Sunday, November 20, 2016

Notes on Rebounding

As I've written previously, no NBA team could draw more marginal value from Dwight Howard's rebounding ability than the Atlanta Hawks. The freedom (which wasn't certain, at least in my mind) Budenholzer has granted him to attack the offensive glass is massively valuable and may well buoy the offense to league average levels, rather than languishing in the bottom third of the league, as I expected.

But, because of how rebounding works, Howard's gaudy, legitimately valuable rebounding totals are two-thirds defensive rebounds and, though he has improved the team's defensive rebounding, therefore broadening the solidity of the defense, all of those defensive rebounds he's grabbing aren't exactly new defensive rebounds for the Hawks.

The joint defensive versatility of Paul Millsap and Al Horford both mitigated the on-the-ball perimeter defensive limitations of their teammates and pressured the opposition into turnovers. The risk of this utility was that at least one of those two was often out of defensive rebounding position when opponents got a shot off. This put tremendous pressure on the wings to box out larger and/or more athletic players. Effort-wise, the wings were exceptional. Results showed the limitations of asking the willing to do something slightly beyond their physical capabilities.

With Howard on the court, the wings aren't asked to do this. Thus, Howard is getting both new defensive rebounds and some of the rebounds for which Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver used to battle.

Defensive rebound %
Name 2015-16 2016-17
Horford 18.2% --
Howard -- 31.4%
Bazemore 18.0% 10.3%
Sefolosha 17.1% 13.7%
Korver 10.9% 9.3%


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Friday Night Playoff Preview

The fourth quarter in Charlotte on Friday night wasn't a portent of playoff doom, but I suspect we'll see something similar again in April. Not the spectacle* of Dwight Howard getting ejected, but the mostly empty offensive possessions the Hawks managed from 5:54 to 1:17 of fourth quarter.

*Howard wasn't playing especially well before the ejection, his frustration with Cody Zeller causing him to call for the ball in the post which, at best, wasted several seconds of half-court possessions. The Hornets could afford to over-defend Howard, fronting him in the post and sagging toward him from weakside because the only Hawk you absolutely can't help off of (someone tell the Bucks this) is Kyle Korver.

Mike Muscala missing everything on a wide-open corner 3, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schröder losing the ball in the lane after working to beat the initial defender aren't examples of a flawed process, something that can (or needs to) be fixed. They're examples of useful players butting up against the limits of their abilities. Sometimes they will convert those opportunities but more often they simply won't be able.

Swarm Millsap, don't help off of Korver, and force the other Hawks on the floor to make plays will be the default defensive strategy against this team on every possession that matters. Dwight Howard's freedom to go after offensive rebounds offers something the Hawks have not previously had on the back-end of initial possessions that end in a missed shot, but he doesn't add much on the front-end* of them.

*The Schröder/Howard pick-and-roll may develop enough to change my mind, but right now, teams can throw one to one-and-a-half help defenders toward it safe in the knowledge that Schröder largely operates on a binary - shoot or throw a lob to Howard - decision tree.

Running out Malcolm Delaney, Tim Hardaway, Jr., Thabo Sefolosha, Mike Muscala, and either Paul Millsap or Dwight Howard to grind down opposing second units is a good thing, and a viable path to 50 regular season wins. An effective second unit will be less valuable in the playoffs, where the margins are narrower*, and the team's inability to put multiple multi-dimensional offensive players on the court simultaneously will strangle a fair number of crucial offensive possessions.

*Unless you draw a clearly inferior version of yourself, as the Hawks did in the first round last season.

Monday, November 07, 2016

Explore Your Limitations

At some point Monday night, I saw the future and it was ironic. May 2017: A 50-win Hawks team loses in the first round of the playoffs (despite excellent defense across the 6 games). This is the punchline, many pitch their own setups to the joke about the team that maximizes its potential over six months, then submits to variance over two weeks.

Two nights later the Hawks, as a 12-point favorite and -1000 to win outright, allowed 123 points on (approximately) 102 possessions to the Los Angeles Lakers. They lost a home game, as overwhelming favorites, wherein Dwight Howard and Tim Hardaway, Jr. combined for 57 points (on 26 shots, no less!). This result did not assuage my fears* about how the team might struggle once the schedule gets more difficult.

*This result recontextualized things for me a bit.

Based on the evidence of their professional basketball careers, the Hawks have two good offensive players: Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver. I suspect that will become an issue, above and beyond collective tactical buy-in and competence, once the playoffs begin AT THE LATEST. 

One could argue it became an issue another two nights later when the Hawks followed up the 13 points on 16 shots from Millsap and Korver in the Lakers game with 19 points on 23 shots from them in Washington. Add in a team effort of 16-57 from beyond the arc (11-47 for non-Hardaways) across the two games and the margin for error bends toward definition.

This is a really good defensive team. The Lakers game proved that doesn't guarantee 82 instances of success, but the Hawks will be difficult to score against more often than not. Many nights, they will be absurdly difficult to score against. Especially as long as Thabo Sefolosha and Mike Muscala provide enough decent offense to solidify themselves as (offense) consequence-free primary reserves.

The Houston Rockets may or may not turn out to be a good team this season. I suspect they will be the inverse of the Hawks, perhaps even more extreme in their lack of balance between offense and defense. The Rockets, despite the brilliance of James Harden, could not score easily against the Hawks. This is a very good sign. Scoring against the Rockets moves me not a whit. Preventing them from scoring? That warped optimism from Monday returned.

Bonus rational thought section
Showing my work, here's the Hawks against the closing Pinnacle moneyline through six games:
Date Opponent Closing xWin% Result xWinSum Wins Diff
27-Oct Washington -172 63.2% 1 0.63 1 0.37
29-Oct at Philadelphia -365 78.5% 1 1.42 2 0.58
31-Oct Sacramento -290 74.4% 1 2.16 3 0.84
2-Nov LA Lakers -1000 90.9% 0 3.07 3 -0.07
4-Nov at Washington 102 49.5% 0 3.57 3 -0.57
5-Nov Houston -155 60.8% 1 4.17 4 -0.17

Four wins is roughly par against this schedule, per the betting market. Fair enough.

On the other hand, the Hawks have lost two games by 10 points combined while not winning a game by fewer than 11 points yet. They're +63 through 6 games (+31 in non-Sixers games, which is, perhaps, an over-correction given that the Sixers haven't lost any other game Joel Embiid has participated in by more than 6 points). The schedule will get tougher, but, however you cut it, that's a pretty nice margin of victory rate against any other professional collective.