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What have we learned about the 2018-19 Atlanta Hawks so far?

Despite a 6-21 record, there have been some positives from the Hawks this season. But also many negatives...

Toronto Raptors v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images

Note: All stats (per are correct as of Dec. 9, 2018 and do not includes Hawks/Mavs.

Change has been a theme for a while for the Atlanta Hawks, a ripple in the water felt by the entire organization.

Many executives, players, coaches and other team personnel, heck, even the owners who have been a part of the organization for years have all moved on in way or another in the last few seasons. Some have found new NBA homes, some have not.

While high-profile players have come and gone for the Atlanta Hawks in the last few seasons (such as Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard to name a few), while the ownership changed hands and the front office staff has seen on multiple occasions of late, one thing that didn’t really change was the coaching staff, led by 2014-15 Coach of the Year Mike Budenholzer.

It was fun while it lasted and there were some great times enjoyed but nothing lasts forever in the NBA, and Budenholzer and his staff departed for cheesier pastures in Wisconsin to take over as coach of the Milwaukee Bucks, leaving a vacancy for the Hawks’ head coaching job, which was filled by Philadelphia 76ers assistant coach Lloyd Pierce.

It’s been a tough start for Pierce and his new staff as they oversee a rebuilding phase in Atlanta — now in full swing after tipping a few toes in the rebuilding waters last season, now looking to develop the young (no pun intended) talent that Hawks GM Travis Schlenk has entrusted them with — starting the season 6-21.

With a new staff comes new philosophies, new practices, new ideas — a new/different way of doing things.

After five seasons of knowing what the Hawks were/looked to do every night under Mike Budenholzer, not many people were quite sure what exactly style Lloyd Pierce was going to bring to the Hawks. In his introductory press conference, Pierce talked about he was a defensive-minded coach but didn’t really establish what he wanted to achieve on the offensive end immediately.

And Summer League wouldn’t help in that regard, with Pierce only coaching in Utah due to the birth of his first child running too close to the Summer League schedule in Las Vegas.

So, now the regular season is well underway and more than a quarter of the season has already come and gone. We’ve all had plenty of time to watch the Hawks (for better or for worse), what have we learned about not only Lloyd Pierce but the 2018-19 team in general?

They are not good defensively

If you’ve watched any amount of Hawks games this season, this will not surprise you in the slightest.

The Hawks rank only 22nd in defensive rating (110.2) but they rank dead last in opponent points per game, conceding an average of 118 points per game.

On 12 occasions already this season, opponent teams have scored 120+ on the Hawks, there are five instances of teams hanging 130+ on the Hawks and against the Sacramento Kings the Hawks conceded 146 points. There have only been three games where the Hawks have conceded less than 100 points this season...

They also start halves incredibly slowly at times this season and added to this and all of the above, the Hawks have suffered many 40+ quarters, including four 40+ demolitions in the first quarter. Oh, and also 14 instances of 60+ first halves for opponents and five games where opponents have scored 70 or more in the first half.

Lloyd Pierce came over from Philadelphia as a defense-first coach and some fans have not been impressed with the Hawks’ defense as a team under Pierce thus far. The ‘I thought Pierce was supposed to be a defensive coach’ comments have been aplenty but there are several things you have to remember when it comes to this...

One of which being that Pierce has not inherited a defensive squad — there’s no defensive anchor like a Paul Millsap, an Al Horford, a Thabo Sefolosha, heck, even Dwight Howard on this team. The vast majority of this Hawks roster are below average defensively, partly due to their inexperience and, well, some of them just aren’t good defensively and may not/will never be good defensively in the NBA.

A huge issue for the Hawks is hardly anyone can stay in front of their own man, leading to constant breakdowns/scores.

We’ll go through a few examples, we could be here for the remainder of time if we went through all of them...

