Editors note: part 1 of this series that began with the forwards can be found here.
Things are great in Atlanta. Seriously. Everything is fine. No, no, ignore the rumor mill and trust me. Everything. Is. Fine.
Still not convinced?
Honestly, I don’t blame you.
Despite picking up a scrappy win over a short-handed 76ers squad on Wednesday night, even the most optimistic supporters of the Atlanta Hawks will have to admit that this team has not inspired much confidence as of late.
Atlanta has dropped 12 out of 18 games dating back to the start of December. They have allowed 122.5 points per 100 possessions (28th in the league), have been outscored by 3.6 points per 100 possessions (24th), and have repeatedly fallen apart at the end of close games* during this stretch. As reported by Yahoo Sports’ Jake Fisher last week, the team’s decision makers have at least kicked around the idea of “being a real seller” at the February 8th NBA Trade Deadline.
*Wednesday night’s win over the 76ers improved their record in “clutch” games to 9-15 (the 5th worst “clutch” record in the league), and their net-rating in these situations to -22 (3rd worst “clutch” net-rating).
Fischer also reported that the Hawks have “informed numerous teams that the only untouchable players on their roster are Trae Young and Jalen Johnson”. ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski (in a Q&A session on Threads) said last week that the Hawks’ are “absolutely open for business on trades”, adding that “Landry Fields seems determined to make changes to the roster”.
Things might not be great in Atlanta.
Still, if we’ve learned anything from the trade deadlines of the past it’s that we should never assume that this team will move on from their players no matter how loud the outside noise gets. Just ask our old pal, John Collins.
It’s also important to note that the team’s diminished form over the past 6 weeks has coincided with injuries to their top two wing defenders (Jalen Johnson and De’Andre Hunter). The team will have every chance to find their form if they can get their top-8 rotation players healthy for a few weeks.
While the early part of the season might not have gone according to plan, we should not forget who we’re talking about here. These are the Atlanta Hawks, the kings of .500. When the chips are down, this team will inevitably find a way to turn things around.
One of the few bright spots for the Hawks has been the superb play of Jalen Johnson who has been excellent all season but has taken his game to a whole new level this month. Johnson dropped 28 points* against the Thunder last week, then stuffed the statsheet with 25 points, 16 rebounds* and seven assists* (with just one turnover!) against the 76ers on Wednesday. Johnson is a certified problem, and he continues to obliterate everyone and everything in his path towards this year’s Most Improved Player award.
The Hawks are a different entity overall with Jalen Johnson.— Kevin Chouinard (@KLChouinard) January 11, 2024
Onyeka Okongwu is the probably the teammate who has best figured out how to play (with him/off him).
His stats match the eye test: With JJ on the court (top) vs. off (bottom): pic.twitter.com/WTPElvPIAd
Seriously, if you like basketball and have a pulse, it’s impossible not to love this guy.
Atlanta is just 0.5 games behind the Brooklyn Nets for the 10-seed, and just 1.5 games behind the Chicago Bulls for the 9-seed in the Eastern Conference so a play-in game remains likely. A playoff berth is not out of the question.
Now on to the good stuff. With apologies to Bruno Fernando, he did not meet the ‘150 minutes played’ mark so did not get a deep dive. I’ve included his numbers for the season below.
Outside of going 2-for-9 from the free throw stripe against the 76ers earlier this week, Bruno’s been solid this season.
Now let’s dig into Onyeka Okongwu and Clint Capela’s play so far this season.
Onyeka Okongwu: Atlanta’s halfcourt offense is 8.6 points per 100 possessions better (94th percentile) with Okongwu in the game this season (team-high)
Despite playing more than 30 minutes just 22 times (in 213 career games) over the past three and a half seasons, Onyeka Okongwu has been billed as the Atlanta Hawks’ center of the future ever since the team selected him with the 6th overall pick in the 2020 NBA draft. After putting pen to paper on a 4-year, $64 million extension this past off-season, it appears that little has changed as it pertains to the Hawks’ future plans for their starting center slot — a notion supported by Clint Capela’s name (alongside others) popping up in trade rumors amid the team’s struggles.
Starting on the defensive end, while the Hawks are allowing an ugly 121.9 points per 100 possessions with Okongwu on the floor per cleaningtheglass*, it would be quite unfair to pin this figure on him alone given how poor the team’s wing and guard defenders have been this season.
