Monday, May 30, 2011

2010-11 Season Review: Larry Drew

Previously: Rick Sund

Larry Drew entered his rookie head coaching season with modest, realistic expectations and, over the course of the regular season, largely failed to meet them. Though no one should have expected the Hawks to win 53 games again, neither should anyone have expected the Hawks to get outscored over 82 games. No one expected the Hawks to finish second in the league in offensive efficiency again, but neither did anyone expect the Hawks to finish in the bottom third of the league offensively. Despite Drew's generally effective deployment of Jason Collins as a defensive stopper in the post and Rick Sund jettisoning Mike Bibby three-quarters of the way into the season, the Hawks showed no ordinal improvement defensively, ranking 13th in the league for the second-straight season.

One can't dismiss the adverse effects of the Horford Treatment, Josh Smith's 482 jump shots, or Drew's bizarre and destructive infatuation with Josh Powell. But the central failure of Drew's regular season as a head coach was an over-reliance on shotmakers who, largely, weren't making shots and offered little else of value while on the court.

Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford, and Mike Bibby played 6525 regular season minutes for the Hawks. As a point of comparison, Al Horford, Josh Smith, and Zaza Pachulia played 6593 regular season minutes. Another point of comparison: collectively, the veteran trio was essentially Toney Douglas offensively and achieved that personification of averageness (in just one aspect of the game) largely on the back of the fourteen-game stretch* in January and February wherein Joe Johnson scored more than 28% of his points for the season.

*His opponents: Clippers, Kings (twice), Jazz, Pacers, Raptors (twice), Rockets, Heat, Hornets, Bobcats, Bucks, Knicks, Mavericks.

Offense is all that those three have going for them. None of them are average rebounders. Individually, none of them are average defenders. Crawford is comically (or, depending on your perspective, tragically) poor at both. Thus, collectively, they don't complement each other at all when the other team has the ball. Yet, even as they contributed to so many empty offensive trips and asked so much of their teammates to cover for them defensively, for most of the season, Drew stubbornly ran two or three of them out there at a time while Jeff Teague and Marvin Williams and Damien Wilkins, each of whom combine some elements of what the Hawks lacked for most of the season, be it defense, rebounding, getting to the foul line, or not dribbling for a long time before taking a bad shot, sat and watched.

There's no rational explanation for Drew's refusal to de-emphasize his overlapping and ineffective veteran backcourt pieces. There's no tactical explanation. In fact, his uncreative use of his perimeter players pointedly contradicts the good work he did with the frontcourt: spotting quality minutes for Collins, getting effective play from Josh Smith at the 3, and, finally, using Zaza Pachulia as the third big man in the post rotation.

Joe Johnson's minutes can be explained away by the organization's massive delusion regarding his abilities. Drew owes his opportunity to be a head coach to that organization and it would take a very strong head coach to limit the minutes of his team's highest paid when said player wants to play through an injury. But who could watch Crawford* and Bibby play for any length of time and not run straight into the arms of any reasonable alternative?

Maybe a head coach who was himself, in his best years in Kansas City, an average (or slightly above) offensive player who didn't defend or rebound much. I'll admit it's not an especially convincing thesis but, then, why it's a bad defensive idea to play the Bibby/Crawford or Crawford/Johnson backcourt shouldn't really be a season-long puzzler for a head coach.

*Though I fully expected (and still expect) the Hawks to try to re-sign Crawford, I am a bit taken aback by the external debate being over whether or not the Hawks should re-sign Crawford rather than how grateful the Hawks should be to get out from under his contract.

Larry Drew did a better job in the playoffs. Jason Collins made a positive difference in a playoff series. Few people would have given him the opportunity to do so. Twice in six games, the Hawks scored easily against the Chicago Bulls. Drew deserves credit for both of those things. On the other hand, he gave away the second game of the Orlando series through one of the most creative and elaborately bad series of decisions we may ever see at this level. Given a choice, he presumably would not (as he did not all year) have played Jeff Teague regularly in the Chicago series. And, in an otherwise pleasant post-season, Drew brought all of his regular season weaknesses back out to make an appearance in Atlanta's elimination game.

Larry Drew's not to blame for the bad contracts on the books. He's not to blame (though he furthered the appearance of) the team's lack of depth. He's not to blame for (though he must be held accountable for his role in perpetuating) an organization-wide disinterest in rebounding and defense as skills or the relative value of shots by location or the effects of player aging. But the Atlanta Hawks played 82 regular season games and got outscored by 67 points. Then they played 12 playoff games (six at home and six away) and got outscored by 53 points. Neither is indicative of a successful season and any improvements Drew makes as a head coach may only be enough to offset further institutional decline.

Sunday, May 29, 2011 Cunningham: Rick Sund Q&A

Michael Cunningham asked Rick Sund some relevant questions. Sund responded with a mix of defensiveness:
Q. Do you think this core group has peaked?


Q. How can it be better?

In some ways it might be a little bit like Dallas, although we were younger than Dallas. Dallas went three straight years with disappointing playoffs and eliminated in the first round and I think that prompted Cuban the other day to grab the mic and say, ‘For all you people that didn’t believe in us . . . ‘ Because they kept their core group together including Kidd and Nowitzki and Marion and they got criticized for that quite a bit. And they got beat pretty much embarrassingly, by their standards, in the last three years. I think we have learned along the way. We will look at the possibility of making our team better. We do every year. We’ve made two major trades the last two years and we will continue to look and see if there is something that makes us better.

Q. You look at Dallas, they did make a trade that helped them so...

Yeah, well, you asked me about the core group and that’s what I’m responding to. The core group of our players have, I think, improved every single year. I’ve had that question every year, even the year I got here: Can this core group get even better? And they have, I think, in terms of ultimately the playoffs.

Q. So you are not inclined to break it up?

I didn’t say that. I said we will continue to look. Your question was, ‘Can this core be competitive again?’ I think we were pretty competitive in the playoffs. I think we can continue to do it but I think we will look, like we do every year, to see if we can do something to make our club better.
Q. Larry’s offense didn’t go the way he planned as far as getting team to play that style all the time. Do you still think this...

I don’t know. You have got to ask that question to Larry.
and a reinforcement of the organization's central delusion:
Q. Joe got the contract and he had his worst year since he’s been here. He’s getting older, he had the injury, so are you concerned...