Here, Trey Burke is easily able to get by Jeremy Lin and puts up the floater before Alex Poythress can get right into Burke to contest:

Trae Young is an obvious target for teams on defense given his lack of size and NBA strength, Quinn Cook taking advantage of some poor defense in Atlanta’s visit to Oracle:

Young at least has somewhat of an excuse being a rookie point guard in a guard dominant league, but third-year wing Taurean Prince has been especially awful on defense this year at times. His defensive effort has, generally speaking, been poor so far this season.

Here was such an instance against the Pistons:

Just one of many, I can assure you...

Given their injury issues to begin the season, the Hawks have needed to play veteran Vince Carter more than they probably would’ve wanted to. Carter was also called upon to start in some instances, illustrating the Hawks’ dire need for bodies. Now, everyone loves Vince Carter and he’s an NBA legend but, sadly, not quite the defender he was and teams have taken advantage.

Pascal Siakam being one to do so when the Raptors met the Hawks:

Siakam attacked and scored on Carter on multiple occasions in this game...

We could go on and on about the defensive foibles of many Hawks players throughout the roster but one defensive bright spot has been DeAndre’ Bembry, who also makes mistakes here and there of course, but is arguably the Hawks’ best defensive wing along with Justin Anderson.

Just an example of Bembry’s defensive activity this season:

He moves well and gets after it defensively — it’s fun to watch Bembry defend when he’s locked in.

In the half court, the Hawks are bad on the defensive end. Poor individual defense and poor rotation/help defense have been a constant Achilles heel — a product of the Hawks’ personnel/inexperience, not Pierce’s coaching.

The Hawks have not been stellar when it has come to defense in the open-court either. Teams enjoy getting after the Hawks in transition, the Hawks concede the second-most fast break points per game in the league with 16.2. Only the Phoenix Suns, with 17.7, concede more than the Hawks.

The Sixers come in transition on this play and the Sixers — with multiple options to them — are able to get the shot they want and the majority of the Hawks are left just standing around waiting for the shot to go up:

Against Detroit, the Hawks don’t put any sort of pressure whatsoever on Blake Griffin, who has forever and a day to scan the field in front of him and eventually finds Andre Drummond for a very easy score as the Hawks show very little resistance on both Griffin and Drummond:

The Hawks have also allowed a lot of three-pointers to be rain-down on them so far this season, ranking 27th in opponent three-point attempts per game (34 a game) and are also allowing opponents to hit a league-high 37% of those threes.

Breakdowns like this are prone to happening, as Taurean Prince needlessly wanders away from Mike Scott in the corner and towards the paint and it’s an easy, open three for the former Hawk and current Clipper:

Against Golden State, with no Curry in this fixture, the one player you don’t want to have a look at an open three is Klay Thompson, and the Hawks, scattered, don’t get a body close to him and Klay hits the three:

The Hawks have allowed a lot of open threes thanks to various breakdowns like this and above.

Though, one positive is that though the Hawks aren’t good defensively and leak points for days, they’re active and this is some of the things you can attribute toward Pierce.

They put their bodies on the line, ranking 2nd in the league in charges drawn, the Hawks rank 2nd in the league in deflections per game, they actually lead the league in loose balls recovered and they also rank 2nd in opponent turnovers per game and 3rd in steals per game with 9.2— so as much as the Hawks cough the ball up (we’ll get to that soon), they do at least force others to do the same. And because they force a lot of turnovers, they score a lot off of turnovers too, ranking 8th in the league in points off of turnovers.

There are multiple Hawks averaging over a steal a game, including Kent Bazemore (1.7, ranking 12th in the entire NBA), DeAndre’ Bembry (1.4), Dewyane Dedmon (1.2) and Taurean Prince (1.1).

They’ve been aggressive at times and this aggression also leads to fouls (Hawks rank 29th in fouls per game committing nearly 24 fouls per game, only the Brooklyn Nets average more fouls) and free throws (the Hawks rank dead last in opponent free throws per game, giving up the most free throws per game, nearly 27 freebies per game).

This aggression/fouling was something that was foreshadowed by Pierce in the summer.

From Lloyd Pierce’s interview with Michael Cunningham of the AJC back in May:

Q. Your Sixers team this season was called for a lot of fouls (second-highest opponent free-throw attempt rate). You mentioned in the news conference that you want your team to be physical, so does that mean you live with the fouls?

