Sunday, March 24, 2013

Was the D-League more than Royce White could handle?

(Editor's note: Hey folks! I let this blog die after I was welcomed to the stable of writers for HawksHoop.com, but I may still use it from time to time for stuff like the below piece on Royce White. I find his story fascinating, so here are my observations about his time in the D-League.)

The ominous silence from the Houston Rockets regarding Royce White's departure from the team's D-League affiliate makes it pretty clear that it was not a mutual decision. White may be returning to Houston, but an analysis of his performance as a pro thus far will show that the RV ride from Hidalgo probably doesn't get him any closer to the NBA.

Let me start by saying that I am an unabashed Royce White fan. Kenny Anderson's freshman year at Georgia Tech made me a basketball fan, and I've loved passing more than any other skill since then. White makes passes I didn't even know were possible.

However, White's self-announced departure from the D-League leaves unanswered questions, including questions about White's attitude, his commitment to conditioning and his dedication to improving the numerous deficiencies in his game. I have watched and taken notes on several of his D-League appearances, all of which are archived for viewing at nba.com/dleague. As a fan, I would like nothing better than to see White prove himself at the NBA level. I have no doubt that White can be a rotation NBA player, but what I've seen of his career thus far leads me to question if he ever will.

First, let's look at White's game. In 26 minutes per game, White averaged 9.6 points on 42% shooting from the field and 62% shooting from the free throw line. The official stats show that he missed all six 3-pointers he attempted. He also averaged 5.6 rebounds, 3.3 assists and 2.7 turnovers per game. While his passing is spectacular, he tends to fall in love with the showy play and force passes that aren't there. In fairness, he would average more assists if his teammates converted more of the wide-open looks he routinely manufactures.

In White's first few games, I felt his teammates froze him out and limited his shot opportunities. As time went on, his teammates seemed to warm up to the fact that if they gave him the ball, he would create open shots for them. Possibly his best game came against the Idaho Stampede March 13th when he had 19 points, six rebounds and three assists. After several spectacular passes, White started to over-pass and ended up with more turnovers (four) than assists.

Now let's talk about White's emotional state. It quickly became clear to me that D-League refs are not there to simulate the way games are called in the NBA. If White ever makes it to the NBA, it will take about two games with the attitude he showed D-League refs for him to become a marked man. I thought the D-League refs showed remarkable restraint and appeared to give players every opportunity to stay in games.

In a March 2nd game against Santa Cruz, White completely overreacted after the refs failed to call a borderline over-the-back on Hilton Armstrong. After the 2nd quarter expired, White continued to jaw at the refs as he walked off the court and earned a tech. In the second half, a big-time rejection by Armstrong seemed to cause White to lose his composure. The refs let a shove by White go, but on the next trip down court he was called for throwing Travis Leslie to the floor and ejected.

After the game in Idaho, White seemed to be coming on strong. He was averaging better than a double-double per 36 minutes with good assist numbers, albeit with high turnovers. But in White's last game on March 16th, he put all of his shortcomings on display.

White was called for a questionable foul on Jerome Jordan in the 1st quarter and the poor body language began. White consistently failed to get any elevation when attempting shots and was blocked by Jordan with 7:35 to play in the quarter. Less than a minute later, on one of the rare occasions when White was ahead of the ball in transition defense, he made no effort to stop the ball handler and allowed Lazar Hayward an uncontested layup. 

Moments after that, White used a quick first step to the baseline to lay it up over Jordan. Feeling there should have been a foul, White hurled the ball out of bounds resulting in a delay of game warning. The refs showed restraint to not call a tech, especially as White continued to jaw at the ref afterward. White finished out the quarter by bricking a baseline jumper, missing a dunk, missing a runner with no elevation and making a layup after a nice crossover at the 3-point line.

White got an extended break and checked back in just before halftime. He ended up with a dunk because L.A. turned the ball over on a fast break and White was still standing under the offensive basket. In the second half, White's effort was undistinguished other than a pick-and-roll layup when Jordan helped on the ball handler.

Again, I must emphasize that I love White's game and hope that he succeeds. He was consistently among the top players on his team in plus/minus, even if his point and rebound totals weren't high. On the question of what is best for White's mental health, I will, as White has requested of Houston officials, defer to medical professionals. But on the question of what is best for White's professional basketball career, I feel qualified to voice some opinions. White is very engaging in interviews and seems to be having fun when he's not sulking over calls. He's somebody that I can relate to because of his progressive politics. If I ever had a chance to sit down with White and tell him what I think, this is what I would say.

