Part I of my five part season preview series looked at replacing Joe Johnson and the Backcourt Trio. Today, I look into the new group of shooters the Hawks have added and the most pressing issue facing this Hawks team, who plays the wing?
Last season, the small forward position was in very good hands on both ends of the floor. Between Marvin Williams, Joe Johnson and Tracy McGrady, the Hawks had three long, physical wing players that were capable defenders (especially Joe and Marvin) and all were quality offensive players. Fast forward to this season, and what was once the strongest position on the floor is now the greatest weakness of this team. The only true small forward on the roster is 6-foot-7 sharpshooter Kyle Korver. Everyone else that will see time at the three will be playing out of position. Anthony Tolliver (more of a 4), DeShawn Stevenson (a 2), Anthony Morrow (a 2), and Josh Smith (an amoeba 4, but not a true 3) will all play minutes on the wing depending on the matchups. Leaving out Josh Smith (the focus of part III), I will be looking at how we will fare on the wing; the dichotomy that will be the offensive explosiveness, and potential defensive nightmare.
For all of the grief Marvin Williams received in his time with the Hawks, he could always be relied on to offer a strong defensive performance. Williams almost always drew the opposition's best wing player, and Marvin handled them all relatively well. Looking at Williams' Synergy stats, his numbers don't jump off the page. Overall, Williams was ranked 240th in the league in points per possession (PPP) against allowing (0.86). He allowed opponents to shoot 37.5% against him and was, statistically, poor against isolation giving up 0.87 PPP. However, when one takes into account he was usually marking the best isolation players in the league (LeBron, Durant, Melo, Granger, etc.) those numbers are more impressive. What is meaningful is that Marvin was reliable and did a remarkable job against pick-and-rolls and in the post. Williams' pick-and-roll defense was 21st in the league against the ball-handler only allowing opponents to score 0.62 PPP, which accounted for 11.8% of Williams' defensive possessions and Marvin forced opponents to turn the ball over 12.8% of the time on pick-and-rolls. Marvin was in the post 16.5% of his defensive possessions and was 67th in the league against post-ups keeping opponents to just 0.74 PPP. Spot-ups was the biggest struggle for Williams who allowed an even 1 PPP against spot-up shooters, but again that came against the best shooters in the game.
Offensively, Marvin was a quality shooter who provided the Hawks with floor spacing and options to play him inside or outside. The knock on Marvin was always his production never matched up with the hype of being the second-overall pick (as all Hawks fans painfully remember above Chris Paul). Marvin's lack of aggression on the offensive end frustrated fans to know end because he would occasionally show flashes of the potential we were told of. Replacing Marvin's 10.2 points per game and his 5.2 rebounds per game will not be of issue with all of the shooting options at the three, what must be seen is how the Hawks will defend the wing, especially in the Eastern Conference which features many of the games finest small forwards.
Kyle Korver will be the starter at the small forward position in most games, with Stevenson and Morrow making the starting lineup against certain matchups. Korver, as we all know, is one of the deadliest shooters in the league, and provides great floor spacing. What I've learned watching practices and speaking with guys in the locker room is that Korver is a great leader and has an incredible basketball mind. Frequently Kyle will speak up and direct players where they should go, and even gives input to the coaches on plays and how to tweak play designs and concepts to better space the floor or create better looks. Korver remains one of the best three point shooters in the league, shooting 43.5% from the arc last season and scored 8.1 points per game while averaging 22 minutes per game.
Korver's defense in one-on-one situations definitely leaves something to be desired, but his team defense is solid. He has, as mentioned, a great basketball I.Q. and rarely gets caught out of position. His defensive numbers are statistically better than were Marvin's (Korver allowed 0.77 PPP overall and 36.1% FG against him), but let's not get carried away thinking he can replace Williams' defensively. Korver was a reasonably good defender and benefitted from being on the best defensive team in the NBA last season. He was ninth in the league against off-ball screens allowing only 0.64 PPP, and off-ball screens accounted for 13.4% of plays run against him. He is a capable pick-and-roll defender against ball-handlers because of his understanding of the game (he allowed 0.79 PPP against P&R ball-handlers and 16.2% turnover rate), however much of that success was part of the larger team philosophy and great big-man play on defense from guys like Joakim Noah. His defensive numbers will rise, but Korver will again be somewhat protected from the best players the Hawks face as Larry Drew will play matchups on the wing by putting better defenders (like Josh Smith) out there.
Anthony Morrow comes to the Hawks from the Nets via the Joe Johnson trade, and provides the Hawks with another deadly shooter. Morrow shot 37.1% from three last season and scored 12.1 points per game in 26.4 minutes per contest. Morrow's minutes and points will decrease this season, but his percentages should increase due to the system in Atlanta will get him better looks in fewer opportunities. Morrow is also a very valuable asset late in games because he is a 93.3% free throw shooter (FT shooting has been something of an Achilles ' heel for the Hawks) to go along with the scoring potential and floor spacing he provides. Morrow's length allows him to be solid against isolation plays and pick-and-rolls because his wingspan allows him to keep players in front of him, but he struggles mightily due to his smaller frame in the post and fighting through screens. Against isolation, Morrow allowed just 0.67 PPP in 51 opportunities and was as good against pick-and-rolls allowing 0.71 PPP in 78 possessions. However, against post-ups Morrow allowed 0.94 PPP, and opponents shot 48% against him in 36 possessions. He will spend more time at the three this season, which will test his ability in the post and could limit his minutes against bigger, stronger wing players due to matchup issues.
