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How the Atlanta Hawks project to improve their three-point shooting

How can the recent additions improve upon Atlanta’s last place finish from long range?

Oklahoma City Thunder v Sacramento Kings Photo by Rocky Widner/NBAE via Getty Images

Entropy is a term used to describe the natural order of systems and processes to tend towards disorder and randomness. This leads to the study of energy dispersal, using entropy to describe and define natural laws like those of fluid dynamics and thermodynamics. Think about when a balloon pops. All of the high pressure air contained within escapes rapidly, and then gradually more slowly, into its more moderately pressurized surroundings.

This is a similar behavior to people in confined spaces. People naturally want to escape shoulder to shoulder situations. When contained within a small space, such as an elevator, once the doors open there’s a random dispersion to fill the larger room.

As it relates to basketball on a court, this effect is shown in constantly spacing the floor despite operating within a motion offense. When one player — especially the ball handler — leaves a space around the arc, the next player instinctively knows to fill it, like in the observations from the physical world described above.

The Atlanta Hawks finished dead-last in the NBA in three point shooting in 2019-20, making just 33.3 percent of their attempts. Only three Hawks topped the league average three point mark of 35.8 percent — John Collins, Trae Young, and Kevin Huerter. With such a dearth of threats from deep, teams could key in on this trio and force them into tougher shots. Although Young, to an elite degree, and Huerter, to a lesser degree, create space for themselves and others to shoot, it has been easy for the opposition to game plan to stifle those two over the past two seasons.

Young has been known to light the internet ablaze with his audacious confidence to pull up from anywhere inside the half court line. But his parking lot range serves a greater purpose than just social media interactions. This gravity to pull defenders out well beyond the arc can then exploit and break down a defense with a dribble drive and kick or high screen action. Still, no one man can truly lift the sea level enough to float an offense, as evidenced by Atlanta’s No. 26 ranking in points per 100 possessions in 2019-20.

When Young has the ball in his hands, he is this offense’s sun with all the other moving parts orbiting around him. His top-five league usage is a heliocentric model of a solar system, one in which gravity maintains that all the planets move with the proper distance from each other to avoid orbital disturbances.

Last season, Young made 144 unassisted three pointers per Basketball-Reference. The rest of his teammates combined made 63 unassisted one out of 600 total, or in other words, 90 percent of their made threes were assisted — most frequently set up by their do-it-all point guard.

The overtime collapse in Miami last season was one of many unfortunate losses for Atlanta without the services of Collins. Here is how the final regular season play went, with the Hawks relying on either young, unproven shooters or declining veterans who weren’t suited for catch-and-shooting roles in crunch time.

Head coach Lloyd Pierce calls for an off ball screen for De’Andre Hunter to use and curl towards the weak side corner, and then a side pick-and-pop for Huerter and a pick-and-roll for Jabari Parker. The Heat respond by hedging the screen by Parker and double teaming the most dangerous threat, Young. To his credit, Young recognizes the trap and sends the ball to the corner with the clock running down.

The Heat are able to cover both the rolling Parker with Jimmy Butler’s awareness to help behind the double team, as well as lock up both adjacent options to the ball handler. Unfortunately for the Hawks, their crunch time lineup this night included the then 42-year-old Vince Carter who would shoot 30.2 percent from three last year, and a rookie in Hunter taking a key shot under heavy game situation pressure.

There are two ways to handle this reality and improve upon their league-worst three point success rate: either acquire players who can make a high enough percentage of unassisted three pointers or lean into the solar system model and acquire better standstill shot makers. The Hawks may have just accomplished both.

The Hawks signed two of the best available shooters in free agency in Danilo Gallinari and Bogdan Bogdanović. This will allow Atlanta to field plus shooters at four positions, without even considering the possibility that Cam Reddish joins that party with an uptick from his 33.2 percent rate of a year ago.

Gallinari in particular is such an accomplished offensive threat as a 6’10” forward with elite shooting and high post moves that his on court-off court net rating difference was the highest of all players in 2019-20 who averaged at least 15 minutes with 25 appearances or more.

Gallinari’s ability to recognize when his star point guard draws the attention of the defense and relocate will be a boon for the Hawks’ offensive production. Below, once Chris Paul turns the corner, Gallinari follows into the area Paul vacated for the opening to shoot.

But what happens when space can’t be created? When the shot clock is winding down is a revealing situations which demonstrates which players simply have the ability to get a good shot up while closely contested and which do not. In this play from early last season, Bogdanović has enough wiggle in a tight space to pull up in front of Alex Caruso.

Make no mistake though, these live dribble threes are not the norm. Of Bodganović’s 2.7 threes per game over 61 contests, about 85 percent of them were assisted. The same is the case for Gallinari, who had 86 percent of his threes come from assists on about the same volume.

These figures are right in line with the Hawks’s best secondary creators from a season ago, Reddish and Huerter, both checking in at around 5/6ths of their shots being assisted. Certainly, both will be reliant on their ability to shoot off the catch more than not, but the offseason additions give the Hawks four credible wing threats to create separation with their dribble and force the defense to close out from deep.

One final note is, with the addition of Rajon Rondo, the Hawks have another veteran point guard to penetrate and set up shooters. Despite being a relative non-shooter himself, Rondo has recorded more than eight assists per 36 minutes and an assist rate north of 30 percent every season since 2008-09. His vision and passing skill has remained at an elite level, despite other facets of his game declining with age.

Spacing tends to beget spacing in the NBA. If a team lacks options, opponents can clamp down on the few threats present specifically. By simply rostering and sending out lineups more flush with shooting, the openings reveal themselves, like putting weight on a bike to find the location of a leak in the tire.

Squeezing your players into a confined space, whether it be two bigs in the lane or three wings on one half of the court, runs counter to the laws of nature. Dynamic systems seek an equilibrium, a balance between competing forces. By not allowing defenses to compress their pressure on one or two targets, spreading the floor obviates the ever-present gaps between defenders. It’s up to the Hawks to fill these gaps with intuitive movement and confident shooting.