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Atlanta Hawks playbook: Elbow Strong

With John Collins back in the lineup, expect to see a lot more elbow action for Atlanta.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Indiana Pacers Trevor Ruszkowski-USA TODAY Sports

You’ll often hear coaches talk about playing through the elbows as a key tenet of why their team won a game. Operating in those spots gives an offense a lot of options, from running dribble handoff (DHO) action to split cuts to facing up and taking the ball to the basket.

It’s not as heavily correlated with offensive success as one might imagine – the top three teams in elbow touches last season were Sacramento, Memphis, and New York, all of whom finished in the bottom third of the league in offensive rating – but it remains a large part of most teams’ offensive attacks. In particular, the Golden State Warriors use a lot of elbow and mid-post touches to facilitate their split cuts, something the Atlanta Hawks have run on a few occasions this season.

The Hawks are working through the elbows significantly less than they were in previous years, particularly when they had Al Horford on the team. With that said, they’re still getting good shots out of those situations and giving opposing defenses different looks, which is important for their offensive versatility.

Lloyd Pierce’s new offensive system has thus far not looked extremely different than it was under Mike Budenholzer, save for specific situations. The shot profile is fantastic (and is right up there among the league’s best along with Budenholzer’s Bucks) and the way in which they’re getting those shots is mostly similar to how it was previously.

Atlanta’s 5-Out formation is apparent at the beginning of nearly every possession and they still run most of their early action at the top of the key, using ball reversals, “One” screens, and DHOs to free up their various perimeter threats. For the most part, 5-Out doesn’t lend itself to running the ball through the elbows or mid-post, but Pierce and his staff have thrown in a handful of elbow sets, with one particular play making numerous appearances through the first 16 games of the season.

Instead of the standard 5-Out setup the Hawks normally employ, Elbow Strong involves four players surrounding one, usually at the elbow opposite of where the ball is brought up to trigger that possession’s play call. From there, the ball is reversed to the trailing big man and entered to the elbow.

The two previous ball handlers run to the opposite side to set a pair of down screens for the wing in the corner (commonly referred to as “Strong” or “Double Away” action in NBA circles), who can either curl one or both screens to the basket, come off both for a three-point shot, or work the DHO game with the big man at the elbow. If all that fails, then there’s still the wing on the strong side, who can whip around for his own DHO and use the spacing of his three teammates on the weak side to get into the lane and play the two-man game with the big man who handed him the ball.

For the most part, Atlanta’s planned elbow touches come out of this exact action, with a few others in split cut sets to take advantage of Trae Young and Taurean Prince’s gravity as shooters and ability to hit those shots on the move. Other touches in these spots come out of the flow of the offense but have been fewer and further between than in previous years.

Overall, the Hawks score at an average rate on these possessions, ranking 14th in the league in points per touch out of these situations. As you’d expect from the fact that John Collins has only played 12 minutes on the season and that there aren’t really any other scorers at the big man spots on this roster, most of those points come from handoffs and cuts, where the Hawks can take advantage of their good spacing to find openings in the defense for their more mobile threats at the guards and wings positions.

As Collins ramps up to his full workload over the next several games, look for Atlanta to run more of their offense through him at the elbows, where he excelled last season – Collins finished 15th in total elbow touches last season and scored well in these spots.