Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Put It Back Together

Through a combination of poor play, poor coaching, and poor health, the 60-win Hawks broke in the Eastern Conference Finals. A dreadful Game 4 performance doesn't mean they shattered into an infinite number of pieces, never to be reassembled. Gallows humor was the healthiest response to the events of Game 4, but that single debacle shouldn't overshadow that the Hawks threw away a chance to win Game 1 due to their curious first-half defensive gameplan and (another playoff game defined by) a second-half medley of missed open shots. Poor game management, on the floor and from the bench, cost the Hawks Game 3 in both regulation and overtime. It was a bad week, but not one that guaranteed playoff elimination, much less one that proved or disproved much about a wildly successful regular season.

Basketball philosophy will always tie this version of the Hawks to the Spurs, but their road to an NBA championship will look much more like the Mavericks: win 50 games a year, every year for a decade, and cash in one of your chances. It will take a minor miracle for these Hawks to acquire a player the caliber of Tim Duncan or David Robinson, but it's not impossible (a healthy) Al Horford could approximate the value of early-30s Dirk Nowitzki. Surround him with affordable, productive veterans, turn at least one role player into a difference-maker through context and performance, and you've got a chance. The Hawks weren't far off this season, and the difference may simply have been the cumulative impact of injuries and wounds.

Because of all the wasted resources during the Atlanta Spirit Group's ownership -- trading away first-round picks, making bad draft picks, losing good first-round picks without compensation -- maintaining a 50-win team with an annual chance to win a title will require the basketball side to make consistent good decisions, and that those good decisions work out. The Hawks aren't in as good a place as they are today without the two trades Danny Ferry made on July 11, 2012. They were massively important deals, but they weren't a solution. They solved one problem and created opportunity, but they did not add assets.

The Hawks (once putting a permanent GM in place) will surely explore all trade* and free agency options this summer. Starting the 2015-16 season with three starters 29 or older, coming off career years (that each ended in injury), and paying the trio twice as much for the privilege isn't utopian, but it may be the best case, short-term scenario. Worrying about standing pat with a wildly successful starting five is, admittedly, a strongly pessimistic point of view. Even if it's an unnecessarily pessimistic concern, those five will require significant improvement of roster spots 8-15 to get better. 

*Considering the most enticing (non-Horford) package the Hawks would want to put together would consist of Teague or Schroder, plus Mike Scott, maybe and/or Bazemore, and Austin Daye's unguaranteed deal, they're unlikely to be involved in a blockbuster, but will surely look to shed some cheap, young, dead weight for a contributor or additional assets.

Likely having reached the limit of the value to be derived from creating wide-open threes for competent shooters (which appears to be making 35% of their 3PTAs in the regular season, possibly much less in the playoffs), the Hawks would be well served to acquire good shooters. The problem being that everybody wants good shooters and the Hawks are probably too good already to be helped by adding any one-dimensional shooters. A one-dimensional shooter isn't a significant improvement over Antic, Bazemore, or Scott. The Hawks need a wing shooter who can also defend, a big man who can shoot and defend, or or a big man who can shoot and rebound, a big man who can defend and rebound.

Theorizing out of the way, how could this work? Assume the Hawks re-sign Millsap and Carroll (which both sides want and there's probably a decent-sized band of years and money which makes everybody happy in both cases and both will likely have trade value in future years), Mike Muscala slides into Pero Antic's role, Pero re-signs to fill Elton Brand's savvy veteran who plays 500 minutes role, the Hawks draft a young wing* or playmaking four** in the first round, draft Alan Williams in the second round, plus an international prospect if they keep a second, second-round pick.

*Without having done my research, Sam Dekker, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, RJ Hunter, and Kelly Oubre are all viable candidates and the Hawks may have their pick of the lot.

**Same caveat: Kevon Looney's the only real candidate in this category who will potentially be available at 15, I think.

That gives a no-trades, free agency loss-less version of the Hawks an asset roster of:

PGs: Teague, Schroder, Mack
Wings: Korver, Carroll, Sefolosha, #15 pick, Bazemore
Bigs: Millsap, Horford, Muscala, Antic, Williams, Scott
Non-guaranteed contract for non-player: Daye
Draft rights: Walter Tavares*, Lamar Patterson
All their own draft picks
Extra future draft picks: Brooklyn's 2017 second-round pick, Miami's 2017 or 2018 second-round pick**, a top-14 protected first-round pick from Minnesota (2018-2020) OR Minnesota's 2020 and 2021 second-round picks

*I don't think Tavares comes over next season if the Hawks keep Millsap, while also trying to integrate Muscala and a first-round pick into the rotation. Then again, the Eastern Conference champion didn't get above .500 for good until mid-January so maybe next season the Hawks punt November and half of December instead of the end of March and the first half of April.

**Pick is protected from 31-40 in 2017, unprotected in 2018.

There's probably enough there at the margins to consolidate a few pieces into a real contributor that's superfluous to or under-appreciated by another team, while also creating player development opportunities. The flip side is that there's probably nothing there that will have multiple teams picking up the phone to instigate a bidding war, though the Hawks will surely listen to any team willing to overpay for anyone or anything, even Horford.

Even if the Hawks lack a clear path forward in terms of personnel decisions, the organization has a very clear idea* of how they will achieve success. However, that clarity is no guarantee of success. There's no way to plan so well as to eliminate injuries, fully control developmental curves (for players, coaches, and the front office), or always overcome the other team's desire and ability to beat you in a seven-game series.

