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Why did the Hawks’ Assist Numbers Drop this Season?

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The figures behind the Hawks’ drop are certainly concerning...

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

When Mike Budenholzer arrived in Atlanta from San Antonio in 2013 most people knew what to expect and what Bud was going to do. Bud was going to implement a ball-movement/read-and-react orientated offense in Atlanta similar to the one he knew at San Antonio where he spent 19 years as an assistant coach. An offense that promotes ball movement, man movement...general unselfish play. Giving up a good shot for a great shot...and so on...

Budenholzer certainly achieved his goals. The Hawks averaged 25.4 assists in Budenholzer’s first three seasons with the Hawks, prior to the 2016-17 season.

In the NBA nothing is given and everything is earned, and the Hawks earned a reputation as being an unselfish team who like to move the ball.

The 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons saw the Hawks rank 2nd in the league in assists per game, trailing only the Golden State Warriors on both occasions. It’s no coincidence that this style of play helped the Hawks win 60 and 48 games in 2014-15 and 2015-16 respectively. But in the 2016-17 season, the Hawks regressed significantly in this department, averaging 23.9 assists per game, dropping to 10th overall in the league.

A drop of 1.4 assists per game doesn’t seem like much when you say it like that but let me put that into perspective with some stats...

In 2015-16 the Hawks registered 25 or more assists in a game on 50 occasions. In 2016-17, they accomplished the same feat just 32 occasions. And the number of instances when the Hawks dished less than 20 assists in a game? In 2015-16, 6 times. In 2016-17, 19 times.

That’s a very considerable drop off from one year to the next for any team but especially for a team like the Hawks, who have preached ball movement for the last few years. What was the reason behind this drop?

A new point guard-center relationship

In the summer of 2016 the Hawks decided to move in a new direction by trading Jeff Teague to Indiana and allowing Al Horford to leave in free agency. In their place, Atlanta decided to give Dennis Schröder the keys to the point guard reigns and signed a very different type of center in Dwight Howard.

The decision to move on from both Horford and Teague in the same summer was an interesting one as both Teague and Horford possessed an unique connection, a sixth sense of where each other were. Here’s an example and it’s from Game 1 of the 2016 playoffs vs. the Celtics. Teague knows when he penetrates off of the pick-and-roll that Horford is going to be fading after the screen, rather than rolling. Instincts and familiarity kick and make this play possible.

Plays like this were common between the pair (only Horford usually made the shot).

“That is just me and him playing together for a while,” Jeff Teague said following that game. “That 1-5 pick-and-roll, we were really good at. Throughout the whole game I tried to get things going and feed the big guy.”

“They’ve played together for a long time,” then Hawk Kyle Korver said of Horford’s and Teague’s chemistry. “They’ve got a good feel for each other’s games…”

As both Teague and Korver eluded to, Horford and Teague just knew how to find each other. In the 2015-16 season, Teague assisted Horford 169 times while Horford assisted Teague 27 times.

But even in the early stages of their relationship the two knew how to find each other. In their first proper season playing together as starters in 2012-13 — Teague became the starter full time in the lockout 2011-12 season which was also the season Horford tore his pectoral muscle for the first time, limiting him to just 11 games — Teague assisted Horford on 151 occasions while Al assisted Jeff 28 times.

Dennis also enjoyed a good relationship with Horford on the court, even coming off the bench.

Dennis, like Teague, is a pacy point guard who relies on his quickness to get to the rim. With Al Horford preferring to lurk in the mid/three-point range, it forced the opposing center — most of the time — to come out of the paint and respect that shot, which opened up driving opportunities for Dennis, whether it was off the dribble or in the pick-and-roll (in which a switch usually occurred).

With how Horford’s rotation usually worked (subbed out around the six minute mark in the first quarter and would rejoin the second unit in the closing stages of the first quarter), Dennis and Al spent quite a bit of court-time together. As a result Dennis, like Teague, also learned Horford’s tenancies and strengths and played to them.

