When Joe Johnson was traded to Brooklyn this offseason, he took Atlanta’s isolation-based offense with him. The Hawks, while no longer privileged with a dominant wing scorer, are also no longer obliged to force-feed a star his inefficient touches 20 feet away from the hoop. There may be some early offensive hiccups in Larry Drew’s new motion based system, but the potential here is undeniable. With a spread pick-and-roll as the fundamental set of this offense, the Hawks have the ability to score on defenses in a multitude of different ways.
In order to best implement this system, it is imperative that the Hawks find the right roles for each player within this new offense.
So, with that in mind, there are of course some questions that need to be answered: who are the most effective pick-and-roll ball handlers? Who is the most efficient roll-man on the Hawks’ roster? The shooters are the most easily labeled, but where does a guy like Devin Harris fit? He’s not a dynamite scorer off of screens, and distribution has never been his calling card. He’s a streaky shooter, but not an ideal fit for the system as a whole. He clearly fits within the Hawks’ generic plan of pushing the pace this season as a slashing, speedy guard, so maybe he’s best served as a change-of-pace, offensive kill switch.
Regardless of Harris’ potential usefulness, it’s clear that Jeff Teague and Lou Williams are the two best pick-and-roll ball handlers on this team. Last season, both Teague and Williams placed in the league’s top-30 points per possession (PPP) as P&R ball handlers, and Williams placed in the top 20. Teague averaged 0.91 PPP while Williams averaged 0.94. Harris squeaked into the top 100 (96 overall) with 0.75 PPP.
One thing that stands out with Williams as a P&R ball handler is how quickly he turns a corner to free himself for a jumper. He absolutely loves to use a screen as a way to position himself at an angle where he can ride his defender’s hip, stop, and then connect on a pull-up. It’s the bread and butter of his game. Sweet Lou’s affinity for mid-range jump shots may be a turn-off to some and may also seem like the tendencies of an inefficient volume shooter, but his decision-making with the ball in his hands is largely impressive. He’s improved his turnover percentage (TOV%) 5 out of his 7 years in the league and has brought it down to an incredible 7.2 turnovers per 100 plays. He’s a savvy player who generally looks to score off of screens instead of create for others, and in doing so he has made himself one of the more dominant situational scorers in the game today.
Jeff Teague, on the other hand, relies significantly more on his ability to get to the cup. While both Teague and Williams are ultra quick, Teague is less of a scorer and prefers to get deeper into the paint or further inside the arc where he can connect from a shorter distance or hit the roll-man cutting to the basket. As opposed to Williams who often prefers a stop-and-pop, once Teague feels the defender on his hip or sees a sliver of daylight, he turns on the jets and blasts toward the hoop. He has one of the quickest first steps in the league, so once he decides to switch gears, it’s almost impossible to catch him, especially from a step behind. Much like Williams will occasionally seize the opportunity to finish at the rim, Teague will occasionally pull up directly off a pick (Teague does this much less often than Lou finishes at the rim. Only if the defender goes under the pick and the lane is clogged will he pull up). As each pick-and-roll is a little different from the next, it really just depends on what the defense is giving you. Teague isn’t an all-world midrange shooter (he only shot 36% on midrange jumpers last season), but if an opportunity presents itself in rhythm, he’s not going to pass it up. Considering that 46.6% of his total shot attempts last year came directly at the hoop, it’s safe to assume that Teague favors penetrating the lane and making his decision once he sees how the defense responds. Teague, again, is a bit more of a distributor than Williams (assist percentage of 24.3 assists per 100 plays to 22.4—however, these numbers don’t accurately depict assists off of P&Rs), but he’s much more turnover prone (15.1 TOV%).
If Teague can hold onto the ball and finish at a more consistent clip in the paint, then he is in line to make a huge jump in efficiency this season. He’ll be initiating the offense more often than not, either calling his own number for a P&R or calling Lou’s, so the Hawks will be under his direction even if he isn’t the proclaimed leader of the team (that would be Josh Smith). That is why Teague’s development is so important this year. If he demonstrates that he is capable of being a lead backcourt player, then there is no question that the frontcourt of Josh Smith, Al Horford, and Zaza Pachulia will benefit from Teague’s improvements, both in transition and in the half-court.
