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How Quin Snyder is trying to rescue the Atlanta Hawks from mediocrity

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NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Brooklyn Nets Brad Penner-USA TODAY Sports

As the Hawks wind down their regular season and set their sights on qualifying for the postseason, it appears that some of the turmoil previously surrounding the franchise has subsided. The franchise had been a fixture in the news and rumor mills seemingly since the opening tip-off of the season.

First, there was an incident in early December between Trae Young and former head coach Nate McMillan in which a ‘miscommunication’ resulted in Young staying away from the arena entirely in a home win over the Denver Nuggets.

Later, former President of Basketball Operations Travis Schlenk – who began in 2017 as the franchise’s General Manager – announced he was stepping down on December 21st, odd timing for an executive reportedly with years left on his contract.

Early in February, the Hawks made some minor moves in the trade market, with several second-round picks and Justin Holiday and Frank Kaminsky going out and Saddiq Bey, Garrison Mathews, and Bruno Fernando coming in.

Even that process didn’t go quite as planned, as Saddiq Bey was a piece that was caught up in a trade dispute between the Golden State Warriors and Portland Trail Blazers. That incident would be quickly resolved, but Bey had an tenuous few days when his status with the organization was touch and go.

With the trade deadline in the rearview mirror, the Hawks had one final shakeup in a turbulent season, dismissing head coach Nate McMillan on February 21st. When the dust finally settled a few days later, former Utah Jazz head coach and former Atlanta Hawks assistant coach Quin Snyder took over as the head coach of the Atlanta Hawks for his first game on February 28th of this year, he looked to solidify a leaking foundation.

With the Hawks in the midst of a playoff push, it has been easy to focus on the immediate task at hand and put the chaos behind them. However, the organizational stability has yet to trickle down into better results on the floor in 2023. In fact, the Hawks are mired in a historical streak of mediocrity, with a record 30 game run of being no more than one win or loss from returning to a .500 record.

But we should not lose sight of the big picture here: this will be a process and one with the long term largely in focus. There are no quick fixes nor are there silver bullets to solve what ails the franchise. Snyder has a mandate to slowly build the program he wants, just as he was able to do for eight years in Utah.

Snyder opted to have a trial run, joining the Hawks late in the season as opposed to in the offseason, and as such there have been only minor tweaks at best to how the team goes about the business of winning games. Here are some of the tinkerings and observations from the early Quin Snyder regime I have noticed.

More perimeter lineups

In Quin Snyder’s last two seasons at the helm of the Utah Jazz, his team was in the top-two in three-point rate in the NBA, shooting no fewer than 46% of their shots from that range each season. Even while fielding an attack involving the largely paint-bound Rudy Gobert, over the years Snyder slowly shaped his teams to stretch the floor as well as any in the league.

In stark contrast, however, are the 2022-23 Atlanta Hawks, who as of the date of writing are dead last in three-point rate, shooting fewer than 33% of their shots from deep. Snyder will eventually want his players taking more threes, but there hasn’t been any appreciable uptick in that rate between the McMillan and Snyder regimes.

There are a couple of ways he has tried to nudge the team towards more threes, however. The most noticeable change has been tweaking the lineups deployed, especially in the absence of injured players.

With a groin injury to Jalen Johnson sidelining him for a stretch of time, it has given Snyder free rein to go smaller as the backup power forward spot and stretch the floor with De’Andre Hunter or Saddiq Bey along with the shooting of Bogdan Bogdanovic, AJ Griffin and even midseason acquisition Garrison Mathews.

First has been the development of Onyeka Okongwu as a jump shooter. After only taking 3% of his shots in 2021-22 outside of 10 feet from the hoop, Okongwu is up to 15% of his shots from outside of 10 feet this season, including going 2-for-8 (25%) from three. He’s even receiving flair screens for him in the corner within the flow of the game, like this unselfish pick from Bogdanovic.

Look where the Hawks set up here in a nominally 5-out set. The very-much-not-a-post-player Garrison Mathews sinks into the lane and eventually draws two bodies. Okongwu receives the ball at the top of the key as a trail big. Bey has the option to use either use the dribble-handoff or reject it. He opts for the latter and a buries a triple.

This is the same play run the next offensive possession. Bey makes a different read off the dribble-handoff and hits the popping Mathews in his shooting pocket for another triple. It’s a brilliant way to show a defense two different looks from the same setup.

Certainly, neither Bey nor Mathews are exactly foundational pieces, but they can help stretch the floor and make secondary decisions surrounded by Atlanta’s star guard duo.

The immediate effect of spacing from role players also supplements the Hawks’ staple offenses scheme, the spread pick-and-roll. Defenses have keyed on rollers and cutters all year long, especially in the early period of the season, and the cumulative cramped spacing threatened what had been a top-ten Hawks offense the two previous seasons.

Bogdan Bogdanovic began the season recovering from offseason knee surgery, and the Hawks were in desperate need of shooting pull. But with his return and the arrival of AJ Griffin into the rotation, the Hawks slowly found their shooting stride.

