Quick Thoughts

1.  Hawks for Real?:  You don’t go 33-8 with smoke and mirrors.  The Hawks are obviously a very good team.  But whether they should be considered a threat to come out of the East and/or win it all is the real question.  Long win streaks don’t just happen but they can overstate how good a team is.  In 2007-08, the Houston Rockets ripped off a ridiculous 22-game winning streak but still lost in the first round of the playoffs.  The Rockets were quite good that season (55-27) but their SRS was only a solid 4.83 and there was never a sense that they were going to too far in the playoffs.

The Hawks are either a good team on a really good roll or they are emerging as a seriously good team.  SRS very much likes the Hawks, who are third in the whole NBA (behind only the Warriors and the Clippers).   The Hawks have similar personnel to last season (with the major exception that Al Horford was hurt for over half the season) and play at a similar pace but they are just playing better in every facet.  Check out this thumbnail of the two seasons:

-2014-15 Hawks: 33-8, 6.00 SRS, 109.4 offensive rating (5th), 102.3 defensive rating (5th), 93.9 Pace (14th)

-2013-14 Hawks: 38-44, -0.88 SRS, 105.9 offensive rating (18th), 106.4 defensive rating (14th), 94.6 Pace (13th)

Starting out, there was reason to believe that Horford’s presence would improve the team.  The Hawks were 16-13 in the 29 games Horford played last season and fell to 22-31 the rest of the way.  Still, there was and is no reason to believe that a healthy Horford, by itself, could catapult this team a few levels up.

So let’s look at the key players by PER each season (again, we know PER doesn’t explain everything but it is a nice shorthand for player performance in this context):

Player 2013-14 2014-15


























Sefolosha          N/A


Schroder          N/A



The PER story shows some real jumps by Jeff Teague, who has gone from above-average to All-Star point guard, and Kyle Korver.  Are these improvements sustainable?  Teague is a fascinating case.   He has slowly improved every season until finally busting out this season.  Teague’s profile shows no fluke three-point shooting (he’s up to .354% this season but that is in line with his 2012-13 stats).  He is just generally getting a few more points, assists, and steals.   The only potentially flukey part of his line is the fact that he is shooting a career high .520% on two-pointers.  He has been close to this number before (in 2011-12).  The shot chart does indicate he might regress a little, as he is shooting career highs on long two-pointers but his numbers are not ridiculously high.  Factoring a little regression on these long jumpers and Teague is still a star player.  In fact, he has that same profile that Mike Conley and Gary Payton had, where they consistently improved until you looked up and you had a star.  This is a rare development curve.   Most players are pegged as star or role player by the time they are 23 or 24.  Teague is now a great player on a cheap contract.  He is now one of the most valuable players, per dollar, in the NBA.

As for Korver, it’s hard to believe that he will be at a 16 PER at the end of the year.  Korver is 33 and has had a narrow PER range between 12.1 and 14.2 for the last ten years.  Korver is shooting .536% from three, which is absolutely amazing.  He has been at this level once before (2009-10) but he was taking only 4.2 threes per 36 minutes then, as opposed to 6.3 per 36 minutes now.  Korver is a fun and useful player but he is career .432% from three and he led the NBA last season at .472%.  Even such a great shooter should taper off a little bit in the second half of the season.

The other component of the Hawks improvement is on the defensive side of the ball.  A lot of credit has been given to rookie Dennis Schroder, who looks like a serious ball hawk.  In fact, though, Schroder’s defensive plus/minus stats are negative.  Rather, the stat loves defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha (who leads the team).  Plus/minus is a fickle stat, particularly in small sample size of 41 games so we won’t lean too heavily on these facts.  Instead, let’s turn the other numbers.

The Hawks haven’t been flashy defensively.  They do well in steals and turnovers, but are average in blocked shots.  The other area where the Hawks have excelled is in three-point defense (holding teams to .337%, 7th best in the NBA).  It is fair to conclude that the stars (Paul Millsap, Horford, and Teague) are all good defensively and there aren’t really any weak spots defensively in the rotation.   Still, it will be difficult to hold opponents to so low a percentages on threes for a full season.  The Hawks might be slightly less effective from three by random chance but there are no indications that the defensive has been propelled through tricks that won’t last.

Currently, the Hawks project to win 66-16.    They aren’t quite that good but, putting all the data together, the Hawks should continue to be good the rest of the season.  If they go .500 the rest of the way, they will be 53-29.  Most likely, the Hawks will win 55-60 games and rate as the legit best team in the East.  Assuming LeBron James doesn’t go crazy against them in the playoffs, the Hawks have a nice path to the NBA Finals.

