The technician

NEW YORK — Kyle Korver waits for the rest of his teammates to clear the court before making his way out to his semi-private pre game warm up. In the locker room, he puts on his black knee-high socks, two per leg, and slips on startlingly low profile Kobe Bryant model Nikes. As Al Horford finishes miming pick-and-pop actions, casually knocking in 20-footers, Korver emerges and circles the court, dapping up Dominique Williams and smiling to fans from Chicago who say they came to Madison Square Garden to beg his forgiveness and won’t he please come back?

Horford’s working the bank shot as Korver picks up a 4-foot aerobics bar covered in white towel and wrapped in athletic tape. He performs precise squats, holding the bar above his head and arching his back as though in an Olympic lift.

This is how Korver readies his jump shot, from the ground up. Everything Korver does gives the impression of a craftsman polishing and assembling different parts of a high-performance machinery, testing each aspect of the system to calibrate it just right for show time.

Next Korver activates the flexibility in his legs necessary to be on balance when whipping around a curl screen. A series of lunges and band work engage small stabilizing muscles throughout his lower body.

Horford finishes his routine and heads in. There’s no one left on the court besides a few ball boys, three Hawks assistants, and Korver.

Finally Korver touches a basketball.

He begins at the elbow, facing away from the baseline as a coach feeds him from the top of the key. Korver is still focused on his legs. Quin Synder passes him the ball as Korver rotates as though on a hinge, catching and turning to get his shoulders square

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HoopSpeak Network

All that Josh Smith can be

“I feel like I’m a max player. I feel I bring a lot to the table. I have a lot of versatility. For what I do and what I give this ball club, I feel like I’m worth it.” – Josh Smith, to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Josh Smith, a free agent this offseason, believes that he is worthy of receiving the biggest contract teams can offer him. If he got his max contract, about $16.5 million per year, he would become the 15th highest paid player in the league. Is Josh Smith really that good?

Any analysis of Smith’s game should begin on the defensive end. With his 6’9” and 225 lbs. frame, he possesses an uncommon combination of size, speed and mental dexterity that allows him to effectively guard multiple positions. Defense is notoriously difficult to quantitatively assess, but Bradford Doolittle’s latest attempt to measure perimeter defense ranked Josh Smith the best in the league, ahead of elite wing-stoppers like Andre Iguodala and Tony Allen. Despite being a bit small for a power forward, Smith is a pretty effective post defender as well. In 96 post-ups this year (according to mySynergySports), Smith’s opponents only shoot 38.5%. He also fouls very rarely, 6.3% of the time, while (along with his team) causing a turnover on a full 25% of post-up attempts.

Smith is averaging 1.3 steals and 2.3 blocks per 36 minutes this year, which is right in line with his career averages. The only other players to do that for their careers are Hakeem Olajuwon, David Robinson, Ben Wallace and Andrei Kirilenko, winners of a combined seven Defensive Player of the Year awards and 26 All-Defensive Team selections. Smith has been voted to the NBA’s All-Defensive 2nd Team once, and he probably should have made it a

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I miss the Atlanta Hawks

That was such a “Hawks way” to lose, wasn’t it? The term is pejorative, despite Atlanta’s insistence on remaining decent, year after year. Everything they do is framed negatively. Like the Spurs-as-boring, LeBron-as-choker, or possibly, Blake-as-flopper, Hawks-as-disappointing is an article of faith.

Perhaps it’s the crowd. The “Highlight Factory” is an echo chamber of murmurs. It’s hard to feel inspired by that kind of backdrop. There’s also Marvin Williams, who plays on for the team as a haunting reminder of what could have been (Chris Paul, Deron Williams). There’s Joe Johnson and his contract. There’s Josh Smith, the incandescent talent who makes some brilliant plays, and some decisions so awful that they require a certain genius to even conceive of.

But despite all that disappoints, the Hawks keep trotting out a roster that Golden State Warriors fans would bob apples in boiling water for. This is a good team. This is an exciting team. When you forget the external and focus on the players, divorced from expectations, the Hawks are what’s right with hoops.

They fight hard, scrapping admirably despite losing nearly their entire frontcourt mid-series against the Celtics. They managed to finish fourth place in the Eastern Conference, despite losing their best player for all but 11 games. Jeff Teague shoots through defenses with the speed and inexorability of a sun ray, squirming through adjoined boulders. Al Horford remains a highly-skilled player and so does Josh Smith, but the two have wholly different skill sets. “Iso Joe” is a diss, but Johnson couldn’t pull the act off without having such a sticky handle for a guard his size.

