Tuesday, May 03, 2016

What Asymmetrical Discipline Might Look Like

The Atlanta Hawks are a below-average offensive team currently in the second round of the NBA playoffs largely due to excellent defense. They are facing a team with two-plus players (LeBron James, Kyrie Irving, JR Smith often enough relative to his role, or Tristan Thompson whenever the Hawks force a miss) capable of individually overcoming a meaningful percentage of good defensive possessions. 

The Hawks were fortunate to be unfortunate to lose Game 1 given how meekly they bent to the will of Cleveland's defensive game plan in the first half (You're really going to let us take all these contested two-point shots in the paint?!) and how the offense drifted away, over the final six-and-a-half minutes, from what had gotten them back in the game. Inattention, or a lack of commitment, to details will condemn the Hawks to a series loss (that is probable anyway, but humor me).

Here are the best ways the Hawks can try to win the series:

  • Paul Millsap, Al Horford, or Thabo Sefolosha guards LeBron James on every possession. The Hawks, inferior shooters, have to attempt more three-pointers than the Cavs to have any chance of winning. Suppress Cleveland's three-point volume by encouraging Kevin Love post-ups with 12 seconds or less left on the shot clock. Bonus: If Love is shooting, the Hawks only have one rampant offensive rebounding big man to account for.
  • Grabbing 76% of defensive rebounds isn't great, it's average, but average defensive rebounding is a bonus for the Hawks and better than the league did against the Cavs this season. Between personnel and scheme (Millsap and Horford mitigating a paucity of plus perimeter defenders by defending away from the basket and/or challenging shots at the rim) it takes a collective effort to exceed reasonable expectations. Hard, tiring, necessary work. Do it and I'll lead the accolades.
  • Similarly, continue to err on the side of recklessness when closing out on three-point shooters. The Hawks, inferior shooters, have to attempt more three-pointers than the Cavs to have any chance of winning. 
  • As much as the Hawks struggled to get the ball in the basket against the Celtics, imagine how bad it could have been had Boston demonstrated an ability to execute the commonly accepted rules for guarding Kyle Korver in 2016. Korver got a couple months' worth of open looks off of a single screen. It was remarkable. JR Smith (and Iman Shumpert in reserve) is not going to allow that volume to Atlanta's most consistent offensive player. The response? Back cuts. Between JR Smith's denial and LeBron James' occasional ball-watching, Korver, Kent Bazemore, and Sefolosha will have the opportunity to contribute a handful of high-quality, two-point shots in the halfcourt.
  • Make Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love defend the point of attack every halfcourt possession when they're on the floor. The Hawks went away from this the moment Dennis Schroder rested after his 15-point, 3-assist 10:37 stretch across the third- and fourth-quarters. They did not recover.
  • I repeat: The Hawks, inferior shooters, have to attempt more three-pointers than the Cavs to have any chance of winning. Schroder and Bazemore had the right idea by launching 10 three-pointers each. Teague, Millsap, and Horford should each do the same at least once in the series.
  • Don't throw away any more possessions by having Tim Hardaway, Jr. on the court. You let Iman Shumpert dribble 25 feet from above the break for a layup, you're done for the series. Any of Sefolosha missing open shots, dual-point guard lineups, tired Bazemore or Korver is a better alternative with margins this narrow.
  • Related: don't mindlessly use the one-dimensional reserves, either. Mike Scott is capable of helping the offense. Sefolosha and Mike Muscala will help build good defensive possessions. None of the three can overcome their weaknesses in a vacuum. Play them in 5-man units and against 5-man units that will leverage their strengths and mitigate weaknesses.

All of this may well not be enough. If so, I hope the lesson learned is that taking tactical chances at least increased the chances of winning, and similar chances are taken with the roster this summer. Even if Horford re-signs, the window (such as it is) is 12-24 months. Redundant point guards and coaching up guys from unplayable to league-average eighth- or tenth-men is not a talent maximization strategy likely to get you to the finals. 

Competence is a welcome change for the Atlanta Hawks franchise but competence used as a platform for the occasional daring leap could create much more.

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

DE-FENSE! DE-FENSE!

But first, three paragraphs largely about offense. I am not a complete crack-pot.

