The Hawks made numerous changes to the roster in the offseason, so predicting and projecting this team's success has become vastly more complicated than in previous years where the core stayed the same and a new rotation of role players entered the fold. With the departure of Joe Johnson, the Hawks must replace his All-Star level production and find new ways to score beyond Iso-Joe, especially in clutch moments (to illustrate this, the Hawks used isolation plays as 12.14% of the offense during the regular season, that number jumped to 15.87% in the playoff series vs. Boston). Much of that onus will fall onto the shoulders of the three returning starters, Jeff Teague, Josh Smith and a healthy Al Horford. Newcomers Lou Williams and Devin Harris will also play major roles in replacing Joe's backcourt production. Marvin Williams' departure was less hyped, but has left just as large a hole to fill in the rotation. The Hawks loaded up with backcourt players in the offseason, but neglected the small forward spot. With Damion James' release, the Hawks do not have a true small forward on the roster, but will rely on a rotation of five players (Kyle Korver, DeShawn Stevenson, Anthony Tolliver, Anthony Morrow and Josh Smith) to fill that gap.
I have taken to the task of attempting to predict this coming season's successes based off of statistical analysis (with a little intuition mixed in). While there is no way of knowing how minutes will be allocated (heck, Drew doesn't even know), I am making educated guesses off of what I have seen in the preseason and practices, previous years' rotations and what I have heard talking with coaches and players. Using John Hollinger's Statistical Index and Basketball-Reference.com I am projecting this season's production as compared to last year's squad, as well as looking at Synergy Sports Statistics to project how the changes in personnel and philosophy will affect the Hawks' success on both the offensive and defensive ends of the floor.
Part I looks at the hole left by Joe Johnson and how the backcourt trio of Jeff Teague, Lou Williams and Devin Harris will attempt to fill it.
Joe Johnson's season last year was the second consecutive year of decline for the All-Star guard. Johnson's per 40 minute averages were all the second-worst in his career. He averaged 21.2 points per 40 (only better than 2010-11), 4.2 rebounds per 40 and 4.4 assists per 40 (both his worst since 06-07). Accompanying his drop-off in production, where Johnson played on the floor changed. Johnson's three-point shooting became a bigger part of his game than it ever had in previous years with the Hawks. He ranked 10th in the league in three pointers made (125), but was ninth in three pointers attempted (322). Johnson shot 38.8% from behind the arc, his best season from distance as a Hawk, and three pointers accounted for 33.2% of his points for the season (375 of 1129), the highest percentage in his Hawks career.
Because more of Johnson's shots came from the outside, his free throw attempts per game dropped off to just 3.1 (lowest as a Hawk), and Johnson's field goal attempts per game also took a precipitous drop to just 15.5 (lowest as a Hawk). These stem from both a drop in aggressive play and a drop in minutes. Joe went from averaging 40.08 minutes per game in his first five seasons to just 35.5 minutes per game in each of the past two. Johnson accounted for 17.7% of the Hawks points last season; comparatively, Johnson accounted for, on average, in his first five years with the Hawks 20.3% of the Hawks offense (his worst year 2010-11 was just 16.8%). What all this means is that, while Johnson was still a key to the Hawks offense, his role was diminished in comparison to previous years when he often was both the first and second scoring option. Replacing Johnson's productivity may not be as daunting as it had once been, and the Hawks will most likely be a better offensive unit than they were with Johnson.
To replace Johnson' production offensively, the Hawks will look to their backcourt trio of Jeff Teague, Devin Harris and Lou Williams. Williams is the most capable and explosive scorer of the group and could, if given the minutes, be a more prolific scorer than Joe was. However, Lou's minutes will not match-up with those Joe received, but Williams will fit better in Drew's motion system and, when needed, can create his own shots at any time. Lou led the Sixers in scoring despite playing off the bench, and his per 40 minute numbers are for the most part better than Joe's. Williams averaged 22.7 points per 40 (1.5 more than Joe), 3.7 rebounds per 40 (just .5 lower than Joe) and 5.3 assists per 40 (.9 better than Joe). Williams also protected the ball better than Joe did having a turnover rate of just 5.9% compared to Johnson's 8.5%. Williams ought to average somewhere between 25-30 minutes per game (he averaged 26.3 last season in Philly) off the bench and can easily provide 14-16 points per game and 3-4 assists per game.
