Upon the mutual agreement to part ways with former head coach Mike Budenholzer and the hiring of defensive guru Lloyd Pierce, there were many questions throughout the NBA community with respect to the Atlanta Hawks’ offense. Budenholzer is renowned for his offensive principles, stemming from his days on the bench for the San Antonio Spurs, Atlanta’s own success, and Milwaukee’s current level of play with him at the helm. Pierce was largely unknown in this regard – he could design a defensive scheme and get his guys to execute, but the offensive side of things were more of an open question.
Pierce’s choices for his assistants did little to assuage these concerns, as most of them are also defensive-minded in nature. The lone holdover from the Budenholzer era is Chris Jent and it’s clear that he’s helping to bridge the gap between the two head coaches offensively, as the Hawks are mostly running a lot of the same concepts and plays they ran under Budenholzer.
In no place is this more obvious than in the Hawks early offense, where they’ve long favored ball reversal and “One” screens, which were previously used over and over to get Kyle Korver open threes early in the shot clock. “One” can be extremely useful in simply getting things started with ball and man movement between three players near the top of the key, allowing for lots of different variations and actions, depending on what the defense is giving the Hawks. For the most part, there’s no specific set of movements called from the bench; instead, it’s up to the players on the floor to read and react to the defense and move in concert to take advantage of their opponent’s weaknesses.
However, there are certain games where things are not as egalitarian in Atlanta’s team. Specifically, when Trae Young had it going like he did against the Los Angeles Lakers on Sunday night, the very concept of removing the ball from his hands goes out the window for Pierce.
The new head coach has mentioned on multiple occasions that their strategy late in games has been to put the ball in Young’s hands as often as possible and, more importantly, keep it there for him to make a play for himself or one of his teammates. Given Young’s lack of relative strength and the way defenses are allowed a bit more leeway in their physicality down the stretch of close games, it’s not always easy to get the ball back to him if he gives it up.
A solution to this problem has been one that is seen throughout the league and can be just as dangerous – the Double Drag screen. It’s something the Boston Celtics used to devastating effect in last year’s playoffs and something the Golden State Warriors run on a regular basis to get their guys going.
Atlanta went to Double Drag no fewer than 13 times against the Lakers, including seven times in a four-minute stretch in the fourth quarter. The results were fantastic for Atlanta: 12 points on those seven possessions, including 5-for-6 shooting from the field and a single turnover.
The idea behind the double drag screens is simple – Young brought the ball up along the left side of the floor and two of his teammates screened for him along the top of the key. As Young moves from left to right, those screeners split apart, one rolling to the basket and the other popping to the perimeter, giving the rookie point guard multiple options for an attack.
The Hawks began the Double Drag party in the opening possessions of the second quarter before bringing it back in the middle of the fourth quarter. The Lakers often employ their big men deep in the paint on ball screens to take away driving lanes to the rim, which opened up Alex Len for a pair of long-range jumpers in the second quarter:
Early in the fourth quarter, the defense was mostly the same from Los Angeles – JaVale McGee was dropping deep and allowing Young to turn the corner and wreak havoc in the painted area.
After calling timeout with 5:25 left in the fourth quarter, the Lakers came out with a different tactic. Blitzing Young at the point of attack put their defense in rotation but stopped Atlanta from getting into the paint for easy opportunities. As a result, the Hawks went away from their Double Drag sets in the last three minutes.
While Young is fully capable of being a great passer out of those situations, but with the length and athleticism the Lakers had on the floor posed a unique threat. Luke Walton’s closing lineup of Josh Hart, Brandon Ingram, LeBron James, Kyle Kuzma, and Tyson Chandler gives his team a ton of length, quickness, and smarts with one of James and Chandler conducting the orchestra from the back line. Once the traps were sprung, Atlanta sputtered a little bit, which contributed mightily to their struggles scoring in the last few minutes.
The Hawks did end up scoring five points on these three possessions, but in no way was what they were doing sustainable – Young hit an audacious three-pointer from the “L” in Lakers near mid-court after the play broke down and Kent Bazemore was able to draw a foul on Chandler for the Hawks’ points in this short stretch. With the Lakers’ athleticism giving them trouble they had to go away from Double Drag in the last three minutes, instead opting for their more traditional ball and man movement scheme that involved playing heavily through their big men at the elbow. The offense as a whole sputtered and died – they scored just two points in the last 3:44 of the game.
When Young has it going, as he did against the Lakers to the tune of 11 points and five assists in the fourth quarter, it makes a ton of sense for the Hawks to keep the ball in his hands as much as possible. Double Drag sets give the Hawks the opportunity to do just that and while defenses will eventually see enough of the play to figure out how to stop it, not every team has the length and athleticism the Lakers possess in their closing lineup and we’ve seen multiple instances of how the Hawks have been able to pick apart lesser defenses with Young’s passing out of blitzed ball screens.
Look for Double Drag to remain a fixture in Atlanta’s offensive scheme and provide them with a slightly different way of getting the offense started at the beginning of possessions while keeping the ball in Young’s hands.