"Royce, you need to hop in the Winnebago and head back to Hidalgo to finish the season. If you let Rockets management think that the emotional strain of playing in the freaking D-League was too much for you to handle, you will N E V E R get called up to the senior squad. You're athletic, but if you dropped some weight and got in NBA shape it would help your explosiveness. Your ball skills are elite, but you need to prove that you can be trusted not to over-dribble or over-pass. And you need to stop with the refs. D-League refs don't have the egos that NBA refs have. If you get called up and go in with a Kobe-level sense of entitlement, they will eat you for breakfast."

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Catching Up With the Numbers as the Hawks Flounder


Since we last checked in with Mid-Range Shawty, his shooting numbers have shown positive trends in multiple areas. Through 14 games, Josh Smith was shooting 22% outside the paint while attempting almost six long 2-point attempts per game. In the 10 games since, Smith has shot a blistering 26-for-72 (36%), raising the Mid-Range Shawty Meter to 29% for the season. Meanwhile, according to Hoopdata, Smith is down to only 4.5 long 2-point attempts per game (tied for 17th in the league) while his percentage from this distance has ticked up from 24% to 27%.

To update some other numbers I've been tracking, here's a look at the aggregate +/- numbers in 9 losses this season:

Player / total minutes / aggregate +/-

Full time starters:

Al Horford / 289 / -77
Josh Smith / 330 / -75
Jeff Teague / 265 / -43

Part time starters and reserves:

Anthony Morrow / 79 / -34
Lou Williams / 234 / -60
Devin Harris / 140 / -44
Kyle Korver / 188 / -36
Zaza Pachulia / 179 / -37
DeShawn Stevenson / 201 / -37
Ivan Johnson / 99 / -8
Anthony Tolliver / 92 / +3

As I wrote previously, these numbers continue to suggest that Jeff Teague and Ivan Johnson are being under-utilized while Devin Harris is being over-utilized. I also noted that Johnson had yet to post a negative +/- in a Hawks loss as of Dec. 2nd. Naturally, Johnson has posted a negative +/- in each of the three losses he has appeared in since. Trending in the opposite direction is Anthony Tolliver, suddenly back in the rotation, who has yet to post a negative +/- in a loss since Dec. 2nd. Among reserves, Tolliver and Johnson have clearly hurt Atlanta the least. 

The other stat I've been tracking is the Hawks' won-lost record in games in which DeShawn Stevenson starts. The Hawks are now 7-7 with Stevenson in the starting lineup, meaning Stevenson has started in seven of the Hawks' nine losses. How much of a finger am I trying to point here? Stevenson has been the most heavily-utilized (except Lou Williams) among the reserves and part-time starters in the losses and his +/- total has been respectable in comparison.

However, Atlanta Journal-Constitution Hawks beat writer Chris Vivlamore is now reporting that Larry Drew is pondering changes to his starting lineup. Of course, we all know that Drew hasn't been very consistent with his starting lineup throughout the season, preferring to wait until just before game time to announce his starters. But Drew's solution seems obvious: The Hawks are 4-2 in games in which Zaza Pachulia starts, including the team's last quality win over Memphis.

I'm not hating on DeShawn Stevenson. I was glad the Hawks were able to obtain him given his defensive reputation and championship pedigree. But let's look at where Stevenson is as an NBA player. Firstly, he's at the tail end of his career, being rested on the second night of back-to-back games. He's coming off one of the worst seasons, statistically, of any player to wear an NBA uniform last season. He's a shooting guard playing out of position at small forward, giving the Hawks a 3-guard lineup against teams that typically have three front-court players on the court at any given time.

And let's face it, DeShawn Stevenson is not part of the long-term future of the Hawks organization. Call him what he is. He's a stop-gap at small forward. Unfortunately, he's not stopping the gap. The Hawks continue to rank near the bottom of the league in rebounding while Pachulia, an elite per-minute rebounder, plays sporadic minutes off the bench. Hello? McDrew?

Sunday, December 9, 2012

Hawks Found a Small Forward: His Name is Josh Smith

Last night's convincing win over the Memphis Grizzlies, previously owners of the NBA's best record, calls for a re-evaluation of the potential of the Atlanta Hawks. I've already acknowledged that these Hawks are better than I anticipated they would be. That Josh Smith so thoroughly outplayed Rudy Gay, one of the league's emerging stars at the small forward position, indicates that my previous criticism of the Hawks' roster construction may have been overstated.

