The Consistent Hawks that Few in Atlanta Notice

Andrew Sutton does stand up and likes to act.  He is also a rational pessimist and sports fan, with some interest in trying to explain what we see in the world of sports. 

Quick question: Who is currently the third best team in the Eastern Conference?  When it comes to the East, people talk about about the Pacers and Heat.  There is also quite a bit of chatter about the Bulls, Knicks, and Nets.  But what about the Hawks?

Over the last five years, the Hawks have been competitive enough to be in the playoffs every year. This team, though, doesn’t get much attention from the national media.  Furthermore, in the state of Georgia, where I am a native, the team’s performance doesn’t seem worthy of much love.  The Hawks are consistently towards the bottom of third in the NBA in attendance (and this year, as I will note, it is even worse).

This issue was noted by Devin Dignam last April:

The Hawks have been wallowing in mediocrity for years. For five years the team has posted winning records. For five years, the deepest the team has gone into the playoffs has been the second round. The Hawks have actually lost ticket revenue every year for the last three seasons; they rank 5th from the bottom in attendance and 6th from the bottom in ticket prices. While the Eastern conference is pretty wide open after the Heat, if the team hasn’t shown revenue increases under these favourable conditions, it’s possible that they never will.

It has been noted in this forum that wins drive attendance and gate revenue.  The Hawks, though, seem immune to this general rule.  Even when the team won 53 games in 2009-10, the Hawks ranked 18th in league attendance and only played before 88% of its capacity at home.

For those who are not paying attention, here is what they are missing.

Hawks

Minutes

WP48 12-13

WINS

12-13

WP48

WINS

Difference**

across 82 games

Kyle Korver

472

0.214

2.1

0.251

2.5

2.1

DeMarre Carroll

432

0.182

1.6

0.172

1.5

-0.6

Paul Millsap

409

0.148

1.3

0.158

1.4

0.5

Al Horford

455

0.139

1.3

0.129

1.2

-0.5

Jeff Teague

472

0.099

1.0

0.091

0.9

-0.5

Gustavo Ayon

92

0.119

0.2

0.182

0.4

0.7

Shelvin Mack

129

0.036

0.1

0.101

0.3

1.0

Mike Scott

193

0.081

0.3

0.047

0.2

-0.8

Cartier Martin

271

0.014

0.1

0.032

0.2

0.6

Elton Brand

72

0.121

0.2

0.077

0.1

-0.4

Louis Williams

48

0.100

0.1

0.074

0.1

-0.2

Jared Cunningham*

4

0.026

0.0

0.026

0.0

0.0

Pero Antic*

124

-0.016

0.0

-0.016

0.0

0.0

John Jenkins

67

0.116

0.2

-0.054

-0.1

-1.4

Dennis Schroeder*

121

-0.254

-0.6

-0.254

-0.6

0.0

Summation

7.8

7.9

Summation per 82 games

45.6

46.3

0.8

*- Cunningham didn’t play much last season and Antic and Schroeder are rookies; so their numbers are the same in 12-13 and 13-14; **- Difference across 82 games is simply [WINS – WINS 12-13] * 82/14.  WP48 12-13 numbers are Berri’s calculation.  WP48 13-14 come from boxscoregeeks.com.

The consistency in Atlanta is not just about the team.  It is also about the players.  Essentially all these veterans are performing this year as they did last year.  Yes, players “tend” to be consistent over time. But this is an “extreme” form of consistency.

Before the season started we would expect this team to be led in Wins Production by Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford. And that is indeed what has happened so far this year.

Two of these players – Carroll and Millsap – were signed as free agents last summer.  Carroll’s contract calls from him to be paid $2.5 million this year and gives him a guarantee of $5 million.  Millsap’s deal is for $9.5 million and a guarantee of $19 million.

The player that Millsap replaces is Josh Smith.  The Pistons signed Smith to a contract that pays him $13.5 million and guarantees $54 million.  So Smith makes more than Millsap and Carroll combined.  But Smith doesn’t produce wins like Carroll and Millsap.  This year this duo has combined to produce nearly three wins while Smith has only been worth 0.6 wins.

It was the same story last year. Smith only produced 3.3 wins last year for the Hawks.  Meanwhile, Millsap produced 7.2 wins for the Jazz while Carroll – in only 1,111 minutes – chipped in 4.2 wins.

Why would Smith command more money on the market?  The obvious answer is the difference in scoring.  Smith has consistently scored more than 15 points per game in his career.  Millsap has come close to Smith in some years, but has a career average of around 12 points per game (and Carroll has never average double figures in any year he has played).

So the Wins Produced numbers say the Hawks came out ahead in the 2013 free agent market. But the team still struggles at the gate.  Maybe if the team had a dynamic scorer it would do better.  We know the data says that wins drive revenue.  But maybe Atlanta fans are different.

The history of this team, though, suggests otherwise.  Remember that 2009-10 team that won 53 games but didn’t see many fans?  That team had Joe Johnson, who averaged 21 points per game.

And this is a consistent story in Atlanta.  Back in 1992-93 the Hawks won 43 games. That team employed Dominique Wilkins, who averaged 29.9 points per game.  One would think a winning team with a dynamic scorer would draw fans.  But that team finished last in the league in attendance.

Perhaps we need to consider the fact that Atlanta fans are not quite as enthusiastic about NBA basketball as fans in other cities.  Currently this team – with a winning record — ranks third to last in attendance.  Only the Pistons and Sixers are drawing fewer fans.  Sure, even more wins would help in Atlanta (as they help everywhere). But the data suggests this team has to win more than 55 games to be a decent attraction at the gate. And given how difficult that record is to achieve consistently, it doesn’t look like the consistent “good but not great” basketball in Atlanta is ever going to be a consistent fan favorite.

– Andrew Sutton (with a bit of help from DJ)

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