Monday, October 31, 2016

Notes On 100% of Something

Sure, I could have looked at the schedule before blurting out that you should check this space every Monday, but I didn't and now I have to gin up some perfunctory conclusions after two games, one of them against a legitimate NBA team. Not that winning both of these games, and by healthy margins, should be taken for granted. I say this as someone deeply skeptical of the idea that Bradley Beal is a good NBA player.

The Hawks closed at -172 to win against the Wizards and -365 to win against the 76ers, implying a 63% probability of a Hawks win on opening night and 78% on Saturday afternoon. They should have won both games but, by actually winning both games, they outperformed market expectations by 0.58 wins through two games. (I'm now predicting 44 wins.)

What news there is is all good news so far. In brief:

  • Paul Millsap is still excellent (extra credit due for providing another argument in favor of shortening the pre-season).
  • Kyle Korver, too.
  • Dwight Howard looked like a good role player (this is actual praise, not a smart ass and cutie pie faint praise gag).
  • Thabo Sefolosha keyed some really good bench play against a couple of benches one would hope your team's bench would look good against.
  • Will Mike Muscala finally be able to convert being in generally good places on the offensive end into good offensive play?
  • Tim Hardaway, Jr. played pretty well. Not pretty well just by his standards, but by the objective norms of NBA reserves.
  • No conclusions drawn about point guard play until at least half of their minutes have come against stiffer competition than Trey Burke, Sergio Rodriguez and TJ McConnell.
  • Joel Embiid has faced Steven Adams and Dwight Howard. He scored 34 points in 38 minutes with a 56.1 TS%. Passing will come (he was credited with 3.6 assists per 100 possessions at Kansas), his defense will tighten up, and, eventually, the turnovers will decline. It is so nice to have him back.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Foundational Guesses: A 2016-17 Atlanta Hawks Season Preview

A summary for the busy reader
I'm going with 43 wins, with the understanding that small differences in player projections multiplied by varying minutes estimates for this mystery aggregation of familiar, aging quality and new bets made at confusingly short odds makes any Atlanta Hawks projection between 38 and 48 wins defensible. 

Sticking my pin in the mid-point of this (proposed) reasonable range isn't just pessimism in action. I think of the 2014-15 Hawks. I suspected they would be quite good upon Al Horford's return from injury. However, I also suspected that if they again suffered a serious injury (or injuries) they would divest themselves of good players in the final year of their contracts for future assets. (Remember, the Hawks made a belated, futile attempt in March 2014 to miss the playoffs.) Even if we take this summer's activity as a reluctance to rebuild for an entire season, that doesn't preclude one or more mid-season moves in pursuit of longer-term goals followed by actively pursuing free agents - an in-season, on-the-fly rebuild (a refresh? a trade-in?).

Bear in mind, the Hawks strongly considered blowing up the team nine months ago while, from December 16 through the end of the season (56 games), posting the same 55-win scoring differential as the 60-win 2015-16 team. This organization is conservative but not incurious. 

Foundational guesses
This is the first of what I intend to be (roughly) weekly dispatches published in this old, familiar space. Below, I lay out some suppositions about a roster I don't understand (or strongly believe in, frankly, though that's due more to skepticism than certain disbelief) that will provide a framework for me to revisit as evidence about this team accrues over the course of the season.

In rough order of importance, but with reflexive rejection of certainty intact:

D----- H-----
First, on the court: He hasn't been good since he was in Orlando five years ago. He hasn't been useless in the years since, but his value* is strictly as a rebounder and a rim protector. It's undeniable that no team in the NBA is positioned to gain greater marginal value from improved rebounding (offensive and defensive) than the Hawks. If some of those extra defensive rebounds he turn into transition offense**, then one of his remaining skills will have a positive knock-on effect for the offense. However, expectations for him, fair expectations for him at this point in his career, should be "healthy Tiago Splitter." 

*Q: How can you be a net negative on offense with a TS% of 60 and Usage Rate around 22%?
A: Turn the ball over on 17% of the possessions you use and get credit for an assist every 50 possessions you're on the court. 