A. I love it. I love it. There are some things that you are going to have to give up to be a No. 1, No. 2 team in field-goal-percentage defense. There is a sense of urgency on your closeouts where you are just taking people off the 3-point line. There’s a sense of urgency of coming over to protect the rim. We were big in our “N.F.L.” And it was a no-layup mentality. You can figure out what the “F” meant. That mentality, that approach defensively, if at all costs it means they aren’t going to be shooting a layup and they’ll be shooting free throws? We’ll live with it. What we didn’t want are easy opportunities at the rim, or because we were late on closeouts and we didn’t feel like we can corral and take away space. So the mentality of how we wanted to play, the physicality of how we want to play, we live with (the fouls). Here’s the flip side. We go into the playoffs this year and we did talk about talking about defending without fouling. (But) we went into a series wanting to foul even more. We want to be even more physical because we understand this is the playoffs and the referees understand this is the playoffs. They are going to let you get away with a little bit more. They don’t want to disrupt the game. So we didn’t mind being more physical, grabbing and holding a little bit more. We wanted to get underneath the guys, we wanted to be physical, we wanted to be in their bodies. We were encouraging the guys not to foul, but to play more physical, and if that were the consequences, so be it.

Just a few visual examples of this aggressiveness...

Kent Bazemore comes in with the reach to poke the ball away, creating a turnover:

Again, it’s Bazemore who shows the aggression and gets his hand in to pry the ball away, create a turnover and then draw the foul vs. Cleveland:

Overall, the Hawks have leaked points and it’s more so to do with personnel than Pierce’s defensive methods. Sure, they have helped a little bit on pick-and-rolls, more specifically the ball-handler in pick-and-rolls, and that has left shooters open (stretch bigs like Marvin Williams, for example) but Pierce can’t control his own players being unable to stay in front of their man on a consistent basis.

The encouraging thing is that, already, we’re seeing the Hawks rank well in other defensive categories like steals, forced turnovers etc. but as the younger players learn more about NBA defense, what it means to guard their own man and do what exactly Pierce wants to do defensively, the defense will remain a headache for a little while yet...

They do not take care of the ball

One of the other Achilles heel for the Hawks has been their’s been very, very bad on this front at times.

The Hawks rank 30th in turnovers per game, committing a (considerably) league-worst 18 turnovers per game, rank 30th in turnover percentage per game at 17.2% and rank last in opponent points off of turnovers.

It’s not been pretty... The Hawks have had eight games in which they’ve committed 20 or more turnovers and another five in which they gave the ball away 19 times. They’ve had just one game in which they’ve committed fewer than 10 turnovers and just two games where they’ve committed fewer than 15 turnovers in a game, which is quite astonishing.

There are a few reasons for this...

Inexperience is obviously one of them. The Hawks have placed the ball in rookie Trae Young’s hands from the off and have let him make his own mistakes as he feels his way as a point guard in the NBA. Young has averaged four turnovers per game, only Devin Booker, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Russell Westbrook and James Harden have averaged more turnovers per game this season than Young — focal points of their own respective teams.

Young is still learning the difference between good/average college and poor NBA shots — plays like this for example, you could probably get away with at the collegiate level but not in the NBA:

There have been times where Young has gotten himself into the paint but into a crowd — sometimes driving into the paint despite the presence of a crowd — and this has gotten him into trouble and led to turnovers:

Here, Young drives and gets to the baseline where he is faced by the Cleveland defense, in a tight spot, and his pass behind is intercepted:

Young also tries to thread the needle a little too finely at times, slipping passes into closing gaps/crowds that defenses are able to get something on to/collect it.

Exhibit A:

Exhibit B:

Exhibit C:

Exhibit D:

You get the idea.

Young is obviously still learning what it means to be an NBA point guard in a league filled with elite point guards and with more emphasis placed on length from a defensive standpoint, it makes Young’s job a little more difficult.

