For the past few years, the Atlanta Hawks have been known as a lovable bunch of misfit basketball players, working together towards the common goal of winning. Their identity has mostly been centered around Joe Johnson and Josh Smith over that time. They have had some decent success under now-former coach Larry Drew with multiple playoff appearances, but nothing more than that.
Neither Smith nor Johnson are on the roster anymore and the only other All-Star on those teams has been Al Horford, who’s production has remained consistent throughout his career for the Hawks. Johnson was a great scorer for the Hawks, but demanded the ball, forcing the offense to work through him instead of to him.
This summer, Josh Smith bolted for greener pastures and more money to the Detroit Pistons, leaving a hole at the power forward position in Atlanta. However, this is a blessing in disguise for the Hawks.
While Smith is a supreme athlete, his basketball IQ is not on par with his superior athleticism. He’s a flashy dunker, but his post offense is stagnant at best and his outside shooting is, putting it lightly, abysmal. Smith’s natural abilities blinded many fans of his level of overall basketball talent during his career as a Hawk. Once his price was too high, the Hawks knew they couldn’t, and shouldn’t, re-sign Smith for the money he was asking for.
To replace Smith, the Hawks brought in Paul Millsap, a savvy veteran in his own right. During his time with Utah, Millsap only posted an average of just more than 12 points per game, but he hit nearly 50 percent of his field goal attempts throughout his career thus far.
Let’s do some comparative work for Smith and Millsap throughout their careers.
Smith scores an average of 18 points per game while Millsap only averages 12. Smith’s 46 percent field goal percentage, while impressive, loses out to Millsap’s 50 percent connection rate. Both men average around seven to eight rebounds per night. For the most part, the rest of their stat lines are fairly identical, with Smith having the edge in scoring and blocked shots.
However, while often used as a cliche, free-throw percentage can be a huge factor, especially for a big man who tends to get fouled a majority of the time. Milsap shoots a respectable 72 percent from the charity stripe with Smith only shoots 65 percent (shot 52 percent from the free-throw line last season). Now, it may not seem like much, for Smith is a guy who doesn’t necessarily like to work inside. He has the capabilities to do so, but spends most of his time around the perimeter taking jump shots. His jump shooting is suspect at best, but when your free-throw percentage is just barely higher than your field-goal percentage, there’s a problem.
Now, free throw percentage isn’t the only thing that separates Smith and Millsap. It’s the little things in Millsap’s game that makes him an upgrade for the power forward position in Atlanta.
While he doesn’t have the athletic ability Smith does, Millsap is more focused on dominating the paint and out-working his opponents. Had Smith had that same mindset while in Atlanta, the Hawks might have made a run towards the Eastern Conference Finals. Smith wanted to take the easy way out, as highlighted by his outside shooting. Millsap will bang the boards and work his way inside the paint for his baskets. He’s a fighter and a scraper, something Smith never proved he could be.
Of course, this is all statistics and analytics. It takes the players on the court to prove they can work together and improve. The Atlanta Hawks have to take on the Miami Heat, Indiana Pacers, the new-look Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks. There are no easy paths to the playoffs this year in the Eastern Conference. Millsap, Horford and Jeff Teague will be expected to make things happen in Atlanta this year.
It’s all an uphill battle for the Hawks, but they will be better off going into battle with Paul Milsap instead of Josh Smith this season.