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The Houston Rockets, not the Golden State Warriors, are the blueprint for the Atlanta Hawks

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Trae Young is more James Harden than Stephen Curry

Houston Rockets v Atlanta Hawks Photo by Jasear Thompson/NBAE via Getty Images

After Travis Schlenk was hired from the Golden State Warriors in May 2017, speculation naturally began over whether Schlenk could implement Golden State’s philosophy in Atlanta. When Schlenk selected Trae Young and Kevin Huerter in the 2018 NBA Draft, the comparisons to the Warriors calcified, with Schlenk seemingly constructing a similar foundation upon the shooting talents of his young backcourt.

Young, in particular, has always evinced comparisons with Steph Curry, owing to his pull-up ability from unthinkable range. In his maiden season, Young became the first player in NBA history to make 20 or more shots from 30-to-40 feet, per Kevin Chouinard of Hawks.com, and he did so at a respectable rate of 35.3%. Young’s proficiency from artillery range has a gravitational effect on defenses, suctioning defenders toward Young, often as soon as he crosses mid-court.

Young’s shooting gravity works toward the Hawks’ advantage to create defensive voids, which allows him to pick out passes to open shooters between the cracks of defenses. Few players have this ability, and among them is Curry. Given the similar gravity-shifting qualities presented by their range, and the snowballing effect it has on defenses, is Curry an accurate comparison for Young?

A closer look into their respective profiles provides evidence otherwise.

Although similar at a glance, Young and Curry are actually quite different players. Often considered the game’s greatest ever off-ball player, Curry incinerates defenses off myriad actions, using screens and precise movement to create space for his devastating jumper. In stark contrast, Young is an undeveloped off-ball player; he simply doesn’t play that way.

The Second Spectrum player tracking tool, provided by NBA.com, offers more insight on where they differ. Already, Young is one of the league’s premier drivers. Among players who played in at least 70 games, Young finished in the top 5 overall in drives per game, with 17.6, despite averaging the fewest minutes per game among that elite group. In comparison, Curry averaged only 7.7 drives per contest.

Additional tracking data finds similar themes: Young dwarfs Curry in time of possession, average seconds per touch, and average dribbles per touch. Essentially, Curry is a threat with or without the ball, while Young operates almost exclusively with the ball in his hands. Although the Hawks would surely like to develop Young’s off-ball game, especially in support of Kevin Huerter’s burgeoning role as a secondary playmaker, it is likely that Young will always remain an on-ball talisman.

This fundamental distinction between them has large effects on how their teams conduct their respective offenses. Last season, the Warriors ran (by far) the most plays off screens in the NBA. The Hawks ran the least. While Golden State used the lowest frequency of possessions with a pick-and-roll ball handler, Atlanta’s offense is centered around Young’s orchestration of the pick-and-roll. The central idea of what Atlanta hopes to accomplish on offense revolves around Young driving and making the right decisions with the ball, using the specter of his pull-up three to keep defenses on their toes. This stylistic difference with Curry narrows the possibilities for the construction of Atlanta’s optimal offensive design.

And this is even beside the fact that Curry is the greatest shooter of all-time, incomparable, while Young was inefficient as a rookie, something Curry has never been in his career. Rather, think of Damian Lillard as a possible higher-end model for Young’s shooting development: great, but not the same stratosphere as Curry. This gets into what makes the Warriors model irreplicable—they represent a historic convergence of both talent and overall feel for the game.

In layman’s terms, no one else is assembling a lineup with that many Hall of Fame players at their peaks anytime soon. Thus, attempts to emulate the Warriors can only fail. Their empire is an aberration of team-building strategy, not a blueprint.

Bearing that in mind, how can the Hawks leverage Young, and the impressive young talent they do have, to build a contender? In drafting Young, the Hawks are inherently embracing an offensively-focused strategy; how far they go will ultimately depend on how much value they’re able to extract from this approach. If the Warriors can’t be duplicated, what other models are there?

Another contender in the Western Conference has no executive ties with Atlanta, unlike Golden State, but perhaps offers a more realistic approach for tailoring a team around an offensive centerpiece: the Houston Rockets.

The Blueprint

Although Houston has been unable to get past Golden State in recent years, they’ve pushed them more than any other team in the conference. This is in spite of a sizable talent gap between the two teams. And yet, Houston, on offense, has been statistically on par with Golden State: over the past two seasons, no team has had a better average offensive rating than the Rockets.

