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The Atlanta Hawks opened the 2017-18 NBA season with a big win on Wednesday, as the Hawks defeated the Dallas Mavericks 117-111 on the road.

What were the major keys in getting victory No. 1 up in the win column? HawksHoop’s Jeremy Johnson and Eric Yeboah share their observations on the contest.


Jeremy Johnson

Dennis Schroder has the keys

Point guard Dennis Schroder is fully in control, as he now has the offense running through him all of the time. Yes, he was the point guard last season and showed flashes. The light shined it’s brightest in the playoff series against the Washington Wizards, but we wondered if it would carry over into 2017.

It appears that it has. Schroder put up 28 points in the season opening win; not a career-high by any means, but the way he did it was a little unique to what we’re used to seeing. The Hawks allowed Schroder freedom. The freedom allowed Schroder to take 26 shots, and he made 13 of them. The aggression is promising and leads me to believe Schroder is primed to be a fringe All-Star this season.

Collins has a special motor

Rookie John Collins didn’t take long to acclimate to the NBA. The 20-year-old put in 14 points and five rebounds in his debut in 22 minutes. Collins came in the game playing at a speed higher than most on the court and converted a putback dunk and ran off picks in attack mode from the word “go”. Collins’ motor is the reason for the early playing time, and because of that, he didn’t seem too out of place on either end of the court. Impressive for a player in his first regular season game.

The Hawks don’t read predictions

The Atlanta Hawks don’t seem to know that they’re not supposed to be good this year. From the tip, the Hawks played with an attitude and an expectation that they were supposed to win, despite the changes to the roster and despite the preseason talk of a restructure or rebuild. The defense was solid, but there were a lot of open shots the Mavericks left on the floor or just flat out missed, which is a concern. The Mavericks ended the first half 5-for-23 from 3and finished the game 17-for-45. Time will tell if the defense will cut off those open shots or if the preseason prognoses will hold true.

Either way, the defense will be at the core of which way it titters.


Eric Yeboah

Marco Belinelli shines in debut

Belinelli didn’t play much of the preseason, but that didn’t stop him from scoring 20 points off the bench. He finished with a plus-13 and it was apparent. The Hawks offense flowed with ease when the ball was in his hands. There were times he ran the point in the halfcourt set and times he orchestrated a fastbreak — either way, he created easier scoring opportunities for himself and his teammates. Dallas never could pin point how to control Belinelli because his attacks came in many ways like: a hand off from a big man, as a cutter, and of course off the dribble. The times he was paired with Dennis Schroder were beneficial to both as it afforded Schroder another spacer and playmaker.

Hawks need work in defending corner 3s

The defense was extremely scrappy Wednesday night and will have to be throughout this season. When Budenholzer opted for a small ball lineup they were able to speed up Dallas’s offense and force long rebounds (50) in their favor. The obvious downside was that once Dallas broke that first line of Atlanta’s defense, it forced the defense to collapse and opened up the good looks from the corner 3-ball. Dallas didn’t shoot the well from downtown when you look at the final numbers of this game –just 38-percent, but it was the open attempts from the corners that stood out, especially in the second half. Whether it was Wesley Matthews or Yogi Ferrell, Dallas understood when to shift towards the corner once the Hawks wings committed to defending the basket.

 

Preseason to some may seem boring and meaningless. However, within it lies bits and pieces of winning basketball that originates from chemistry and cohesiveness. Atlanta is one of the younger teams in the league — these games carry plenty of value towards starting the year off playing quality basketball.

As always, defense is the priority under Coach Budenholzer, but breeding fruitful offensive habits are far from an afterthought.

“I feel like we are getting a little bit more into our offense,” said Taurean Prince. “We realize the multiple options we can get out of a lot of sets in a lot of things that we do. I feel like in the first few games we were keeping it simple and trying to get used to each other. But now we are starting to get into the spring of things and how deep we can get. I think we can be hard to guard.”

In Monday’s 100-88 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, they showed improvement offensively, and it didn’t have to appear in the box score. Yes, they finished shooting 45-percent from the field, but that’s not the sole purpose of this discussion Setting good hard picks and sound ball movement tends to facilitate positive energy that finds good shots. Doing things like trusting a teammate will shift towards his designated area at the right time for an open shot or keep the floor balanced demonstrates reliance and helps sustain fluidity.

