('88 Record: 50-32)
With a starting lineup of Dominique Wilkins, Moses Malone, Cliff Levingston or Kevin Willis, Glenn Rivers, and Reggie Theus, the Hawks look awful impressive. There doesn't appear to be a weak link. The team rebounds well, has scorers at all positions, and has a solid bench. What could go wrong next year?
Even before the acquisitions of Malone and Theus, the team appeared to be ready to win the Championship next season. They were very impressive against the Celtics in the playoffs, losing in seven games primarily because they took Boston too lightly at the Omni in Game Six. That won't happen next year. The playoff experience the team has acquired the past few years looked to be enough to take them over the top. Then, they acquired Malone and Theus.
Two new starters on a team that is already very good: could there be a long period of adjustment? What about ego conflicts? Malone, Theus, and Wilkins all like to score and this is the first time they will be playing together other than in the disorganized All-Star Games. Are they going to be able to cooperate in a structured offense? And what about the defense?
That's the rub. Defense.
Neither Theus nor Malone is a very good defensive player. Theus came from the Sacramento Kings, where defense was de guy who sold de stolen goods. In other words, the Kings were 21st in it. Part of that is Theus' responsibility. Malone came out of Washington, where the defense was provided mostly by Manute Bol's blocked shots. Malone has rarely been much of a force defensively, coming alive when he played on the Championship Philadelphia team of '82-83. His defensive rebounds will be welcome, but he won't be blocking many shots.
The force of the Atlanta defense for so long was Tree Rollins. Last year, he had his worst season blocking shots and the whole Atlanta defense suffered for it. Rollins was set free and signed with Cleveland, leaving the Hawks with no substantial shot blocker. Malone won't make up for that loss. Antoine Carr is now the best shot blocker on the team and he's nothing special. The Hawks had 537 blocks last year; that should drop to about 460 this coming year.
But there are more defensive problems on the team. These are hard to pinpoint, but they're there. In '87, the Hawks allowed only 45.1% shooting, the best in the league. In '88, the Hawks allowed 47.1% shooting, still sixth in the league, but a considerable difference. In '87, the Hawks were third in the league with a defensive rating of 103.5. In '88, the Hawks were 15th with a defensive rating of 106.1. That is a big difference. The offensive problems the team had with Willis (Coach Mike Fratello said, "Willis will be the key to our success." Willis flopped and the Hawks didn't go as far as they had hoped.) and Randy Wittman were minor compared with the defensive problems the team suffered through. Where those problems specifically came from is impossible for me to say. It just appears that the Hawks relaxed.
Malone and Theus won't relax, but they aren't quick and youthful enough to play real tight defense. The team that was so incredibly quick two years ago actually drags its feet on occasion. But, there is something to be optimistic about defensively. The team's average age is about 27.5 years old. Generally, teams reach their defensive peak at around age 28 or 29, apparently because they still have the youthful energy in their legs and arms and also have the experience to know when to use it. That may help the Hawks to a better defense next year.
What about the offense then? The Atlanta Hawks' offense has been rather strange for a while. Dominique is not one of the most efficient scorers in the league, shooting around 46% for the past couple seasons, but he has led the team in scoring forever. His individual floor % last season was only .542 in 1980 possessions. The team's floor % was .561 using the approximate formula ((FG+OR)/(FGA+TO)), meaning that the rest of the team was actually more efficient than the top scorer. That makes sense if viewed as Dominique making the rest of the team better by being double-teamed so often. Summing individual floor %'s for all the Hawks gives a team floor % of around .550, which is probably more accurate than .561. The .561 figure still has significance, though, because it indicates that the team is probably a bit better offensively than it showed last season. Still, either figure indicates that the rest of the team scored more efficiently than its leading scorer. This is a rare situation and indicates some tentativeness on the rest of the team and that the offense should probably be restructured.
There won't be tentativeness with Malone and Theus. These guys have no fear of putting the ball up and Dominique will definitely not have close to 2000 possessions again next year. His floor % will likely go up as he won't be forcing as many shots. The problem is that neither Malone nor Theus is a particularly efficient scorer either. Both were around .540 in floor %, which would be good for Malone, but not very impressive for Theus. With both players taking more of the team's possessions, it is likely that the team's floor % will not drastically improve, even though Malone is replacing no-offense centers Rollins and Jon Koncak. Theus' predecessor, Wittman, was actually a very efficient scorer from outside despite shooting only 47.8% last year; his floor % was .559.
The bench is extremely strong for the Hawks. Carr and Levingston form a very good tandem of offensive and defensive forwards. Their combined floor % was .565 and they blocked 167 shots. What is going to happen to Kevin Willis is a mystery. His offense really fell off last year and his defense is only occasionally very good. If he continues with only a .494 floor %, he's not going to get much playing time behind Dominique, Malone, Levingston, and Carr. John Battle produces instant offense off the bench and can be outstanding when he's hot. He shoots about 46%, which means he isn't hot as often as he should be. He doesn't commit turnovers and can spot the open man, though, and brings a lot of life to the offense when the starting guards aren't hitting. Then, there is Spud Webb, the guy who really turns up the tempo when he comes in. His shooting didn't hurt the team much last year, which is impressive considering the problems other short NBA guards are having. His assist-to-turnover ratio wasn't great and his floor % was .556, which isn't great, but pretty good for a second-string point guard. The bench had a floor % around .550, which is, I believe, the best in the league.
