Josh Smith, as a single entity of a player, is almost irreplaceable. His defensive versatility, offensive flexibility, and physical dominance make him a valuable asset to any team looking to instantly compete in today’s NBA.
So when Smoove packed his bags and took off for Detroit, he left a hole in the Hawks’ roster, one that left many thinking that an attempt to immediately replace his value would be an exercise in futility. Tanking was the proposed solution: a vigorous rebuild strung together by Atlanta’s two recent draft picks and future lottery picks, which would, supposedly, eventually constitute a young and competitive core.
It wasn’t a foolish idea—the tanking—it’s just that it isn’t everyone’s cup of tea. How do you sell fans on losing? The promise of a brighter tomorrow has never once assuaged the feelings of despair held by the Hawks overall capricious fan base; and moreover, that promise, which has been used before, has never yielded the sort of production that it vows to achieve.
The Hawks have stockpiled high draft picks in the past and those selections didn’t exactly result in a homerun rebuild. In successive drafts, the Hawks used their lottery picks to select: Josh Childress (6th overall 2004), Marvin Williams (2nd overall 2005), Shelden Williams (5th overall 2006), Al Horford (3rd overall 2007), and Acie Law IV (11th overall 2007). In four years of wading in the lottery, fluctuating between selections in the top seven picks, the Hawks drafted five players to make up a future core, and only one of those five players even remotely lived up to the billing that accompanies such a high draft choice (Horford, obviously).
So Smith’s departure gave Ferry a few different paths from which to choose: tanking, rebuilding on the fly, or uselessly tying max money to a good-but-not-great player in free agency, thus hopping back upon the merry-go-round of mediocrity. Thankfully, we didn’t have to worry about the last option—Ferry isn’t engulfed in a full-fledged win now scenario pushed from the owners atop Mount Olympus, he’s in more of a "show us what you can do" situation.
So that’s what he’s done. He’s shown us. And he’s replaced the value of Josh Smith while maintaining maximum cap flexibility and somehow still not entirely ruling out the possibility of tanking for the draft of all drafts in 2014. Yet this team, while not guaranteed a playoff spot in the much-improved Eastern Conference, still exudes some sort of quirky promise that hints at a season possibly more successful than the last.
The offseason acquisitions are, obviously, the key to Atlanta’s hopeful improvement. Ferry has signed a group of players who should be able to alleviate the loss of Josh Smith.
The most difficult aspect of Smith’s game to replace, though, is his defensive versatility, so Ferry responded to this quandary by acquiring two frontcourt players who together possess the necessary ingredients to substitute most of Smith’s strengths and overcome his weaknesses.
Paul Millsap is what Josh Smith never was offensively: a player who understands his limitations and thrives in his own efficiency. He is not a liability to have on the floor in the closing minutes of games because of free throwing shooting and he is not going to overstep his offensive boundaries. Millsap will convert mid-range jumpers and exploit mismatches in the post.
Offensive rating (ORtg) estimates how many points a player produces per 100 possessions, and Millsap’s ORtg of 112 easily trumps Smith’s ORtg of 97. So while Millsap won’t be able to pass and run the floor in the same way, he’ll be able to score at a much more efficient clip and won’t single-handedly harpoon offensive possessions by launching unwarranted jump shots.
Defensively, however, he doesn’t hold a candle to Smith’s ability, whether that be help-side, perimeter, or interior. Millsap lacks the quickness and explosiveness that made Smith a highlight waiting to happen and an immovable obstacle that often disrupted offensive players’ vision and ability.
So how did GM Danny Ferry address the defensive concerns that stemmed from a Millsap-Horford frontcourt? He brought in one of the league’s most effective defensive power forwards, Elton Brand.
It was only two years ago Brand was perceived as a realistic candidate for the Defensive Player of the Year award. He was the anchor of Philadelphia’s stalwart front line, and though it helped having Andre Iguodala shut down opposing wings and limit penetration, Brand was the glue that held the pieces together—a strong rim protector who upheld Kirk Goldsberry’s principles of proximal field goal percentage.
According to Goldsberry’s research, which covers all of the 2011-2012 season and a good portion of the 2012-2013 season, when Brand was an interior defender within 5 feet of any shot attempt, he held opponents to the fourth lowest field goal percentage of any player in the NBA (38.0%). He finished better than notable defensive mainstays Roy Hibbert (5th, 38.7%), JaVale McGee (10th, 42.5%), Tim Duncan (14th, 43.4%), Dwight Howard (15th, 43.5%), Kevin Garnett (21st, 44.9%), and Tyson Chandler (28th, 45.7%).
In other words, while Brand may not block shots as well as Hibbert or McGee, he alters and challenges shots better than almost anyone in the NBA because of positioning and defensive understanding.
Brand also accumulated a higher Total Rebound Percentage than Smith last season (15.7% to 13.6%, respectively), a stat that estimates the percentage of available rebounds a player corralled while on the floor.
While Brand may not be out on the wing smothering the best perimeter player of the opposing team, he will be firmly in the trenches with Horford, grabbing rebounds and protecting the paint effectively. The combination of Horford and Brand will be one of the strongest defensive front court tandems while on the floor together in the league; Conversely, the combination of Horford and Millsap will be one of the strongest offensive frontcourt tandems while on the floor together in the league.
The Hawks have addressed Smith’s departure by committee. Brand, Millsap, and the unmentioned DeMarre Carroll will all be charged with meeting and exceeding Smith’s overall production, a task this group surely seems capable of achieving. Carroll, however, will have to bear the brunt of the perimeter defensive responsibilities that Smith left behind.
For some elaboration on Carroll: while he's limited offensively, he plays to his strengths. He doesn’t shoot many threes and thrives mostly off cuts and spot-up midrange jumpers. He won’t create, but he can space the floor to a degree and is an absolute hound on the other side of the ball—there’s a reason he’s called the "junkyard dog."
When the Hawks lost the face of their franchise, management and ownership had to pick a course for the team. They could have mailed this season in and joined the hunt for Andrew Wiggins, but Ferry instead chose preserved flexibility.
A common saying is that cap space doesn’t win games, and it's true, but it’s important in building a culture that will eventually do so. We’ve all seen what Daryl Morey has pulled off—he stockpiled assets and waited for the perfect time to make a big trade, which in turn allowed him to land a marquee free agent.
Ferry may not be following Morey’s recipe to a tee, but he seems to be taking a similar cautiously optimistic approach. Ferry’s end game here, much like Morey's Harden move, is likely a splashy trade. Those decisions lie in the future, though, and what Ferry has done in the present to sustain respectability and gain assets is impressive.