By all appearances, the Atlanta Hawks are ready to start moving forward toward a plan that will result in more wins and fewer losses. The organization has taken (almost) two full seasons to prioritize developing a young group of core players, with star point guard Trae Young at the center of it all.
The roster currently lacks depth, except at the center position, which is both good and bad. It is good in that there is immense flexibility as how much and what type of depth the Hawks could add. After all, Atlanta projects to have the most cap space with which to work when the offseason eventually arrives. It is bad mostly in that the depth pieces they will have next season will mostly be new, and it is difficult to forecast what preseason activities will be ahead of the 2020-2021 season.
With that in mind, let’s reflect on what we have seen thus far in the first round of the 2020 NBA Playoffs. Beyond that, the focus is on the context of how things might serve as constructive input for the forward-facing direction for the Hawks in terms of roster construction.
Skill is a more important asset than size
This is a trend that has been in progress for several years in the NBA, but it’s being accentuated now more than ever. For the Philadelphia 76ers, the idea of this year’s roster was to build for the postseason. They could throw as much size and length as anyone (along with Milwaukee) and had high hopes of putting that to use to morph into a nearly impenetrable defensive team. But, even when accounting for the unfortunate absence of Ben Simmons, it is not working for them.
NBA offenses are spreading out opposing defenses more than ever. However, a team needs offensively skilled players to do that. More on that in a minute.
I think we too often fall into a trap of thinking that skills, in a basketball context, refers to a player’s ability to do things on the offensive end of the court while thinking of defensive ability as athleticism. That is faulty.
One can be as quick and agile as any player in the league and still the need the skill of footwork and technique to execute well on the defensive end of the court. Otherwise, said player is going to struggle to effectively close out on shooters and keep ball handlers out of the lane — the two most important objectives on defense. The skill of communication is also critical to the execution of team defense.
The Rockets are, famously, playing small lineups without a traditional center. Apart some end-of-game hiccups, they have done more than passable job at defending in the half court. To a lesser degree, Boston is playing without a traditional rim protector, and they have dominated Philadelphia. The skills their player demonstrate in closing out on shooters and defending the paint are not inconsequential. In fact, not doing that, even briefly, got Robert Covington into Mike D’Antoni’s dog house in game three.
Further, what else are these teams doing to make it work? Both teams rely on a heavy dose of switching, but that is an oversimplification. A sound scheme based upon switching relies heavily upon getting matched up the way one wants to start a defensive possession. From there, making shots on the offensive end of court gives you the best, most consistent chance to get your defense set.
That is where, for both Boston and Houston, having at least four players on the court at all times that can both shoot and attack the defense with dribble penetration really works for them.
Houston has the fewest paint touches of any team in the playoffs so far, but they at the top in drives and third in point created off of drives. They are also first in three-point attempts.
Boston has the third fewest drives, but convert the highest percentage of their drives into points.
The skilled players each team deploys has also allowed them to limit turnovers. They are first and second lowest in turnover percentage. Avoiding turnovers also is key to allowing a team to set its defense.
Having a lineup full of skilled players that work well on the offensive end of the court seems to be more important to setting yourself up for defensive success than finding long defenders, not that length is wasted on the defensive end of the court (see Bucks, Lakers).
This could bode well for lineups built around Young and John Collins for Atlanta.
You can’t have too much guard depth
It is tempting to diagnose all of the things that are breaking down for the Sixers right now in this area, even they are not the only team with an issue in the area of limited guard depth. Let’s set aside the fact that Philadelphia is missing Simmons. Why? Because they had already publicly said that he was going to play the power forward position anyway.
When things have not gone well for the Los Angeles Lakers, it is because they are lacking shot creation and shot making abilities in their backcourt. It certainly helps when you have Lebron James on your team, but if they were better staffed at the guard positions, the Lakers might feel more secure in deploying lineups with James at the power forward position and Anthony Davis at center.
Philadelphia has the most dominant post player in the league in Joel Embiid. Still, the Sixers lack the consistent guard play to simply get him the ball where it best suits him.
The Portland Trail Blazers, even as the No. 8 seed, are putting up a valiant effort against the Lakers. But when either Damian Lillard or CJ McCollum head to the bench, the Blazers struggle mightily to keep their offense on track. They are even trying to play youngster Anfernee Simons in the guard rotation, and he looks unplayable at times in this advanced setting.
On the other end of the spectrum, the Dallas Mavericks — competing well with the L.A. Clippers — are regularly playing three-guard lineups with more than solid success. Toronto is effectively starting two point guards in Kyle Lowry and Fred VanVleet. Across the season, the best five-man line up in the NBA lived in Oklahoma City and consisted of three guards — Chris Paul, former Hawk Dennis Schroder and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander.
The Clippers have lost Patrick Beverley to injury, but have been able to deploy Reggie Jackson and Landry Shamet while still having Rodney McGruder ready to play of needed. In contrast, the Denver Nuggets — missing Will Barton and Gary Harris — are struggling to counter what the Jazz are throwing at them defensively.
Navigating the postseason requires 48 minutes of, at a minimum, competent guard play. If your fourth and fifth guards aren’t capable of basic, competent play, it could undermine all of the other capabilities your lineups present.
Overall, the Hawks probably shouldn’t be worried about what adding another guard in the draft would mean for the development of Kevin Huerter. There is more than enough room for an addition.
You (also) can’t have too much wing depth
Toronto rode a wing-heavy rotation, keyed by Kawhi Leonard, to a championship last season. Elsewhere in the Eastern Conference, the Bucks and Celtics look to be hoping to do the same this year.
In the West, the Clippers have a plethora of capable wings. Houston has players broadly considered position-less, but fit the general profile of what we call wings. Finally, the Lakers have a deep cast of defensive specialists they play at the shooting guard and small forward positions.
In Milwaukee, players like Pat Connaughton and Donte DiVincenzo give Mike Budenholzer options other teams don’t have.
The Pacers haven’t been able to produce a win, but their best stretches of play have been when they’ve had three good wings deployed. On the flip side, Miami looks great now, but with the likes of Tyler Herro in the rotation, how do they even start to plan to match up with the Bucks? That might be challenging on the defensive end.
For another example, how much better would Portland be if they had one more player that can do the things Gary Trent Jr. can do? In later series, how much better would the Celtics be if they had been able to develop some secondary wing depth — especially considering the Gordon Hayward injury — as opposed to seeing first round draft picks allocated to the likes of Jordan Mickey and RJ Hunter?
It is understandable that Hawks fans are excited about Cam Reddish and, seemingly to a lesser degree, De’Andre Hunter. Overall, though, Atlanta probably needs two or three additional wings (if not more) that are rotation-caliber to set themselves up to start pursing real goals in the next couple of years.
In summary, a next step for the Hawks is to add strong depth. It is not the only step for the franchise, but it is an important one. To that end, the first round of the 2020 postseason can serve as invaluable input at to what that step might need to look like.