Stop me if you’ve heard this before: the Atlanta Hawks are within one game of being a .500 basketball team.
The game of jump rope that the Hawks have been playing with the line of mediocrity for the past 12 months has gone from amusing:
Hawks now 39-39. They have scored 9,209 points and allowed 9,210. They are 24-24 against the East and 15-15 against the West. They have been within one game of .500 for 72 consecutive days.
— John Hollinger (@johnhollinger) April 3, 2023
and back to amusing:
Death, taxes, and the Hawks with a .500 record
— Jake Hiser (@jake_hiser21) November 18, 2023
And it is currently headed towards frustrating once again, with the team’s record sitting at 9-10 as we approach the one-quarter mark of the 2023-24 NBA season. Of course, mediocrity is better than incompetence; that is to say that an average start to the season is certainly preferable to a below average start to the season.
However, for a fanbase that has seen their team appear in the playoffs in 13 out of the past 16 seasons yet hosted just 6 playoff series during that time-span*, another middling season followed by a first-round playoff exit would only serve to further support the haunting assertion from Season 1 of HBO’s True Detective that “time is a flat circle”.
* 3 of which came during the 2015 NBA playoffs when they were the #1 seed in the Eastern Conference
** Another painful Hawks stat: Since the 2007-08 NBA season, the Hawks have played 121 playoff games, the 7th most in the league during that time-span. All six teams who have played more playoff games won at least one championship, and the 8th and 9th ranked teams (OKC and Denver) have at least made it to the Finals. Atlanta and Houston are the only two teams in the top 10 without an NBA Finals appearance in the last 16 seasons. **Sigh**
Through 19 games of the 23-24 season, the Hawks are third in offensive rating (118.6) and 26th in defensive rating (118.4), putting them 16th out of the 30 teams in overall net rating (+0.2). For every offensive yang there is a defensive yin.
Atlanta ranks third in offensive rebounds per game (13.1) and fourth in fast-break points per game (16.9) yet are 27th in offensive rebounds conceded per game (11.8), and 29th in opponent fast-break points per game (16.4). Atlanta ranks 8th in 3-pointers made per game (13.9), but are 24th in 3-pointers conceded per game (13.7). Per cleaningtheglass, the Hawks rank eighth in half-court offense, scoring 1.01 ppp, yet rank 21st in half-court defense, allowing (any guesses?) 1.01 ppp.
While Trae Young has averaged 32.9 points and 10 assists per game, on 47.2% shooting from the floor and 42.3% from deep (on over 10 three-point attempts a night) over the past seven games, that success has not translated to the wins and losses column, as the team is just 3-4, and have been outscored by 20 points in 256 minutes with him on the court* during this span.
*Atlanta was a +23 in 393 minutes with Young on the court during his first 11 games (5-6) this season despite him shooting 35.6% from the floor and 28.2% from the perimeter.
Suffice it to say, this is a team that is very much still a work in progress. The good news is that there are still 63 games left for them to figure it out. The bad news is that Jalen Johnson, who had been putting together a strong MIP case to start the season, will be out for a few weeks with a wrist injury, throwing a wrench in the team’s front-court rotation. Additionally, their next three games are against Brooklyn, Philadelphia and Denver, so in the short-term at least, things may get worse before getting better.
Below, I’ve talked about how the team’s defensive shot profile has hurt them this season. Let’s get into it.
Atlanta’s Defensive Shot Profile Is A Disaster
Some of the most scandalizing numbers when it comes to Atlanta’s 26th ranked defense is the fact that they rank dead last in defensive locational eFG%*, in large part due to the fact that they are conceding shots at the rim at the third-highest rate in the league and corner three-pointers at the highest rate in the league, per cleaningtheglass. The Hawks join the Wizards, Hornets, and Bulls (far from elite company) as the only teams to rank in the bottom-10 in both of these categories, and they are in fact the only team to rank in the bottom-5 in both categories.
*Defensive locational eFG% answers the question: If a team’s opponents shot a league average rate from each location given their defensive shot-profile, what would their effective field goal percentage be? It gives us a sense of the quality of looks that a team is conceding to their opponents (i.e. not a category you want to be last in).
Part of the problem is that the Hawks are conceding a high rate of transition possessions after a missed shot, as their opponents are turning defensive rebounds into transition opportunities at the fourth highest rate in the league. In these instances, with fewer defenders back and in position to guard, it’s easier for opposing teams to get shots from these high value areas of the floor.
Another thing that can increase the stress on the defense is that the Hawks can be a little overaggressive when it comes to chasing steals. To their credit, the team ranks second in steals per game (9.2), and seventh in opponent turnover percentage (15.7%) — an improvement from last season in which they ranked 18th in steals and 16th in opponent turnover percentage. However, there have been times when this aggression has worked to their disadvantage.
In the above clip, Trae Young (6’3”) attempts to intercept a pass between Mikal Bridges (6’6”) and Cam Johnson (6’8”). Both Nets’ players notice Young overplaying the passing lane, so Johnson cuts towards the free throw line. Atlanta’s Jalen Johnson helps off his man to stop the ball, but unfortunately, in the process, he has left a 45% three-point shooter wide open in the corner. Johnson whips a pass to Dorian Finney-Smith. Young is in no position to make up for his error, and the Nets get an easy three points.
Later on in the same game, Young (still 6’3”) sells out for a steal at the half-court line. Cam Johnson (still 6’8”), bats the ball over his head to Bridges, and the Nets have a 5-on-4 advantage. Bridges bats it back to Johnson who sprays a pass over to Dorian Finney-Smith (still shooting 45% from three) on the opposite wing, and the Nets get another easy triple. Atlanta was ahead 71-60 with under two minutes to go in the first half. There is simply no need for Young to gamble for a steal at half-court and put his teammates at a numerical disadvantage, especially against a deadly three-point shooting side in Brooklyn*.
*Brooklyn ranks 2nd in the NBA in 3P% (39%)
I don’t mean to pick on Trae, as he is not the only Hawks’ player who is guilty of committing these errors, but I thought it was important to point out this caveat amid Quin Snyder’s recent comments about Young’s improved play on the defensive end this season. Atlanta can rack up all the steals they want (Young and Murray rank 12th and sixth in the NBA in steals per game – nice!) but if their defensive activity doesn’t actually translate to an improved defense, it’s not going to do the team any good. The Hawks need to be smarter when it comes to evaluating the risk/reward payoffs of their actions on the defensive end of the floor.
As has been the case for years in Atlanta, defense is going to make or break this team. The Hawks have finished in the bottom-10 in defensive rating in five out of the past six seasons, and the one season that they didn’t (2020-21), they were the beneficiaries of a bit of shooting luck, as their opponent’s shot just 35.1% from three against them* — the 3rd lowest opponent 3P% in the league that season. Whatever is preventing them from putting together a competent defense is the same thing that is preventing them from breaking into the elite class of the Eastern Conference.
*per cleaningtheglass which does not account for garbage time and/or heaves
Improving their defensive shot profile is the least they can do if they are to begin to take steps in the right direction.