While the start of Atlanta’s season has been fairly strong, stronger than last year’s 7-6 prelude to the franchise’s first 60 win season, there are a few notable areas for improvement. The most glaring of that group has to be rebounding, which helped foil the Hawks’ attempts to reach the NBA Finals just a few months ago and is currently foiling their endeavors to retain the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
Most attribute the Hawks’ struggles in this area to a lack of size on the roster but it has become clear that most of the blame falls squarely on the overall scheme of the team. It matters less the stature of the players and more how hard the players crash the glass.
The below is a table of the Hawks’ rebounding performance in every year since coach Mike Budenholzer has taken the helm. I’ve listed the league finish in each rebounding percentage estimate via Basketball Reference.
In fairness, in every year of Larry Drew’s tenure from 2010 to 2013 his teams finished in the bottom five of offensive rebounding percentage, but those teams were above average on the other end of the floor in each of those three seasons. The trend under the current regime is discouraging, nonetheless.
For some perspective of what the rebounding woes mean to the Hawks’ ability to win, consider the following: a rough estimate of how many points are lost due to below average rebounding is fairly easy to compute. The average team this year has 97 possessions per 48 minutes, and in 2317 minutes of play has grabbed 102 offensive rebounds and 325 defensive rebounds. This computes to 10.6 offensive and 33.7 defensive boards per game.
The Hawks total just 7.8 and 32.5, respectively. In all, the team falls about four rebounds short of the average NBA team per 48 minutes, and knowing that an average possession results in a point, that’s around 4 points lost every game relative to a league average team. Compare that figure to the Hawks outscoring their opponents by just 2.4 points a contest and rebounding becomes the difference between merely an above average team and a true contender.
As the above table showed, rebounding is not just a “this year” problem. It is one that has persisted for many years, through and throughout many roster changes. But there was one tall offseason remedy aimed at helping offset this shortcoming. Tiago Splitter had a knack for providing grunt work in his five year career with the Spurs and, fortunately for Atlanta, he plopped in the Hawks’ lap this summer virtually cost-free.
Unfortunately, the 6-foot-11 Brazilian has yet to prove to be a viable fix on the glass. So far on the young season with the Hawks, he’s being outrebounded by both Al Horford and Paul Millsap in terms of percentage of available rebounds grabbed. On the defensive end, Splitter’s being outrebounded by even Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore in addition to Al and Paul.
We can delve deeper into player’s individual rebounding numbers using data from the NBA’s SportVU system, which comes from motion-tracking cameras placed in every NBA arena. While his rebound percentages lag his teammates, Splitter comes away with the highest percentage of rebounds that were contested at 45%. The rest of the Hawks are either around league average (33-35%) or below. In all, the presence of Splitter is helping, but it’s not enough. As a team, the Hawks are third to last in that same contested rebounds percentage metric, in line with the other numerical evidence.
After reviewing the tape from the past few games, some answers have emerged. The Hawks stick to their principles offensively through thick and thin, spacing the floor with three, four or even five guys around the arc. This has become especially true in lineups with both Horford and Millsap, as both men are shooting more threes this season than ever.
In the above gif, the play is simply a Kyle Korver screen to get Kent Bazemore a look from three. Once the shot goes up, there are no Hawks near the paint save for Al Horford, and he quickly realizes his attempt to crash the glass would be futile. The other four begin to trot toward the other side of the court.
A little later in the first quarter in the same game, Al finds Thabo for a baseline shot. While he connects on this attempt, David Lee was in proper position to box Horford out. The others stationed around the arc once again begin their drift back across the half court line. Had the shot rimmed out, a Celtic would have certainly secured the ball.
As one benefit of this strategy, it places the Hawks in better arrangement to defend opponents’ transition opportunities. According to Team Rankings, the Hawks are middle of the road at allowing points in transition. However, the downside is clear, as the Hawks have dropped three of their last four games while being cleaned up on the glass to the tune of a 170-to-139 rebounding margin.
Schematically, the Hawks don’t appear to differ from the league-wide status quo on the defensive end. But in accordance with their low ranking in contested rebound percentage, they are being out-worked on the defensive boards too often.
The gif above is pretty self-explanatory. Jae Crowder wins the box-out battle with Korver and neither Baze nor Millsap come to Korver’s aid. Crowder alone had six offensive rebounds, which were one more than Atlanta had as a whole in their game Friday.
Finally, we have a transition shot on Boston’s very next possession, which leads to an easy tip-in for Crowder. Transition defense has to continue past the shot until the ball is secured. The absence of a box-out from Jeff Teague allows Boston to pick up their easiest two points of the day.
Admittedly, I have cherry-picked some of the worst moments on the glass for the team. But it’s an ugly truth this group needs to face. At a certain point, a lack of size on the roster fails to hold up as a scapegoat. The team should be maximizing its available resources to combat this failing phase of the game. Rebounding is the aspect of this game that arguably receives the least amount of glory, but it’s evident it can be the deciding factor in winning or losing. And the Hawks are losing on the boards badly.
*All stats entering 11/15/15 via Basketball Reference unless otherwise stated