When Mike Budenholzer was hired as the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks in 2013, there were natural expectations that a lot of what the San Antonio Spurs had historically prioritized would be seen in how the Hawks would play going forward. Similarly when Travis Schlenk was hired last month, lesser (but similar) expectations emerged regarding how the Hawks philosophy might start to reflect the way that the Golden State Warriors have been operating the past few years. The first set of transactions of the Schlenk era appear to support that at least in one specific way.
It looks like the Hawks are building to play fast.
Over the past three seasons, the Warriors never finished lower than fourth in the league in pace. The ability to play fast has propelled their offense to historic levels of production and we saw in the NBA Finals that, when they are not able to achieve their normal level of defensive efficiency, the solution they leverage is just to play that much faster on offense and overwhelm the opponent.
When the Warriors play with their most optimized lineup opponents simply struggle to keep up. In the postseason, any line-up with Draymond Green playing at center played extremely fast and produced a net rating of at least +19.4. And that is not just about playing Green at center, it is about the broader roster construction that gives them the ability to play fast at all times and even faster when the situation dictates it.
When they selected John Collins with the 19th overall pick in the last week’s draft, the Hawks seemed to be taking one step in the direction of being able to play faster. If you read any scouting reports or profiles on Collins, including the one I wrote, you consistently see phrases such as “very fast for his size” and “is a dominant rim runner”. His speed is one trait that certainly separates him from the other front court players in the draft class. At the NBA Draft Combine, Collins ran the 3rd fastest 3⁄4 court sprint of any player projected to play at the power forward position.
While many, including myself, have raised question regarding Collins fit for the Hawks especially as it relates to playing in an offense that prioritizes ball movement, if Schlenk was looking for a player that can and will play fast, Collins was certainly a logical choice. Per draftexpress.com, he averaged 1.66 points per possession in transition last season at Wake Forest. According to www.hoop-math.com (subscription required for some content), Collins has the 3rd highest eFG% (77.5) in transition of any front court player that was drafted (40 transition possessions or more). Both Justin Patton (taken 16th by the Timberwolves) and Jaron Blossomgame (taken 59th by the Spurs) registered an impressive 78.6 eFG% in transition last season.
Tyler Dorsey, taken by the Hawks with the 41st overall pick, has an impressive transition game as well. Per www.hoop-math.com, he was one of only four guards drafted with an eFG% of 63.9 or higher in transition (115 possessions or more). The others were Lonzo Ball (taken 2nd overall by the Lakers), Derrick White (taken 29th overall by the Spurs) and Frank Mason (taken 34th overall by the Kings). Dorsey also ran the 8th fastest 3⁄4 court sprint at the NBA Draft combine. Dorsey’s confidence and proficiency shooting off of the dribble could certainly contribute to how the Hawks might look put opposing defenses under stress early in offensive possessions.
When the Hawks traded Dwight Howard to the Charlotte Hornets in exchange for Miles Plumlee and Marco Bellineli, a lot of the focus was on off-court and basketball culture issues. And there certainly seems to be something to that. But while we don’t know how long Plumlee will be with the Hawks nor how much they think he can contribute going forward, the Hawks dealt away the one starter that could not stay on the court when the Hawks were playing from behind and needing to play faster.
Plumlee is not great at anything but the strengths that are usually highlighted in most profiles, like this one written by Nate Duncan for ESPN (subscription required), is his mobility and his ability to run the floor. Over the last 2 seasons Plumee has averaged 1.4 points per possession in transition per NBA.com/stats. So while there has been some criticism of the Howard-Plumlee swap by some, it will be interesting to see if the Hawks hang on to him and deploy Plumlee as to be able allow the team to play faster overall.
If it is true that playing faster is one of the core objectives of how the roster is now being developed, it could indicate that Tim Hardaway Jr. (a restricted free agent) might have more value to the Hawks than previously thought. There are obvious fit issues when Hardaway plays in the back court with Dennis Schroder, but he was consistently the Hawks best player in transition last season. Mike Muscala (an unrestricted free agent) also could fit lineups that might allow the Hawks to play faster. Like Collins, Muscala can and does run the floor very well.
The Hawks are not going to have any real cap space to work with unless they move on from Paul Millsap. If they are looking to round out the forward position with players that might be available on reasonable, short-term contracts C.J. Miles could be an option. He worked last summer to make himself into a quicker and more athletic player. The results were that he had the best offensive season of his career as measured by both TS% and eFG%. He was also statistically the Pacers best player in transition offense last season.
The Atlanta Hawks, under the leadership of Travis Schlenk, appear to have quickly chosen a new philosophy upon which to base their effort to construct a roster that can produce at a higher offensive level. As they head into next week’s free agency period, we could see more decisions that reflect en emphasis upon being able to play faster.