Well, I don’t worry about the old. When I am seeing Jason Kidd and Nowitzki and the Wades and all these people in their 30s, that doesn’t bother me.
At this point, I genuinely don't care what Rick Sund says, only what he does (and even then with a number of caveats concerning the degree of authority he has in making basketball-related decisions). Hence the lack of further analysis in this space.

Thursday, May 19, 2011

2010-11 Season Review: Rick Sund

The aforementioned inherent difficulties in evaluating Rick Sund's 2010-11 season were founded on his lame duck status throughout the season. Not just was Sund universally perceived as a lame duck GM, but also one who did not have authority over either of the head coach hiring decisions made during this tenure. How do you evaluate a man over moves he may or may not have initiated, moves with which he may or may not have agreed?

I'm not sure that the one-year extension he signed this week really changes my reservations about both his performance and the role of the general manager in this franchise. If Sund was extended out of convenience, so the current owners did not have to engage in a job search while trying to identify the franchise's future owners, then the Atlanta Hawks are likely to spend one more off-season (though a long lockout might change things) bereft of long-term planning. If Sund was extended by owners who are not hell-bent on selling the team, then his continued employment (essentially a renewal of his lame duck status in this scenario) working under those who undermine their general manager and present the greatest impediment to the franchise developing a unified basketball identity validates every bit of skepticism directed at the organization.

As best as I can determine, Rick Sund, much like the team on the court, capped a mostly uninspiring season with a faintly impressive finish. Whether the faintness represents a relatively dim chance of future success or merely reflects past disappointments remains to be seen.

There's no reason to believe that Rick Sund initiated either the hiring of Larry Drew nor Joe Johnson's extension. Following orders is an understandable (with the example of Billy Knight serving as a cautionary tale) though not a sufficient defense in both cases. Drew may yet develop into a competent NBA head coach. If he does so quickly, he'll be a bargain. There is, I suspect, no chance that the remaining five years and $107 million due Johnson ever reflects competence. Even in a best case scenario, the contract will likely overshadow whatever value Johnson provides on the court.

Nor was it just Johnson's contract that came home to roost this season. Whereas that deal will seriously hamstring the Hawks in the future, it was the prior re-signings of Mike Bibby and Marvin Williams which seriously hurt the 2010-11 Hawks. The amount of money invested in two sub-par starters limited the utility of eminently reasonable contracts for Josh Smith and Al Horford and was partially responsible (shockingly poor talent evaluation being the other factor) for the team's lack of depth. The lone upshot of the Bibby and Williams contracts might be the refusal to sign Jamal Crawford to an extension, thus potentially keeping the quantity of defense-averse shooting guards in their thirties on the 2011-12 roster at one.

Now, the events of March, April, and May revealed that the Hawks might have had better depth all season than Larry Drew acknowledged. The recent success of Zaza Pachulia, Jeff Teague, and Jordan Crawford works to Sund's advantage in every way. Pachulia's contract is very reasonable for a third big man and Pachulia works best in such a role while Teague and Crawford the Younger both appear to be very sound use of late first-round picks. That all three of these players were out the rotation for some or most of the season really can't reflect poorly on Sund, either. What influence could he, a lame duck, have had over a head coach he didn't recommend hiring in the first place?

And, if Sund was general managing out the string, the trade of Mike Bibby, Crawford, Mo Evans, and a first-round pick for Kirk Hinrich was extremely defensible. The trade (beyond the cathartic aspect of getting rid of Bibby) made the Hawks better over the period of time for which Sund was under contract. Had Sund been working for anyone who had demonstrated an iota of basketball knowledge or strategic vision, such a deal, under those circumstances, might smack of cynical careerism on the general manager's part. Given Sund's age, the relative unlikelihood of him securing a similar executive role in another organization, and the relative likelihood that the current owners are quite pleased with a more competitive second-round exit for their team, I absolve him of any self-interested motives.

It should not, however, absolve Sund (and the organization) from the damage done in getting out from under the ridiculous contract Bibby signed in July 2009. The difference in cost between Bibby and Hinrich could reasonably be explained away by the difference in their quality, especially the differences in how they complement Joe Johnson. But in, rather improbably, making a bad cap situation worse, the Atlanta Hawks organization will surely come to rue the loss of both Jordan Crawford and the 18th pick* of the 2011 draft. Not that either are likely to become great players so much as the likelihood they could contribute, the possibility they could become good, and the cost certainty of their rookie contracts.

*Especially if any two of Kenneth Faried, Jordan Hamilton, and Tobias Harris end up being available there.

Sund, you see, again showed little ability to acquire quality freely available talent for the bench. Damien Wilkins was a sound mid-season pickup but he still played fewer minutes than Mo Evans for the Hawks this season. Josh Powell and Etan Thomas were both predictably useless. Pape Sy has yet to demonstrate the worth of spending a draft pick and the buyout to secure his age 22 season. Magnum Rolle may yet prove to be the cheap, rookie complement to Pachulia off the bench for which the Hawks should have been searching since Billy Knight was wasting the 33rd pick on Solomon Jones but the inherent humor in Rolle being at least 25 should he make his NBA debut for the organization that gets caught off-guard by players aging can't be ignored.

It's not an evaluation of Sund so much as the organization as a whole to conclude that the best personnel decisions under his watch (extending Horford, drafting Teague and Jordan Crawford, re-signing Pachulia, not re-signing Jamal Crawford) haven't paid off on the court while some of the worst* (not letting the general manager pick the head coach, re-signing Bibby and Williams, signing Powell and Thomas) have already hurt the Hawks.

*Here I'm grading the Joe Johnson contract and drafting/buying out Pape Sy as essentially neutral on-court to date.

Until ultimate power in the organization rests with someone willing to grant the general manager ultimate power over basketball decisions it will be impossible for the Atlanta Hawks to progress toward a championship.

Monday, May 16, 2011

Current and Future Distractions: Hoopinion's Off-Season Reading List

The annual season review posts are on the way but their ETA remains TBD. The initial entry, on Rick Sund, raises questions and necessitates caveats of a fundamental, both to the organization and this venture, nature.

