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Fixing the Hawks Starting Unit

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What do the Atlanta Hawks need to do to fix their struggling starting unit?

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

For a majority of the season, the Hawks starting unit has logged one of the least impressive net ratings across the league. Despite losses in their last several games, the net rating is moving in a positive direction. Still Hawks starting units have a league worst net rating per NBA.com of -1.0. Additionally, the normal starting unit of Schroder, Korver, Bazemore, Millsap and Howard have a net rating of -2.3, the worst across the league for any group of regular starters and the 2nd worst for any five man line-up averaging 12 minutes per game or more.

In terms of why this is happening, at a high level my assessment based upon what I am seeing is that the team is struggling to settle upon a healthy and repeatable distribution of offensive responsibility. Keep in mind that offensive responsibility does not equal shot volume, although it does make up an important part of it.

In Coach Budenholzer’s first three years leading the Hawks, the team had a pretty natural distribution of offensive responsibility. The offense was/is designed for the open player to take the shot, but in terms of who did what within the scheme was very clear. Jeff Teague handled a large majority of the offensive initiation, the wings would serve as spacers or cutters as needed, Horford and Millsap would primarily serve as the screener in pick and roll action. Secondary actions were typically very intuitive for the group as well.

In moving on from Horford and Teague for Howard and Schroder, the team attrited a pretty significant amount of offensive skill. Howard is significantly less skilled than Horford (although he brings other strengths to the team) and Schroder skill set at this point is less developed than is Teague’s. Thus, the distribution of offensive responsibility has to be adjusted with this group. Let’s take a look at that one player at a time.

Kent Bazemore

Needs to be more selective

Last season, Bazemore was one of the wings serving as a spacer and a cutter, and he was the obvious 5th option on offense. He had a breakout season and returned to the Hawks after signing a lucrative contract last summer. This season, he is taking on more offensive responsibility… as discussed someone has to do this. His shots are up by 2.5 per game, his opportunities creating in the pick and roll are up by roughly 1.5 per game and his points per possession as the ball handler in the pick roll is up from 0.59 points per possession last season (awful) to 0.74 points per possession this season (still not good.)

The most problematic area of Bazemore’s offensive game this season is when he drives the ball into the paint; he is a team worst 27.5% shooter on drives and has a tendency to use an ineffective eurostep when the path to the rim is not clear. Additionally, it seems when he has a series of unsuccessful drives he becomes frustrated and the whole of his offensive game is negatively affected.

I think the Hawks need Bazemore to be a creator in this offense and I think he can be productive in doing so, but he needs to be much more selective. Operating as the ball handler in the pick and roll his first look needs to be the opportunity to step into a 15 foot shot (or so). When he does this he is very under control and is a good shot maker (67% shooter from 10-16 ft). When coming off the screen, if the defender is trailing him on his back shoulder, unless the defense has scrambled and has a guard defending the paint, he needs to avoid the urge to drive the ball towards into the paint. As mentioned, he is a team worst shooter on drives and is 1 for 21 (5%) on field goal attempts from 3-10 feet. There is nothing wrong with looking to reset the screen action or moving the ball to the next guy.

In the six games on the season in which Bazemore has made 7 or more field goals (collectively 47 of 88 on FGAs, 53%) his first made shot of each game consists of a made 18 footer in the pick and roll (stepped inside the 3-point line), 3 made field goals at the rim that were assisted (no drives) and 2 made 3-point shots that were assisted (operating as a spacer). Getting started offensively by playing within himself seems to provide a rhythm for Bazemore to expand his offensive creation in productive ways as the game progresses.

Dwight Howard

Needs to help address the team’s turnover issue

Howard’s shot distribution really could not be more perfect than it has been so far this season; of his 168 FGAs 122 of them (73%) have been at the rim. His volume of shots in the 3-10 foot range is down from 35% of his shots last season to 20% of his shots this season. Both his FGAs and his usage are up slightly from last season, but I consider them to be at very healthy levels. He is 4th on the team in both FGA/gm and in usage. Any effort to profile him higher than that in this offense would be problematic in my view.

