Sunday, April 23, 2017

What Does It Mean?

There's nothing better than making shots. Pair it with the Hawks typically stout defense and the result is an insurmountable 25-point lead less than 11 minutes into a playoff game. Is it a one-off event, just something that happened or something portentous?

The first quarter saw a second consecutive positive stint for Atlanta's starting lineup (they couldn't repeat the feat at the start of the third) which saw useful defensive activity from Dwight Howard despite his extremely limited offensive involvement (he didn't attempt a field goal or free throw from 2:55 left in the first quarter until 5:39 left in the fourth quarter) and the rare sight of good Atlanta three-point shooting. With Thabo Sefolosha out of the rotation, the Hawks need more quality defensive role player minutes from Howard than I suspected before the series started. It appears Budenholzer has gotten to a point where he's working to get those and willing to go small.

The Hawks made 5-9 threes in the first quarter but, by the end of the game, they stand 15-61 from deep in the series' other 11 quarters. I lean toward putting "making a high percentage of threes" in "just something that happened" column. However, the Hawks got a lot of high-percentage two-point shots in the first three quarters which should be more replicable, especially if the non-John Wall Wizards give another low-energy performance (just 6 offensive rebounds, only 11 forced turnovers, 28 more fouls). Taurean Prince offered a vital third scoring option, getting 14 points on 7 shots through three quarters, outplaying Otto Porter, Jr. almost as badly as Paul Millsap did Markieff Morris (in a less obviously psychically scarring manner).

Though Dennis Schröder is clearly the second-best point guard in this series, he's playing at the top of his ability to score 25 efficient points per game and earn 24 assists against just 6 turnovers. Schröder's defense is never going to be of "stop John Wall" quality, it might never be good, even, but it's a better workplace when he's giving visible effort on that end. Nor should Schröder's best self overshadow Paul Millsap's continued two-way excellence, which is unique across both rosters in this series so far.

A blessedly quick turnaround for Game 4 should offer more information as to where the series stands. I'm not entirely clear on whether, in Millsap's framework, a third successive win for the home team means the series is still 0-0 or not.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Game 2 Was a Missed Opportunity

The Hawks blew a great chance last night. Good things happened while Dwight Howard was on the court in the third quarter! Howard didn't have a ton* to do with the primary factor for Atlanta's success: Wizards foul trouble causing Scott Brooks to go to his bench and create one of the mismatches - Paul Millsap against a larger, slower defender - which the Hawks could create themselves by going small...and there I go again. 

*Though the terrible pass he threw half-way between Taurean Prince and Kelly Oubre turned into three Hawks points after Prince hustled into the backcourt and got the personal foul/technical foul combo.

However, the Hawks were very successful for the six-and-a-half minutes they got play against the Gortat/Jason Smith tandem. Largely by playing 4-on-4, de-emphasizing the Howard/Gortat matchup. In the end it didn't matter. Partially because of the 6-14 hole the starting lineup dug over the first seven minutes of the game. Mostly, (and this entire next stretch deserves an "especially because Thabo Sefolosha isn't healthy/isn't playing"), because the Hawks don't have enough good players to fill 240 minutes effectively. Thus, their margin of error is more or less Brandon Jennings holding a fourth quarter Bad Shot Jamboree.

Kent Bazemore, generally overextended due to the lack of effective offensive players on the court alongside him this season, is being further overextended in his brief appearances as a backup point guard*, failing in that role, then playing out of control in an effort** to make up for his point guard failures. Tim Hardaway, Jr., who deserves acclaim for improving himself from arguably the worst player in the league into a creditable seventh or eighth guy (on a good team), is completely out of his depth in the playoffs*** again this season, exacerbating his defensive limitations (which are not a function of effort; he's trying to guard Bradley Beal, but he can't) with miserable offensive play. These two are making Taurean Prince at the 3 seem reasonable (despite how that fails to address any of this team's spacing issues) and Mikey Dunleavy's errors of omission in limited minutes seem relatively benign.

*Due to the complete and utter failure of the Malcolm Delaney signing

**Baze being the rare guy who got better by being less active on the court

***Thus earning him the Mike Scott degree from Hawks University

Notes

  • The Hawks are still -16 in the 49 minutes Dwight Howard has played in this series, +1 in the 39 minutes he hasn't.
  • Raw plus/minus isn't a great stat over one or two games. If Bradley Beal hadn't missed a couple of wide-open threes during the Hawks' third quarter run, or the aforementioned Brandon Jennings run hadn't occurred, these margins would be significantly different.
  • Even though Howard was more effective than in Game 1, he's dropping so deep when defending the pick-and-roll that Mike D'Antoni would sign off on the mid-range jumpers Wall and Beal are getting.
  • If the Hawks go small at home in Game 3, I'd prefer to see mostly Millsap/Ilyasova with Muscala and Prince getting short stints as necessary. 
  • Just play Jose Calderon as an ineffective backup point guard rather than make your sub-par wings even worse.