Not everybody can win the title, only four teams have a shot most years. So why not embrace consistent competence? The Hawks give you that, and have since 2007. They probably

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NBA Playoffs: Adjustments for ATL-BOS, LAL-DEN

Notes on Tuesday night’s games. For my thoughts on how Chicago should play without Derrick Rose, click here.

Atlanta Hawks (1-0) vs. Boston Celtics (0-1)

The Celtics find themselves perilously close to facing a 2-0 deficit thanks to the suspension of Rajon Rondo and uncertain health of Ray Allen. The big question facing Boston is where they will find offense in the absence of two of their best creators. The answer honest to that question is simple; they won’t. Going into Game 2 the C’s main focus should be on slowing the pace, limiting possessions and doing their best to keep the game in the 70s.

Larry Drew, meanwhile, should be making any minor tweak he can to his scheme and lineups to do the exact opposite. To ensure a two game lead before heading to Boston, Drew must implore his troops to continue playing up-tempo and forcing a short-handed Celtics team to score with them. Jason Collins justified his minutes (and his mixtape) with his traditionally sublime post defense on Kevin Garnett, but Atlanta may want to go smaller with Josh Smith at the 5 in an attempt to make this game as much of a track meet as possible.

When Atlanta is in the halfcourt, they should use far more pick-and-rolls and much less isolation. Boston had quite a bit of difficultly keeping Jeff Teague out of the paint and Smith has been a terror as a dive man on the pick-and-roll. The Hawks should really only seek isolations when Smith has the chance to attack Brandon Bass or Greg Stiemsma in the mid-post.

The offensive explosion the Hawks had in the first half was mostly a mirage produced by Smith and a host of others making long, 2-point jumpers. To compound matters, Drew also seemed content to

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Jason Collins doin’ work

Here we are in the playoffs, and once again Jason Collins is somehow making valuable contributions to the Atlanta Hawks. Collins had an understated but important role in Atlanta’s Game 1 victory.

In his honor, I proudly present “50 Seconds of Thunder: The Jason Collins Mixtape.”

Actual basketball info: Watch for the final clip, where Collins intelligently screens the rotating Boston defender, allowing Kirk Hinrich to slip easily to the rim (where he blows the layup). It’s these kind of cagey plays that make Collins a useful player, even when he’s not producing big (or any) stats.

When he gives you a few timely buckets to go with his stalwart “D?” Well, that’s just gravy.

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Mike Woodson will succeed in New York*

*to the extent that success is limited, and possible.

We now understand that the Knicks effectively fired D’Antoni the moment they shipped off a group of players well-suited to his system in exchange for a single player, Carmelo Anthony, who was uniquely unfit for his perimeter-oriented, ball-movement focused offense. No surprises here, but twelve months ago, now resigned General Manager Donnie Walsh was against the Carmelo trade.

D’Antoni resigned “on his own,” but the franchise chose incoming talent over incumbent leadership months ago.

D’Antoni cuts a charming and affable character, what with his disarming West Virginia accent and photoshoppable ‘stache. He encourages the kind of fast-paced basketball that we love to watch, and has a reputation as a players coach. We like him, so his resignation with only 25 games left on a four-year deal smells funny to some, rancid to others.

It reeks of valuing the individual superstar (no less a player we now know is undeserving of that distinction) over the team concept. Anthony, a player who contributes next to nothing on defense and has been unwilling to fit his game to his surroundings on offense, was valued above the beautiful basketball that D’Antoni philosophically represents.

We should also consider that while I’ve been a bit fatalistic so far, there were other options, even after the Carmelo trade. Howard Beck reports that D’Antoni pushed for a trade for Deron Williams, a player who would have thrived in his system and made the whole team make sense.

But it sounds like owner James Dolan never considered abandoning the prized superstars he pushed so hard to acquire. Like I said, D’Antoni was gone the minute Anthony came over.

In his place stands Mike Woodson, who is actually a great alternative on short notice. The Chandler-Stoudemire-Anthony frontline presents some

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Tracy McGrady’s value is in his vision

Back in December, the Atlanta Hawks made the shrewd move of signing Tracy McGrady to hedge against the loss of Jamal Crawford. It was an under the radar move, but so far McGrady has looked fantastic, continuing his evolution from dynamic scorer to savvy playmaker. Not only is McGrady posting his highest PER (19.2) since 2007, but Synergy Sports ranks the 32-year-old as the most productive pick-and-roll facilitator in the NBA.

McGrady was always been a savvy creator for himself and others, but until the last couple of seasons his role has always been as the primary scoring option. His overall usage in pick-and-roll sets has trended downward but his prevalence for creating for others has increased. What was once a bonus of his dynamic offensive game has become the primary source of his on court value.

Surrounded by younger and more athletic scorers, McGrady has redefined his game by utilizing his excellent court vision. Though he can no longer explode around the corner like he once could, he remains an excellent shooter (54% shooting on jumpers this season) which still forces defenses to overload the ball side of the court.

