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Hawks struggle as offense bottoms out

AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill
AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill

This iteration of the Atlanta Hawks wasn’t constructed as an offensive juggernaut, but for the first few weeks of the 2016-17 season, they did enough on that end to remain elite overall. Through their first 11 outings, the Hawks complemented their league-leading defense with above-average efficiency. They ranked 12th in points per 100 possessions as of November 17.

Being elite on one end and above-average on the other is usually a recipe for success, and the Hawks found themselves tied for 2nd place in the NBA at 9-2, just a half game behind the league-leading Clippers.

In the two weeks since then, the Hawks are last in offensive efficiency, haven’t hit a triple-digit ORtg once (after doing so in nine of 11 games to start), and have lost six of seven, going into Wednesday’s game against the Suns. Simply put, the offense has abandoned them, and a team that looked elite suddenly can’t break free from a funk.

To be fair, some of this is a home/road discrepancy. It’s not uncommon for NBA teams’ offenses to click better at home–so far this year, the median offensive efficiency of a home team is around 105, nearly four points better per 100 plays than the median road team. The Hawks’ dip coincided with a road-heavy stretch: seven of those first 11 games were at home, while six of their seven in this 1-6 stretch were road dates.

But likely what we’re seeing is more systemic than that. There were some obvious offensive liabilities inherent in Atlanta’s offseason choices, although sometimes a team can honeymoon their way through those challenges before the new scouting report gets circulated around 29 other coaches’ offices. That could be the case here: going from Al Horford to Dwight Howard or from Jeff Teague to Dennis Schröder is just going to incur an offensive cost.

The team still counts on All-Star forward Paul Millsap, their leading scorer, although even he has taken an efficiency hit this season. Millsap learned at the tail end of his Jazz career that playing next to a post threat is different from playing in a hyper-motion offense. His True Shooting percentage (.516) is below league average for the first time in his career while he adjusts.

A lot of what’s happening boils down to changes made by coach Mike Budenholzer to account for Howard and Schröder. Both are good players overall but have some offensive limitations, and there’s going to be some offensive pain while the Hawks recalibrate their whole offensive identity.

For one thing, a Schröder-Howard screen play has almost zero chance of resulting in a pick-and-pop jumper, as Howard almost never attempts jump shots. That gives defenses more choices to guard that action, including by bringing less help off of shooters and simply dead-ending Schröder’s drive by going under screens while denying Howard the room to roll.

This has siphoned efficiency from what was a staple in Budenholzer’s once-Spursian attack. The Hawks rank 6th lowest in points per possession created by the roll man after ranking 12th best last season. In terms of total points derived, the P&R has been even more important during the Hawks’ best years, the key to creating room for backdoor cuts and spot-ups that don’t show as P&R points but resulted directly from the Sophie’s choices defenses use to have to make when guarding an Atlanta screen play.

With time, Schröder should get better at attacking that open space. He’s currently shooting 36.5 percent on pull-ups, which isn’t bad relative to league average for that type of shot, but it’s just not an efficient staple. He can also use that pocket of space to pick up a head of steam for drives, but the problem is that right how he’s a bit of a wild finisher, connecting on just 41% of his driving attempts.

October 31, 2016 - Atlanta, GA, USA - Atlanta Hawks Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap celebrate a 106-95 victory over the Sacramento Kings on Monday, Oct. 31, 2016 in Atlanta, Ga (Photo by Curtis Compton/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire)

OPhoto by Curtis Compton/Zuma Press/Icon Sportswire

Shaky pull-up shooting and poor finishing are a bad recipe for a P&R ball handler, especially one who uses half his possessions that way. Only 22 NBA players finish more than seven plays per game as the P&R handler, and Schröder’s 0.84 points per such possession is the fifth lowest among that group.

Atlanta has also increased its reliance on post-ups, not surprising given the Howard acquisition. And again, it would make sense if Howard were still an elite post scorer. So far, he’s not — at least where tracking data is concerned (0.74 per possession he finishes from the post).

In fairness, it’s hard to judge the efficiency of post-up possessions from tracking data. Most basketball thinkers circa 2016 recognize that the real value in posting a guy up is the extra defensive attention he may attract in the form of double- and triple-teams. The Dwight-era Magic had an elite offense built largely on the idea that teams would have to send extra bodies to the low block whenever Superman was down there.

The problem is that fewer teams are doubling now. Some of that is teams smartly allowing a relatively low-efficiency play as opposed to leaving spot-up shooters to bring help. But some of it is Dwight-related, too. At days from his 31st birthday, Howard just no longer has the explosiveness to command the sort of fear that results in bad doubles. More often than not, Howard is going one-on-one against his man, and disciplined defenders know that his modus operandi is about power rather than footwork, so they’re just challenging him to go up over them.

There’s also a chance that Atlanta’s shooters will, over time, get more used to playing off Howard’s post plays. Last year’s Hawks used the fifth fewest total possessions on post plays, so it might just be a question of learning curve while guys like Kyle Korver and Tim Hardaway Jr. learn the unique spacing and timing of playing off a post behemoth as opposed to spotting in a spread motion offense or parking weakside opposte a pick-and-roll.

A shooter will tell you those are different shots, and over time that chemistry may come. Right now, Korver is getting up fewer threes per game than at any point in his Hawks career. It makes sense for him and other floor-spacers to learn to manufacture shots in a different type of offense.

Which is why all of this might be a temporary problem, an adjustment period. Until that adjustment occurs, though, the Hawks are investing a huge chunk of their possessions on inefficient options. At least at the moment, it’s costing them wins.

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