And, to be fair, Young has faced a lot of defensive pressure at times — this hasn’t helped him:

Taurean Prince has also been a player to rack up turnovers this season, with 2.6 per game.

During the end of last season, with Bazemore and Dennis Schroder sidelined, Prince became a focal point on offense in both scoring and he tried his hand at facilitation. Now, that whole stretch last season wasn’t a true reflection of who Prince is on the court because he was never going to enjoy the same frequency of shots nor handle the ball as much this season with everyone back into the fold. But what has become abundantly clear this season is that Prince, while he can handle the ball, is not a good facilitator of the ball nor a good passer. In fact, this season, Prince has more turnovers (54) than assists (48) so far this season.

His decision making is poor, his accuracy when passing is generally poor and he wanders into careless offensive fouls at times. Here’s a few examples:

The Hawks have a number of players who are capable of handling the ball and making plays with Young, Jeremy Lin, Kent Bazemore, DeAndre Bembry’ and even Kevin Huerter has been making some plays of late for his teammates. And the one thing they have in common? All of them surpass Prince in assists/turnovers.

They are also more willing passer than Prince, who seeks his own shot a little too often in cases where he’d be better off finding a teammate.

The Hawks, in terms turnovers per game, would benefit from having Prince handle the ball less — they don’t need him to make plays and he has proven to be a liability in that regard this season. Last year, they needed that from Prince down the stretch. They just don’t need that this season, they have the personnel this year to distribute.

While Young and Prince are culprits of some of the Hawks’ turnovers (quite a number of them) the Hawks are just careless with the ball in general, and their inexperience really shows at times. They are also a young team that has seen a lot of players come and go of late, and with a new coaching staff to boot, everyone is trying to get on the same page on the court. This had led to a number of turnovers.

Example 1:

Example 2:

Example 3:

Example 4:

Omari Spellman will also learn how to better thread passes like this in time (and choose not to slide a pass into traffic), but these aren’t great passes for him to make right now:

One of the other things the Hawks have done a lot this year is drive the ball a lot — ranking 5th in the league in drivers per game. Driving the ball was something that Pierce also alluded to over the summer that he wanted the Hawks to do.

“...We want to score high efficient baskets at the rim,” said Pierce ahead of training camp. “We’ve got a 7’2” center (Alex Len), we got Dewayne Dedmon, we got John Collins who rolled to the basket and scored in the paint 72% of his shots last year. We still love the rim and the paint but it’s also an opportunity to create paint-to-great kick-outs and opportunities once the defense collapses...”

Drives obviously fall under this category and the Hawks make a lot of passes out of these drives. They also turn the ball over often on drives. In fact, the Hawks lead the league in turnovers off of drives, 4.5 per game.

Examples of this are easy to find, as you could probably imagine.

Here, Taurean Prince drives from the wing and throws a pass to the Sixers:

Against the Kings, Vince Carter drives inside, attempts to wrap a pass behind him to a teammate but only finds the opposition:

Against the Heat, DeAndre’ Bembry drives inside, his pass is deflected and deflected off of himself, leading to a turnover:

I could go on, but I imagine you get the idea. They drive a lot and pass out of these drives a lot (passing out of 32% of their drives) but turn it over in the process.

Unfortunately for the Hawks, all of these turnovers provide teams the opportunity to break the other way and get easy points up on the board.

The Hawks give up a league-worst 22.5 points per game off of turnovers and give up the second-most fast break points per game with 16.2 pointsonly the Phoenix Suns give up more fast break points per game.

Turnovers fuel transition points, and the Hawks have done this on an extremely regular basis.

We’ve looked at a number of turnovers in various spots that have led to scoring opportunities for the opposition but we’ll look at a few more...

Here, Trae Young tries to lift a lob to Alex Len, it’s broken up and the Kings score on the other end after a nice euro-step from Marvin Bagley:

Having just taken the ball away, the Hawks turn it over after Kemba Walker picks off Young and Walker charges the other way and scores at the rim:

Against the Raptors, Prince’s loose handle is picked off, and the Raptors work it on the other end to punish the Hawks with the score:

To wrap this section up, opponents have scored 20 or more points off of Atlanta turnovers on 17 occasions and on four occasions the Hawks have given conceded 30 or more turnover points.