To accompany this promise of certain restatements and possible insights, allow me to provide a brief list of what I'll intend to be reading while I intermittently intend to be writing yet more about these Atlanta Hawks...
  • The Pale King and The Broom of the System by David Foster Wallace
  • A Visit From the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan
  • number9dream, Cloud Atlas, Black Swan Green, and The Thousand Autumns of Jacob de Zoet by David Mitchell
  • and, for the third consecutive off-season, 2666 by Roberto Bolano
Plus assorted half-finished periodicals accumulated during the season, Heat Rash #1, and the new Philip Kerr. Enjoy the off-season as you wish but, I implore you, enjoy it.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Chicago Bulls 93 Atlanta Hawks 73

Apologies to anyone who tried to read this recap or comment on a post during Blogger's 20+ hour downtime.



Hoopdata boxscore

Hawks fans can’t have anything nice.

The team’s streak of not winning more than one playoff series in a season since moving to Atlanta remains intact as does the desultory nature of their elimination from the playoffs. One has to go back to 1998* for an example of the Hawks losing their final playoff game by fewer than ten points. One has to go back to 1988 for an example of the Hawks scoring more than 92 points in their final playoff game. In each of the last three** seasons, the Hawks have been eliminated from the playoffs at home, scoring an average of 77 points and losing by an average of 14 and two-thirds points.

*Even then, the Hawks blew a six-point halftime lead as the Hornets hammered them to the tune of 56-41 in the second half.

**Go back four seasons, and you can include the 99-65 Game 7 loss in Boston. In the last Atlanta playoff appearance of the 1990s, the Hawks scored 66 points in New York. It’s basically pick-your-unappealing-end-point when it comes to Atlanta playoff exits.

It says something of the quality of the team’s regular season that watching the Hawks win 6 of their first 11 playoff games (while being outscored by 33 points) provided both pleasure and reasons for optimism. It says something of the experience of being a Hawks fan that a 20-point loss in the 12th playoff game could render both obsolete.

Jeff Teague, with his head coach finally given no choice but to play him, blossomed in this series, putting a performance that speaks volumes of his talent and provides an unexpected hope for the team’s improvement in 2011-12 (if applicable). Teague’s absence, first through coaching decision then through injury, for three-and-a-half quarters (Yes, Teague returned but he was not himself.) brought familiar flaws (roster construction, indifference to perimeter defense on the court and on the sideline) back to the surface.

Al Horford, on the day he earned well-deserved acclaim in the All-NBA voting, completed a dispiriting series wherein his friend and former teammate Joakim Noah’s defense clearly got the better of him. It’s no coincidence* that Horford’s two best games in the series came when the Hawks moved the ball and moved without the ball and he suffered when placed in isolation against one of the game’s premier defenders. The experience of watching Horford play out, in microcosm, Joe Johnson’s playoff career with the Hawks provides equal evidence of Horford’s status of the team’s best player* and the team’s dysfunction. Given the typical number of touches Horford receives in the post, one wonders if Larry Drew’s pre-game declaration, "A guy of his size and his ability, one area of improvement he really needs to make is his footwork," though true, is simply the Al Horford equivalent of needing to see more consistency from Jeff Teague.

*The Bulls used Noah (and Asik) against Horford throughout the series. For much of the second quarter of Game 6, Tom Thibodeau, defense obsessive, was perfectly fine with Kyle Korver guarding Joe Johnson. Horford may be the team’s best player by process of elimination (with Johnson’s defense and rebounding and Josh Smith’s shot selection being the respective eliminating factors) but he is the team’s best player.

Nor is it a coincidence that Carlos Boozer became an offensive force in this series once Jason Collins entered the starting lineup. The Hawks might not have made the second round without Collins but his one specific skill cannot be utilized in a variety of circumstances. Collins made the hobbled Boozer look athletic by comparison and could not have fairly been expected to close out on Boozer to 18 feet. Nor should Collins ever have been put in the position of being one of the baseline wing defenders in a 2-3 zone. If you have to close out on a shooter in the right corner with a defender from the left side of the floor (see Keith Bogans, 5:56 of the third quarter), you’ve got your tactics wrong.

Larry Drew never seemed to understand that Jamal Crawford was nearly as one-dimensional as Collins nor that Crawford’s great skill and his greatest liability overlapped so neatly with those of Joe Johnson. In Game 6, Drew’s hand was eventually forced by the injuries to Teague and Kirk Hinrich but his early, tactical decision to replace Teague with Crawford had the same result as it did in Game 5: Chicago extending their lead to double-digits in the first quarter.

Drew deserves credit both for the defensive gameplan against Orlando and his team’s offensive performances in Games 1 and 4 of the Chicago series. There is a very real chance that he learned on the job during his rookie season. On the other hand, in Game 6, his indiscriminate deployment of Collins and Crawford, his willingness not to play Jeff Teague, his decision to pull Al Horford from the game for the final 72 seconds of the first half* because he had committed two personal fouls, and the eight jump shots that Josh Smith attempted outside of 16 feet (5-37 in the series from that range) brought the criticisms Drew fairly received all season back to the fore.

*This didn’t change the outcome of the game but it was completely unnecessary as it was an elimination game, Horford finished the game with two fouls, and those all-important fourth quarter minutes Drew was presumably saving Horford for ended being played by Josh Powell and Hilton Armstrong anyway.

John Hollinger is optimistic about the Hawks’ future (though part of that comes from him being less convinced of Jeff Teague’s competence during the regular season than I) and, perhaps as the disappointment of another comprehensive defeat in the team’s last stand fades, I, too, will be able to focus on the possibility that a Teague/Hinrich backcourt can make a significant defensive difference, the possibility that Josh Smith overwhelmingly takes shots he’s likely to make, the possibility that Al Horford develops a post game good enough to draw a double-team and take full advantage of his passing skills, the possibility that Jamal Crawford is allowed to leave and all the possessions he uses go to more multi-faceted offensive players, the possibility that the Hawks receive anything of value in exchange for Marvin Williams (-33 in 108 minutes in the Chicago series), and the possibility that the Hawks find cheap, quality talent to fill out the bench. Some of those possibilities may come to pass when next we see professional basketball in Atlanta. Right now, they all feel very far away.

Thursday, May 12, 2011 5-on-5: Breaking down Game 6 between Chicago Bulls, Atlanta Hawks

This morning I join Michael Wallace, Jared Wade, John Krolik, and Braedan Ritter to discuss the Hawks/Bulls series and make predictions about Game 6:
5. In Thursday's Game 6 in Atlanta ...

