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The Atlanta Hawks are having one of the finest seasons in franchise history. After a nine season stretch of finishing with a below five hundred record that started back in 1999-2000, the Hawks are on the verge of finishing second in the Southeast Division for the second straight season, putting them in position for another top four finish in the Eastern Conference.
Their current 43-23 record comes thanks to a somewhat unorthodox playing style. With all of the athletes they have, one would assume they play at a fast pace in order to maximize their athletic advantage. However, even though they rank fourth in the NBA with 16.5 fast break points per game, Atlanta also plays at one of the slowest paces in the league, averaging just 93.1 possessions per contest, which is the fifth slowest in the league.
This best of both worlds offense is pretty rare in today’s game, yet Atlanta manages to produce a top five offensive efficiency rating (4th at 108.9 points per 100 possessions) and a respectable defensive rating (14th at 104.1 points given up per 100 possessions). Only a team like Cleveland, who many consider the favorite in the Eastern Conference, has similar numbers (3rd in offensive efficiency, 7th in defensive efficiency).
More on the Hawks and the contributions their overlooked small forward is making after the break…
When you think of the Hawks, the five players that come to your mind first are generally Mike Bibby, Jamal Crawford, Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Al Horford. While that is not their starting unit, noone would blame you for assuming it is. That’s easily their most polarizing group of guys they play on a routine basis thanks to what Crawford brings off the bench and its their second most used unit (367 minutes, +/- of +114).
But lets not forget the odd man out in that group, the guy that actually starts at the small forward spot: Marvin Williams.
Back in 2005, the Hawks drafted the six-foot-nine forward out of North Carolina with the second overall pick. While their biggest need was at the point guard position, they went with what they believed was the best player at the time and figured he’d compete with Josh Smith, who was still a small forward then, and Al Harrington for minutes and eventually replace them as the full-time starter. Well, with the following two picks, the Utah Jazz and New Orleans Hornets drafted Deron Williams out of Illinois and Chris Paul out of Wake Forest respectively, putting an unyielding pressure on Williams that hasn’t and will never go away (Also of note, the Bobcats took Raymond Felton fifth overall. He wouldn’t have been horrible for the Hawks).
Because of the success both Paul and Williams have had, turning themselves into two of the best point guards in the game and Olympic Gold medalists in a matter of two or three seasons, Marvin has no shot at living up to what Paul and Williams have already set as the bench mark for the ’05 draft class. However, just as Milwaukee Bucks center Andrew Bogut, who was taken first overall in that draft, has emerged as one of the premier centers in basketball, Marvin has also made improvements in his game, though admittedly not as drastic as Bogut.
If you look at Williams’ body, he may remind you of a less bulky LeBron James. Of course, James possess offensive capabilities that even Williams would admit are out of reach for him, at 6-9, 245 pounds, Marvin has a similar build. Williams is also close to James in the athleticism department. He is a great leaper and is explosive at the rim, which, of course, makes him a perfect fit for the Hawks’ transition game.
Williams has also utilized his build on the defensive side of the floor. Though he is not extremely strong, Williams is long, smart, and has solid fundamentals, allowing him to use his quick feet on switches, making him a very versatile defensive option as well as being the Hawks’ shutdown defender. In games against LeBron, Carmelo Anthony and Kevin Durant, Williams gets the assignment to make like tough on them.
I like to look back on one game in particular from earlier in the year when Williams held LeBron to six-of-20 shooting from the field (30%) and 0-of-5 from deep for just 14 points. Though James would comeback the following night and drop 48 on his birthday against the Hawks in a rare back-to-back against the same team, Williams didn’t give up and forced the best player in basketball into one of the worst nights of his career. Also, in two games against the Nuggets, Williams has held Carmelo to 38% field goal shooting on 40 attempts and kept the very efficient Durant below 45% from the floor in two meetings.
His defensive improvements is just one of several positives Williams has shown this season. A quick look at his statline on the year and one may think Williams is actually regressing this season. He’s averaging fewer points, rebounds and assists per game than last season, shooting a lower percentage from the field and taking less shots per game, which may be particularly concerning considering one of Williams’ biggest problems for the past four years has been his lack of aggressiveness offensively.
However, with Jamal Crawford now taking some minutes away from Williams, it is understandable that his numbers are decreasing as he is seeing less playing time. Despite a career low in usage percentage, a stat that calculates the percentage of the teams possessions in which a player is used, Williams is just a few points off his career high in offensive efficiency, scoring 114 points per 100 possessions and set a career high on the defensive end with a 107 rating.
While 10.3 points, 5.1 rebounds and an assist a game might not sound great to you, it isn’t bad for a player that never gets plays called for him and finds the majority of his offensive on the break. I would like to see Williams hit three’s from the wing more consistently, especially because he gets a fair amount of looks on swing passes from Crawford and Johnson, which would establish him as a threat on the offensive end, something he hasn’t been called since draft night when scouts were discussing his potential.
If Williams is able to hit that three at a better rate, his ability to drive to the basket from the high post may earn him a few more touches in the Hawks offense and will make him into a solid swingman thanks to his transition skills. Put that on top of the way Williams is playing defense today and you don’t production you’d expect from a guy taken ahead of CP3 and Deron Williams, but you do get a player that has a defined role on a team that has a very bright future. A future that is more likely to include Williams’ services now than ever.