In Mike Budenholzer's introductory press conference as Hawks head coach he discussed his plan for building and developing a program in Atlanta. While much is up in the air for the Hawks this summer, Budenholzer knows two things for sure: Al Horford will be a major factor and what kind of offensive system he will be running.
Budenholzer mentioned Horford on numerous occasions, and when asked what excites him about the roster he quickly said, "The roster starts with Al Horford..." Budenholzer clearly sees Horford as a cornerstone piece in building the Hawks, and stated repeatedly how excited he was to work with Al.
If there was any question that he would be bringing over San Antonio's offensive system, Budenholzer answered that with a resounding yes.
"I think there's a system offensively that has evolved and grown that I'm very comfortable with that I want to bring with me. It starts with pace and playing with a high pace, ball movement, people movement, playing unselfish, organized and attacking."
Great! San Antonio's offense is a model of consistency and maximizes the talents of it's three best players: Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili. However, how will that translate to the Hawks. Good news: The Hawks have a number of open roster spots to bring in players that will fit the system. Bad news: None of those players will be named Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, or Manu Ginobili.
While John Jenkins, Mike Scott, and Lou Williams (hopefully by training camp) will be on the squad next year, their roles are yet to be fully determined (Williams will be the sixth man, but the capacity in which he is asked to play is yet to be known).
[Note: Mike is non-guaranteed, but Scott is a near lock for the roster. Shelvin Mack is also non-guaranteed, and while I see him making the roster, it is not as definite as Scott]
The one certainty is Al Horford, and the role he will play in the offense. While centerpiece may not be the correct term (he could be if we are unable to land any of the top free agents), Horford will play a major role in Budenholzer's offense, which will have a different look from Larry Drew's offense. Using videos and charts from the NBA Media Stats site and statistics from Synergy Sports, we will examine how Al Horford will be used in Budenholzer's offense and why I believe he will become an even better offensive weapon.
As you can see in the two images below [First: Hawks Shot Distribution, Second: Spurs Shot Distribution], where the Hawks shots will come from will have a different look in Budenholzer's offense. The Spurs got 3.3% more of their shots within eight feet of the rim than did the Hawks. The Spurs offense also utilized the baseline area on the left and right side of the basket from 8-15 feet much more often than the Hawks (10.1% to 6.6% of the total offense). The corner three is also emphasized more than above the break in Budenholzer's system than Drew's (Corner/Above Break: 9.5%/16.7% to 7.9%/20.6%).
Hawks shot distribution.
Spurs shot distribution.
Those areas of the floor were more popular in the Spurs' offense because of the positioning of the offense and the plays the Spurs run [Note: Personnel also has an impact, but the positioning of that personnel had the larger impact]. Pick-and-roll will be the most common play-type in Budenholzer's system, and will be much more prevalent than in Drew's offense. The Spurs ran pick-and-roll 22.26% (0.92 Points Per Possession, 5th) of the time last season compared to the Hawks who ran pick-and-roll 18.15% (0.84 PPP, 18th) of the time. Spot-up shots will continue to be a major factor under Budenholzer, as spot-up attempts accounted for 21.48% (1.04 PPP, 6th) of the Spurs offense.
While Budenholzer wants to push the pace, transition buckets will not be as large a part of the offense. Transition attempts accounted for 16.66% (1.18 PPP, 5th) for the Hawks, while just 13.68% (1.11 PPP, 19th) for the Spurs. With younger personnel more suited for playing up-tempo, the Hawks will likely do better than the Spurs in getting out on the break, but Budenholzer also asks for a greater commitment from the entire team to crash the defensive glass which cuts down on transition opportunities.
Due to the uncertainty about who all will be on the roster, the only player with a defined role as of now is Al Horford. We know Horford will be used in the same manner as Tim Duncan. That is not to say Horford has all of the same skills as Duncan or will be as effective in certain areas as Duncan, but Horford will be utilized in the same position. This role will not be a major departure from how Horford was utilized last year.
