Thursday, April 27, 2017

Hawks University: A Vocational School for Bench Players

All three games played in Washington have left the impression that neither team played especially well and neither team played especially poorly. Lending credence to that impression of just watching an Eastern Conference playoff series happen before me, the Hawks twice took a 7-point lead in the first half at which point the Wizards went on 5-0 and 13-2 runs. After Washington took their biggest lead of the game (11 points) in the third quarter, the Hawks scored the next 11 points.

As in the first two games, the biggest issue for the Hawks is a lack of talent on the roster. A well-executed offensive possession that ends with, say, an open Kent Bazemore three-point attempt or Ersan Ilyasova having to finish at the rim on the move doesn't have the expected value that leads to road playoff wins. Not to pick on Bazemore and Ilyasova exclusively.

Tim Hardway, Jr. has no chance to guard Bradley Beal and John Wall and, except for a two-minute stretch in the third quarter wherein he scored 8 of his 15 points, can't make up for his defensive ineptitude* offensively at this level of competition. He played the entire fourth quarter, missed all five of his field goal attempts and grabbed a single rebound with nine seconds left.

*His defensive performance in this series should be used in schools to teach young people that playing defense is not simply a matter of trying hard. He's trying hard. He's a bad defender. 

Dwight Howard looked downright spry in the first quarter, twice contesting a shot to force a miss then moving to grab the rebound. Dwight Howard looked immobile in the second half and had a negligible impact on the game. The Hawks outscored the Wizards in both of Mike Muscala's second half stints but, per usual, one gets the sense that where Muscala's defender stands when he's on the court makes a larger impact than anything Muscala actively does.

The Hawks simply lack the talent to put five good players on the floor at any time despite sustained excellence from Paul Millsap* and Dennis Schröder. That the Hawks can stay in a road playoff game despite making 29% of their three-pointers, committing more turnovers, and attempting fewer free throws is a testament** to the soundness of the offensive and defensive framework in which they operate.

*If I can be indulged in one slight criticism of Millsap, he should just ditch his half-hearted pump fakes from beyond the three-point line. The league gets that he doesn't want to shoot that shot so the pump fake turns into more of a pause, allowing the primary and secondary defenders time to get set which makes it more difficult for Millsap to create a good shot (or draw a foul) off the dribble.

**It might be a testament to the Wizards not being that good, too.

On the brink of elimination that soundness provides hope for this team's short-term survival as well as the challenge of building a more talented, balanced roster for the 2017-18 season and beyond.

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

The Jose Calderon Game

Whether seen again or not, this weekend's version of the Atlanta Hawks, the one that shoots threes better and turns the ball over less often their opponents, provided pure basketball pleasure. Or at least pleasure as pure as possible over 2 games that featured 90 personal fouls and approximately 80 post-foul discussions between various combinations of referees, players, and coaches.

The Hawks paired typically stout defense with shot-making and ball protection. They got (Brandon Jennings 20-foot step-backs, excepted) what you want from surrendering mid-range opportunities. John Wall was 1-7 in Game 4 from between 14 and 21 feet. Markieff Morris was 3-7 (and only one 3PTA). Otto Porter, Jr. was 1-4. Kelly Oubre, Jr. and Bojan Bogdanovic both went 0-1. Bradley Beal was 3-5, but 6 points on 5 shots was less damaging than the 26 points he got on his other 18 FGAs.

Dwight Howard was excellent in Game 4, lending further credence to the idea that he and Thabo Sefolosha were redundant, but having one defensive-oriented role player on the floor is valuable. On the offensive end, Howard's presence complicates using Millsap as the screener in pick-and-rolls because of the extra defender Washington gets to leave in the paint. But, in the second quarter, Kent Bazemore showed, on consecutive possessions, it is still possible to get into the lane and drop off a lob for Howard to finish.

Given my pre-series focus on how the Hawks could connive to get Paul Millsap matched up against Jason Smith, it's a bit embarrassing to recognize that I overlooked the simplest path: get Markieff Morris in foul trouble and trust Scott Brooks to make a puzzling rotation decision in a playoff game. Going big against the Hawks isn't as big a risk as resting Wall and Beal simultaneously, but I don't see how it helps his team.

One of my main worries* going into Game 4 was who the Hawks' third scorer would be. Of course, the Hawks had scorers third through seventh contribute, including two I'd given up on: Kent Bazemore (truly excellent) and Tim Hardaway, Jr., who showed signs of offensive life early in the fourth quarter against Washington's second unit (hint hint, Bud). 

*Worrying about what happens if Millsap or Schröder has a bad offensive game is at the forefront of my thoughts about the decisive three games ahead.

Then there was Jose Calderon. In the kind of performance that can have a massive impact on winning a short series, he did the things you can fairly expect of him in his 36th year: make 40% of his threes, keep Bazemore and Hardaway, Jr. from playing out of position as the backup point guard...that's about it, actually. He also did things nearly unfathomable even as you witnessed them: a key fourth quarter tip-in in transition, confound the Wizards' attempt to get easy points by running him off of screens or posting him up with bigger shooters, raise the specter of a Jose Calderon/Brandon Jennings fight in a playoff game in the Year Of Our Lord 2017, and retroactively justify sitting Dennis Schröder for the last 14:28 of the first half because he had three a game Schröder finished with three fouls after scoring 18 points in 18:49 of second half playing time.

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


  • 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.

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