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Hawks offense primed to make leap towards NBA’s elite in 2019-20

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Things are trending upward.

NBA: Brooklyn Nets at Atlanta Hawks Jason Getz-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks finished the 2017-18 season 26th in the NBA in offensive rating (104.4), and 26th in net rating (-5.6). They ranked 29th in turnover percentage, 22nd in effective field goal percentage, 20th in true shooting and 23rd in assist to turnover ratio. In short, the Hawks were one of the worst offensive teams in the league, and it really wasn’t remotely debatable.

Fast forward a year: a new hope has been birthed in Atlanta in the form of an elite, generational offensive talent in rookie point guard Trae Young, to go with a mix of improving young pieces and serviceable veterans. The upgrade on the offensive end is not hard to see for even the most casual observer, but exactly how good is this Atlanta offense, not only right now, but, more importantly, going forward?

As far as the present day is concerned, first-year head coach Lloyd Pierce’s group ranks eighth in the league in offensive rating (112.1) in 21 games since the All-Star break. The team has won ten games over that stretch despite being relatively the same team they were in the first half of the season on the defensive end, statistically at least. Additionally, the loss of backup point guard Jeremy Lin has stunted their offensive production significantly when Young exits the game, but they’ve still been able to turn up the offense when needed.

“Collectively, we just had a different spirit since the All-Star break, and we saw results on the offensive end,” Pierce said. “We need to see results on the defensive end now.”

Here’s a list of teams currently in playoff contention with lower offensive ratings than Atlanta since the All-Star break, as of Apr. 4: Celtics, Heat, Hornets, Magic, Nets, Nuggets, Pacers, Sixers, Spurs, Thunder, Warriors. It must be noted that some of these teams are dealing with injuries/resting players (long live load management) in preparation for the postseason, but it’s not as if the Hawks have been injury free either.

“When we’re sharing the basketball and not turning the basketball over, we have so many capable shooters... when you have that kind of shooting behind the basketball and you’re not turning it over... we’re going to get good looks,” said Pierce.

The Hawks actually had a positive net rating in the first 17 games after play resumed in late February, even though they still ranked in the bottom third of the league (22nd) with a defensive rating of 111.9 in the same 17-game period.

“We’ve been competitive,” said Pierce of his team’s performance since the All-Star break. “Our spirit from a competitive standpoint has been better on both sides... but we have a long way to go defensively, and that’s not going to change, you won’t stop hearing me say that.”

While the team is still giving up its fair share of points on the defensive end, it is worth noting that they have had very active hands this season, and truly have been playing hard of late. They rank seventh in steals, 11th in blocks and sixth in defensive rebounds in the post All-Star period. Some of those counting stats are a result of the torrid pace the team employs but, at the same time, it is good to see the increase in activity.

In contrast to the offensive success over the past 21 games, the club ranked 25th in the NBA with an offensive rating of 105.8 in 58 games before the break, and 27th in defense (112.6) for a net rating of -6.8. That net rating ranked them as the fifth-worst team in the NBA, which happens to also be where the sit in the standings with three games remaining in the 2018-2019 regular season.

The biggest culprit for the team’s jump in productivity is obviously Young, who individually has been a much different player in the past 21 games. Young is averaging 25 points, 9.2 assists (3.4 turnovers) and 4.6 rebounds per game over the past 21 games, compared to 16.9 points, 7.6 assists (3.9 turnovers) and 3.3 rebounds per game in 58 games before the break. Young’s on-court net rating in each stretch perhaps illustrates the change best, as he had a -8.7 on-court rating in his first 58 games, compared to a +1.3 rating in his last 21. That’s a ten point swing, which is truly ridiculous.

“We’ve just been playing faster, getting up more shots, getting steals, getting in transition more... shots are just falling,” said Young of the team’s play since the break.

The shots have certainly been falling, especially for Young himself. Before the break, Young shot just 40.6% from the floor and 31.2% from three-point-range, compared to 44.6% from the floor and 36% from three since.

“Starts with that dude over there, number 11,” second-year forward John Collins said. “His play after the All-Star break has been tremendous. Other guys have done a good job stepping up and finding confidence. It’s been a mixture of all that.”

Collins has enjoyed a breakout campaign, seeing jumps across the board on the offensive end of the floor. He has thrived in pick-and-rolls with Young as well as improved his efficiency from three-point-range.

“I feel like the chemistry is something that’s happened by itself... I feel like our games mesh well together,” Collins said when prompted about playing with rookie guards in Young and Kevin Huerter. “Kevin being able to shoot, me finishing, Trae creating and being able to get his own offense, I feel like it just creates an abundance of opportunities and ways to score...it’s only going to get easier (playing together).”

Collins is nearly averaging 20 points and 10 rebounds per game, and he is second in the NBA in scoring among all sophomores, trailing only shooting guard Donovan Mitchell of the Utah Jazz. Collins is shooting 35.8% from three-point-range on 2.6 attempts per game, which is twice as many threes (1.3) as he shot as a rookie. Collins’ on-court net rating went from -6.8 last season to a team high -0.8 in 2018-2019, with a +2.6 mark in the 21-game, post-break stretch. His breakout second season gives Young a consistent running mate, capable of growing into just about anything on the offensive end.

“I think it starts off with our team being unselfish,” Collins said. “I think we have a great group of guys. Coach put in system where a lot of guys can eat without being on the ball.”

That teamwork has translated into team success, as the group ranks in or near the top third of the league in the previously mentioned 21 game stretch in several offensive categories: offensive rating (8th), true shooting (10th), effective field goal percentage (8th), assist ratio (10th), assist to turnover ratio (T-11th), points per game (2nd), three-pointers made (2nd), three-pointers attempted (2nd), assists per game (6th), field goals made per game (3rd), field goals attempted per game (1st), offensive rebounds per game (4th). Again, all of those counting stats are slightly padded by the fact that the Hawks play at the fastest pace in the league at over 104 possessions per game, but the advanced statistics from above also verify the increased productivity.

Results after the All-Star break are not always the best measuring stick due to the many variables — injuries, load management, and a seven letter word that rhymes with banking — but with a young, talented team, it is easier to trust a sudden spike in results. The win-loss record of 10-11 is not exactly astounding, but the wins last week over Utah and Philadelphia, who were both essentially at full strength, encourage one to believe in the statistics. With another Summer together, Atlanta’s young core will look to pick up where they left off, rather than be forced to try to find something that was not already present. That seems like a big deal for a young team.

There is a legitimate argument that Atlanta has the best current roster and asset situation of all of the non-playoff teams going into this offseason, and if someone would have tried to make that claim a year ago, they would have been far, far off to say the least. Whether the franchise is able to hit the jackpot in the Zion Williamson sweepstakes remains to be seen, and with plenty of cap space, big additions may not only come via the draft this summer for Hawks general manager Travis Schlenk. Regardless of what they are able to do in between now and next season, the Atlanta faithful can rest easier this off-season knowing they already have something special in the works.

Note: Stats via NBA.com/stats are correct as of Apr. 4.