Saturday, June 30, 2012

A Draft Dissent

I gave myself a day to find something more valuable than frustration and disappointment to express regarding John Jenkins and Mike Scott being the 23rd and 43rd selections in the 2012 NBA Draft.

In Jenkins, the Hawks acquired a one-trick pony. Granted, Jenkins' trick is the most important in the game. He can make shots. Problem being, he can't create shots and there's little evidence that Larry Drew's offensive system is capable of consistently creating quality shots for players. Furthermore, given Drew's tendency to play his reserves en masse, Jenkins figures to get court time with to be determined reserves who will, in all likelihood, be more comfortable creating shots for themselves than others.

Unless injuries force his hand, Drew has shown little willingness to give inexperienced players consistent minutes. Jenkins will always be a percentage player. Give him enough open looks from beyond the arc and he will score points efficiently. In a situation where a couple misses in a row might lead to Jenkins getting a week off, his limitations as a player could even be exaggerated as a Hawk.

In short, Jenkins is a nice second-round talent the Hawks drafted in the first round who does not, pending roster completion and/or changes, have a defined role to play for a team that, historically, has done a poor job of leveraging its players strengths while mitigating their weaknesses.

Regardless of identity, it is unreasonable to expect anything from the 43rd pick in the draft. Mike Scott does not figure to challenge that precept. Successful as a fifth-year senior at Virginia, Scott turns 24 in a couple of weeks. He's just two years younger than Marvin Williams and Al Horford. There's little precedent of a power forward draftee of any age succeeding in the NBA with the poor athleticism markers evident in the stats from Scott's excellent senior season. Scott averaged just one blocked shot and 1.4 steals per 100 on-court defensive possessions. He rebounded less than ten percent of Virginia's misses.

It's difficult to find recent comparisons to Scott's numbers. Best I can come up with are Luke Harangody without demonstrating college three-point range, a less efficient Tyler Hansbrough, or Gary Wilkinson, who went undrafted out of Utah State and currently stars in the Australian league. All three of those guys turned the ball over significantly less than Scott in their final college seasons so even the best comparisons for Scott break down eventually and not in his favor.

Furthermore, it's puzzling to comprehend how Scott fits on a roster with Ivan Johnson. Were Scott younger, it might make more sense to carry him as fifth big man (sure to be sixth once the Hawks sign a franchise-defining third-string center) in the hopes he develops into a rotation player. With Johnson yet to receive a qualifying offer, the suspicion lurks that the Hawks may be comfortable replacing him with an inferior, younger (but no young) player, in order to save about $500,000.

All in all, would the Hawks be significantly worse off, from a talent perspective, not even considering the combination of talent plus the inherent value of using the 23rd and 43rd picks to acquire additional talent, with the undrafted pair of William Buford and Drew Gordon?


Jenkins and Scott are clearly the superior scorers. Not to get all Prof. Berri here, but that's the simplest explanation for why they were drafted while Buford and Gordon were not. However, as all around players, what certainty is there that Buford, longer and more athletic than Jenkins, won't become a superior two-way role player to the Hawks' first-rounder? Does Gordon's relative youth and superior activity defensively and as a rebounder really suffer that much in comparison to Scott's superiority in knocking down a face-up jumper?

We'll see, won't we.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

The TrueHoop Network Held a Mock Draft

With the stipulation that we make predictions rather than express preferences and given the first 22 selections made by my colleagues, I have the Hawks taking Royce White.