It seems that Danny Ferry has pulled off another miracle. He went out and found an All-Star candidate to fill the hole at small forward and didn't even have to execute a trade to do it. I was concerned that Smith's precipitous drop in shooting percentage on long 2-pointers might be attributable to playing out of position (Smith has played small forward due to Al Horford's desire to play power forward, Smith's natural position).

The revelation from Bo Churney at HawksHoop.com that Smith has been absolutely dominant defending small forwards has resulted in something of a paradigm shift in how I view these Hawks. If Smith is that good defensively at small forward, you can live with some of his struggles on the perimeter.

Although I previously noted that Smith's long 2-point attempts remain high while his percentage has dropped badly since last year, his overall shooting percentage is just off his career average. Meanwhile his 38% shooting from 3-point range has him on pace to set a career high from that distance.

The Achilles heel for Smith and Horford has been free throw shooting, where Smith is shooting 15% below his career average and Horford is shooting a disastrous 22% below. As much as these Hawks have exceeded expectations during the young season, imagine how dangerous the team could be if these two start shooting free throws closer to their career averages.

Meanwhile the win over the Grizzlies once again illustrated what a bargain Lou Williams is for the mid-level exception. His 3-point percentage, free throw attempts, rebounds, assists and points per game are slightly lower than last season, when he was runner-up for Sixth Man of the Year, but his free throw percentage, overall shooting percentage and steals are up. In my opinion, Williams, Smith and Horford have all struggled early in the season. If the win over Memphis is a harbinger of things to come, this team may be starting to adjust to its new personnel and shifted roles.

And that means it's time to re-evaluate Larry Drew's coaching as well. I've stated before that Smith's All-Star snubs are as much an indictment of coaching as they are of the player. Drew has acknowledged that it is his responsibility to coach Smith up and get him to play at an All-Star level. Given Smith's performance last night against Gay, it seems that Drew may be farther ahead in that goal than I previously gave him credit for.

I have long acknowledged the step forward the Hawks took in execution of plays out of time outs since Drew took over as head coach. My major criticisms of Drew have centered around personnel decisions that seemed to be based on personal favoritism and the fact that Smith takes so many outside shots as a result of his placement in the flow of Drew's offense.

Smith's placement early against Memphis resulted in several wide-open shots that he missed badly. However, as the game wore on Drew appeared to make a conscious effort to call plays with Smith receiving the ball in the post. The results were devastating to the Grizzlies and did significant damage to my long-standing biases against Drew as a coach.

One additional area where Drew's coaching must be acknowledged is in the Hawks' handling of unfavorable treatment by the referees. Ivan Johnson played well in limited minutes, but after he picked up a technical foul for arguing with the refs over an obvious foul that was not called, Drew did not play him again. I've previously noted that the Hawks coaching staff needs to convince Johnson of the value of avoiding negative attention from the refs.

That effort seems to still be a work in progress with Johnson, but the rest of the team appears to have gotten the message. Smith and Horford were also the victims of egregious non-calls by the refs, but both managed to restrain their emotions and play through it. If Drew's ability to get through to Smith is to be a referendum on Drew's overall ability as an NBA coach, present returns indicate that Drew will be around for a long time.

Friday, December 7, 2012

Congrats to New TrueHoop Hawks Affiliate HawksHoop

If you head over to HawksHoop.com, you will see in their banner that they are the new Hawks affiliate for the ESPN TrueHoop Network. I recently linked some excellent analysis from HawksHoop's Bo Churney. Last year I was fortunate to be invited by Hoopinion founder Bret LaGree to contribute to his site, the TrueHoop Hawks affiliate for the preceding 5 years. HawksHoop has some big shoes to fill, and I wish them well.

Sunday, December 2, 2012

Bo Churney Explains Hawks' Stupefying Defense

The Hawks' loss on Friday to the 4-13 Cleveland Cavaliers represents the first bad loss of the season. The other 4 losses for the 9-5 Hawks came at the hands of teams presently in playoff position, including three teams that would have home court advantage if the playoffs started today. What especially sucks about losing to the Cavaliers is that a win would have kept the team even in the loss column with the Knicks, currently ranked 2nd in the Eastern Conference.

Several familiar issues cropped up in the loss, including nine missed free throws and indifferent perimeter defense.The Hawks were out-rebounded 49-28, which is unsurprising since the Hawks rank dead-last in total rebounds. What is surprising is that, in spite of the team's glaring flaws, it somehow manages to rank near the top in several defensive categories.