For the first 18 minutes of the game, the Hawks had a ridiculous eFG% of 20.5%. For the next 18 minutes of the game, the Hawks had a ridiculous eFG% of 84.2%. For the entirety of the meaningful 36 minutes of the game, the Hawks had a reasonable eFG% of 54.2%. 



There are reasons beyond cold probability that the Hawks shot significantly better for one stretch of the game than another. The Celtics came out playing very good defense from the jump. Amir Johnson and Jonas Jerebko took Marcus Smart's lead, getting physical leverage against Paul Millsap and Al Horford in the post. Smart and Isaiah Thomas defended Kyle Korver as well as they have so far in the series. That the Hawks were not getting the typical looks that allowed them to shoot 51.6% over 82 games contributed to them shooting 20.5% for a quarter-and-a-half last night.

Similarly, it is not entirely coincidental that the Hawks started making shots with unsustainable frequency at roughly the same moment they started turning stops into transition opportunities. A below average offense looked significantly better when it didn't have to face a set defense as often. Analysis! Observation.

The most frustrating thing about watching the Hawks spend much of the last four playoff series missing a higher percentage of shots than they have over the last two regular seasons is, natch, watching the Hawks miss shots. The second most frustrating thing is the tendency to formulate a supernatural explanation for the misses.

It's not impossible that the Hawks have struggled to convert the chances they're pleased to have created in the playoffs due to a collective character or psychological defect, but I contend the defensive performance they put on, possession-by-possession while shooting 20.5%, at home, in front of an increasingly anxious and frustrated audience demonstrates tremendous discipline and commitment. Which conforms with my prejudice to dismiss the character/psychological explanation for missed shots. Funny how that works.

Variance is not confined to shot-making. Though they've been excellent overall, the Hawks have not been perfect defensively for all five games in this series. They looked shockingly unprepared in the first quarter of Game 3. The transition defense* fell apart in the second half of the third quarter of Game 4. Still, the Hawks are holding the Celtics to 95 points per 100 possessions in this series, by bettering their second-best defense in the regular season numbers in three of the four factors.

*The chief culprit in Game 4, Mike Scott, was excellent for the second time this series, in Game 5.

The Hawks entered the playoffs with a 2-3% chance of winning the title, a 7-8% chance of winning the East, because they allowed 5 fewer points per 100 possessions than the league this season. The Hawks entered the playoffs with a 2-3% chance of winning the title, a 7-8% chance of winning the East, because they scored 1.3 points fewer than the league per 100 possessions this season. Offensive struggles, especially comical offensive struggles, tend toward the obvious. That's but half the story.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

Chains, Weakest Links, Etc.

Paul Millsap was spectacular, the Hawks were playing their brand of top-drawer defense (excellent first shot defense, some occasional slippage when the opposition grabbed offensive rebounds), and they were in good shape to survive the dreaded joint indecisive performances from Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder*.

*Upon whom it is now clearly established to be open season.

The Hawks were up 13 points with 6:33 left in the third quarter. Mike Scott entered the game and was a complete disaster defensively for the next 6:33. Marcus Smart's semi-transition layup at 5:33 was due to Scott panicking and forcing Kent Bazemore not to pick up Smart in transition. Scott could not stay in front of Smart on the downhill, natch. Jonas Jerebko's two threes - at 1:23 to cut Atlanta's lead to 8 and at 0:20 to cut Atlanta's lead to 3 - were both directly attributable to Scott losing all contact with Jerebko at the first opportunity. 

Scott wouldn't play again, but it was game-on at that point, enough for the short-term variance of the Celtics making slop (Marcus Smart's two threes, Isaiah Thomas banking in a 15-footer he threw up at roughly 19-foot weight from the top of the key) while the Hawks missed high-percentage shots (Horford missed a jump hook on the block, a wide-open corner 3, plus wide-open, spot-up 15- and 19-footers, Korver missed both his threes) in the fourth quarter. Said variance then made meaningful Teague dribbling out the final 15 seconds of a tie game in regulation, and the Celtics thoroughly outplaying the Hawks in overtime.

For the glass-half full types, perhaps the Hawks combined the Teague/Schroder dual dud and the lack of quality depth potential losses into a single L. For those inclined toward pessimism, the Hawks just dropped a pair of winnable games against a shameless bunch to reduce their chances of winning the series to home-court advantage over a three-game sample size.