When players don’t trust in one another is when the offense tends to stagnate. But, once guys begin to find comfort in their role is when good things begin to happen. These Hawks are headed in that direction and only time will tell if they reach their aspired destination. For the meantime, acknowledge the small victories along the way veteran Kent Bazemore knows all to well and has recognized the progress in just a few games.

“So the first game we played there was a ton of standing and too much thinking,” said Kent Bazemore. “Now I think we are starting to get players moving into the right spot. As you saw tonight with so many assists, we had. We did a good job of passing the ball and making plays for each other. Now we are starting to be a little more fluid offensively and getting shots out of it.”

The offensive system has proven to be conducive to winning over the years. The players, returning and new, must believe not only in the system but each other. Cliche? Not considering how many new faces fill this year’s locker room. Good news is according to DeAndre Bembry concerning off the court comradery– the new are mixing well with the old like a Bruno Mars record.

For a youthful team like Atlanta that will pay off immensely when the flight gets a little rocky later in the season.

“We have always had the right habits,” said DeAndre Bembry. “Especially the starters like Dewayne Dedmon coming from San Antonio and just playing the right way. Making the right pass. We all get a long with each other. We have no problems off the court. We all know what we need to do in order to be good. But us being cool off the court is where it starts and makes it way towards the court when we play together.”

The 2017-18 NBA GM surveys are out, which means: let the arguments commence. Similar to all-star voting, the survey tends to slight at least one person. This year, that would be Atlanta Hawks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer. The question posed: Which head coach has the best defensive schemes? Budenholzer received no votes.

It was a surprising omission, to say the least, given what Budenholzer has accomplished in just four years as the head coach. Budenholzer’s Hawks teams have averaged a 104.15 defensive rating and have never finished no lower than seventh in opponent points in the paint per game over the last three seasons. His tactics intertwine with the strengths of his players and that in itself should be a respected capability. Paul Millsap not only logged his best career numbers offensively under Budenholzer, but Bud’s system resulted in a 2.9 defensive box plus/minus average for ‘Sap over his four years—he averaged 1.9 in Utah for seven seasons.

The same can be said for a defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha and sharpshooter Kyle Korver, both of whom recorded their best DBPM in Bud’s system, which involves a heavy dose of ball trapping by the guards/wings. Longtime Hawk Al Horford played six seasons before Budenholzer’s arrival and has always been among the best defensive players at his position. However, he didn’t notch his highest defensive win shares until the 2015-16 season.

The examples are endless, but we can’t ignore how much reputation plays a role in the voting. Gregg Popovich’s mystic is one so strong that it’s plausible his accomplishments are the only reason he came in first over Budenholzer, especially after the two spent 17 years side by side, the former the boss of the latter, on San Antonio’s bench. However, Atlanta’s defensive scheme is as demanding as Popovich’s—or Thibodeau’s, the second place finisher of that GM question—and I can assure you that no player will touch the floor without giving an all-out effort on the defensive side of the ball—just ask any Hawks rookie over the last four years.

Defense comes first and foremost in Atlanta, which has resulted in opponents shooting just 43.8 percent from the field over the last three seasons. Yes, the Hawks did struggle guarding the three-point line last season, but a look at Budenholzer’s entire tenure as Atlanta’s coach and you would see that his average opponent three-point percentage is among the lowest in the league. He’s won at a high level—a 57 percent winning record to be exact—and a lot of that has to do with how attuned his ballclub is on the defensive end. Just nine current coaches have a higher winning percentage than Budenholzer. Out of that group, only two have finished with a top-five defensive rating more than once over the last four seasons—Popovich and Kerr. Only six of those coaches have had longer head coaching experience.

Defense is his staple, and he’s damn good at it. Whenever the Hawks experience a rough stretch of games, I assure you the following practices will be focused on defense, defense, defense—revisiting defensive principles and adjustments, re-examining defensive roles, etc. The lineups may change, but the defensive principles will be the same this season, as it always is—swarming, tricky and suffocating.

 

Philips Arena has rightfully earned the nickname “The Highlight Factory” from all the spectacular plays that have echoed from the arena, all the way down Peachtree Street. I remember, when I was a younger man, watching Dikembe Mutombo deny more potential highlights than I could count. However, recently, it dawned on me just how many Hawks have completed a jaw-dropping, otherworldly poster.

So I decided to come up with the list you see below. Enjoy.

10. Jeff Teague over Kevin Durant

Scene: November 5, 2012, at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Two minutes left in the second quarter.

Jeff Teague: “Easy lane to the basket.”