I'm at a complete loss to explain how this is possible. Fortunately, another Hawks blogger, Bo Churney with HawksHoop.com, was able to break it down. Here's the key passage of his excellent analysis (hat tip to TrueHoop's Henry Abbott for the link on Friday Bullets):

Looking at the numbers, Horford and Smith have been absolutely dominant defensively when they are on the floor together. According to NBA.com, when the two are on the court, the Hawks have a D-Rtg of 93.7, which is five points better than the team’s overall, league-leading D-Rtg. Individually, Josh has been a terror upon opponents, holding opposing power forwards to a PER of 11.7, and opposing small forwards to a PER of 3.1. (!!!)
I personally am not an analytics guy. I tend to see things more in terms of the big picture. Hopefully we'll see a lot more of this from Bo, because thus far this season there hasn't been a surplus of good Hawks analysis.

In the meantime, I did take a look at the Hawks' +/- numbers from the 5 losses, looking to do a bit of finger pointing. In my opinion, the +/- numbers from losses are more significant than the totals from wins. Whereas a player might pad this figure in a comfortable win where other teammates played well, in a loss, any single player might have contributed to a win by playing better.


Player / total minutes / aggregate +/- in 5 losses this season


Full time starters:


Josh Smith / 199 / -32

Al Horford / 150 / -29
Jeff Teague / 146 / -8

Part time starters and reserves:


Devin Harris / 101 / -28

Lou Williams / 121 / -23
Anthony Morrow / 33 / -15
Zaza Pachulia / 111 / -14
Kyle Korver / 113 / -12
Anthony Tolliver / 58 / -12
DeShawn Stevenson / 115 / -9
Ivan Johnson / 50 / +18

Before the season I wrote with grudging admiration about Larry Drew's acknowledgement that it is his responsibility to get Smith to play at an All-Star level. I think it's pretty safe to say that if All-Star reserves were picked today, Smith would once again be left off the team, and that it would elicit less controversy than it has the past two seasons. Smith remains among the top 15 in the league in attempts from long 2-point distance (16-23 feet). Last season only Kobe Bryant took more long 2-pointers than Smith's 6.3 attempts per game. Smith's attempts are down to 4.6 this season, but his percentage has plummeted from 37% last year (comparable to Monta Ellis) to 24% this year.


Meanwhile, among the three players who have started every available game, Teague has obviously hurt the Hawks the least. It's very possible that the 5.6 fewer minutes per game that Teague plays compared to Al Horford is also going to be the difference in whether Teague gets serious All-Star consideration this season. Teague's 21.1 points per 48 minutes ranks ahead of Deron Williams.


Among Hawks who are not every-day starters, Harris' -28 in 101 minutes stands out. The fact that Harris starts so many games at shooting guard when Kyle Korver and Anthony Morrow are available seems like a transparent ploy to increase Harris' trade value. But here's another interesting statistic. Although DeShawn Stevenson's -9 in 115 minutes speaks to his effectiveness as a defender, the Hawks are only 4-3 with Stevenson in the starting lineup.


And in another wonderful example of Small Sample Size Theater, Ivan Johnson is the only Hawk with a positive aggregate +/- in the 5 losses. Not only have the Hawks outscored opponents by 18 points in Johnson's 50 minutes over 4 losses he appeared in (largely thanks to the 17-2 run the Hawks closed the half with against Cleveland during 3 of Johnson's 9 minutes), but Johnson has yet to post a single negative +/- in a loss.


The takeaways from this are obvious. Teague should play more. Johnson should play more. Even though it's a small sample size for Johnson, when the results are that dramatic, you put it to the test and see if regression to the mean takes hold.


I understand that the Hawks organization wants to get something for Harris at the trade deadline. But I also understand that this team is better than I predicted. I said before the season that this was a fringe playoff team, but thus far the team looks as if it might again compete for home court advantage in the playoffs. I hope to see this Hawks team maximize its potential now, not at some future point after Danny Ferry has a chance do some more tinkering with the roster.


UPDATE:

To update the Mid-Range Shawty Meter, Josh Smith is now shooting 18-for-81 (22%) outside the paint for the season. This includes a 1-for-11 game against the Trail Blazers and a 1-for-7 game against the Wizards. Smith is shooting 73-for-124 (59%) inside the paint this season. But his six attempts per game outside the paint accounts for 14% of the 82 total shots per game taken by the Hawks.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Hawks Barely Escape Wizards

The first words out of my mouth when the pre-season opened were "Teague looks terrible on defense." Possession after possession in this game, AJ Price got dribble penetration against defense from Jeff Teague that was barely-existent.

So that's one story. Another story is the struggles the Hawks have experienced at backup point guard. Before the season began, I opined that "the Hawks will be the deepest team in the league at point guard." In spite of this depth, I have chronicled Devin Harris' struggles to help the Hawks win games as the backup point. Harris has since been used as the starter at shooting guard, and now Lou Williams is struggling in the backup point guard role.

