When the Atlanta Hawks turned their collective focus to becoming a brutally powerful defensive unit last year, the rest of the NBA noticed. That defensive strength wasn’t enough to hold off the Cleveland Cavaliers, but it was enough for 48 wins and a strong first-round performance against the Boston Celtics.
Despite fielding an elite defensive unit, the Hawks consistently struggled to score last season. This weakness crippled them in individual games throughout the year, and became even more pressing in the first and second rounds of the playoffs.
Given the team’s offensive woes, it’s fair to ask whether or not the Hawks’ offense will improve at all this year. Despite the roster turnover and player development, though, it seems more likely than not that this team will again rank below the league average in offense.
Atlanta’s offense was never awful, but the team’s inability to score consistently showed itself from both a statistical and “eye-test” standpoint. Statistically, the Hawks’ 105.75 offensive rating ranked 22nd in the league, well below the 110.00 rating (and sixth place finish) from 2014-15.
The statistics aren’t encouraging, and seem in line with what fans saw on the court many nights. Setting Kyle Korver’s “struggles” aside, there were multiple stretches during individual games where the team as a whole couldn’t seem to find any sort of scoring. Inconsistent shooting, along with a last-place finish in offensive rebounding, combined to severely hamper Atlanta’s offense.
There are some reasons to expect a better finish this season, though. Korver looked more comfortable as the season progressed, and it’s reasonable to expect at least some improvements from a shooter of his caliber. Bazemore could also conceivably turn in a more consistent season (his shooting percentage declined fairly sharply as the year progressed).
Beyond that, though, there are actually reasons that the offense could struggle even more than last year, for the simple reason that the team’s shooting at two starting positions got notably worse. Al Horford and Jeff Teague both shot well last season (Teague hit 40% of his 3-pointers), and neither Dwight Howard nor Dennis Schröder look able to replace that shooting. These two are very talented players, but Howard has almost no shooting skills, and Schröder has been wildly inconsistent.
Atlanta’s best offensive option is to play through Millsap (to use his impressive versatility), and use the other players in specific roles (Korver as a shooter; Howard and Schröder in pick and rolls) to create multiple options. There are still traces of the blistering 2014-15 offense here, but expecting this team to reach that level is unrealistic.
To be clear, there are plenty of scenarios in which Atlanta emerges as a competent offensive team. But with the uncertainty that is still surrounding Schröder and Howard, age concerns with Korver, and the possibility that Kent Bazemore has already reached his ceiling, it’s more likely than not that the Hawks have a below-average offense once again.
Things get even worse on the bench. Players like Tiago Splitter (if he ever gets healthy), Edy Tavares, and Thabo Sefolosha, are all limited offensively. Malcolm Delaney could emerge as a threat on the merits of his shooting, but beyond him, there are no proven scorers (with the possible exception of Mike Scott, who has struggled this preseason).
None of that dooms this team. The Hawks won 48 games with an elite defense, and the formula for success will be the same this year. Finishing in the top five in either offense or defense — along with a league-average finish in the other category — usually guarantees a win total in the mid-40s. That is clearly the model Atlanta is pursuing.
However, the offense has to be a concern. There are many scenarios in which this team struggles even more than last year, and finishing near the bottom of the league in offensive rating could doom the Hawks’ playoff hopes.