It’s been a promising preseason so far for the Atlanta Hawks, as the early returns have shown us a team that appears to have fully embraced the coaching philosophies of Quin Snyder and is chomping at the bit to kickstart a new and exciting era of Hawks’ basketball. Though preseason wins and losses quite literally mean nothing, there is still a lot we can learn by analyzing the team’s performance thus far - as this article* from The Ringer explains.
*admittedly dated (2019), but worth a skim as I’m sure much of what’s discussed in the article still applies today.
We’ll have plenty of time to dissect the finer points of “Quin-Ball” as the regular season transpires, but until then, here are a few things that have stood out to me through Atlanta’s first four preseason games. Let’s get into it.
Three-Point Shooting & the Demise of the Midrange
This is an obvious one and a change we knew was coming ever since Snyder was appointed as Head Coach last Spring, however the numbers that support this point are quite staggering and are worth bearing in mind once the regular season begins.
If you watched this team at all in 2022-23, you already know how much they favored the mid-range game on offense, but in case you’re new to the Hawks fandom, this is a team that finished dead last in three-point shooting frequency* (30.2%), and 2nd in mid-range shooting frequency (37.5%) last season.
*per cleaningtheglass which doesn’t account for garbage time and end-of-quarter possessions likely to end in a heave
Based on their shot profile, they finished 27th in locational eFG%**, spurring Snyder to distance himself (quite hastily, too) from last season’s offense at Hawks’ media day, saying that he didn’t get around to implementing his “system” last season, and that the process had really begun this past off-season.
** also a metric from CTG, Locational eFG% sheds light on the “efficiency” of a team’s shot profile. If a team shot league average from every location, what would their effective field goal percentage be?
Given what we’ve seen so far, it’s safe to say that the system is being implemented. Looking at the table above, you can see that the Hawks have taken 40.5% of their shots from three-point range during the preseason - more than a 10% increase from their frequency during the 22-23 regular season. They’ve significantly cut down on their mid-range attempts, taking just 25.1% of their shots from this area of the floor. It’s also nice to see a bump in their shooting frequency at the rim as well, as layups/dunks are still the most valuable shots in the game, and the ability to create these attempts is usually correlated with good ball movement/offensive scheme.
As his airness, Michael Jordan, would say, “the ceiling [was] the roof” last season for Atlanta’s offense, as they were able to convert their field goal attempts into points at a respectable rate (they ranked 9th in field goal percentage last season), however due to the fact they were by and large taking “less valuable” shots than their opponents, they had a very slim margin for error on that end of the floor. Smoothing out their offensive shot profile will help the Hawks keep up with the NBA’s premier offensive units next season, while also reducing the pressure on their defense to come up with stops.
Ball (and Off-Ball) Movement
In addition to improving their shot profile, the Hawks have also shown signs of growth in terms of both their ball and player movement during the preseason. It’s no secret that the team struggled in these two areas last season, finishing 28th in assist percentage and dead last in passes per game. Possessions that ended like the ones below were not uncommon.
Notice how little Philadelphia’s defense moves before Trae Young fires off a three. The Hawks barely tested the defense on this possession.
Here, you can see Bogdan Bogdanovic in the strong-side corner, standing with his hands on his knees until Dejounte Murray goes into his shot - he was never getting the ball on this possession. Additionally, with Murray occupying two defenders, Jalen Johnson is open on the pop, and is in good position to go into a dribble hand off with Saddiq Bey, however Murray opts for the contested step-back two instead.
Only the Hawks players and coaches know how much of what we saw in the two clips above was done by design, however intentional or not, the lack of ball/off-ball movement, and by extension, pressure exerted on the defense, is evident.
Now compare the two plays from above to the following ones from the 2023 preseason:
This was one of the first plays the Hawks ran in preseason. Trae starts off the possession in the corner, while Murray runs an initial pick-and-roll with Clint Capela before firing a pass to Saddiq Bey on the other side of the court. Bey wastes no time swinging the ball to Trae, who jab-steps while momentarily assessing his options, then gets to the cup in two dribbles, drawing the help defender, before finding Capela underneath the basket for an easy slam. Good basketball.