**For maximum optimism, best not to linger too long on thoughts of the Hawks' wings dribbling.

The obvious questions about him fitting into a healthy, functioning team system will only be answered in time:
  • Will he commit to rolling hard to the rim and, if so, how does this help the half-court spacing? 
  • Will a higher volume of rim protection paired with Paul Millsap's defensive versatility be as effective* as the two-headed, all-court disruption Millsap and Al Horford provided? 
*My guess is yes, if this leads to the Hawks finally making an effort to suppress three-point attempts rather than living with allowing three-point attempts taken late in the shot clock. Of course, they won 60 games two seasons allowing the most three-point attempts in the league so there may be other alternatives in play that lay beyond my ken.

Regarding off the court issues, theories and speculation about team building and fan psychology: It hasn't become any less weird that the Hawks signed him before they knew* Horford was leaving. To be clear, offering Horford the max up front (and him taking it) to keep this team together (while low-key stockpiling assets as part of a shadow rebuild) wasn't a high-upside strategy or even a guarantee of establishing Mavericks East. It was a path that made sense given what we know about the front office, whereas locking up an inferior center, perhaps increasing the chances Horford chooses to leave, and quite possibly looking to trade Millsap for the best immediately available package (which could very well have led to additional, subsequent moves) made us question what we really knew.

*I'm not especially concerned the organization didn't know whether or not Horford was leaving. The chaos of conflicting reports in the minutes immediately before Horford announced he was going to Boston suggests that changing agents twice in the final year of one's contract doesn't necessarily lead to a smooth free agent process.

The pessimistic view (the one that came naturally to me) is that it was a move made out of fear of losing something and an absolute refusal to consider a rebuild (at least a year-long rebuild). More optimistic observers saw it as a calculated gamble wherein rehabilitating D----- H-----'s value would make Atlanta a viable free agent destination for current All-Star free agents, not just ex-famous people.

I have no doubt such a turn of events would benefit the perception of the organization*, but I think that has more to do with how far D----- H-----'s actual and perceived value has fallen than any three-dimensional chess the Hawks front office is playing. Of course, the world might be so irrational as to make stoking the faint flicker of H-----'s former fame more compelling than Kyle Korver and Millsap becoming All-Stars and DeMarre Carroll and Kent Bazemore becoming very rich men in Atlanta.

*Gag, "Basketball Club"

The "good for business" argument in favor of categorizing signing H----- as a clever touch moves me even less. Assuming "former All-Star" is a brand that provides a short-term box office boost, that's not a sustainable business model in an industry that keeps score to literally determine winners and losers.

Dennis Schröder
A series of rational decisions have brought us to the point where Dennis Schröder is the most important player on the Atlanta Hawks roster. The Hawks traded from their sole source of depth to pick up an extra first-round pick and hand the ball to their younger, cheaper point guard option.

The vast range of potential outcomes for Dennis Schröder, starting point guard, could keep the team in the vicinity of 50 wins or encourage the organization to go ahead and blow the team up before the trade deadline. The latter, darker scenario is more straightforward: Schröder doesn't get any better and, in an increased role, his offensive weaknesses adversely affect Korver, Millsap and Bazemore, making a below average offense a bad offense.

The silver lining of Schröder not yet being an above average point guard is that he can get to that level through any combination of potential improvements:
  • Playing consistently good defense for 2000+ minutes
  • Improving his finishing at the rim
  • Getting to the free throw line more often
  • Becoming a league-average three-point shooter
  • Not locking into a pass/shoot decision when he turns the corner on the high pick-and-roll
  • Developing sufficient chemistry with just D----- H----- to create a significant number of ultra-high percentage, cathartic field goal attempts
Assuming this is still a conservative organization, that Schröder's improvement could take various forms likely assures him of a full age-23 season to prove himself. Assuming Schröder hasn't gone corporate in the offseason, I fail to see how this state of affairs won't be tremendously entertaining.

