Watching the Hawks right now, there are a couple of things that are supremely frustrating.
First, I still can’t see how anyone thought it was a good idea to take Marvin Williams ahead of Chris Paul or Deron Williams. What was Marvin’s ceiling out of UNC? Shawn Marion? He was an athletic three with physical tools, but the Hawks management got swept up in the hype surrounding that National Championship run, no doubt.
But that’s just the tip of the iceberg in Atlanta right now. There’s a much bigger issue, though it might seem inconsequential. Switching screens.
Before getting into why it’s a problem in the ATL, let me say that I’ve watched the Knicks do this on and off all season long. Mike D’Antoni likes to put Jared Jeffries – a truly versatile defender – on the opposing point guard at the beginning of games. However, when opposing big men set a ball screen on Jeffries, it seems as thought D’Antoni always has his guys switch that screen. The end result of that is almost always David Lee guarding a guy like Tony Parker.
In a five minute span during the beginning of that Spurs-Knicks game last week, Parker scored six easy points, and could have had 10 if he didn’t miss a lay-up (where he thought he got fouled) and commit a bad turnover. On virtually every one of those possessions, he got a screen from Tim Duncan, and then just blew by David Lee after the Knicks switched on the screen.
Then, Nate Robinson checked in the game, and the Knicks stopped switching ball screens on TP. Parker didn’t score for 10 minutes thereafter. It’s not like Nate is the greatest defender. But he will fight through a screen. And by doing so, not only does Nate help to avoid giving Parker or Duncan a huge mismatch, but it also sends a message to the rest of the team about going as hard as possible on every play.
So how does all of this apply to Atlanta?
Against the Jazz last night, Mike Woodson had his guys switching every screen all over the floor.
Mike Woodson seriously diminished the Hawks’ chances of winning in Utah when he decided that, defensively, this team would spend the season switching on every screen. It’s a functional strategy against teams with a limited number of offensive options and/or little off-the-ball movement. Against Utah it essentially rendered the Atlanta defenders stationary, calling out switches but never moving their feet as the Jazz players ran their offense without interference.
Anyone who has played the game knows that by switching all screens, it promotes the idea that there is no real individual responsibility on defense. A coach can’t get in his player’s face and say, “I want you to shut Player X down!” if he’s having his team switch on all screens.
Utah took advantage across the board, scoring with ease from one-through-five. They allowed five Jazzmen to score in double figures, completing 50% of their shots as a team despite a miserable 5-25 FG stretch during the final minutes of the game, once it was way out of reach.
And that lackadaisical attitude, which is engendered in part by the order to switch screens, can easily carry over to the offensive end. You’d be hard-pressed to say that the Hawks played with any sort of pride last night. Joe Johnson finished the game with 15 points, 0 rebounds, 0 assists, 0 steals, 0 blocks, and 4 turnovers. Josh Smith went 0-6 from the free throw line. That’s just a lack of focus.
For Smith, that’s part of a disturbing trend.
In the last six games, Smith has averaged 10.8 points and 3.5 rebounds. Now, I realize not every NBA forward is capable of averaging 10.8 points and 3.5 rebounds. But I think only one of them recently signed a $58 million contract. I’m not saying it’s time for the Hawks to give up on Smith. But this is year five. We’re way past the oh-he’ll-come-around-eventually stage. Somebody needs to take a blowtorch to his butt, and quick.
Undoubtedly, there is a functional use to switching screens. But for an Atlanta team that is quick enough to hedge-and-recover, they need to show some more fight.