Nobody expected the Atlanta Hawks to be here.
Even the most pessimistic pundits wouldn’t have suggested that the 2023-24 team would be 12-18 and out of the top-10 in the East this summer without serious injury issues. And while I’d be remiss to not mention the 14 games Jalen Johnson missed due to a wrist injury, not many pegged him having quite this level of importance to the team prior to the season.
And yet, here they are in the precarious position of not making the playoffs for the first time in four seasons. This despite multiple recent moves meant to push the Hawks towards contention — the least of which not being the trading for and extending of Dejounte Murray. And as a result, Atlanta may do the unthinkable and become sellers at the trade deadline.
There are many justifiable lightning rods for criticism, but one source of struggles has become abundantly clear in recent days: late game execution in close games.
In clutch games — defined by the NBA as any game with a 5-point margin inside of the last five minutes of the fourth quarter — the Hawks are 6-13 this season. 17 of their 18 losses have come by 11 points or less. For comparison, five of their 12 wins have been by 11 points or more.
The Hawks’ clutch situation net rating is a wretched -20.3 net rating — or -20.3 point differential per 100 possessions. In all other situations during the season, the Hawks have a positive net rating.
Essentially, everything points to the Hawks being a roughly .500 team even after suffering the loss of Jalen Johnson for almost a quarter of the year. And yet, here they are 12-18, tied for the fourth-worst record in the Eastern Conference.
This is an issue not limited to one end of the floor. The Hawks’ offense is around 12 points per 100 possessions worse in the clutch as compared to their overall offense and eight points per 100 possessions worse on defense in the clutch as compared to their overall defense.
This is team-wide. This is systematic.
It’s very easy to witness the Hawks relying on all too static isolation sets in crunch time situations. There was justified worry about if Trae Young and Dejounte Murray would be able to work off each other and elevate the offense in important situations, and a year and change of evidence has been mixed at best.
There are just way too many possessions down the stretches of games that look like the below clips. In a recent loss against the Brooklyn Nets, Dejounte Murray gets himself into trouble driving into traffic.
In a loss to the Bucks, it’s a lot of the same for Murray. I personally don’t believe it’s a good idea to challenge a huge Bucks frontcourt in operating near the baseline without help.
Here is a weakside isolation possession for Trae Young with the other four Hawks on the opposite side of the floor. Young invites the double team and then tries to shoot over it.
Just before the next video begins, Young dribbles across halfcourt then pounds the rock until Detroit throws a soft trap at him with Alec Burks and James Wiseman. Murray receives the ball and allows the defense to reset with eight seconds left on the clock before passing back to Young. Even a decent attempt off Young’s drive can’t save what is simply a poor offensive possession — one that results in a 24-second shot clock violation.
Atlanta does a fair number of matchup hunting late in games while trying to drawing the clock. Generally, it’s a good idea to involve a leading first team All-Defense candidate like Jalen Suggs in a screen to force a switch. But when it brings imposing defender Jonathan Isaac onto the ball, maybe it’s time to rethink that notion.
The Hawks have the lowest clutch situation assist percentage — assists per made field goal — among the 30 NBA teams at 37.5%. This means that 62.5% of their makes in these situations come from self-generated attempts. In effect, the Hawks are having to work harder to generated crunch time offense due to their isolation-heavy tendencies.
On the other side of the coin, the hectic Pacers game when Atlanta was unable to get a stop for all 48 minutes — and not just in crunch time — is a great distillation of the late game defensive woes. The Hawks have been among the worst teams at ceding cuts for easy points. Obi Toppin is able to take advantage more than once on these occasions.
And once more to hammer the point home.
The Hawks are ceding a league-worst 62.8% eFG% (effective field goal percentage) to opponents in these situations. A big portion of that figure is driven by a sky-high 44% opponent’s 3PG%. No one would mistake Atlanta’s perimeter defense for being particularly strong, but that is most likely an unsustainably high shooting percentage.
The result is a team that largely profiles as a roughly average team that owns a bottom third record — and a team that is increasingly digging themselves a hole in the standings. Per Dunks and Threes, once you adjust for strength of schedule, the Hawks have an adjusted net rating of exactly 0.0, meaning their record against a neutral schedule should be approximately 15-15, three games higher than it is. That is the widest gap in the league at the moment.
Yes, the team owes some of this to luck-based factors. But factors within their control, like stagnant offensive possessions and inconsistent at best defensive awareness in clutch situations just compound the situation. The returns of Jalen Johnson and AJ Griffin will help, but as the halfway point in the season soon approaches, urgency is truly needed to begin to turn things around.
*All stats per NBA and Dunks and Threes as of December 28