With the recently extended Bogdanovic starting at the free throw line and pulling Steph Curry out of the lane with his gravity, Curry is no longer in position to dig from the nail when Okongwu receives the feed in the clip below.

After a dreadful offensive start, the Hawks are up to seventh in offensive rating at 116.4 points per possession — per Basketball-Reference — as of April 1. Any team with offensive savant Trae Young leading the show will eventually figure things out, and there’s no indication there are long term concerns on this side of the floor.

Unlocking ‘Two-Way Trae’ and other defensive tweaks

Trae Young has been much maligned for his defense his entire career, often unfairly. Yes, his small stature and slight frame is a major impediment, but this season, especially during the current coaching tenure, he has shown some flashes of pesky play at the point of attack. He’s averaging a career-high in steal rate — 1.5 steals per 100 possessions — using his quickness and active hands to poke the ball away at times.

He and Dejounte Murray execute this switch and recover well, and Young slips in while Jalen Brunson tries to go behind the back which allows Young to take what he has rightfully earned.

Certainly, these moments are fewer and farther between than would be hoped by fans, but the potential is there for the Hawks to work out the defensive partnership of two slightly built lead guards.

The downside of the lineups the Hawks have been deploying recently is the lack of perimeter stoppers. Per Dunks & Threes, the only perimeter Hawks with a positive defensive estimated plus-minus (EPM) are Jalen Johnson (1.3), De’Andre Hunter (0.2), full court pressure extraordinaire Aaron Holiday (1.0) and the sparingly used Garrison Mathews (0.8). Atlanta just doesn’t have a ton of options to defend dangerous wings other than Hunter and Johnson, and teams with large wings like the Raptors and Nets can feast at times.

The Hawks have been overpowered with opponents like the Boston Celtics using 5-out lineups to bury Atlanta with a barrage of threes. As a result, in certain contests, they have had to bench defensive anchor Clint Capela and rely on the more perimeter oriented Onyeka Okongwu. Below, Okongwu is able to dart from his position at the arc to tag the weakside cut, and with an assist from Jalen Johnson who cleverly cuts off the baseline drive, Saddiq Bey swipes the crosscourt pass.

Still, the Hawks have major issues defending at the point of attack and at all positions around the perimeter. Teams are easily able to slash into the paint and create havoc by moving the Hawks defense. After a 26th ranked defense last season, the Hawks are sporting a 23rd ranked defense at 116.4 points per 100 possessions conceded.

The lack of stoppers at the point of attack was a fatal flaw in recent Jazz teams, who could never quite reach the Western Conference Finals despite regular season records and three-time Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert. It seems pretty clear that there are too many defensive negatives at the guard and wing spots in the Hawks rotation, and absent significant internal development, outside help in the offseason towards upgrading that area may be explored.

What’s next for the Quin Snyder Hawks in 2023-24?

I’ll skip to the end of the movie and spoil the outcome: the Hawks aren’t taking home the Larry O’Brien Trophy in the 2023 NBA Playoffs. As of the writing of this piece, the Hawks sit at 37-38 with five games remaining and are staring down a path through the Play-In Tournament to even qualify for the Playoffs.

The franchise has some decisions to make with regards to player personnel as well who comes in to fill out Snyder’s bench. Five assistant coaches have been held over after McMillan’s firing, but more than likely few if any will be retained for next season.

Already, Snyder has hired two assistants to his bench for both this season and going forward. Jeff Watkinson will serve as the assistant coach-integrative basketball development and Steven Klei will serve as an assistant coach. Klei comes from a video analysis background, first as a video analyst on Snyder’s Utah Jazz staff and later as the head video coordinator.

Watkinson formerly worked for the franchise as the head strength-and-conditioning coach for three seasons between 2012-2015, with the middle season of the span overlapping with Snyder’s time as an assistant with the Atlanta Hawks under Mike Budenholzer.

For the Hawks to truly get ahead, they will need to maximize the development of in-house talent as well as the talent they will look to bring in through the draft, trades or free agent signings. It’s important to note, however, that the Hawks intend to compete and not take a step back — as the big move for Dejounte Murray last season supports. This is not a rebuild, and none of the quotes coming from the organization have ever indicated that.

As mentioned before, historically Snyder-led Jazz teams had high three-point rates and low midrange rates. That trend has yet to present itself in Atlanta, but I would be willing to bet after a full offseason of roster management and a normal preseason process of instilling schemes and tactics, the Hawks will begin to resemble that offensive archetype.

The Hawks enjoyed delirious highs during the later stages of the 2020-21 season. But it seems as though patience will need to be preached after two seasons of average at best play. It’s time for the Hawks to escape the cycle of mediocrity with a focus on player development and a leap forward in tactical deployment. This isn’t a ‘trust the process’ situation, but maybe ‘trust the progress’ will serve as the true motto going forward.