether Horford is the team's best player purely because of the abundance of his talents or because the 2010-11 Atlanta Hawks were just a 44-win team.

The playoff series against Chicago functions as a useful microcosm of the relationship between Horford's talent level and his environment. Al Horford's offensive skills are not of the particular sort or magnitude necessary to score consistently in isolation against a defender as gifted* as Joakim Noah. At least, they're not when matched against a defender as gifted as Noah in the larger context of the lack of off-the-ball movement from which Atlanta typically suffers, the lack of shooters that limits the usefulness of Atlanta's efforts to spread the floor and the excellence of Chicago's team defense.

*That Horford struggled against Ryan Anderson or Brandon Bass (and Orlando's good, but not as good as Chicago's, team defense) in the first-round series is less explicable. Unless the sprained ankle Horford suffered on March 11th in Chicago limited him more than he let on. Prior to the ankle sprain, Horford was averaging 16.2 points and 10.1 rebounds (including 2.7 offensive rebounds) per 36 minutes. For the rest of the regular season, he averaged 13.6 points and 7.7 rebounds (including 1.5 offensive rebounds) per 36 minutes. In the playoffs, Horford's scoring dropped further, to 10.5 points per 36 minutes.

Just as Mike Woodson too often made it easy for opponents to defend Joe Johnson in past playoff series, Larry Drew too often made it easy for Chicago to defend Horford on the block. That neither Johnson nor Horford are apt to make a quick, effective move upon receiving the ball below the free throw line only exacerbates systemic flaws such as having non-respected shooters like Josh Smith, Jeff Teague or Marvin Williams spotting up on the weak side. It's likely not a coincidence that Horford's two best offensive games against the Bulls in the playoffs came in the two games (Game 1 and Game 4) that featured the most ball and player movement from the Hawks. Those were also Joe Johnson's best offensive games in the series.

Though Horford still didn't post a usage rate* of 20% this season, his offensive role increased by more than 10% over 2009-10 without sacrificing any efficiency. It's a fair criticism that Horford increased his role by more than doubling the number of 16-23' jump shots he attempted per game while taking almost one fewer free throw per game. It's a fair question as to whether the dramatic increase of long two-point jump shots from Horford was, in this offense, simply evidence of him demanding the ball in a position he could realistically expect to receive it.

Across the league, 60% of long two-point jumpers are assisted. Generally, big men have more of their long jumpers assisted than do guards, but 92.5% of Horford's 16-23' jumpers were assisted**, suggesting that he took the vast majority of these shots within the context of the offense. That, later in the season, the Hawks ran plays that involved screens set for the purpose of Horford running curls off them to create open catch-and-shoot opportunities lends further credence to this interpretation.

Though the least efficient shot in basketball, the long two-point jumpers from Horford didn't necessarily hurt Atlanta's offense. He made 53% of those long jumpers, the best mark in the league of anybody who attempted more than 25 shots from that range. Horford attempted 373 such shots.

*Let's also keep in mind that Basketball-Reference's calculation of usage does not give partial credit for assists (about which, more below) so Horford's increased role in the offense is likely understated slightly by this measure. In contrast: John Hollinger's usage rate for Horford through the years.

**Comparisons from 16-23 feet: Josh Smith, 85.3% of 328 attempts assisted; Dirk Nowitzki, 81.4% of 460 attempts assisted; Amare Stoudemire, 63.8% of 424 attempts assisted; LaMarcus Aldridge, 82.1% of 379 attempts assisted; Luis Scola 93.1% of 364 attempts assisted; Kevin Garnett, 89.7% of 351 attempts assisted; David West, 85.6% of 353 attempts assisted.

Though Horford has made more than half of his long two-point jumpers over the past two seasons, it's probably not in the team's best interest for them to rely on Horford making jump shots at a higher percentage than Dirk Nowitzki for the bulk of his scoring production. Horford certainly needs to improve his post game, not just to diversify his offensive attack but also to get to the line more often to take more consistent advantage of his pure shooting stroke and, in an ideal world, to draw a double-team consistently enough to take greater advantage of his passing ability.

Horford's assist rate, whether measured per minute played or per individual possession used, exploded last season despite his inability to draw a double team and about 40% of his field goal attempts coming as spot-up shooter. A serious percentage of Horford's assists seem to derive from either offensive rebounds or his willingness to push the ball up the floor following a defensive rebound. If Horford's shots primarily come from within the offense's design, his productive passes primarily come from outside that design. An improved, or at least more diverse, offensive design could create the opportunity for Horford to improve simultaneously as a finisher and a creator.

Al Horford doesn't have to get any better to be a very good offensive player but, through a combination of self-improvement (refining his post play) and potential changes to team construction (Jeff Teague's dribble penetration, Josh Smith drawing defensive attention on the block, playing floor-stretching shooters, rather than Marvin Williams and Jamal Crawford, at the 2 and 3 to get the ball to Horford on the block more often, decrease the defensive attention he draws there and increase his passing options) he could, conceivably, become even better.

Combined with his defensive* versatility, Horford, as is, is good enough to build an interesting and effective NBA team around. Given that the 25-year-old Horford could still improve and the reasonableness of his contract, it's not out of the realm of possibility that an championship contender could be built around him. That the organization for which he plays seems equal parts disinterested in and incapable of doing so has as little to do with Horford the player as Joe Johnson's ridiculous contract has to do with his value as a player.

*I'll reiterate what I wrote about his defense at this time last year:
I'm confident that Horford is an above average defender but I think it's possible that his overall defensive contributions are somewhat similar to Joe Johnson's scoring: more impressive for the circumstances through which they occur than in absolute value. Given a more reasonable defensive brief, it's not inconceivable that Horford (already the superior defensive rebounder) could challenge Josh Smith as the team's best defender.

Tuesday, June 07, 2011 5-on-5: Game 4 Questions

As bringing appropriate nuance to bear on Al Horford's season review remains a work-in-progress, I've been stoking the fire by watching this excellent NBA Finals series. In anticipation of Game 4, I shared a few thoughts, on the relevant greatness of Dirk Nowitzki, LeBron James, and Dwyane Wade, on Rick Carlisle's rotations, and worked a gratuitous dig at Mike Bibby into today's installment of 5-on-5 at