Michael Pina Guest Post:
As his team faces a serious roster transition, Atlanta Hawks head coach Larry Drew is forced to experiment with every card currently laid on the table.
His five-man units are constantly shifting. Drew constantly, meticulously mixes and matches players. Standing at the center of it all, during one of the most important seasons of his career, is Josh Smith, Atlanta’s most talented player.
When the Hawks win basketball games, Smith’s impact is typically reserved. In the two wins he’s played in so far this season, he’s averaging 31.5 minutes. In the three losses, he’s playing 37.3 minutes. This is mostly because the more Josh Smith plays, the more he’s prone to making bad decisions.
The long jumpers, the three-pointers, the over dribbling. In losses he’s averaging two three-pointers per game, and in wins that number drops down to 0.5. Less than two shots per game obviously isn’t the difference between winning and losing, but these figures are more symbolic than tangible.
This isn’t to say he isn’t important. But so far, the plus/minus numbers aren’t supporting his borderline all-star caliber talent. When Smith is off the court, Atlanta’s scoring 1.9 more points per 100 possessions. And on the defensive end they’re 3.4 points per 100 possessions better.
Since we’re only six games into the season, nobody should loot Philips Arena over these statistics. If you take a closer look at the situation Smith is being placed in, you will realize very few players could adapt as smoothly.
Different from most teams around the league, Atlanta utilizes two five-man units, which basically play the same amount of time. Normally, teams have their go-to group (for example, a group responsible for opening and closing games) that dominates a majority of the playing time.
The Hawks are still searching for theirs, and each option represents a drastically different brand of basketball.
Unit A: Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeShawn Stevenson, Josh Smith, and Al Horford.
Unit B: Teague, Korver, Smith, Horford, and Zaza Pachulia.
(Unit A has played 46 minutes and Unit B has played 45.)
The obvious contrast here is size. Pachulia stands six inches taller than Stevenson, and exchanging one for the other has a dramatic effect on the team’s front court. As should be expected, the Hawks are a better rebounding team as they grow taller (a rebounding percentage of 57.5%, which would lead the league).
What they lose, however, is offense. The Pachulia lineup scores 102.8 points per 100 possessions, but with Stevenson on the court spacing the floor beside Korver creating driving lanes (for guys like Smith), the Hawks are scoring an insanely good 117.8 points per 100 possessions.
With Pachulia in, Al Horford moves down to power forward, a position he’s comfortable at and capable of playing. Smith shifts down to small forward, which in today’s league could pose immediate two-way matchup problems for both participating teams.
Smith defends best in the open floor, at times when he’s allowed to have an impact in transition. Ironically, at the pace of play Atlanta would run with Smith at small forward, he’d likely be stuck in more halfcourt sets, defending the opposing team’s most athletic player.
As Atlanta progresses through an Eastern Conference mostly void of notable height, they’ll be better off with more shooters on the court. With Smith playing out of position at small forward, the Hawks are restricting one of their most lethal weapons on both ends of the court.
As a power forward, he’s quicker than the man who’s guarding him nine times out of ten. Smith’s unique quickness and playmaking ability would then allow him to draw the defense’s attention, creating kick-out opportunities for shooters like Korver, Stevenson, and Anthony Morrow.
Statistics that compare how well Smith is doing individually inside both units have either yet to be invented, or haven’t been released for public consumption. But taking the numbers we already have access to and then combining them with pragmatic analysis supports the idea that power forward is Josh Smith’s rightful position within Atlanta’s current structure.
If Drew is to squeeze all he can out of the most talented player he’s ever coached, going small (with Smith and Horford responsible for board work)might be the smartest route for him to take.