In the same time period, the Rockets have placed only James Harden on an All-Star roster, while the Warriors have featured All-Stars in Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson. Given the disparity in All-Star talent, how has Houston achieved offensive parity with Golden State? The answer is two-fold: by leveraging the offensive dynamism of Harden, and by pursuing optimal team offensive efficiency as measured by shot selection.

Perhaps no team in the NBA has fitted an offense around one player’s strengths more than the Rockets. An historically gifted isolation scorer, Harden operates as the locomotive of his team’s scheme, functioning as both the primary scorer and facilitator. Harden’s set-up is complemented by the addition of symbiotic personnel, such as Clint Capela and Eric Gordon. Cheat too much off of Harden, and he’ll find Capela rolling to the rim, or Gordon free beyond the arc. In this way, Houston has managed to squeeze all the juice they can from their lone All-Star. Deprived of Golden State’s talent advantage, Houston has instead optimized their offense by surrounding their superstar with a supporting cast that multiplies Harden’s impact.

This effect is further accentuated by pursuing a progressive shot profile that ensures that Houston is reaping the maximum reward for their efforts.

By now, everyone is familiar with the general characteristics of Houston’s offensive strategy under the Daryl Morey regime, so I will not go into great detail expounding their philosophy. The essence is cutting out low value shots in favor of high value shots. It’s a simple formula, but no team has put it to better effect than the Rockets under Mike D’Antoni. While everyone knows the value of prioritizing shots at the rim and behind the three-point line, Houston has taken it to new heights: no team even approaches them in volume of shots from that distance.

Consider that Houston led the league in team three-point frequency at 52%. The next-closest team was Dallas, at 42.2%. That’s a titanic gap between the top two teams. Houston’s three-point volume is the moat that surrounds their offensive efficiency. By ruthlessly forgoing shots inside the arc, they’ve created a unique advantage over the rest of the NBA, a rising tide that lifts all boats. Simply by adopting this shot profile, and (critically), finding players that can put it into practice, Houston has created an optimal environment to extract the most value from their centerpiece.

And unlike Golden State, Houston’s blueprint is more actionable for other teams hoping to follow in their approach: identify a dynamic primary and complement him with the right personnel and the right philosophy. For a rebuilding team, like the Atlanta Hawks, this approach offers a way forward to building a contender.

The Player Archetypes

There are certainly key distinctions between Harden and Young, so I will not go overboard in this comparison, but I think Young more closely fits Harden’s player profile than Curry’s. I’ve already described how Curry is an off-ball dynamo, while Harden and Young both primarily feature on-ball. Conceptually, one can visualize both the Atlanta and Houston offenses as centered around Young and Harden operating with the ball in their hands, driving, scoring, and setting up teammates.

When you look at Second Spectrum player tracking statistics, you find further similarities between the two: among players who played in at least twenty games, both Young and Harden featured in the top 10 in drives per game, time of possession, average seconds per touch, and average dribbles per touch, while Curry is nowhere in the picture for each category. This extends to foul-drawing as well. Per Cleaning the Glass, among his position, Young ranked in the 86 percentile in shooting fouled percentage, the percentage of a player’s shot attempts he was fouled on, while Harden ranked in the 96 percentile. Curry, on the other hand, finished in just the 36 percentile.

Though Harden is far superior as an isolation scorer, and much more efficient overall than the rookie guard, the general outlines of an on-ball offensive focal point who likes to score, create for others, and get to the line, are there for Young. Like Houston has done with Harden, Atlanta should strive to build their system from Young outwards, maximizing his output by cultivating the proper ecosystem.

This path is feasible, as additional pieces of Atlanta’s core have similar parallels with Houston. For example, Houston’s duo of Harden and Capela was the top assist combination in the NBA last season, per pbpstats. Ranking eighth overall was Young and John Collins, despite Collins missing 21 games. While Capela and Collins are different players, they’re both among the league’s best roll bigs, and along with their respective ball handlers, provide a bread-and-butter basis for an offense.

Complementing Atlanta’s pick-and-roll tandem is Kevin Huerter, who could approximate what Eric Gordon does in Houston’s offense, with the added benefit of secondary creation. The idea is to not give the defense any outs. Huerter provides a third point of gravity for the Atlanta offense as a shooter who requires an attached defender. In the same vein that Harden punishes defenses who send extra help, Young is similarly positioned to create opportunities for both Huerter and Collins. With these three players, Schlenk has assembled the basic components for a dangerous offense, made more effective by pursuing the highest quality shots.