The vision that McGrady’s former coach Jeff Van Gundy often celebrated has been excellent on his pick-and-roll possessions. About 70 percent of his passes for shots have come not to the pick and pop man, but to shooters on the opposite side of the floor. Not surprisingly this has yielded a wealth of open jumpers–his teammates are shooting 78 percent with an adjusted field goal percentage of 94 percent (!!) in these scenarios. Furthermore, despite having the third lowest usage rate of his career, no member of the Hawks roster has a better adjusted plus/minus at this point.

In the Hawks, McGrady has found a perfect setting

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Chicago goes to the half court trap to trip up Hawks

Judging by the Atlanta Hawk’s defensive energy and focus, you wouldn’t have guessed they were on the second game in a brutal back to back that began with the Heat. But with 7 minutes left in the third, Atlanta was in absolute control of the Chicago Bulls. The offense wasn’t exactly humming, but certainly grinding. Snappy ball-movement and running Joe Johnson in swooping circles around a series of screeners was giving the Bulls fits. When the Bulls’ aggressive big men hedged to Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford quickly slipped back door for alley-oops.

When a team is getting pounded, sage commentators intone that the team “needs to change something.” Really, sometimes a team only needs to make open shots, or take better care of the ball. Certainly either would have helped the Bulls, but it wasn’t just execution–the Hawks were taking it to them. They were beating them to loose balls, disrupting the Bulls already choppy offense and abusing the Bulls defensive philosophy with clever reads.

The Bulls won 61 games last season, and will win a whole bunch this year because night in and night out, they simply play harder and more aggressively than their competition.

So in an apparent effort to reclaim that identity, coach Tom Thibodeau unleashed a half court trap in the second half that dramatically shifted the flow of the game. With all those long and fast players, the Bulls second unit–which often includes Luol Deng– is a near perfect group for trapping.

But the Bulls debuted the trap with Carlos Boozer, of all people, on top. That’s because the goal wasn’t to get deflections and steals, but to divert the Hawks theretofore flowing offense into channels unaccustomed to handle the volume of offensive responsibility, and to burn precious seconds off the clock

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Zach Attacks: The Hawks and Kumite DVDs

Over the next 15 days, I’ll be releasing a random essay on each team in the league. This post is about the Atlanta Hawks. You can follow the series with the “2011-12 Team Previews” and “Zach Attacks” tags at the bottom of the page.

I have spent a lot of money in my life on a DVD collection that isn’t exactly making the American Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences feel overly covetous.
I’ve been known to drop $20 on The Wash or Soul Plane, sort of as a sick joke that my friends and I can use as humorous fodder during any given get together. It’s not something that I’m necessarily proud of. God knows there are times I glance at the shelves of DVDs and think, “why do I have three copies of Rounders? How did that happen? Did I not know I already had a copy of Hoosiers before I bought the deluxe edition?”

“Dear god, what will they think of me when they see Slammin’ Salmon is available to watch in my apartment?!”

To paraphrase the great Patrick Ewing during the 1998 lockout, “I waste a lot of money because I don’t have a lot of money,” or something like that. Continue reading “Zach Attacks: The Hawks and Kumite DVDs” »

Atlanta’s new pick and roll defense

The Magic can exhale after grinding out a hard-fought win versus a feisty Hawks team in Game 2. Despite tying up the series, Dwight Howard and company still head to Atlanta with some serious concerns. Aided by Jason Collins continuing ability to turn Orlando’s resident Superman into a turnover machine of Joel Prybilla-esque proportions, the Magic have experienced some startling drops in their offensive efficiency. But Collins’ defense isn’t the only reason Orlando has seen a nine point drop in both their scoring average and three point percentage from the regular season. The Magic’s vaunted pick and roll game has been stifled quite a bit by a creative Hawks defense.

One of the Magic’s favorite pick and roll alignments is a spread set with Turkoglu (or Nelson) coming off a high screen from Howard in the middle of the floor, the two guard in the corner (Richardson or Redick), Nelson (or Turkoglu if ball handling roles are switched) on the weak side wing, with floor spacing big man Ryan Anderson in the weak side corner.

The most common way teams would defend this is to have their big man sag back and protect the paint, giving ground to the ball handler as his defender trails over the top of the screen. They would then look to jam the rolling big man with the low weak side defender (X4) who would step in while the other weak side defender (X1) would play halfway between the corner and the wing. The strong side defender (X2) would stick tight to his man and not allow for an easy drive and kick for a corner three.

The Hawks, however, have befuddled Orlando on this action by straying from conventional wisdom and bringing help from the strong side. On the ball handler’s

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