A detailed look at the Atlanta Hawks’ roster over the summer brought with it one strong conclusion – this team was going to struggle defensively but had a chance to be decent on the other end of the floor. In the early part of the season, that trend was reversed; the Hawks weren’t horrible defensively but have ranked dead last in offense for much of the year.
Slowly, the early-season mirage is unwinding, with the offense picking up recently and the team going through a down stretch defensively. It’s worth noting that Atlanta isn’t good on either end of the floor — we’re just talking about degrees to which they’re bad and which is worse — but it will be no surprise at all if they’re ranked in the bottom five in both offensive and defensive efficiency at the end of the season.
The why behind their struggles is more difficult to parse out, especially defensively, where we just don’t have the same descriptive statistics as we do for offenses, both on a team level and individually. It’s relatively easy to see why the Hawks are so bad offensively — they can’t put the ball in the basket and give the ball away to their opponents more than any other team in the league. There’s not a ton of mystery there.
They’re getting great shots — head coach Lloyd Pierce and his staff are clearly emphasizing the right things — but they’re just not going in. Some of that has to do with the talent level of the club at this time in addition to the fact that a lot of their key veterans aren’t bringing enough to the table from a scoring perspective. The Hawks’ struggles from beyond the three-point arc have been particularly harmful to their overall offensive efficiency.
Defensively, on the other hand, it’s more difficult to figure out just what’s going wrong. They’re generating a good number of turnovers, as they have for nearly a decade now, and protecting the rim better than they did last year. The problem, for the second consecutive year, is that they’re getting killed from beyond that same three-point line that’s hurting them offensively. In the modern NBA, being dead last in three-point percentage on both ends of the floor isn’t going to bode well for a team’s success in the win-loss column.
Unlike offense, where teams have a large amount of control over what shots they take and whether or not they go in, it’s been theorized and proven that defenses don’t have nearly as much control over their opponents’ shooting percentages, especially as those shots get further from the basket. As a defense, a team can control, to a certain extent, what shots they give up and which players take those shots, but whether those shots actually go in or not is largely outside of their nexus.
With that in mind, team officials and media analysts will often talk about a team being “lucky” or “unlucky” with their defensive three-point percentage, as that number has been shown to fluctuate wildly from season to season without major changes to a team’s personnel or scheme. Outside of Boston, where they seem to set some sort of hex on opponents, teams see their opponents’ three-point percentage rise and fall from year to year, indicating that a team’s defense doesn’t have a ton of control over those outcomes. Of course, that doesn’t mean they have no control, just not as much as they do over other things.
From that point of view, the Hawks have been about as unlucky as any team in the league this season. According to new data compiled by the fantastic Krishna Narsu, the Hawks are seeing opposing point guards knock down an absurd 42.09 percent of their three-point attempts, a mark that is the worst in the league by almost three full percentage points and is about 6.5 percentage points higher than those players “should be” shooting, according to Narsu’s expected three-point percentage metric. Point guards have been the biggest problem for Atlanta, which isn’t a massive surprise given that the Hawks have started Trae Young in every game this season, but the degree to which point guards are killing them from beyond the arc is out-sized based on the shots Atlanta is giving up to those players.
Other than a layup, a catch-and-shoot jumper is mathematically the best shot in basketball. Players who have the ability to have their feet set on the catch and don’t have to put the ball on the floor to elude a defender see success far more often than those who have to shoot on the move or off the dribble.
If that player is unguarded, then it’s an even better shot – league-wide, these shots go in at a clip of 115.7 points per 100 possessions, a mark that blows Golden State’s league-leading offensive rating of 103.5 out of the water. Whether you’re a believer in the math behind basketball or not, it should be fairly intuitive that a wide-open catch-and-shoot jumper would be a pretty good outcome for any offense, especially given how many of these shots come from beyond the three-point arc, where a lot of the most efficient shots reside.
Atlanta’s mark in this area is much, much worse than the league average — they’re giving up an astronomical 129.8 points per 100 possessions on unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers, a mark that has them at the very bottom of the league through 29 games. They’ve allowed a grand total of 379 catch-and-shoot jumpers to 151 different players through Sunday’s game against Brooklyn. Those same 151 players, when they’re not playing the Hawks, score a combined 116.5 points per 100 possessions on these unguarded catch-and-shoot jump shots.
While it may not seem like much, that difference has added up to more than 50 points for Hawks opponents that otherwise wouldn’t be there if these players shot their regular averages against Atlanta. 50 points off their defensive ledger would be enough to push them up from No. 28 in Synergy’s defensive rankings to No. 22, for a bit of context into just how well opponents are shooting on these particular possessions. This is just one area that comprises about one in ten of Atlanta’s defensive possessions, but it’s enough to push them down six full spots in the defensive rankings because of how hot teams have been on these catch-and-shoot jumpers against them.
This incredibly hot shooting against them has a secondary effect. Atlanta can’t get out in transition if they’re taking the ball out of their own basket so often, which has been a considerable source of their offensive efficiency this year, as it is with most teams most years. The Hawks are 17 points per 100 possessions better in transition than they are in the half court, so getting out and running as much as possible is of massive importance. When they’re having to take a step backward to inbound the ball on so many occasions, it makes it very difficult to get out in transition as often as they’d like.
As mentioned, the Hawks don’t have a ton of control over whether their opponents make or miss these open jumpers, but they do have control over whether those shots are open in the first place. Unguarded catch-and-shoot jumpers comprise about 11 percent of Atlanta’s defensive possessions, which ranks No. 24 in the league. It’s not necessarily a harbinger of bad defense that a team gives up a lot of uncontested jumpers – both Milwaukee and Boston give up more than the Hawks do and still put together elite defenses – but it’s not a positive overall and will continue to hurt Atlanta this season and into the future.
Defenses have to give up something — no team can take away everything an offense wants to do — but Atlanta will have to balance protecting the paint and the rim with closing out to shooters on the three-point line. Those shooters are what has torpedoed their defense this season and perhaps a renewed focus on taking away those shots would benefit them.
Note: All statistics are compiled as of Dec. 17, 2018 and are attributable to Synergy unless otherwise stated.