By Buddy Grizzard
I recently penned a trilogy of articles for Hoopinion in response to Atlanta Journal-Constitution columnist Jeff Schultz' opinion piece, "Larry Drew deserves credit for holding Hawks together," in which I sarcastically accused Schultz of nominating Drew as an early candidate for Coach of the Year. Since that time, noted NBA.com blogger and former AJC Hawks beat writer Sekou Smith has stated without sarcasm that "Drew's name should come up in conversations about Coach of the Year."
In that spirit, I would like to make an honest assessment of where the Hawks stand as they continue a brutal February schedule against their Atlantic Division-leading nemesis tonight. At this point in Hawks history, I believe you have three main factors that are going to determine if the team continues its surprising run and earns a high-enough playoff seed to avoid Chicago or Miami in the first round, as Hoopinion's James Goeders suggests they could. Those factors are (1) the center position, (2) Josh Smith's nascent stardom and (3) Larry Drew's coaching.
1. The Center Position
In the Hawks' Jan. 23rd win at Milwaukee, Zaza Pachulia outplayed former #1 overall draft pick Andrew Bogut at both ends of the floor. Bogut, when healthy (and he was at the time of that game), is considered one of the top centers in the NBA. I was looking forward to Thursday's match-up with Memphis to see Zaza face off against potential Western Conference All-Star Marc Gasol. Unfortunately Zaza only played 21 minutes, making it hard to draw any conclusions. One interesting comparison is that Ivan Johnson, who entered the game as the Hawks' third option at center, had virtually identical production to Gasol while matched up with him much of the game.
When Jason Collins left the game with a sprained elbow, it prompted many to panic. The Hawks were already perilously thin in the power rotation after the loss of Al Horford. This left the Hawks with only Zaza and Ivan as viable options at the 5. However, I believe there may be a silver lining.
If you go to John Hollinger's player statistics and click on PER at the top of the highlighted column, you will see players listed in reverse order. Unsurprisingly, Hollinger has Collins listed second from the bottom in Player Efficiency Rating among all active NBA players averaging at least 6 minutes per game. I'm not here to argue the validity of Hollinger's PER rankings. What's inarguable is that for the second year in a row, Larry Drew is giving significant minutes to a player who is in the conversation as possibly the worst player in the league.
The silver lining is that the Hawks will face the 76ers tonight without the slow-footed Collins. Ivan Johnson played credible defense on Gasol and matched his production in 6 fewer minutes (although he needed three more shots). He is still making rookie mistakes but I predict that Friday you will see him guard Dwight Howard man-to-man and not embarrass himself. He's that strong, which makes up for what he lacks in height. He's already a better NBA center than Kendrick Perkins.
The Hawks did not get killed in the post against Memphis (Atlanta outscored Memphis at the position 17-13 and only trailed 12-11 in rebounds). Where the Hawks got killed was on dribble penetration, brought on by the type of defense Radmanovic displays at the 1:15 mark of this game recap. Collins' absence can do nothing but help the Hawks as it takes a slow-footed player out of the rotation against one of the fastest teams in the league.
2. Josh Smith's Nascent Stardom
On ESPN TrueHoop Network Affiliate HoopSpeak.com yesterday, Ethan Sherwood Strauss gave voice to an opinion I have long held: Josh Smith may be a better player than Carmelo Anthony. I've long held this belief because I see Carmelo as a player in the Dominique Wilkins mold, a quintessential me-first, personal-stat-obsessed player who does not want to exert energy on the defensive end. Wilkins' aversion to defense prompted the Hawks organization to fire Mike Fratello and bring in "players' coach" Bob Weiss, a move that precipitated the controlled demolition of a Hawks era, as many reading this will recall.
If anything, I think Josh Smith is not stat-obsessed ENOUGH. Tracy McGrady has been trying to instruct Josh on the finer points of getting to the foul line to up his scoring average. Despite the tutelage, Smith has only scored 6, 7 and 11 points in the last three games against relatively weak opposition. I think all it will take for Smith to vault into the stratosphere is for someone to flip a switch and get him to play consistently like he did in game Game 4 of the playoff series against the Bulls. In that game he showed the player we all knew he could be by attacking the basket, posting up and completely dominating the league's deepest front line with 23 points, 16 rebounds and 8 assists.
I think Smith is a better player than Carmelo, despite not being near the offensive talent, because he is an outstanding team basketball player (note the assist total mentioned above) and because he impacts the game at the defensive end like no other player on the planet. Where Josh goes wrong is in trying to do too much, as when he refuses to give the ball up to Teague on the fast break. Josh has the ball handling ability to take it coast-to-coast or set up a teammate with a pinpoint pass, but he's also shown the frequent capacity to throw the ball away. Is Larry Drew the coach who can flip that switch?
3. Larry Drew's Coaching
The last two times the Hawks have gone into a game ranked first in the Southeast Division, the team has been blown out in humiliating fashion. Thursday against Memphis was the most recent instance, and tonight the Hawks get a rematch with the 76ers squad that destroyed them 90-76 in a meeting of division leaders Jan. 20th.
My sharpest criticism after that game was of Drew's deployment of Collins against possibly the fastest team in the NBA. Afterward, Drew said his players quit in the third quarter, a characterization I strenuously objected to. This becomes significant because I think Drew may have made the accusation in a calculating fashion, looking ahead to tonight's rematch. Given the poor efforts the Hawks have shown against the 76ers, dating back to last season, he may have decided to challenge their pride.
If I'm right, then tonight's game will serve as a litmus test for Drew's coaching style. If the Hawks win, the team regains stature and Drew's approach is validated. If the team lays down again, it may be an indication that the players have started to tune Drew out.
As far as the more recent game against Memphis, LD took out Ivan Johnson with 4:42 to play in the half with the Hawks trailing 36-35. He played Josh Smith at center as Memphis closed on a 17-8 run to lead 53-43 at halftime. It was Drew who threw in the towel in that game, yanking his starters early in the third quarter and letting the reserves play out the string.
Which brings me back to NBA.com's Sekou Smith and his opinion of Drew's coaching ability. This is the same Sekou Smith who wrote in the wake of the Hawks' trade for Kirk Hinrich that, "Jeff Teague, the Hawks’ second-year point guard, is clearly not ready... He’s the latest in a long line of supposed point guard solutions that ended up being a problem."
This is the same Sekou Smith that I booked several times for Art Mehring's sports talk program on 640 WGST in the Summer of 2005, when the hot topic was the upcoming NBA draft. The consensus was that Marvin Williams would go to the Hawks at the #2 pick, but I had misgivings. I emailed Sekou and asked a direct question. Given the Hawks' obvious need at point guard, and given that this was the strongest point guard draft in a generation, shouldn't the Hawks draft for need rather than gamble on Williams' potential at a position the Hawks already had depth at? Smith responded that no, in his opinion the Hawks should draft Williams on the basis of his superstar potential.
My opinion, and I say this without the slightest sarcasm, is that Sekou's ability to evaluate coaching talent is roughly on par with his ability to evaluate player talent.