5 things you need to know about the surprising Atlanta Hawks
Yes, they are a legitimate threat in the East. No, you should not use the same tired jokes about how they’ve been historically irrelevant.
National analysts, NBA fans and even Atlanta residents tend to forget about the Atlanta Hawks. They seem occupied in no-man’s land with no hope to move up or down, all in a market that doesn’t seem to care either way. And that’s before we get to this summer’s scandal, where the general manager set off a firestorm by reciting a Luol Deng scouting report that suggested the free-agent target “has a little African in him.”
But this year may finally be the one that changes the narrative. The Hawks are 16-7 and near the top of the Eastern Conference despite a buzzer-beating loss in Orlando. They’ve amassed their impressive record against an easy schedule, but they’ve also blown out their competition, a key indicator for future success. Atlanta’s won 10 of 12, and seven of those wins were by double digits.
Before the schedule gets tougher, these are the five things to know about the Hawks.
1. Jeff Teague is playing like an All-Star
Deposed Hawks general manager Danny Ferry’s best move may have happened by accident. His starting point guard was a restricted free agent during his first summer on the job, and reports suggested neither side was that high on the other. But when the Bucks came in with a marginal offer — four years and $32 million, which put Teague on the low end of starting point guards even then — Ferry felt he had to match.
It’s a good thing he did, because Teague’s game has blossomed in Mike Budenholzer’s pace and space system. Atlanta’s whiplash motion takes advantage of two critical Teague strengths: his speed and the threat of his speed. No longer is he trapped by defenders that go under ball screens. Now, he can get to the basket anyway.
That’s important because Teague’s still a reluctant shooter even though he’s improved in that area. In previous years, he’d settle for a three-pointer or long-range two after dancing aimlessly around a ball screen. Ball movement would stop, the shot was generally flat and increasingly it didn’t go in. More importantly: when it did, defenses shrugged. If that’s how you want to beat us, so be it.
But under Budenholzer, Teague has learned how to use the space he’s given to present the threat of his speed. He surprises defenders with the whole package: fast dribbles, hesitation dribbles, head fakes, floaters and — every so often — actual jumpers, more of which are coming from three-point range instead of long-two range. He’s economical with his footwork, creative with his finishes and enhanced by the Hawks’ spacing and his coach’s willingness to let him keep a live dribble for longer.
Watch Teague’s feet closely in this clip. As Andre Miller backs off, Teague takes long steps, using all the space he’s provided to his advantage. Then, as Miller holds his position, Teague chops his feet in short steps to prepare his next move, plants and swings through with an up and under. The floater over big man Kevin Seraphin is the icing on the cake. Each step was different and served a unique purpose.
And once Teague gets to his desired location, he finds many different ways to finish, from traditional swooping layups to push shots like these lofted quickly before shot-blockers can time the attempt.
There are few more creative guards in the NBA inside of nine feet. As long as Teague continues to shoot this well from further out, he belongs in New York in February.
2. They have a fun offense
Budenholzer was Gregg Popovich’s long-time assistant in San Antonio, so this should come as no surprise. Atlanta’s motion offense, combined with an emphasis on playing good shooters, leads to lots of ball movement. Atlanta is seventh in the league in passes per game and only the Celtics generate more assist opportunities. Over 55 percent of Atlanta’s shot attempts come after zero dribbles, which leads the league. Only a handful of teams — Portland, Washington, New York — are even close.
As evidenced by that list, passing doesn’t necessarily equal great offense. The Hawks passed the ball a lot last year and still finished in the middle of the pack in offensive rating. But thanks to Teague’s rise and another year of continuity in the system, the Hawks are knocking on the door of the top 10.
If you squint hard enough, you see the outlines of Spurs East. There’s Teague running around in Tony Parker’s role, Kyle Korver’s shooting and off-ball movement tilting defenses like Manu Ginobili’s passing, Paul Millsap wiggling through defenders like Boris Diaw and Al Horford filling any remaining gaps like Tim Duncan in his twilight.
The Hawks add more confusion by tweaking their set plays on the fly. A common Spurs motion set that calls for Korver to catch the ball curling to the middle of the floor instantly becomes a flare screen for Millsap to shoot an open three or drive.
Or, a just-as-common staggered screen for a player to curl into the lane instantly adds a flare screen to get Korver an open three.
There are many other smaller tweaks that make a play look very different, particularly on out of bounds plays. It’s as if the Hawks are sewing their own square in a much larger quilt.
3. They have supplementary pieces
You now know about Teague, and most know about Horford, but the Hawks get a lot out of unsung players. Millsap earned a deserving All-Star bid last year and has picked up right where he left off this season. He’s become an improving three-point shooter and can finish on a variety of runners around the basket. He’s also adept at slipping screens and scoring on the move, key tenants of Budenholzer’s offense.
Korver isn’t just the league’s best perimeter shooter; he’s also the foundation of many Atlanta offensive schemes. Usually, only threats with the ball draw extra defenders to them, but the Hawks move Korver around to suck defenders scared to yield a Korver jumper. An extreme example: three 76ers players running at Korver at the three-point line and leaving Millsap all alone for a dunk.