A. The Bulls finally end this series.
The Hawks extend it to Game 7.

Bret LaGree, Hoopinion: B. The Hawks extend it to Game 7. At the risk of making my clean sweep of being wrong about the Hawks throughout the playoffs come to a painful end, I'll pick the Hawks. The home crowd may be enough to prop up Teague and Johnson and Horford and Smith even if the minutes catch up with them in the fourth quarter again.

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Chicago Bulls 95 Atlanta Hawks 83


Poss Off Eff eFG% FT Rate OR%

CHI 80
1.188 51.4


The problem with energy is that it's finite. The Atlanta Hawks fell behind early in Game 5, they fell behind by a lot: 15 points just 10:37 into the game. They worked hard to get all of that back before the third quarter ended but had nothing left in the tank to compete effectively in the fourth.

The Bulls played Taj Gibson and Omer Asik and Ronnie Brewer for the entirety of the competitive portion of the fourth quarter. In normal circumstances, they aren't collectively better than Jeff Teague and Josh Smith and Al Horford. When they're fresh (none of the Chicago trio had played more than 10 minutes in the game prior to the fourth quarter) and the Hawks players are exhausted, well, energy won out.

It's not a knock on Teague or Smith or Horford or Joe Johnson that they ran out of gas three-quarters of the way through the 93rd game of the season. They gave all they had. Nor is Larry Drew in line for criticism for riding his starters too hard. Only Zaza Pachulia provided any productive auxiliary minutes. Jason Collins didn't hurt the team when he was on the floor but he didn't help, either.

The same can't be said of Jamal Crawford. If anything, Drew played Crawford too much. That early 15-point deficit came about, in no small part, because Crawford allowed Keith Bogans to score roughly a week's worth of points (that would be a total of 8 points) on three consecutive possessions. Crawford provides no value if he's not making shots and he missed eight of his nine shots tonight, generally showing a greater interest in flopping post-release than even pretending to play defense.

Some joker on Chicago's stat crew inserted nine minutes, two points, and a rebound on Marvin Williams' line of the box score. I watched the game. I know better.

Even if Drew doesn't deserve criticism for the lack of options at his disposal tonight, a Hawks fan couldn't help, even while savoring the possibility of the Hawks winning the game, but watch Jeff Teague score 21 points on 11 shots, earn 7 assists, refrain from committing a turnover, and make Derrick Rose work for many of his 33 points, and feel angry about many, if not most, of 1674 minutes he watched Mike Bibby play for the Hawks this season. Some of the pleasure of this (modest-to-date) playoff run derives from the element of surprise. In no way, though, would a second-round playoff exit or a trip to the Conference finals be undermined had Teague (and, to a lesser extent, Pachulia) played as much during the regular season as his talent (especially relative to the alternatives) clearly warranted.

Sunday, May 08, 2011

Atlanta Hawks 100 Chicago Bulls 88


Poss Off Eff eFG% FT Rate OR%

ATL 88
1.136 51.9


I don't think it's a coincidence that, when the Atlanta Hawks scored on seven of eight offensive possessions between the 4:46 and 1:00 mark of the fourth quarter to transform a tie game into one they led by 11 points, Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford never, save for the one scoreless possession, touched the ball inside the three-point line. Unlike Johnson and Crawford, Jeff Teague and Josh Smith and Al Horford each possess the skill and athleticism to attack the basket while simultaneously presenting the possibility of passing the ball to an open teammate should the opportunity arise. Johnson can accomplish the latter and Crawford the former but neither presents an unpredictable element to opposing defenses. Of course, Teague and Smith and Horford benefited from the attention Johnson* and Crawford drew from Chicago defenders who expected them to receive, hold, and shoot the ball so perhaps all those stagnant fourth quarters where the Hawks stubbornly struggled to score finally paid off with tonight's 33 point explosion.

*And the Hawks surely aren't tied without Johnson making 8 of 11 shots through the first three quarters, even though he gave back a few of those buckets at the defensive end.

The experience of Games 2 and 3 should caution any Hawks fan from expecting the Hawks to follow up with more of the successful same but not to enjoy performances as enjoyable as those in Games 1 and 4 would be foolish. It's because none among us know when the next good Hawks performance will appear or, at times, we wonder if the next good Hawks performance will appear that this competitive Conference Semifinal series seems a treat.

Which isn't to say that the Hawks played a perfect game. Josh Smith took six more jump shots. He made his first, and celebrated the fact, before missing the next five. Tellingly, none of the attempts came in the fourth quarter. The Hawks still look fifty-fifty at best to convert any given transition opportunity. Jamal Crawford remains an exploitable defender even for a mediocre offensive team having a difficult (Chicago's 25 point, 20 possession first quarter excluded) night. Carlos Boozer took advantage of extended minutes from Jason Collins and Zaza Pachulia to contribute offensively for the first time since Game 1. The Bulls grabbed 29.3% of their possible offensive rebounds. Still, as in Game 1, the consistent, purposeful effort with which the team played superseded their flaws.

No Hawk exemplified that better than Smith. Despite the five (the sixth, excusably, came as the shot clock expired) possessions wasted with jumpers, Smith outplayed everyone else on the floor. Not just through his 23 points, 16 rebounds, and 8 assists but also with his defensive work on Luol Deng at the start of either half. If Deng had gotten the quality of look he's generally enjoyed when guarded by Marvin Williams in this series, Atlanta's imperfections might have been more damaging.

If Game 3 showed all that Derrick Rose could be, Game 4 showed all that the Bulls, at less than their best, can force him into having to be. With neither Deng nor Kyle Korver providing a third offensive option, Rose had to take on an even greater load than he did in his 27 shot, 9 free throw, 7 assist, 2 turnover performance in the previous game. Rose took 32 shots, 11 free throws, earned 10 assists, and committed 3 turnovers tonight. He earned every one of his 34 points and the degree to which the Hawks (most of the time) made him earn those points only confirms how exceptional his shot-making was in Game 3.

If the Hawks play together, if they move and move the ball, if they defend as a team, then Derrick Rose alone is not enough to beat them. If the Bulls can isolate the Hawks from each other offensively, if the Bulls can exploit the attention the Hawks must give Rose, then they will, obviously, control the game. Both scenarios have played out twice this series. Whichever we see twice more will decide the outcome.

