Kevin C. Cox
The Hawks have been a pleasant surprise this season, starting 20-10 and sitting solidly in the third position in the Eastern Conference. Defense has been the early season key, but the reason Atlanta will stay at the top will be the improvement of Josh Smith and Al Horford offensively.
When a team or a player gets out to a hot start unexpectedly most are quick to point out that, once the sample size grows, they will regress back to the mean. The Hawks are one of those surprising teams at 20-10 and have done so in the most surprising way, defensively. Atlanta's defense was viewed as it's weakness prior to the season with so many shooters that were viewed as sub-par individual defenders, but they have found a way to become one of the best defensive teams in the NBA, sitting at eighth in defensive rating (102.9) after the first third of the season.
At one time the Hawks' defense was atop the league, but, as is the case, they have begun regressing towards the mean, which would begin raising red flags. However, the good news is that the Hawks mean appears to be more like the league-average as opposed to the potential cellar-dwelling defense many felt we would see. There are three key factors that make the Hawks defense work.
First is Larry Drew. Drew, who was deservedly awarded the Eastern Conference Coach of the Month award for December, spent the entirety of training camp focusing on defense. He would refuse to answer questions on what the Hawks offense would look like, instead pointing out that the entire practice was focused on defensive sets. This was frustrating for many of us that were really intrigued by the possibilities of the new offense, but as Drew would constantly tell us, the offense will come. This focus on defense has shown as, despite having a new cast of characters, the Hawks defense has been in sync since the second game of the season (game one was total dysfunction) and have not gone through many of the expected growing pains.
Second is the great defensive efforts received by the new perimeter players. Kyle Korver has (to everyone's surprise) been terrific defensively, Lou Williams has been a pesky defender and compliments Jeff Teague and Devin Harris with his quickness, and DeShawn Stevenson has returned to the defensive form he showed in Dallas two seasons ago. While, aside from Stevenson, none of the new additions are shut-down guys, or even above-average one-on-one defenders, they play extremely well in the Drew's team concept and stay, as is the buzzword of the year, "on the string."
Third is the one constant from the previous years, the great play of the Hawks frontcourt. The bench duo of Ivan Johnson and Zaza Pachulia provide great anchors for a second unit that often features sub-par one-on-one defenders (Williams, Morrow, Jenkins, etc.) and pounds the glass. Josh Smith and Al Horford have been reunited after Horford missed last year due to injury, and continue to be, despite a size disadvantage, one of the best defensive frontcourts in the NBA. Smith ranks near the top of the league (29th in PPP allowed) and the two combine to make one of the top pairs in defending the pick-and-roll and post-ups in the league.
While the defense will probably continue to regress slightly (they should finish in the middle of the pack in defensive rating) the reason this team should remain near the top of the Eastern Conference is that their offense should begin progressing towards the mean. The Hawks perimeter shooting is near the top of the NBA, but it is where it was supposed to be. Korver's 44.2% from three is not far off his career average of 41.5%, and others, like Morrow (37.8%) and Williams (35.7%), should theoretically improve slightly.
The biggest reason the Hawks offense should improve, and thus negate any drop-off defensively, is that this has been, by far and away, the worst shooting season for the Hawks frontcourt since Horford and Smith have been together. Let's start with Smith, who continues to be the most polarizing figure for Hawks fans.
There is no way around it, Smith's shooting has been horrendous this season. His mid-range shooting is the worst in the NBA for anyone that has more than 100 mid-range attempts (it might be worse and he may be the worst in the NBA, but I got too depressed looking at how bad he's been to go further than that 100 shot mark). I mean, he's even worse from the mid-range than Michael Beasley (begging you to go inside at this point Josh). Just look at this.
SO MUCH BLOOD!
Take a moment to compose yourself, and in the immortal words of Ivan Johnson, "Just be cool, stay calm, let's play ball." Alright, now Josh has been a historically mediocre to bad mid-range shooter, but this year has been horrific. (This seems like the appropriate time to remind you that at media day this year Josh told us to just call him, "Mid-Range Shawty." He will never live that down) Just look at last year.
36.2% is still what we in the business call "not very good" (I believe that's the technical term), but it would be a vast improvement over the 25.7% he's at this year. If we believe (and I do) that players tend to progress back to the mean, then Josh's mid-range shooting should begin improving (this will be helped drastically if his selection of mid-range shots improved).
Continuing on this trend of improvement, it hasn't just been the mid-range that Josh has struggled with. His shooting on non-restricted area attempts in the paint have been dismal as well.
Being that there have been only 94 attempts, I included the shot plot to show just where he's missing (and making) the majority of his attempts. The biggest cluster of makes is on the right block, which should be no surprise considering his best shots in this area tend to be his left hook coming towards the hoop off the right block. The biggest cluster of misses is on the left side of the lane and in the center of the lane. The left side, again, is not a shocker considering most of those looks come from his weaker right hook, which continues to be an inconsistent shot that he misses a majority of the time. The misses in the middle of the lane show another trend, that when Josh dribbles too deep into the lane from either block, he tends to get himself in trouble and create a more difficult shot.
Josh's best attempts come from his drop-step left hook that requires at most one dribble and best utilizes his quick first step out of the post. When he takes multiple dribbles, he tends to get the ball too low and allows for the defender to recover and contest the shot, and thus, he has more misses in the middle of the lane. Also not surprisingly, his shots from just below the free throw line do not fall, as he is 4-of-21 in that area of the floor. Those shots are often pull-ups, ill-advised floaters (of the bottom-tier variety), or awkward step-back fade-aways when he's realized he dribble too far into the lane and his hook will be blocked. If we look at last year, Josh's percentage should, like his mid-range, improve if for no other reason than some of those hooks will start falling (he's had a number of good looks rim out this year).
