Brad’s Beat: Looking Back to Look Forward – Frontcourt Edition


Feb 11, 2013; Dallas, TX, USA; Atlanta Hawks center Al Horford (15) dunks in the fourth quarter against the Dallas Mavericks at the American Airlines Center. The Hawks beat the Mavs 105-101. Mandatory Credit: Matthew Emmons-USA TODAY Sports

In the midst of the Josh Smith circus (and it was a circus), the majority of the coverage, both in this space and others, centered around next year and the years to come. While I would maintain that the focus should be on the future with regard to Danny Ferry’s operational dealings, the fact that the roster will remain virtually unchanged for the next four months is a certainty, and as such, it is time to focus our minds on the on-court performance of the existing roster.

In the second and final installment, we’ll take a look at the frontcourt positions and how they have performed in the first half, but also with an eye toward the post-deadline “second half” of the season. Let’s go.

Power Forward – Josh Smith, Ivan Johnson, Anthony Tolliver, Mike Scott

Josh Smith is the headliner of this roster even when he isn’t firmly entrenched on the trading block, but when he is, the attention level reaches crazy heights. He isn’t the best player on the team (even though most people think he is), but he’s certainly the most divisive and the most talented. So far this season, Smith has regressed in the majority of statistical categories. His scoring rate is down (21.3 pts/40 in 2011-12 to 19.2 this year), his rebounding rate is at a 4-year low, and his turnover rate is at a 5-year worst. Basically, he’s been asked to “do more” this year, and the results haven’t been pretty. That is not to say that Smith hasn’t been a highly effective player (he has), but with an overall PER of 17.71, a lot of statistical measures show him as just a slightly above-average player this year. I could get into the cause (again) of his offensive decline (SHOT SELECTION!), but for this post, I’d rather focus on what to expect. With Smith firmly in a contract push for the final segment of games, he would be ultra-wise to abandon the errant ways of his jump shooting, and focus on his strengths for the short-term. One of the biggest issues in his game this season has been ghastly free-throw shooting, and a small spike to get that number up to 60-65% (from the 50% currently) would do wonders for his offensive efficiency. He’ll never be the player that we all want him to be (at least not in a Hawks uniform), and I’ve come to accept that, but it won’t stop the fan base from screaming every time he takes a contested 20-footer. With that said, it’s time to appreciate the contributions that he’s made over the past 9 years, because it may be our last look.

Ivan Johnson has been a revelation in his 1.5 years with the Hawks. He has produced at a league-average level across the board (14.5) PER while making under $1 million in salary. Johnson is a point/rebound machine, as he averages over 17 points and 10 boards per 40 minutes, and does so in a pretty efficient manner. He is pretty mistake-prone (13.9% turnover rate), but Ivan has actually cut down on the TO’s this year, and while his increased usage is potentially problematic, he’s a perfect, high-energy role player. Certainly, Johnson has his weaknesses, and you never want him to be defending any quality length in the post, but he produces solid minutes for the most part. I’m highly interested in what the market will bear out for him after this season, and with the Hawks having to issue a $1.2 qualifying offer to keep his restricted rights, there’s an interesting decision to be made.

The Anthony Tolliver era has drawn ire from me, but it has nothing to do with disliking him as a player. In the recent past, Larry Drew has chosen to feature and even start Tolliver, and this decision is simply unfounded in statistical analysis. I fully endorsed the Tolliver signing in the pre-season, and I would still do so, but he’s nothing more than an end-of-the-bench guy who provides some versatility (with his ability to play small forward) and a veteran presence. With all of that said, he’s not a particularly productive basketball player. His PER on the season is a cover-your-eyes-bad 6.74, and he’s shooting a career-low 34.5% from the field. The shooting issues are a considerable problem because his ability to stretch defenses at 6’8 should be his main value. It’s reasonable to think that the shooting numbers will rebound a bit, but playing him 19 minutes a game (as Drew has done in February) is a losing recipe with the other options that are available.

