Al Horford’s Atlanta Hawks Off to a Solid Start

Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Photo by Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

These are not your slightly older brother’s Atlanta Hawks. The Mike Woodson and Larry Drew era Atlanta squads played painfully slow, isolation heavy basketball, and though those teams were consistently playoff participants, they were almost entirely forgettable. It was a near-guarantee that the Hawks would be playing the NBATV first round series every season, no matter their opponent.

When Danny Ferry took over as the team’s general manager in June 2012, he did so with the idea that running the so-called treadmill of mediocrity was not good enough, and so decided to break up the core of what had become a middling playoff team that, while a consistent winner, wasn’t even on the fringe of title contention. Since then Ferry has jettisoned nearly the entire roster and built one in his and newly hired head coach Mike Budenholzer’s shared vision. Of the 16 players who suited up for the Hawks during the 2011-12 season, only two (Al Horford and Jeff Teague) remain with the franchise.

It started with the trade of Joe Johnson and his massive contract to the Brooklyn Nets for what amounted to a bunch of expiring contracts and easily expendable pieces. Not one of the players the Hawks acquired in the trade is still in Atlanta, but the deal freed the Hawks from what at the time looked like at least four more seasons of salary cap hell, and allowed the team to pursue a more balanced, streamlined roster. Ferry also traded Marvin Williams to the Utah Jazz and Willie Green to the Los Angeles Clippers in the summer of 2012, and let Jason Collins, Kirk Hinrich, Jannero Pargo, Vladimir Radmanovic, and Jerry Stackhouse walk in free agency. The purge continued this past summer when Ferry waved goodbye to franchise stalwart Josh Smith (Detroit), as well as Zaza Pachulia (Milwaukee) and Ivan Johnson (China).

Thus the Hawks unexpectedly entered the summer of 2013 with enough salary cap space to pursue maximum-salaried free agents, and though they are rumored to have made pushes for both Chris Paul and Dwight Howard, they were never considered a serious landing spot for either. Instead the Hawks re-signed Kyle Korver and restricted free agent Teague, snatched DeMarre Carroll and the criminally underrated Paul Millsap away from the Jazz, claimed Gustavo Ayon off waivers from the Bucks, and went bargain shopping for Elton Brand and Greek league forward/center Pero Antic.

Many thought the Hawks would fall out of the playoff hunt as a result of all the moving and shaking they did over the course of two offseasons, but others felt the keenly considered roster re-calibration would keep them in postseason picture in a weak Eastern Conference, even if it was toward the bottom of that picture. The Heat, Pacers, Bulls, Knicks, and Nets were widely considered clearly superior teams, but the Hawks looked to be in the mix with the Cavaliers, Wizards, Pistons, and Raptors for the last three playoff spots. We all know what’s happened since: the Heat and Pacers are right where we expected them to be, but the Knicks and Nets have gotten off to disastrous starts, the Bulls again lost Derrick Rose for the season, and none of the other supposed fringe playoff contenders has even a .500 record at this early point in the season.

And here the Hawks are again, solid if unspectacular. The thing is, with the way the East has shaken out, solid might be enough to make the Hawks the third best team in the conference. And unlike the previous version of the solid but unspectacular Hawks, there’s room for growth and optimism here. Korver and Antic are the only top-nine rotation players over 30, and each is more complementary piece than building block.

Horford is still just 27, and while just now entering his physical prime, still one of the more under-appreciated players in the entire league. There may not be a center with a more well-rounded game than Horford, who at once is an offensive building block and a capable defensive presence. His defense was somewhat overshadowed when sharing the front court with Smith, whose athleticism and shot-blocking ability allowed for far more highlight plays than Horford’s quick feet (which help cover for sometimes shaky positioning) and understanding of angles and tendencies.

