FO’ with the FOES: ATL HAWKS

This Friday edition of “Fo’ with the Foes” — Philadunkia’s advanced scouting series which with the help of an accomplished journalist from around the NBA beat or blog world, previews upcoming 76ers opponents — features tonight’s opponent the red hot Atlanta Hawks.

The 76ers are riding a two-game winning streak (their 1st of the year) as they head to “Hot ‘lanta” to face a Hawks team that is on a four game winning streak.

On the 76ers side of things, this game is all about Evan Turner for us.  Now that Turner has been “benched”, we will be very anxious to see how the kid handles the return to the pine.  According to every scouting report we read before the 2010 NBA Draft, Turner has a high basketball IQ and is mentally tough, so hopefully he understands the demotion and will not be shaken by this move.  But you never know how a player, especially a rookie, will react to losing his starting spot until it actually goes down. 

When he does get in the game, Turner must be aggressive and get some buckets against Jamal Crawford who on his best day is a mediocre defender.  Turner’s recent struggles are scary — 1.4 ppg. in his last four runs – and this game presents a solid opportunity for him to get back on track.      

The big story out of Atlanta this week is that All-Star guard and leading scorer Joe Johnson will miss several weeks of action with an injury to his shooting elbow that required surgery on Thursday.  However, Philadunkia nation should not start jumping up and down with visions of an upset because of that news. 

The facts are that Johnson has struggled mightily all year – 17.1 ppg. in 2010-11 vs. 21.9 ppg. over the last 5 years.  So Johnson will be missed, but his absence is not a devastating blow to the Hawks.  Head Coach Larry Drew has not relied nearly as much on Johnson dominating the ball on offense, because Drew’s motion offense is predicated more on movement and setting teammates up to score with passing and screening, rather than one-on-one clear outs that were common place in the Mike Woodson era. 

In addition to the philosophy changes, we think the Hawks have more then enough scoring depth to make up for Johnson’s lost production.  Johnson’s absence means more shots for Josh Smith and Jamal Crawford and those guys have never met a shot they didn’t like.  Al Horford is having a nice year and could easily elevate his game to fill in for JJ.  Plus Mo Evans and Jordan Crawford are capable scorers who can provide additional punch to make up for the loss of Johnson.  

Even without Johnson, the Hawks are more talented, more athletic and deeper.  They also shoot the ball better and they play better defense.  So even if Nocioni steps into the shooting guard spot tonight and provides the production at that spot which has been missing during Turner’s slump, they 7-6 are still matched up against what is simply a better, more talented team.  The Hawks 104-101 victory at Philadelphia on Oct. 29th leads us to believe that Sixers will keep this one close.  However, the Sixers are 1-9 on the road this season, and even if theyget another big game from AI9 (27 & 10 dimes) as well as Brand (20 & 8) as they did earlier this season vs. Atlanta, we still don’t think they’ll win this game. 

Of course we hope we’re wrong.

For a little more insight into the Hawks team the Sixers face tonight, we turn to our man Bret LaGree from to answer two questions on Atlanta from us here at Philadunkia as well as provide us with two points of analysis on this Hawks squad from an insider’s perspective. 

Philadunkia :  Since the Sixers and Hawks last played a close game in October, the Hawks have had quite a roller coaster ride of a season. Most recently a 3 game losing streak was followed by a 4 game winning streak. How do you explain the streaky nature of this Atlanta squad?

Bret LaGree @ : They’re not a very good defensive team, especially when the second unit is in the game, so it’s difficult for them to put team’s away despite the typically potent offense.

Philadunkia :  There’s been a lot of talk about why Joe Johnson is “slumping” so far this season. Now he’s going to be out 4-6 weeks with an elbow issue. What’s your take on his struggles?

Bret LaGree @ : Joe Johnson’s out for 4-to-6 weeks. Given how poorly he’s shot the ball this season and how poorly the team has defended with him on the court the past two-plus seasons, it’s unlikely they’ll miss the 2010-11 Joe Johnson very much. Whether it was his elbow or him struggling to adjust to Larry Drew’s new offense, Johnson wasn’t bringing much to the table this season.

Plus, shooting guard’s the one position this team has depth. Jamal Crawford was a more proficient (per minute) and more efficient scorer than Johnson last season.  Maurice Evans has been a better defender at the 2 than the 3 in his time with the Hawks, and Jordan Crawford has been decent for a rookie in limited minutes.  He’s got the talent to contribute some nights in Johnson’s absence.  Even the cascading minutes adjustments to other positions could help limit the loss of Johnson.  Marvin Williams is almost certainly a better defender than Johnson and Jeff Teague probably is as well. Both could plausibly provide more offensive production in Johnson’s absence as well. Losing Johnson won’t help the team but it’s probably no more than another item on the list of reasons this team won’t win 53 games again this season.

Two Points of Analysis from Bret LaGree @ :

1) Larry Drew has completely changed the offense the Hawks are running and the ball is moving around a lot more and thus the shots are being spread around.  One play that has become a favorite of the hawks this year is the back screen for a flex cut.  Check out the Hawks secret weapon here.  

2) I wrote a post that compares this season’s Hawks team to last season’s through the prism of the four factors.  One of those factors was defense.  The Hawks have been slightly better defensively (so far) this season. The changes are less dramatic than cumulative. Opponents are missing slightly more shots and the Hawks are rebounding slightly more of those misses. Most importantly, the Hawks haven’t seen a spike in their opponents’ free throw rate despite their opponents making 78% (league average (76.5%) of their free throws this season compared with 74.5% (league average: 75.9%) last season.

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