2.  Turnaround Teams:  Assuming the Hawks hit 55+ wins, Atlanta is looking at a 20-game improvement (conservatively) from last season.  That’s great but not near the best ever unless they hit the 60+ win mark.  There have been a few teams with significant one season turnarounds.  Here’s a list of the teams with at least 25-game improvements since 1980:

1. 2007-08 Celtics, 66-16: +42 (added KG and Ray Allen)

2. 1997-98 Spurs, 56-26: +36 (added Tim Duncan and David Robinson returned from injury)

3. 2004-05 Suns, 62-20: +33 (added Steve Nash)

4. 1979-80 Celtics, 61-21: +32 (added Larry Bird)

5. 2008-09 Heat, 43-39: +28 (Dwyane Wade returned from injury and they were tanking the prior season)

6. 2009-10 Thunder, 50-32: +27 (KD and Westbrook improved, added James Harden)

7. 1988-89 Suns, 55-27: +27 (added Tom Chambers)

8. 2001-02 Nets, 56-26: +26 (added Jason Kidd)

9. 2003-04 Nuggets, 43-39: +26 (added Carmelo Anthony)

10. 1988-89 Cavs, 57-25: +25 (full season of Larry Nance)

11. 1989-90 Spurs, 56-26: +25 (added David Robinson)

12. 1995-96 Bulls, 72-10: +25 (MJ returned for a full season)

If the Hawks can get to 63 wins, they will just make this list.  I doubt they can continue to play quite that well (they would have to go 30-11 the rest of the way).  Should they win that many games, the Hawks would be unique in that they would be only team to improve so much without a major trade or draft addition or the recovery of a star player like Wade or MJ.  Yes, Horford has returned but he isn’t in the Wade/Jordan category.  The only other such team was the 2009-10 Thunder.  They didn’t have any real incredible addition.  The jumped up primarily by the improvement of incumbents Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook.  Finally, the Bucks were so terrible last season that if the can stay around .500 all season, they will make the list too.

3.  Smoking with Zarko:  Amos Barshad wrote a fun piece in Grantland last week about the seemingly paradoxical situation of NBA players who also smoked.  There is something so weird about players who are constantly taxing their lungs in a fast-paced game would take steps to actively thwart their ability to succeed.  Part of the article focused on Euros who may have culturally picked up the bad habit, in particular, Valde Divac.  The story wondered about where this stereotype of the Euro smoker came from.  Vlade certainly is a good place to start but what about the true patron saint of Euro smokers, the immortal Zarko Paspalj?

Paspalj was a scoring forward on the same Yugoslavian team that had Drazen Petrovic, Dino Radja, and Vlade.  Paspalj was signed by the Spurs before the 1989-90 season in hopes that he would compete with rookie Sean Elliott for the small forward position.  It was a nice sport for Paspalj since that team was clearly going to be good (they added David Robinson, Terry Cummings, and Maurice Cheeks before the season and ended up going 56-26) and needed a few shooters.

Paspalj, however, had conditioning issues that were made public when he apparently confessed to a reporter that he liked American delicacies like Marlboros and Big Macs in an interview.  I couldn’t find the actual article but I did find Paspalj’s entry from Zander Hollander’s 1990 Complete Basketball Handbook.  The highlights of the entry don’t speak well of Paspalj: “The pizza king of Pljevlja…He loves fast food, especially cheese and tomato pies with all the toppings…He speaks Serbian (except when ordering food, of course) and is mastering English well enough to get off on soul music and American movie comedies…Made one start in 28 appearances in rookie year but his .342 FG percentage earned him mostly bench time in playoffs.”

Paspalj was treated by Hollander with all the sensitivity of that a snooty high school would to a foreign exchange student.   The fact is, though, Paspalj was terrible offensively for the Spurs, and conditioning might have been issue.  On a recent Spurs telecast, Elliott said that Paspalj “was a Greg Popovich find.  Pop found him and brought him in.  Zarko kicked my butt in practice every single day.  Every day.  I couldn’t figure him out.  He was a lefty who could shoot the mess out of the ball.  [He could also] put it on the floor.  But he didn’t have a lot of experience and, of course after practice, he would smoke two cigarettes.  So, that helped my cause.  That was all the European players.  People already know that.   The European players would come over here and they would smoke, you know, before and after practice.  It was the craziest thing ever.  You figured: how in the world could they get up and down the court?”

So, Paspalj didn’t have the best habits and Elliott confirms the stereotype had some truth to it.  Combine this fact with the fact that most import players struggle for a year or so in getting acclimated to America, and it is not surprising Paspalj did not succeed.  Also, Paspalj probably had the worst possible coach to be broken in under.  Larry Brown has always been defense-first and Paspalj was known exclusively for scoring.  Still, it is hard to blame Brown too much when Paspalj’s PER didn’t exceed 5 that season.

Perhaps with more time, Paspalj might’ve adjusted to the NBA but he decided to return to Europe and excelled in Greece and international competitions.  Paspalj retired after the 1998-99 season when he was only 32.   Papalj is reported to have had several heart attacks since retiring, most recently in 2005, which has required him to give up meat and smoke less (I know, I know, “less” isn’t the best solution).  But if you are wondering where Euro smokers came from, it is wherever Paspalj was trained.

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