On Tap: The Atlanta Hawks

Kurt —  November 8, 2005

Steve Belkin was right.

Not for the right reasons — his was more about a power play than issues about a player — but trying to reject the Joe Johnson trade was the right move. Count me in with the group that think the Hawks overpaid — both the contract and in terms of draft picks — to get Johnson out of Phoenix this past off-season.

Johnson is a good player and had a spectacular last season: He shot 53.6% (eFG%), shot 47.8% from three point range, had a true shooting % of 55.6% and earned the praise he got. But Johnson also benefited from the Suns’ system — he was the fourth option in the Suns attack, meaning he was getting open looks thanks to the defense collapsing on Stoudemire and Nash. It’s a lot easier to shoot 48% from beyond the arc when the looks are all open. Ask Kobe about the quality of looks you get when the defense is focused on stopping you.

This season Johnson is shooting 48.4%, 35.7% from three-point range and 51.2% true shooting%. By my calculations, he is -9.1 (per 48 minutes) so far this season.

Not that rebuilding a team is easy. Last season the Hawks won just 13 games and if they double that total this year it could be considered a success. They are going about the rebuilding by seeing how many young and athletic 6-7 to 6-9 players you can put on one roster — Johnson, Josh Childress, Josh Smith, Al Harrington and rookie Marvin Williams. That’s a nice collection of young talent but they have little outside of the two and the three.

So far this season Atlanta has spent a lot of time “going small” and trying to up the tempo, which leads to some exciting plays and great dunks from Smith but does little to cover their weaknesses. Big men such as Zach Randolph, Elton Brand, motley-haired Chris Kaman, and Mickael Pietrus have had big nights against the Hawks in the first three games. Chris Mihm and Kwame Brown have a chance to shine here (or, in the case of Mihm, continue on his hot streak).

Sadly, the Hawks are especially hamstrung in the paint because of the untimely death of center Jason Collier.

Former Laker Tyron Lue is getting significant minutes in Atlanta (24.3 per game), which should tell you all you need to know about how thin they are at the point. While Laker fans tend to remember him fondly and think of him as a good defender because of the 2001 finals against Philadelphia, that is not the case — he is a career defender with a defensive rating of 111, worse than Chuck Atkins career average (although he was slightly better than Atkins last season, but not by much). He’s not good on the perimeter and players tend to just shoot over him. One guy rumored to have looked good for the Hawks so far is rookie Salim Stoudamire out of Arizona. He’s shooting 47.9% and is 5 of 9 from three-point range — I watched him torch UCLA enough to know he can fill up the basket.

For the Lakers this is a key game on the four-game road trip — after the Atlanta game they will fly all night to Minnesota for another game tomorrow night. Lose in Atlanta and there is the real chance of an 0-2 start to the trip heading into Philly. If the Lakers play like they did against Denver on Sunday this is a game they should win, but don’t get back in transition and let the young Hawks use their athleticism and it could be closer to the Phoenix game. The Lakers are playing well enough to spur optimism in all of us, but they are not good enough to look past anyone, especially on the road.