1. New Orleans: Anthony Davis (Joe Gerrity,
2. Charlotte: Thomas Robinson (Spencer Percy, Queen City Hoops)
3. Washington: Bradley Beal (Kyle Weidie, Truth About It)
4. Cleveland: Michael Kidd-Gilchrist (Colin McGowan, Cavs: The Blog)
5. Sacramento: Harrison Barnes (James Ham, Cowbell Kingdom)
6. Portland: Andre Drummond (Sean Highkin, Portland Roundball Society)
7. Golden State: Dion Waiters (Rasheed Malek,
8. Toronto: Jeremy Lamb (Sam Holako, Raptors Republic)
9. Detroit: John Henson (Dan Feldman, PistonPowered)
10. New Orleans: Damian Lillard (Joe Gerrity,
11. Portland: Kendall Marshall (Sean Highkin, Portland Roundball Society)
12. Milwaukee: Perry Jones III (Jeremy Schmidt, Bucksketball)
13. Phoenix: Terrence Ross (Ryan Weisert, Valley of the Suns)
14. Houston: Tyler Zeller (Jared Dubin, Hardwood Paroxysm)
15. Philadelphia: Terrence Jones (Carey Smith, Philadunkia)
16. Houston: Austin Rivers (Robert Silverman, KnickerBlogger)
17. Dallas: Quincy Miller (Connor Huchton, The Two Man Game)
18. Minnesota: Meyers Leonard (Steve McPherson, Hardwood Paroxysm)
19. Orlando: Tony Wroten (Eddy Rivera, MBN)
20. Denver: Andrew Nicholson (Kalen Deremo, Roundball Mining Company)
21. Boston: Jared Sullinger (Brendan Jackson,
22. Boston: Moe Harkless (Brendan Jackson,
23. Atlanta: Royce White (Bret LaGree, Hoopinion)
24. Cleveland: Arnett Moultrie (Colin McGowan, Cavs: The Blog)
25. Memphis: Fab Melo (Red Coleman,
26. Indiana: Marquis Teague (Tim Donahue, 8p9s)
27. Miami: Jeff Taylor (Beckley Mason, HoopSpeak)
28. Oklahoma City: Draymond Green (Royce Young, Daily Thunder)
29. Chicago: Will Barton (Matt McHale, Bulls by the Horns)
30. Golden State: Jared Cunningham (Rasheed Malek,

Given the same situation, I would prefer Draymond Green and Evan Fournier to White. This is where you tell me I'm wrong.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Danny Ferry Hired As GM

Danny Ferry's tenure as GM of the Cleveland Cavaliers is not impressive. He inherited LeBron James, Anderson Varejao, and Zydrunas Ilgauskas. For the positive of the Mo Williams trade, there's the negative of signing Larry Hughes to a 5-year, $60 million contract as a free agent. For the positive of drafting Shannon Brown and Danny Green, there's the negative of neither playing useful minutes for the Cavaliers. Ferry traded for Ben Wallace and Shaquille O'Neal, but well after either could play significant minutes anymore. His last major move, trading for the 33-year-old Antawn Jamison, didn't work.

I fear it's this history, of drafting out-of-sync with his head coach, adding an above average player to an undisturbed core rather than making a move of profound and risky change, signing a player in the hopes he'll be something he hasn't been before, acquiring the fading, ex-famous rather than promising players and giving them a defined role to play, acquiescing to ownership's desire to win now, even the Cleveland franchise's futile fascination with the potential of Wheeler's JJ Hickson that makes him a natural fit with the Atlanta Spirit Group rather than an indication of a new direction.

Not that a new direction would be especially feasible for anyone to forge given the years of entrenchment represented by the franchise's current roster and cap situation.

Despite my general misgivings, Ferry's hiring offers one indisputable reason for optimism: a six-year contract. Danny Ferry's contract lasts longer than Joe Johnson's. Long-term planning could return to the Atlanta Hawks for the first time since Billy Knight mused as to how many wings could play at the same time. Given the fairly predictable and familiar near-future (unpredictability only coming via the potentially unsatisfying conclusion of Josh Smith's time with the team), the possibility of a long-term plan, even if it exists as a mirage for the time being, offers Hawks fans a reason for real, true hope.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Once More, With Feeling: Reviewing Joe Johnson's Season

The second season of Joe Johnson's second, more ridiculous contract with the Atlanta Hawks demonstrated some practical understanding of his strengths and limitations. Up to a point, it was as good a season as could reasonably expected from Johnson at this stage of his career. That point was the playoffs.

During the regular season, Johnson, presumably recognizing his increasing inability to create high-percentage shots for himself or for teammates, demonstrated a greater willingness to finish rather than start possessions and he finished possessions from behind the three-point line more often (per minute and as a percentage of his field goal attempts) than in any previous season in Atlanta. The result of his slightly smaller role in the offense: significantly more efficient scoring at the cost of some assists. A fair trade.

With Mike Bibby and Jamal Crawford replaced in the rotation by Jeff Teague and Kirk Hinrich, Johnson was no longer burdened with futile defensive assignments. Johnson took on a role more suited to his lack of athleticism and general defensive passivity. He stopped fouling almost completely (committing a little more than one personal foul every 36 minutes and committing more than three personal fouls in a game on three occasions, one of them being the triple overtime loss to Miami) and let his already poor defensive rebounding rate shrink to 9.2%. Neither of these prevented the Hawks from improving significantly defensively, suggesting that reducing Johnson's defensive role was a net positive. He even had a (relative) shot blocking explosion, rejecting 13 shots in 2127 minutes after blocking just 12 shots in more than 5400 minutes during the previous two seasons combined.

