A new head coach brings with it a lot of intrigue, both for the fan base at large and for those of us who are interested in the more granular details of what makes a team go. From keeping his roster of comparable players happy with their playing time to the work the team puts in during practice to make sure they’re setting screens at the precisely correct angle, Lloyd Pierce’s job touches just about every aspect of the organization. As such, his work will generate quite a bit of coverage and conversation around the Atlanta Hawks over the next few years. And if you know my work, you know that means we’re going to be diving into the nitty gritty of Pierce’s playbook and tendencies throughout his first season in Atlanta.
On average, a team has seven or eight sideline out of bounds opportunities per game. Whether it’s a timeout late in a game to push the ball into the frontcourt automatically or a floor foul, these possessions represent an appreciable percentage of a team’s chances.
Coaches spend significant time in practice going over their sidelines out-of-bounds (SLOB) plays to ensure their team is ready for these situations when they pop up throughout a game. Generally, a team has one or two base formations from which to work, though the actual actions based off these initial formations often develop throughout the year(s) a coach is in charge of a particular team. For example, Atlanta’s previous head coach, Mike Budenholzer, was famous for his diamond SLOB sets, an affinity for which he’s taken with him to Milwaukee.
With no history from which to draw, it was unclear just how much of the previously-installed offense Pierce would change. The Hawks still run a portion of Budenholzer’s playbook, if only because it provides a nice baseline and the veterans of the team are already accustomed to the actions. “One,” a quick ball reversal followed by a down screen for the initial ball handler, has been a staple of the Atlanta offense for years and has continued into the Pierce era. There are obviously differences in how the two coaches operate offensively, but Pierce certainly hasn’t thrown out the entire playbook in his first season.
Sideline out-of-bounds sets, on the other hand, are usually a place a new coach can overhaul each and every year and see good results. For the most part, Budenholzer ran the same stuff each year with small tweaks, but what we’ve seen so far from Pierce has been very dissimilar to Budenholzer’s old diamond system. Rather than involve all five players in the action, Pierce’s favorite SLOB play early in the 2018-19 season has been a quick three-man set that occasionally brings in a fourth, depending on personnel.
The base action is mostly the same each time — the inbounding player throws the ball to a big man near the elbow, then the point guard sets a back screen for the inbounder to cut to the basket. The point guard, after setting that screen, curls around the big man to receive a hand-off.
This basic two-step action has opened up a lot of different opportunities and options for Atlanta, who rank fourth in SLOB efficiency (through games on October 25), after a few years of ranking in the bottom half of the league under Budenholzer. Obviously, it’s been an extremely small sample so far this year, but the early success has been there for Lloyd Pierce’s men.