Saturday, May 07, 2011

Chicago Bulls 99 Atlanta Hawks 82



Hoopdata boxscore


Poss Off Eff eFG% FT Rate OR%

ATL 81
1.012 47.9


If Game 1 provided a vision of how the Atlanta Hawks could beat the Chicago Bulls--by making shots created through quick, precise player and ball movement and almost breaking even on the glass--then Game 3 reminded everyone of the vast gulf that separated the teams in the regular season.

Quite simply the Atlanta Hawks are not as good at defending or rebounding as the Chicago Bulls and, though Jeff Teague (21 points on 13 shots, three assists, one turnover, another 40+ minutes played) tried his damnedest not to make it true, the Atlanta Hawks do not have a player as good as Derrick Rose to overcome their weaknesses. Rose's 44-point explosion testified more to his skills than an Atlanta defensive breakdown. Sure, it would nice if the Hawks' defensive gameplan didn't include the opportunity for Rose to step into uncontested jump shots whenever he felt like it but there's little more Teague can do than prevent Rose from getting all the way from the rim. If Rose stops and elevates quickly and scores from eight-to-ten feet, that's to his credit. The same goes for Al Horford or Josh Smith challenging Rose in and around the paint. If he can get his shot off just before they arrive, or float his teardrop just over their outstretched arm, well, that's why he's the MVP.

NOTE: In the following paragraphs, assume the phrase "Jeff Teague excepted" throughout. Thank you.

Oh, how the Hawks could use a dynamic offensive performance. It needn't be MVP-caliber, just representative of an All-Star. The Hawks officially have two such players and a third of arguably equivalent ability. None of them put Chicago's defense under any sort of pressure last night. Johnson (10 points on 12 shots, three assists, two turnovers) was a tentative shell of the player who exploded in Game 1, often compounding his lack of effective work before receiving the ball by stopping the ball as soon he touched it. Al Horford (10 points on 12 shots, two assists) had the opposite problem in the first half. He rushed everything. The three composed shots he made in the second half might provide some hope for him to snap out of it going forward but arrived too late to have any impact on this game.

Josh Smith remains the greatest enigma. No Chicago player can keep him from getting to the basket (Smith made seven of eight shots in the paint and got to the free throw line eight times) but Smith show only an intermittent interest in the possibility. He missed six more shots from outside of 15 feet in this game, bringing his series total to 0-17 (that's 0%) and his playoff total to 8-51 (that's 18.6% after crediting him for the three three-pointers he made against Orlando) outside of 15 feet.

Smith did put in a better shift on the defensive glass than in Game 2, grabbing 13 defensive rebounds but, even though Al Horford deserves the bulk of the questions as to why he only controlled five of Chicago's misses (and, on some possessions, "I was helping away from the basket," would be an answer both satisfactory and true), Smith's performance was far from flawless. Smith boxed-out no one, instead trying to leak out following Derrick Rose's missed jumper with 1:37 left in the first quarter. When Taj Gibson rebounded the miss, Smith stood flat-footed in the paint four-to-six feet from the basket and watched as Gibson and Noah garnered three more offensive rebounds in quick succession, a sequence ended only when Zaza Pachulia fouled Gibson. Similarly, Noah's only bucket of the game came on a tip-in of a missed Rose jumper. Smith, guarding Noah, backed up toward his own baseline until, as shot met rim, he stood under the back of the rim facing his own basket and watched the uncontested Noah tip in the miss. Smith then turned and complained to the baseline ref.

Pachulia's performance (one point, one rebound, and four fouls in nine minutes), combined with Rick Sund's summer, didn't give Larry Drew any appealing options regarding his struggling starters nor do Smith and Horford deserve any blame for both Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams failing to grab a single defensive rebound in 37 and 23 minutes, respectively. But, at least in Smith's case, the rub is that, despite putting on a somewhat contemptible performance, he scored 17 points on 14 shots, grabbed 13 rebounds, and earned four assists. Smith is a very capable basketball player undermined by his inability to hold himself accountable to his abilities and the coddling he's received from his organization throughout his career.

Joe Johnson has diagnosed the problem:
"It just seemed as if a lot of times we just ran a lot of pick-and-rolls and I was just kind of buried in the corner. I just thought we played into their hands. We didn’t do anything, I thought, to get our scorers the basketball to make plays. They come with the double team and they make us give it up. We can’t win like that. If you look at Game 1 it was nothing like that. Obviously they made adjustments but at the same time we have to stick with what got us here."
As well as the solution:
"I just got to force the issue. In Game 4, I am definitely going to do that. I am not going to succumb to the double team and give it up every time because that’s what they want. We are playing right into their hands. I blame myself for that."
Al Horford mildly dissents:
"We had too much one-on-one. When you do that, this team is too good defensively. We just need to do a better job moving the ball and running the offense the right way. If one guy is not running the offense right, it’s not going to work for others. So I think that’s our biggest problem right now on the offensive end."
It should be pointed out that last night's game was the second-most efficient offensive performance the Hawks have had in six games against the Bulls this season and that giving up more than 120 points per 100 possessions to a mediocre offensive team may be a greater problem but, hey, this Atlanta where defense is just energy and rebounding is just a matter of physicality.

Larry Drew:
"My big guys didn’t show up tonight and I told them that at halftime. You have to play this team with energy, you have to match their physicality, you cannot complain to the officials, and you have to be ready to make it a war for 48 minutes. Tonight we did not do that."
At ProBasketballTalk Rob Mahoney writes (one hopes a premature) elegy for the possibility of surprise Game 1 offered this series:
We know the characters and sadly, the plot of this series, barring a rewrite. The Bulls are a team defined by their diligence, and the Hawks a team defined by their vices. Rose will go to work against the Hawks defense, Joakim Noah will scrap his way to every offensive board in sight. Chicago’s defense will grind and grind and grind, and the Hawks’ offense will settle and settle and settle. Josh Smith will keep taking long jumpers to a chorus of boos from his home fans. Joe Johnson will stop the ball. Atlanta will work away from everything that works, and even when they get a productive night from Jeff Teague or a more balanced scoring effort than they’re accustomed, a team in Atlanta’s position is forever left wanting more. They’re not without hope, but as an outmatched team facing an elite club with a truly amazing player (the best in the league, according to MVP voters), they’re also without a foundation for victory should all things remain constant.
Matt Moore proclaims Rose's Game 3 performance the definition of unstoppable.

