Enemy: Atlanta Hawks
3SOB Forecast*: 40-42
What’s the story with the Hawks?
Throughout the off-season there has been rising speculation that the power structure of the NBA is changing. I, myself, have been included in the chorus of devotees declaring, “the middle class is dead.” But perhaps we lament a bit prematurely.
Observed over the course of the past few seasons has been a wave of teams gearing up in gung ho attempt to be next-in-line to construct a super-team like the previous incarnation of the Boston Celtics, or the current Miami Heat. Likewise, we seem to be tickled by the number of teams that are lining up at the lottery ticket window before even setting foot in training camp, for a chance at Canadian standout Andrew Wiggins, and his class of 2014 comrades. Even a proud franchise like the Celtics appears to be punting the coming season away for the cause.
But maybe that is just it. The theory of salience has us drawn to the actions of the major players on both sides of the fence, the actions of whom are hardly unprecedented. It is entirely possible that the fact that we are compelled by the extreme cases has clouded our awareness of the NBA middle class to a point beyond acknowledgment.
So what do the Hawks have to do with all of this? Well, I bring this up because according to the 3 Shades of Blue summer forecast (a subset of the Truehoop Forecast), they’re the case-in-point counter example to the theory of a lack of middle ground. In our prediction set, the Hawks rounded out as the closest team to a .500 record projection in 2013-14, with a total of 40 wins.
After years of persistent speculation, the summer of 2013 earmarked the point at which Josh Smith finally found his way off of the Hawks roster. Nine years into his career, the welcome between Smith and the Hawks had simply worn thin, and through his free agency exit, the parties have gone their separate ways. This comes just one year removed from the Hawks sending Joe Johnson packing.
Remaining in the mix is the stabilizing presence of Al Horford. Horford has been a model of consistency and efficiency, and 2012-13 was his best season yet, in a successful return campaign from a torn pectoral muscle. The hype around the center’s career has been surprisingly unassuming, but his performance has been anything but. No longer overshadowed by Johnson’s gaudy shot selection and Smith’s unbridled flair, it is the time for the 26 year old Horford to claim the team for his own.
Charged with the task of moving this team forward is the defensive minded long-time Spurs assistant, new head coach Mike Budenholzer . Prior to the blemish of a recent DUI investigation, the hire of Budenholzer inspired a soothing breeze of optimism among the Atlanta fanbase. The potential promise of lifting a fragment of Spurs coach Gregg Popovich’s secret Krabby Patty formula for NBA success is something that Hawks GM Danny Ferry, a former member of the Spurs organization, himself, has always been keen on.
Who are they cooking with?
Horford, for all of his talents, has been successful in spite of being forced to play out of position, as he has assimilated to the role pretty admirably. Conventional logic led me to wonder just how nuts he would go, if he was not giving up 2, 3, or 4 inches to his matchup on a nightly basis, but my hypothesis falters when checked against the stats.
According to 82games.com, Horford was actually more productive on both sides of the floor when playing at the center position. Last season he played 50% of the team’s total available minutes at the five spot, where he posted a PER of 21.9, against a comparatively pedestrian 17.9 when playing the four. Factoring in his opponent counterparts, he was a net -1.1 in terms of PER at the four, while a net +5.3 at the five. Of course, sharing the court with Zaza Pachulia when he’s at the four, versus Josh Smith when playing the five must play some role in this, but the Hawks appear to agree with the numbers and peg Horford as a five, as well, as they went out and spent on Utah Jazz free agent, Paul Millsap.
Millsap endured a slight reduction in productivity last season, but he was so good the year prior that a bit of a regression was inevitable. He built up his reputation as a rebounder, but his rebounds per 40 minutes has slipped over time from his rookie mark of 11.5, to 9.3 last season, as he has expanded his game to doing other things, over time. His assists per 40 minutes has doubled, for example, from 1.7 in his rookie year, to 3.4 last year. Millsap and Horford may be undersized, but they can very possibly become the most efficient post tandem in the league. To compensate for the lack of size, the hope is that seven-foot Brazilian rookie Lucas Noguiera can develop as a viable option inside, but for the time being he will play overseas.