A less extreme example: this out of bounds play, where the threat of Korver’s shooting forces Channing Frye to step out, allowing Horford to sneak behind him for a layup.
The supplementary players are useful too. In an era where wings that can shoot, guard the opponents’ best wing player and don’t need the ball are en vogue, DeMarre Carroll is curiously left out of the discussion. It’s no accident the Hawks’ two worst performances of the year — a blowout loss in Cleveland and a home defeat to the lowly Lakers — happened with Carroll injured. He hits 38 percent of his threes and quietly executes Atlanta’s defensive scheme nicely.
The bench is a collection of anonymous parts that works well. After a rough rookie year, Schroeder is coming into his own, knifing through defenses spread by the Hawks’ shooting and delivering pinpoint passes at angles defenders don’t expect. Former second-round picks Shelvin Mack and Mike Scott provide excellent shooting, while backup center Pero Antic has become even more of a weapon now that he’s actually willing to fire away from the perimeter when open. These are intriguing pieces, though a unit of four bench players and Horford has been outscored by over seven points per 100 possessions this season.
The Hawks could use one more athletic big man and a taller two-way bench wing that can take most of the minutes currently reserved for the underwhelming Thabo Sefolosha/Kent Bazemore combination, but they have more pieces than one would think.
4. Their defensive scheme is smart
The Hawks do not have the individual talent to be a top-10 defensive team, yet they rank eighth because of an air-tight gameplan that properly compartmentalizes a team’s biggest threats. Atlanta lacks great rim protection and multiple perimeter stoppers, but does well to flood bodies to the danger areas without over-committing. They defend like a Turtling Risk player: they’re dead-set on protecting the base, but remain nimble enough to pick off weak areas as conditions change.
Korver is particularly important to this strategy. He has a poor defensive reputation — which is severely misguided because he’s far quicker than he appears — yet it’s not his on-ball defense that stands out. Instead, it’s his willingness to float far off his own man to plug gaps.
This has a way of ruining a play’s rhythm. Hawks opponents aren’t expecting Korver to lurk in danger areas, so they struggle to move the ball quickly enough to make Atlanta pay. When they do, Korver uses his quick feet and sound technique to get back into position.
Korver isn’t Atlanta’s only defensive rover, though he’s their best one. You see other Hawks players leave their men as well, particularly if they’re not good perimeter shooters. The Wizards have nowhere to throw this ball because all five Hawks have collectively covered the gaps.
Good luck finding a cutter at this angle, Solomon Hill.
And if you station two poor perimeter shooters on the opposite side of a pick and roll as Orlando does here, the Hawks will happily leave them alone.
This strategy can be dangerous without proper positioning and help. Smart teams run cutters along the baseline and use flare screens to exploit the Hawks ignoring the opposite side. While the Hawks do a nice job of walling off the paint, they don’t offer a ton of resistance once teams get there, so big men ducking in can find space if the passing is quick enough. These issues become magnified in the playoffs as teams zero in on weaknesses.
But the Hawks are well-schooled to minimize the damage of those plays. They keep pick and rolls to the sideline through a collective effort between the guard and the big man. When the ball is moved, so to do all five players. This sounds simple, but it’s a lot harder than it looks. Credit the players for having great chemistry and for the coaching staff drilling it in.
5. Al Horford isn’t himself yet
Optimists would say it’s only a matter of time before Horford gets his wind and takes the Hawks to an even higher level. Pessimists would say Horford’s not going to be the same player and that problem becomes magnified as the competition gets tougher.
But the fact is that the Hawks’ franchise cornerstone is still not back to his old level. He’s still one of the best shooters in the game, but hasn’t posted up nearly as often and isn’t getting to the basket nearly as much. Two years ago, Horford attempted six shots per game inside of five feet. This year, he’s only attempting 3.5. His free throw rate (free throw attempts per field goal attempt) was consistently over 20 percent in the past; it’s below percent this year. His rebounding is down, particularly his presence on the defensive glass. And he’s just not scoring over defenders as often — he’s shooting just 36 percent on heavily-contested shots this year, down from over 52 percent before last year’s injury.
In a different year, Horford blows by a slow defender like Nikola Vucevic in this situation.
Horford clearly isn’t in ideal physical condition after last year’s shoulder injury. He didn’t participate much in training camp and the Hawks have been limiting his court time to short bursts early in the season. It’s a sensible approach to build Horford up to the end of the regular season, but there are enough athletic indicators that suggest he may not be the same player he once was. Injuries add up, and Horford’s had multiple seasons cut short by now.
Horford is the Hawks cornerstone. For the Hawks to make serious noise, he needs to play at his peak.
We’ll find out soon if the Hawks actually are for real. A five-game gauntlet begins Monday and features games against Chicago, Cleveland, Houston, Dallas and the Clippers. The Hawks also haven’t taken a west coast trip, unlike the Bulls and Cavaliers, for example.
But as new contenders like Toronto and Washington generate praise, let’s not forget that the East is actually a five-team race. Atlanta deserves to be right up there in the conversation for a conference finals appearance.
Statistical support for this piece comes from NBA.com’s stats page.