The 2016-17 Atlanta Hawks were not built to be an offensive juggernaut. This is a team whose path to victory lies through combining elite defense with offensive production that is simply good enough. That formula resulted in 48 wins last season, and carried the Hawks to a second-round playoff series against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
So far this year, the offense has struggled. This, coupled with a subpar defensive showing over the past few weeks, gives a pretty clear explanation as to why Atlanta currently sits at 12-13 after a 9-2 start. There are several reasons why the team has struggled to score points all season, but the simplest reason is that the Hawks have taken a step back in several different areas.
As of December 14, the Atlanta Hawks rank 25th in offensive rating (according to Basketball-Reference), scoring 102.7 points per 100 possessions. This number isn’t a steep drop-off from where Atlanta finished last year (a rating of 105.1, 21st in the league). However, it is still definitively worse than the season total from 2015-16, and there are several statistical categories that help to explain this decline.
Perhaps the best area to start a detailed analysis of the Hawks offense would be with either Dennis Schröder or Dwight Howard, the two newcomers to the starting five. Schröder has struggled at times this season, showing the inexperience that one would expect from a 23-year-old point guard in a starter’s role. Schröder has started to play better recently, though, and there’s nothing to suggest that he will not be able to overcome his early-season performance given more time.
For Howard, the picture is fairly positive. There were plenty of legitimate concerns about how his style of play would affect the traditionally free-flowing Hawks offense, but so far the results have been mostly good. Although Howard is playing fewer minutes per game (28.7) than his career average (35.2), he is averaging more field goals both made and attempted than during his last season in Houston, and his field goal percentage (.623) has risen marginally as well.
These numbers don’t rule out the possibility that Howard has gummed up the offensive in non-statistical ways, but just watching the Hawks on a nightly basis backs up the idea that his performance on that end has been fine (though not phenomenal). In other words, at the very least, it’s not Dwight Howard’s fault that Atlanta ranks so low in offensive rating.
A statistical analysis of the other three starters — Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, and Kent Bazemore — is slightly more troubling. While Bazemore’s struggles have been well-documented, Millsap and Korver have been playing below their career levels as well. Korver has started coming off the bench recently, though this move feels more like an attempt at finding some sort of solution rather than an indictment of his play so far.
Millsap’s shooting percentage (.460) is below his career average of .497, and Korver’s three-point shooting (.404) is well below his career mark (.429) as well. Perhaps even more interestingly, Korver’s per-game three-point attempts have fallen too, suggesting that he is getting fewer good looks than he did last season. Although both Korver and Millsap are still very valuable players, their reduced numbers provide at least a partial answer to the team’s struggles as a whole.
From this statistical standpoint, the Hawks’ offensive struggles are a conglomeration of different factors, the result of a struggling, young point guard and other starters playing (to varying extents) below their career averages. While Bazemore’s shooting has been particularly damaging recently, it’s impossible (and irresponsible) to pin a 25th ranked offense on any one individual.
The future picture for the Hawks’ offense is unclear. While Schröder and Bazemore should start to play better, it may be asking too much to expect Korver or Millsap to improve by much (both are over 30). Atlanta’s offense has always been a team-oriented exercise, though, and improvements by one player could open up more opportunities for others (such as more three-pointers for Korver).
Regardless, the blueprint for a successful Hawks team remains the same as it was at the beginning of the season: play defense at a high level, and play good enough offense to capitalize. If Atlanta can improve on the defensive end, they may not need a huge jump offensively.