Despite the positive results, all this sensibility regarding Joe Johnson disappeared in the playoffs. Injuries didn't help matters but, even at less than 100%, Josh Smith and Al Horford clearly looked superior, outplaying the overextended Johnson in the playoffs. That's old news. In a new development, Jeff Teague joined them in outshining Johnson.

Johnson repeatedly failed to create good shots for himself or his teammates while struggling to chase Paul Pierce around screens for much of the series. Yet it was Johnson, dribbling nowhere good against a set defense to which the Hawks turned again and again until elimination. It was the worst of Johnson's five mediocre-to-poor playoff performances as a Hawk.

The series also re-raised the question of whether the limitations Johnson's contract has put on the team from a player personnel standpoint will continue to carryover onto the court. There are now three younger teammates (Smith, Horford, and Teague) capable of making Johnson a more effective player the more they are on the court, the more they have the ball in their hands. The Hawks are overpaying Joe Johnson to be an above average player. The overpayments* will continue after Johnson has ceased to be an above average player. The team must get maximum value out of him while there remains value to be had.

*Since Rashard Lewis was traded again this week, a word regarding untradeable contracts: untradeable contracts become tradeable once another team is in possessions of a contract (or contracts) as large, but longer than the one you want to get out from under. Joe Johnson's contract has four years to run and more than $89 million due. Also, unlike Lewis, Johnson's contract is fully guaranteed.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Once More, With Feeling: Reviewing Josh Smith's Season

Previously: Larry Drew, Rick Sund

The jump shots don't reflect well on anyone: not the player, not the head coach, not the organization. The player's insistence on taking the jump shots, the head coach's indulgence thereof, and the organization's dysfunction can also overwhelm the depth and breadth of the player's contributions to winning basketball games.

Josh Smith's stubborn insistence on taking lots and lots of jump shots, more than 500 of them during the 2011-12 regular season, again existing in tandem with some very poor free throw shooting (63%, not even matching his poor 67% career rate), suggests the answer as to why Smith does this to himself, and his team, rests in the realm of psychology. Whatever need low-percentage shots fills for Smith appears to be insatiable. There's no debate to be had about Smith's shot selection. These are bad shots. Taking so many of them hurts the team and prevents him from making maximum use of his varied talents.

But Josh Smith is not just the sum negative value of those jump shots. Nor was Larry Drew, last season, simply an enabler of his best player's worst offensive habit. Drew also made it possible for Smith to take great advantage of his best defensive attribute. By shedding the worst defensive players from the backcourt and generally playing guards and wings capable of defending their positions, Drew allowed Smith to serve as a true help defender. No longer was he forced to rescue an incompetent or mismatched teammate, he could provide a second level of defensive pressure on opponents.

Because Larry Drew's offense either encouraged or accepted jump shots over more efficient shot types, the Hawks had to win with defense. Smith led that effort. And, because he was helping rather than bailing out his teammates, Smith's efforts didn't remove him from defensive rebounding position as often as in past seasons. He posted a career-best 24.8 DR%.

Position, it must be admitted, is a relative term when applied to Smith the defender. He doesn't box out, instead relying on his athleticism to react faster than an in-position opponent can to a missed shot. It's that lack of anticipatory work that prevents Smith from being as effective a defender at the point of attack as he is when providing help. It's what keeps him (legitimately) off the All-Defensive Team. It's also what keeps him from being an attractive candidate for a second long contract.

Between his established preference to take jump shots despite ample evidence that the other team wants him take every damn one of them and his reliance on athleticism for essentially everything positive he does defensively, Smith is not a great candidate to age gracefully. What part of his on-court activity and demeanor indicates that he will adapt to the diminishing of his physical gifts? Even a willingness to completely change the way he approaches the game wouldn't guarantee success in an endeavor as difficult as completely changing the way he approaches the game. Josh Smith is the most Josh Smith player in the league. Could he ever be something else? Someone less different?