*which does not account for “garbage time”
Subsequent injuries to Jalen Johnson and De’Andre Hunter have forced Atlanta to go fairly small with their bench lineups in recent weeks, with players’ such as Garrison Mathews, Wesley Matthews, Trent Forrest and Patty Mills slotting in alongside Okongwu, Bogdanovic and one of the point guards. Plays like the ones below are not uncommon for these units and are difficult for Okongwu to prevent by himself.
When it comes to his ability to protect the rim — even though his block percentage (3.6%) this season is slightly below his career average (4.8%) — there have been moments where Okongwu has (emphatically) flashed the type of interior presence that he is capable of being.
While his foul-rate has been a constant problem throughout his career, he has improved in this category every year since he entered the league, and I thought his ability to stay in the game during Wednesday night’s overtime win against the 76ers despite picking up his fifth foul with 3:50 left in regulation was an underrated storyline from the game.
Though Okongwu (at 6-foot-8 and 240 pounds) tends to struggle against the more physically imposing 5’s in the league, he is more agile than Capela, which makes him far better at defending on the perimeter than his counterpart. There have been instances (107 minutes) where Quin Snyder has thrown the kitchen sink at the defense, playing both Okongwu and Capela together*, and it’s encouraging that Okongwu has not looked out of place guarding other team’s 4’s — like on Sunday, when he held Paolo Banchero to 8 points on 4-of-11 shooting as his primary defender.
*In case you were wondering, Capela/Okongwu lineups have been effective in their limited action this season, as the Hawks’ are outscoring their opponents by 5.2 points per 100 possessions, and allowing just 109.6 points per 100 possessions on the defensive end. Snyder has been smart about going to this pairing against the right lineups, but given the boost that these two have provided the defense, I would not say no to seeing these two share the court together some more in the short-term while De’Andre Hunter recovers from a knee injury.
While I don’t believe Okongwu has a long-term future playing the 4, I do think that his ability to both guard on the perimeter and deter shots at the rim is a bright spot for this team. His defensive impact will be more pronounced if the team’s decision makers can put together some bigger, more switchable lineups around him in the future.
Onto the offense end, while Okongwu has posted a career-low usage rate (13%) so far this season, he has remained an efficient scorer around the basket, hitting 74.2% of his shots at the rim. He has also looked more confident in his three-point shot, particularly from the corners where he is shooting 12/30 (40%) on the season. Okongwu’s True Shooting percentage (66.7%) currently ranks ninth out of the 46 centers who play at least 20 minutes a night.
While Okongwu is averaging a modest 9.6 points per game and may not have a huge impact on the scoring column when he is in the game, his passing ability, off-ball movement, as well as the shooting threat he poses from the corners really help grease the wheels for the offense. His impact is particularly noticeable in the half-court, where the team’s offensive rating improves by 8.6 points per 100 possessions* with him in the game — a remarkable figure.
*Per cleaningtheglass, this offensive on/off impact in the halfcourt ranks in the 94th percentile relative to all players, and is the highest half-court on/off impact on the team. Atlanta is scoring 1.044 ppp in the HC with Okongwu on the floor - which ranks in the 85th percentile relative to other lineups with at least 100 minutes played this season.
In the play above, Okongwu relocates to the weak side corner, dragging his defender, Chet Holmgren, with him, while Bogdan Bogdanovic and Jalen Johnson play two on two. This simple act forces Holmgren to step outside of the paint before picking up a three-second violation call, creating just enough space for Johnson to get an open jumper on the short roll.
Quin Snyder has referenced the importance of floor spacing repeatedly during his media sessions this season, and if you pause the clip above as soon as Johnson catches the ball, you can see exactly what he’s talking about — intelligent ball and player movement which results in a wide open, high percentage look for the offense.
The two clips above both feature Saddiq Bey post ups. Capela is at the 5 in the first one and gets into position for an offensive rebound far too early. So early, in fact, that it looks like he’s nearly pushing Daniel Gafford into Bey before the shot even goes up. Not great, Clint. In the second clip (this time with Okongwu in the game), notice how Okongwu patiently lurks in the dunker’s spot while Bey makes his move — and it’s two points for Atlanta.
Looking at the team’s shot profile with Okongwu in the game (above)*, the explanation for the offensive improvement with Okongwu in the game comes down to two things: Atlanta is trading out roughly 6% of their mid-range attempts for three-pointers, and they are shooting a whopping 8.8% better at the rim.
*Tables are from cleaningtheglass, numbers in orange/blue are the percentile rank in that stat relative to other lineups (on-court) or players (on/off diff). Accurate as of 1/10/24.
