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Screen Assists underrate what the Atlanta Hawks do offensively

Atlanta’s dead-last ranking in Screen Assists shouldn’t be of any concern to Lloyd Pierce.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Golden State Warriors Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Talk to any coach or scout and they’ll tell you that while raw box scores statistics can be helpful in assessing player value, there’s a lot of things that happen on an NBA floor that will never show up in the game’s basic statistics. As the focus of statistics in basketball conversations has widened over the last decade, there’s been a call for the NBA and its partners to publish different kinds of metrics, from which the NBA’s Hustle page was born, along with the myriad of other statistics one can find on any number of websites.

In particular, an interesting statistic is Screen Assists, which gives more shine to big guys who set a ton of screens in pick-and-roll for their superstar guards. Players like Marcin Gortat, an otherwise unremarkable starting center, has shined in this category for years, opening holes for Steve Nash and John Wall to get to the rim for years. Outside of inner NBA circles, who have absolutely valued him as a ten-million-dollar man for the last half decade, Gortat never got a ton of credit for his work, but with Screen Assists now being tracked publicly, his work is as on display as his point guard’s scoring and passing numbers.

On a team level, Screen Assists can tell us a bit about how a team is generating their offense, though it doesn’t paint as accurate a picture as one might think. While the majority of Gortat’s Screen Assists come in the pick-and-roll game with a point guard or other primary ball handler, off-ball action can also generate Screen Assists, as the Golden State Warriors show on a nightly basis. Steve Kerr’s men lead the league in this particular category while simultaneously running the fewest possession-ending pick-and-rolls in the NBA, per Synergy. They are able to perform this double feat because of their uber-successful off-ball game, where they execute split cuts and pin-downs with regularity to get any one of their three all-world shooters open.

This brings us to the Atlanta Hawks, who currently sit dead last in Screen Assists on the season and dead last in overall offensive rating, per Cleaning the Glass. This seems like a problem, right? Perhaps Lloyd Pierce should take a look at the data and tweak his offense to employ more on- and off-ball screens in an attempt to bring their Screen Assists up, which in turn would help their offense.

That would be a short-sighted solution, as there are still problems with the way this statistic is calculated that greatly affect how the Hawks operate offensively.

Screen Assists are defined as “a screen that directly leads to a made field goal”, which is a fine definition that mirrors the traditional assist, a pass that directly leads to a made field goal. However, when thinking about how screens are used in the modern NBA, this definition grossly underestimates how integral they are to an offense’s ability to put the ball in the basket, regardless of whether the shot comes directly off the screen or not. For the Hawks, it particularly underrates their screeners’ effectiveness; when the ball is in Trae Young’s hands as often as it is, he’s often finding his teammates for open opportunities, which don’t get counted in the Screen Assists tabulation.

As an example, this play doesn’t not count toward Alex Len’s Screen Assist total, because Young didn’t shoot the ball off the high ball screen:

Watch Lance Stephenson, who was tasked with guarding Taurean Prince on this play. As Len rolls down the paint toward the basket, it’s his job to rotate over and tag Len to prevent the easy dunk. Prince is wide open and Young finds him for an easy three as a result of Stephenson’s movement. There’s no doubt that Len’s screen and roll toward the rim created just as much space as Young’s drive and pass to Prince in the corner, but Len gets no credit for that.

A pass-first point guard in Young playing in a pass-first system Pierce has helped to construct in Atlanta will tank the team’s Screen Assists numbers throughout the season. For comparison, the Hawks finished third in Screen Assists last season with Dennis Schröder at the helm, heavily fueled by the fact that Schröder is not a drive-and-dish point guard, but instead a drive-and-score point guard. And, by the way, the Hawks still finished in the bottom five in offensive rating last season, despite the large number of Screen Assists.

Perhaps the most important aspect of analyzing a team’s Screen Assists is that there’s no real positive correlation between Screen Assists rank and Offensive Rating rank over the last three years, since the NBA has been publishing their Screen Assists data. At best, there’s a very weak correlation, but not one that would make a coach rethink their offensive system. Some of the very best offenses in the league shoot off screens as a significant part of their offense, but others don’t and are still very successful. Another rookie point guard in Cleveland has his team ranked fourth in Screen Assists, but Collin Sexton’s Cavaliers remain near the bottom of the barrel in overall offensive efficiency.

Screen Assists can be a great tool to see which big men are creating space for their point guards to score and which teams use pick-and-roll or off-ball screens to directly manufacture offense, but just because it’s another area in which the Hawks fall short offensively doesn’t mean that there’s something inherently wrong with Pierce’s offense or that their big men aren’t doing their jobs offensively. It’s important, as with any single statistic, to look at the context in which that statistic is counted and how a team could still be successful despite being near the bottom in a statistic that common sense would say has a strong correlation with offensive success.

In this case, Screen Assists are counted in a very particular way that devalues what the Hawks do in their passing game and doesn’t have a strong league-wide correlation with offensive rating rank, leading to questions about its overall usefulness as a key metric on which to judge a coach’s offensive system.