DeShawn Stevenson also comes from the Nets and after one of his worst seasons of his career, he appears ready to turn the page and get back on track. DeShawn was often disgruntled in New Jersey and had a bit of a feud with point guard Deron Williams (warning strong language) this offseason. DeShawn has put that behind him, and will look to return to the form that he had in Dallas when he was a part of their 2011 NBA Championship team. DeShawn's usage with the Hawks will be more closely aligned with how the Mavs used him. Stevenson's offensive numbers were abysmal shooting just 28.5% from the field and 28.3% from three. Atlanta will hope that Stevenson returns to the shooting form he had in Dallas two years ago when he shot 37.8% from beyond the arc and 38.8% from the field. That season, Stevenson's usage rate was 15.9%, his highest since 2007-08. In the preseason, Stevenson has looked more like the DeShawn from Dallas than New Jersey. He has shot 37.5% from three and 41.2% overall in his 84 minutes of action. If Stevenson can regain that shooting form, with the other weapons on the team, he won't be asked to do much more than space the floor and hit open shots when they come his way.
While his offensive game struggled last year, Stevenson's defensive numbers kept him in the rotation and made him worthwhile for the Nets to play him 18.8 minutes per game. DeShawn was 40th in the league allowing just 0.74 PPP against him in 246 possessions (admittedly a smaller sample size than the average of 400+). He was very good against isolation ranking 10th in the NBA allowing just 0.59 PPP in 46 possessions and was 25th in the league against pick-and-roll handlers (0.64 PPP) and 20th in the league versus off-ball screens (0.71 PPP). Stevenson's numbers will most likely rise because he will be thrust into the "lead-defender" role in many instances because he is the Hawks best on-ball defender. DeShawn is a big two-guard and has the weight and strength to defend strong small forwards, but at 6-foot-5 (listed) he does not have the length to consistently defend the best threes in the league (like LeBron, Melo, Durant, etc.). That task will likely fall the Josh Smith, but that leaves a gap on the interior, or, should they go big with Josh, Al and Zaza starting (as I expect to see against the Knicks if their main 3 are healthy), they leave a short bench rotation on the inside.
Anthony Tolliver has the size to match-up with bigger small forwards, but he lacks the speed to stay in front of athletic threes. Tolliver's size made him one of the best in the league against post-up plays and spot-up shooters. Tolliver ranked 14th in the NBA against post-ups allowing just 0.64 PPP and was 82nd against spot up shooters allowing 0.84 PPP. His length allowed him to challenge shots effectively on spot-ups as well as effect post play. However, his lack of quickness is painfully evident when looking at his Synergy stats against isolation. Tolliver allowed 1.04 PPP against isolation sets, 310th in the league. His offensive game is solid (knocks down open jumpers, sets good screens, etc.), and against bigger, slower threes he will be a good option for minutes. However, like with the rest of the wing rotation, Tolliver does have a glaring weakness.
Larry Drew's biggest task is to figure out a rotation that will provide not just a great offensive lineup, but to find a way to make the defense work on the wing. Scoring 110 points is great, but not when the opposition scores 115. Drew has continually emphasized defense as the focus, but the major question is whether the personnel can match that emphasis. While I don't buy into the idea that the Hawks defense will be horrific, I do see them struggling with certain teams (most of which are the ones we'd see in the playoffs). The Heat, Pacers, Celtics, Knicks and Nets all have dominant wing players coupled with quality bigs. These are the teams we will struggle the most with, which presents a serious problem come playoff time. Drew will have to be great with managing minutes, playing matchups and putting the right combinations of defenders on the floor together.
Without a lock-down wing defender (our closest is 6-foot-5 DeShawn) the Hawks will have to find other ways to win games and play solid defense. We've made the first step towards that goal by no longer switching screens, trapping ball-handlers on pick-and-rolls and using our speed to rotate back. Finding ways to use the speed to their advantage will be vitally important for the Hawks to be successful defensively. Throughout camp the players and Drew have preached the need for intensity on the defensive end to apply pressure and create turnovers. Thus far, in the three home victories the energy has been there, but on the road it has not. That focus and intensity must be there in every game if the Hawks are going to fulfill their potential. The keys will be rotating out on shooters (we struggled against spot-up shooters last year), winning the turnover battle and also dealing with teams that have wing scorers paired with dominant rebounders on the interior (Knicks and Celtics especially). The Hawks can score, and can do it in bunches, but they will have to do it efficiently in order to limit the oppositions chances. If not, it will be trouble.