Saturday, April 23, 2016

Atlanta's Missing 72 Hours

Game 2 was so broadly, quickly, and thoroughly discussed by professional basketball writers on Wednesday that I didn't bother tossing off a regurgitation of themes in this space. The consensus was that Brad Stevens had a couple of remaining options to mitigate the matchup problems caused by the opposition and his own team's poor health: replace Jared Sullinger to improve spacing and play Isaiah Thomas off the ball to get him opportunities to attack a defense in flux. So why did the Hawks look unprepared for these Boston adjustments defensively? What were they preparing to face for the last 72 hours?

In Game 3, the Celtics started Jonas Jerebko for Sullinger and forced Jeff Teague to chase Isaiah Thomas around the court while Evan Turner initiated offense. The Hawks appeared completely unprepared for the former, sagging toward the lane in their established manner then frantically trying to close down the extra four feet to Jerebko beyond the three-point line. 

When you attack the ball, when you help and recover in sync as much as the Hawks do on defense, four feet is a meaningful distance. If you don't close those four feet? You're either giving up an open shot on the first pass or the next defensive rotation has more ground/less time to close out on the recipient of the next pass. In the first quarter, the Celtics moved the ball and the Hawks couldn't move farther and faster. The Celtics made five three-pointers (Jerebko, Turner, and Jae Crowder* each made their only three-pointer of the game in the first 9:12 of the game), 7 of 11 two-pointers, had a free throw rate of 38.1** and grabbed 25% of the (few) possible offensive rebounds.

*Crowder's three to put the Celtics up 29-14 was perhaps the greatest indictment of the Hawks' lack of defensive execution. Paul Millsap helped down to about 8 feet on a Jared Sullinger iso/post-up in the lane that Mike Muscala (about whom, more below) had under control. Millsap's attention encouraged Sullinger to think about the pass and it was an easy one to make. In short, Millsap gave up an open, spot-up three to a 32% career three-point shooter to double a career 39% shooter from 3-10 feet who struggles to score against length (we remember you, Jeff Withey).

**Season average free throw rate for Hawks opponents: 19.4. Boston's free throw rate in Games 1 and 2 combined: 14.2.

I think the Hawks can adjust to the personnel change. In the last three quarters of Game 3, the Celtics only made six threes, their free throw rate was down to 26.2 (though that would have been higher had the Celtics not missed 7 free throws), and they only grabbed 15% of 33 offensive rebound opportunities. On the other hand, the Celtics continued making two-point shots at a high rate (51.2%) over the final three quarters. There was more space in the lane (and more transition opportunities) than in the first two games. That's where Isaiah Thomas playing off the ball causes real concerns.

Jeff Teague has worked hard over the past three seasons to make himself a passable pick-and-roll defender (at least when he gets to work with Millsap or Al Horford). Chasing a faster player off the ball doesn't allow him to draw on any of those skills he's developed and reduces him to his lowly, natural defensive state. It's not a matter of effort. Teague is trying, but he's being asked to do something new and difficult at the part of basketball he's least good at, at the age of nearly 28.

So how do the Hawks counter? I suspect it will be by rotating their better off-the ball defenders: Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha, even Dennis Schroder (when the Hawks play him with Teague*). The hope would be that extra defensive length could trouble Thomas with late close-outs** and that Evan Turner could easily be tempted into taking a lot of mid-range, dribble-heavy isos when guarded by Teague. The Hawks should be willing for Evan Turner to attempt all the two-point shots he wants.

*The Teague/Schroder combo was +1 in 6:22 in Game 3. Nothing in that sentence is meaningful other than eliminating "That was awful. Never try that again." from Mike Budenholzer's rotation decision-making tree.

**They would have to be controlled closeouts, running guys off the three-point line, as the Hawks did so consistently well this season. Atypically, the Hawks repeatedly, wildly contested not-that-dangerous two-point jump shots in Game 3. Their defensive excellence is predicated on playing aggressively and not fouling. Take either element away and they quickly trend toward mere above-averageness defensively. Their offense can't make up for that consistently.