Friday, May 06, 2011

TrueHoop: LaGree: Six reasons the playoff Hawks are better

I wrote a piece for the TrueHoop mothership today as to why the Hawks are playing better in the playoffs than they did in the regular season. One reason:
The fans The Atlanta Hawks have a long and, sadly, well-deserved history of playing in front of sparse or unsupportive home crowds. The post-season, however, are a different matter. Witness the 2008 first-round playoff series against the Boston Celtics. While the size of Atlanta’s fanbase may not compare, it’s an intense collective that’s hungry for their team to experience real success. The Hawks have not won two straight playoff series since they moved to Atlanta 42 years ago. The Hawks don’t just return to Atlanta with home-court advantage in this playoff series, they return to to Atlanta to play with a home-court advantage unlike anything they enjoy from October to April.

Thursday, May 05, 2011

HawkStr8Talk: Honesty Corner's 5 Truths: Vol. 9

It's one of my favorite features in Hawks blogosphere, but I must take issue with Truth 2 even though I don't entirely disagree with it:
Every possession must be valued and Josh has proven that you can't trust him to make sound basketball decisions.

But here's the thing - we KNOW this about Josh. We take the good with the bad and yes, I finally advocate seeing if there is a package that includes Josh that can improve this team this offseason, but we also must take Al Horford to task. He's an All Star, our All Star - supposedly our heart and soul...and uh, he's not really dialed in this postseason. Yes, he's not completely missing in action like Marvin Williams, but we are used to Marvin being missing. We aren't used to Al not be a force. He has to be a force. We're winning game in spite of the fact that our front court is NOT imposing its will on anyone. I see this as a good thing in that we can get BETTER, but let's be honest - for everyone who is mad at Josh...uh, reserve about 80% of that criticism for Al too. He's supposed to be better than Josh and he's not doing much better.
Al Horford's not playing well but he's still clearly playing better than Josh Smith. Horford has the higher offensive and defensive rebounding rate, the higher assist rate, the lower turnover rate, and, though Smith has the higher steal and block rates, it's arguable that he's even playing better overall defense than Horford the day after Joakim Noah gets 19 points on 8 shots primarily matched up against Smith.

Plus, Horford's shooting a terrible percentage while using one-sixth of Atlanta's possessions on shots he has a history of making. Josh Smith is shooting a terrible percentage while using one-fourth of Atlanta's offensive possessions on shots he has no history of making.

Al Horford's not playing as well as he's capable in the playoffs so far. The credit for Atlanta's five post-season victories has rightly gone to Jason Collins and Jamal Crawford and Joe Johnson and Kirk Hinrich and Jeff Teague before Horford gets a mention (if applicable). Still, Al Horford's playing better than Josh Smith. 45 shots outside of 16 feet in eight games?

Unsuccessful Isolation Offense a Key Difference for the Atlanta Hawks in Game 2

I harped a lot on rebounding in my recap of Game 2 because a) I figured most people wouldn't, b) I genuinely thought it important, and c) my less-formulaic Prof. Berri shtick is the best I've got some days.

On the other hand, of course terrible shooting, be it Josh Smith and Marvin Williams spotting up on the weakside, Jamal Crawford taking bad, quick shots, or isos -Joe or -Al, had a significant impact on the outcome. Courtesy ESPN Stats and Info:
In Game 1, the Hawks had 22 isolation plays out of 86 plays in the halfcourt (25.6%). Atlanta shot 52.9% in those situations (9-17).

In Game 2, the Hawks had 20 isolation plays out of 84 plays in the halfcourt (23.8%). Atlanta shot 35.7% in those situations (5-14).
Without doing a full accounting of the differences between Games 1 and 2, I think it's fair to say that roughly one-half of the 21-point swing was down to less success when the Hawks went iso. Lowe: Hawks gamble with Crawford guarding Rose

Zach Lowe uses his keen analytical eye and his full-time, professional basketball writing job to put the lie to these two sentences from my recap of Game 2:
Teague again did as good a job on Derrick Rose as could reasonably be expected before switching over to chase Kyle Korver around in the fourth quarter. The Hawks could make the change because Rose remained content (or capable only) to shoot pull-up jumpers when Jamal Crawford sagged six-to-eight feet off of him.
Lowe went to the tape and confirmed that the Hawks got killed on possessions where Crawford guarded Rose:
Crawford defended Rose on 17 of Chicago’s half-court possessions Wednesday, or about 20 percent of Chicago’s total trips down the floor. That is not a token number; that is a significant chunk of game time.

So I decided to re-watch all 17 of those possessions to see how Crawford and Atlanta managed. Nearly all of them came with Kyle Korver on the floor, and that’s not a coincidence; the Hawks do not believe Crawford is qualified to chase Korver and navigate screens, and so when Korver enters the game, they shift Teague onto Korver and Crawford onto Rose. Otherwise, Crawford typically guards Keith Bogans or Ronnie Brewer.

In any case, here are the results:

Chicago’s offense: 23 points on 17 possessions

That works out to 135 points per 100 possessions. The league’s best offense typically scores about 114 points per 100 possessions. In other words, Chicago did rather nicely.

Rose’s stats: 4-of-8, eight points, three assists, zero turnovers

So on all the rest of Chicago’s possessions, including fast-breaks, Rose shot 6-of-19, dished out seven assists and committed all eight of his turnovers.

Now, this isn’t all on Crawford. He had nothing to do with the three-pointer Bogans hit late in the first quarter as the shot clock was running down on a Rose/Crawford possession. But overall, a lot of Chicago’s points on these possessions stemmed from either Crawford’s inability to deal with Rose or the height advantage Korver enjoys over Teague. In fact, either Rose or Korver served as they key offensive player (either the shooter or the last passer who set up the shot) on 16 of those 17 possessions. That is remarkably smart offense.

