For the Atlanta Hawks, this season has certainly been a departure from the norm. From the time head coach Mike Budenholzer took his position on the bench, Atlanta’s been a competitive team bound for the playoffs each and every season. After a successful run that brought ten straight playoff appearances, the bottom fell out this season after moves were made in the summer to ship out most of the high-level talent that graced the roster in previous years.
The team is rebuilding, tanking, whatever word you want to use, but none of that matters to Budenholzer, whose task is still to take the players he is given and win as many games as possible. Still, even he has to know the team isn’t going to make the playoffs this season and has nothing for which to fight late in the season, which has spurred him to get very creative with some of his offensive sets.
When the team is winning, there’s a tendency to stick with what works, but when there are no stakes, Budenholzer is a kid in his sandbox, drawing up new plays every few days. Just like general managers of rebuilding teams bring in player after player to see if they can find a diamond in the rough, Budenholzer’s playbook might be deeper than it’s ever been as he throws mud at the wall to see what sticks.
I’ve covered a pair of plays that have appeared over the past month or so in Horns Spain and Hawk Wedge STS, two sets that Budenholzer has inserted into the playbook after the All-Star Break as a way to both test the limits of the roster and the limits of his coaching creativity. Budenholzer was back in his laboratory again, this time coming up with Thumb STS Stagger, drawing inspiration from the Thumb series, Hawk Wedge STS, and Oklahoma City’s Hawk series that they’ve made famous this season.
Thumb STS Stagger begins with the ball on the left side of the floor, a wing on the left block, a big man in the right corner, and the other two players around the right elbow:
First comes the thumb action, in which the wing on the block sets a screen for the big man in the right corner, who sprints across the court into a ball screen. This strongly resembles the wedge screen we’ve seen previously, with the only difference being the original positioning of the big man. In wedge action, the big man is closer to midcourt—around the free throw line or even beyond the three-point line. In thumb action, he’s closer to the baseline, as Dewayne Dedmon is in the above image.
Once Tyler Dorsey sets the screen for Dedmon, he’s in perfect position for a screen-the-screener (STS) action, wheeling up to the top of the key to get a catch using both Taurean Prince and John Collins as screeners to free him from his defender. When two players are setting back-to-back down screens for a shooter, this is called a “staggered” screen.
The above clip is what happens when the play goes perfectly: Dorsey makes solid contact on Marvin Williams to spring Dedmon, who gets into the ball screen quickly before Williams is able to communicate to Kemba Walker that it’s coming to his left. As a result, Walker is unable to get it down, meaning Dennis Schröder is able to turn the corner and get to the middle of the floor, where he has every option available to him.
Once he does, the entire defense is focused on him and Dorsey sneaks out the weak side to get the open three. Dorsey is being defended by Nicolas Batum on this play—Batum ends up in the middle of the floor, completely ignoring Dorsey to help on the Schröder-Dedmon pick-and-roll:
Prince and Collins don’t even have to screen Batum since he never follows Dorsey; they screen their own defenders instead to combat a quick switch and Dorsey is left wide open for the three.
Things don’t always go that well, nor do they always progress as far into the reads for Schröder. If he sees his man on his heels anticipating the screen, he’ll attack:
As Tyler Cavanaugh approaches to set the screen, Ricky Rubio looks quickly over his shoulder and begins to retreat to duck under Cavanaugh’s screen. When he does, Schröder gives him a quick right foot jab, crosses over back to his left, then pulls up for the jumper. Cavanaugh’s defender, Jae Crowder, would usually be in position to defend Schröder briefly while Rubio recovers, but the original screen on Crowder from Dorsey puts him slightly behind the play.
Schröder doesn’t even really have to turn the corner and force a decision from the defense—sometimes they’ll just fall asleep entirely, as Rubio does in the below clip:
Another beauty from Budenholzer has the Hawks playing at a high level, even if the execution isn’t always on the same level as the play-calling from the bench. He’s not content with running out the string on the worst season in his professional career—Budenholzer and his staff are constantly innovating to find new actions that may work years from now when the Hawks are back in the playoff hunt.