On the other end of the floor, the Hawks continued to create good looks and continued to struggle to convert them. Non-Korver Hawks made 4-27 three-point attempts (they would be expected to make ~9 of those over a long enough sample, or, Marcus Smart made as many three-pointers in 4 attempts as Bazemore, Teague, Millsap, Horford, and Schroder did in 20 attempts) and did the following from 5:45 to 3:06 of the game (from 98-101 to 100-104):

  • 5:45 - Millsap missed dunk (contested by Isaiah Thomas!)
  • 5:31 - Teague layup blocked by Evan Turner
  • 4:56 - Teague missed runner/layup
  • 4:22 - Horford misses six-footer on the block
  • 3:49 - Bazemore made layup
  • 3:06 - Horford transition layup blocked by Marcus Smart

Process? I'm certain the Hawks think so. Sunday would be a nice time to show their work.

Notes on the benches:

  • Dennis Schroder has played very good basketball over the last two games. Mostly defensively in Game 2 and mostly offensively in Game 3. I don't know that the Celtics are on the right side of their risk/reward calculation re: hitting and baiting Schroder. Sure, you might wind him up enough to retaliate or make a few bad decisions with the ball in his hands in the short-term, but if he gets going you've got no one who can stay in front of him and all of a sudden Teague is the second-best point guard the Hawks have that night. Schroder may frustrate the Hawks, but they love him cooking more than you hate him chirping and a good Schroder game elevates whatever marginal teamwork value exists from an adrenalized boost of fraternal feelings about a common opponent.
  • Marcus Smart's block on Horford in transition makes his flopping, sloppy execution (MARCUS SMART CANNOT CONCENTRATE LONG ENOUGH TO GUARD KYLE KORVER), and poor shot selection even more frustrating. It would be a shame if Smart never becomes more than a high-energy Josh Smith with a worse offensive game.
  • Mike Scott continues to play fine-to-good basketball in this series, though committing a lane violation when Korver is at the line to complete a Crawford to tie the game is a maddening demerit.
  • Mike Muscala continues to show why his consistency led to him falling out of the rotation again this season. He offers consistently strong defense and ineffective offense. His spacing and movement on offense is theoretically sound but consistently less productive than you want. He's not a Pero Antic-level defensive savant, so he needs to figure out how to get the ball in the basket without turning it over. (Career 57% TS% and 33% from three though, so maybe the inconsistent minutes are fooling my puny human brain.)
  • It's a toss up on who provided emptier minutes between Tim Hardaway, Jr. and Kirk Hinrich. Which is less of a surprise than Budenholzer playing them a combined six minutes in a competitive game when the Hawks last played on Tuesday. If close, road playoff games don't warrant playing your handful of best players 36+ minutes, then what are we all doing here?

Sunday, April 17, 2016

Brad Stevens Has Matchup Problems

There are only so many out of bounds plays Brad Stevens will have the opportunity to call. The Celtics have to figure out a way to get stops because they have to get transition opportunities to score with any sort of efficiency. If anyone other than Isaiah Thomas is dribbling, they look like a college offense and even Thomas was, at times, reduced to throwing himself into the nearest defender and hoping for a referee to bail him out. 

The Celtics were probably fortunate to give up only 102 points. You can maybe wave away the totality of sending the Hawks to the free throw line 35 times through references to late-game intentional fouling and referees with very inconsistent views on allowable contact, but the Celtics don't typically play defense without fouling. They have to be aggressive to force turnovers at their preferred rate. And I don't think you can sell any of the favored narratives used to pretend defenses have a significant influence on single-game three-point percentage. The Hawks 27 three-point attempts were generally taken by the players the Hawks want taking three-pointers, they weren't unduly contested, and they didn't overwhelmingly occur late in the shot clock. 

I don't know what Stevens can do differently, given his personnel, to force the Hawks into lower-percentage field goal attempts. Even hoping the Hawks continue to miss shots is extra cold comfort when you've just let the Atlanta Hawks (the Atlanta Hawks!) grab 27% of their misses. That's an indictment of either your execution or your talent. Amir Johnson is, and always has been, a good player but Millsap and Horford are better than he is at everything he's good at. Stevens showed little interest in playing Kelly Olynyk significant minutes. Jonas Jerebko can only hope to out-Mike Scott Mike Scott*. Jared Sullinger? You can't expect a fat guy with a terrible haircut to accomplish anything substantial against Al Horford.

