Monday, July 23, 2012
As it Stands: A Look at the Hawks Roster
Given what we've seen in Danny Ferry's first weeks on the job as general manager for the Atlanta Hawks, two things seem apparent. Firstly, Ferry is capable of pulling off stunning, franchise-altering trades. Secondly, Ferry apparently has no interest in conduction negotiations through the media. Both of Ferry's initial trades came out of nowhere, with leaks to the media only after the trades were agreed to in principal.
For those reasons, it's impossible to guess Ferry's next move. It's hard not to imagine that Ferry is actively engaged in trade discussions involving Dwight Howard. Given that Orlando GM Rob Hennigan and Ferry both come from the Spurs/Thunder front office tree (Hennigan served under Sam Presti, who previously served as assistant GM for the Spurs), I have no doubt that open lines of communication and a measure of professional trust exist between the two. The fact that Atlanta has barely received mention as a potential destination for Howard, despite an obvious wealth of assets, indicates that much of the speculation in the media is being driven by agents.
Since there is no way to anticipate Ferry's next move, what I'd like to do with this post is take a look at the Hawks roster as it stands now. What if Ferry has several trades in the works and none of them come to fruition by opening night? If no other major moves are made, this is what the Hawks will ride or die with.
The Hole at Small Forward
The Hawks do not presently have a small forward under contract, unless they are moving Josh Smith there full time. Small forwards that might be available at the veteran's minimum include Matt Barnes, Tracy McGrady and Damien Wilkins. McGrady had his ups and downs with the Hawks last year and Wilkins was disappointed not to be asked back before last season. However, any of these players might be lured by starter's minutes that are there for the taking.
One of the pure absurdities of Larry Drew's asset management last season was the fact that McGrady languished on the bench despite posting the 4th-best aggregate +/- for the season, trailing only Josh Smith, Joe Johnson and Jeff Teague. As I've pointed out, Willie Green had the worst aggregate +/- for the Hawks during both the regular season and playoffs. In spite of this, Drew played Green more minutes than McGrady.
This season, we can expect Drew to do the coaching job of his life as he auditions to be retained by Ferry beyond his current contract. For that reason, and given the gaping hole at the position, I would like to see the Hawks bring McGrady back. He's already familiar with much of the roster and he had good moments in the playoffs. He started for most of a season as recently as two years ago with Detroit. Despite any differences with Drew, I doubt any other team could offer McGrady a starting role.
The Power Rotation
This could be either a strength or a weakness depending on what happens with the small forward position. If the Hawks make Josh the full-time starter at small forward, he will play heavy minutes and the need for a credible backup won't be as great (assuming he stays healthy). In this configuration, the Hawks would start Zaza Pachulia at center and move Al Horford to his "natural" position of power forward.
I personally don't care for the idea of making Josh a full-time small forward. Horford has made two All-Star teams and third-team All-NBA as a center because his quickness and athleticism give him an advantage over most centers in the league. At power forward, he becomes just another guy and will struggle to make the All-Star team. In the recent friendly between Team USA and the Dominican Republic, Horford had trouble getting his shot off against NBA small forwards.
If Horford remains the starter at center, the Hawks will have some of the greatest depth in the league at the position with proven starter Pachulia backing him up. If the Hawks are able to retain Ivan Johnson, that will give the team a third proven commodity at center. Johnson won Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month in April playing primarily backup center behind Jason Collins after Pachulia was lost to injury April 13th. Johan Petro had the 11th-worst Player Efficiency Rating among qualified centers last season according to John Hollinger's rankings.
At power forward, if the Hawks have Josh starting and Ivan backing him up, the team again has excellent depth. Jordan Williams' rookie season was statistically similar to Ivan's but he's not known for his athleticism or defense. It should be noted also that those stats were amassed while playing for a lottery team. Ivan won Rookie of the Month to close the season on a team with the 4th-best record in the Eastern Conference while providing numerous highlight dunks and blocked shots. Second round pick Mike Scott will get a training camp invite, but I doubt he makes the roster based on his performance in summer league. He can shoot but he plays below the rim and isn't quick enough to guard small forwards. Last year's second round pick Keith Benson looked great in summer league and has a real shot to earn a roster spot.
Volume at Shooting Guard
Last April in an interview with Sports Illustrated, Andre Iguodala made one of the most brain-dead quotes I've ever seen from a professional athlete. Grilled about his lack of offensive production, Iguodala took the occasion to trash teammate and 76ers leading scorer Lou Williams. "It makes no sense to me why so many good scorers can't defend," Iguodala told SI. "Like Lou Williams. He's one of the toughest guys to guard in the league, but he can't guard anybody. I don't get that."
What I don't get is why you wouldn't want a player like Lou Williams on your team. If you consider him a shooting guard, only Dwayne Wade, Manu Ginobili, Kobe Bryant and James Harden posted a better PER last year. Joe Johnson did not. Despite this, Iguodala took it upon himself to insult a teammate who posessed the option to become an unrestricted free agent at season's end. Was Iguodala tired of having his offensive shortcomings pointed out? Did he have a personal problem with Williams? Who knows, and unless you're a 76ers fan, who cares? The end result was Lou Williams signing with the Atlanta Hawks and providing the franchise with the opportunity to reload without visiting the lottery.