Horford and Duncan each had about the same number of touches as the roll man in pick-and-roll (297 for Horford, 320 for Duncan), and Horford was more effective on a per possession basis than Duncan was scoring 1.01 PPP (51.4% FG) to Duncan's 0.95 PPP (47.2%). Horford should see a more significant jump in his spot-up attempts as Duncan had 43 more spot-up touches than Al did (192 to 149). Horford shot a better percentage on spot-up opportunities (43.2% to 42.9%), but his PPP was slightly lower (0.83 to 0.88) because Duncan got to the free throw line more than twice as often on spot-up looks. A boost in spot-up looks, which will mostly come via the pick-and-pop, should be a positive both for Horford and the Hawks offense.
The biggest change for Horford will be the number of post touches. Duncan received 420 post touches and was 22nd in the NBA with 0.94 PPP on 46.6% shooting along with a 9.8 foul percentage. Horford had 327 post touches and was 67th in the NBA with 0.85 PPP on 45.5% shooting with an 8.5 foul percentage. Horford will have to improve his footwork in the post and develop a more consistent counter move if he is going to be effective in what should be an expanded role as a post player.
To illustrate the different nuances in how the Hawks offense will utilize Horford under Budenholzer, I have pulled many videos from the NBA Media Stats site showing plays run by the Spurs this past year and comparable plays in the Hawks playbook under Drew's guidance. I will put plays that are similar together and explain the differences that Horford will have to adapt to under Budenholzer.
Finding pick-and-roll sets that result in an Al Horford lay-up or dunk are few and far between, especially if you want to see one not run with Josh Smith via the highly successful 4-5 pick-and-roll. Horford was primarily a pick-and-pop player last season, which is something he will be asked to continue in Budenholzer's offense. Budenholzer's offense will be a more balanced mix of pick-and-pop and pick-and-roll for Horford than was Drew's, which should benefit Horford because of the speed advantage he has over most of his opponents (especially at the five).
The side pick-and-roll is a favorite of Budenholzer's offense, especially in semi-transition or early in the clock (like in the video below) to take advantage of the defense being out of position. It is a basic side pick-and-roll with a small twist. Like a normal side pick-and-roll the point guard comes from the break of the three-point line towards the free throw line and the big slips the screen and rolling down the baseline to the basket. However, the Spurs bring their small forward up to the top of the key to chip Duncan's man prior to Duncan's screen, which frees Duncan up for just enough room to turn the corner to the basket undeterred. The key is how quickly Parker recognizes that both defenders have stepped towards him and the speed with which Duncan slips the screen and gets moving to the hoop.
The Hawks occasionally ran similar sets last year, but normally the side pick-and-roll was run with Josh Smith rather than Al Horford. Here, the Hawks run a version of the side pick-and-roll with Horford rolling to the hoop for an alley-oop dunk.
The largest difference in the two plays is the timing. For the Hawks to be as successful with the pick-and-roll on a consistent basis they will have to have a point guard making quick decisions coming off the screen to either attack the rim or make an early pass, and Horford will have to look to get the ball earlier rather than looking for lobs.
As for the pick-and-pop, Horford will be right at home. The Spurs took 307 shots from the left elbow, Duncan took 111 of those attempts, shooting 48.6%. Horford took 61 of the Hawks 308 attempts from the same spot (/glares at Smoove) and shot 47.5%. Horford can expect to operate more from the left side of the floor than he did last year (inexplicably Drew insisted on playing Smoove on the left despite him being more effective on the right block), which should help his efficiency. 238 of Duncan's attempts on the year came from the left elbow and left baseline compared to just 97 attempts from those same spots for Horford. In those 97 attempts Horford shot 49.5% compared to 42.3% from the same spots on the right side of the floor in 137 attempts.
The attempts created at the elbow in Budenholzer's offense do not just come from pick-and-pop looks, but are also created through pin-downs, in transition, and clear-outs. We can expect to see more pin-downs for Horford this season than last year (where they were extremely rare), and they do this to set up their pick-and-roll game. Here, the Spurs run a pin-down for Duncan with Ginobili.
