Before our Atlanta Hawks crushed the Memphis Grizzlies last night 103-92, I was thinking about how slow of a pace they have played this year. Considering our roster the Hawks have crafted this season it was assumed Larry Drew would employ smallball tactics. Similar to what Cleveland or Dallas is doing this year. Spread the floor and utilize Al Horford and Josh Smith in the post. For the most part it hasn't exactly worked out that way. Through the first 30 games Atlanta had a pace of 94.1 ranking 16th in the league. In those 30 games the Hawks amassed a record of 20-10. Since those first 30 games we are a disappointing 7-11. In the last 18 games the Hawks have obtained a 92.6 pace. League average for pace this year is 94.3.
What happened to the Hawks in the last 18 games? Injury and defense are the easiest areas I can point to why the Hawks have regressed. Lou Williams doesn't have the defensive skill of Tony Allen, but most of the time he was athletic enough to stay in front of his man. Before the injury bug bit him Devin Harris provided a big lift to our defense. In those first 30 games the Hawks held opponents to an incredible 92.6 points per game! At the time that was good for 5th in the league. As of today the Hawks allow opponents to score 95.9 points per game, 8th in the league. Looking at the roster nobody besides Josh Smith and Devin Harris, have ever been known as defensive stoppers. So the slide in defensive efficiency isn't a surprise. Strange part is when our defense slipped so did our pace.
Unfortunately a variety of Hawks players succumbed to injuries, therefore I imagine Larry Drew intentionally slowed the pace. I can only assume that is what happened. I am not in the locker room, and other than the vigorous use of the word "energy" I have no idea what Larry Drew's gameplan is. I could not tell you what Drew's system or offensive philosophy is. A few years ago when Drew was promoted many were expecting an up-temo high pace offense. Where is that offense? It is my feeling with the personnel on the court the Hawks should be running. This year the Hawks are undersized, but have various shooters around the court. I believe Jeff Teague would benefit greatly by playing at such a high pace. Pushing the ball up the court in transition would allow Teague to possibly get into the paint more often. When the Hawks play at a 95 or higher pace they shoot 22.3 free throws a game. Hawks have averaged 19.2 free throws this year.
That last paragraph is not an indictment of Drew, simply confusion on my part about the offensive strategy in place. Are we a slow pace grind it out team? When operating at a 95 or higher pace the Hawks are mediocre 11-8. Looking deeper into the numbers the Hawks are shooting 44.6% from the field and 37.7% from behind the arc in those games. For the season the Hawks average 45.9% from the field and 38.1% from the arc. While the percentage is lower the Hawks average 89 shots per game at a pace of 95 or higher, 9 more than the season average. It should not be a surprise the Hawks average more points per game (99.7) than their season average (96.5) when operating at a pace of 95 or higher. Rebounds (50.2), Assists (24.6) and Free throw attempts (22.3) all improve from the Hawks league average when playing at a faster pace.
There is a slight drop off in defense when the Hawks increase their pace. Hawks allow 99.8 points per game when increasing the pace. Opponents are shooting 44.7% when the Hawks play faster. It is only a slight increase in opponent shooting percentage. In 48 games this year the Hawks are allowing opponents to shoot 44.5% from the field. Increasing the pace really hurts the Hawks defensively because opponents get to the line frequently. On average opponents this year get to the line 19.2 times a game. When the pace is increased opponents get to the line 23.5 times per game. When the Hawks play teams above .500 our record is 3-7 while playing at a high pace. Playing below a pace of 95 the Hawks have a record of 9-8 against teams .500 or better. It is my belief that the Hawks are forced to play a high pace game, not because of a gameplan, but to catch up from large deficits created early in the game. I believe that is why our record is so poor when playing against teams that are over .500.
I think Larry Drew and the Hawks need to increase their pace fort the rest of the season. Bo Churney tweeted a stat about Jeff Teague's last 6 games. 3 of the 6 games the Hawks had a pace of 95 or more. Getting Teague aggressive and putting him in a position to create opportunities for himself and his teammates must be done in order to be successful on offense. Think about this stat. When the Hawks play at a pace below 95, teams below .500 are 7-5. When the Hawks play at a pace above 95 against sub .500 team they are 8-1. As Northcyde mentioned in his post, we have 17 games left against teams that are below .500. I would love nothing more then for Larry Drew to unleash this Hawks team that is so rich in high caliber athletes. It's all about matchups in the NBA and I am sure Drew realizes this. To continue to play at such a sluggish pace, I believe would be foolish.
Authors note: I realize there are 2 different algorithms for pace. I used the one Hoopdata.com has on their page.