Preview & Chat: The Atlanta Hawks

Kurt —  February 17, 2009


Records: Lakers 42-10 (1st in the West) Hawks 31-21 (4th in the East)
Offensive ratings: Lakers 114.5 (1st in league) Hawks 109.5 (8th in league)
Defensive ratings: Lakers 105.5 (7th in league) Hawks 107.5 (15th in league)
Projected Starting Lineups: Lakers: Derek Fisher, Kobe Bryant, Luke Walton, Lamar Odom, Pau Gasol
Hawks Mike Bibby, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams, Josh Smith, Al Horford

A couple of links: You may have heard there was a fight at the Lakers practice yesterday between Chris Mihm and DJ Mbenga. Check it out for yourself. I think this would have been more fun if Tim Floyd coached the Lakers.

Sasha Vujacic has a new Web site, and I have to say it’s a good one. Find out what Sasha is reading, some game and strategy stuff, just a good all around site. Check it out.

Who Is The Lakers Moneyball Player? The thing that has had me thinking the most lately — and had the NBA blogsphere buzzing — is last weekend’s piece in the NY Times Magazine about the statistical steps taken by the Rockets and how they plucked Shane Battier from obscurity to make him a key players. (I’m not sure how a guy recruited to Duke and selected sixth overall ever gets thought of as obscure, but we’ll let that question slide.)

It got me thinking (and emailing people to discuss) — who is the guy who fits that role for the Lakers? The guy whose contributions don’t always show up in the box score. And the first answer is: A lot of them. Ariza. Odom. Walton. Fisher. Farmar. The Lakers have assembled a team of good players by the new metrics, but they did it the old fashioned way.

I think Odom may be the poster boy for the Lakers guys who do the little things. It’s very hard to define Odom’s contributions because he’s a bit of a chameleon. He does just about everything on a basketball court well, but nothing spectacularly well. Still, the roundness of his game allows him to slide into the cracks and fill in this Lakers team’s weaknesses in a matchup on any given night. He rebounds well, and gets into the lane to shoot (59% of his shots are inside according to 82games), he creates mismatches at the three or the four. He is a better defender than he gets credit for. And, I think this gets overlooked, he’s a leader. He’s the guy in the middle of the circle doing the rap while the players bounce around before a Lakers game. In the Lakers locker room you can tell he is liked and respected.

I think there is one key difference between Battier and Odom, something Reed pointed out: Battier gives thought to what he is trying to do Odom plays on almost pure instinct. Those instincts lead to the “O-dumb” mistakes (coming off three point shooters to help inside when the other team just needs a three, for example). But that is what Odom is, an instinctual player whose natural tendency is to sort of fill in what the team is needing on any given night. With Bynum down the Lakers need scoring, so you see him pick that up. But, to borrow a phrase from Darius, you can’t “tie down or burden him with the expectation of statistics.” He just does what he feels needs to be done. But that that has translated to the best +/- on the team — when he is on the court the Lakers are just better. It’s that simple.

I want to add that I find the NY Times piece fascinating it seems to miss the team concepts of basketball. I mean the story does, not the Rockets staff. The story makes it sound as if Battier is out on an island. Battier is a good man-on-man defender, but what he also does very well is shade his man, pushing him toward a help defender. And, when your help is a 7-6 guy with long arms, you get guys pulling up and taking jumpers rather than trying to finish at the rim. Battier is smart to take advantage of this help, but he has it. He’d be less effective if the big help defender behind him was David Lee.

The Hawks Coming In: To find out a little more about the Hawks, I asked Brett from the smart Hoopinion about his team, and if they really are as perimeter oriented as they seem.

They’re as perimeter-oriented as they seem to be. But, they’re able to succeed with that because Smith, Williams, and Horford have all improved their back to the basket games enough that any one of them can create offense from the low post: Williams almost always for himself (he’s close to being a really good offensive player) but Smith and Horford are both good passers.

I can’t overstate the importance of Williams, Mike Bibby, Flip Murray, and Maurice Evans each having career years from behind the three-point line. I’m naturally pessimistic so take my sneaking suspicion that this year’s offensive success is neither sustainable nor fully by design.

Woodson is never going to run the offense through anyone other than Joe Johnson, matchups be damned, but he does give Bibby a free hand to do whatever he wants to do and Bibby can still get himself open 8-10 times a game and, thus far, he’s been making those shots and taking some of the offensive pressure (some of which is self-imposed, I believe) off Johnson.

On the other hand, the machinations the Hawks put themselves through to try and hide Bibby defensively border on the comic and Johnson may have taken on as much of a defensive load because of Bibby as Bibby has lightened Johnson’s offensive responsibilities. Or, Johnson might be showing the wear of attempting to finish in the top 4 in the league in minutes played for the fifth time in six years.

Keys To The Game: Let us repeat our mantra — pound the ball inside. This is not a team that protects the paint well (look what the Knicks did to them). This is another case where if the Lakers go to their length and skill advantage inside they will open things up on the wings. But things work best inside out.

The Lakers should also be able to control the glass at both ends. Easy points off offensive rebounds would be huge for the Lakers.

This might be a good night for Olympics Kobe to show up — as Brett noted above the Hawks run their offense through Joe Johnson. Nothing fancy, just isolations and some high screens out at the elbow extended. The Lakers know how to defend this, if they are focused. Shut Johnson down, make the other guys make the plays, and your chances of winning go up. Their other guys are capable, but Johnson is at the center of it all.

On defense, make Josh Smith a jumpshooter. Easier said than done, but he is a 35% jump shooter and 65% if you let him get in close. Pull back, take away the drive and dare him to put up a jumper.

On offense, the Lakers need to be smart with passes — the Hawks are long and athletic and will play to deny the pass, particularly on the wings. The Hawks are a good transition team that can be slowed down, but turn the ball over with sloppy passes and you will give them a lot of easy buckets that they need to win.

The other thing is the Hawks, to make up for their size, will double the post. That will leave room for Pau to hit cutters — it could be a good night for the Gasol/Odom high-low game.

Where you can watch: Back home for a 7:30 start at Staples. Fox Sports locally and NBA TV nationally (which means you NBA broadband people will be scrambling. Sorry).