A Mike Conley-lite break out from Jeff Teague may be in order this year, who has become increasingly efficient during each season of his rookie contract, and is likely to find himself assuming a bigger role, given the comparatively diminishing usage players of the supporting cast around him. Having Kyle Korver return is a big bonus, as going to battle with knockdown shooter beside you opens up the whole court for a point guard to operate. Korver — a point guard’s best friend — led all wing players not named LeBron James and Kevin Durant in true shooting percentage last season, while requiring very few touches (13.3 usage rate). Lastly, a rehabbed Lou Williams could alleviate the pressure for Teague to be on the ball at all times, which as we have seen with Conley, can be a very valuable thing.
How do the good guys stack up?
The Hawks have always given the Grizzlies fits and no one can seem to understand why. Atlanta swept the Grizzlies last season and have won 4 of the last 5 meetings between the two teams. However, the Hawks are not the same team they used to be. Gone are Josh Smith, Devin Harris and Zaza Pachulia. In their place the Hawks have brought in former Grizz DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Elton Brand. The Hawks also resigned sharp-shooter Kyle Korver and promising PG Jeff Teague.
The Hawks success, especially against the Grizzlies, starts with F/C Al Horford. At 6-10 Horford is too small to defend Gasol but his speed gives Gasol trouble as well. If Brand and Millsap can hit the boards then that will neutralize the Grizzlies interior power. Teague and Williams are a small, fast backcourt which may put pressure on Allen to get minute. However the Grizzlies should be able to neutralize Korver on the perimeter with Allen, Pondexter and Prince all capable of shutting down Korver.
The games could be determined by schedule as much as talent. The first match up comes in January at FedEx Forum and in the midst of a brutal stretch for Atlanta with games @ Chicago, @ Brooklyn, vs. Indiana, vs. Houston and followed by Brooklyn and Miami afterwards while Memphis is in the middle of their longest home stand of the season. The February rematch in Atlanta gives Atlanta three days off after playing in New Orleans so the team should be better rested while Memphis is playing the first of back to back games. For the Grizzlies to be successful they will need to neutralize Horford, defend the perimeter and get into the Hawks bench which is thin.
Bo Churney (of HawksHoop):
The Hawks took both matchups from Memphis last season, but I’m hard-pressed to think that they could do that again. Josh Smith is gone and he was devastating against Memphis, using his speed against Randolph and Gasol in transition on offense and defending all three frontcourt positions on defense.
Paul Millsap is one of the best replacements for Smith that the Hawks could have gotten, but his game plays more into the way the Grizzlies defend. Millsap is more consistent, but he doesn’t have the transition and defensive impact of Smith. With new coach Mike Budenholzer, the Hawks are likely to run more pick-and-roll in the halfcourt, which is a plan that Conley, Allen, and Gasol are more than capable of defending.
The best advantage the Hawks will have is that they may have the best player between the two teams in Al Horford. (Memphis fans won’t like to hear that!) However, Horford finished the last three months of the season averaging 20 points and 11 rebounds on 56% and he’ll only be getting more touches as the for-sure number one option. Even if the Hawks can’t hang with the Grizzlies for all four quarters, at least we’ll get to see Al Horford taking 20 shots, which is a win for everyone who loves smart basketball.
David Vertsberger (of HawksHoop):
I see the Hawks as a real problem for Memphis, mainly because newly-hired head coach Mike Budenholzer hails from the system that tore apart the Grizzlies in the postseason – San Antonio. Atlanta has the roster to unleash a less effective but strikingly similar attack, with spot-up shooters John Jenkins and Kyle Korver, versatile big Al Horford and quickster point guard Jeff Teague. With Memphis’ improved spacing in the signing of Mike Miller, it may be a bit more difficult for the Hawks to get away with leaving Paul Millsap on Zach Randolph, but even with this caveat I see Atlanta at the very least splitting this series.
When and Where do they square off?
January 12th: 5:00PM at the FedEx Forum
February 8th: 6:30PM at the Philips Arena
For more Hawks content, check out our TrueHoop comrades at HawksHoop.
*3SOB forecast projections are derived from an average of the contributing staff’s predicted win totals.