Quick Thoughts

1.    Atlanta Aeries:    Right around the January each season, we like take stock at the teams that came out of nowhere and examine how they are excelling and whether the improved play will continue.  Last year, we had quite a few teams go from .500 to contention and we ended up with three teams going from .500 to the 50-win plateau (Boston, New Orleans, and Orlando).  This year, a few teams are looking improved (Cleveland, Denver, Portland) but there is only one team, Atlanta, that has gone from also-ran to potential 50-game winner.  While the Hawks looked nice in the playoffs and had some nice young players, essentially they were 37-win team, and NBA history is littered with young eight seeds that looked respectable in the playoffs and fizzled out the following season (see e.g., 1993-94 Heat and Nuggets, 1996-97 Wizards, 1997-98 Nets, 2002-03 Suns).  Throw on top of the poor record thhe fact that the Hawks let Josh Childress walk and the other off-season turmoil (Josh Smith reluctantly returned to the fold as a restricted free agent) and there was reason to expect stagnation or regression.  Well, the Hawks have looked very good.  They are currently 22-11 and could be even better if they could actually beat the mediocre Nets (Atlanta is 0-3 so far against Jersey this year).  How has Atlanta improved?  Check out the team numbers from the past two seasons:

Year        Offensive Eff.                Defensive Eff.   

2007-08      106.9 (16th in NBA)        108.9 (18th in NBA)

2008-09      109.9 (5th in NBA)          106.3 (15th in NBA) 

Well, they still lack depth and Josh Smith, the star of last season, has regressed a bit offensively.  Nevertheless, the Hawks have gone from a middling offensive team to a top notch team.  This is despite a real slowdown in pace from league average (18th in the NBA in 2007-08) to 25th in NBA. The stats for the forwards haven’t changed much and the improvement seems to be coming from the backcourt: 

-Mike Bibby, 2007-08: 33.3 mpg, 14.1 ppg, .414 FG%, .369 3-FG%, 6.5 apg, 14.9 PER (stats with Atlanta only)

                       2008-09: 34.6 mpg, 16.2 ppg, .464 FG%, .446 3-FG%, 5.2 apg, 19.4 PER 

Joe Johnson, 2007-08: 40.8 mpg, 21.7 ppg, .432 FG%, .381 3-FG%, 4.5 rpg, 5.8 apg, 17.3 PER

                        2008-09: 40.1 mpg, 22.8 ppg, .449 FG%, .363 3-FG%, 4.9 rpg, 6.0 apg, 20.2 PER 

Both players are scoring effectively, particularly Bibby, who is shooting at an efficiency that he really hasn’t before in his career.  In fact, Bibby, has never shot better than .409% from three.  Throw in solid starts from three for Flip Murray and Maurice Evans and the Hawks are an improved three point squad (up to 38% from 36% last season).  The differences is even larger when you consider the frequency of three pointers come in Atlanta.  Atlanta was 28th in threes taken last year and this year they are up to fourth in the NBA.  Looking at raw numbers looks even more astounding.  In 2007-08, the Hawks average 4.7 threes per game on 13.1 attempts.  This year, the Hawks make 8.2 threes per game on 21.5 attempts per game. 

In most other respects the Hawks appear to be an unchanged team.  Steals, assists and boards are constant, though turnovers and free throw attempts are down a bit (both likely due to the increase in three-pointers).  We have to conclude that the Hawks’ improvement is aided greatly by this new high-volume, high accuracy attack.  Will it continue?  As mentioned, JJ actually is below last year’s three-point percentage and Evans is shooting right around what you can reasonably expect.  The players propping up the Hawks from three are Murray (shooting .363% from three against a career average of 29%) and Bibby, who is unconscious right now.

While Johnson could improve a little to off-set Murray, I just can’t believe Bibby can continue to shoot quite this well.  Still, I don’t see too much regress.  This is a young team with possible improvement coming from Josh Smith (whose been injured and below his standard of play when he’s been healthy so far).  Expect the Hawks to fall short of 50-wins but not by too much. 

2.    Surprise Squads Historically:    Just for fun, we’ve taken a look at the number of teams to go from below .500 to 50-wins in a single season and made a quick check list.  Since 1979-80, there have been 27 such teams.  Here’s a look at the squads and a nutshell as to why they improved:

1979-80:  Boston- They picked some rookie named Larry Bird. 

1980-81:  New York- Ticked up with a couple of young players (Bill Cartwright and Micheal Ray Richardson) behind Red Holzman during his second tour of duty.  They fell back down in 1981-82 with Cartwright regressing a bit and letting scoring guard go to Jersey.

1981-82:  None

1982-83:  None

1983-84:  None

1984-85:  None

1985-86:  Atlanta- No big new acquisitions to cause the improvement but Dominique Wilkins took his game to its peak and the team finally started playing defense for Mike Fratello.  The improvement was real as the team stayed in the 50-win ballpark the next few years.

