Playoff Capsule: Atlanta Hawks

The Hawks find themselves in a familiar spot once again this year; headed to the playoffs as a middle seed in the Eastern Conference for the fifth consecutive year (8 seed in 2008). However, there are some major differences that separate this year’s team from those in the past. The most notable difference is the absence of Joe Johnson from the roster. Johnson was the focal point of the Hawks offense throughout his seven year tenure in Atlanta, especially in the playoffs. Johnson’s usage rate never dipped below 24.4% in five trips to the playoffs (25.2, 25.6, 26.2, 24.4, and 25.4) and he averaged 40 minutes per game in his playoff career with Atlanta. With Johnson gone, the Hawks can no longer rely on “Iso-Joe;” the crutch that carried them (and at times buried them) during the Joe Johnson era.

Jeff Teague, Al Horford, Josh Smith, and Ivan Johnson are the only four healthy players (moment of silence for Zaza Pachulia) that were on last year’s playoff team. With so much roster turnover, Hawks head coach Larry Drew was forced to overhaul his offensive system to fit his new personnel, and the result has been an offense predicated on ball movement and the passing ability of players at all five positions. The Hawks offense features a lot of off-ball motion, screening, and misdirection to get players open because of the lack of isolation players on the roster.

The Hawks offense starts with Al Horford and Josh Smith. Horford has established himself as one of the league’s best centers, partly because he is one of the best shooting big-men in the NBA. Horford is shooting 54.3% from the field this season, including an above average 43.7% from the mid-range (That number would be higher if not for a dismal start to the year). Horford (6-10, 250) gives up a fair amount of size to most centers, but has a distinct speed and quickness advantage. Because of this, Horford, when playing the five, rarely gets traditional post-up touches. Instead, the Hawks run a lot of sets that get Horford in space where his speed advantage is best suited.

The most common play you will see for Horford is a pick-and-pop with Jeff Teague or Devin Harris, usually with Al popping to the elbow. Head coach Larry Drew will run the Horford pick-and-pop frequently when Horford has a larger defender on him for a few reasons. First, Horford creates good separation from his man on the screen and can reliably make the shot. Second, it opens up a number of variations when Horford is hitting that shot because of the pressure it puts on the big man to stay with Al. By bringing the center out of the lane, it allows for easier driving lanes for the Hawks speedy guards in Teague and Harris to take advantage of coming off of the screen. Finally, the Hawks half-court offense will stagnate at times, and the pick-and-pop’s simplicity and success often times can give the Hawks some cheap baskets when the rest of the offense has slowed down.

Josh Smith is the enigmatic force that drives Hawks fans mad. Smith’s length combined with his incredible athleticism allows him to do a lot of things on the floor, which has been both a blessing and a curse for the Hawks. Smith sees the floor well and is one of the best passing big-men in the NBA, but is also notorious for turning down a passing opportunity to hoist up an ill-advised mid-range shot. The man who dubbed himself “Mid-range Shawty” at the Hawks media day prior to this season is shooting 30.5% from the mid-range this year. However, for all of Smith’s faults, he provides a dynamism that would otherwise be missing from the Hawks offense.

Two of the Hawks favorite pet plays, especially late in games, involve Smith and Horford, with Smith being the trigger man. The first is the Horford-Smith pick-and-roll, and it takes advantage of both Smith and Horford’s quickness. As you will see in the video below, the play sets up with Smith taking the ball at the right elbow and Horford coming from the left, across the free throw line, to set a screen for Smith. Horford slips the screen and darts to the rim, where Smith will throw a lob for the dunk. The Hawks have used this play on a number of occasions in key situations with a great deal of success.

 Al and josh pick and roll1

The other play the Hawks frequently run in key situations is a slipped pindown screen set by Al Horford for Kyle Korver. The Hawks run a lot of pindowns for Korver throughout the game which forces the defenders to respect Kyle coming off the screen as a viable option. However, in these late game situations they will often times catch teams over-playing Korver and get Horford wide-open under the basket by slipping the screen. The Hawks like to run this play out of timeouts and will have Korver take the ball out. He gets the ball to the point guard, who will then find Smith on the left elbow. Smith dribbles towards Korver coming up the floor, which draws both Korver and Horford’s defenders up, before rifling a pass down to an open Horford for the lay-up.

Alkorver pindown1 Alkorver pindown2

The difficulty in stopping both of these plays despite their simplicity is the pressure it puts on the opposition to communicate and rotate. The Smith/Horford pick-and-roll can also end with Horford setting the screen rather than slipping, and Smith turning the corner and driving to the basket. Smith’s quickness and athleticism forces the defense to respect his ability to get to the rim, which means Al’s man must hedge to cut off the potential driving lane. Horford’s quick first step allows him to get to the rim before his man can recover, or a help defender can get in position.

Kyle Korver has made the biggest impact on the Hawks offense of all of the players that were added to the roster this offseason. Korver is second in the NBA (to Jose Calderon) in three-point field goal percentage at 45.7%. He has made a three-point field goal in 73 consecutive games and has opened up the Hawks offense tremendously. Korver’s presence on the court forces defenses to adjust their coverages to account for his ability to hit the three-point shot. This pressure on the defense to leave a man covering Korver on the perimeter opens up post-up attempts for Smith and Horford as well as driving lanes for Jeff Teague and Devin Harris. When defenses do not respect Korver’s game, especially on the weak-side of the floor, the Hawks will quickly get the ball cross-court by way of a skip pass from the post or a few quick passes around the perimeter. In this example, we see what happens when a team doubles down on Smith in the post, leaving Korver open on the opposite side.

Josh Smith’s passing ability is on display in this play, but is helped out by a subtle move to the top of the key by Korver to make the pass an easier one for Smith. Korver is also one of the Hawks’ biggest threats in transition. The Hawks, because of their overall team speed, are at their best when they force turnovers and get out into transition. Korver has enhanced the Hawks fast-break with his ability to hit transition three pointers. He is shooting 49-of-114 (43%) on transition three-pointers this season, per Synergy Sports, and almost always finds himself open on the wing because the defense is collapsing into the paint to stop the ball-handler.

As you will see on the two videos, Korver ALWAYS runs to the same spot on the floor for his transition threes: just above the break on the wing (or as Josh Smith says “the witch’s tit”), usually on the right side of the floor.

Korver’s off-ball movement is also integral to the success of the Hawks offense in the half-court. With Korver on the floor the Hawks’ eFG% climbs to 54% from 48.8% without him and the TS% jumps from 52.5% to 56.1%. Korver’s constant movement and running off of screens also facilitates ball movement as the Hawks assist rate jumps from 22.4 to 29 when he is on the court. Part of the reason for that jump in assist rate is that Korver does not create offense for himself, and is dependent on teammates to The Hawks will run Korver off of a number of different screen packages including pindowns, elevator screens, and stacked screens (like the one in the next video).

The Hawks half-court offense is based off of a few main plays (including the ones shown here) with various options and variations on each. These plays require a lot of motion both on and off the ball, which is the reason for the success and failure of the offense. The Hawks are 34-11 when they have 24 or more assists as a team, but when the Hawks players slow down, the ball movement subsequently slows down and they end up settling for contested jump-shots. The Hawks are at their best when they move the ball quickly without letting the ball stick in the hands of one player, which has been a drastic change from the “Iso-Joe” years. For the Hawks to succeed in the playoffs they will have to move the ball, force turnovers (27-13 when forcing 15+ turnovers), and play on the fast-break.

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