Sunday, April 16, 2017

Washington 114 Atlanta 107: Game 1 Recap Bullets


  • Dwight Howard got a lot of rebounds (14!) and the Hawks were not good with him on the floor (-21 in 29 minutes!).
  • Which means they outscored the Wizards by 14 points in the 18:54 Howard didn't play.
  • Mike Muscala is not a good NBA player in an absolute sense, but he's a functional one. Given the Hawks' dearth of talent, that's not nothing in this context.
  • Also relevant in this context, the Wizards' bench is not good. There is no expectation five-out Hawks lineups could blow out the Wizards' starters to same degree we saw five-out lineups succeed against these units today.
  • I think it's a fair expectation that the Wizards' starters can consistently house this Atlanta starting lineup.
  • The Hawks' starting lineup: -14.8/100 possessions in 26:49 entering this game, was outscored by 13 points over 27 possessions in 12:01 of this game.
  • Dennis Schröder and Tim Hardaway, Jr. cannot guard John Wall and Bradley Beal and aren't good enough offensive players to mitigate that inability. Especially Hardaway, Jr., who put in so ineffectual and awkward-looking a playoff performance in a Hawks uniform that you'd be forgiven for mistaking it as a tribute to the young Marvin Williams.
  • Schröder's inability/unwillingness to stop the ball when John Wall has it in transition is breathtaking.
  • The Hawks probably can't lose games where they get almost a third of their shots from beyond the arc (plus only 8 long twos) and attempt 39 free throws and win the series.
  • Thabo Sefolosha is such a good role player (amidst a roster full of okay role players), one could argue the Hawks were missing their second-best player.
  • Still, Bud's rotations were baffling.
  • Malcolm Delaney's NBA career is over, huh?
  • Markieff Morris would rather play the Hawks than VCU. 


Saturday, April 15, 2017

A Dwight Howard Primer

Dwight Howard played as well as one could reasonably hope this season. He played better than I expected. It didn't matter. 
The following excerpts aren't to pick on anyone because not watching the Hawks when you have a general NBA coverage brief is an eminently understandable decision this season. However, reading playoff preview content such as this from Jonathan Tjarks at The Ringer:
Atlanta’s best chance in its first-round series is for Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap to play so well together that it forces Scott Brooks to keep two traditional big men on the floor.
or this from Eric Freeman at Ball Don't Lie:
The Wizards are not an especially good interior team. Gortat puts up good numbers and Mahinmi can be useful when healthy, but these players do not constitute the strength of a playoff team. They’re important, to be sure, but not at the core of what the Wizards do. 
In other words, this should be a matchup that a player of Dwight Howard’s ability dominates. While Howard is no longer the Elite Defense of One he was in his Orlando prime (with Gortat as his backup), he remains a very good defender who can control the glass nearly by himself. No one expects Howard to average 30 and 20 in a series anymore (except Shaq, maybe), so he should be freed from those past expectations and allowed to do what he does best.
suggests an opportunity exists to look beyond Howard's excellent individual rebounding stats, contextualizing the limited positive impact he's able to have on a roster where his presence makes little sense.
It should be no surprise that adding a defensively oriented role player to a team that finished 2015-16 2nd in the league in defense and 22nd in offense was not transformative. The Hawks remained an excellent defensive team, but were even worse offensively. Improving from a bottom-5 rebounding team to a slightly below average rebounding team doesn't matter much in a league accelerating toward the supremacy of shot making.
Howard's presence on the court improved the Hawks' rebounding by 7 percentage points on each end of the floor. Yet the Hawks were outscored by 2.4 points per 100 possessions with Howard on the floor. They scored 1.7 fewer points per possession and allowed 0.7 more points per possession with him on the floor. Probably because the Hawks' turnover rate increased by 4 percentage points, and their opponents' turnover rate deceased by 1.2 percentage points with Howard on the floor. Going back to Basketball on Paper, turnover rate is more important than rebound rate.
Of the top 6 Hawks in terms of minutes played, Dennis Schröder is the only Hawk who played even slightly better alongside Howard this season. Tim Hardaway, Jr. is the only one who formed a positive duo with Howard. Which makes sense as their skills are tilted toward the offensive end of the floor at least as much as Howard's are to the defensive end.
w/ Howard Overall
Plus/Minus Minutes Plus/Minus Minutes
Millsap -0.1 1273 2.1 2343
Schröder -1.8 1746 -2.0 2485
Hardaway 2.6 1143 2.8 2154
Bazemore -3.4 1406 -2.8 1963
Sefolosha -2.5 978 -0.8 1596

You'll notice that Millsap, in particular, played without Howard on the court. This is why one can be a crank, but not a dangerous crank, in advocating de-emphasizing Howard in a playoff series against a better, perimeter-oriented opponent.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

A Brief Preview Advocating Something Extreme

The Hawks are deserved underdogs (about 33% to win the series at this writing) -- they were worse in the regular season than the Wizards and Washington is a bad matchup for the Hawks to boot. John Wall and Bradley Beal* are too productive for the Hawks' dynamic offensive duo of Dennis Schröder and Tim Hardaway, Jr to get away with their "What if Lillard and McCollum weren't especially good?" act. Instead of playing out the string conventionally and losing on merit, why not make bold choices in an effort to win and, failing that, at least lose** interestingly?

