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Examining early season trends for the Atlanta Hawks

What have the first 13 games of the season taught us?

NBA: Philadelphia 76ers at Atlanta Hawks Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

With the Atlanta Hawks having played 13 games of an 82-game schedule, roughly one sixth of the regular season has already been completed. The 8-5 record thus far prorates to 50 wins over the course of a full season, but it’s important to remember the Hawks have faced an easier section of the schedule early on as compared to what’s to come.

Still, it’s a good idea to look back on the first part of the season and begin to track notable trends that have emerged. There have been some mildly surprising developments, both good and bad. I’d like to single out these three aspects to monitor going forward.

Finally, an identity on defense

I put out a spicy take on Twitter that was pretty resoundingly and unfairly rebuffed: the Hawks’ defensive efficiency would outrank their offensive efficiency this season.

This wasn’t something that tossed out there to garner reactions. I had well-founded reasons behind it: namely that the perimeter defense had been upgraded at the cost of perimeter creation and scoring. I genuinely believe the composition of the team sets itself up to win with defense more than offense.

As of the day of writing, the Hawks are 10th in defensive efficiency – 110.8 points allowed per 100 possessions – and 18th in offensive efficiency – 112.3 points per 100 possessions. The obvious caveats apply; it is early in the 2022-23 season and the schedule can dictate certain trends that may not hold by season’s end.

Acquiring Dejounte Murray has been a major driver in turning around what had been a 26th ranked defense a year ago for Atlanta. His tenacity and activity on the ball and in the passing lanes has shown up in a big way, as well as in gaudy steal numbers. Steals aren’t the perfect proxy for perimeter defense to be sure, but currently Murray is second in the league in total steals with 29 and fourth in steals per game with 2.2 per contest.

With his 6’10” wingspan, Murray is able to contest and help against taller opponents in a way that no Hawks guard in the Trae Young era has been able to match.

Additionally, the extra ball handling Murray provides has kept the Hawks in the top three in fewest turnovers given away on a per possession basis. That in turn limits the opportunities opponents have had to score on fast breaks, as the Hawks now rank tops in the league in fewest points conceded off of turnovers – just 14.8 per game – and top 10 in fewest opponent fast break points – 12.6.

Clint Capela is reportedly back to full health which means he is back to anchoring the defense with his usual high level rim protection.

The Holiday brothers of Aaron and Justin – while overmatched at times – have generally held up well in team defense. John Collins has continued to emerge as one of the better defensive power forwards in the league after a slow start to his career on that end.

But most importantly have been the schematic changes installed by the coaching staff with the new defensive pieces. Defensive performance is much more than the sum of individual players but rather a system that requires buy-in from all five guys on the floor.

For one, the Hawks are shutting off the path to the rim well, allowing opponents to shoot just under 60% at the rim and putting them in the top-5 in that area. This was an area in which the Hawks struggled mightily a season ago, finishing with the sixth worst field goal percentage allowed at the rim.

Two big reasons for that were the recovering Clint Capela and then presence of the statuesque Danilo Gallinari. The 2022-23 Hawks’ have 48 minutes of elite paint defense between their two main centers, and all four of the frontcourt rotation players display a good amount of switch-ability out onto the perimeter when necessary.

With a more aggressive point of attack ball pressure and the athleticism of Jalen Johnson in place of Gallinari behind it, the Hawks have enjoyed a defensive resurgence. This has allowed guards and wings to climb above screens to chase shooters off the three-point line as opposed to defending at the level of screens as much as last season.

Also, the team has employed cross matching the bigs onto whichever matchups make the most sense, like in games against Milwaukee. Countering Giannis Antetokounmpo with Onyeka Okongwu has been a big theme in the meetings over the past three seasons in the regular season and postseason alike.

For example, despite the easy put back from Serge Ibaka below, the Hawks showcase their ability to make scoring difficult. Murray follows Pat Connaughton over the screen, but behind that Johnson and Okongwu can seamlessly pass off responsibilities as the play dictates.

Major mid-range reliance

While it’s buzzy to maximize attempts at the rim, from three, and from the free throw line in today’s NBA, it’s important to state that teams’ shot selection largely depend on the players’ strengths and weaknesses. Modern defenses have morphed to focus on defending those same areas that offenses are looking to exploit, but this Hawks team looks intent on zagging while others are zigging.