Offensively, Williams replaces Johnson's production for 25 cents on the dollar. I have no doubt that Williams will try to prove haters wrong about his defensive capabilities, but at 6-1 he won't be able to replace what Johnson provided defensively against bigger shooting guards. Anthony Morrow provides more height and length at shooting guard. However, as Mark Ginocchio noted at Nets Are Scorching, "beyond shot creation, Morrow’s defense remains his top liability as a player." To top it all off, Ferry traded for Kyle Korver, another defensive liability who can knock down shots.
It remains to be seen how much DeShawn Stevenson has left in the tank. His defense contributed substantially to the Mavericks' run to an NBA championship two seasons ago. If he can be the defensive stopper on the perimeter that the Hawks otherwise lack, it will be of great benefit. Rookie John Jenkins' game appeared similar to Morrow's during summer league. He seems to be another player with elite shotmaking ability who will struggle to create for himself offensively or guard his position. I'm guessing the organization will ultimately regret passing on Jeff Taylor and Perry Jones. Festus Ezeli has been disappointing but could still turn out to be a rotation NBA center. Those are harder to find than defensively-challenged volume shooters.
Point Guard Overkill
Devin Harris will always be celebrated in Atlanta for putting us out of our Marvin Williams misery. Astute blogger "northcyde" on AJC.com's Hawks blog described the elation of Hawks fans at news of the Joe Johnson trade as "celebrating like the Berlin Wall was coming down." I think I can safely say this euphoria extended to the Marvin Williams trade, which brought closure to the saga of the most crippling draft pick in franchise history. As for what Harris' future with the team will ultimately be, only time will tell. In the short term, I think it's obvious that he has to start. Jeff Teague's legions of fans will weep and gnash their teeth, but this is pure economics. If Harris is to be used as a chip at the trade deadline, he needs to put up numbers and establish value. Bringing Teague off the bench is safer because the Hawks know what he's capable of as a starter and will control his rights as a restricted free agent after this season.
The future at point guard for the Hawks might just be Lou Williams. Among point guards who have yet to make an All-Star appearance, only Kyrie Irving and Stephen Curry posted a higher PER than Williams last season. If Harris is ultimately traded, Williams is obviously a better player than Teague. They are both known as shoot-first point guards, but only one of them is known for his shooting.
Larry Drew's Salvation
The last two seasons have featured such mind-boggling lineup decisions in the playoffs as Josh Powell as first big man off the bench and Kirk Hinrich sitting in the 4th quarter in favor of Jannero Pargo. Larry Drew has a history of playing marginal, end of the bench players when legitimate rotation players are available. The Hawks might not have made the playoffs in 2011 if Rick Sund had not traded Mike Bibby for Kirk Hinrich, which set the stage for Teague's emergence. If Sund hoped that the Hinrich trade would put an end to Drew's proclivity for playing marginal players ahead of rotation players, he obviously didn't anticipate Drew's love affair with Pargo and Green.
It's possible that Ferry has learned that the way to save Drew from himself is to make the roster so full of legitimate rotation players that it limits Drew's scrub options. If the Hawks are able to sign McGrady or another legit small forward and retain Ivan Johnson, the Hawks will be 11-deep with rotation players. For example, if the opening-night roster for the Hawks featured starters Horford, Smith, McGrady, Morrow and Harris, then the bench would feature rotation players Williams, Teague, Pachulia, Johnson, Stevenson and Korver. Sund may have thought he assembled "the deepest team in the league from one through 15" last season, but Ferry has a chance to put that bench rotation to shame. Since Jenkins and Jordan Williams are first- and second-year players, respectively, that leaves Johan Petro as the only player under contract who fits the washed-up veteran profile that seems to fascinate Drew.
On January 3rd, the Hawks built a 17-point lead over the Chicago Bulls at the United Center. Teague was so poor defensively to start the game that Drew assigned Joe Johnson to guard Derrick Rose. On May 6th, AJC beat writer Michael Cunningham published the results of an analysis of every defensive posession from the Hawks' Game 3 loss to the Celtics. His conclusion, after noting that Rajon Rondo failed to score a single basket while guarded by Kirk Hinrich, was that "Hinrich should guard Rondo whenever possible." When guarded by Pargo or Teague, Rondo appeared capable of getting to the basket at will.
Kirk Hinrich and Joe Johnson are gone. The hole in the Hawks' perimeter defense may prove to be just as large as the current hole at small forward. Furthermore, the two are interrelated. How Ferry addresses the small forward position is going to have a significant impact on overall front court depth. This in turn will have an impact on the amount of hustling, help defense the front court will be able to play in trying to overcome the limitations of the wing defense. Ferry must find a starting-caliber small forward. The key to this roster, however, is retaining Ivan Johnson. "Deebo" has the foot speed, ball handling, driving and shooting ability to play small forward at both ends of the court. He combines this with elite strength and reasonable shot blocking ability, which makes him a factor at both ends as a power forward or center. If the Hawks bring back McGrady and Johnson, the team will have the depth necessary to once again challenge for home court advantage in the playoffs.