The old, good reliables
Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver have been terrific (when fully healthy) for the Atlanta Hawks the last three seasons. With Millsap coming off a career year and Korver looking much more like himself in 2016, once his two off-season surgeries were several months behind him, continued belief in both is well-founded. However, it must be acknowledged that any positive prediction for the Hawks this season posits that Mike Budenholzer has unlocked previously latent value such that both will age relative to their performance as Hawks rather than to their career averages. Follow this line of inquiry far enough and one might conclude that their performances this season (assuming good health) will tell us as much about the Hawks' player development capabilities as the younger players.

To remain a top-5 defense (given how quickly the wing depth moves into totally unproven/totally unproven to be any good territory) the Hawks will need one more great defensive season from Thabo Sefolosha. There's also the chilling possibility that Sefolosha's ability to impersonate a useful offensive player until the ball leaves his hand (to shoot or dribble) may exceed the offensive value of any other wing coming off the bench.

Kent Bazemore, rich man
There isn't anyone easier to root for or to celebrate getting paid. The Hawks spent a pretty penny to lock in the relative certainty of a familiar and average-ish player for the next couple years. Given the free agent alternatives, it's an eminently fair decision made better by how the Hawks used the 21st pick in the draft. If Bembry develops in his first two season, the Hawks, with he and Bazemore, will have something like Teague/Schröder 2.0 and the ability to trade from a position of strength.

With the exception of 27-year-old, experienced professional, yet NBA rookie Malcolm Delaney, I expect the Hawks rookies to be, at least initially, limited to garbage time appearances and short reserve stints when a regular rotation player gets a night off. Patience will be key and, given the amount of time invested in Mike Scott, Mike Muscala and Tim Hardaway, Jr. over the last three seasons, I expect the two first-round picks to get plenty of it from the organization. 

Above, I mentioned expectations for Bembry to develop into a younger, cheaper replacement* for Bazemore by 2018-19. Taurean Prince might be on a slightly more accelerated timeline to become a more active version of Mike Scott by the start of next season.

Delaney will be the most immediately interesting rookie, not just guaranteed backup point guard minutes but fourth-quarter point guard minutes should Dennis Schröder still demonstrate his capability for existential malaise during work hours.

*From a team-building point of view, I can't overemphasize the importance of not spending on wings unless they're regularly going to make All-NBA teams. You can get fairly close to the value of the tenth best wing in the league with a good 3-and-D (or playmaking-and-D) wing for a fraction of the cost and use the savings to invest in a primary ball-handler/scorer and two-way bigs.

Other centers
Should D----- H----- not be rejuvenated and remain a slightly above average, one-way player, the Hawks are going to have redundant defensive centers taking up at least 20%* of the roster. Mike Muscala's floor spacing will look a little more valuable, and the question I wrestled with this summer: "Would you rather have D----- H----- or Edy Tavares and $70 million to spend on other players?" will be posed more broadly, even if it's rarely considered polite to utter in public.

*25% if Tiago Splitter is ever healthy. (I have no expectation that Tiago Splitter will be physically able to contribute this season. Any quality minutes he provides of the bench will be found money.)

Kris Humphries is also on the roster. He is 31 years old and has never been a good NBA player. Yes, he played 56 good minutes for the Hawks in the playoffs last season.

The system
Despite all of my uncertainty and my disappointment that the Hawks have not addressed their biggest weakness* in either of the last two off-seasons, I'm fairly confident the Hawks retain a solid foundation. I just can't envision a healthy version of this roster imploding over an 82-game season.

Through three seasons, one fundamentally hampered by injury, one a magical** example of possibility, and one a mix of the two, I'm extremely confident that Mike Budenholzer's offense will create (over the course of the regular season at least) enough open three-point shots (even if too many of them are created for slightly below average three-point shooters) to win the math against all but elite opposition.

*Three-point shooting ability

**No storybook ending, granted

On the other end of the court, even though adjustments will need to be made in how they swap Al Horford's defensive versatility for more traditional defensive center play, the Hawks will give a lot of minutes to above average and very good defensive players at four positions. There's slightly more certainty to good defense (at least if you're aiming for competence, first, then excellence, if applicable) and I expect this team to take comfort in that, grinding out results while in the process of integrating new elements.

Let's watch basketball and find out.