Wednesday, May 04, 2011

Chicago Bulls 86 Atlanta Hawks 73


Poss Off Eff eFG% FT Rate OR%

CHI 85
1.012 42.3


The Hawks won Game 1 on the strength of their energy, their execution, and their shot-making. In Game 2, energy was all they offered with any consistency. Joe Johnson and Marvin Williams both failed to convert transition opportunities early. Jamal Crawford took the first possible (as opposed to the first plausible) shot most of the night. Outside of the three buckets at the basket Al Horford or Jeff Teague created for him in the second half and a putback of one of those Crawford misses, Josh Smith didn't (nor did he deserve to, 0-6 on jump shots) make a field goal. Horford earned six assists but, in no small part due to Joakim Noah's active defense, couldn't buy a bucket for himself. Only Teague (21 points on 14 shots, 3 assists, 0 turnovers) provided a link to the extraordinary Game 1 offensive performance.

The offensive struggles wasted a winnable defensive performance. Teague again did as good a job on Derrick Rose as could reasonably be expected before switching over to chase Kyle Korver around in the fourth quarter. The Hawks could make the change because Rose remained content (or capable only) to shoot pull-up jumpers when Jamal Crawford sagged six-to-eight feet off of him.

It was more a case of Rose not taking advantage of the matchup than Crawford putting in an unexpectedly good defensive performance. He replaced Teague with 5:20 left in the first quarter and the game tied. When Teague re-entered the game 8 minutes and 21 seconds later, the Hawks were down six and the Chicago lead would be permanent.

That the Hawks defended Chicago so effectively despite an execrable defensive performance from Josh Smith only underlines the wasted opportunity. Though Smith blocked Carlos Boozer's shots for fun, he grabbed just three defensive rebounds in 35:41 and quite possibly failed to block out a single Bull the entire night. Al Horford battling alone in the paint for a defensive rebound against two or more Chicago Bulls was a common sight as Noah, Boozer, and Taj Gibson each grabbed at least three offensive rebounds.

In a half-court game where both teams struggled to make shots, rebounding gained outsized importance. For the Bulls, rebounding was a team effort. It's true that the Hawks, especially with Marvin Williams and Zaza Pachulia on the bench for most of the night, lack talented rebounders and that the Bulls are always going to be likely to win that battle. That likelihood is no excuse for Josh Smith displaying a greater interest in complaining about the mistakes and shortcomings which defined his performance tonight than in rebounding Chicago's frequent missed shots.

The Hawks return to Atlanta with homecourt advantage but without the full margin for error Chicago's 42.3 eFG% and 14 turnovers tonight could have provided them.

Some Shotmaking Particulars

(HT: Jason Walker's must-read response to the Mike Prada piece linked below.)

The Atlanta Hawks take a lot of long two-point jump shots. The Atlanta Hawks typically make those shots at a better rate than other teams. This didn't create a good offense for the Hawks in the regular season because those aren't very efficient shots. On the other hand,
making those inefficient shots at a slightly worse rate in the playoffs isn't necessarily going to cripple an offense* because of that very same built-in inefficiency. Especially when said offense counters its decreased efficiency on an inefficient shot with a greatly increased efficiency on a really efficient shot.

*And acknowledging that, outside of the two Game 1s, the Atlanta offense hasn't been very efficient in the playoffs, either.

Quite simply: the Atlanta Hawks didn't make a high percentage of three-point shots during the regular season but they're making a very high percentage of three-point shots through seven playoff games. As a team, the Hawks are shooting 38.6% in the playoffs (up from 35.2% during the regular season). The Hawks are shooting 38.6% in the playoffs despite Josh Smith making just 3 of 16 three-pointers and Al Horford, Jeff Teague, and Damien Wilkins combining to miss all five of their attempts from beyond the arc.

The Atlanta guards, though, have been dynamite from beyond the arc. Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford, and Kirk Hinrich have collectively made 38 three-pointers at a 46.8% rate. Hinrich shot the three well in his brief time in Atlanta, but the Hawks' offense suffered all season from poor three-point shooting from Johnson (29.7% on 300 attempts) and Crawford (34.1% on 349 attempts) and it's their hot shooting from beyond the arc (a combined 30 of 64 through seven playoff games), more than anything happening in the team's trademark 16-23' sliver of shot selection, that has made the Hawks a profoundly tougher out than their regular season results suggested.

Monday, May 02, 2011

Atlanta Hawks 103 Chicago Bulls 95


Poss Off Eff eFG% FT Rate OR%

CHI 86
1.105 49.4


With the exception of a brief period early in the third quarter when the Chicago Bulls successfully isolated Joe Johnson on one side of the floor and Josh Smith took (and missed) three jump shots in three-and-a-half minutes, the Atlanta Hawks played a brand and quality of basketball that resembled what Larry Drew described this summer far more than that which they displayed during the bulk of the regular season. Had the Hawks, with any regularity, run motion offense at the pace and with the precision they demonstrated tonight against the league's best defense even the most pessimistic of observers wouldn't have predicted a series sweep.

The gold standard of Joe Johnson playoff performances has long been Game 4 of the Celtics series. Tonight's performance might have been better. Johnson's shot-making again drove his star performance but, just as impressively, he allowed the offensive system and his teammates to create easier scoring opportunities for him. The greatest frustration with Johnson has never been a lack of ability so much as his (and his coaches') stubborn insistence on making things difficult for himself. Not that the 84.2 TS% Johnson posted tonight represents a true talent level for a less dribble-heavy, less isolated Johnson but the foundation of some easy shots and a couple trips to the foul line transforms the more difficult shots Johnson can make at the end of otherwise unproductive possessions into daggers.

Now, the Hawks, even excepting Johnson, did make a lot of jump shots tonight as Jamal Crawford continued to score frequently and efficiently this playoff season. Jason Collins knocked down a couple jumpers set shots (and grabbed two offensive rebounds). Josh Smith made a contested baseline jumper to put the Hawks back up 10 with 3:42 left in the game. Many of these were shots Chicago wanted the Hawks to take. The Hawks may have to continue to make them to continue to win games in this series but it's the rest of the team's performance that convinces one that making or missing jump shots will determine the results of games rather than Chicago's margin of victory.

Given his lack of regular playing time over the past two seasons, Jeff Teague should probably be graded on a curve. But he needn't be. The 44:37 he played, the 10 points he scored on 11 shots (that 8 of those 11 came inside of 15 feet certainly contributed to the diverse offensive attack), the 5 assists he earned against a single turnover and the 27 shots Derrick Rose needed to score 24 points (even though the Bulls, as a whole, scored just as efficiently tonight against the Hawks as they did during the regular season) should earn the second-year point guard a passing grade on merit.