Like the Rockets, the Hawks under Lloyd Pierce have prioritized shots at the rim and from deep, while cutting out long twos. Per Cleaning the Glass, only the Rockets attempted fewer long twos last season than Atlanta. Pierce’s men also finished in the top 5 in frequency of shots at the rim and from three. While the Hawks don’t yet have the personnel to take full advantage of this shot profile, the process behind it is correct; in the long run, they’ll need to find the right pieces who can match process with results.

And although there are some similarities in their construction and approach, it must also be noted that the Hawks and Rockets have some key differences. The Rockets’ offense could accurately be described as an isolation offense, as they run far more isolation plays than any other team in the league. They’re also a slower-paced team, with less movement, preferring to give Harden room to pick out just the right plays. Atlanta, however, plays at the fastest pace in the league.

While their approaches don’t wholly overlap, Houston offers a great example for executing an offensive-oriented team building strategy. Atlanta already has several good offensive pieces in place, and they’re following the right trends, but they need to continue to mine all avenues to get the most out of Schlenk’s vision. How they handle this side of the process will be crucial to constructing a long-term contender.

The System

In order to gain an idea of where Atlanta goes from here, it helps to map out where Atlanta’s offense stands right now. Under Pierce, Atlanta runs a spread pick-and-roll offense, with shooters positioned around its basic action, the Young/Collins pick-and-roll. Last season, the Hawks enjoyed credible three-point shooting all the way down the starting line-up, particularly at the center spot, with Dewayne Dedmon and Alex Len.

With space to work in, Young is in the best possible place to generate offense, and it’s up to Schlenk to provide a sustainable model. After trading away starting small forward Taurean Prince, Schlenk selected two forwards in this summer’s draft, in De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish. Much has been written about the value of wings in today’s NBA, and Schlenk opted to double down at a scarce position. And perhaps more importantly, he selected two players who could become good fits alongside his franchise player.

I’ll avoid providing scouting reports on Hunter and Reddish, but both have upside as shooters. In short, Hunter was extremely efficient from three-point range in his final college season, but didn’t have high volume; on the other hand, Reddish got up a lot of attempts from three, but didn’t make as many as he would have liked. Without prognosticating how these two players’ careers will play out, it’s possible to see the vision of how two huge 3-&-D players could help the team.

While Trevor Ariza was never an All-Star in Houston, he filled a valuable role as a primary wing defender and volume shooter. If either Hunter or Reddish can fulfill a similar function in Atlanta, the Hawks will have a “system fit” who elevates the play on both ends. And it’s on defense that they could be particularly vital, as the young Hawks were simply horrid last season. Even if Young improves defensively, he projects to always be a liability there, and Collins also struggled on that end for most of the season.

Offense is obviously very important, especially in today’s NBA, but the Hawks will need to field some semblance of a defense if they aim to be competitive in the playoffs one day. And again, Houston offers a lesson, in the sense that they’re an offensively-titled team who still manages to get by on defense, ranking middle of the pack in defensive rating. Atlanta will need to find smart, willing defenders like PJ Tucker, and an anchor like Capela, to become viable on defense. Their offense provides room for error, but they must at least attempt to break even. It’s critical to surround Young with capable defensive players.

If Atlanta can continue to find the right talent to complement their offense and isolate their defensive weaknesses, they have a way forward to eventual contention, as long as you believe in the abilities of Young to produce an elite offense. But they need to push the boundaries, as Houston has done. Why shouldn’t they attempt to break the 50% threshold for three-point frequency? Does playing at an elevating level of pace offer greater offensive advantages? These are questions that need to be explored.

The smartest teams in the league continue to seek out marginal advantages over the competition. Atlanta should use this period of rebuilding, given the lessened expectations, to experiment. What is John Collins’ best position? Can Huerter handle greater ball handling duties? The team has to be open-minded in answering these questions.

Schlenk’s job will get harder going forward. Identifying the right talent is his most important job, but paying the right talent is the second-most. He will need to be a sufficient skeptic when it comes to allocating cap space over the long run. The league’s landscape is constantly shifting, how will he take advantage?

It is important for fans to realize that the Warriors model essentially can’t be copied but, at the same time, the Hawks can “copy” the Rockets. Ultimately, the whole point of team building is to build a contender, not to win a title. The margins for winning a championship are tiny. But how a front office positions a team to be in the right place to benefit from when the ball finally bounces your way is the point of the process. Control what you can control.

Atlanta has a road map for what they need to do, but they need to use the right one.