For a guy playing under 8 minutes a game, Mike Scott has actually been quite effective. He’s scored (16 points per 40) and rebounded (11.2 rebounds per 40) at impressive rates, while shooting the ball reasonably well. I think it’s reasonable to expect his 75% FT to actually improve as he was over 80% in each of his final two college seasons, and as he gets his pick-n-pop game ready for the NBA, his shooting numbers will likely spike a bit. The biggest issue for Scott has been a propensity to turn the ball over at an alarming rate so far this season. His turnover rate is currently at 16.6%, which (if qualified) would place him as the 5th-worst in the NBA among power forwards and 17th-worst overall. This, unfortunately, isn’t a new problem for Scott, but as it usage potentially increases, it could really hurt has value going forward. When I look at Scott, I see an NBA rotation player, and if he can effectively defend (enough), he’ll be a solid option at a cheap price going forward.

Center – Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia, Johan Petro, Jeremy Tyler

My man-crush on Al Horford is well-documented, but I’ll try to keep it under wraps here. Horford is leading the team in PER (19.4), rebounding (9.7), team offensive rating (105.2 points per 100 when he’s on the court), field goal percentage (55%) and overall +/- rating (+151). Basically, he’s been the best player on the team by a significant margin this season, and while Josh Smith is certainly more talented, Horford is performing at a higher level. I could go on all day about how important and effective he is, but the stats (and the eye test) say it all, and he really has no out-right deficiencies. The biggest issue for Horford this year has been an unexpected dip in his free-throw shooting. Al is a career 74% free throw shooter who has yet to crack the 60% plateau this season, and the problem is persistent into February. His woes at the stripe aren’t as detrimental as Josh Smith’s (due to lack of attempts), but it’s something to keep an eye on going forward. In nine games in February, Horford is averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game with 60.4% field goal shooting. Now, read that sentence again. It’s probably unreasonable to expect that kind of line from Horford, but he’s been tremendous, and there’s no reason to think he won’t be going forward.

Zaza (!) Pachulia is probably the #1 fan favorite on the squad, and it makes me laugh every single time I hear the crowd explode when he checks into the game for the first time. We all know what we’re getting from Zaza at this point, and that hasn’t changed. He’s the team’s most physical player, he rebounds like crazy (over 12 per 40 min), he can shoot a little bit, and he turns the ball over too much. His PER has been between 12 and 15 for the last five seasons, and Pachulia has established himself as a league-average player on a below league-average contract. He’s a very nice asset in the role that he currently occupies, and Atlanta will miss him going forward if he isn’t re-signed.

Johan Petro has played the least amount of minutes of anyone on the team this season, and there’s a reason for that. He can’t score around the rim, he’s a below-average rebounder for his size, and generally seems to have no idea on that end of the court. He hasn’t had a true shooting percentage over 46% (which is bad) in three seasons, and when the Hawks acquired him, I’m fairly certain that the team knew he would be occupying an end-of-bench spot. All reports are that Petro is a quality guy, and it always helps to have a 7-footer laying around in case disaster happens, but he’s a non-factor going forward, and as an expiring contract, he’s headed out of town shortly.

Jeremy Tyler just arrived, so this will be a mini-scouting report. He’s appeared in 62 games over the course of two seasons since arriving out of high school (via a whirlwind of pro teams overseas), and the results have been mixed. He looks incredible physically and he’s got an NBA body, but the skill development hasn’t been quick for the 21-year-old. He has alarming bad offensive numbers (a true shooting percentage in the low 40’s and a sky-rocketing TO rate), but he does rebound at a high rate, and he’s a project. I doubt that Tyler sees too much of the court (barring injury), but he could be a fringe asset to keep around if the team picks up a cheap team option for next season.

Because the team’s two best players occupy the front-court positions, this is the stronger of the two “units”. With Ivan Johnson’s second straight effective season, Atlanta features four no-doubt NBA rotation guys up front, and that’s more than a lot of teams can say. The huge question going forward is Josh Smith’s availability, but with Al Horford in the fold and team control over Ivan Johnson, things could be worse. As for this season, this group is above league-average, and if this team goes anywhere in May, it’ll be on the back of Horford and Smith.