*Who is actually good year-round at this point which should allow me to leave behind (finally) my weird tendency to overrate the Wizards every October despite thinking Beal isn't very good.

**Easy for me to say as my employment situation will be entirely unaffected by the results of this series.

Ideally, the Hawks would put their best perimeter defender, Thabo Sefolosha, on Washington's best perimeter offensive player, John Wall, and figure out the rest from there. But Bud has extensive previous in not regularly cross-matching Paul Millsap and Al Horford on LeBron James so expect to see Schröder get toasted by Wall. To be fair to Bud, Schröder isn't that much less likely to get exposed chasing Beal around the perimeter or resisting the urge to ball-watch and losing track of Otto Porter, Jr. (Samesies for Hardaway, Jr. trying to guard either of Washington's wings.) 

Such is the fate of a playoff team that gets outscored by 70 points in the regular season: putting one of the best perimeter defenders in the world, blessed with length, strength, and quick hands, on a ball-dominant player (Wall) whose career eFG% outside of the restricted area is 36.8% offers but a partial solution.

What, then, can the Hawks do to pull an upset?

The Wizards have four good players plus Markieff Morris*. They will lean heavily on their starters, but they can't reduce their pitiful bench's contribution to 0 minutes played. On the other hand, how pitiful can a bench look if they get to play almost exclusively against Jose Calderon, Kris Humphries, and Mikey Dunleavy?

*Who renders the good/bad binary insufficient.

Marcin Gortat is the only one of the aforementioned good Wizards the Hawks can profoundly inhibit via a tactical decision by relentlessly going small/playing five-out. Gortat's a fine matchup for Dwight Howard, but vice versa. Making Gortat extend to guard Millsap or Mike Muscala (or Taurean Prince if Washington chooses to cross-match Morris onto Millsap) puts pressure on one piece of a superior starting five. If it encourages Scott Brooks to use the vastly inferior Jason Smith more, all the better. (Considering the Hawks don't have the option of putting more than three good offensive players on the court at one time, getting the opponent to remove one good defender might be their best shot at overachieving their putrid regular season standard of offensive production.)

Conversely, if Dwight Howard plays his typical 30 minutes a night, Jason Smith getting the injured Ian Mahinmi's minutes creates a small danger Scott Brooks could exploit: uncontested Jason Smith (36.6% career three-point shooter) three-point attempts. 

Dwight Howard doesn't close out on shooters. 1) He isn't really physically capable of doing so, and 2) He's more focused on getting defensive rebounds than forcing misses at this point in his career. The Hawks already struggle to take advantage of basketball math due to their dearth of good shooters. They can't exacerbate the talent differential on the perimeter by giving up multiple open threes per game to Jason Smith while Dwight Howard points in his direction.

The truly nightmarish first quarter timeline would be:
  1. Howard draws two early fouls on Gortat, makes one of the four resulting free throw attempts
  2. Jason Smith checks in, makes consecutive threes
  3. While Dwight pulls faces, Dennis Schröder, unsolicited, offers his opinion
  4. Hawks timeout
Advocating a thorough (yet temporary) marginalization of Dwight Howard isn't a referendum on his general usefulness. There are still things he can do to contribute to winning basketball games. However, due to poor roster construction, those things don't complement the majority of his teammates, who need helpful spacing and passing to accomplish even slightly below average things on offense.

I doubt Bud will demonstrate the humility and short-term flexibility to give Dwight Howard two weeks off in order to increase the chances of playing a second round* of playoff basketball, but the opportunity exists to be unafraid

*Presuming the Celtics win a playoff series for the first time since 2012, the second round would offer a better matchup than the Wizards for both the Hawks (not just because they would have the best player in that series), and Howard, who would have a legitimate opportunity to exploit a Boston weakness by crashing the offensive boards while generally getting to stay within his sphere of defensive influence guarding Amir Johnson on the other end.

Prediction
  • Wizards in 5
Alternative, conditional prediction
  • Hawks in 6 (if Dwight Howard plays less than 75 total minutes in the series)

Friday, January 06, 2017

Why Rebuild?

Wins and expected wins (based on point differential) for the Atlanta Hawks over the last two-plus seasons, presented visually:


Despite the current five game winning streak, the Hawks still have a significantly worse point differential than the last two seasons. Two of their top three and three of their top five players by BPM are 31 or older and will be free agents at the end of the season.

I prefer the teams I support to be smarter than me, but seeing a team come to terms with what they really are provides a certain comfort. 

Next: patience to see if enough small decisions are well-made and hope that the opportunity to make a big decision materializes.

NOTE: 2016-17 wins are pro-rated based on the current .556 win percentage.

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.