Not the best angle here but notice how Trent Forrest’s cut occupies two defenders. Tristan Thompson is forced to tag him, which gives Onyeka the runway for the fancy finish.
This is a great pass from Jalen to find Okongwu underneath the basket (and I’m not entirely sure where CJ McCollum is scurrying off to), but it’s also a great hockey assist by Young as the initial cross-court pass to Johnson is what forces the defense to shift, giving Johnson an exploitable passing window.
These are two plays that made every Hawks fan smile. Unlocking “Off-Ball Trae” has been on some fan’s wishlists for a few seasons now, and it’s great to see Quin Snyder making an effort to use him in this manner during the preseason. If he can move without the ball with the diligence and deliberation on display in the two clips above a) more often and b) even on possessions when he isn’t guaranteed to get the ball, it will unlock a whole new dimension for the Hawks offense and make Young even more of a nightmare to guard for opposing defenders.
Now it’s important not to get carried away. This is just the preseason, and there is a reason that the five clips above are highlights that the team tweeted (X’d?) out. However, what made these plays stand out to me, and what makes them so different from the clips I included from last season is more than just the ball going into the basket, but that the Hawks were able to use both ball and player movement to create seams in the defense that they were then able to take advantage of via a pass, drive or cut.
Atlanta has upped their assist percentage from 56% last season, to 62.3% in the preseason, and I’ll be interested to see where they stand once the regular season gets underway. As Snyder put it at media day, “the goal is for the whole to be greater than the sum of its parts” and the ball movement, player movement, and teamwork that his team has shown thus far in the preseason will certainly help them in achieving their goal.
Another area of emphasis for Quin Snyder during the preseason has been the pace at which the team plays. Ever since Mike D’Antoni’s “7-seconds-or-less” offense took the league by storm in the mid-late 2000’s, NBA teams have understood the value in playing “faster”.
The logic behind this philosophy is pretty straight forward: It’s harder to score against a “set” defense* than an “un-set” defense. The quicker that a team is able to transition from defense to offense, the less time the defense has to set itself up. Therefore, the quicker a team gets into their offense, the more of an advantage they have over the defense as the defenders will have less time to get set.
*A defense with 5 players in between the ball and the basket
The Hawks ranked 13th in the NBA in offensive transition frequency last season, with 15.1% of their possessions beginning with a transition play, and were 6th in pace, averaging 101.56 possessions per game. Thus far in the preseason, those marks have crept up to 16.5% and 104.75 respectively, indicating that this team will be looking to adopt a quicker brand of basketball next season.
While it’s worth keeping in mind that the preseason numbers will be slightly inflated due to the fact that the majority of players have fresh legs at the start of the season, and that teams’ preseason rotations go far deeper than their regular season rotations, the Hawks have shown that they are not afraid to up the tempo when the opportunity arises, which should hopefully lead to some more baskets like the ones below once the regular season begins.
Watch how Dejounte got this steal ️ pic.twitter.com/1a0Z5eXyYU— Atlanta Hawks (@ATLHawks) October 14, 2023
This team is built around Trae Young and Dejounte Murray, two of the quickest and craftiest guards in the league and getting them out in the open floor against a scrambling defense, with shooters and lob threats running alongside them certainly seems like an effective way to utilize their skill sets.
This is going to be a fascinating season in Atlanta with Quin Snyder at the helm and a roster that is bursting with potential. We’ll see how many of these preseason trends hold true once the regular season tips off, but until then, the Hawks are back in action for their preseason finale tomorrow night, where they’ll take on the soap opera that is the Philadelphia 76ers. Tipoff for that one is at 7pm on Bally Sports!
Disclaimer: All statistics/videos used in this article are from either basketballreference.com, pbpstats.com, nba.com/stats, bball-index.com, or cleaningtheglass.com.