Monday, January 7, 2013

Breaking News: The Atlanta Hawks Are Good

Kyle Korver was one of GM Danny Ferry's sneaky acquisitions. Now as a starter, Korver's hot three-point shooting
is propelling Atlanta to a top three playoff seed in the Eastern Conference. Photo via:Foxsportssouth

The Brooklyn Nets splurged this offseason with the intent to lure Knick fans to join the Nets bandwagon. After three seasons, where the Nets were deemed irrelevant before their move to Brooklyn, the Nets looked at the 2012 offseason with the intent on building a winner right away. The new owners wanted something that could contend with the Knicks for the foreseeable future. Their goal was acquiring Dwight Howard to join Deron Williams, but after opting in during the regular season, the Nets had to trade for him, rather than outright signing him. As the Howard drama played out, and Brooklyn seemed like they weren’t finding a team to help them acquire Howard, the Nets opted to keep their own players, and the results cost huge dividens. Instead of continuing their quest for Howard, the Nets re-signed Deron Williams, Gerald Wallace, and Kris Humphries to contracts, brought over Mirza Teletovic, and convinced Brook Lopez to take a max contract after two injury-riddled seasons.

However, before the Nets made any of those moves, they made one of the bolder moves of the offseason in trading for Joe Johnson from Atlanta. While the Nets didn’t give up a ton in trade to acquire him, they sacrificed cap flexibility over the next three years to take on Johnson’s 89 million dollars owed to him in that time frame. Now, the Nets stand at 19-15. Not terrible, but not good enough to mask the huge expectations coming into the season. Brooklyn recently fired head coach Avery Johnson, and Deron Williams is once again titled “coach killer”. Gerald Wallace is solid, Kris Humphries has been hurt, the bench has been mediocre, and worst of all? Joe Johnson has quietly struggled this season, enough so to wonder if a possible decline is in play. Looking back, the Nets probably wish they didn't jump to gun by purchasing all these players for this specific season. Sure, the Nets are looking like a playoff team, but they seem more like a first round team, rather than a team that can make noise. If anything, the one contract the Nets might regret is Deron Williams, who struggles offensively is one of the main reason for Brooklyn’s disappointing start. Although, trading Gerald Wallace for a unprotected draft pick, a pick that turned into ROY candidate Damien Lillard has to be a close second.

 After the Joe Johnson trade, the Atlanta Hawks were deemed an enigma going into the regular season. Josh Smith was coming into the season a free agent, Al Horford was back after a pectoral injury, an injury that costed him to missed the entire season, and Jeff Teague was looking to have a bigger role into the offense. The Hawks did something most teams wouldn't do: They turned a big name into smaller pieces. Joe Johnson is great, but he was approaching the point where he would be difficult to trade. Atlanta turned him into a first round draft pick, Anthony Morrow, Jordan Williams, Jordan Farmar, Johan Petro, and DeShawn Stevenson. All those players don’t equal up to Johnson, but in Anthony Morrow and DeShawn Stevenson’s case, the Hawks have two wings that could replace Johnson’s shooting and defense. The first round pick was also thrown in for future use. Along with that trade, the Hawks also flipped two seasons of Marvin Williams for one season of Devin Harris, jimmied Kyle Korver in a three team trade with Chicago and Minnesota, and also lured hometown wing Lou Williams to come home and be an effective bench player.

The result? 20-15 start, and the 3rd spot in the Eastern Conference. How? Well, the reinsertion of Al Horford into the rotation has certainly made up for the loss of Johnson. Now back into the starting lineup, Horford has played really well (15.8 points, 9.7 rebounds), but he’s done it efficiently too, ranking 6th among centers with a 53.6 True Shooting Percentage. Not only has Horford been destructive putting the ball in the basket, but he’s been one of the better passing big men this season, averaging 3.3 assists per game (4th among centers per Hoopdata), but he’s also first among centers in assists leading to three-point attempts. After missing the entire season, Horford’s return has been huge for Atlanta, and his ability to play bigger in the post, or pull slower defenders outside with his shooting ability (Horford is currently shooting 43% on long twos) was really missed last season.

Josh Smith has really played well too. He’s still taking too many long twos (shots attempted from 16 to 23 feet), but it’s tough to discredit him as he doubled as Atlanta’s second best player and defensive anchor. First off, he’s averaging 16.9 points, 8.3 rebounds, 3.7 assists, 1.4 steal, and 2.3 blocks per game. That in itself is incredible, but the more intriguing thing about Smith’s play is Atlanta’s defense when he’s off the court. Per 82games, Atlanta is almost six points worse defensively when Smith is off the court, and three points worse offensively. He’s a remarkable player that effects the game in a multitude of ways offensively (top 70 in the league in terms of isolation, pick and roll (roll man), offensive rebounds, and offensive transition plays) and defensively (ranks 17th in the entire league, and top 15 in defending isolation and post-ups according to Synergy) and after three seasons of being snubbed for the all-star game, this might finally be his year.