Overall, the offense should improve slightly because Dominique will be taking better shots, though hundreds fewer. His floor % may be up around .570, which will make him a good MVP candidate again. If Malone and Theus produce at or above their previous season marks, their contributions should be great. Hopefully, Levingston and Carr will get a lot of playing time next year over Willis. Willis' scoring in his top year of '87 wasn't as good as Levingston's and Carr's scoring is now. The rebounding should be handled very well by any team of forwards and center put out there, so Willis' advantage there isn't a great advantage. A team of Malone, Dominique, Levingston, Theus, and Rivers should be one of the best in the league, giving the team a legitimate .555-.560 floor %.
Combining the offensive and defensive possibilities for the Hawks, '88-89 looks to be a successful season. As long as their defense doesn't completely fold, the team should win 54-57 games next year. The other teams in their division will also be very strong next year. Chicago and Detroit, especially, could take the division title away from Atlanta. When the playoffs arrive, though, the experience of Atlanta is matched only by Detroit, and the two teams should have a very hard fought series. Either Detroit or Atlanta will represent the East in the Finals next year. That representative should also win the Championship. Which team will be that representative, though, is too close to call.
Of the best teams in basketball last year, Atlanta was the one that got the most significant scoring contributions off the bench. Boston and L.A. got very little support from the bench. Dallas got lots of rebounding from Roy Tarpley and some playmaking from Brad Davis, but the bulk of the shooting was from the starters. Though Denver used quite a few bench players, only one (Jay Vincent) was a good scorer. T.R. Dunn and Bill Hanzlik, the two other main bench players, scored 2.2 ppg and 4.5 ppg, respectively. Detroit was a little better, getting pretty good help from Vinnie Johnson, Dennis Rodman, and John Salley. Rodman and Salley both started a few games for the team during the season, meaning that there was a little less coming off the bench at those times. Chicago had a lot of scoring coming from Jordan, but then add on the scoring of Oakley and Sellers, and the Bulls had a good amount of their scoring coming from starters. Portland was another good team that relied mostly on starters.
Atlanta and Utah were different, though. Actually, only Atlanta was different. Utah had a lot of 'bench support' from Thurl Bailey that was rather bogus. Bailey often sat out the first four minutes, then played the rest of the game. He didn't get the Sixth Man of the Year Award because it was recognized that he was really a starter who played best when he sat out the first few minutes of the game. Atlanta had 66% of its points coming from its starters; Utah had 61%, but above 70% if Bailey is counted as a starter. Such a low percentage of a team's points coming from starters is quite odd for winning teams. The most successful teams of the decade haven't gone to the bench as much as Atlanta has. Usually, there is one or two good scorers off the bench, with the rest of the bench helping out with rebounding or defense. Atlanta had three good scorers off the bench in Battle, Levingston, and Carr. The starting Hawks had problems scoring at center, power forward, and shooting guard. The addition of Malone will fix the scoring problem at center. The addition of Theus will fix the scoring problem at shooting guard. Replacing Willis with Levingston would fix the scoring problem at power forward. This would still leave two good scorers coming off the bench. A more 'normal' percentage of points would then be coming from starters. Then, Atlanta would truly look like a very good team.
Points Per Game Percent Starters Bench Total Starters' Team Pts Pts Pts Pts Atlanta 70.9 37.0 107.9 66% Boston 89.3 24.3 113.6 79% Chicago 73.6 31.4 105.0 70% Cleveland 68.6 35.9 104.5 66% Dallas 81.3 28.0 109.3 74% Denver 82.9 33.8 116.7 71% Detroit 75.8 33.4 109.2 69% Golden State 65.2 41.8 107.0 61% Houston 68.0 41.0 109.0 62% Indiana 71.9 32.7 104.6 69% L.A. Clippers 60.6 38.2 98.8 61% L.A. Lakers 83.4 29.4 112.8 74% Milwaukee 72.6 33.5 106.1 68% New Jersey 69.5 30.9 100.4 69% New York 70.1 35.4 105.5 66% Philadelphia 77.5 28.2 105.7 73% Phoenix 73.4 35.1 108.5 68% Portland 82.9 33.2 116.1 71% Sacramento 73.0 35.0 108.0 68% San Antonio 75.5 38.1 113.6 66% Seattle 78.5 32.9 111.4 70% Utah 66.4 42.1 108.5 61% Washington 69.3 36.2 105.5 66%
The above chart, though approximate, presents a fairly good estimate of the scoring distribution between the starters and reserves of all the teams. Notice that the general tendency is that winning teams get more of their scoring from starters than losing teams do. Bench strength is always looked at when trying to analyze a playoff series matchup. Detroit's bench was much stronger than the Lakers' in last year's Finals. Detroit definitely appeared to hurt the Lakers when the bench was in, but the Lakers did overcome it. With most successful teams not relying much on their benches for scoring, maybe the effect of the reserves is overstated. That does go against current thought, but it is a very possible situation and deserves future study.
Basketball Hoopla, © 1988, L. Dean Oliver