*Mike Scott played as well as you could hope, more than making up for Dennis Schroder's disappointingly passive play to give the Hawks a crucial seventh contributor. Scott also passed Schroder as the Hawk most likely to take a swing at Marcus Smart. Speaking of, I thought Smart, despite being +6 for the game, offers the greatest hope for improvement for the Celtics in Game 2 and beyond simply by not taking six three-pointers again and showing better assignment discipline when asked to guard Korver.

It's widely recognized going small helps the Celtics less against the Hawks than it does against most teams because the Hawks, since Tiago Splitter was lost for the season, already play 5 out all the time. Going small has less positive impact when Jae Crowder appears incapable of keeping Jeff Teague in front of him. Stevens can't even hide Isaiah Thomas on Kent Bazemore if Bazemore moves without the ball because Thomas will get caught ball-watching. 

All the Celtics guards and wings (with the exception of the now, sadly absent, Avery Bradley) are drawn to the ball, leaving them susceptible to quick, constant, and sound ball and player movement. Which is understandable, given that I started this by talking about how they have to create transition opportunities to score consistently. Such is the stress of being a good team confronting a challenge directed squarely at what you believe makes you good. 

To their credit, there's almost no chance that any doubt the Hawks create for the Celtics will adversely effect Boston's level of effort. Which forces the Hawks to apply relentless pressure to make the Celtics crack the only place they will, the only place that matters: the scoreboard.


Wednesday, May 27, 2015

Put It Back Together

Through a combination of poor play, poor coaching, and poor health, the 60-win Hawks broke in the Eastern Conference Finals. A dreadful Game 4 performance doesn't mean they shattered into an infinite number of pieces, never to be reassembled. Gallows humor was the healthiest response to the events of Game 4, but that single debacle shouldn't overshadow that the Hawks threw away a chance to win Game 1 due to their curious first-half defensive gameplan and (another playoff game defined by) a second-half medley of missed open shots. Poor game management, on the floor and from the bench, cost the Hawks Game 3 in both regulation and overtime. It was a bad week, but not one that guaranteed playoff elimination, much less one that proved or disproved much about a wildly successful regular season.

Basketball philosophy will always tie this version of the Hawks to the Spurs, but their road to an NBA championship will look much more like the Mavericks: win 50 games a year, every year for a decade, and cash in one of your chances. It will take a minor miracle for these Hawks to acquire a player the caliber of Tim Duncan or David Robinson, but it's not impossible (a healthy) Al Horford could approximate the value of early-30s Dirk Nowitzki. Surround him with affordable, productive veterans, turn at least one role player into a difference-maker through context and performance, and you've got a chance. The Hawks weren't far off this season, and the difference may simply have been the cumulative impact of injuries and wounds.

Because of all the wasted resources during the Atlanta Spirit Group's ownership -- trading away first-round picks, making bad draft picks, losing good first-round picks without compensation -- maintaining a 50-win team with an annual chance to win a title will require the basketball side to make consistent good decisions, and that those good decisions work out. The Hawks aren't in as good a place as they are today without the two trades Danny Ferry made on July 11, 2012. They were massively important deals, but they weren't a solution. They solved one problem and created opportunity, but they did not add assets.

The Hawks (once putting a permanent GM in place) will surely explore all trade* and free agency options this summer. Starting the 2015-16 season with three starters 29 or older, coming off career years (that each ended in injury), and paying the trio twice as much for the privilege isn't utopian, but it may be the best case, short-term scenario. Worrying about standing pat with a wildly successful starting five is, admittedly, a strongly pessimistic point of view. Even if it's an unnecessarily pessimistic concern, those five will require significant improvement of roster spots 8-15 to get better. 

*Considering the most enticing (non-Horford) package the Hawks would want to put together would consist of Teague or Schroder, plus Mike Scott, maybe and/or Bazemore, and Austin Daye's unguaranteed deal, they're unlikely to be involved in a blockbuster, but will surely look to shed some cheap, young, dead weight for a contributor or additional assets.

