When it comes to confidence, there’s an age-old saying in sports: “never get to high, never get too low.” That’s something Mike Scott talked to me about last year when he was going through a rough shooting spell in December. Just keep on pushing. With the Atlanta Hawks, there certainly haven’t been any dramatically high points this season. No big low points either (unless you want to say the outlier that was the Minnesota game). Coach Mike Budenholzer preaches patience on offense. Finding the best look possible. Giving up a good shot for a great shot. That’s the Atlanta Hawks basketball we’ve become accustomed to over the past few seasons.
So what’s with the recent struggle? Sure, every team faces rough patches in their season – especially early on, right Houston? – which lead fans and pundits alike to ask questions. Skeptics have taken a look at this Hawks team and asked:
“Do they have what it takes to replace DeMarre Carroll?”
“Can the Hawks get over the hump that was in their way last season?”
“Are they regressing to the mean?”
To be completely honest, the offense has been largely unimpressive at times. The Hawks have displayed a lack of ball movement, spacing, and just a bumbling collection of careless mistakes and typical early-season errors. Going into that would take a chapter-book that will have to be illustrated another time.
But wait. It’s not like the offense is bad. We’re in the top 10 in the league with an offensive rating of 103.2 and putting up 101.4 points per game. I’m sure a bunch of teams would be thrilled to produce like the Hawks offensively.
I get the feeling watching these guys that they’re close to reaching their peak. Close, but not there yet. The ideals are there, the Bud system is there, but there are moving parts coming in this season that have forced adjustments. We’re treated to vintage Hawks basketball for a few minutes each game, such as the electric 2nd half against Minnesota (which is something the Hawks are capable of producing against any opponent), but there’s a sloppiness and lack of execution showing through the cracks.
We came into this season thinking that the Hawks would seamlessly adjust to the new roster additions and returning injured players. But some parts of the personnel adjustments this year have been like putting a square peg in a round hole. Other parts have worked better than I thought. And some have the potential to grow into prospering offensive weapons. Some of these examples include Kent Bazemore’s rise as a starter, my affinity for Lamar Patterson as a playmaker and basketball player, and, especially, the adjustments the offense with the addition of Tiago Splitter.
Squeezing Tiago Splitter into the rotation hasn’t been as effective as I thought it would be, per the eye test. But the eye isn’t always right. He’s shooting 47% from the field, which is down from his career average of 56%. I used nbasavant.com to look for shot percentages of all two-point field goals within 10 feet of the hoop, excluding dunks (the following shooting stats from NBA Savant were collected 11/21). Of all players who have at least 30 of these attempts, Splitter ranks 124th in the league at 39.1%. Those close range efforts (again, excluding dunks) account for nearly three-fourths of all his field goal attempts, so the low percentage is concerning.
Last season in San Antonio, Splitter ranked 22nd shooting 54.9% from such attempts (among players who took at least 200 shots, to compensate for a full season’s sample space). This was his bread-and-butter with the Spurs, as they trusted him to be a solid roll-man and decision-maker down low. These close-range attempts were nearly 87% of all his shots last season. When you’re given so many opportunities down low, you need to cash in. Could this drastic drop in percentage have to do with the quality of his attempts?
Splitter’s focus isn’t always as the roll-man (which is something I think he would find success in if given more opportunity), but instead making off-ball cuts, with passes either coming from dump offs or while he’s crashing to the hoop from the high post or short corner. According to NBA Stats’ play-type data, the cuts that Splitter makes are responsible for 36.5% of his action on the court, which is the third highest percentage in the league. Splitter shoots 51.9% on cuts, which is low for a big man. This might have to do with the fact that he lives below the rim and enjoys this unorthodox “flick”-type shot that looks like he’s just letting go of the ball on hook-shot attempts.
Looking at some tape of his shots this year, there’s not much variety. I’ve cut three plays for viewing pleasure: a roll, a dump-off, and a cut.
With the pick-and-roll, using Splitter with Korver works wonders. The defenders are so worried about #27, they leave Splitter wide open to take the pass and avoid one would-be defender with a nifty move. Next, he does a great job of positioning himself down low in an optimal position for a dump off pass and converts with aggression. Sure, it’s a gimme of a shot (theoretically), but that’s what he thrives on: allowing the threat of his teammates to draw away attention. Lastly, this cut is a thing of beauty. He follows the fast break and runs straight for the hoop. The and-one is simply icing on the cake.
Looking at his shooting as a whole, he’s slightly below the league average when it comes to field goal percentage around the restricted area, which isn’t anything to get too upset with him about, but when your jobs offensively consist of setting a good screen, being ready for a pass on the roll, and cutting off-ball for an open layup, you expect a little more precision.
I’ve enjoyed seeing him work on the offensive end and I’m excited to see if this early season decrease in efficiency increases as the year goes on and the rest of the team becomes more comfortable with having him out there as they transition on from the departure of the Macedonian Menace.
Looking at on/off splits, there’s not a ton we can gain through only 15 games. However, some notes/judgements can be made (with caution):
- I’m hungry to see a healthy Mike Muscala out there with the bench unit. The guy has improved by the second since being drafted back in 2013. I can’t wait to see what he can do this season.
- Not a whole lot can be taken from the starters having such poor showings in the “Off Court” section. The better defensive rating is likely due to the fact that when they’re out of the game, the opposing team has their reserves in (or at least some of them).
- Bazemore’s output offensively cannot be denied. More can be written about him in greater detail later, but the offensive is playing very well with him on the floor. The guy has been a joy to watch (when healthy).
- Splitter’s defensive presence is there. We can all see it. The Hawks knew what they were getting when they took off the gift wrap the Spurs shipped him in. 96.4 defensive rating when he’s on the court, 103.1 without him.
- Teague on the bench boosts up the team’s offensive rating 3.3 points above the team average of 103.2. Definitely not a stat you want your starting point guard to be involved with. By comparison, Tony Parker’s offensive rating does almost the exact opposite by increasing by about two points when he’s on the floor.
Here’s the crazy thing. This team is good. Don’t get me wrong. I don’t doubt this group. This team looks solid more often than not. But when you compare the stats to last season’s magical numbers, they aren’t nearly as exciting. Hustle and execution has been lacking. Note the poor rebounding numbers that Wes talked about last week. Sure, it’s clearly not part of Coach Bud’s plan to be a dominant rebounding team, but there’s no excuse for the lack of hustle. Jae Crowder put on a second-chance clinic last week and made the Hawks look silly. Is he going to do the same Tuesday or will the Hawks bounce back from their first loss to the Celtics?
Last year was rough to start out but the Hawks turned it around. Is that change coming soon? That’s a discussion for another day, but the bottom-line is that if these Hawks expect to make it far in the 2015-2016 NBA season, they need to make some adjustments.
The first of which starts between the ears.