Horford this season has been one of the better rim-protectors in the NBA. Though not quite at a Hibbertian level, Horford’s presence near the rim has affected opposing shooters about as much as that of Tim Duncan, Joakim Noah, Anthony Davis, and Dwight Howard, per SportVu player tracking data released by the league and STATS LLC. As a result, the Hawks currently sit 10th in defensive efficiency, per NBA.com, the same spot they occupied last season. Despite the loss of Smith and his capabilities as both a wing stopper and interior shot deterrent, the Hawks are actually allowing ever-so-slightly fewer points per 100 possessions than they did a year ago.

The Hawks mostly play it conservative against screen and rolls, with their bigs tending to either hang back near the free throw line or “soft show” rather than aggressively jumping out on ball-handlers, though Horford does seem to venture farther out than Millsap, Ayon, Antic, or or Mike Scott.

Antic v P&R

 

Millsap v P&R

 

Horford v P&R

 

The Hawks also attempt to “ice” nearly all side screen and rolls, NBA slang for forcing the ball handler toward the pocket of space on the baseline rather than allowing him to access the middle of the floor. Note Teague jumping out on the high side of a Greg Monroe screen for Brandon Jennings in the screen shot below, which not only forces Jennings toward the baseline, but also toward his off hand.

Teague Ice

This strategy (one that it used by most teams around the league, including in San Antonio, where Budenholzer apprenticed under Gregg Popovich) has led the Hawks to force opposing pick and roll ball handlers to use nearly twice as many plays as their roll men, according to mySynergySports, generally an optimal result for the defense. 119 of the 173 shots pick and roll ball handlers have attempted against Atlanta this year have been jumpers, floaters, or runners (of which they’ve made just 41, or 34.4 percent), compared to 53 layups and just one dunk. The Hawks force turnovers on just south of 19 percent of opponent plays finished by pick and roll ball handlers, about a league average rate. But they also rarely foul, as evidenced by a 4.4 percent shooting foul rate for ball handlers, the sixth lowest figure in the league. Add it all up and the Hawks are allowing the third fewest points per play to pick and roll ball handlers, per Synergy, despite some at-times shaky positioning and recovery speed from the guards, Teague in particular.

This profile extends to their overall defense, as the Hawks rank in the lower half of the league in opponent’s turnover rate, but also send opponents to the free throw line at the fourth lowest rate in the league as a percentage of field goal attempts, according to NBA.com. Only the Pacers, Timberwolves, and Spurs foul less often.

On the other side of the ball, Atlanta looks a lot different than in years past. Continuing a trend that started under Larry Drew, the Hawks are isolating far less often and replacing those offense-stalling plays with copious amounts of side-to-side ball movement and cascading pick and rolls.

Percentage of Plays Used

via mySynergySports
Season
Isolation
P&R Ball Handler
P&R Roll Man
2009-1017.3%9.1%3.7%
2010-1114.0%10.3%5.1%
2011-1212.4%8.8%3.8%
2012-137.0%11.9%6.8%
2013-145.2%14.1%7.2%

Plays finished by one of the players directly involved in a pick and roll now account for nearly one-quarter of the Hawks’ possessions, a far cry from the minuscule 12.8 percent they represented in Woodson’s last season in Atlanta. The primary beneficiary of this has been Teague, who now plays the Tony Parker role in the system Budenholzer has imported from San Antonio. Plays finished as a pick and roll ball handler represented 36.9 percent of Teague’s total last season, and that number has taken a big jump up to 43.5 percent this year. That number is right on par with Parker, who right now sits at 45 percent. Teague’s seen a slight increase in his pick and roll efficiency this season as well, jumping from 0.72 points per play to 0.8, which helps him rank in the top 10 or so percent of most efficient ball handlers in the league.

A lot of this is due to Teague’s declining turnover percentage; whereas he turned the ball over on just over 18 percent of pick and roll plays last season, that number is down to about 14 percent this year. Still more important, though, is Teague’s new-found foul-drawing ability. He drew shooting fouls on 5.6 percent of pick and roll plays last season, and that number has shot up to 8.9 percent this year, and as a result he is taking a career-high 7.2 free throws per 36 minutes. His previous high was 3.6 per 36 in his second NBA season.

