It’s still early, but we are nearing the 15 percent schedule threshold for the season, so let’s check in regarding which phases of the games in which the Hawks are measuring up better, worse, or the same as compared to last season. Most observers would chalk up the differences to the transitions at the starting point guard and center positions and understandably so, but the bench availability and general level of play are in vastly different places for this team that a year ago this time.
Some might think that I could save your time and mine by simply saying rebounds are up and so are turnovers and ending it at that. But some of what we will review might surprise you.
(All stats per NBA.com as of the morning of Thursday November 17)
OK rebounds are up, I can admit that. Last season the Hawks were 27th overall in rebound rate (47.5%) and were dead last in defensive rebound rate (74.6%). This season they rank 4th overall in rebound rate (52.4%), but it might surprise you that the Hawks are just 19th in defensive rebound rate (76.3%) with an improvement of only +1.7%. Some might want to chalk this ranking up to the Hawks having allowed 15 offensive rebounds to the lengthy Bucks team in a game in which Dwight Howard was not available and 17 offensive rebounds to the Heat in a game in which Howard missed a majority of the second half. But note that in win over the Heat Hassan Whiteside had 7 of his 10 offensive rebounds before Howard left the game for good. Also, the Hawks have only held their opponent to single digit rebounds in three of their 11 games so far.
The improvement in rebounding was clear to see in the matchup versus the Cavaliers (50-39 advantage, held Tristan Thompson to two boards). But it might be more true to state that the Hawks have improved their rebounding for some match ups than it would be to say that the Hawks have solved their rebounding woes overall, especially as it relates to defensive rebounding. It might also surprise you that opponents 2nd chance points are at almost exactly the same level as last season (13.1 pts/game last season, 13.4 pts/game this season).
The Hawks have improved from 30th in the league in offensive rebounding rate from last season (19.1%) to 7th overall this season (26.2%), but that is not just a result of new personnel, it is as much a result of changes in scheme. Opponent fast break points are up even if nominally (11.9 pts/game last season, 14.2 pts/game this season). Howard (18.1% offensive rebound rate) does of course warrant credit here as he trails only Denver’s Kenneth Faried (18.6%) in offensive rebounding for any regular rotation player in the league.
The Hawks measure up very well in rim protection this season with a 2nd best opponent FG% at the rim of 47.5% and a league best of opponent FG% inside of 5 feet at 50.9%. But don’t yet call this a problem solved via the transition from Horford to Howard. These were not necessarily problem areas last season as the Hawks were 3rd best in the league holding opponents to 55.5% on shots inside of 5 feet and 10th best in holding opponents to 51.1 on shots at the rim.
Some might say it cost the Hawks rebounding position to defend well inside last season as a basic observation, but as we covered, they are not necessarily significantly improved in defensive rebounding.
Even in terms of the solid rim protection we have seen from the Hawks this season, it might surprise you how much this is a result of team effort as opposed to just the Dwight Howard effect. All 4 of the Hawks primary bigs are holding opponents to sub-50% at the rim. Mike Muscala is holding opponents at the rim to a FG% of 39.4% on 66 attempts, Howard 44.9% on 69 attempts, Humphries 46.2% on 39 attempts, and Millsap 47.6% on 84 attempts.
The Hawks earned their living on the defensive end of the court last season coming in at 2nd in defensive rating coming in at 98.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. They lead the league last season in defensive rating after January 1. This season thus far they are still tracking at 2nd best in with an improved defensive rating of 95.1 trailing only the Los Angeles Clippers who are playing at a historically great level on defense with a rating of 94.6.
Dwight Howard has absolutely pitched in on the defensive end especially with his ability to occupy space inside and the impact his presence has on the confidence of the Hawks perimeter defenders. But I am going to steer a decent amount of credit here to new starting point guard Dennis Schroder.
Note that Schroder’s steals are down almost 40% on a per 36 minutes basis, and that is a good thing. Let me explain. In the Hawks scheme it is critically important that the point guard play very honest defense in the half court. They eye test and the reduction in steal rate support that Schroder has reduced his tendency to want to reach and gamble at times. When the point guard plays with discipline in his on-ball defensive techniques the result is that his four teammates behind him can play with confidence that they just need to remain disciplined to their primary techniques.
When the point guard gambles and misses, the result all too often is a 5 on 4 scramble in which primary techniques are abandoned and the decision making down to each single player becomes quite ad hoc. It puts the offensive team in control. Schroder deserves credit, in my opinion, for becoming a more disciplined player in the half court defense as Coach Budenholzer has entrusted him with the starting role.
Everyone knows that the Hawks are 30th in the league in turnover rate (17.5%), but they were not that great last year either (21st, 15.0%). A few things to note in this area: first, you would be hard pressed to find a team that landed last in the league in turnovers and still managed to have a successful season. Second, the Charlotte Hornets are league best in turnover rate (11.0%) so this could play in to the outcome of Friday night’s game in which the Hawks face their divisional foe for the first time this season.
The primary thing that held the Hawks back last season was their shooting. In their 60-win season in 2014-2015, they trailed only the historically great shooters in Golden State in three point percentage (Warriors 39.8%, Hawks 38.0%). But they were still pretty efficient last season even if not quite elite. Last season they still came in 6th in eFG% at 51.6% and 7th in TS% at 55.2%. So far this season they are improved a bit with an eFG% of 53.5% (3rd) and TS% of 56.8% (4th) so the shooting woes are solved rigtht?
Maybe not. No one is talking about it because they are 9-2 in the early going. But the Hawks shot a fairly pedestrian 35.0% from three point range last season and are only up to 35.7% from distance so far this season. I will predict that they need to become a more consistent perimeter shooting team as the season progress if they want to maintain an impressive place in the Eastern Conference standings.
The Hawks pace is slightly up to 102.7 possessions per 48 minutes as compared to 99.4 last season. I think this can be explained by the fact that the Hawks are league best in forcing opponent turnovers with 17.5 per game (neutralizing their own 17.5 turnovers per game).
Finally the last data point I will share to perhaps keep us grounded in the early season success is that the Hawks are one of only 8 teams that have yet to play a road game in the opposing division (although they certainly deserve credit for doing well in their back-to-backs: 3-0 in the 2nd games). I think this is one of the early season factors that can be misleading in terms of early season results. For example Utah’s 7-5 record might impress you more when you consider that they have played 5 road games in the eastern conference. The same can be said for the Pistons (6-6, 4 road games in western conference), and the Rockets (6-5, 4 road games in the Eastern Conference). You might even have a bit more hope for the Sacramento Kings despite their 4-8 record when you consider they have already played 5 of their 15 scheduled road games for this season in the eastern conference.
The Hawks are off to a successful start this season after taking what many considered at least somewhat risky decisions to turn over two of their starting positions coming into this season. But as you can see their results are still as reliant upon team-wide contributions and success as they have been in prior seasons. And while it is nearly impossible to not enjoy their 9-2 start, there are plenty of things to keep an eye in their different areas of performance as to see if they can maintain and improve, where needed,to be on track for a successful 2016-17 season.