This isn’t what any of us expected. The Atlanta Hawks are 11-16 and they haven’t even played any of the hardest parts of their schedule yet. Well, this year, the whole schedule is hard, but you know what I mean.
And they’ve lost in seven of their last eight games. It’s been a bewildering thing to watch as they seem to have no capacity to make plays offensively in the fourth quarter, and that puts them in a position in the closing minutes of games to have to take risks on defense as to create additional possessions.
Atlanta seems so turnover prone in the fourth quarter that, even on actions they run 50 times a game, they find creative, new ways to cough the ball up. When they don’t turn the ball over, they seem to be able to create open shots at the three-point line for good shooters, but they just can’t get those shots to fall down.
What can they do? What will it take?
If you want to read about firing the head coach as the singular solution, let me provide some warning. I’m not going to do that. Not because I think any coaching staff deserves a pass when losses are piling up, but because that would not inherently solve the problem.
This is like 90 percent of it in my view.
Slow starts have been an issue, especially at the defensive end of the court, in their last three games at least, losses to the San Antonio Spurs, the Indiana Pacers and the New York Knicks.
The Hawks haven’t been active enough defending on the ball and at the point of attack. The ball gets too deep in the defensive half court and they consistently have to pull help in from the weak side. And that creates open shots for the opponent.
Teams just look too comfortable on offense in the opening minutes of play. They never got it corrected against the Spurs. In fact, it got worse in that game. It took until some point in the second quarter against the Pacers and Knicks for them to ramp up the activity level and strength of resistance on ball handlers.
It could be that they’ve gotten accustomed to Clint Capela cleaning up a lot of stuff at the rim, and it hasn’t seemed so urgent as a result. The Hawks were tenth in the league in defensive rating when De’Andre Hunter went down with an injury. Were there not negative feedback loops prior to that when the on-ball intensity wasn’t very strong?
Having a good rim protector isn’t a good enough explanation for not ramping up that part of the defense until he leaves the court for his first rest. Missing Hunter for a while, Tony Snell for the last two games and Kris Dunn for all of the season so far isn’t ideal. This is not the roster they had in mind when they built a defensive blueprint for the team this season.
But if the same players can find a way to lift this part of their play in the second quarter, there is not reason they can’t start the game with the needed defensive engagement.
Trust the plan when things get tough
Teams that are looking to progress toward winning games, in a real way, for the first time always face this challenge. What to do when things are going poorly? Especially late in games.
You don’t build the confidence to dig your way out of tough spots until you’ve done it a few times. When is that going to happen? Especially for this group of players.
But the players are the players and the plan is the plan. If the plan was bad, they wouldn’t so often find themselves in close games in the final minutes and with occasional leads entering the fourth quarter.
Do they trust themselves? Do they trust one another? Do they trust the plan to stick with it when things get tough?
The results don’t suggest that the answer to all of those questions is yes.
I’d say it’s at least a likely yes on the plan, because they don’t start doing something completely different. They just start making mistakes at the very worst time.
My concern is that, right now in the midst of this current losing streak, that confidence in the plan may start to slip. It’s natural. The players and coaches are human beings and we all need positive reinforcement. Even the highly paid athletes aren’t immune from this.
Believe that the shots will start to fall
To a degree, this is just math. They are better shooters than what they have been showing, that is especially true in the fourth quarter.
Good shots are good shots. Good shots for good shooters are valuable. Keeping doing the things that generate those shots. And trust that shots will start to fall.
Missing Hunter and Bogdan Bogdanovic (and Rajon Rondo), they don’t have all of the offensive creation they were designed to have this year. With that said, they still consistently create enough dribble penetration and subsequent passing lanes to open shooters on the perimeter.
An uncontested look for Danilo Gallinari is about as good as it gets in the league. A mildly contested jumper for Kevin Huerter is more than acceptable in terms of shot quality.
There are a lot fans I think that don’t understand about how hard it is to put in extra work this year when needed. It’s so difficult.
I’ve heard from fans who say “well every team is dealing with that,” and that’s true. But do you know the kind of team that it impacts more? A team that consistently has players trying to return from injury.
There’s nothing that can really be done. But, even this season, good shots are still good shots.
Trust your work
I’m not using the other phrase ruined by a certain era in Philadelphia, but results absolutely have a certain amount and type of random variables that contribute to them. You can’t just manage those things out of the game.
But you can trust the things that you can control. You can see that the work and the approach have led to better results at other times.
The frustration level for the fans seems to be at a season high following the loss to the Knicks on Monday. If fans don’t think that players are frustrated, then I don’t know what to say.
But a player or a team is either doing the work or not doing the work. The team’s best player, Trae Young, has an epic work ethic. There isn’t really any doubt about that. And a player like John Collins doesn’t make the consistent progress he’s made over the past four years without putting in serious work.
It’s what you can control.
The results will turn in a different direction just based upon variability factors. So long as the work and preparation is being put in.
Get Trae Young off of the ball
This is the one area of coaching that I feel is fair to criticize based upon my observations. In trying to tease out themes as to why things fall apart offensively in the fourth quarter, it very well be that their offensive centerpiece is too tired to function as needed.
This is also likely related to a positive development. Atlanta’s improved defensive performance this season is surely to be at least partially related to Young’s increased effort and activity as a defender.
By all appearances, this season might be the first in which he is being held significantly accountable for his defensive performance. That’s a good thing, but if the result is that Young is too fatigued to perform to the needed level on offense in the final period of games, an offset might need to be found.
Atlanta runs a good number of “stack” based sets to get Huerter, Hunter and others on the ball. On those possessions, however, Young still serves as the primary ball handler and gets them into the set. Secure ball handling is tiring at the NBA level.
On perhaps 12-15 possessions per game, could Young just run down to the weak side corner and function purely as a spot-up shooter? He’s been a great shooter off of the catch his entire career so far (especially from the corner), so that would not be an issue.
It would be easier with a healthy Bogdanovic. The same can be said for Rondo, or even for Hunter, but there are options if it seems clear that one issue to address as to set up for greater fourth quarter success is finding a way to help Young to have more in the tank at the end of games.
I otherwise don’t have a specific criticism of any individual player or coach. If I saw something else that just looked off, I would say so. But they make turnovers on basic, simple players and miss good shots.
The primary thing I can call out is just starting games with the defensive activity and engagement needed to get on a path toward securing a win.
The rest is really, in my view, mostly about doing the things that worked earlier in the season. And, in all honestly, it’s not all that different from the things they’ve been doing recently, even while losing games. Setting up Young to have the needed energy to take control of close games in the final minutes could also come in handy.
Just starting games stronger could go a long way. If that happens, maybe the fourth quarter won’t always involve such heavy lifting.