Monday, February 25, 2008

Atlanta Hawks: Going as Far as Josh Smith Can Take Them

I know it is rather uncool to discuss the back end of the Eastern Conference playoff race, but the bottom line is that if you make the postseason, anything can happen (see: Nuggets over Sonics in 1994 or Warriors over Mavericks last spring). And while the East seems to have a pretty clear hierarchy in place with Boston, Detroit, Cleveland, and (to some extent) Orlando out ahead of the pack, there are a few dangerous teams lurking in the bottom of the bracket. The Wizards could be potent if they ever get Arenas back to pair with their improved defense. The Nets are going to be more dangerous once Devin Harris gets healthy. I even like the Bulls now that they are rolling out a young lineup of Hinrich, Sefalosha, Deng, Thomas, and Noah. As long as they keep Larry Hughes off the floor, they could be a tricky 8th seed. (And believe that the Pistons don't want to see them.)

The team that really intrigues me in that also ran grouping is the Atlanta Hawks. They are playing better defense this year, they pass the ball well for a young team, and they have the speed and athleticism to get up and down the floor. They seem like the kind of squad that could give a wobbly top seed (say, Orlando) trouble in an opening round. And if they do, it will be Josh Smith leading the way.

The Hawks depend a great deal on Joe Johnson's physical playmaking ability and are deeply indebted to Al Horford for shoring up their interior defense, but if this squad is going to make the playoffs and be competitive, it will be because Smith has undergone his usual second half metamorphosis.

Put simply, Smith has crazy splits:

Pre All-Star Break
2004-05 - 8/5/2, 1.8 blocks
2005-06 - 9/6/1, 2.3 blocks
2006-07 - 15/8/3, 2.7 blocks

Post All-Star Break
2004-05 - 12/8/2, 2.2 blocks
2005-06 - 15/8/4, 3.1 blocks
2006-07 - 19/9/4, 3.1 blocks

Put another way, here were the improvements each year, from the first half to the second half:

2004-05 - 4/3/0, 0.4 blocks
2005-06 - 6/2/3, 0.8 blocks
2006-07 - 4/1/1, 0.4 blocks

I know those numbers don't look enormous, but those are significant upgrades. And while the bump in his rookie year makes sense, the other two increases can't be tied to specific career benchmarks. In fact, it is strange to see a good player go up, then down, then up, then down, then back up again. It seems to indicate that he really is a "second half player."

Of course, as soon as I decided to highlight these trends, Smith came out of the break sluggish, posting three straight subpar games. However, on Saturday night he went for 30 and 12 with a pair of blocks and steals. Was it just a particularly good game or the sign of things to come? This leads to another question: were Smith's past improvements based more on truly great second half play or was it simply because he was so inconsistent during the first half of the year?

This season, for the first time ever, Smith has been playing at a high level from opening night. In fact, his first half splits for 2007-08 present an even starker contrast to his old first half splits than do his second half numbers. Compare his first half numbers from this season to any of his prior first half splits:

2004-05 - 8/5/2, 1.8 blocks
2005-06 - 9/6/1, 2.3 blocks
2006-07 - 15/8/3, 2.7 blocks
2007-08 - 18/8/4, 3.2 blocks

Based on the previous three years, Smith could reasonably expect to boost his scoring by over 4 points a game, his rebounding by 2, and his assists by just over 1 per. He'll even block another .5 shots per contest. And if you add those increases to his current numbers, he suddenly looks like this for the second half:

2008 (projected second half) - 22/10/5, 3.7 blocks

Yikes. If he really does hike those numbers up, he becomes an absolute monster. Those are KG-in-his-MVP-year stats with even more blocks.

This is why Josh Smith is one of the true players to watch in the East. If there are real reasons for his previous improvements - increased focus, exceptional stamina that allows him to play at the same level while others wear down, film studies that iron out bad habits, coaching, and so on - then it seems entirely possible that Smith will once again see a sizable uptick in his production. If he does so, and arrives at Garnett production levels, the Hawks would have to be seen as a dangerous playoff team.

If, on the other hand, Smith has just finally rectified first half problems of the past - and is already at his 2007-08 ceiling - than there probably won't be reason to get too worked up about Atlanta (in other words, it will be like every other year).

Stay tuned.

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