The Atlanta Hawks were a good team late in close games last year. They had the sixth best record of any team in games that met the clutch criteria (5 point lead or less with 5 minutes or fewer remaining in the game). Both offensive rating and point differential statistics are probably a little misleading in this department because of the easy scoring opportunities teams leading late in games get at the free throw line.
Still, it is a bit astonishing to see that the team with the 27th best offensive rating on the season (102.3) had the 8th best offensive rating in clutch situations. While all of Atlanta’s regular rotation players from last season had a positive net rating in clutch situations, when you look at the players who fared best in this metric, you might notice that 4 of the 5 highest rated players from last season (10 games or more) are not returning; 3 of the 4 players who rated lowest are returning.
The biggest impact will be on the offensive end of the court, which feels strange to say given how bad the Hawks were offensively last season from start to finish. But when you look at where the offensive production came from in clutch situations, it is clear to see that Dennis Schroder is going to have a heavy workload to carry next season.
Specifically, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Paul Millsap were good late in close games last season. After controlling the statistical sample for volume, Hardaway had the 2nd best TS% of any guard in the league in clutch situations. Millsap was 9th best among forwards.
Schroder was not bad in clutch situations last year. His numbers across the board are pretty much in line with his overall numbers. Let’s take a look.
His shooting did fall off a bit late in close games, but that should be understandable to some degree. He played more than 850 more minutes last season than any previous season and had to step up his amount of defensive responsibility matching up with starting back courts.
I took the time to chart the last two minutes of each of the Hawks games that they won or lost by 5 points are fewer. This is a different sample that how NBA.com defines clutch situations. I did not do this to turn the results into statistical samples. I did it just to get a feel for what types of actions the Hawks were running and which players were primarily involved in those actions.
It was staggering to look back and see how much of the offense that was played through Paul Millsap. I tried to visualize what players might be involved in those actions this season and could not really come up with much. Also, the difference in quality of decision making between the actions involving Millsap and those not involving him was massive. Play that was not worked the All-Star was generally sloppy.
Since so much of this will be dependent upon Schroder next season, let’s take a moment to look at some examples of his play late in close games last season.
Schroder operates best as a facilitator late in games when he has a shooter positioned in or near each corner. In this example the Wizards should have been basically playing a “no threes” defense but Schroder abandons the opportunity to convert an easy lay up at the rim and finds one of the best 3-point shooters in the league for an open corner three.
The first year starting point guard was the 9th best shooter from 15-19 feet last season (150 or more attempts). He improved to 47.6% on 208 attempts last season after making 43.8% on 121 attempts during the 2015-16 season. Late in games he has the confidence and competency to pull up and hit an open mid-range shot when defenders go under the pick and roll and the big man does not want to abandon the paint.
In this example, the Hawks use “Horns” action instead of the pick and roll as to get both Jonas Valanciunas and Patrick Patterson away from the rim. Schroder uses a screen by Dwight Howard and gets to the rim for a lightly contested lay up to basically put the Raptors away in this game.
In this example, Schroder and Millsap are able to use the pick and roll and get the big man, Steven Adams, switched on to Schroder. He uses that confident mid range shot on this play to put the Hawks up by 2 points with less than a minute to play.
As the season progressed, the Hawks increasingly used Hardaway as the ball handler in late game possessions. On this play, Schroder stays fully engaged and spaces the play perfectly. His hand goes up as the defense on the weak side collapses. He receives the kick out pass immediately ready to shoot and hits the three point shot that would end up being the game winner.
If you ever get to a Hawks game early enough to see them warm up, you might notice that the point guards take a ton of three-point shots around 5-10 feet left of the top of the key. That is not random, a lot of the action in their offense that gets initiated by the wing results in the point guard getting an open weak side three-point shot on the left side of the offensive formation.
This is beautiful play design and execution. Notice what is different here. The Hawks pull both of their bigs to the same side of court for double screen action. The Hawks don’t run this action very often. The design on this play has one purpose: to keep Jimmy Butler out of the play. Schroder manages the timing perfectly and converts a lay up to put the Hawks ahead in this game for the first time since the 2nd quarter. This was one of the best Hawks come back victories on the season.
Now let’s look at some plays that reflect not the best decision making and what tends to create problems for Schroder. Do you notice anything about all of the plays we have looked at so far when he is in the pick and roll action? He’s going right every time.
When defenses (even bad defenses) force him left, Schroder becomes less decisive and significantly less secure with the ball. As he does on this play he tends to get too deep as to be able to keep his options open. The result too often is a turnover or a bit of a scramble drill on the part of his teammates.
The result of this play is good; Hardaway hits a 3-pointer to basically put the game away. But, again, you can see the reduced precision as Schroder goes left. If you watch closely even Dwight Howard is pointing to the shooter in the corner. But when he goes left his options are very often limited to a lay up or dumping it off to the closest offensive player to his right. Here Howard is barely able to catch the ball and almost travels. But the ball eventually finds the shooter for the open corner 3.
He is not perfect going right. At times when both defenders in the pick and roll commit to him he still can get tunnel vision. On this play, one defender ends up being responsible for both Millsap and Ersan Ilyasova. This is where Scroder has to find a way to distribute the ball back into the pocket that will leave the defenders outnumbered on the weak side. Fortunately, Schroder hustles back on defense and gets the steal that seals the close win over a bad Brooklyn Nets team.
This is another example of poor decision making when Schroder goes right. The Hawks are back in “Horns” action again as to make sure that Jared Dudley can get put into the pick and roll. On this play 3 defenders collapse on him as he drives and the ball needs to get kicked out to Ilyasova. Instead Schroder drives straight into an easy block by the defender they were intentionally putting into the action.
As noted, Schroder was just about as good in the clutch as he was in other situations last year apart from a slight drop off in shooting likely related to fatigue. The Hawks won 43 games last year and secured the 5th seed in the Eastern Conference largely as a result of winning a lot of the close games. There may not be another formula to get a team with a point differential of -0.9 that high of a playoff seed. Five teams finished below them in the standings that had a better point differential.
If the Hawks are going to win close games next year, Schroder is going to have to improve in late game possessions. He needs to add a technique or two that he can rely upon when defenses force him left and he needs to improve his awareness of how the defense is reacting when he gets downhill and attacks the paint.
At the very least, Schröder is not afraid to take the shot or make the play. That’s a good place to start. But, given that he had better players around last season than he will this season, it’s going to take significant work and commitment to get him to make the right play with a greater amount of frequency.