It's a bit of an intellectual exercise anyway. Because of the aforementioned organizational dysfunction, signing Josh Smith to another long-term contract appears impossible from either side of the negotiation. Because of the aforementioned organizational dysfunction and Smith's sui generis style of contribution to winning making him best appreciated and understood the more one is exposed to his play, his trade value, even coming off a career season, may not match his on-court value.

Considering that potential complication, the specter of Smith's age-related decline, and that the Hawks have, quite consciously, put themselves in a position where they are incapable of adding a quality player alongside Smith and Al Horford it's possible to argue with a straight face that the best course of action for the team would be to keep Smith for the final year of his current contract, hope Joe Johnson can remain above average (in the regular season, at least) for 12 more months, and make one more stumbling run toward hosting two second-round playoff games.

Barring the unlikely event of a run to the 2013 Eastern Conference Finals, the story of Josh Smith's time with his hometown team will be told in a series of questions asked: What if Josh Smith had channeled the things he needed to prove into the things he could do? What if the franchise hadn't invested so heavily for so long in a player so obviously inferior to Josh Smith? What if the franchise had invested in an experienced head coach in an attempt to get the most out of Josh Smith?

Only the first of those questions still has a chance of being answered in a satisfactory fashion. To know that answer would be worth losing the future rights to Smith for nothing. Not to know that answer, ever, would be the more fitting conclusion to the Josh Smith experience, simultaneously the most hopeful and frustrating aspect of the last eight seasons in Atlanta. Appreciation expressed through expectations, accepted by acts of defiance.

Friday, June 01, 2012

Once More, With Feeling: Reviewing Larry Drew's Season

Previously: Rick Sund

With a couple of exceptions, Larry Drew had a very good regular season. With a couple of exceptions, Larry Drew had a very poor playoff series. There are some commonalities between these disparate results.

Larry Drew really trusts his bench and likes to use them a lot. In addition to giving Jannero Pargo and Willie Green credit for making shots this season, one has to give Drew credit for consistently putting them in situations to succeed, to the extent they can. If you're going to play Pargo and Green, you can't get too upset about the things they do (or don't do) that made them freely available talent in the first place. Sure, injuries played a role, but Drew's instinct to look for additional players he could use also gave us Ivan Johnson's delightful regular season.

Johnson was something of an exception as Drew's trust typically extends to veterans. The career years from Pargo and Green were off-set (not so much on the court but at a franchise level) by the absurdity of the team going over the luxury tax line to have Jerry Stackhouse and Erick Dampier sit at the end of the bench.

Tracy McGrady was something of an exception to the rule as well though the reluctance to extend the trust inherent in a regular rotation role to a player physically unable to play both ends of a back-to-back during a compressed season, a player physically unable to finish every game in which he did play more isn't so mysterious.

Certainly not as mysterious as Drew fundamentally underestimating the difference between regular season and playoff basketball. Though not an especially good professional basketball team at this point, the Celtics are a clear cut above the non-playoff teams in the Eastern Conference, against whom the Hawks ably padded their regular season record by winning 22 of 25 games. Furthermore, Doc Rivers made every effort to highlight his team's remaining strengths while mitigating their numerous limitations.

One trait of Drew's benefited the Hawks in the playoffs. He's a players' coach. In the regular season that trait manifested itself in such ugly ways as letting Kirk Hinrich come back from shoulder surgery weeks before he was ready, letting Joe Johnson play on one leg for a stretch in February, and letting Josh Smith shoot 500 jumpers with an eFG% below 37%. In the playoffs, the trait manifested itself in letting Smith and, especially, Al Horford play significant minutes while injured. Both were clearly limited by their injuries, but they were also easily the team's two most productive players and central in extending the series to the final seconds of Game 6 despite Drew's self-sabotage over the first three games.

To be sure, Larry Drew drew a bad hand for the playoff series but he played that hand poorly. He willingly rested his few above average and healthy players en masse for the first three games of the series, with disastrous results. He too often tried to defend Kevin Garnett with either Jason Collins or Marvin Williams. The former (from Game 2 onward) couldn't cover Garnett in space, the latter couldn't handle him on the post. He repeatedly allowed the team to go away from what was working (usually Jeff Teague in a two-man game with either Smith or Horford) to Joe Johnson dribbling toward an empty possession.

The series was there for the taking. One flawed team made a concerted, unified effort to take it. The other team did not.

Depending on where the breakeven point on home playoff games is exactly, the franchise is probably getting good value on their investment in Drew but not so much to make up for the money wasted on other people or to push the team significantly closer to contending for a championship.