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Hawks slowly finding their mojo this season

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NBA: Utah Jazz at Atlanta Hawks Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

Coming off a brutal west coast road trip that saw them lose six straight games and fall to a 4-9 record, not many imagined the Atlanta Hawks would be sitting five games below .500 at any point in the season. They are, after all, just one season removed from a long postseason run that saw them bow out a mere two wins from the NBA Finals. But as the season calendar turned to 2021-22, the Hawk’s Cinderella coach they rode to the Eastern Conference Finals has shown signs of turning into a pumpkin.

How did Atlanta get to this point? The Hawks returned their head coach — this time without the interim tag. There were no huge personnel moves, as they also brought back the seven players who played the most minutes for them in 2020-21 as well as 11 of the top 13.

As in most situations, there’s never a single silver bullet to point to explain away the unexpected. A number of converging factors have worked against Atlanta so far this season. But after a 3-game winning streak, the Hawks are showing signs of being the upper echelon team many expected them to be. What trends can be gleaned thus far in the early season?

Adjustment to offensive scheme tweaks

A year after riding a spread pick-and-roll scheme to new heights, Coach Nate McMillan has installed a different plan of attack. He has dialed back the pace slightly (98.8 now compared to 99.7 from a half season of his predecessor), largely eschewed spot-up corner three point shooters, and asked for more ball actions near the elbows as opposed to above the top of the key.

Atlanta was famously 27-11 from the point when interim head coach McMillan took over last season until the end of the regular season, but there was no time to install a new offense on the fly. With an entire offseason as the full time head coach behind him, Nate McMillan has chosen to simplify a few actions in his playbook.

The double drag pick-and-rolls with John Collins and Clint Capela diving toward the basket have generally been replaced with single high screens. The flare screens for shooters in the corner have given way to curl screens off floppy sets.

Early in the season, their offense has stalled out at times. There have been too many of these kinds of possessions — with Bogdan Bogdanovic unsuccessfully posting up the stout Chris Paul and just a Collins cut to draw two defenders as the only real off ball movement.

Even the double drags that they do run tend to look clunkier these days. Here when they do utilize early screens from Collins and Capela, their combined unenthusiastic rolls to the rim do nothing but clog the paint. The Suns’ defense below barely has to move.

A lot has been said about the Hawks’ shot profile as well. There has been an over-reliance on mid-range shots and fewer corner threes — the most efficient long range shot available. The past three games have helped climb the Hawks towards a healthier mix, but this will continue to be something to monitor.

On some level, the Hawks were never going to be an elite defensive team based on team construction, and instead they would need to be excellent on the other end of the floor like they were down the stretch of last season to continue their upward climb. The Hawks finished last season 9th in offensive rating and 18th in defensive rating, according to the NBA’s stats. Through November 17th, that disparity has been even starker — with a top-5 and a bottom-5 standing respectively in those areas.

While the defensive-minded McMillan is probably kept up at night at the continued sputtering on that end of the court, it may be safer to just rely on the offensive potential of this group to lead the Hawks back to the playoffs. It’s worth considering returning to more spread principles in the meanwhile.

Healing defensive anchor

Capela finished last season sixth in Defensive Player of the Year voting — and for good reason. He is among the premier shot blockers and rim protectors in the game and helped transform the previously moribund defense into a formidable one with his healthy arrival last season.

In the offseason, Capela received a PRP injection for his Achilles. He admitted he played through the pain during last season and was very limited in preseason training. The early season action is once again proving his defensive value. Although Capela has yet to miss a contest, his performance on that end indicates he may not yet be 100% healthy, and the entire defense is suffering as a result.

We are accustomed to seeing high level defensive play from the veteran, but his resistance near the rim has worsen from the previous season, and his level of effort has waned at times. For example, in the following clip after a broken up lob, Utah is able to zip the ball around and find an unchallenged Rudy Gobert at the rim with Capela still out of frame.

But over the past three games, opponents have barely sniffed out shots near the rim with improved bounce and active contesting in part from Capela. The Hawks have given up only 23.7 attempts per game over the past three contest from within 6 feet, top-5 in NBA in that time-span.

Defense requires coordinating five men to move in sync, and Capela certainly does not bear the entirety of the blame for the current bottom-5 defense in Atlanta. They’ve given up penetration and rim pressure and missed help assignments early on, only exacerbating recent issues.

Even the point-of-attack defenders have run into their own injury issues. De’Andre Hunter is on the shelf with a wrist tendon tear and Kevin Huerter dealt with an ankle injury during the offseason. With better health seemingly on the horizon, and the perimeters players beginning to find their defensive footing, cutting off penetration at the point of attack will lighten the load on a burdened Capela.

Complacency and boredom

Atlanta didn’t quite reach the mountain top last year, but they came pretty dang close for a franchise that has yet to even appear in the NBA Finals in the last 60 seasons. Trae Young himself said the regular season was “a lot more boring than the playoffs” after a loss earlier this season.

I’m not in the mind of Young or any other Hawk, but certainly after an offseason of reflecting on a thrilling postseason run and receiving various accolades, it seems possible to have difficulties revving up to playoff intensity night in and night out during a grinding 82 game schedule.

Being put behind the 8-ball early on, however, may have rebooted that high level competitive spirit, with the Hawks winning the past three games by an average of 16.3 points per game. I can’t imagine this team will lack the necessary hunger going forward.

Reasons for optimism

It’s entirely too early to write off this team. The infrastructure may be showing some minor cracks but you have to trust in a foundation with a true star in Young and a lot of quality, productive contributors.

As of November 17, their strength of schedule ranks as one of the five toughest in the NBA this season. 18 of 82 games are through, which is less than 20% of the season — plenty of time to make up ground in the Eastern Conference standings.

The Hawks have won three straight through hot shooting from behind the arc, better rim penetration on offense and plain tougher defense. It’s not as if Collins forgot the directions to the rim or Bogdanovic forgot how to shoot. They’re simply building to re-becoming the style of team that thrilled the city last spring and summer, even if the path is uneven.