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Free throw shooting could be pivot point for Atlanta Hawks offense in 2016-2017

Looking for a weakness for the Hawks? This writer found an interesting one.

Houston Rockets v Denver Nuggets Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

The Atlanta Hawks, like the great majority of franchises (not you, Warriors) in the NBA, have a few flaws. The team has struggled in the area of rebounding and with defending big, physical wings in the recent past, and in addition, there is some degree of concern that Atlanta simply doesn’t have enough three-point shooting right now.

However, Zach Harper of CBS Sports recently took on the task of laying out the biggest weakness for every team in the association, and he unearthed an issue that many would not normally focus on for the Hawks.

Free throw shooting.

Here is what he outlined about Atlanta’s issues at the charity stripe:

Last season, the Atlanta Hawks had a problem with free-throw shooting. They were eighth in free-throw percentage, which is really good. The problem is they had the second-lowest rate of getting to the free-throw line in the NBA. The Hawks' belief of either take a shot at the basket or a 3-point look -- fully embracing the analytical world of efficient shot opportunities -- quite possibly created many situations for them in which getting to the free-throw line wasn't a big option for them. The Hawks were one of eight NBA teams to have zero players with at least 1,500 minutes played and a free-throw rate (number of free-throw attempts per field-goal attempt) of at least .400. Paul Millsap was the closest at .383.

There are many reasons (injuries, turnovers, middle of the road 3-point accuracy) the Hawks' offense dipped from sixth in 2014-15 to 22nd in 2015-16, but their problem with not getting a lot of free points at the line was certainly up there. The good news is their free-throw rating will skyrocket in 2016-17. The bad news is the free-throw rate is going up because they signed Dwight Howard. His career free-throw rate is .814. It's been a .798 over the past four seasons. He's barely over 50 percent from the line (50.8) over his last five seasons. The Smite-a-Dwight strategy could lead to stilted offensive stretches, which could be detrimental to Mike Budenholzer's ideal offensive flow. It's already a shaky enough offense after last season. Can it get worse?

Much has (already) been made about Dwight Howard and the potential for improvement at the free throw line, but if we assume he operates at his five-year norm (50.8%, as listed above), that spells trouble for the team’s overall free throw percentage. Beyond that, Al Horford has converted 77.8% at the line over the past two seasons, and the drop-off there is significant, even with additional attempts almost sure to come from Howard.

Earlier in the summer, we outlined how the change in “Hack-A-Shaq” rules could affect the Hawks, but moreover, this is simply going to be a different team in 2016-2017 at the free throw line. A player like Dennis Schröder could reasonably generate more free throws and convert them at a higher rate this year but, as Harper notes, the Hawks will take a hit in efficiency at the line and, when combined with taking more attempts, I’m not sure that is the best recipe for correcting offensive issues on the whole.

In terms of the overall offensive efficiency, many have stated that Atlanta’s struggles in 2015-2016 indicate that it “can’t get much worse”, but part of the takeaway here is that, well, it absolutely can. Howard operating at a similar level to previous seasons would be a downgrade from Al Horford on that end of the floor, and with uncertainty in the form of Schröder at the helm and another year of aging from the likes of Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver, it isn’t inconceivable that the team could take another step back offensively.

Getting to the line more is nice (if you can make them at a reasonable rate), but in the end, it isn’t an elixir if the team shoots poorly on set shots from 15 feet. In short, it might be time to start crossing your fingers on free throw improvement from the team’s new starting center.