The first twenty games in a season can tell you a lot about a team. It also doesn’t tell you nearly enough, depending on what you’re looking for. Either way, it’s a good time to gauge a team’s progress to an extent, and look for emerging trends and patterns. So, we’ll talk about the offense, defense, and the effect of coaches and players on each. After 22 games, the Hawks stand with a 16-6 record, good enough for third in the eastern conference, and fourth in the NBA overall. Surprised? Not surprised?
Atlanta is currently fifth in the NBA in points scored per game with an average of 104.68 ppg. The other hard numbers include a 47.2 field goal percentage, a 34.5 three point percentage, 77.2 free throw percentage, and 21.68 assists per game. The Hawks are outperforming their opponents in all of the aforementioned categories except three point percentage, where opponents are shooting 37%.
What’s the explanation, and who gets the credit for it? Well, a number of things factor into this, and most of them are related to each other. In no particular order of importance, the most obvious names involved with the Hawks’ improved offensive output are the following: Jamal Crawford, Al Horford, Josh Smith, Mike Woodson, and the bench.
First, there is the addition of Jamal Crawford. He came in as a career 40% shooter, but he has posted 16.6 ppg in roughly 30 mpg, while shooting a healthy 46.4% from the field. Crawford isn’t just the best sixth man the Hawks have had in years. He also has the ability on any and every night to come close to, match, or exceed Joe Johnson’s scoring output, whichever is needed. When they are on the floor together, Joe and Jamal can and often do give teams fits. Jamal pulls double teams away from Joe more often than not. You can’t double team both without paying the price, and both guys can burn opponents one on one. One thing that may go underutilized and/or unnoticed is Crawford’s passing ability. The gameplan generally calls for him to score, so he gets a tick under 3 assists per game. The good news is, he has no problem with passing the ball and can flip that switch on demand, something that last season’s much-appreciated sixth man (Flip Murray) wasn’t as good at.
Next is Al Horford. The Atlanta center may not impress you much with his scoring average improvement (+1.6 ppg), but there is more to it. Horford shot a pretty decent 52.5% from the field last season, and has upped that percentage to 57.8% this season. Say what you like, but that’s a mark up of 5.3%. In fact, Horford has improved his field goal percentage each year he has been in the league. More touches in the offense have certainly helped, but his game has gotten smoother as well. A turnaround jumper that we saw developing last season looks good, and Al has figured out how to use the quickness advantage he often has against opposing centers by attacking quicker than he used to.
Josh Smith is another guy whose immediate stat improvements won’t impress you by much. In the ‘07-’08 season, Josh enjoyed his best ppg output with an average of 17.2. He went backwards last season (arguably due in part to injury), ending with an average of 15.6. So far this season, he’s getting 15.3 ppg. Not only does that NOT look like progress, it seems to be a clear cut case of regress. An understandable view but again, one stat is just not telling the whole story. Like Horford, Josh has raised his field goal percentage from 45.7 (2007-2008), to 49.2 (2008-2009), to 52.1% this season. Some of that can definitely be attributed to Josh’s decision to leave off the 3 point shot from his game, a promise he made this offseason and has so far kept to. Some of it also can be attributed to his renewed efforts to score in the paint, where he has a better chance at converting. In summation, Smith has become a more efficient scorer who for the most part is playing within his limits and not trying to overdo things. An increase in Smith’s scoring average is forseeable, but with the offense coming from so many capable players this season, it’s not likely to be a huge jump. All the same, Josh is producing this in a hair under 32 mpg, the fewest number of minutes he has played since his rookie year.
Probably the most controversial name on this short list is undoubtedly head coach Mike Woodson. How much credit does he get for the offensive success of this team? Is it possible that the Hawks are scoring more and better in spite of him, or are they achieving what they have directly because of him? Perhaps both lines of thought are too far in either direction. The Hawks are still labeled by many in the national media as not having an identity, particularly on offense. Woodson himself often draws criticism (probably far more locally than nationally) for the style of offense that he runs.
The main criticisms include complaints about too many ISO plays versus not enough pick and roll plays. Or, not enough pick and roll plays for certain players, or simply not enough plays run through certain players. When the Hawks struggle on offense, the ISO plays tend to become more prevalent, whether they are working or not. How much of this is Woodson’s style and philosophy at work, and how much is execution (or lack thereof) by the players?
In the end, the offense is far more potent than it has been in the last several years, and the numbers (stats and wins) show it. Something must be working, and it can’t all be coincidence or accident….right? Despite all the other questions, the ones that remain are these: Will the Hawks be able to maintain these winning ways throughout the season, with or without injury? Can they take these achievements and turn them into better postseason results?
Finally there is the reserve unit. Some starting players’ individual scoring averages and other statistics have been hurt by two things Hawks fans have anguished over for years. That would be better bench play, and big leads produced by the starting unit. Both have contributed heavily to the Hawks’ achievements on offense, and both may affect certain guys’ ability to make the all-star team. But I bet if you ask any Hawk player, they’ll tell you they could care less about that, as long as the wins are rolling in.