Again the below the free throw line number is bad, but his shots close to the restricted area should improve pretty significantly as those hook shots start to fall. If we go back even further to 2010-11 (the last year he and Al played a full season) his percentages were 38.5% from the mid-range and 36.6% from the non-restricted paint area. Josh's shooting percentages should begin working their way back to the norm, and could really jump if the coaching staff and his teammates stay on him about shot selection.
For Horford, his shooting has been poor for his lofty standards. He started the year off pretty well, but fell into a funk during the middle of November and that carried over into December. While the thought that Josh's shooting will improve is based out of hope and the idea that people tend to find their way back to their average, Al has more substantial evidence that proves he should get back to form. First, Al takes the poor shooting personally, and has expressed his frustrations with himself vocally. Second, he has gone back to the film and not only diagnosed his problems, but has made the necessary adjustments to fix said problem. After the Pacers game on December 29th, a game where he shot 6-of-9 from mid-range, I asked him what he did differently with his shot. Al, candidly as ever, gave me insight into his recent issues.
"I think at the beginning of the season, I had people really aware that I could shoot that shot so they were closing out on me hard, and it got me to thinking about whether I should be passing the ball or shooting. I think now, I'm getting back to my old rhythm and I'm looking at when I have a shot or have to pass the ball, and when I'm decisive like that to shoot the ball my percentages go really high. For me, it's just being assertive when I'm going to shoot it just shoot the ball and when I'm not just pass it."
Entering that Pacers game, Al's mid-range percentage was 39.1%. He has brought that up to 41.7% in just three games, and it seems that his adjustment is working dramatically.
Looking at Al's shot chart the most obvious thing is his comfort level on the left side of the floor (and lack thereof on the right). Al is, for whatever reason, better when he pops to the left after setting screens whether on the elbow or the baseline. With Josh's proficiency from the right block, this should be something that the Hawks take advantage of. With Al's ability to space the floor, and Josh's great passing out of the post, Atlanta should run more sets to take advantage of these two's strengths, that just so happen to be perfectly compatible.
Posting Josh on the right block and having Al stay on either the left wing or baseline, allows Josh to go to work one-on-one in the post, or kick the ball out to an open Al on the left side of the floor if the double comes. Going back to Josh's shot chart you see he's not very good shooting from the right baseline, but then again, he's not shooting well from anywhere. Josh is easily frustrated when he's not getting calls or making his shots down low.
By placing him on the left block you accelerate that process of him becoming disinterested in the post because it is setting him up to fail more than he will succeed (Not only does he struggle with the right hand, but he is way more prone to bringing the ball down and dribbling into trouble off the left side of the floor). On the right block, Josh is a much more effective scorer which will please both himself and Hawks fans and make him a more willing post player due to his success, which makes the Hawks floor spacing much better and allows them to run more high-low sets.
If we look at Al's shot chart from 2010-11, we see how deadly he can be from the mid-range, and that his proficiency from the left side of the floor should be no surprise (but his mediocrity from the right should be).
I mean, that is a beautiful sight, 50.6% and SO MUCH GREEN! If you made it this far after seeing that awful Josh shot chart, this is your just reward. (This may or may not be the background on my laptop right now). This shows why Al is a commodity rarely seen in the NBA and why Hawks fans should be excited about 2013 because we should see a return to normalcy for Al (and his normal is extraordinary).
Al's non-restricted paint area shooting, somehow, has been even worse than Josh's. At 29.2%, Al has been completely unable to find his touch from the block, and, like Josh, has found himself in tough spots due to over-dribbling himself into bad shots.
Again, looking at the trends, a huge majority of his misses have come from the right block. He has been better in the center of the lane and has almost no looks from the left block that come outside the restricted area. So, despite the negatives (an awful percentage) let's try to look at the positives. As we've established, Josh is the dominant right block player due to his left-handedness, quick first step, and above-average left hook. Al is clearly not very good on the right block and the Hawks need to use this to their advantage by keeping Al on the left side of the floor almost exclusively, with Josh on the right. This would maximize the proficiency, efficiency, and productivity of both players and would create great floor spacing (along with our perimeter shooters) that would put defenders in a bind on when to help out. The other positive is that Al, being the diligent worker he is, ought to find his way back into rhythm which hopefully will come with more touches on the left block.
As we see, Al's shot chart from the non-restricted paint area from 2010 shows that he should begin improving his percentages especially with more attempts on the left side and the center of the floor. Horford's effort to be more assertive with his decision making should help him in the post as well, where we have seen Al appear hesitant to make his move.
If Horford and Smith return to the form that they have played with in recent years, the Hawks offense should become even more dynamic. At 12th in the league in offensive rating (105.4), the Hawks have been slightly disappointing, but much of that can be attributed to the poor start to the season by their big men. If the Hawks run more sets that optimize their stars' best attributes, with Josh posting down low on right block with Al on the left elbow or baseline for a skip pass out of a double-team, Atlanta's offense can become even more dynamic.
If Al consistently knocks down that open mid-range jumper, he forces defenders to play away from the basket and opens up the driving lanes for Teague, Harris, and Williams and makes the Hawks pick-and-roll offense work. Josh can hopefully take a lesson from Al and begin being more assertive with his decision making, which would help his shot selection drastically (I have no stats for this because it's not kept, but Josh's shooting when he hesitates drops off precipitously, contributing to that awful mid-range percentage.) As Smoove and Horford return to form, the Hawks offense will become more potent and dangerous which will be able to negate the potential defensive drop-off, and because of this, Atlanta should remain near the top of the Eastern Conference this season.