It’s not been fun in that regard.

They shoot a lot of threes...poorly

It was clear quite early that Lloyd Pierce wanted his side to jack up a lot of threes. Pierce, as mentioned, only coached in Utah but in one of those games against the Memphis Grizzlies, the Hawks attempted 40 three-pointers and this pleased Pierce.

“Excited that we shot 40 threes because that’s what we want to do, get them up,” said Pierce after the game.

This has continued into the regular season where the Hawks rank 4th in three-point attempts per game, jacking up 35.7 threes a game. All of this is well and good but the problem is the Hawks aren’t hitting their threes. In fact, the Hawks rank dead last in three-point percentage, hitting just 31% of their threes.

More worryingly, the Hawks aren’t even hitting their open/wide open threes. On shots that considers open (where the closest defender is 4-6 feet away from the shooter), the Hawks are only shooting 30% and on shots consider as ‘wide open’ (6+ feet to the closest defender) the Hawks are only shooting 32%. They’re getting great looks but just aren’t converting.

Trae Young’s struggled from behind the arc are well documented, shooting just 24% on 5.5 attempts per game for the year.

Young’s struggles from the outside should’ve been expected. This will eventually correct itself to a degree, even if Young only reaches 32 or 33 percent from three on the season — it’s hard to believe he’s a 24 percent three-point shooter. Again, there’s an adjustment period for Young that applies to his shooting. But he’s had some great looks at threes as well as very tough ones.

There are some shots that you’d like to see Young reign in slightly, such as:

Overall, Young has seen some great looks that he has simply missed and some difficult ones because teams have put a lot of pressure on Young.

“...Teams are still pressing up on me just like if I was shooting 80 percent,” said Young after a recent game against the Washington Wizards.

“...He gets so much attention, he gets the blitzes, he gets guys picking him up full court,” said Pierce of Young. “I look at the West Virginia game last year and [Jevon Carter] was just all over him full court. When you get that pressure release, that screen, if the guy goes under the screen, that’s where you see a lot of his deep threes. He’s a guy that shot a lot of threes off the dribble and he does so this year. I think what he’s learning is we’re asking him to play defense for 48 minutes against elite offensive players and he’s averaging 31 minutes and he’s playing in a faster game with elite athletes. It’s a learning curve to try to figure out how to get that shot off in the first month and a half. 24 percent is a tough number. It’ll go up, I’m not concerned one bit. It’ll go up, but I think it’s just part of his learning curve.”

While Young’s struggles should have been expected, it’s been some of the Hawks’ returning members and their three-point shooting that have seen downward turns.

Both Dewayne Dedmon (24 percent) and Kent Bazemore (27 percent) have seen sizeable dips in their three-point shooting from last season (35.5 percent for Dedmon, 39 percent for Bazemore) and this has certainly hurt that two dependable contributors from last season have not been able to make the same impact from last season.

John Collins, who grew in confidence within his three-point shot in the second half of last season, has yet to find his feet from the outside so far this season coming back from injury, shooting just 26 percent from three.

New additions like Alex Len (31.7 percent) and Omari Spellman (31.6 percent) have struggled at times but that percentage on the season is honestly not too bad all things considered (Spellman does jack threes up there from time-to-time).

There some positives, with Jeremy Lin leading the Hawks in three-point percentage at 41 percent, rookie Kevin Huerter shooting 38.5 percent is a pleasant early return for the 19th overall pick and Taurean Prince (with a team-high 6+ attempts per game) has shown that, if nothing else, his shooting touch that he showed down the stretch last season is real, shooting 36 percent on the season from three.

The Hawks have obviously missed a ton of threes but Pierce is less concerned with his side missing shots as he is about the Hawks taken what’s given to them.

“...I’ll never be a make or miss guy,” said Pierce after a loss to the Clippers. “If we (have) open shots, you’ve got to shoot them. We’ll live with the results if they are clean shots and simple plays or in rhythm...”