Kevin Durant: “Oh, its just Jeff Teague. I’m blocking this with ease. This finna be a breeze!”

Jeff Teague:

9. Josh Smith mimics Kobe Bryant and Ricky Davis by flushing one on Steve Nash.

Nash has dished out plenty of L’s in his Hall of Fame career, but we shouldn’t forget his blunders. He meant well, but that doesn’t mean it always ended well. Three posters that I can recall and every one of them ended with a Nash receiving a blocking foul. Good Lord.

 

8. Al Horford skies over Kevin Love (Round 2, Game 3 of the 2016 Playoffs).

Al Horford literally sat on Love’s shoulder; take note of how Love’s teammates didn’t even venture near the crime scene. When you get boomed on you are on your own–that’s the code.

 

7. Paul Millsap over John Henson

Trillsap sent Henson back to UNC with this banger. Made the kid re-enroll with a double major and a full-time job just to forget his past life. What a shame.

 

6.  Bradley Beal meet Mike Scott–Mike Scott meet Bradley Beal.

Dominique said it best here: “What are you doing?” And to Beal’s credit, he did the right thing—just at the wrong time.

5. More Mike Scott, this time on Ian Mahinmi’s head.

 

4. Dominique Wilkins over everybody

 

3. Not a poster, but Spud Webb’s dunk against Magic & the Lakers deserves praise. Truly astonishing.

 

2.  Josh Smith dunks on Serge Ibaka

 

1. Dominique double clutched off two feet, while contorting his body mid air and finished with authority. Greatness.

 

 

Pace, pace and more pace would describe the new style Mike Budenholzer wants his ballclub to showcase. A new offense with a young roster also means more mistakes—especially in the early part of preseason. In the first half of their first preseason game with the Miami Heat, the Hawks accumulated 11 ill-advised turnovers, but cleaned up in the second half with just five. Dennis Schroder and Dewayne Dedmon lead the way with 12 points apiece, followed by Marco Belinelli with 10 and the rookie John Collins posting a near double-double with nine points and 15 rebounds.

There is a good chance you may be asking yourself: “What’s new with the offense?” It’s simple—the Hawks have now installed a 5-out motion offense into their system. It is a positionless offense that relies on spacing the floor and a set of rules that determine one’s movements and actions. This offense caters to the strengths of an athletic team like Atlanta by opening up more lanes to the basket for Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and others. Ball movement is essential to the success of this style of offense, but that has always been a part of Budenholzer’s primary teaching since he arrived in Atlanta and therefore his message shouldn’t cause any confusion.

 

 

A first look at this offense on Sunday night yielded a positive result: more urgency and tempo earlier in the shot clock. Budenholzer’s troops have been instructed to scan the defense and attack without hesitation. The responsibilities for the guards have grown substantially this season—especially Schroder—with the departure of Paul Millsap and his reliability, offensively, in the post. It appears that Schroder—and every other ball handler on the team—is instructed to act early in the shot clock, either by penetrating off a pick-and-roll or off a handoff from a big man.

Schroder dominated the ball most of his time on the floor (and will most of the season) and drew the majority of Miami’s focus. Despite the fact that, in theory, the 5-out offense should keep multiple bodies off of Schroder, opening up the floor for shooters, the Hawks didn’t convert with much efficiency.

GM Travis Schlenk has routinely spoken about the merits of flexibility and positionless basketball over the offseason. By installing this offense, Budenholzer shows he’s on board with Schlenk’s vision and willing to cater to the strengths of his players.

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Next Game: October 4th at Cleveland Cavaliers, 7:00PM EST

Follow me on Twitter for Atlanta Hawks coverage: @YeboahNBA

 

 Friday morning the Atlanta Hawks formally introduced Travis Schlenk as both their general manager and head of basketball operations. Schlenk, the 41-year old from Selden, Kansas is the 17th general manager in Hawks history and arrives after playing a key role as assistant general manager over the last five years in shaping what is now the most dominant team in the NBA — the Golden State Warriors.
 “Where Golden State is right now taking seven years, said Schlenk. “It is not a quick process and it takes time. The way you get there is by maintaining your flexibility, accumulating assets and developing your own talent. We have, in Coach Bud and his staff, a great group of coaches who’ve have done a great job historically of developing talents. So we are in great shape there. We have 11 draft picks coming up in the future, so we have flexibility and assets there. We are actually in a better place right now than Golden State was when I started there.”