Johnson and Crawford's scoring success rendered Al Horford offensively peripheral in terms of shot attempts but his three offensive rebounds, four assists, and no turnovers complemented their efforts. At the other end of the floor, Horford's ten defensive rebounds were crucial as was his defense of the rim. Josh Smith ably assisted Horford on the latter count, blocking four shots as well as playing a key role in the consistent ball and player movement in the halfcourt offense in the first half and, when Smith appeared to have lost the plot in the second half, Zaza Pachulia played seven very solid minutes in relief, making a couple layups and grabbing five rebounds.

It was a team effort. An effort in service of a sound gameplan. Larry Drew should be proud on both counts. Though I suspect he'll be even happier with the energy the Hawks displayed. Energy that had early, tangible value. The Hawks didn't build their game-opening 9-0 lead through flawless execution. Two of their first four scoring possessions were sloppy and would have resulted in turnovers rather than points had the Hawks not been quicker than the Bulls to loose balls.

Energy, execution, shot-making. The streak is over. The Hawks lead the Bulls 1-0.

Sunday, May 01, 2011

Playoff Series Preview: Atlanta Hawks vs. Chicago Bulls

The Atlanta Hawks won their first round playoff series against the Orlando Magic because of a specific matchup advantage that allowed them to overcome the general gulf in regular season results between the two teams. The gulf in regular season results between the Hawks and the Chicago Bulls is even greater--18 games by record, 22 games by pythagorean record--and the Hawks are in possession of no such matchup advantage in this case.

Poss Off Eff eFG% FT Rate OR%

ATL 85
0.916 46.1

Jason Collins played just 23 minutes against the Chicago Bulls this season, 17 of those in the first meeting (the one the Hawks won in dramatic, come-from-behind fashion) only because Josh Smith missed the game through injury. There's no Chicago player suitable for Collins to guard. Carlos Boozer, if/when he plays, would-pick-and-pop with impunity against Collins. Joakim Noah moves too well and too freely on the offensive end for Collins to keep up with him. The same goes for Taj Gibson or even Omer Asik to a lesser extent. Nor would having Collins guard any of them figure to have anywhere near the impact on Chicago's offense that his ability to play Dwight Howard man-to-man in the post had on Orlando's offense. Plus, playing Collins would only aid and abet Chicago's exaggerated strong-side defense against the Hawks. It's even easier to defend with two against one or with three against two when you begin the possession defending with five against four.

Collins could conceivably match up against Kurt Thomas to create a one-on-one wrestling/flopping match to run concurrent with a four-on-four game of basketball but even then Chicago would be at an advantage once a shot went up as Thomas rebounds and Collins doesn't. Zaza Pachulia would be a far better candidate for that particular role of uglying things up.

Kirk Hinrich didn't just defend Jameer Nelson effectively in the Orlando series, he provided some crucially efficient offense, scoring 10 points a game with an eFG% of 57.7%, earning 16 assists, and committing just four turnovers. His contributions, on both ends of the floor, will be missed if he cannot play in the series.

Yes, Derrick Rose averaged 25 and 9 in his three meetings against the Hawks, but Hinrich (primarily) made Rose work for those points:

vs. league2548.7.23629.9
vs. Atl2544.6.35427.7

Against the Hawks this season, Rose shot a lower percentage from the field, got to the line less often, and greatly increased his reliance on the three-point shot. At 30 years of age, Kirk Hinrich couldn't stay up on Derrick Rose and stay in front of him but he could use his combination of his residual athleticism, his size, his defensive skill, and his experience to do the latter more often than not. Jamal Crawford can do none of those things. Jeff Teague can attempt to counter Rose with his athleticism but suffers from an extreme experience* disadvantage. Joe Johnson has the size to play off Rose with the goal of staying in front of him but Johnson's lack of athleticism and defensive skill may limit his ability to challenge Rose's shots when the come.

*Not just in general but against Rose in particular. Teague played 28 minutes against Chicago this season, 12:50 of that matched up against Rose. Even that latter total may overstate Teague's experience as he shared the court with Rose for 1:24 of the second meeting, entering the game with the Hawks down 21 points, and for 7:01 of the third meeting, entering the game with the Hawks down 31 points.

Teague's inexperience could be just as detrimental on the offensive end, as the Bulls have isolated Joe Johnson and Jamal Crawford from their teammates while thoroughly and successfully forcing them to take their contested jump shots from positions of Chicago's choosing.

Johnson and Crawford in the three meetings against Chicago compared to their results against the rest of the league this season:

JohnsonPts/36eFG%FT RateA/36
vs. Chi13.741.36.54.7
vs. league18.748.417.24.8

CrawfordPts/36eFG%FT RateA/36
vs. Chi11.1503.73.6
vs. league17.148.926.13.8

That Chicago so successfully neutered Atlanta's two primary ball-handlers and allowed the third high-usage player, Josh Smith, to spot up repeatedly on the weak side (Smith attempted 56% (14 of 25) of his field goals against the Bulls from outside of 16 feet. He made three of them.), it's no surprise that the one good half of basketball the Hawks played against the Bulls this season was dominated by Al Horford. In the second half of the first meeting on March 2nd, the Hawks, led by Horford's 22 points (on 12 shots and 5 free throw attempts) and two assists, outscored the Bulls by 20 points. In the other five halves (including one very hot jump shooting half from the Hawks in Chicago), the Bulls outscored the Hawks by 68 points through a combination of excellent defense and rebounding.

Below average rebounding and a willingness to take long, two-point jump shots are and have long been hallmarks of this Atlanta Hawks team. This summer, the organization built a team and conceived of a game plan to beat the Orlando Magic. Their success in accomplishing that should be commended. I think the next week to 10 days will demonstrate that that accomplishment has brought the organization no closer to winning a championship, that using four of (effectively) thirteen roster spots on backup centers will further prove (as the regular season so often did) limiting against quality teams that do not employ Dwight Howard and the best the Hawks, thin to begin with and apparently thinned further by injury, can hope to do in this series is snap their 15-game, nearly 14-year losing streak in the second round of the playoffs.

Prediction: Bulls in 4