Teague in previous years was too often content to string out pick and rolls when he saw aggressive coverage and settle for jumpers when defenders went under screens and/or hung back, but this year he’s been far more aggressive taking it to the basket.

The aggressiveness isn’t just limited to foul-drawing, either. After getting himself a dunk or layup on just under 23 percent of his pick and roll plays last season, Teague has bumped that number up to a robust 30 percent this season, and that number doesn’t even account for the increase in fouls, which tend to occur most often on layup or dunk attempts.

Teague’s primary partner on pick and rolls has of course been Horford, who once again has proved himself one of the league’s best roll men. His skill set makes him a threat on both the roll and the pop, and he might somehow be even more dangerous when he gets the ball in his hands and is able to attack his defender off the dribble after setting a screen and sliding into space.

He has a nifty pump fake, well above average ball handling skills for a big man, and is an excellent passer. He can make every play you want from a roll man on the pick and roll; he nearly always makes the correct shoot-pass-drive decision, and he sets solid screens to free up open lanes for ball handlers to boot.

He has a delightful array of post-up moves, fully capable of facing his man up or backing him down; powering to the rim for a layup or tingling the twine with a silky turnaround jumper. Best yet, he’s quickly become a master at at turning his post-up into a screen when his defender fronts him and the ball handler on the perimeter smartly drives directly at the fronting defender. He’s a marvelous player, and it’s not hard to see why he’s easily slid into the Duncan role in Budenholzer’s offense.

Millsap has essentially been Horford Lite offensively this season, showcasing the varied skill set that made him a per minute wonder early in his career and then just a damn good player in his latter years in Utah. Also equally equipped to run pick and rolls from now til forever and either face up or back down in the post, Millsap is a picture perfect secondary option. He’ll spot up off off Horford post-ups, flash middle from the weak side at the exact moment in time  when a sliver of space comes open, and duck into the post behind screen-rolls when the opportunity is there. It’s mind-boggling that the Hawks somehow snagged him for just two years and $19 million this offseason.

Korver, of course, is lighting it up from outside, and he now sits just one game short of tying Dana Barros’ record for consecutive games with at least one three pointer made. Korver is a sniper of the highest order, but his skills are not just limited to setting his feet and letting it fly. When covered after jetting off a screen, Korver has enough guile to slide a bounce pass through to the screener for a layup. He’s mostly looking for his shot, but he’s smart enough to know how and when to keep the defense honest.

The Teague-Korver-Millsap-Horford foursome has played together for 286 minutes, per NBA.com, or nearly 40 percent of Atlanta’s floor time. They’ve scored at a top seven rate and defended like the 10th best team in the league, outscoring opponents by 4.7 points per 100 possessions, essentially falling between the Clippers and Timberwolves in pace-adjusted point differential. The offense does tend to get bogged down a when that quartet shares the court with Carroll; they’ve registered a 101.3 offensive efficiency in 239 minutes with the lanky small forward on the court. Carroll’s worked well enough as a spot-up shooter (35.6 percent on spot-up threes, per Synergy) and timely cutter (10-18 from the floor on cuts), but defenses are far too content to leave him alone on the perimeter and crowd the lane for Teague’s drives or Horford’s post-ups.

Playing Cartier Martin in his place has goosed the offense up to 118.0 points per 100 possessions, though in a relatively tiny sample of just 29 minutes over nine games. Martin, though, is a career 37.8 percent shooter from deep, so defenses have to respect his shot more than Carroll’s, who shoots under 30 percent from beyond the arc for his career. Carroll’s also taken on 151 threes in his career, while Martin attempted 146 in 41 games for Atlanta last year alone.

Whatever the case, the Hawks’ solid but not altogether surprising start has them at 8-7 after a bad loss to the Orlando Magic last night, and that’s somehow been good enough for third place in the East. They’re hovering around the top 10 in both offensive (12th) and defensive (10th) efficiency, generally a good barometer for contendership. It’s likely that at least one of the Knicks, Nets, and Bulls will right the ship and leapfrog up the standings, but for now the Hawks look as though they might secure a home first round series nearly by default.

 
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