Unlike in times past, this season’s bench is simply deeper and therefore more versatile. Jamal Crawford plays starter level minutes, and is usually the first man off the bench. Zaza Pachulia has held steady as the man who spells Al Horford if he needs a breather or is in foul trouble. Enter the veteran Joe Smith, who gives the team a legit backup power forward, and keeps Pachulia from having to pull double duty. Mo Evans has is playing 9 minutes less per game than last year, yet he is currently enjoying a career high in field goal percentage, three point percentage, and has seen his scoring average only go down by 1.7 ppg. The rookie Jeff Teague has proven himself capable of handling minutes at point guard during any stretch of the game that he’s put in, not just garbage time. While he is still learning to pick his shots, score against the highest level of competition, and defend well, the young fellow seems to have no confidence issues and handles the ball well (assist to turnover ratio is 2.1 to 0.6). Whether or not Teague is the future for the Hawks at point guard is arguably irrelevant at the moment. What he does for the Hawks off the bench is everything right now.
As with the offense, let’s start with the hard stats. The Hawks are giving up 96.95 points per game, and are allowing 45.6% field goal shooting, 37% three point shooting, and 20.45 assists per game. As discussed before, opponents are only outperforming the Hawks in three point shooting. In fact, that has been the main problem with opponents, and an explanation for many of the losses or close games. Why the Hawks have trouble defending the three pointer may be attributed more to the style of defense they play than anything else, but we’ll get to that in a bit.
In the meantime, let’s look at more hard stats. The Hawks are outrebounding opponents 42.95 to 40.68, a difference of +2.27. Not wonderful, but better than if it was vice versa, and certainly considering the size of the front line. Atlanta also gathers more blocks (6.0 to 4.72) and steals (7.22 to 6.13) than their opponents. While there are defensive breakdowns from time to time, and from game to game, the Hawks have held steady enough so far to be ranked sixth in the NBA in total defense, according to stats provided on NBA.com.
As usual, Coach Woodson is the most controversial name in the conversation. Woodson is known as a defensive coach, but his team doesn’t always reflect that philosophy. Does the switching defense that he brought over from Detroit really work for the Hawks, or is it their achilles heel? Hard to say from one moment to the next. The Hawks have gone from using and executing it to perfection against some teams, to having clear disadvantages against other teams. Most important will be how to execute the defensive philosophy against the better teams. Adding to the confusion is the fact that inferior teams with good three point shooting remain a problem for the Hawks, let alone good teams with the same capability. Does that explain beating Boston, Dallas, and Portland, but losing to New York, Detroit, and New Orleans? Not really, and the problem is not easy to track.
There was a time when the defense on this team was rather clearly defined. Joe Johnson was the most solid perimeter defender, and most capable of locking an opposing player down. Marvin Williams was possibly the second best perimeter defender, and was able to stay with some power forwards as well, due in most part to his length and lateral quickness. Meanwhile, Al Horford was the most fundamentally solid and capable defender in the post.
Through all of this, Josh Smith has gone from an inconsistent, fundamental-lacking gambler with frustrating potential, to lynchpin of the Hawks defense and terror for the opposing team…in what seems like the space of a single offseason. Smith not only leads the league in blocks per game, he is also collecting 1.6 steals per game. More importantly, he is much more active on the boards than he was for long stretches last season, having learned the value of blocking out, and using his awesome leaping ability and a never-quit attitude on both ends of the floor. Smith’s defensive fundamentals have improved, and he is more consistent in looking to disrupt the defense, rather than just trying to make the big play.
On the flip side, the Hawks struggle on defense a little too often when Smith is out of the game for any significant amount of time. It’s never good to rely on one guy to erase your mistakes, and while he can seemingly cover baseline to baseline, how do you defend when you don’t have that element in the game? What can be done to fix this? That’s something the Hawks have to figure out as the season goes on, as teams WILL make you adjust, both on offense and on defense.
For now, the Hawks defense survives. What happens in the next 20 games, and the rest of the season?
After all that yapping, leave us not forget that the Hawks face the NBA’s worst team this evening, the New Jersey Nets. Winners of just two games, the Nets find themselves behind even the lowly Timberwolves, who have problems of their own.
Matchups to Watch
You knew it was coming. Al Horford versus Brook Lopez. The “real” center versus the “undersized” one. Who comes out on top? The team first, hard-working Horford, who finds himself the third option on offense most days….or the equally hard-working Lopez, who finds himself the first or second option on his team? Lopez is averaging an excellent 19.5 points and 9.3 rebounds per game, but there is always something to be said for being a good player on a very bad team. All the same, what amounts to 20 and 10 cannot be ignored. Lopez will test Horford’s abilities and savvy (can you use that word when talking about 2nd and 3rd year guys?). Will Horford hold his own, or prove that size is still very much an issue for the Hawks? Let’s not forget the X-factor, Josh Smith. Look for him to help out on Lopez, particularly if Lopez starts off hot.
Devin Harris is tough for most guys to guard, but he has struggled some this season. Harris injured his forefinger a couple of days ago, and may not play in this game. As it is, he’s already missed several games this season. If he plays, he is likely to be trouble, what with his quickness and ability to score from the outside as well. If not, then it’s a moot point.
Chris Douglas-Roberts. The kid has a bit of an unorthodox game, but he is taking advantage of the opportunity to play. Nearly tied for second on the team in scoring with Devin Harris, Roberts is also somewhat decent on the boards, and picks up a few assists and steals. The reason Douglas-Roberts is my darkhorse pick? He’s another young guy flying under the radar, who may hurt you if you don’t keep an eye on him.
So what happens this evening? Will the Hawks make it a beatdown, or will the game be close? Could it be a trap game, or are the Hawks just too good for that by now? Will Horford vs Lopez matter as much in the grand scheme of things, or just be a byline in the overall story?