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What “playing fast” actually means for the Atlanta Hawks

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Coach Bud wants to play fast, but that doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of fast breaks.

NBA: Playoffs-Washington Wizards at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

As training camp opened last week, Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer was available to the media to discuss the upcoming season as the team turns over a new leaf to rebuild for the next generation. One of the consistent messages from Budenholzer has been that the team will “play fast” and with “greater pace”. But what does this actually mean for an Atlanta team that finished 22nd of 30 teams in percentage of possessions in transition and really only has one above-average ball-handler in the rotation?

The conventional thinking behind upping the pace means playing in transition and grabbing and going after securing the defensive rebound. This makes sense for teams like the Oklahoma City Thunder, who have the best rebounding point guard in recent NBA history on their team and can engineer their rebounding scheme around getting Russell Westbrook the ball and letting him push in transition. Other teams have strong ball-handlers on the wings, who can grab rebounds and bring the ball up themselves, without having to waste precious time on getting the ball to their point guard.

The Hawks have neither of those—Dennis Schröder is the only above-average ball-handler and not exactly a rebounding machine. Taurean Prince has some grab-and-go potential but he didn’t even grab nine percent of available rebounds in his rookie year, so he’s got some way to go on that front as well.

Playing faster means something different for Budenholzer. He comes from the Spurs, where Gregg Popovich’s teams play with pace and purpose but are nowhere near the top of the league in transition usage nor possessions per game. San Antonio routinely push the ball up the floor, whether after a defensive rebound or made basket, to get into their sets early and use as much of the clock as possible to find the best shot available. When Budenholzer preaches to his team that he wants them to play faster, this is what he means. It won’t show up in the stats and it’s not particularly pretty, but one of the keys to the motion-based Spurs offense is that they sprint to the half-court line on every possession.

Last year, the Hawks were unable to play as fast as Budenholzer wants, mostly due to Dwight Howard’s lack of mobility. Budenholzer told reporters on media day that the offense will get back to what it was before Howard’s arrival:

“Similar to last year where I would say there was maybe a slight shift or emphasis or adjustment to trying to play inside-out more, this year I would say there’s probably going to be a slight shift towards even greater space even greater pace and even more pick and rolls but not losing the movement we have away from the ball and the cutting and screening and opportunities for everybody to participate in the offense, much like you’ve seen for the last four years. Maybe some shift towards more, I would say some shift towards even greater pace, playing even faster.”

There’s a lot to parse out there, but the main message remains the same—Budenholzer and his staff want the team to get back to the way things were during the first three years of his tenure in Atlanta. Demanding more motion, more cutting, and more screening out of the team will create long-term benefits for the Hawks, even if it’s going to be particularly ugly this year. All the cutting and screening in the world won’t matter if the team can’t pass, which is almost certainly the worst skill on aggregate across the roster.

The Budenholzer offense relies heavily on good passers at every spot on the floor—the Hawks currently employ just one above-average passer for his position: backup center Mike Muscala. Major steps will be needed from Schröder and the rest of the perimeter players to fully implement the way Budenholzer would prefer to play.

This is a developmental year for the Hawks and much growth is needed on the offensive end to get back to the heights of 2014-15. Playing with more pace and urgency is the first step to a successful Spurs-like offense—getting the ball over the midline as quickly as possible to start the play will have even more importance on a team that will struggle to find points this year.

With only one solid ball-handler and one solid passer (and those two not being the same player), the offense is going to bog down and playing with pace, purpose, and energy will be the key to getting out of the ruts that will inevitably pop up throughout the course of the season.