Likely having reached the limit of the value to be derived from creating wide-open threes for competent shooters (which appears to be making 35% of their 3PTAs in the regular season, possibly much less in the playoffs), the Hawks would be well served to acquire good shooters. The problem being that everybody wants good shooters and the Hawks are probably too good already to be helped by adding any one-dimensional shooters. A one-dimensional shooter isn't a significant improvement over Antic, Bazemore, or Scott. The Hawks need a wing shooter who can also defend, a big man who can shoot and defend, or or a big man who can shoot and rebound, a big man who can defend and rebound.

Theorizing out of the way, how could this work? Assume the Hawks re-sign Millsap and Carroll (which both sides want and there's probably a decent-sized band of years and money which makes everybody happy in both cases and both will likely have trade value in future years), Mike Muscala slides into Pero Antic's role, Pero re-signs to fill Elton Brand's savvy veteran who plays 500 minutes role, the Hawks draft a young wing* or playmaking four** in the first round, draft Alan Williams in the second round, plus an international prospect if they keep a second, second-round pick.

*Without having done my research, Sam Dekker, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, RJ Hunter, and Kelly Oubre are all viable candidates and the Hawks may have their pick of the lot.

**Same caveat: Kevon Looney's the only real candidate in this category who will potentially be available at 15, I think.

That gives a no-trades, free agency loss-less version of the Hawks an asset roster of:

PGs: Teague, Schroder, Mack
Wings: Korver, Carroll, Sefolosha, #15 pick, Bazemore
Bigs: Millsap, Horford, Muscala, Antic, Williams, Scott
Non-guaranteed contract for non-player: Daye
Draft rights: Walter Tavares*, Lamar Patterson
All their own draft picks
Extra future draft picks: Brooklyn's 2017 second-round pick, Miami's 2017 or 2018 second-round pick**, a top-14 protected first-round pick from Minnesota (2018-2020) OR Minnesota's 2020 and 2021 second-round picks

*I don't think Tavares comes over next season if the Hawks keep Millsap, while also trying to integrate Muscala and a first-round pick into the rotation. Then again, the Eastern Conference champion didn't get above .500 for good until mid-January so maybe next season the Hawks punt November and half of December instead of the end of March and the first half of April.

**Pick is protected from 31-40 in 2017, unprotected in 2018.

There's probably enough there at the margins to consolidate a few pieces into a real contributor that's superfluous to or under-appreciated by another team, while also creating player development opportunities. The flip side is that there's probably nothing there that will have multiple teams picking up the phone to instigate a bidding war, though the Hawks will surely listen to any team willing to overpay for anyone or anything, even Horford.

Even if the Hawks lack a clear path forward in terms of personnel decisions, the organization has a very clear idea* of how they will achieve success. However, that clarity is no guarantee of success. There's no way to plan so well as to eliminate injuries, fully control developmental curves (for players, coaches, and the front office), or always overcome the other team's desire and ability to beat you in a seven-game series.

*And make no mistake: that idea begins with acquiring a superstar before, failing that, working its way down to something that resembles the 2014-15 Hawks.

It's difficult, in the wake of a clear vision of exactly how the Hawks reach the NBA Finals, a vision subsequently proven profoundly out of touch with actual events, to embrace the uncertainty of the offseason, with its countless actors, seen and unseen, conflicting agendas, and strange bedfellows. Whatever anticipatory comfort one finds takes the form of trusting in the Hawks knowing what they want to be and the entire organization's ability to learn from their mistakes and shortcomings.

Tuesday, May 19, 2015

A Distant Voice Previews the 2015 Eastern Conference Finals

The 60-win Atlanta Hawks are underdogs in this series.
   
This makes some kind of sense. David Griffin made the gold-standard GM move this summer by signing LeBron James as a free agent. He made a big, bold offseason trade to add Kevin Love. He made two good in-season trades in a three-day period* to add JR Smith and Iman Shumpert and a first-round pick while simultaneously shedding Dion Waiters**, then acquire Timofey Mozgov to fill an Anderson Varejao-shaped void for the OKC first-round pick they got for Waiters and another future, protected first-rounder. 

The Cavaliers are good. They have the ten-time reigning best player in basketball, they’ve consistently been in the news for positive and/or interesting transactions, and they’re much better on offense than defense.
 