But there are two specific things that Howard can do to improve the team’s offensive consistency. I believe he needs to be more selective in his deep post efforts. He is still a very high turnover player (especially as compared to Horford) and many of these turnovers come off of offensive fouls and mishandled opportunities in deep post action.

Accepted basketball logic is that if the big man runs hard either in transition or in the early offensive set to establish a deep post position, you reward him with the ball. But in the case of this team, too many turnovers are coming from this action. My preference would be that unless Howard is able to pin his defender completely under the basket that he abandons the post and gets into his half court action. The ball handler (often looking for this as he crosses half court) can’t determine where Howard has his defender. He has to be the one to abandon the post when the right leverage is not there. The only exception I would personally feel OK with is if the defender is in foul trouble and Howard is confident the defender will give him space on the catch for an easy turn to the rim.

Next, Howard can help this team offensively by simply telling his teammates, “Stop delivering the ball to me below my waist.” Whether this happens in the deep post action or in the pick and roll action, if the ball cannot be delivered to Howard (ideally) at the shoulder level or higher, this very often turns into a turnover. I can’t break this down statistically because the turnovers are inconsistently attributed to the passer and/or receiver, but my assessment is that this is likely the biggest factor in the Hawks being 29th in the league in turnovers (only the young 76ers are worse). Howard can’t control how the ball is delivered to him, but he can re-enforce as many times and as often as is needed to cut back significantly on the ball being delivered to low for him to catch and attack.

Dennis Schroder

Needs to find a more consistent throttle

Schroder’s production on a per 36 minute basis is almost exactly on par where it was last season, if not even just a bit better in terms of shot making and avoiding turnovers. And when a point guard transitions from a bench role to being the full time starter, in his first 40 games or so I think it should be quite acceptable if he is just able to maintain his overall level of production. (That said I do think a lot of the turnovers that are being attributed to Howard are a result of Schroder’s decision making with the ball in his hands.)

Schroder this season so far appears to be playing up and down based upon the profile of the opposing teams point guard. Prior to Wednesday night’s loss to Phoenix (and while Eric Bledsoe might not have highest status with common NBA fans, across the league his status is greatly respected) Schroder’s strongest performances came versus the reigning conference champions: the Cavaliers and Kyrie Irving, the Warriors and two-time defending MVP Stephen Curry. In each of these two matchups Schroder outplayed his counterpart. Per basketball-reference.com, Schroder had an offensive rating in the Cavs matchup of 136 as compared to Irving’s 109. Schroder’s value in the game versus the Warriors was primarily on the defensive end as the Hawks held the Warriors 12 points below their season offensive rating. Still, Schroder led the Hawks in scoring and was reasonably efficient with 24 points on 22 shooting possessions.

So why are these performances so far completely unrepeatable in other matchups? I chalk that up to youth and inexperience. Teague was an excellent facilitator for this team the past 3 seasons, but Schroder is a different player. When Schroder is playing his best game, it is going to look selfish as compared to Teague’s style. Remember, Teague had a more skilled group of offensive players around him than Schroder does this year.

The Hawks need Schroder to be consistently in attack mode playing down hill looking for dribble penetration. He can get help as needed (if even to conserve energy) with the offensive creation from Bazemore, Millsap and Hardaway, but he needs to be the alpha player for this team on offense. And he needs to it consistently and more decisively. (He has a tendency to dribble the ball too deep at times before deciding to pass it in tight quarters with not the best results.)

Schroder is a young, new starter at a challenging position. But if this team is to reach it goals, every ten game stretch or so Schroder needs to be demonstrating that he is attacking consistently on the offensive end with an incrementally diminishing dynamic of trying to do too much.

Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver

Simply need to keep the team steady through the ups and downs

There is not a ton to dive into here with the two most veteran returning starters. Korver’s shot making has improved over last season, and while it might not seem like it, his shot volumes on a per 36 minute basis are almost exactly where it was last season. Some fans seem to want to push him to the bench when things are not going well, but if Dwight is going to have any reasonable space to get him off to a productive start each game, Korver has to start.

There is really nothing to ask Kyle to do that he is not already doing. Thankfully he has a reputation for being a strong leadership presence in the locker room and that should help this team as they work to stabilize their performance.

Millsap is not making his shots at the same rate he has been for the past few seasons. His FG% is down to 43.8 (from 47.0 last season) and his eFG% is down to 47.4 (from 50.5 from last season). It must be noted that among the starting unit he is the only player with a positive net rating at an impressive +4.6. It just supports all of the things that Hawks fans have come to understand about Millsap in that he is resolute in finding ways to contribute to this team in all phases of the game.

In terms of Millsap’s offensive production, I see an adjustment that is still a work in progress. Last season when he was paired with Horford, opposing teams would often cross match their bigs on defense because Millsap was easily the better offensive player in the post and at the elbow extended. He is an absolute terror attacking off the dribble when being defended by slower players, whether that is in the form of getting to the rim or getting the defender’s momentum heading toward the paint and sticking a step back jumper.

In pairing with Howard, Millsap is getting far fewer match ups that favor him in this way. Also last season Millsap usually got a nice long run the first quarter and would tend to become an increased focus in the offense as both team’s initial rotations were deployed. This season he is the first player to be subbed for, which gets him some run against opposing bench units. But this is still an adjustment.

I am not worried about either of these players and feel encouraged that are they are the continuity of this core group going back to their most successful campaign two seasons ago.

Tim Hardaway Jr.

Needs to make more perimeter shots

Hardaway Jr. is not a starter, but his contributions are so critical to how the starting unit gets some very specific support it needs in order to perform well. His production in general is way up and he has been one of the more exciting story lines this season. Many teams would envy having a guy that can come off of the bench and produce points. Among the Hawks 4 wings in the rotation he has unique abilities to punish hard close outs getting to the rim for easy points and to getting into transition to use his speed and elevation to get easy points there as well. Hardaway Jr. is converting 73% of his shots at the rim, which is excellent.

This where I have to admit that (as many here know) I have been a huge supporter of Hardaway Jr. even since the time of the trade. But I have to be honest in my analysis in saying that he is not giving this team what it needs most from him… especially in a way that provides material support to the starting unit. His 3P% is exactly the same (32.1%) as that of Bazemore and Millsap. That is not nearly good enough.

He can do better than that and he needs to do better than that to help this team. In order to do so (common theme in this piece) he needs to be more selective. The reason I have been bullish on THJ is the efficiency that I see in his shooting form in his lower half. He is very efficient getting his feet set quickly and he is efficient getting his elevation. When your lower half is solid in your shooting form it means your upper half can be very consistent and repeatable. My assessment is that he has everything one needs to be a great perimeter shooter (not elite), he just needs to be more selective.

Shooting from the corner he can just catch and shoot. Above the break, however, when he has the time and space (just needs an ounce) to step into his shot, he very consistently makes it. When he does not have the time and space to step into it, he consistently misses. Selection is the key for him.

The Hawks need all of the perimeter shooting it can get with this group and Hardaway Jr. needs play up to his potential so that Korver’s minutes can be well regulated and so that an above average floor spacer is on the court for all 48 minutes of the game. For me, his play is a critical factor in terms of the outcome of the Hawks 2016-17 season.

Summary

· Bazemore: stop driving the ball into the paint, look for the step in 15-footer

· Howard: abandon the deep post unless your opponent is under the basket

· Schroder: go hard at everyone, not just when you are facing an all-star PG

· Millsap and Korver: keep the team steady

· Hardaway Jr. : be significantly more selective with perimeter shots, more shots will go in