For the game against the Wizards, Williams was -19. He checked in for Devin Harris with 4:45 to play in the 1st quarter with the Hawks leading 17-9. By the time Harris checked back in for Williams with 6:35 to play in the 2nd, the Hawks trailed 37-32. Williams checked in for Teague with 3:46 to play in the 3rd and the Hawks sporting a 66-57 lead. By the time he checked out for the last time with 9:00 to play, the lead was down to 76-73.

Part of Williams' lack of effectiveness was his failure to attempt a free throw for only the 3rd time this season. But the biggest part was the stagnation of the offense with Williams in the game. It also didn't help that Ivan Johnson, who has been coming on as of late, had possibly his worst game of the season (-13 in 6 minutes).

Yet another story is the fact that free throws have gotten into the heads of both Josh Smith and Al Horford. Smith is shooting only 32% from the free throw line this season but made all three attempts. Al Horford came into the game shooting only 67% from the line and shot 1-for-10 on free throws.

Thus far the Hawks have lost only one game to a team not presently in playoff position (Houston). But the team was lucky to get this one after Martell Webster's layup as the clock expired in overtime was waived off. Last year the Hawks beat up on non-playoff teams on the way to the 4th-best record in the East. The team will need improvement in all the areas cited above if it is to replicate that success this season.

Saturday, November 17, 2012

Truth About It: Wizards Early Season Hopes Got Pargo'd

Nice win by the Hawks at Sacramento. After Harrison Barnes had a career night against Atlanta's non-existent small forward rotation in the loss to the Warriors, the Hawks managed to draw even at 2 wins and 2 losses on the current road trip. The Kings apparently didn't get the scouting report on Kyle Korver and the team's best player, DeMarcus Cousins, has a worse habit of drawing negative attention from referees than Atlanta's Josh Smith.

But enough about the Hawks. Let's talk Washington Wizards basketball! I mentioned yesterday that Jannero Pargo was cut after only 7 games to open a roster spot for Shaun Livingston. In March, after some reflection, I figured out that Pargo is not a point guard:
In the last several games my own expectations for the type of player Pargo should be have made a course correction. I look at Pargo and I think "backup point guard." When Pargo shared the floor with [Jeff] Teague against the Pacers, replacing [Kirk] Hinrich at shooting guard, he appeared to be playing his natural position. In 24 minutes Pargo outplayed his 6-8 counterpart [Paul] George, contributing 16 points on 6-for-13 shooting and limiting his turnovers thanks to reduced ball-handling responsibilities.
It turns out I'm not the only person who came to this belated conclusion. Truth About It, the ESPN TrueHoop Network affiliate site for the Wizards, quoted coach Randy Wittman as the realization dawned on him. Wrote Kyle Weidie:
What did Wizards coach Randy Wittman think about the decision to waive Jannero Pargo and sign Livingston?

“I thought we needed to get another play-maker, a guy that can facilitate, maybe get us easier baskets,” Wittman said.
Weidie went on to describe the microcosm of Pargo's downfall as a Wizard:
Part of Pargo’s downfall could be his very last shot as a Wizard. He failed to recognize the open, hot-shooting Cartier Martin in the corner and instead faked a pass, hesitated, and fired up a missed, contested 3-pointer.
The link within that block quote was to Weidie's game capsule of the Wizards' loss to the Mavericks, in which he waxed thusly on Pargo's swan song:
[The Wizards] fought back to 102-98 and stole the ball with a minute left. That’s when this Jannero Pargo shot happened. Don’t worry about swinging the ball to a red-hot Cartier Martin in the corner. Don’t worry about the fact that the Wizards don’t even need a 3-pointer here. Totally don’t worry about the likelihood that O.J. Mayo will give a good contest of the shot. Don’t worry and just shoot it, Jannero Pargo. His 3-for-20 (15%) from beyond the arc on the season tried to be the hero, but instead the Wizards got #Pargo’d, amongst other things.
I'm guessing that Pargo, in that instant, decided to go with what has kept him in the league (his ability as a streak shooter) rather than play outside of himself by actually trying to set up a teammate. Watching Pargo last season as a Hawk, I became acutely aware of his limitations as a ball handler, passer and defender. Washington's point guard position was up for grabs with John Wall out, but Pargo couldn't seize it because that's not what he is.

And yet (and sorry to sound like a broken record), this is the guy Larry Drew sent to check Rajon Rondo in a playoff series.