Upon acquiring Dejounte Murray, the Hawks have cemented their identity as a mid-range self-creation reliant attack. And newly extended holdover De’Andre Hunter also has many of the same tendencies in the shots he prefers as well as the spots on the floor he prefers.

The Hawks are tied for last in the NBA in three-point rate, with just 30.5% of their field goal attempts coming from long range. However, the Hawks are tops in the league in attempts from outside 10 feet but inside the arc, attempting 24.6% of their attempts from mid-range. Additionally, the Hawks are currently number one in pull up shot frequency, with over 30% of their attempts coming from off the dribble creation.

The three main pull up threats are largely cashing in on mid-range attempts as well, even as Trae Young struggles from other areas. Young, Murray, and Hunter rank in the 53rd, 69th and 76th percentiles respectively shooting from that area despite the high volume and difficulty of shooting from there. But none of the trio top 46% effective field goal percentage from that range despite the relative efficiency there which helps show the upper limit of this kind of shooting mix.

A shot diet of this type is easier to get clean looks and raise the offensive floor against teams with great rim protectors as compared to one more dependent on getting to the rim, but it also ultimately caps the Hawks’ ceiling — one reason behind the sagging offensive numbers this season.

Schematically, little has changed. The Hawks remain tops in the league in pick-and-roll play type frequency according to the NBA’s second spectrum tracking. Whereas previous years, the pick-and-roll was centralized around Young and Young alone, Murray has stepped in and ran a similar percentage when he’s on the ball.

Of course, the star player is having a rough shooting start to his campaign, and a lot of that is driven by Trae Young’s difficulty finishing in crowded space thus far as discussed below. So while we know Young will eventually shoot better than 43% effective field goal percentage, the structural tendencies of the high-volume perimeter players will make it exceedingly difficult for the Hawks to repeat their second ranked offense from a year ago.

A rookie panacea for the lack of spacing

Despite major roster turnover, the Hawks are remaining true to spread pick-and-roll principles that have been featured in their offense since drafting Trae Young. But without Kevin Huerter, Danilo Gallinari, and Bogdan Bogdanovic who has yet to return from offseason knee surgery as running mates, the Hawks are having a hard time spreading the floor effectively.

The lack of spacing has clearly hurt the Hawks offense as stated above. One domino effect has been the Hawks’ lack of ability for driving guards to finish at the rim. Defenses aren’t respecting Atlanta’s 33% shooting from deep and instead are choosing to pack the paint and prevent Young and others from getting to the rim.

Currently, Trae Young is shooting a brutally low 41% on shots at the rim, which places him in the single lowest percentile of NBA players. Young is a good finisher at the rim despite his size, but the effect of the dearth of shooters around him means help defenders can stay home and contest shots.

Additionally, the Hawks offense has appeared bogged down and lacking the ball movement and efficient play finishing from seasons past. Atlanta is dead last in points stemming from catch-and-shoot situations as well as the percentage of points coming from three-pointers per the NBA’s tracking numbers.

Enter AJ Griffin.

I expected big things from the rookie from Duke, but not this quite so soon. Griffin has shot extremely well from all three levels with a shooting triple slash of 57/46/100 from two, three, and at the free throw line respectively — albeit on a low volume that includes just three free throw attempts.

It’s very early, but Griffin’s stroke and ability off the dribble already translated into an instant boost to the offense whenever he has seen the floor. The normally rookie averse head coach Nate McMillan has spoken about his usage of Griffin, signaling his play time being dictated by defensive matchups.

Certainly, he’ll need time and conditioning to become the reliable defender the coach wants to see. But the shooting skillset Griffin brings to the table is both very valuable and exactly what the Hawks need at this moment.

With the Hawks generally sticking to a familiar nine-man rotation, Griffin appears to be the tenth man — waffling between the rotation and being on the outside looking in depending on the matchup. However, in recent weeks Griffin has seen more and more regular court time. With Bogdan Bogdanovic on the shelf, the Hawks have clearly struggled to replace the floor stretching he provides. But with the best pure shooter in the 2022 NBA Draft available to utilize, Griffin represents the most obvious contingency to reprise the Serbian’s role until his return from injury — and possibly beyond.