However, Dennis and Dwight haven’t enjoyed a similarly effective relationship on the court, struggling to connect in the same way Teague and Horford did, or even how Dennis and Horford did. Dwight was assisted by Dennis on only 76 occasions while Dennis was assisted by Dwight 15 times.

With Dwight playing closer to the rim, and the defense cheating off of Howard around the elbow/outside of the paint, Dennis wasn’t able to create as much for Howard as he did for Horford.

In fact, Dennis and Horford connected on more occasions in 2015-16 (despite Dennis coming off the bench) than Dwight and Dennis did as starters in 16-17: Horford was assisted by Dennis 81 times in 2015-16 while Horford assisted Dennis on 28 occasions. Again, that’s with Dennis coming off the bench.

That...is not a good thing. The point guard-center relationship is a really important one in basketball, especially when the two players who operate those positions are among the better players on the team, as Dennis and Dwight are in Atlanta. The, at times, difficult relationship between Dennis and Dwight — and their inability to hook up as often as they should — was one of the reasons why the Hawks’ assists numbers dropped this season.

The one positive thing going forward is that the more and more Dwight and Dennis share the court the more they’ll grow accustomed to each other. Hopefully...

Dwight Howard’s different skill-set

Al Horford is certainly an unique player — a 6’10 center whose shooting stroke was as pure as snow and a shooting touch which would make a lot of wings jealous. His ability to stretch the defense and draw out opposing bigs was huge for the Hawks’ offense in years past, not to mention his passing ability to find cutters and shooters off of screens.

In fact, in the 2016-17 season Horford averaged five assists per game. This not only led all centers (I don’t want to hear it, Draymond Green fans...) but was also higher than some notable point guards in the league such as Tony Parker, Derrick Rose and D’Angelo Russell...

In 2015-16, Horford posted an assist percentage of 16.5%, only trailing the various point guards the Hawks cycled through that season in the form of Teague, Schröder, Kirk Hinrich and Shelvin Mack. The Hawks were comfortable running the offense through Horford and relied on him to make things happen for the Hawks on the offensive end. Trusted him to make things happen.

Dwight Howard simply doesn’t have the same versatile skill-set on the offensive end as Horford and the Hawks simply can’t run their offense in the same way through Dwight as they could through Al. Dwight posted an assist percentage of just 7.6% in 2016-17.

In contrast to Horford only trailing the point guards in assist percentage, the only Hawk to average a lower assist percentage than Dwight was Kris Humphries, who rarely played proper rotation minutes.

Part of that low assist percentage comes down to the fact that Dwight is more of an isolation/post-up type of player than Al is. While Al was happy to share the ball, possessions often ended with Howard.

In the Hawks’ effort to go to Dwight, they sometimes turned the ball over, with defenses telegraphing entry passes to Dwight or the Hawks just simply forcing a pass to Dwight that wasn’t there, even if he had position established. Another way possessions often ended with Dwight was when/if the ball did find its way to him, more often than not, no one else was touching the ball for the rest of the possession. Whether Dwight’s post possession ended up in a turnover or just fruitlessly attempting to back down his man, Dwight didn’t seem to care — he was shooting the ball, regardless if it was a poor shot or not.

I would be watching a game and when the ball went into the post to Dwight the instant reaction was, “Great, well this possession is ending in either a make, a miss, a turnover or just a terrible shot. Either way, it’s ending with Dwight”. Now, to be fair, Dwight got better as the season progressed with passing out of the post when nothing was on but he still wasn’t great in that department.

I think even subconsciously players, and coaches, knew they just couldn’t go to Dwight and expect him to make something happen consistently, in terms of scoring and playmaking. In 2015-16, teammates passed Al Horford the ball 3,886 times and only 1,911 times to Dwight in 16-17.

That is a simply staggering difference and tells you almost everything you need to know.

Dwight’s inability to space the floor also hurt the Hawks. When Dwight wasn’t rolling to the rim or establishing himself in the post (where he’s not good anyways), the Hawks were basically playing 4-on-5 offense. Defenses could just sag off Dwight knowing that he can’t hit mid-range or perimeter shots and could collapse on pretty much everyone else they needed to. This meant opposing teams could load up on Schröder, (particularly) Paul Millsap and could also close out other Hawks shooters more effectively than in the past.

