Not all sixth-seeds are created equal.
As has become commonplace recently, the Atlanta Hawks appear to be a middle-of-the-pack playoff team heading in the 2013-14 season. This is a place they frequented over the past several seasons of the Josh Smith and Joe Johnson era.
In the past, a playoff berth in the East was Atlanta’s floor. As long as they had Joe, Josh, and Al Horford, the Hawks were a safe bet to play postseason basketball. This construction was passed off as a blueprint for success and, in a sense, the team was as competitive as anything that had ever been put out on the court in the ATL. The Joe Johnson era Hawks were capable of the occasional burst of inspiration, but were largely an upper-middle class squad designed for an annual first- or second-round exit each spring.
Though it might be hard to distinguish between past seasons and the Hawks’ current course, Danny Ferry is following a radically different path.
Like every new GM, Ferry spoke about how he wanted to build a contender and to bring a title to his new city of employment. Of course, Atlanta fans balked at this talk; they had been told this story before and weren’t eager to hear it again.
But then Ferry pulled off a minor miracle. He moved Joe Johnson’s contract to Brooklyn for a set of expiring deals, then shipped Marvin Williams to Utah for Devin Harris’ expiring deal. A team that was supposed to be financially locked down for the next few seasons had been freed into the wonders of cap flexibility.
Suddenly, the perception of the untrustworthy Hawks had started to shift. Fans were celebratory and already planning to build a monument to Ferry outside of Philips Arena. They firmly believed that there actually was a future for their Atlanta Hawks, even if it meant a few seasons of playing near .500 ball.
So what was next? Ferry had all of that cap space to spend, but how would it be deployed to build that championship team that he promised?
Here’s where Ferry’s history with the Spurs becomes important. Yes, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Gregg Popovich were the driving forces behind multiple San Antonio championships, but an invaluable tool that allowed them to maintain such longevity was/is analytics.
“Well over the last year and a half since I’ve been here,” Ferry opined, “we’ve started to implement more of an area that uses statistical data probably more than has been in the past.”
Now, the previous administrations weren’t armed crusaders against analytics, accosting their users and labeling them as “NERDS!” They simply didn’t use them and that was their biggest mistake.
“The analytics part,” said Ferry, “is an important part of [the NBA] now and you’re at a big disadvantage if you don’t use it.”
Where were the Hawks at their biggest disadvantage in the pre-Ferry era? Evaluating talent.
No, the old front office wasn’t bad at accumulating talent; Josh Smith, Joe Johnson, and Al Horford were all great acquisitions by the club. Whatever we make of Marvin Williams and his failings as a basketball player, he, Smith, and too a lesser extent Johnson, represent the biggest problem of the pre-Ferry management: a poor attempt to find a “do-everything” type of player.
Smith and Williams were drafted on their potential and because they looked like basketball players. Both had athleticism for days and were figured to be mini-LeBrons out on the court. Problem was, what real skills did the two possess outside of athleticism coming out of the draft? In the NBA, every player is athletic and rarely will a player be able to subsist on that alone.
How has Ferry changed this type of thinking in the organization? If the Spurs and analytics have taught him anything, it’s that role players that possess an elite skill might be more valuable than a guy who does a few things well. Analytics tell us that certain skills, like 3-point shooting and pick-and-roll defense, may be the the most important attributes a role player can possess.
Ferry hasn’t had the luxury of the lottery picks that the old Hawks had, but what’s he’s done with scouting in the past two drafts show a complete shift in process from the old organization. With three first round picks, he’s managed to grab a possibly elite 3-point shooter in John Jenkins, and two players – Dennis Schröder and Lucas Nogueira – that shine on defense, especially in the pick-and-roll. The possibility of Schröder being of an elite ball-handler and passer is just a caveat.
“[Dennis] just has an ability defensively to get through screens, to get hands on balls,” said Ferry after commenting that Schröder was “imposing his will defensively” at Las Vegas Summer League. “He’s got the ability to get in the lane and make plays.”
Ferry has made other possibly analytically driven decisions this offseason outside of the draft. The re-signing of Kyle Korver at four years, $24 million and the signing of Paul Millsap at two years, $19 million were widely lauded by the NBA community for their value and commitment to spacing. However, neither of those were as important as the hiring of the former Spurs assistant and analytically-friendly Mike Budenholzer.
“You know, hiring Coach Bud,” Ferry said, “That’s something that he also has a good feel for and understanding for and he’ll use as he’s making decisions and so on going forward.”
Now Ferry has his blueprint set up with the right coach. It’s not enough to be aware of the analytical approach alone; if the stats tell you something, you have to be able to impart that information to the coaching staff, which comes out of pure understanding of the system. Does being a former NBA player help in that regard? Ferry thinks otherwise.
“I don’t think it really matters if I played or not,” Ferry said. “You have to be able to understand it to a certain degree and you have to be able to talk about it.” Important part to go with this quote: Mike Budenholzer never played in the NBA. However, coming from the same Spurs model, Budenholzer has the same level of understanding of analytics as Ferry and will be able to transfer that information to his players.
Even though he acknowledges the advantage that using analytics provides, Ferry warns against portraying it as an end-all be-all.
“Analytics is a great tool, but it’s not a decision maker,” Ferry said. “At the end of the day, you have to make decisions that you feel good about and you feel right for what you’re trying to build and what you’re trying to do. But it’s a great checks-and-balance to make sure you’re not missing something. Or, if it does challenge you, OK, why? It makes you ask the right questions. I think that’s how we’ll use it going forward and I feel like it’s a valuable tool.”
And that’s why the Hawks are in good hands with Ferry as General Manager. He’s not afraid to trod down the road less traveled and find different ways of looking at the game. In the end, he will use every resource he has into trying to make the best decisions in order to turn this team into a title contender, something that wasn’t necessarily true in the past.
So next time you look up at the Philips Arena video boards and see a PER leaderboard or the Four Factors displayed, do not dismiss them as worthless stats; view them as a sign that the GM is doing everything he can to bring a championship to Atlanta.
And for Hawks fans, that is certainly a welcoming change from the bastion of mediocrity.