The Spurs create great floor spacing with the two wing players in the corners and Duncan flattened out on the baseline. Duncan fakes the back-screen for Parker to hold his man on the baseline, before coming off of Ginobili's screen for a wide open elbow jumper. With Horford's skill set, this would be run for him to create open space for him to operate, and Horford has shown the ability (displayed in the video below on a pick-and-pop) to get defenders in the air on the pump fake and then drive to the basket.
Budenholzer's offense will create more open looks for Horford on the perimeter, which means he will not only have a chance for more jump shots, but also will be able to take advantage of bigs closing out on him and drive to the basket.
The transition game is where Al Horford excels. Horford has stated many times that he enjoys running the floor and feels like his ability to run the floor is his biggest advantage. Horford is an extremely gifted transition player making rim-runs, catching, and finishing lobs and outlet passes. In semi-transition, Horford often went to the post, in an effort to make a quick catch and post before the defense was set. I expect Budenholzer to add another wrinkle to Horford's semi-transition game, and have him spot up from the mid-range in the same way Duncan did in San Antonio. Here, we see Duncan come down and feign a screen look for Ginobili, who drives baseline drawing both defenders, and kicks it out to the open Duncan.
The fake screen action draws Ginobili's defender up the floor to prepare for what looks like the same side pick-and-roll action as we saw in the first video clip. Instead, Ginobili keeps driving, which pulls Duncan's man towards the basket, leaving Duncan open for a jumper. We can expect to see this same look here in Atlanta in order to keep the opposition from jumping the side pick-and-roll in semi-transition.
Hand-off plays are also staples of the Spurs system. The Spurs will get the ball to Duncan in the high post and run a guard tight off of Duncan to either get an easy lay-up or to clear out defenders for an isolation. Here we see a hand-off play with Manu Ginobili, where Duncan comes takes the ball and makes a quick hand-off to Ginobili, who gets doubled quickly and passes it out for an open jumper.
In this second example, they post Duncan on the baseline, and run Parker down the baseline for the fake hand-off. This action forces Duncan's defender to disengage and step back to protect against the hand-off, giving Duncan space to get off the shot.
Horford's isolation plays were often just that, isolations, without any movment around him to force his defender to protect against a cutter. Horford should benefit from better looks from these subtle off-ball actions from his teammates that help create space for his shot.
Assuming Tim Duncan's role in an offense is not an easy task, and Horford cannot do everything Duncan does. Horford is an efficient shooter, but needs to be more decisive when taking open shots. Budenholzer's offense is meant to create small, open shot windows and Horford will have to be quicker with his decision making if he is going to succeed. Also, his post-game will need to continue to improve. Duncan is one of the elite post-players in the NBA because he has multiple moves. Horford is very good at one particular move, turning over his left shoulder to get off his hook shot, but lacks a reliable counter move off of it. Here is Horford's driving hook in the lane.
Horford is effective with this move because he creates contact and is able to get his shot off, but it becomes predictable and, even in the clip above, defenders are able to get in front of him to contest it.
Here we can see Duncan utilizing the perfect counter to the Horford's go-to move.
Duncan puts the ball on the floor and drives towards the lane like Horford, but instead of going in for the hook he picks up his dribble and hits a spin move to the baseline for the turnaround bank shot. If Horford adopted that counter move, he would become a much improved post-player because he would no longer be predictable.
Al Horford is not Tim Duncan. I cannot repeat that enough. Duncan is a first-ballot Hall-of-Famer and may well go down as the best power forward in NBA history. However, Horford possesses many skills that are similar to Duncan, and that will allow him to be very effective in Duncan's role in Budenholzer's offense, and he has room (and I believe the desire/capability) to develop into a better player. Horford must improve his post-game by adding a more reliable counter move and developing a secondary post move. He also must become more comfortable rolling to the hoop on pick-and-rolls rather than just setting up for the mid-range shot or running to the rim for a lob. However, I have faith that Horford will continue to grow and improve as a player, and under Budenholzer and his staff's tutelage Horford will flourish, developing even further, and emerge as an imposing offensive weapon in this system.