Ultimately, with Dwight Howard on the floor, the Hawks’ offensive rating was 101.1. When he was off the floor: 103.9.

When the Hawks were down by large deficits in some games late on in the season, Budenholzer would sit Dwight, preferring the shooting abilities of either Ersan Ilyasova or Mike Muscala, who gave the Hawks more space to operate in since defenses had to respect Ilyasova’s and Muscala’s outside shot. This was highlighted by Bud’s decision to sit Dwight in the fourth quarter of the Hawks’ Game 6 elimination game against the Washington Wizards while they attempted to make a comeback and extend the series to a Game 7.

If none of that did anything for you, let me put it to you simply... Dwight was brought in as a direct replacement for Horford, right? (The answer is yes, yes he was...)

Horford averaged 3.1 assists per game in his final season in Atlanta while Dwight averaged 1.3 in his first with the Hawks, which is less than Horford’s average. Ultimately, it’s as simple as that.

Yes, Dwight brings different things to the table and that’s fine, but in the context of the Hawks’ assists/ball movement numbers decreasing, Dwight was a detriment to the Hawks in that department.

The emerging members of roster and their different tendencies

Despite all of that, it would be unfair to say Dwight is the sole reason why the Hawks’ assist numbers are down. Others are also to blame and equally as much as Dwight.

Dennis Schröder

Offense starts with the point guard and that’s where we’ll bring Dennis Schröder into the fold.

Though Schröder has similar quickness than his predecessor Teague, that’s about where their similarities begin to end. Teague facilitated the offense a lot better than Schröder, who prefers to hold the ball a little more and looked for his own offense more than Teague did.

Here are some per game stats from Teague’s last season in Atlanta:

Teague Touch Stats

Players Touches Front CT touches Time of possession Average touch per possession (seconds) Average dribble per touch
Players Touches Front CT touches Time of possession Average touch per possession (seconds) Average dribble per touch
Teague 71.1 65.1 5.4 4.58 4.88

And here are the same stats from Schröder’s first season as a starter:

Schröder Touch Stats

Players Touches Front CT touches Time of possession Average touch per possession (seconds) Average dribble per touch
Players Touches Front CT touches Time of possession Average touch per possession (seconds) Average dribble per touch
Schröder 81 73 6.7 4.97 4.84

This is an offense where you don’t want to be holding onto the ball for long. Less time holding the ball means you’re giving the ball up and getting the ball moving/the play started/others involved.

So, as you can see Dennis holds the ball quite a bit longer per possession than Teague did. Though, to be fair to Dennis, part of that is because the Hawks’ offense was not very good and the Hawks needed Dennis to do more with the ball on the offensive end than they needed Teague to. But that only accounts for part of the increase, the bottom line is still this: Teague did a better job facilitating the offense than Dennis did in his first season as the starter and connected with his starting center better than Dennis did.

Teague’s assist percentages and assist ratios were also higher in his final season in Atlanta than Dennis’ in his first season as a starter. Dennis’ assist/turnover ratio was considerably lower than Teague’s: 1.96 assist to turnover ratio compared to Teague’s 2.16 (again, in his final season in Atlanta).

(Speaking on turnovers as a whole briefly, the Hawks averaged more turnovers per game this season than last season. When you turn the ball over you take away the opportunity to score yourself. And when you don’t get the opportunity to score you lose the opportunity to assist, and the Hawks’ assist numbers dropped as a result)

In short (to wrap up this Schröder-Teague talk), Dennis is a scoring point guard who looked to score more than assist while Teague sought to get his teammates involved more than find his own offense. Teague averaged a career-high 7.8 assists this season (7th in the league) while Schröder averaged 6.3 assists per game (16th in the league). And Teague did that while averaging less turnovers (2.6) than Schröder (3.3).

Tim Hardaway Jr.