While it’s important to keep in mind that these numbers are representative of Atlanta’s overall offense (not just the halfcourt offense, which I had been talking about in the paragraph above) with Okongwu on the floor, and we should note that part of the reason that these numbers look the way that they do can be attributed to the fact that Okongwu has played 78% of his minutes alongside three-point assassin, Bogdan Bogdanovic, and just 51.6% of his minutes alongside mid-range aficionado, Dejounte Murray*, I do not believe that Okongwu is simply a bystander in all of this.
*For reference, Capela has played 860 out of his 897 minutes (95.8%) alongside Murray, and just 35.6% of his minutes with Bogdanovic.
I mentioned Okongwu’s passing ability earlier, and it’s not just the ability to spot and execute high level passes — such as this assist which he puts on a platter for Bogdanovic:
But it’s also the ability to make these reads quickly like in the clip below where he draws two on the drive then zips a pass Bey on the weakside, who capitalizes on the seam in the defense:
In the play below, Okongwu is trailing the play after Bogdanovic pushes the tempo in transition. Bogdanovic kicks the ball out to Okongwu who touch passes it over to a wide-open Trae Young on the wing. Alarm bells sound for Orlando’s defense, and two men close-out on Young, who calmly hesitates then takes advantage of the open space, and knocks down a floater.
The ball simply sticks less when Okongwu is in the game.
Another underrated aspect of his game that has a major impact on Atlanta’s ability to finish at the rim is that Okongwu is great at setting screens in the paint to help disrupt a defender’s path towards a shot contest.
In the clip above, after Saddiq Bey drives on Naz Reid, Okongwu notices that Kyle “Slow-Mo” Anderson, as the second line of defense, is sizing up Bey’s drive for a shot contest. Okongwu smartly screens Slow-Mo in order to clear space for Bey to finish at the rim.
This shot would probably fit in the ‘SMR’ category however similar to the last play, Okongwu intelligently sets a screen for the second line of defense (Sabonis) in order to make Bogdanovic’s finish easier.
Okongwu’s offensive IQ really jumped off the screen when watching his film, and it’s no coincidence that the Hawks’ are scoring 122.5 points per 100 possessions (89th percentile) when he is in the game this season.
Whenever the changing of the guard (center?) at the 5 does happen for the Hawks, I’m excited to see what Okongwu can do once the training wheels come off.
Clint Capela: Shooting 62% at the rim this season — his lowest mark since his rookie year
Playing the 5 for the Atlanta Hawks is, at times, a thankless position.
Atlanta plays at one of the fastest paces in the league which means a lot of running up and down for a big guy. Their guards score out of pick-and-rolls at one of the highest rates in the league, and the team’s offense is very dependent on the effectiveness of the big man’s screen, meaning that there are few possessions where the 5 can take a breather on offense.
Additionally, despite running a high frequency of pick-and-rolls, the Hawks’ only utilize their rollers on 5.1% of their plays (tied for 22nd in the league), meaning that the 5’s have to continue to set good screens and roll hard to the basket (as this is what creates space for the guard) despite knowing that there isn’t a high probability of them getting the ball. That being said, they are playing with one of the craftiest passers in the league in Trae Young, so they do have to be on high alert if a pass does come their way, as one could come from even the most improbable angle.
On the other end of the floor, as a result of poor perimeter defense, the team is conceding shot attempts at the rim at the fourth highest rate in the league — which puts a lot of pressure on the bigs to protect the paint. But wait, because the team doesn’t have great defensive rebounders (apart from Jalen Johnson because what doesn’t that guy do), the 5’s have been asked to take the lead on that front as well.
While Atlanta’s bigs aren’t the only ones doing the dirty work to this extent for their respective teams, it’s not an easy ask — and like I said earlier, it’s a thankless role.
Clint Capela mastered this role playing with James Harden in Houston, and he has been effective in it for the Hawks for the past 3 seasons. This season however, Capela’s finishing numbers are down, Atlanta’s half-court offense has struggled* with him in the game, and the team’s collective lack of size and perimeter defense has compromised them too much for Capela to keep them afloat on the defensive end.
*per cleaningtheglass, the Hawks’ are scoring just 0.945 ppp in the half-court with Capela in the game this season - which ranks in the 26th percentile relative to other lineups with at least 100 minutes played this season.
*Table is from cleaningtheglass, numbers in orange/blue are the percentile rank in that stat relative to other lineups with at least 100 minutes played that season.
