By Adam Spinella
On Sunday night, the Atlanta Hawks dropped their seventh game in a row while Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore sat due to injury. Normally, it’s understandable to slide while missing such important pieces, but the timing could not have been worse. Atlanta fans woke up Monday morning to see the Hawks in a three-way tie for fifth and reeling after a double-digit loss to the last-place Brooklyn Nets.
The Hawks were 28-20 at the end of January, tied with the Washington Wizards for tops in the Southeast and in a deadlock for home court in a playoff series. In the final week of March, Atlanta is 8.5 games behind the Wizards and only three away from missing the postseason entirely. Building a nice lead for themselves out of the gate has kept Atlanta in the playoff race with perhaps just enough juice to hold off other teams looking to topple their playoff hopes.
The Hawks are a great example of what I refer to as the NBA Pendulum Theory. Pendulum theory pertains to good teams that struggle to get over the hump but are, for the most part, playoff-caliber groups. It refers to the thought that for a good team to get over the hump, they must address or tighten up one of their weaknesses on the court. By doing so, that weakness might no longer be a weakness, but the absolute strengths of the team are diminished. The pendulum eventually will swing completely to the other side, where the initial weakness becomes the team’s strength, and the identity that once made them good has been marginalized.
Atlanta’s pendulum problem: rebounding. Last season, the Hawks were an abysmal rebounding team with a -4.4 differential on the glass. They had the fewest while allowing the third-most offensive boards. The strength of the team was a spaced-out offensive attack with two guards (Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder) that could penetrate, two big men (Millsap and Horford) that could shoot and spread the floor, and an elite shooter on the wings (Kyle Korver) that opened up even more space for the team’s top four scorers to play. The Hawks finished the season with the second most assists (only trailing Golden State) and the league’s best field goal defense, giving Budenholzer’s team the overall second-rated defense in terms of efficiency.
Alas, the rebounding numbers appeared to be one area worth redress when Al Horford bolted for Boston and the front office felt the same structure was irreplaceable. Budenholzer signed marquee free agent Dwight Howard, expecting an even more effective rim protector who could tighten up the rebounding that plagued the Hawks for years, and shift the team to a more pick-and-roll centric offense featuring point guard Dennis Schroder.
In trying to accomplish this shift, the Hawks lost touch of their identity. They’re now a bottom-five offense in the league, and a once great shooting team finds itself 25th in three-point percentage. Going beyond stylistic changes as the pendulum shifted away from versatility and towards brute interior play, the Hawks have decreased their overall talent level, depth effectiveness and gotten poor play from some of the heftier contracts the front office just handed out.
Paul Millsap unquestionably is Atlanta’s best player. He was last season’s league leader in defensive win shares. This year, according to basketball-reference, his total win share metric is the lowest its been in over a decade, and the four-time All-Star has his lowest Value over Replacement Player (VORP) since joining the Hawks. Despite those low metrics, Millsap is enjoying an on/off split of +9 per 100 possessions, which is the highest mark of his career. How good is that? He currently tops players like Anthony Davis (+8.7), DeMarcus Cousins (+5.2) and Al Horford (+4.3) and blows James Harden (+1.9), Karl-Anthony Towns (+0.5) and Kawhi Leonard (+0.5) out of the water.
How is it possible to be so good while on the court yet have such a low value and win share number for the Hawks? Style of play.
This team is trending towards centering around Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard. That’s not a terrible place for any franchise to be in. Howard is a future Hall of Famer that’s still 32 years old with elite rim protection ability and is shooting 63 percent from the field on the year. Schroder is a decade younger, and averaging nearly 18 points and six dimes in his first full season as a starter. Schroder still has some growth ahead of him, and Howard is very one-dimensional, especially on the offensive end. As a tandem, they’ve actually been pretty solid for the Hawks.
Production coming from the point guard and center spots have changed the types of offense the Hawks can and do employ. A side-by-side comparison shows just how different the location of shots from these two positions has been.
Production remains roughly the same from those two positions in terms of points per game, but they are coming from drastically different areas. Last year, Teague and Horford combined to take three more treys a game (basically the difference of Horford vs. Howard) and shot more than four percent better from behind the arc. On the flip side, both Schroder and Howard are better finishers inside the three-point line and draw more fouls than their predecessors.
Of course, the rebounds and assist to turnover metrics from one year to the next are notable — the trade-in for a playmaking center like Horford for a back-to-the-basket one in Howard. Free throw percentages jump out as well, where this year’s tandem is roughly 20 percent worse at the line on 40 percent more attempts. Sure, last year’s Hawks’ starters (4.6 FTM/ game) made less than this year’s (5.9 FTM/ game), but when it takes four more attempts to get there on a team that averages 1.025 points per possession, getting to the free-throw line is less efficient this year.