When the Hawks made the decision to trade Kyle Korver, they knew that Tim Hardaway Jr. was on the rise and was going to be the biggest beneficiary of the trade — unlocking him more minutes and more opportunities. You could argue they chose THJ long-term over Korver and essentially replaced Korver with THJ (even though he was already on the roster) and got a first round pick and a role player (Mike Dunleavy) out of it.

THJ is a very different player than Korver is. Not only is Korver a better passer but he’s a better facilitator of the Budenholzer offense — making the extra pass and making those famous ‘Korver-kuts’. THJ is definitely more of an isolation player/scorer, one who dribbles A LOT more than Korver does.

Let’s give Korver and THJ the Dennis-Teague treatment...

Korver-THJ Touch Stats

Player Touches Front CT touches Time of possession Average touch per possession (seconds) Average dribble per touch
Player Touches Front CT touches Time of possession Average touch per possession (seconds) Average dribble per touch
Korver 33.5 25.9 0.7 1.33 0.57
THJ 40.4 33.2 1.6 2.31 1.84

The difference, as you can imagine, is astronomical, but there’s no shock to be found here — the two are just very different players who play very differently.

With THJ being a scorer and an isolation-type of player, it’s no surprise that — on some/multiple possessions — the Hawks’ ball movement/offense ground to a halt if THJ decided (as he often did) to take matters into his own hands.

Here’s an example from the playoffs. The ball is moving and the offense/movement completely grinds to a halt when the ball finds its way to THJ.

Even though THJ sometimes played the role of facilitator on offense, he still finished with a lower assist ratio (14.1) than Korver did when he was a Hawk this season (20.1).

In short: THJ’s isolation/scoring nature differed greatly from Korver’s style of play (which facilitated the offense more than THJ’s iso-style of play) and, as a result, more isolation/lack of ball movement/hero ball possessions occurred which resulted in less ball movement which resulted in less assists per game...

Dwight Howard

Already discussed. See above...

Personnel closing

Jeff Teague, Al Horford and Kyle Korver — in their own special way — facilitated the Budenholzer offense and were huge reasons why it was so successful.

With the isolation/1-on-1 natures of Dennis Schröder, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Dwight Howard, the team’s ball movement suffered. In 2015-16, the average passes per game the Hawks made was 324.5. That ranked 6th in the league and ahead of the Golden State Warriors, the team who has led the league in assists per game for the last two seasons. In 2016-17, the average number of passes per game the Hawks registered was 309.2.

With the Hawks’ better team players/floor spacers/secondary facilitators no longer with the team and replaced (their minutes replaced as the case may be with THJ-Korver) with isolation/more selfish players it’s no wonder why the Hawks’ assist numbers decreased.

In closing...

We’re going to look at an extensive graph which is chock-full of ball movement (and related) stats that the Hawks registered in the 2015-16 and 2016-17 seasons and where those stats ranked among the league.

(All stats courtesy of NBA.com, bless you)

