Atlanta’s Shot Creation Problem: A Diagnosis

Wes Morton —  June 22, 2016

Motion. Passing. Selflessness.

These are just a few tenets by which Hawks management have instilled into the team since a changing of guards in the summer of 2012.

Over the past few seasons, as the coverage of the NBA has permeated different international markets and national TV deals have accelerated both the salary cap (projected to be $94 million or greater in 2016-17, a 30% jump from this year) and league revenues, the business has become even more scrutinized.

Teams are valuing floor spacing and shooting from all five positions on the floor. Copycat franchises snatch up coaches and executives from successful regimes in an attempt to emulate the former organization’s glory. Even the short Mike Budenholzer reign has been a raided a bit by teams looking to turn Hawks assistants into a culture change for their own club, like the Jazz and the Nets.

We all saw in 2014-15 that when mastered, the whirling offense can cause headaches for opponents. Atlanta had the sixth best offense by ORtg (108.9) while shooting a blistering 38.0% from beyond the arc, second in the association.

This past year, the story was very different. The calendar flipping from 2015 to 2016 saw the Hawks play elite defense, lowering their season mark to an impressive 101.4 DRtg, second in the league per the NBA’s stats, from a 60 win team that posted a 103.1 DRtg. Unfortunately, the team stumbled badly on the other side of the floor.

The Hawks finished a disappointing 21st in ORtg (105.1), a fifteen spot drop off from the previous season while losing almost 4 points per 100 possession over the same span.

But why, exactly? The team was comprised of mostly the same components, minus swapping DeMarre Carroll and Pero Antic for Tim Hardaway Jr. and Tiago Splitter/Mike Muscala in the rotation. The Hawks still shared the ball at a high rate, with .662 assists per field goal made, second to only the Golden State Warriors.

And yet in crunch time and against quality opponents, the team repeated failed to translate unselfish play into quality results on the offensive end. The Hawks posted an unsightly -56 NetRTG across 5 regular season overtime periods, all loses, on top of an overtime loss in the postseason. Seemingly once the game slows down and the best players have the ball in their hands, the Hawks cannot compete in this forum.

Kyle Korver was the quintessential sniper last season, hitting an absurd 49.1% from three point land. This year, he was down to a more pedestrian 39.8% mark. And this trend didn’t stop with Korver; The team three point shooting sank to a pedestrian 35% with only Jeff Teague and Mike Scott as the only two rotation players to improve their mark over the last 12 months.

Korver is about as far from a creator as there can be. His production almost completely dependent on teammates sucking the defense away from him at least a hair and Korver converting the subsequent kickout pass. Per the NBA’s numbers, Korver had 1 unassisted three pointer versus 157 of the assisted variety this season.

Korver’s three-point stance is really just a two-point stance, as he can shoot or pass but driving past any defender with his limited mobility is out of the question. This isn’t to knock Kyle just a year removed from an All-Star campaign and months removed from major elbow and lower body surgeries, but he is a microcosm of what this team has struggled with for the past few years. Despite having shooting versatility from all positions in the lineup, the team has little driving and finishing versatility, especially in traffic.

The team was 23rd in the league in converting shots while being closely defended, just a fractions of a percentage from being the worst playoff team in that area. And the story is just as grim when sorted by just three point shots, bad news for a three-point happy bunch.

So the solution is clear, right? Create and take more open shots and voilà! Well, about that…

The primary reason for the sagging offense is the Hawks simply aren’t hitting their jump shots despite being among the best at creating high percentage looks. It doesn’t help that the Hawks shot the second most threes in the league but were only 15th best in their percentage of shots there.

atlhawks

The good news is the Hawks were able to generate far-and-away the most frequent wide open shots (defined as shots where the nearest defender is 6+ feet away). The bad news is they were 20th in eFG% during these opportunities, which infers the offensive system is successful but the talent to knock down shots is lacking. Other teams found pathways to scoring points when shots weren’t falling but Atlanta was inflexible in this regard.

Just last year, the championship Cleveland Cavaliers and the almost Finals participant Oklahoma City Thunder found themselves in the top ten in frequency of pull-up shooting. Even the Hawks’ muses in the San Antonio Spurs and the Golden State Warriors found themselves near the middle of the pack.