*And make no mistake: that idea begins with acquiring a superstar before, failing that, working its way down to something that resembles the 2014-15 Hawks.

It's difficult, in the wake of a clear vision of exactly how the Hawks reach the NBA Finals, a vision subsequently proven profoundly out of touch with actual events, to embrace the uncertainty of the offseason, with its countless actors, seen and unseen, conflicting agendas, and strange bedfellows. Whatever anticipatory comfort one finds takes the form of trusting in the Hawks knowing what they want to be and the entire organization's ability to learn from their mistakes and shortcomings.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Distant Voice Previews the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals

The 60-win Atlanta Hawks are underdogs in this series.
This makes some kind of sense. David Griffin made the gold-standard GM move this summer by signing LeBron James as a free agent. He made a big, bold offseason trade to add Kevin Love. He made two good in-season trades in a three-day period* to add JR Smith and Iman Shumpert and a first-round pick while simultaneously shedding Dion Waiters**, then acquire Timofey Mozgov to fill an Anderson Varejao-shaped void for the OKC first-round pick they got for Waiters and another future, protected first-rounder. 

The Cavaliers are good. They have the ten-time reigning best player in basketball, they’ve consistently been in the news for positive and/or interesting transactions, and they’re much better on offense than defense.
*Coming six and eight days, respectively, after Cleveland’s second loss to the Hawks this season.


The 2014-15 Hawks came into being in the summers of 2012 and 2013. They have done nothing interesting off the court (which, sadly, isn’t the same as saying they’ve had nothing interesting off the court done unto them) since. They balance an obviously above-average offense with an atypical above-average defense. The Hawks lack* a franchise player, and they lack direct, or indirect, franchise success.

*NOTE: Does not apply to Al Horford during the 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinals.

What’s different about the Hawks this year? They’re healthier, mostly, and that enabled them to trust the processes they put in place. Feel that excitement. No? Try this...
The Atlanta Hawks are going to win the Eastern Conference Finals in 5 games.
So. Hmm. How?
Short version: the Cavaliers are a poor defensive team that doesn’t match up well with the Hawks.
Long version: Lacking the best player in the series (clearly), the Hawks will counter with the second- through sixth-best players. While David Blatt et al. face the unenviable task of identifying Cleveland’s best five-man unit for this series on the fly, Mike Budenholzer knows. More importantly, he has slooooowly demonstrated a willingness to deploy his five-best players for long minutes.  

Cleveland has a choice: prop up their subpar point-of-attack defense with a heavy dose of the Thompson/Mozgov duo (added benefit on the other end of the floor: many offensive rebounds) to protect the paint, or play a single big in order to spread the floor on offense to punish the Hawks for helping each other as much on defense as they do on offense, and reap the whirlwind on the defensive end.  

Neither option is ideal for Cleveland because neither option offers a satisfactory answer to the question, “Who does Kyrie Irving attempt to guard?” Does he defend the Atlanta point guard, leaving Cleveland vulnerable to the pick-and-rolls that bedeviled the last three times the teams met during the regular season? Does he attempt to hide on DeMarre Carroll, which doesn’t really seem a recipe for limiting Atlanta’s open three-point attempts or layups, and may create the only scenario wherein Mike Budenholzer encourages offensive rebounding?  

The Cavs' issues cascade from there: JR Smith* or Shumpert forced to chase Korver for 38 minutes, multiple Cavs forced to cross-match in defensive transition, every potentially devastating instance of LeBron helping on D carrying a risk that could be exploited by one pass from the pass-happiest team in the league.

*Smith has serious defensive scapegoat potential in this series, even if he does little wrong, if Korver starts making 47% of his 3PTAs again.

Beyond that, as long as Irving is limited by injury, the Cavaliers become easier for the Hawks to guard. Basically, the Hawks should defend LeBron James the way they defended John Wall in Games 5 and 6:
  • Let him create for himself (jumpshots encouraged)
  • Do not help off shooters in the corners
  • Live with everyone but Kyrie Irving taking above-the-break threes
  • Do help late at the rim
Well, actually: LeBron James is much better than John Wall and the rest of what's left of the Cavs is arguably better than Wall's supporting cast.

Well, actually redux: the latter difference is not as great as the defensive difference between the two teams. That’s where the Hawks have to punish Cleveland.  

However, Cleveland’s defensive limitations pose a risk to the Hawks in this series. Unlike their matchup against the Bizarro Playoff Wizards, the Hawks will have to turn the math of two- and three-point shots into their favor this series. Cleveland will likely be willing to give up pick-and-roll created layups rather than pick-and-roll created threes. The Hawks need to make the same trade when LeBron creates in isolation.  

Furthermore, a willingness to let LeBron James attempt to single-handedly outscore the Hawks might, in one fell swoop, help mitigate Thabo Sefolosha’s absence, help keep DeMarre Carroll out of potentially devastating foul trouble, and limit the available energy for James to be an effective help defender. 

These Hawks will never be as good as they were from November 28th to January 30th this season* but that Hawks team is not their opponent. Nor is the Cavs team that didn't get above .500 for good until January 16th, or the Cavs team that went on its own 32-7 run (with 21 double-digit wins). What's left of the Hawks just has to be better than what's left of the Cavs for four of the next seven games.

*And nothing should diminish the unadulterated joy 33-2 brought so many right-thinking people. Not even whatever the Warriors might do to the Hawks in the NBA Finals.