Ball movement (and related) stats

Ball movement related stats 2015-16 2016-17
Ball movement related stats 2015-16 2016-17
Offensive rating 103 (18th 102.3 (27th)
Assists per game 25.6 (2nd) 23.9 (10th)
Assists percentage 66.3% (2nd) 62.1% (6th)
Assists to turnover ratio 1.71 (7th) 1.5 (23rd)
Assist ratio 1.91 (2nd) 17.5 (11th)
Turnovers 15 (22nd) 15.8 (28th)
Passes made per game 324.5 (6th) 309.2 (10th)
Potential assists per game 50.4 (2nd) 45.7 (8th)
Assist points created per game 61.2 (2nd) 56.3 (10th)
Assists adjusted 34.8 (2nd) 32.2 (7th)
Touches per game 445.6 (7th) 433.2 (9th)
Front CT touches per game 343 (3rd) 322.7 (9th)
Time of possession per game 18.5 (5th) 18.8 (7th)
Frequency of shots where touch time per possession = 0-2 seconds 61.5% (2nd) 57.8% (8th)
Frequency of shots where touch time per possession = 2-6 seconds 27.3% (30th) for reference, GSW are 29th, Cleveland 26th 30.1% (23rd) for reference, GSW are 30th, Rockets 29th, Cavs 28th
Frequency of shots where touch time per possession = 6+ seconds 11.1% (18th) 12% (16th)
Frequency of shots where closest defender is: 0-2 feet away (very tight) 14.2% (28th, which is a good thing, less shots where defender is draped on you) 17% (22nd)
Frequency of shots where closest defender is: 2-4 feet away (tight) 33% (tied 29th again, that's a good thing) 35.5% (23rd)
Frequency of shots where closest defender is: 4-6 feet away (open) 25.8% (28th, that's not a good thing on this occasion) 27.7% (17th)
Frequency of shots where closest defender is: 6+ feet away (wide open) 27% (1st, by a country mile: 2nd is Orlando with 21.8%) 19.8% (11th)
Frequency of shots when: 0 dribbles are taken 53.9% (2nd) 50.5% (11th)
Frequency of shots when: 1 dribble is taken 13.4% (Tied 21st) 13.1 (20th)
Frequency of shots when: 2 dribbles are taken 9.2% (29th, for reference Warriors and Cavs both just over 10%) 11.9% (8th)
Frequency of shots when: 3-6 dribbles are taken 13.6% (28th, that's a good thing. Raptors led with over 20% *cough DeMar DeRozan cough*) 14.3% (26th)
frequency of shots when: 7+ dribbles are taken 9.8% (12th) 10.3% (13th)

You can see for yourself how much the Hawks have regressed in so many areas in just one season. It really is incredible.

In short, the Hawks’ offense was much worse this season than it was last season. The Hawks’ offense in 15-16 already wasn’t great but it was enough to get them by, their defense carried them home more often than not. This season, a regression in both offense and defense proved ultimately disastrous.

So, let’s ask the question: Why? Why did the Hawks’ offense/assist numbers regress significantly in 16-17 from 15-16?

Well, everything I’ve already discussed above (the major changes at the two most important positions, Dwight Howard’s skill-set not suiting the Hawks’ style of play and the isolation nature of the roster’s key players) still applies but in addition to all of that...

  • Players held the ball more/longer
  • Players dribbled the ball for more/longer
  • The Hawks made less passes per game
  • The Hawks took tougher shots (more shots in instances when the defense was closer to the shooter)
  • Some players — sometimes — went away from the system and played hero/isolation/1-on-1 ball
  • Paul Millsap had to often take charge and bail the Hawks out
  • The Hawks generated less open looks for themselves

When the most important time of the year came (the playoffs) the Hawks had only two reliable options on offense: Paul Millsap and Dennis Schröder. Those two (but particularly Paul Millsap), even during the regular season, had to constantly bail out the Hawks on offense.

Millsap’s season was even more incredible than it appears. Opposing teams used to be wary of Teague’s quickness, Horford’s and Millsap’s all-around All-Star play (and ability to stretch the floor) and Kyle Korver’s shooting. But now it’s a completely different story, the only main Hawk opposing teams scout/respect/fear is Paul Millsap (Dennis is only beginning to earn that respect). It’s a miracle Millsap averaged a career-high in scoring while still shooting pretty well from the field (even though it wasn’t as high as previous seasons in Atlanta). It’s also a miracle he did what he did despite the Hawks’ poor spacing and more attention cast onto him from opposing teams...

In a year when the Hawks’ assist numbers dropped, Millsap himself averaged a career-high 3.7 assists per game as he tried to fill the passing (and otherwise) void left by Al Horford...

The Hawks need to generate ball movement/assists to generate better looks and to get others involved. When the Hawks totalled 25 or more assists in a game they were 24-11. When the Hawks totalled 22 or less assists in a game, 10-28.

At the end of the day, it’s very simple. When the Hawks move the ball, more often than not, they win games. When they don’t move the ball, more often than not, they lose games. And that’s what happened in the 2016-17 season and one of the reasons why the Hawks did not prevail in the first round matchup against the Washington Wizards...

And should the Hawks retain their core this summer, there’s no reason (with its isolation nature) to believe that those numbers will be vastly different next season. They could in fact get worse. Far, far, far worse if Paul Millsap walks in free agency...