Differentiation between the two pairs of players in terms of value needs to go deeper — towards efficiency ratings. Points per shot and effective field goal percentage can help illustrate if the new style is creating more net production on the whole.
There’s a lot to unpack from this, so let’s only touch on some of the major points. Schroder and Howard aren’t taking as many threes, which create more value per shot than two pointers, but are shooting a high enough percentage from the field to generate more points per shot than Teague and Horford did. Only 10 percent of their points are generated from behind the three, where nearly a quarter were from Teague and Horford just a season ago. Schroder doesn’t get to the free-throw line nearly as much as Teague, but the metrics here indicate he’s that much better of a finisher inside the arc to make up for the difference.
The last column in the graph above is also telling — the percent of made threes by the player that are assisted. Perhaps here is where the biggest absence is from last year to this. Teague (and others) picked up a fairly high number of assists (and in turn, points generated by assists) from having Horford stretch out the defense. Other players that flank the point guard-center combo had more options for kick-outs last season, one such reason the assist totals were high in 2015-2016. The other obvious reason? Budenholzer was able to play two point guards in Schroder and Teague of high quality, sometimes together, to keep the ball moving.
So where exactly does Millsap fit into this approach? Look specifically at the ball screen metrics to see just how different his usage and effectiveness has been from last year to this. Throw him in the equation with the point guard and center statistics, and the Hawks’ offensive attack has really changed.
Millsap is being used more frequently in the pick-and-roll this season and producing a far lower point per possession metric. The free throw and foul metrics for him aren’t the issue. Millsap is simply shooting worse from the field this season as the roll man.
Undoubtedly, Howard’s presence is the culprit. Whenever Millsap is utilized as a ball screener, he’s rolling directly into Dwight Howard, who stands within 10 feet of the basket at all times. Howard simply isn’t comfortable in ball screens anymore, instead roaming block-to-block looking for post-ups and offensive rebounds. Horford was involved in ball screens with twice the frequency as Howard, generating more overall points in these scenarios.
The danger with comparative stats from one season to the next: an improvement doesn’t mean the Hawks are above or even at league average in their attack. Teague isn’t known as an excellent ball screen point guard; the standard is set low if the Hawks are only looking to center a ball screen attack around a guy that’s slightly better than Teague in the system. Kudos to Schroder for producing what he has in an offense with cramped spacing, but shame on the front office for creating that problem for him.
Budenholzer has also done a nice job getting Schroder free with a wide array of ball screen packages with multiple screeners, misdirection movement and ball movement occurring before the screen is set. Knowing that teams will sag a Howard screen and look for any reason to dare Schroder to take threes, the Hawks will send a shooting big man to free up the screen. As Howard’s man stays, Schroder can pull in the mid-range.
Where Schroder really thrives is in utilizing slipped screens and getting into the lane. He’s got a great low dribble and can slither through openings as they are created. Playing with Howard has given him an easy read ability as well. If he gets into the paint and if he sees a big body in front, he’ll throw it up for Howard to slam home.
While the numbers in comparison to last year’s group show an uptick in production that Schroder provides in the pick-and-roll, he stacks up poorly against the rest of the league’s point guards who are heavily utilized in ball screens. Per NBA.com, Schroder is eighth out of 10 in points per possession for those who take at least seven attempts per game out of the pick-and-roll. Of those players, he has the lowest rate of free throws attempted, and only scores more frequently than Jrue Holiday.
Schroder still has too many possessions where he’s sloppy, unpredictable or stops playing altogether out of the pick-and-roll or when sets break down.
Millsap often gets pigeonholed into one role when surrounding the Dennis-Dwight PNR due to his versatility. Howard cannot shoot, and is completely useless outside of 10 feet. Millsap then serves as a shooter, spacing the floor around them, or as the initial screener that slips actions to speed up the play and let Schroder feast on a moving defense instead of a set one.
Where things get uncomfortable is when Millsap is already in the low post and Howard sets a ball screen. As Schroder over-dribbles and surveys for a point of attack, Millsap is forced to vacate any area within a step of the lane. On this possession you see Millsap slowly raise around a botched ball screen, and instead of bringing it out to get the ball to their best player popping to the perimeter, Schroder forces an ill-advised and casual bounce pass to Howard.
All these ball screen sets, and the multitude of Horns looks that start a possession, are killers to ball and player movement. Schroder pounds the ball half the shot clock at times — 37 percent of his shots come after he’s taken seven or more dribbles. These aren’t touches late in the shot clock trying to hold for a high percentage look out of a last-second ball screen, either. Nearly 40 percent of his shots come within the first 10 seconds of the shot clock, and many are off-balance pull-ups off an initial ball screen in possessions where nobody else touches the ball.