*Coming six and eight days, respectively, after Cleveland’s second loss to the Hawks this season.

**WOAT

 
The 2014-15 Hawks came into being in the summers of 2012 and 2013. They have done nothing interesting off the court (which, sadly, isn’t the same as saying they’ve had nothing interesting off the court done unto them) since. They balance an obviously above-average offense with an atypical above-average defense. The Hawks lack* a franchise player, and they lack direct, or indirect, franchise success.

*NOTE: Does not apply to Al Horford during the 2015 Eastern Conference Semifinals.
 

What’s different about the Hawks this year? They’re healthier, mostly, and that enabled them to trust the processes they put in place. Feel that excitement. No? Try this...
The Atlanta Hawks are going to win the Eastern Conference Finals in 5 games.
So. Hmm. How?
   
Short version: the Cavaliers are a poor defensive team that doesn’t match up well with the Hawks.
   
Long version: Lacking the best player in the series (clearly), the Hawks will counter with the second- through sixth-best players. While David Blatt et al. face the unenviable task of identifying Cleveland’s best five-man unit for this series on the fly, Mike Budenholzer knows. More importantly, he has slooooowly demonstrated a willingness to deploy his five-best players for long minutes.  

Cleveland has a choice: prop up their subpar point-of-attack defense with a heavy dose of the Thompson/Mozgov duo (added benefit on the other end of the floor: many offensive rebounds) to protect the paint, or play a single big in order to spread the floor on offense to punish the Hawks for helping each other as much on defense as they do on offense, and reap the whirlwind on the defensive end.  

Neither option is ideal for Cleveland because neither option offers a satisfactory answer to the question, “Who does Kyrie Irving attempt to guard?” Does he defend the Atlanta point guard, leaving Cleveland vulnerable to the pick-and-rolls that bedeviled the last three times the teams met during the regular season? Does he attempt to hide on DeMarre Carroll, which doesn’t really seem a recipe for limiting Atlanta’s open three-point attempts or layups, and may create the only scenario wherein Mike Budenholzer encourages offensive rebounding?  

The Cavs' issues cascade from there: JR Smith* or Shumpert forced to chase Korver for 38 minutes, multiple Cavs forced to cross-match in defensive transition, every potentially devastating instance of LeBron helping on D carrying a risk that could be exploited by one pass from the pass-happiest team in the league.

*Smith has serious defensive scapegoat potential in this series, even if he does little wrong, if Korver starts making 47% of his 3PTAs again.
 

Beyond that, as long as Irving is limited by injury, the Cavaliers become easier for the Hawks to guard. Basically, the Hawks should defend LeBron James the way they defended John Wall in Games 5 and 6:
  • Let him create for himself (jumpshots encouraged)
  • Do not help off shooters in the corners
  • Live with everyone but Kyrie Irving taking above-the-break threes
  • Do help late at the rim
Well, actually: LeBron James is much better than John Wall and the rest of what's left of the Cavs is arguably better than Wall's supporting cast.

Well, actually redux: the latter difference is not as great as the defensive difference between the two teams. That’s where the Hawks have to punish Cleveland.  

However, Cleveland’s defensive limitations pose a risk to the Hawks in this series. Unlike their matchup against the Bizarro Playoff Wizards, the Hawks will have to turn the math of two- and three-point shots into their favor this series. Cleveland will likely be willing to give up pick-and-roll created layups rather than pick-and-roll created threes. The Hawks need to make the same trade when LeBron creates in isolation.  

Furthermore, a willingness to let LeBron James attempt to single-handedly outscore the Hawks might, in one fell swoop, help mitigate Thabo Sefolosha’s absence, help keep DeMarre Carroll out of potentially devastating foul trouble, and limit the available energy for James to be an effective help defender. 

These Hawks will never be as good as they were from November 28th to January 30th this season* but that Hawks team is not their opponent. Nor is the Cavs team that didn't get above .500 for good until January 16th, or the Cavs team that went on its own 32-7 run (with 21 double-digit wins). What's left of the Hawks just has to be better than what's left of the Cavs for four of the next seven games.

*And nothing should diminish the unadulterated joy 33-2 brought so many right-thinking people. Not even whatever the Warriors might do to the Hawks in the NBA Finals.