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Should We Fear Them? The Hawks Preview

 

2009: 47-35, 4th in Eastern ConferencePicture 38

Offensive efficiency: 109.3 points per 100 possessions (10th in NBA)

Defensive efficiency: 107.6 points allowed per 100 possessions (11th)

In: Jamal Crawford, Jamal Crawford’s ill-advised late-game shot selection, Jamal Crawford’s false reputation as a clutch player, Jeff Teague, Jason Collins, Joe Smith

Out: Flip Murray, Solomon Jones, Speedy Claxton, assorted other bench-warmers

It’s still hard for me to talk rationally about the Hawks. I am not over the 2008 first round series. Joe Johnson still frightens me when he isolates on the left wing in the last minutes of a close game, despite the fact that his clutch statistics don’t match his reputation as a late-game player. (Though damn if it doesn’t seem like makes every shot in the last two minutes against Boston). Zaza Pachulia’s face brings back bad, bad memories of the near fight with KG in Game 4 of that series—an outburst that really did seem to inspire the Hawks. 

But on paper, these are the same old Hawks—a slow-paced group that doesn’t do anything particularly well, rolls their eyes at Josh Smith at least once a game and watches as Joe Johnson wears down starting in February like clockwork. The Hawks have eschewed trades and major free agent moves in favor of developing their core of young players. This will not lead to a title, at least not in the next season or two. But we are not concerned with that. We’re concerned about whether the Hawks can foist on us a post-season agony so deep that I temporarily revert into the hate-spewing, remote-throwing jerk I thought I left behind sometime after the 2003 American League Championship series. 

There are indications that the Hawks are turning into a formidable team. Last year’s group improved by 10 wins and jumped from 16th to 10th in offensive efficiency and 18th to 11th in defensive efficiency. Josh Smith is still only 23 and vowing to stop shooting three-pointers, which he cannot make. Marvin Williams is 23 and develops something new in his game every season. (I love that about Marvin Williams). Last year it was the three-point shot. This year, it’s apparently going to be improved ball-handling. And though Al Horford’s game didn’t take a huge leap from Year 1 to Year 2, that doesn’t mean he won’t make some sort of leap in Year 3. 

The Hawks are moving in the right direction. But can they really threaten the Eastern Conference elite? To do so, they’ll have to get positive answers to these questions (and others).

1) Josh Smith?

That’s the entire question. Josh Smith, at this point in his NBA career, is a walking question mark. This is Smith’s sixth season in the league, and he’s played significant minutes in all of them. He’ll turn 24 early in the season. It is time. 

Last year was a step back—or, at best, sideways—in Smith’s development in almost every respect. His rebounding rate dropped for the second straight season. He blocked 1.6 shots per game after averaging at least 2.8 in each of the last three seasons. His defensive impact wasn’t nearly as large as it was in 2008, though that’s in part because the Hawks as a whole improved on defense. 

And most distressing of all, he continued to chuck long jumpers even though he cannot shot them. It’s simple for Josh Smith: He either needs to improve his jump shot or stop using half his total shot attempts on jumpers. There is no in-between. 

Smith is saying the right things about shot selection in training camp, but everyone says the right things in training camp. Except Monta Ellis and Stephen Jackson, I guess, but Golden State is more dysfunctional than Rio will be during the 2016 Olympics. 

The rebounding and shot-blocking numbers will improve now that Smith’s ankle, which he injured in the middle of last season, has fully healed. We’ll wait and see on the shot selection. But ask the guys at Peachtree Hoops and Hoopinion—Atlanta’s hope of transitioning from fun second-round loser to actual threat rests mostly with Smith. Still, there are some other questions around the edges, after the jump.

 

2) Can Atlanta continue to improve (or even survive) defensively with Mike Bibby at point guard? 

The Hawks’ entire defensive strategy is centered on making up for Mike Bibby’s inability to defend opposing point guards. They switch on more screen-rolls than almost any team in the league, and they depend on their big guys to leap out and keep ball-handlers out of the paint. It’s a strategy that leads to mismatches and places an enormous burden on the other four guys on the floor. The Hawks have survived on D last season, but the team has given up about six points more per 100 possessions with Bibby on the floor—a huge difference. From the outside, it seems like a barely tenable situation—almost like an NFL team playing the cliche “bend but don’t break” defense that gives up a ton of yards but bears down in the red zone. 

Can it last? Or is this the year Bibby’s defensive problems outweigh his point guard skills and his three-point shooting? 

3) Can Jamal Crawford replace Flip Murray? 

Don’t laugh. Flip Murray’s raw plus/minus numbers were off the charts last season—the team’s defense and offense both played about four points better per 100 possessions with Flip on the floor. (His adjusted plus/minus was second only to Joe Johnson). Crawford, one of the all-time overrated “clutch” performers, might be able to duplicate that impact on offense but not on defense. Crawford’s teams have performed worse defensively with him on the floor every year since 2005, according to 82games. 

And then you have the added worry that Crawford, brimming with false confidence, will take some of the clutch late-game shots that should rightfully go to other people. Crawford loves to shoot in the clutch. He’d take every single clutch shot if he could. He has no conscience. Over the years, this has been confused with actually being clutch. In reality, Crawford’s bogus reputation among those who should know better is the product of what I once dubbed The Kobe Effect: A player can earn a reputation as clutch simply by taking so many clutch shots that he will inevitably hit a few. 

That’s Crawford. He actually stinks in the clutch. He’s always near the top of the league in FGAs during “clutch” situations despite making about 33 percent of those shots—among the worst marks in the league, even for high-volume late-game shooters, according to 82games. (See the site’s 2008 clutch data and 2009 clutch data if you don’t believe me).

In other words, enjoy Jamal Crawford, Hawks fans!

4) Can the team improve its rebounding? 

This was Atlanta’s one major flaw last season—they ranked 24th in the NBA in defensive rebounding and 19th in offensive rebounding. Smith’s rebounding rate dropped (as mentioned before), but so did Horford’s. 

Expect them to recover, at least on the offensive end, where the team ranked 4th overall in 2008, according to Basketball Reference. But defensive rebounding is more important, and Atlanta stunk it up there in 2008 and 2009. It’s hard to win if you don’t protect the defensive glass.

5) Can Joe Johnson stay productive all season?

Johnson has played a ton of minutes in his career—about 40 per game every season since ’04. His season ranks in total minutes from 2004 through 2009 (excluding 2007, when he played just 57 games) look like this: 1st, 4th, 3rd, 2nd, 2nd. 

And in the past two seasons, Johnson has gone through a bad (for him) mid-season slump due in part to fatigue. Johnson is promising to be less stubborn about coming out of games, and Mike Woodson is promising to monitor Johnson’s minutes, according to Sekou Smith, the great Hawks beat writer at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. But everyone says the right things in training camp. 

Final Verdict

Lots of ifs, huh? There is a 50-plus win team in here somewhere that could be in a pain in the ass in the playoffs. But I’m not sure it comes out this year. No Fear.

  • http://nbaroundtable.wordpress.com/ Dave

    Good team but not a contender.

    They're still two steps behind the Celtics, Cavs and Magic. Each one of these teams should be a heavy favourite in a playoff series with the Hawks.

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