It’s a far cry from where the offense was a year ago and during the Horford-Millsap era. Ball screen usage for the Hawks may have only increased by three or four percent on the whole, but the type of ball screen and ball movement before a PNR is drastically different. Their motion offense has disappeared in favor of ball screens and post-ups, and it’s a shame because the motion sets were a thing of beauty.
Millsap doesn’t have the avenues to slip screens and be a creator in the lane anymore, as Howard sits in the short corner with a defender ready to blitz Millsap in this type of scenario. Millsap has been one of the best passing big men in league over the past decade, and playing alongside a stiff center has limited his impact in that regard. It’s not just out of ball screens — Millsap has always been a gifted passer out of post isolations, and when his frontcourt counterpart isn’t standing on the opposite block, there’s an opening him to find teammates on cuts to the rim.
Even for Schroder, a spread pick-and-roll attack opened up the lane in ways that Howard’s presence does not. After all, barely one out of every five Schroder ball screens is set by Dwight, so he’s frequently driving on top of or around the big man. When that space was opened in the past by the shooting prowess of both Horford and Millsap, Schroder could utilize his go-to move — the hesitation reverse.
Personnel has been a revolving door around Millsap and Schroder, as the two largest parts of the Hawks’ offense have little time to adjust to each other while the team around them enters and exits. The big shock this season came from Atlanta trading away Korver for a future first-round pick from the Cavaliers. Korver to the enemy is a scary thought, and it was a strange move from Atlanta’s front office to unload him, no matter where he goes.
The Korver trade either signaled a supreme confidence in Hardaway or a desire to make a bigger move at the deadline for an additional piece (like Ilyasova), it’s impossible to tell which. Regardless, Hardaway has stepped up to make the most of the opportunity. He’s a very good shooter, looks comfortable in his own skin and has settled into who he is. THJ shoots 10 percentage points better at the rim than Kent Bazemore, doesn’t turn the ball over much and has been more than adequate on the defensive end. When teams sneak towards Timmy on the wing, he’s gotten to be excellent at jutting backdoor, catching on the run and finishing with power.
Hardaway Jr. is a nice piece for this Hawks team, averaging 16.9 points per game since the Korver trade. He and Bazemore form a pretty solid wing tandem, but they are both complimentary pieces to a certain degree. Rookies Taurean Prince (39 percent from the field) and DeAndre Bembry (no made threes; 42.9 percent on free throws) have been slow to provide any punch on the offensive end in the sparse minutes they receive. Malcolm Delaney and Jose Calderon are below-average backup point guards. Depth is no longer a strength of this team, especially on the wings and in the backcourt.
On the interim, the problem is simple: nobody knows if the Hawks are really any good. They’ve stayed above .500 the whole year, are under the radar and don’t have an aesthetically style of play anymore. The national media has moved on from Dwight Howard’s incessant drama, and Millsap is the most under-appreciated All-Star the league has. They defend, they have decent players, but are they actually good?
Though the team has skidded while their best player sits, the concerning reality that Paul Millsap is declining his player option to test the free agent market draws reality closer. Atlanta could lose their two best players, two consecutive years, to free agency without getting a single piece back in return. No franchise, even one that is on the verge of its 11-straight playoff appearance, can survive that type of loss.
Millsap is worth whatever price tag he demands on the market — in a vacuum or given Atlanta’s dire need to retain his services. Millsap is an elite big man; he is one of four frontcourt players in the league to average at least 17 points, six rebounds and three assists each of the last three seasons. The others? LeBron James, Blake Griffin and DeMarcus Cousins.
Budenholzer and his front office staff will enter July with close to $20 million of space (if they decide to do away with Mike Dunleavy’s non-guaranteed deal). Millsap is the clear priority, and Hardaway figures to be a costly restricted free agent signing. Keeping the entire starting group together next year likely means Sayonara to Ilyasova and Muscala, their backup big men that stretch defenses and fit super well in Budenholzer’s vision on offense. Also hitting the market this summer are Thabo Sefolosha, Jose Calderon and Khris Humphries, three veterans that might see the recent downturn in the ATL as a need to go elsewhere for one last legitimate shot at a title.
Atlanta has two valuable picks in a deep draft: their own first-rounder, and the Nets second-rounder, which is all but locked into the 31st pick in the draft. Poised to be in the position to pick up four valuable rookies in two years, long-term depth won’t be the issue in Atlanta. They must convince a few veterans to stay and add one or two players on the cheap that give Budenholzer some form of offensive identity.
For the close of this season though, the schedule for a run at retaining the fifth seed might favor the Hawks. A road back-to-back in Chicago and Brooklyn is followed by four days of rest, then sees a back-to-back against Boston and Cleveland. The season finishes with two against the Cavs and games against Charlotte and at the Pacers. Scheduling won’t be the issue for the Hawks if they keep losing. There are no more excuses, and with each week of struggle comes the realization that things will get a lot worse if they cannot retain their best player this July.