Wednesday, December 14, 2016

When Did the Atlanta Hawks Succumb To Fear?

Events have overtaken posts-in-progress. The measured tones of "Kent Bazemore in Context" and "Checking in on Dennis Schröder" seem, frankly, inappropriate in the middle of what feels like an organizational meltdown. Time instead to address the question posed above.

Did the Atlanta Hawks succumb to fear when they signed Dwight Howard before Al Horford made a free agent decision? 

I give the front office the benefit of the doubt on not knowing whether their key free agent would re-sign. From the outside, it appears Horford didn't know where he would sign until he signed and the chaos of his representation in the year leading up to his free agency couldn't have helped clarify Horford's intentions. 

The preemptive willingness to replace Horford (or Millsap) with Howard, and to pay rather dearly for the opportunity, exacerbated the roster's bias toward defensive skill and suggested a preference for a simulacrum of elements of the successful 2014-15 and 2015-16 Hawks teams rather than curiosity about what the next 50-win Hawks team would look like (and how soon that could become a reality).

Did the Atlanta Hawks succumb to fear when they re-signed Kent Bazemore? 

This is not unrelated to signing Howard. Once upon a time, Danny Ferry cleared the Hawks' books of bad contracts and acquired good, established, and underrated NBA players: Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, and DeMarre Carroll. Mike Budenholzer's system elevated them to All-Star or near All-Star (in the East, at least) contributors.

Ferry's approach was successful, but his larger strategy -- short, cheap contracts -- was inspired by an NBA with a looming expiration date. Salary cap flexibility becomes less valuable with each additional team which has cap space. The new TV deal recalibrated everything. Salary cap flexibility without a stockpile of trade assets (much of this potential was squandered long before Ferry and Budenholzer arrived in Atlanta) creates further limitations.

The Hawks responded by acquiring (and retaining) not players with the Millsap, Korver, or Carroll two-way potential, but defensive-oriented role players: Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, Tiago Splitter, and Dwight Howard. They spent draft picks* and years of roster spots on players (Mike Scott, Mike Muscala, Tim Hardaway, Jr.) with the upside of "playable* 8th- or 9th-man." For some reason, Kris Humphries ended up on the roster instead of Edy Tavares or literally any other professional basketball player under the age of 30. 

*Which, through no fault of these players' own, becomes less playable as a roster's top-end talent leaves or atrophies.

Korver and Millsap remain on the roster but, due to age and expiring contract respectively, their value to the franchise's future, either as players or trade assets, diminishes daily. The effort to improve the roster stalled, leaving a roster comprised of plus-defensive, minus-offensive players: Howard, Sefolosha, Bazemore, Muscala, possibly plus-offensive, very minus-defensive players: Schröder, Hardaway Jr., Mike Scott, the husk of Korver, the physically unable Tiago Splitter, the even less valuable Kris Humphries and Ryan Kelly, and the TBDs: Malcolm Delaney, Taurean Prince, and DeAndre Bembry. Other than Millsap, no one on the roster can make a shot and stay in front of his man.

*I have not given up on the slim possibility that Schröder proves an investment that pays off and am offering no strong opinion yet on Taurean Prince, DeAndre Bembry, Markus Eriksson, or Isaia Cordinier.

Kent Bazemore is exactly the same player he was last season, but he's suffering from playing alongside two fewer good offensive players than last season. He's making a much lower percentage of corner 3s* (31% vs. 41%), taking a higher percentage of long 2s (more than 20% of his FGAs, up from less than 10% his first two seasons in Atlanta), and turning the ball off the dribble far more often (34 times in 608 minutes this season, 83 times in 3400 minutes the last two seasons).

*Are the attempts less open this season? An avenue for additional study.

The Hawks have been outscored by 8 points per 100 possessions with Bazemore on the floor this season. The Hawks have been outscored by 8.1 points per 100 possessions with Bazemore and Howard on the floor this season. Kent Bazemore does not have the offensive skill set to survive with less spacing or one less passer on the floor, much less both. 25 games haven't killed Bazemore's trade value, at least among smart teams, but smart teams aren't really who you prefer to trade with.

Did the Atlanta Hawks succumb to fear while watching the Cleveland Cavaliers make 77 three-pointers last May? 

I don't know if it's specifically pride or arrogance* that turns Mike Budenholzer into Randy Wittman when faced with the very, very difficult puzzle of the Cleveland Cavaliers in a playoff series, but the refusal to take extreme measures to try to overcome an extreme talent deficit baffles me. 

*I suspect something similar motivates the organization, in one of its few widely communicated principles, to brag that it is not interested in vast swathes of NBA talent they do not consider to be "Hawks players."

Perhaps it's just a manifestation of the limits to which one can make an impact on an organization. Establishing principles and implementing a clear system? Yes. Improvising in an attempt to succeed in a situation where that system limits you? Maybe not.

Which brings us to my final thought on this subject...

Did the Atlanta Hawks succumb to fear in the fourth quarter of Game 6 against the Indiana Pacers?

Be it pet theory or bête noire, 31 months hasn't not been enough to shake my fears that the Hawks faced their Rubicon on May 1, 2014 and failed to cross it. In the other 27 quarters of the series, 42.4% of the Hawks' field goal attempts were three-pointers. Entering the fourth quarter of Game 6, up 3-2 in the series, up 67-64 in the game, the Hawks attempted just 5* three-pointers (out of 21 field goal attempts) in the fourth quarter.

*And one of those coming with 6 seconds left and the Hawks down 7.

At the most important juncture of a series ruled, to that point, by extreme, borderline bizarre events such as Pero Antic dramatically changing Roy Hibbert's career path while making just 3 of 25 three-pointers, the Hawks became normal, conservative. 

Should we have known then that success, when it came, and -- boy, howdy -- did success come a few months later, would be possible only when the universe aligned to meet all their terms and conditions? In all other imperfect circumstances, pursuit of the comfort of feeling in control would drive behavior.

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