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A glance at the new-look Atlanta Hawks offense

We’ve heard that they intend to play faster on offense, but what other changes have we seen at this point in the preseason?

NBA: Preseason-Atlanta Hawks at Detroit Pistons Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

We’ve heard that the Atlanta Hawks intend to play faster on offense this season but, in the same breath, this is not the first time we have heard that heading into a new season. Our own Jeff Siegel provided some excellent insight on the topic a few days ago but let’s take a look at what types of changes we have seen in their first three preseason games.

Before we do that, though, it is instructive to glance in the rear view mirror at the offensive journey of Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks teams to date.

When Coach Budenholzer took the reins of the Hawks roster heading into the 2013-14 season, he had the opportunity to operate a roster with skilled big men in the form of Al Horford and Paul MIllsap and one of the elite perimeter shooters in the league in Kyle Korver. As such, he implemented a Spurs-like system on offense built upon creating as much horizontal space as possible and allowing two players, usually a PG and a big man, to operate in the pick and roll from the top of the key. Opposing defenses had to make tough decisions regarding whether a third defender would provide help in the primary action or whether they would prioritize covering the shooters spaced on the edge of the offensive formation.

Positive results were not really seen in the 2013-14 season as Al Horford was lost 29 games into that season; he was a central figure of how the Hawks were trying to power the offense with the high pick and roll action. They improved slightly on offense but they repeated measuring in as the 15th best during their first season under Coach Bud.

Heading into the 2014-15 season, they brought back largely the same core group of players, including a healthy Al Horford and played with excellent spacing and ball movement and ascended to being the 6th best offensive team in the league. It was the beautiful game and the results were historic as the team won 60 games for the first time in franchise history.

In advance of the 2015-16 season, expectations were high as they again brought back largely the same group. They still operated a ton of pick and roll in the half court. Horford operated in the 4th most pick and rolls as any big man in the league while Millsap measured 8th. But the combination of the league taking a collective step forward offensively and the Hawks not being able to find a replacement for DeMarre Carroll on the offensive end (he had finished 3rd on the team during the previous season in offensive box plus-minus) resulted in their sliding down to being the 18th best offense in the league. The season ended with another playoff sweep at the hands of the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Then, the 2016-17 season happened.

Dwight Howard was here and now he’s not. During Howard’s one season with the Hawks sometimes he was committed to the pick and roll and sometimes he was not. Paul Millsap struggled to replicate his offensive performance with awkward spacing too often when Howard was on the floor. He was also trying to support the new young point guard Dennis Schroder.

Somehow, the Hawks managed to take a bottom five offensive team to a fifth place finish. They had the worst point differential and the worst net rating of any of the 16 playoff teams but managed to land in a four versus five match-up with the Washington Wizards, to whom they quite predictably lost in 6 mostly competitive games.

So here we stand looking at a very young Hawks roster that is sure to produce fewer wins for the 3rd consecutive season and the first season in which their probability of making the playoffs is as unlikely as it has been at any point during the Budenholzer era.

Coach Budenholzer is just a head coach and Travis Schlenk has been plucked from the Golden State front office and now leads basketball operations for Atlanta. And it is not insignificant that Schlenk was a part of a front office of a team that has won two of the last three NBA championships all while running the fewest pick and rolls and the most off ball screens in the league.

And if you think that Schlenk’s presence is not impacting the Hawks on court philosophy, it might be worth offering a reminder here that the Hawks new GM started his basketball career on a coaching path.

The 2017-18 Hawks look to be headed toward an offensive philosophy that might reflect what Steve Kerr has installed with his Warriors team. The philosophy draws upon Phil Jackson’s triangle-based off ball actions and Greg Popovich’s ball screen oriented offense.

One of the priorities of the system is to force all five of the opponents’ defenders to actively defend the entire offensive possession. What that looks like is that opposing players seldom get to stand next to a spaced offensive player and simply face a decision of offering help in the primary action or not. Part of the intent of the plan is to wear down the players on the opposing team both mentally and physically.

Last season, the Warriors lead the league in net rating but it is also note worthy that the highest net rating posted by any team in a specific game quarter of play across last season was the Warriors in the 3rd quarter. They were +22.8... in a quarter! The 4th quarter data might look quite similar if were not for how much garbage time a team with an +11.6 point differential plays late in games.

So far in the preseason action these are my observations regarding what I am seeing that is different on the offensive end:

  1. The Hawks are operating with far more frequency at the edge of the offensive formation as compared to all if the high pick and roll action we have seen the past few seasons. This stresses the defense in different ways. For example, an NBA half-court is a little wider than it is long. And when considering the space typically used in offensive sets, it is much wider than it is long. So when you are operating on the edge of the offensive formation, you are getting defenders further from each other which makes it significantly more difficult for the 5-man defensive unit to communicate effectively.
  2. When they are operating at or near the top of the key, it is more likely to be a big man in dribble hand off (DHO) action as opposed to the guard dribbling into the screen. The significance of this adjustment is that the offense can threaten DHO opportunities with two and sometimes three different players from varying different angles.
  3. They are using more three-man interactions (in tighter space) than the typical two-man interactions like the high pick and roll. If you watch football, recall how some teams used stacked receiver sets to get three defenders into tight space as to create confusion as to which defender is matched up with a given offensive player.
  4. They are moving further away from traditional offensive positions and instead focusing on presenting multiple offensive threats in a given half court set. We are seeing a lot of “2 point guard line-ups” and “3 guard line-ups”. They are even spotting the center at times in the weak side offensive corner which is the spot traditionally occupied by the small forward.
  5. It often looks like they are struggling to adjust to the timing and rhythms of the new actions. The NBA season is long; the NBA preseason is shorter this season than it has ever been apart from possibly seasons that started with a lockout. They have not been working with these new actions very long at this point.
  6. When Atlanta looks like they are running last season’s playbook, it is usually following a few unsuccessful offensive possessions. They seem to go back to a more familiar look at times just to increase the likelihood of completing the full execution of a play. This could simply be just an attempt to produce a result on a play to give them a chance to convert successfully something that is familiar to them for the purpose of regaining confidence.

There will be times this season when they do run some of the basic actions they used prior to this season, but the desire will be to get into it more quickly.

Last season, the Hawks fell to 11th in assist ratio after finishing 2nd in each of the previous two seasons to the Golden State Warriors. 62 percent of the Hawks field goals were assisted last season. So far in preseason action this year, 70% of their field goals have been assisted and the percentage of assisted fields has increased each game from 58% versus the Miami Heat to 72% versus Cleveland Cavaliers to 77% versus the Detroit Pistons.

So the results don’t look great possession to possession at this point. But there is evidence, even in this very small sample size, that the Atlanta Hawks are adopting and trying to execute the new things that are expected of them.