Lou also fits perfectly with Atlanta's offensive style, that wants to be more motion and pick-and-roll oriented. Philly was a predominantly pick-and-roll team (P&R accounted for 17.41% of their offensive sets) with Williams or Jrue Holliday handling the ball (much in the way the Hawks will use two ball-handlers this season). Williams finished on 24.96% of the Sixers pick-and-rolls and scored at a very nice 0.98 points per possession (PPP) clip. Johnson ran fewer pick-and-rolls sets and was less efficient scoring on at only a 0.83 PPP rate. Not only is Williams a more effective pick-and-roll player, but he was just as effective as "Iso-Joe" in isolation sets. Lou averaged 0.91 PPP when running isolation plays and Joe averaged 0.90 in those same situations.
Jeff Teague's emergence as a quality starting NBA point guard last season helped to take some of the burden off of Johnson. When Teague asserted himself, he was one of the most dangerous point guards in the league because of his explosiveness and knack for getting into the lane and either finishing or distributing. In the playoff series against the Celtics, Teague was arguably the best player for the Hawks and thrived in pick-and-roll situations averaging 0.97 PPP on pick-and-rolls. Teague will be asked to be more assertive this year in the motion offense and will have the opportunity to create off the dribble in pick-and-roll situations more than last year because of the personnel. This should allow Teague to flourish and he should emerge as one of the best pick-and-roll guards in the league because with his speed he can get to the rim almost at will. Teague's scoring, which was 15.2 per 40 last season, should increase, but his assist totals should also go up with all the new shooters for him to kick the ball out to when the defense collapses on him when he penetrates.
Devin Harris will not be asked to be the same kind of scorer he was in Utah when he averaged 16.4 points per 40 last season because other players will be the primary scorers. However, Harris is an adept facilitator and will be more than capable of delivering the ball on-time to open shooters. Harris averaged 7.3 assists per 40 last season and his assist percentage was 29.5%. This year he will have even more opportunities in the Hawks' up-tempo, motion offense, compared to the Jazz's slower half-court game that was predicated on post-ups for their bigs. Harris' minutes will be lessened considerably in Atlanta and he will not be the primary focus of the offense, but he does provide a third ball-handling threat in the backcourt and is adept in transition and as a pick-and-roll ball-handler.
While the backcourt seems more than ready to replace Johnson's offensive production, the defense will be much more of an issue. The Hawks ranked slightly above average in nearly every defensive category last season. Three areas in particular that are related to the loss of Johnson will be in decline (just hopefully not too seriously): Spot-Up Defense, Isolation Defense and Pick-and-Roll Defense.
First, the Hawks were 13th in the league against spot-up shooters last year allowing 0.94 PPP on spot-up plays. With the drastic decline in long wing players on this year's team compared to last year's team (No Joe, No Marvin, No T-Mac, etc.), the Hawks ability to contest jump shots on the perimeter will not be the same. Expect spot-up shooters to get cleaner looks at the basket, but since they are still jump shots don't expect that to be a killer (I see that number climbing more toward 0.96 PPP).
Second is isolation defense. This will be the area that presents the biggest problem. Last year the Hawks ranked 10th in the league against isolation sets allowing just 0.77 PPP. Joe Johnson's speed was in decline, he still represented a long perimeter defensive obstacle that was difficult to get past and create a shot with ease (I'll dive into the issues of Marvin's absence in Part II). In Johnson's place, Lou and Devin surrender a significant amount of height, weight and length. This will create a significant problem when isolated on bigger, stronger two guards that will isolate on the wing or in the high-post. The Hawks can combat this to an extent by providing help on isolation sets and forcing a pass and then using their team speed to recover (something they've done with mixed results in the preseason). However, no matter what they do I expect the Hawks to be closer to the bottom of the league against isolation sets this season and that 0.77 PPP will climb north of 0.80 PPP.
Finally, pick-and-roll defense will also struggle (as we've seen in the preseason) with having smaller guards. The Hawks ranked 10th in the NBA last year giving up 0.84 PPP against pick-and-rolls and did so almost exclusively switching screens. They had the luxury of switching most screens because the players at positions 2 through 4 were all similar sizes (6-foot-7 to 6-foot-9 and athletic). This year, there is a much bigger height and weight discrepancy between the backcourt and frontcourt and the Hawks have had to adjust. The Hawks will, for the most part, have their big step out and run a quick trap on the ball-handler with the guard coming under the screen. The big will then quickly retreat back to their man to prevent the easy roll to the hoop. This has worked considerably better than switching, but still has its flaws and will allow more rolls to the hoop. The number won't rise drastically, but again, as with the others, will go up.
To conclude, the backcourt's offensive production should improve and the defensive numbers will deteriorate (just a matter of how much). Yes, all 1800+ words just got boiled down to one sentence. Part II comes Tuesday as I look at the new stockpile of shooters and the glaring hole on the wing.