With just eight players under contract set to return next season, there is either optimism or pessimism permeating down Peachtree Street and all throughout Atlanta. The decision to keep Paul Millsap during this past season sparked déjà vu for some after the front office tandem of Mike Budenholzer and GM Wes Wilcox elected to take a gamble and hold on to Al Horford after the trade deadline last year. Ultimately it cost Atlanta as they lost him to eastern conference rivals the Boston Celtics.

Fast-forward to now and Atlanta has yet again another big offseason decision to make. Their top scoring leader over the past three seasons and one of the most versatile forwards the league has to offer is set for free agency.

“Paul is a 4-time All-star and arguably the best player on this team, probably is the best player on this team, so that is going to be a priority, said Schlenk. For me right now I’ve got to get with Coach Budenholzer and his staff and my front office staff. Over the next three weeks, we have to hammer out a plan for the future. Paul is certainly going to be a priority.”

 

Millsap arrived in Atlanta along with Mike Budenholzer four years ago. The pair has successfully made the playoffs each season. During this time frame, they notched a #1 Eastern Conference seed in 2015 as well as a top-six defensive rating over the last three seasons. All this, and yet sustained success without a trophy to show for it doesn’t mean anything in the end.

Schlenk on the other hand values the consistency the organization has maintained over the years and space they now have to make possibilities a reality.

“For 10 years in a row, this franchise has been in the playoffs. Most of the time when guys take a job at my level their inheriting a bad team. I am inheriting a good team with a nice foundation that has some flexibility and that’s what we will look to maintain. As we get to a position where a trade or acquisition comes available for a superstar we will be in position to do that.”


“Superstar” — the response hastily and repeatedly heard with regards to what it will take for the Hawks to finally sip champagne. It is a rhetorical question to ask in all honesty. Aside from Dennis Schroder, and the developing Taurean Prince there aren’t many hybrid roster assets. Moreover, Atlanta’s draft choices have not panned out over the years — and without the ability to attract big free agents the team struggles to become a legitimate threat to the King from Akron.

In order for a drastic shift in expectations and trajectory, Atlanta will have to become much more aggressive making moves to acquire big talent. They have done well-shedding contracts over the past two seasons despite signing the hometown kid Dwight Howard to a three-year $70 million deal last summer. They currently have just $62,399,872 in team payrolls on their books — fifth lowest in the league.

Schlenk enters into an organization that has stayed clear of paying the NBA’s tax luxury since the 2002–2003 season — Jason Terry was just a third-year player. Yes, different ownership at the time, but nothing has changed in their efforts when it comes to watching the bottom line. Maybe it has cost them championships, maybe it hasn’t — even though the 2004 Pistons did win a title with just the 17th highest payroll — times have changed and biting the bullet may not seem so bad as the Cleveland Cavaliers did for their 2016 championship that cost them $54 million in luxury taxes.

Championships cost money.

“I don’t think it makes sense for a franchise to go into the tax unless you are competing for a championship, said Schlenk. “Being fiscally responsible with these gentleman’s money that’s not right. But if we are where we make a move its going to put us in tax by a few million dollars, but give us a better chance to win a championship. That’s when I will go to bat and knock on Tony’s door and say this is something we need to do because it will get us to where we want to go.”

A successful style of basketball arrived in Atlanta along with Mike Budenhozer in 2013. However, taking on the president of basketball operations position after Danny Ferry’s departure in 2015 appeared to be one job too many for Budenholzer. The team has taken a step back the last two seasons (eliminated in the semi-finals in 2016 and the first round this season) and ownership ultimately felt an individual with Schlenk’s team building knowledge and vigor was needed.

“We have tried to win every year, said Owner Tony Ressler. “There is no doubt that over the past two years what we’ve seen, and what I’ve said, is the goal is how do we make better decisions and how do we have more firepower in the front office. With a comfort level that we can get to the next level. We feel that Travis absolutely has that understanding and has seen it firsthand. As we learned in our reference checks, Travis understands every part and does the work. Understanding players, recruiting players and understanding what makes a franchise player-friendly. All of these are critically important for us.”

Friday marked the beginning of a new era in Atlanta Hawks basketball with hopes Schlenk can provide an innovative process towards becoming a powerhouse for a organization that has not reached an NBA Finals since 1961. Not only a powerhouse, but an attractive destination for years to come in a city desperately waiting for prosperity. Not an easy task, but he’s seen this before and played a pivotal role in the turnaround.