They play fast, very fast

Under Pierce, the Hawks are playing quickly. They are leading the entire league in pace, they’re 3rd in distance travelled per game, 2nd in average speed per game and 44% of their shot are taken within the first nine seconds of the shot clock. They get things done in a hurry.

The Hawks also like to push the pace in transition, averaging 17.8 fast break points per game which ranks third in the league.

Quick shots like this aren’t rare sights for the Hawks under Pierce:

Kent Bazemore is one Hawk who has excelled in transition, a number of his scoring opportunities come in transition.

Off of a stop, Bazemore is one of faster movers and he takes the ball in transition all the way to the hoop against the Lakers:

Bazemore has also shown hesitation to pull the trigger from behind the arc, the straightaway three at the top of the key is a shot he likes to take but in this instance he fans out to the corner in transition, hitting the three on catch:

We’ve talked about the Hawks are active defensively and are up there in steals per game, and this is used to turn defense into quick offense as Bazemore picks off the steal here and takes it the other way for the basket:

15 of the Hawks’ 35 attempted three-pointers are taken in the first nine seconds of the shotclock, shooting 37 percent on ‘very early’ (between 22-18 seconds remaining on the shotclock) three-point shots and 31 percent on ‘early’ (between 18-15 seconds) three-point shots.

The Hawks play quickly under Lloyd Pierce and perhaps this shouldn’t be a surprise given the Hawks’ youth, which Pierce said ahead of training camp was something the Hawks wanted to play to.

“...We want to create an identity that fits our team,” said Pierce prior to training camp “Obviously we’re young, we want to play to our youth. We want to be competitive, we will be competitive...”

Makes sense. You have young legs, use ‘em. And they certainly have been.

They still move the ball

While Mike Budenholzer and ‘Bud-Ball’ have obviously moved on to Milwaukee, ball movement has not been something that has been pushed to the side under Lloyd Pierce. In fact, they’re averaging more assists now than they did last season (though, it’s still early enough in this season for that number to dip).

The Hawks are averaging 24.8 assists per game — that ranks 10th in the league this season but would’ve been good enough for 6th last season. For reference, the Hawks averaged 23.7 assists in Budenholzer’s final season, 8th best.

Some other quick passing stats — the Hawks rank 6th in passes per game and rank 5th in potential assists (misses are taken into account here, which the Hawks do a lot of especially from three).

It certainly helps your passing/assist numbers having more of a pass-first point guard (certainly, a higher-quality passer at the very least) than the Hawks have been used to in recent years in the form of Trae Young, who has been averaging over 7.2 assists per game — 12th in the league.

As liable as he is to turning the ball over, some of Young’s has been absolutely exquisite to watch at times this season.

We’ve been over how the turnover story for the Hawks but when you’re making as many passes as they are, playing as fast as they are, how inexperienced they are and how, um, some of their more primary ball-handlers aren’t good at handling the ball/distributing, maybe it’s no surprise why that count is so high.

And similar to what we’ve already mentioned, the Hawks have missed a lot of open three-point shots but don’t let that distract you from the fact that a lot of those are open to begin with because they’re generated to be open — the shooters didn’t just become open/wide open on their own (usually), the Hawks have worked themselves into good spots.

Just as an example, a nice pass from to Vince Carter and an off-ball screen from Miles Plumlee opens a nice opportunity up for Carter for a three but misses:

If you keep shooting shots will eventually fall (Trae Young will certainly hope this is the case), and I guess the same could be said for passing?

Either way, the Hawks are working the ball, they are moving it around and generating good looks — just not a ton of them are falling as they should be, given their openness.

It really has been a case of the good, the bad and the ugly for the Hawks under coach Lloyd Pierce inside his first 27 games as an NBA coach and the bad stuff isn’t entirely in his own control. He, like the fans, will have to exercise patience as the Hawks grow together.

“...We’re trying to create a culture and an atmosphere here where we are tight and we are together and we are growing together...”