The Whiteboard: Do the Hawks need to start sharing the ball?

Atlanta Hawks, Nylon Calculus, The Whiteboard

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The Hawks are winning games but passing less than any team in a decade. Will a lack of offensive dynamism hurt them as the season goes along?

The Atlanta Hawks made one of the biggest moves of the offseason, trading Danilo Gallinari, three future first-round picks and a pick swap to the San Antonio Spurs for All-Star guard Dejounte Murray. The move was an obvious defensive upgrade at a real position of need but it also raised questions about how the offense would function with two ball-dominant creators when Murray was a 33.0 percent 3-point shooter and Trae Young had shown no real aptitude or interest in playing off the ball.

So far, the experiment appears to be working. Murray is averaging 22.6 points, 8.1 assists, 6.5 rebounds and 2.3 steals per game. The team’s defense has been better by about 3.0 points per 100 possessions and the Hawks are off to a 7-4 start (roughly a 52-win pace).

However, the team’s offense has been worse by about the same margin (2.6 points per 100) as the defense has improved and, stylistically, they have morphed into a fairly bizarre outlier. So far this season, the Hawks are averaging just 240.3 passes per game, lowest in the league by an enormous margin and the lowest total since player tracking statistics became available in the 2013-14 season.

Does it matter that the Atlanta Hawks don’t pass like everyone else?

As you can see the team’s passes per game have dropped steadily over the past two seasons and this year they’re averaging about 30 fewer passes per game than they did two years ago. It hasn’t depressed their assist totals which have climbed incrementally over the same span. But the product is a somewhat warped approach that relies a lot on the ability of Murray and Young to create advantages off the dribble.

This is just one possession, and a fairly quick one, but look how little movement there is. Young brings the ball up the court and runs a high pick-and-roll while three of his teammates stand and watch without moving at all.

NBA CourtOptix tracks the percentage of a team’s offensive possessions that include at least four frontcourt passes. At 9.1 percent, the Hawks aren’t just last in the league, they’re last in the league by a mile. The Los Angeles Lakers, at 12.6 percent, have the next lowest percentage and are the only other team in the league below 13 percent. Eleven teams have a percentage that is more than double that of the Hawks.

The Hawks rank in the top half of the league in assists per game but so many of them are coming after a single action and a single pass from either Young or Murray.

That is, to be fair, an absurdly difficult pass and a jaw-dropping highlight on it’s own. But it’s indicative of how much the Hawks offense is relying on Young and Murray to make things easier for everyone else with their outlier individual abilities. And this isn’t just manifesting in their assists, we see a similar pattern and high level of difficulty in their scoring opportunities as well.

Young is currently third in the league in shot attempts after a touch length of six seconds or more, Murray is ninth. At 190 such shots combined, they have more than 25 entire teams. And it’s not as though those shots have been particularly efficient. They rank 25th (Murray) and 27th (Young) in effective field goal percentage among the 27 players who have attempted at least 50 such shots this season. Combined, they’re posting an effective field goal percentage of 36.2 on shots they’re taking, on average, 18.3 times per game.

I don’t want to be too hard on the Hawks at this point because what they’re doing is working to some degree. They are above average on offense, their defense is much improved and their record is strong to this point. But it’s also very early in the season, only two of their seven wins have come against teams with a winning record and their offense seems to be lacking the dynamism and versatility they made need for a deep playoff run.

— Ian Levy


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