 Overall, two huge things happen for Atlanta for this season: The increase of talent on the bench, and the consistently of the defensive end coming over from last season. During the Johnson era, the Hawks always felt like they were missing a key player or two off their bench to be taken seriously, or their starting lineup had a huge liability in it at a loaded position. This season, Atlanta could be nine to ten players deep. Along with Smith and Horford, Jeff Teague, DeShawn Stevenson, and Kyle Korver fill out the starting lineup; Atlanta has the bench players needed to win games. Lou Williams as the key scoring cog, Devin Harris as the veteran point guard, and the combination of Zaza Pachulia and Ivan Johnson to rebound, block shots, and make it mucky in the post. Not to mention, the Hawks have Anthony Morrow, who possesses four seasons of 40% three-point shooting, but he can’t find a spot in the rotation. The defense has given them plenty of chances to stay in games, ranking 7th in defensive efficiency. The combination of Smith and Horford has held it’s own, but once again, it’s the unsung heroes like Ivan Johnson, Jeff Teague, Lou Williams, and DeShawn Stevenson have made huge strides defensively.

Offensively, the Hawks aren’t slouches either. The two major offensive numbers, at least to me, are offensive efficiency and True Shooting Percentage. Atlanta ranks 11th in terms of offensive efficiency, and 9th in True Shooting Percentage. True Shooting Percentage, or TS%, factors in free-throws and three-pointers, so to be ranked in the top ten, you must be pretty good in a couple of shooting categories, and Atlanta’s 7th in field goal percentage and free-throw percentage. Along with impressive shooting numbers, Atlanta is one of the best passing teams in the league. As of today, Atlanta ranks 2nd in the league in assists per game, but also 3rd in assist rate (assists rate factors in turnovers) and 4th in assist percentage (field goals assisted on divided by total field goals made). The shooting numbers could be attributed to Kyle Korver (88% FT and 43% 3FG), but Jeff Teague should get a majority of the credit for Atlanta’s stellar passing numbers.

 Last season, Teague was overshadowed in the backcourt, and he often found himself in shooting situations, rather than creating and running the offense. Now, Teague has made huge steps forward into become a solid overall point guard. His assists numbers have jumped from 4.8 last season, to 6.7 this season, and he’s isn’t a huge turnover machine either, averaging just 2.7 per game per hoopdata. While his shooting numbers have taken a slight dip from his 2011 campaign, he’s been effective scoring near the rim, and he firmly in the top 10 in a number of passing category among point guards (Teague ranks 10th in weighted assists, 6th in assist rate, and 6th in creating assists leading to three-point attempts). Once Teague finds his shooting groove (currently shooting a blistering 35% on shots from 10 to 15 feet, and 31% on the dreaded long-twos), he should continue his ascension up the point guard ladder.

All credit off the court must go to the duo of GM Danny Ferry and head coach Larry Drew. Once Denny Ferry replaced Rick Sund as general manager in Atlanta, he came together with Drew and build this roster over. Not only does this team have the capability to win games, but also the upside for this team is tremendous. By moving Johnson and Williams this past offseason, the Hawks have became players in the 2013 free agency class, a class that could have Dwight Howard in play. While Atlanta has to bring back a big fish in Josh Smith, the Hawks will have the flexibility to acquire contracts, draft picks, and help teams in three-team trades. The moves gave Atlanta a better chance to contend long term, as well as gave Larry Drew the team he wants: a gritty team that can defend, and make opposing teams work offensively, something he did for the Kansas City Kings when he was a player.

After Miami, the playoff seeding in the East is up in the air, meaning Atlanta has a chance to claim the second seed, something that seemed unattainable during Joe Johnson’s tenure with the Hawks, although I imagine the fact this team doesn’t have to go through the Boston Celtics or Dwight Howard could be the reason. Anyway, along with the chance of acquiring a top three seed, this Hawks team seems like it has a better chance to a bit of noise this postseason. The Knicks are a trick or treat on a nightly basis, and throwing Amar’e into the fray isn’t helping, Boston is a wildcard at this point, Indiana is great offensively/terrible defensively, and that’s really it. The Hawks will go through peaks and valleys throughout the season, but if they could maintain their play right now, and keep pace in the East, they could win a top three seed, and could provide some interesting match-ups for someone come playoff time.


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