The primary news that will be dominating the NBA ecosystem the next few days will be trade speculation. I wanted to take advantage of this break in the season to focus on something different: the Atlanta Hawks offensive play and if there is reason to be optimistic regarding potential improvement.
In comparing last season, when the Hawks were 18th most efficient team, to this season, during which the Hawks are the 26th most efficient team, some of the results have proven to be quite predictable. For example, the Hawks have regressed as a team in offensive transition from 12th best (1.12 points per possession) to 26th best (1.04 ppp). Al Horford is one of the better centers in the league in transition whether that be initiating it or finishing it, Dwight Howard not so much. Similarly the Hawks were the 5th most efficient team offensively possessions created through Dribble Hand Offs (0.93 ppp); this season the Hawks are the 27th most efficient team playing through DHOs (0.77 ppp). Again, Horford is one of the most skilled big men in the league in DHO action, Howard not so much. A similar but less extreme comparison can be seen in the efficiency at which the Hawks demonstrate in pick and roll plays that result in the roll man receives the ball: 11th best last season (1.03 ppp), 25th best this season (0.96 ppp).
This is the low hanging fruit, the easy points of regression to find. If I were to stop here, there would obviously be little if any room for optimism. The Hawks are going to be terrible on offense because they are less skilled in both transition and in the half court offense and they have fewer above average shooters. But, as mentioned, I wanted to take advantage of the break to dig in a little deeper.
Be patient with me for a moment while I share the framework through which I based my analysis. All statistical analysis comes from NBA.com stats database within which all offensive plays are categorized into one of the following categories: Pick and Roll Ball Handler (PNR-BH), Pick and Roll Roll Man (PNR-RM), Isolation (Iso), Transition (Tran), Post (PU), Spot Up (Spot), Hand Off (DHO), Cut (Cut), Off-Screen (Screen) and Put Backs. I will largely ignore Put Backs because they don’t have useful data from any season prior to this season. Although since I have pretty strongly called out Dwight Howard’s offensive limitations I should share that the Hawks have improved from 27th last year to 8th this year as a team in 2nd chance points.
The Hawks have 3 basic play types, apart from plays run after time-outs, that make up their offensive system.
(1) They have the Pick and Roll (or rub action); Coach Budenholzer will swipe down his tie and call out 4 or 5 (depending on which big man he wants setting the screen) when he wants this play initiated.
(2) They have a pretty typical “Horns action” which Coach Bud will direct by putting his index fingers to his forehead. These plays are initiated with both bigs establishing a high post position at each end of the free throw line and the guard tossing the ball to one of them to usually initiate some off-screen action.
(3)They have their “floppy action” in which a guard will start on the baseline line and run off of usually one of two screens established on the baseline; there will be two screeners on one side of the court and one on the other. Coach Bud usually just directs (by pointing) the Center to the weak side baseline to ask for this action and they go from there.
To be really nerdy here for a moment there are variations of the screen game they will run at times (other than the floppy action). There is a thing called an AI cut (made famous by the 76ers Allen Iverson teams) in which the guard will get a screen at the 3-point break on one side of the court and cut basically directly across to the other 3 point break. There is also staggered screen action that is a little like floppy action but instead of a screen being made available to the guard on each side of the baseline the screens are set in staggered style on the same side of the floor. The goal here is to run the defender through two quick successive screens in hopes of separating him from the cutting guard.
OK, I took the NBA stats data and grouped the following actions into the pick and roll (PNR): PNR-BH, PNR-RM, Spot, Post and ISO. These last two are grouped in here because most of these plays in the Hawks offense are the result of deciding to take this action after a defensive switch in the PNR. I grouped Spot into the PNR because most of these shots come from passes made to a perimeter shooter when the PNR action results in the opponent committing 3 defenders to 2 offensive players operating in the PNR. I grouped DHO and Cut plays into the Horns Action; Some DHO action happens in the PNR but significantly more comes from the bigs operating in the high post in Horns action. I group all off-screen action together whether it initiated through floppy action, staggered screen action or an AI cut off of a screen at the 3-point break.
Now let me shared what I have learned. The Hawks have actually been just as effective this season in the PNR action this year as they were last year. In the 2015-16 season Hawks ran 5,081 plays through their PNR action and averaged 0.89 ppp. This season thus far they have run 3, 480 PNR plays to a result of 0.90 ppp. I also learned that while they run Horns action less frequently, they are more efficient in this action. Last season they ran 1,120 plays through Horns to a result of 1.12 ppp; this season 787 plays in this action to a result of 1.09 ppp. Their play is also holding pretty steady in their screen game: last season 0.96 ppp on 536 plays, this season 0.93 ppp on 425 plays.
So the Hawks seemed to be just as efficient in their primary half court action as they were last season. So why have they slipped all the way to being a bottom 5 offense. A good bit of this can be explained in the regression in both volume and efficiency in their transition offense. I believe that the Hawks expected to be able to maintain most of their transition production despite moving from Horford to Howard because they expected to be pretty dominant as team in defensive rebounding. Last year they were 25th in defensive rebound rate but have only improved to 19th this season (fewer transition opportunities than expected).
But, the biggest issue is that the league has improved pretty significantly overall offensively while the Hawks have made no progress. Last season the Hawks averaged 103 points per 100 possessions which was good enough for 18th best in the league. Want to guess what how many points per 100 possessions they average this season? The answer: 102.9, almost the exact same number, but this season that makes them a bottom 5 offense. A very specific example: last season 21% of Hawks plays resulted in a Spot Up shot, that was the 6th most for a team last year. This year they are down slightly to 19.4% of plays resulting in a Spot Up shot, but that fairly slight regression lands them all the day down to 17th most in the league. Last season the converted 0.98 ppp on Spot Up plays which was 11th best in the league. This season they are up slightly in this action to 0.99 ppp. But that now lands them at 16th best.
The biggest take-away I have is this: the narrative for much of this season is that the Hawks suck on offense because of Dwight Howard (mostly) and because of playing a younger, less seasoned point guard in Dennis Schroder. But that is not true. They are almost exactly as good as they were on offense last season. But across the league a number of teams have moved on from coaches stuck in and old mindset (ISO offense, etc.) and now have coaches that increasingly embrace the mindset of using pace and space to create open looks for perimeter shooters. Also, teams are prioritizing shooting in roster construction and in roster decisions in general. The league is pulling away while the Hawks are stuck at the moment having to rely on the possibility of winning through a hopefully reliably elite defense. They have been elite on that end of the court at times this year, but they have been consistent in doing so.
So in circling back to original question as to whether there is any reason for optimism. Right now the answer seems to be that unless they can add a shooter before the trade deadline and/or reach a consistent level of elite play on the defensive end of the court… I’m afraid not.