Starting with the defense, the Hawks defensive rating has declined in each season since Capela’s first with the team, and they have allowed 119.2 points per 100 possessions with him on the floor so far this season. Additionally, you can see that the Capela lineups’ defensive rebounding percentage — which had always been above league-average in year’s past — has plummeted this season, as Jalen Johnson’s lengthy stretch on the injury report combined with the Hawks’ lack of size have not made Capela’s job any easier.
These lineups are barbecued chicken on the defensive glass whenever Capela isn’t in the paint. It seems like nearly every three-point shot he contests results in (at least) two points for the opposition even when the shot doesn’t go in.
Additionally, opposing team’s have become privy to the Hawks’ lack of size, and they are aware that any action that removes Capela from the equation will give their bigger players free reign on the offensive glass.
In the above clip from the game against OKC, Jalen Williams runs a DHO with Chet Holmgren which forces Capela to switch off of Chet. Chet attacks the paint, dishes to Josh Giddey who (gets away with a walk), before flipping a shot up towards the rim. Notice how when the shot goes up, OKC has two players inside the restricted area while Atlanta has none — and it’s an easy putback for Giddey.
In this play, the Hawks don’t want Murray to be switched onto Banchero, so ‘DJ’ stunts at him, takes a swipe at the ball, then evacuates the area. This leaves Fultz open on the short roll, and forces Capela to rotate over onto him. No problem right? The chances of Fultz actually hitting a contested fadeaway over Capela in the post are slim to none. What’s not accounted for is the fact that if the shot goes in the general direction of the basket, Orlando has the advantage on the glass. This time Goga Bitadze capitalizes.
Another play from the Magic game, Banchero goes right by the backpedaling Jalen Johnson in transition, forces Capela to contest the shot, and Bitadze has another wide open offensive rebound.
Atlanta’s bigs have had to walk a tightrope between protecting the rim and locking down the defensive glass all season — which is quite difficult to do considering that a player is typically not in a position to rebound after contesting a shot. Given the team’s lack of size outside of the center position, it’s no surprise that the Hawks have been burned in both areas so far — ranking in the bottom-10 in defensive rim FG% (21st), and defensive rebounding percentage (25th) per cleaningtheglass.
Though the Hawks’ numbers might not be too pretty on the defensive end when he is in the game, similar to Okongwu, I believe that Capela is far from the top of the naughty list when it comes to the team’s issues on the less glamorous end of the floor.
It’s the offensive end of the floor where things have gone awry for Capela. Typically a steady finisher around the basket, Capela’s is shooting just 62% at the rim this season — the second lowest mark of his career, and approximately 7% worse than his mark from last season. Given that Capela has taken roughly 83% of his shots from this area of the floor over the course of his career, this decline is worrying, and undermines his offensive value when he is on the court.
As you can see from the tables above, Capela has been less efficient as both a cutter and as a roll man than in the past two seasons. Additionally, while he is getting a ton of put back opportunities (league-leading 19.9% offensive rebounding percentage), he has never been particularly efficient on these looks, and is only converting them at a league-average rate this season.
This miss against the Knicks from all the way back in October lives rent free in my head:
Per cleaningtheglass, Atlanta’s offensive rating has gotten worse by 7.3 points per 100 possessions with Capela on the floor this season, and while his subpar shooting isn’t the biggest problem, it certainly hasn’t helped the Hawks’ offense look any smoother when he is in the game.
Though nothing is certain in the NBA, should the recent reporting from around the league hold true, it looks like Capela’s time with the Hawks could soon be coming to an end. It will be a sad day if/when that happens. Players like Capela do not grow on trees, and it will be a tall task trying to replace his production while simultaneously staying beneath the luxury-tax line* — particularly with Onyeka Okongwu’s extension kicking in, and Saddiq Bey in line for a new contract this summer.
*According to Spotrac, the last time Atlanta paid the luxury tax was in 2002, when the luxury tax threshold was $52.88 million. I would bet against any changes on that front.
Whether it’s in Atlanta, or somewhere else, we can all root for Capela to rediscover his shooting touch around the basket. By all accounts he is a great teammate, does not lack for effort on either end of the floor, and still has a lot left in the tank. He will be a valued member of whatever team he is on for the next few seasons.
I mentioned at the start of the section that playing the 5 for the Atlanta Hawks was a thankless position. Well, that’s something we can change right now.
Thank you, Clint! Thank you, Onyeka! And thank you, Bruno! Your hard work has not gone unnoticed.
Disclaimer: All statistics used in this article are from either basketballreference.com, pbpstats.com, nba.com/stats, bball-index.com, or cleaningtheglass.com. Data for the Height/Weight Chart is from Crafted NBA.