1986-87:  None

1987-88:  Chicago- As with the Dominique Hawks, the star here, Michael Jordan, reached his peak as an offensive player and the team also started playing some defense too. 

                 Denver- For some reason, the Nuggets had a one-year hiccup in 1986-87, where they fell below .500 (but still made the playoffs).  The Nuggets returned mostly the same cast (replacing Darrell Walker for Michael Adams at the point) but started playing more defense.  They stayed 6th in offensive efficiency each season but improved from 15th to 6th in the defensive efficiency.

1988-89:  New York- A nice young New York team received a shot in the arm by new coach Rick Pitino’s full court pressure approach.  Pitino quit after the season and the Knicks regressed until they hired Pat Riley in 1991-92.

                 Phoenix- A miserable 1987-88 was turned around when the Suns signed Tom Chambers and acquired Kevin Johnson to create the core of a contending team for the next five years.

1989-90:  Portland- Always considered loaded with talent (Drexler, Porter, Kersey, Duckworth), Rick Adelman instituted a tough defense (with the help of newly acquired Buck Williams) and went all the way to the NBA Finals.

                San Antonio- Led by rookie David Robinson, the Spurs had what was the greatest turnaround in NBA history.

1990-91:  None

1991-92:  New York- Pat Riley’s debut in New York vastly improves the defense.

                 Cleveland- The Cavs bounce back after crashing when Mark Price blew out his knee in 1990-91.  Price returned and the Cavs went to the Conference Finals.

1992-93:  None

1993-94:  Atlanta- Another case of a coaching change helps a team defend.  This time, Lenny Wilkens jumps the Hawks from 22nd in defense to 4th overall.

                Golden State-  Another boom/bust cycle for the Don Nelson Warriors.  After a few injuries in 1992-93, the Warriors stank.  They obtained Chris Webber with the top pick and he helped create a offensive juggernaut (which quickly fell apart in 1994 because of the Nellie-Webber feud).

1994-95:  None

1995-96:  None

1996-97:  None

1997-98:  Indiana- The Pacers had been very good with the Pacers from 1993 to 1996 but fell apart in 1996-97 and missed the playoffs, primarily due to the team’s fatigue with Larry Brown.  Larry Bird succeeded Brown and returned the Pacers to winning ways.

                Phoenix- The Suns seem to have skill in quickly rebuilding.  They stumbled without Charles Barkley in early 1996-97 but played well by the end of that year.  The improvement continued in 1997-98 when they acquired Antonio McDyess to pair with Jason Kidd and Cliff Robinson.

                San Antonio-  Spurs luck: Robinson is out for most of 1996-97 and they get Tim Duncan.

1998-99:  None

1999-00:  None

2000-01:  None

2001-02:  New Jersey- The Jersey Renaissance is started by the acquisition of Jason Kidd, who actually had even more impact on the team’s defense than offense.

                Detroit- Perhaps the only team on this list to be improved on offense.  The Pistons were an excellent defensive team in 2000-01 but couldn’t score to save their lives.  In 2001-02, the Pistons weren’t great offensively but were able to cobble together a league average offense behind Jerry Stackhouse and assorted bench guys like Corliss Williamson, Zeljko Rebraca, and Jon Barry.

2002-03:  None

2003-04:  Memphis- Somehow, new coach Hubie Brown was able to get the Grizz to defend with his equal opportunity system, despite no change in key personnel. 

2004-05:  Seattle- The Sonics didn’t really ever defend (27th) but they were 2nd in the NBA in offense behind Ray Allen and Rashard Lewis.

                Phoenix-  As mentioned, for the third time, the Suns somehow show a sense for finding great point guards (Steve Nash this time) and great forwards (the blossoming Amare Stoudemire).

2005-06:  None

2006-07:  Houston- This was really just a return to prominence after the Rockets suffered injuries to Yao Ming and Tracy McGrady in 2005-06. 

2007-08:  Boston- We all know this now as the greatest turnaround in NBA history behind Kevin Garnett and an great great defense.

                New Orleans- The Hornets developed a well-balanced team but the real key was the development of Chris Paul into a star.

                Orlando- As with Paul, the Magic have their own star in Dwight Howard and a defense the improved with new coach Stan Van Gundy. 

In all, we see that most of the teams listed above were not one-year wonders, with the notable exceptions of the 1980-81 Knicks and the 1993-94 teams (Atlanta and Golden State).  As for the rest, two factors seemed to bear heavily in the surges.  First and foremost, as Dean Oliver found long ago, a coaching change can have a profound change on team defense and allow improvement without even having to change personnel.  This leads to the second factor, getting a star really helps, whether through the draft (Robinson, Duncan, Bird, Howard) or by trade (KG).  Finally, we’ve seen a couple of teams improve after getting over injury to key players but, for the most part, defense was the driving force here.

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