Wednesday, March 12, 2008

A brief interlude on the Hawks

I find the Atlanta Hawks mystifying. I want to root for them, because I have a real sense of "buy low, cash in big" with this team, but then I think they are already underperforming greatly. There is talent on this team, but they aren't performing well. I found myself nodding in agreement when the 790 AM morning hosts were bitching that the top-to-bottom roster for the Houston Rockets, who might never lose again, isn't as good as the roster for the Hawks. Well, the Rockets certainly have more depth, but I think there's some merit to the argument. The Rockets are a significantly better coached team than the Hawks.

Regardless, the Hawks are primed for a berth in the playoffs. They sit in the 8th seed in the Eastern Conference right now, and they have what on paper is the easiest schedule remaining of the teams in the hunt for 6th-8th. There is reason for some optimism that the Hawks may make the playoffs. The AJC this morning broke down the chances of the Hawks making a run to the playoffs. The problem: 4 of the AJC's reasons why the Hawks will make the playoffs aren't very strong. There is really only reason why the Hawks will make the playoffs: other Eastern Conference teams are more awful than the Hawks. That's it. Let me break down the other reasons:

1. The schedule: Of the Hawks' 19 remaining games, 11 are against teams with a worse record, including three against the 18-win Knicks.

Yes, the Hawks have an easy schedule remaining, playing so many bad teams. The flaw in that argument? The Hawks still aren't very good against those teams. Against the 11 teams with worse records than the Hawks that the Hawks have yet to play, the Hawks are barely above .500 (9-7). Take out the 3 wins against the worst team in the league, Miami (which wins were by a margin of only 9 points combined!), and they're below .500. The Hawks have already lost twice to the Bucks and Nets (more on them in a second), and they've been blown out once by the Bulls. The three games against the Knicks should cause optimism, but if you saw last week's Knicks game, the Hawks struggled mightily and only had a lead of more than one basket for the last 11 seconds in the 4th quarter. Checking any game remaining on the schedule as a "sure win" is not a good idea.

2. The opponents: The Hawks play Washington, New Jersey, Chicago (2), Philadelphia (2) and Indiana — all teams within four games in the standings

Having your closest competitors for a playoff spot is definitely an advantage for a team, but only if you actually win those games. The Hawks haven't shown that they are likely to do so. They are just 6-6 against those 5 teams so far this year. The other thing: the Hawks have to travel on the road against all five of those teams (Chicago and Philly both also come to Philips Arena). The Hawks already lost on the road at New Jersey, Chicago and Indiana. The Pacers loss was by 22 points! The AJC mentions in their section on why the Hawks won't make the playoffs that the Hawks are just 7-25 on the road this year. 5 of their remaining 9 road games are against these key teams. That's bad news.

3. The point guard: Mike Bibby is averaging 12.6 points, 6.4 assists and 31.1 minutes in 14 games since trade to the Hawks.

Those numbers might seem pretty good compared to the point guards he supplanted. But here's what the AJC isn't telling you: Bibby's numbers are down from when he was on the Kings. Just this year, Bibby's points per game, rebounds, and steals are down. His assists are slightly up, but everything else is down. His FG shooting and FT shooting is worse too. And that's just comparing Bibby on the Hawks to the 2007-08 Bibby on the Kings. If you look at his numbers from previous years, he's going to average career lows in points, steals and rebounds. And the clincher is this: that's not even the worst news about Bibby. That would be his defense. Since the trade for Bibby, the Hawks have averaged giving up 110 points per game. That's more than 10 points more than their season average. Opposing PGs have had a field day on Bibby, including Baron Davis going for 35 points twice and Chris Paul posting a 23/18 day. Yeah, those guys are all-stars, but Raymond Felton put up 23/10 for the Bobcats (another team with a worse record than the Hawks that the Hawks just lost to). Bibby's D is really hurting the Hawks (or, who knows, maybe it was all AJ, Lue, and Shelden doing the defending). Regardless, unless the Hawks figure out how to defend better with Bibby, or increase his offensive output dramatically, Bibby's presence won't help the Hawks make the playoffs - it'll hurt it.

4. The All-Star: Joe Johnson is starting to score more. He is averaging 29.6 points over the last five games, including 39 against Miami.

Joe Johnson does seem to be playing better, and it's mainly because of his 3-point shooting. He's hit better than his season average in FG% and 3-PT % in 9 of the 13 games since the Bibby trade. That's definitely a positive. And it could be a sign that Bibby's presence is getting Joe open for better shots. The increased scoring average, though isn't all good news. In those 5 games where Joe is nearly averaging 30 points a game, the Hawks are 1-4, and all 4 losses were blowouts (by 11, 15, 15 and 17 in games that really weren't even that close). I can't find/put together the numbers, but I'd be willing to bet that Joe's points per 100 Hawks possessions in those 5 games isn't all that improved over his numbers for the rest of the season. The Hawks are giving up more points, so they're getting more possessions. Joe's increased scoring could be just a product of shootout games - and worse, shootout games that aren't really all that close. When the Warriors or Magic are up 25 points in the late third quarter, the benches are getting emptied for the opposing teams and they aren't working quite as hard on D as they might be in a 1 possession game. And finally, Joe Johnson's scoring is up over the last 5 games, but Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Josh Childress all are seeing their scoring drop precipitously over that same stretch. Joe's scoring, but it's to the detriment of, not in addition to, the other scoring options. I don't think the increased scoring numbers will automatically lead to a Hawks playoff berth.

My honest opinion: I think the Hawks do have a great chance of making the playoffs. But it won't be because of the reasons the AJC is giving. It'll be only because the Hawks are equally or slightly less terrible than the Nets, Bulls and Pacers (but those three teams have tougher remaining schedules). And those teams are also really terrible.


Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Something I learned from ESPN today...

Peter Gammons likes the way Evan Longoria holds his bat.

No. I'm not dead.