Atlanta’s Options in the Clutch

David Vertsberger —  August 14, 2013

With the Atlanta Hawks’ roster all but finalized and the new season drawing nearer, fans are running rampant with debate, predictions, and most of all – excitement. The Hawks have rebuilt themselves from ground up into practically a fresh organization, and a summer full of questions is approaching it’s eclipse. The only unsolved queries are to be solved on the court, where an unfamiliar mold will look to compete under the pressure of expectation. Undoubtedly, like every basketball team before them, the 2014 Atlanta Hawks will find themselves on the brink of win or loss in the final stages of a ball game. It is in these moments when they will have to cement themselves as a formidable opponent, but just how are they going to do so?

Head coach Mike Budenholzer hails from San Antonio’s coaching staff, one heralded for their excellence in maintaining a dominant basketball team over a resounding stretch of time. One thing Budenholzer brings to the table is his knowledge of the Spurs’ play sets, and what particularly interests me is which ones he can borrow from his days in the Lone Star State and use down the stretch in tight contests.

(Side note: For an overview of what Budenholzer can bring over from the Spurs outside of just final possessions – read this fantastic breakdown by Ian Levy.)

Let’s get this out of the way first, isolation basketball is out of the question. Looking through San Antonio’s field goal attempts in the final 30 seconds of games within 3 points last year, none of the plays run were drawn up as bland isolations. Mind you, this was a team with the offensive powerhouses of Tony Parker and Tim Duncan – far more adept scorers than any player on this year’s Hawks. Atlanta simply doesn’t have the premier iso-scorers to justify a uncreative and trite approach to winning close games, and this is a good thing.

First, let’s examine how the Hawks can use the Spurs’ patented Hammer schemes to create terrific looks for one of their shooters. Say, Kyle Korver? You know, the guy that shot nearly 46% from downtown last season. You could be asking yourself – what are Hammer plays? The New York Times’ Beckley Mason sums it up better than I could myself:

“The play begins simply enough with a ball screen on one side of the court for Parker or Manu Ginobili. Most defenses are trained to force the ball to the baseline on these plays, and the Spurs’ guards oblige by driving hard in that direction. But as is so often the case, the real action is on the other side of the court, where a shooter floats down to the corner and a big man “hammers” the shooter’s defender with a back screen the defender never sees coming.”

A visual look at Hammer plays:

This set would be a killer for opposing defenses, with a Teague-Horford pick and roll demanding the attention of all five players. Lou Williams can sit up top behind the three-point line to spread the floor, where he shot a modest 36% from last year. There’s always the option to swap out Williams for Teague, however I’d put more trust into the point guard to make this difficult of a pass. As for the weak side, Millsap can set the unexpected screen for Kyle Korver, who’s become a major threat running off the ball. Korver shot 50% from the left corner and 45% from the right, making this potential go-to play in the final minutes devastating.

Another potential move would be the weak side pin-down for a big, which we saw the Spurs execute to perfection often last season. This play would be impeccable in Atlanta, not only because of it’s effectiveness in getting a good look but because both Al Horford and Paul Millsap could take advantage – making it tougher for defenses to pick up on what the Hawks are doing.

Once again, the real action of this play is happening on the weak side. Ginobili’s baseline screen helps Duncan get to the spot he wants – the weak side block. At that point, Leonard’s on the same wing and Parker’s cleared out to the corner while Diaw sets a screen for Manu to get a vantage point behind the three-point line. At this point, Leonard sets a screen for Duncan to leak out for a mid-range look, which makes for an easy score.

With Jeff Teague being the passer, Korver the corner floor-spacer, Millsap the high screener and DeMarre Carroll setting the pick for Al Horford, defenses will have serious trouble trying to negate this play. As mentioned beforehand, swapping out Horford and Millsap here to switch it up will produce similar results while keeping the defense on it’s heels.

Finally, I’d like to convey that I have high hopes in regards to Mike Budenholzer snatching up some of Gregg Popovich’s creativity when coming over to lead these new-look Hawks. Pop always had a knack for surprising us all with his play sets – specifically opposing defenses. What’s astonishing about this upcoming play is how Pop attacks, manipulates and fools Kobe Bryant on this game-winning three:

Pop, knowing Bryant loves to cheat, set a screen for a screener – being lights-out shooter Danny Green – and got him a wide open 3 to seal the contest.

One thing to consider when comparing what the Spurs ran and what the Hawks could potentially run is the team’s rosters. Sure the Hawks have players that can pull off certain aspects of a play – Teague can be the initiator, Korver the shooter, Horford the versatile big – but a concern needs to be addressed. Is this team capable of executing whenever plays crumble and require instant reactions and differentiation? For example, watch this Kawhi Leonard game winner against the Cavaliers:

Tim Duncan sets an option screen for Parker, who attacks the basket. Horford can surely set the screen, and an aggressive Teague is one of the best ones in the league at getting to the cup. Now, Zeller switches onto Tony and manages to play him superbly, forcing Parker into coming up with a way to get a bucket in another manner. Luckily for the Spurs, Dion Waiters played some of the worst defense you’ll ever see on a game-winning possession, leaving his man to “help” without being in any real position to make an impact. Parker swings an on-point pass to Leonard around the outstretched arms of Zeller, who pockets the three-ball.

Could Jeff Teague be able to make that play? With further development and growth, Teague can become an elite point guard. As of this moment though, broken plays could be this team’s biggest downfall in the clutch.

Another tough pill to swallow is the loss of the dreaded 4-5 pick and roll between Josh Smith and Al Horford, an intuitive and efficient play ran almost every time the Hawks found themselves in dire need of points. With Smith’s departure, this play leaves along with him. Millsap is neither the passer or ball handler that Josh Smith is, meaning this successful play won’t be seen nearly as often in Philips Arena anymore.

The season is still over a couple of months away, and with the roster all but complete it’s time to focus on what this team will do on the court to achieve the success it’s striving for. With Mike Budenhozler and his wide array of experiences alongside Gregg Popovich at the helm, an aura of confidence is instilled knowing Atlanta can replicate the schemes that made the Spurs the most competitive team of this generation.

David Vertsberger


3 responses to Atlanta’s Options in the Clutch

  1. GREAT write-up, Vertsberger.

    Very well done.

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