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Why don’t the Atlanta Hawks run in transition?

The Hawks tend to ignore the easiest points in basketball, but there are reasons for it.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Washington Wizards Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

The best offense traditionally comes in transition—the average team scores 91.4 points per 100 possessions in half court offense but scores 106.9 points per 100 possessions in transition. The Atlanta Hawks actually are above average in half-court offense, scoring a blistering 91.5 points per 100 possessions against a set defense, ranked 13th in the league, but their transition offense has been awful this season, both in scoring and frequency. The Hawks rank 25th in overall transition frequency and 26th in points added in transition and have generally been a poor transition team the past two years after three straight years of being above average in that metric under head coach Mike Budenholzer.

A lot of their poor performance in transition has to do with personnel. When Al Horford and Paul Millsap were the team’s starting big men, it made a lot more sense to get out and run; each of those guys was capable of pulling down a rebound and going coast-to-coast for a layup. Last year, Dwight Howard was brought in to solidify the defense and rebounding issues, but that slowed the team down tremendously in transition. Dewayne Dedmon has been much the same in that department for the Hawks this year, though he’s infinitely more mobile that Howard was in 2016-17.

Given how much better teams are in transition, it makes sense for teams to try to boost their offense by running as much as is feasible. Of course, nothing comes without its costs in the NBA—getting out in transition usually comes at the price of conceding offensive rebounds. The Hawks aren’t running much in transition, so they must be prioritizing the defensive glass, right? Well, they’re dead last in defensive rebounding percentage.

Again, this is partially due to personnel—injuries have ravaged the team’s front line and forced them to go deep into their bench to find starters. Playing Luke Babbitt, Taurean Prince, and Kent Bazemore at the power forward position is certainly going to make defensive rebounding a difficult task, as good as Dedmon has been. John Collins, for all his offensive rebounding prowess, hasn’t brought that same intensity to the defensive glass, where he ranks in the 31st percentile across all big men in defensive rebounding percentage. The Hawks rebound just 66.7 percent of opponent misses when Collins is on the floor, placing him in the 1st percentile (meaning that 99 percent of big men rate better than he does) in this specific metric. Like Dedmon, Collins also isn’t prone to pulling down a defensive rebound and taking the ball up the court himself, though that could be a skill he develops in time.

Not all transition opportunities are created equal, of course. The perimeter players for Atlanta have been doing well getting into passing lanes and generating steals, which should theoretically lead to better transition shots than after a defensive rebound. The Hawks rank third in the league in steal rate, taking the ball from their opponents on nearly ten percent of possessions, yet they rank just 23rd in transition frequency off steals. Atlanta’s not running in transition, whether it comes from a steal or a defensive rebound. It’s just not in their DNA.

Budenholzer comes from the Gregg Popovich coaching tree and is probably the closest disciple in the league to Popovich’s philosophies. The Spurs, going back as far as the 2003-04 season, have just once been an above average team in transition frequency. That’s not to say the Popovich philosophy is to pound the ball through the hardwood—we’ve covered previously how the Hawks play quickly without necessarily playing at a high pace or getting out in transition.

A second reason that informs the reasoning behind Atlanta’s distaste for transition is a familiar one: personnel. While Dennis Schröder, Bazemore, and Prince have the physical profile of good run-and-gun players, in practice they’re just not particularly good at it. Only Bazemore scores at a decent rate in transition, which has been boosted by a handful of uncontested runout layups and dunks (Bazemore is tied for second in the league in Pick Sixes, in which a player scores a basket within five seconds of getting a steal).

Making their layups in transition isn’t Atlanta’s problem, but the turnovers have piled up in those high-speed situations, as the team continues to suffer for their lack of passing talent. Of 98 players with at least 25 transition possessions, all three of the Hawks’ starting perimeter players rank 68th or worse in turnover rate in these situations, which adds up to the third-worst team in the league at not coughing the ball up in transition.

The team actually ranks 12th in adjusted field goal percentage in transition, so it’s not unsustainably bad shooting that’s impacting their numbers in this area—they just can’t seem to hold onto the ball. About one out of every five transition possessions will end in a turnover for the Hawks, which is a ghastly mark that would rank them dead last by a mile in any other season and would again do so if it weren’t for Portland and Utah somehow being worse.

It’s fair to think that the team will stop turning the ball over so much, if only to regress to the mean. They’ll still be bad based on their personnel, but improvement is bound to occur at some point. Getting DeAndre Bembry’ back should help in this area—he did very well in transition last year and only turned the ball over 11.5 percent of the time, which just about placed him in the top 10 percent of players with at least 25 opportunities in transition last year.

The Hawks poor offensive numbers are brought down by their unwillingness and inability to get out in transition, but the overall numbers are probably worse than they’ll be by the end of the year. Budenholzer’s philosophies were always going to hold the team back in transition, but certainly the fact that the defensive rebounding has been as bad as it’s been, even with the team focused on it, has to be a slight worry.

The return of the team’s assortment of injured big men should help matters considerably in this area, which also may open up some more opportunities for Atlanta’s perimeter players to get out and run. It’s a delicate balance and though the numbers aren’t particularly good on either end of the scale for the Hawks right now, there’s bound to be some improvement over the rest of this season.

All statistics are courtesy of Synergy and Cleaning the Glass.