Of course, all of those teams have talented individual players who can score or kick to others in traffic and create matchup nightmares for opposing defenses. All it took was LeBron James barreling into the lane to draw double teams and kick to open shooters to beat the Hawks in the Eastern Conference Semifinals. It was a repeatable formula that produced tragic results for the good guys, especially in Game 2.

On the other side, the Hawks were never equipped to emulate that tactic. The team was put together as a testament to balance and ball movement being quicker than dribble penetration. But it has become abundantly clear that that pathway to success is very narrow and difficult.

It’s time to end the war against pull-up shots and isolation play.

That isn’t to say scrap the maxims upon which the current team was built. But even the Spurs and Warriors have non-point guards who create for themselves and others off the dribble whereas the Hawks rely almost solely on penetration from Jeff Teague and Schröder to accomplish that.

The production from All-Star duo Paul Millsap and Al Horford withered up when the team needed it the most in the postseason for a second straight year, minus an incredible performance from the former in Game 4 in the Boston series. Specifically for Al, it’s fairly inexcusable for the de facto leader and best player on the team to only manage 13.4 points per contest in 32.7 minutes per game across 10 postseason games, even if he did contribute in a number of other areas. The pair had a chance to combat the narrative that their success was a product of an offensive system and that they couldn’t sustain it through the playoffs. For yet another summer, the team is left without a proper rebuttal to that assertion.

With that diagnosis, how do the Hawks take corrective measures?

It starts with getting younger through the draft, an avenue the Hawks have yet to truly explore in the Danny Ferry/Mike Budenholzer regime (remember when Adreian Payne and Lucas Nogueira were a thing?). Of players the Hawks have drafted the past four years, only Dennis Schröder looks like a potential building block, and even then jury is still out.

(My vote is for DeAndre Bembry, who can score in a variety of ways should he be available. We know the team loves versatile forwards and college players who stayed in school for multiple years, that is if they keep the 21st overall pick through Thursday night.)

Your options are threefold: one is to bottom out, draft a transcendent basketball talent from the Atlanta area, have him spurn the city to a chorus of burning jerseys seven years later to win championships in a sunnier climate, only to return triumphantly and deliver the state of Georgia a championship merely 13 years after being drafted.

Tongue-in-cheek aside, sections of the fanbase have called for a nuking of the current roster in search of a truly championship core. In my opinion, full-on rebuilds have yet to prove to be a reliable elevator to contention, just ask the post-Dwight Magic, post-Millsap-and-Jefferson, Jazz, 76ers, Lakers, or Kings. Even the best example, the mid-2000s Sonics, who landed three veritable superstars after Ray Allen’s departure, have just one Finals win to show for their efforts.

Second is maintain the status quo: toss a lot of money at Al Horford and Kent Bazemore and convince yourself that the third time’s the charm. Predictably, most pundits and fans are understandably bearish on this strategy.

Third is to get creative: shop Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap, both set for free agency in the summer of 2017, for younger assets (could Greg Monroe or a piece of Philly’s war chest of bigs be on the table?) and offer Horford and Bazemore hometown discount reasonable deals to stay but plan for a future without one or both. Or put together a players and picks package to make a run at an elite wing that may be available, e.g. Jimmy Butler. The aim is to not jeopardize too much continuity the team had built up over the past four seasons but realizing a step backwards is necessary to take two forward. One has to imagine this is the most plausible route to take.

You probably won’t find a number one offensive option with the 21st pick or 44th or 54th pick in the draft, although the Draymond Greens and Isaiah Thomases of the world could emerge even in a weak crop. One thing is for sure: given the ethos of the club instilled from years of Spursian influence, the team needs knock-down shooters to again space the floor and score in bunches but also a ball-handling wing to gravitate defenders and find ways to score in traffic and kick to teammates.

It makes for a great story to have put together a team that works together and finds offensive success without a star exerting pull on defenses, but in practice it has yet to ultimately pay off for the Atlanta Hawks. We’ll find out a lot about whether management agrees in the weeks ahead. But it’s clear the Hawks need to welcome into their hearts more pull-up shooting and ball-dominant wings and less bricks.

*All stats per Basketball-Reference unless otherwise stated.

Wes Morton

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