With these two different styles of P&R ball-handlers, the most important question is how will the big men respond and whose talents are best maximized in what situations? It’s more important because while the Hawks have developed a diverse and strong backcourt, the frontcourt of this team is the real meat. That’s where most of the points will be coming from. Josh Smith and Al Horford are two potential All-NBA guys, and both thrive in pick-and-roll situations, so it would be wise to utilize them in ways that benefit both themselves and the rest of the team.
That is why a pick-and-roll spread offense can be so deadly with this roster. If you flank your primary, top-of-the-three-point-line P&R with a shooter in each corner (and by the way, the Hawks have plenty, just take 2 from the stable), then you’re forcing the defense to make a choice. Assuming a solid pick is set by either Smith or Horford, and Teague (or Williams) is able to penetrate, then you have the screen setter rolling to the basket (let’s say it’s Smith), the other big flashing to the top of the key from the low-post (let’s say Horford), and the ball handler having the option to do one of a plethora of things: hit the roll man if he is open, hit the other big flashing to the top of the key for a mid-range jumper if the defense got lost on a switch, take it to the hoop yourself, or if the defense collapses around you, kick to a sniper in the corner for three. It’s important for the ball-handler to be aware of everything developing around his penetration, because if he’s not, all the movement could just result in a wasted possession.
Regardless, when was the last time a Hawks offense had such potential for ball movement and efficiency? We’ve spent the last 7 years watching Joe Johnson waste half of the shot clock while hopelessly jab-stepping and staring at his defender before finally committing to a decision. Granted, Johnson had the frame and skills to make this star-appeasing formula work, but it doesn’t exactly inspire fans to spring from their seats or other teammates to work offensively. It could be effective in small-doses, but on a large scale, the Hawks offense was generally painful to watch. Having a roster filled with athletes bred for fastbreaks and the open court, you would have thought that either Mike Woodson or Larry Drew would have done away with Iso-Joe on a permanent basis and looked for more opportunities in transition or semi-transition. But they didn’t and the Hawks haven’t placed higher than 19th overall in pace of offense since 2005.
So with these new opportunities and efficient P&R ball handlers, whom should the offense run through? Just because Teague is running the offense doesn’t mean the offense runs through him. It has to be either Josh Smith or Al Horford, the two most efficient and well-rounded offensive players on this roster.
Horford is wider, so naturally he is harder to get around when he sets a screen, but both seem to roll pretty effectively. Horford’s synergy stats from last season aren’t eye-popping for a number of reasons, but only playing in 11 regular season games doesn’t provide a large enough sample size for him to be fairly critiqued. However, if his return performances in Games 5 and 6 of the Celtics series are any indication, then a Teague-Horford pick-and-roll should be one of the more efficient pairings in this set.
Smith seems to be more lackadaisical in the act of setting screens than Horford. He doesn’t maximize his width to make it difficult for defenders to chase the ball handler, but at least he’s a body in the way. What makes Smith so scary is his freakish athleticism off of a roll. When he rolls hard to the basket, few forwards have the speed to keep up with him and almost no guards have the athletic ability to contest him once he’s airborne. Smith’s main Achilles heal, however, is when he does just the opposite. Smith, to the chagrin of everyone in the Peach State, loves to drift after his screen for a pick-and-pop. Pick-and-pops are great, especially for Al Horford who can knock down 18 footers, but for Smith? It’s a nightmare. He shot 36% on midrange jumpshots last season (163-450) and averaged a mediocre 0.81 PPP (good for 238th in the league) on spot-up opportunities. Clearly this is not his forte and is likely what held his PPP as a P&R roll man to 0.88. Nevertheless, Smith is an all-around offensive force who (we’re all hoping and praying) will take fewer jumpers this season. With guys like Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow, and John Jenkins brought in specifically to shoot the ball, hopefully the man that recently dubbed himself “midrange shawty” will become “in-the-paint shawty.”
Al Horford is seemingly the only player who has fought the running TrueHoop and Daily Dime Live meme of “Don’t Trust the Hawks,” mainly because he’s been the only guy on this team that you can trust to do the same thing every night: go out there and drop 15 and 10. But more importantly, we can trust him to not do anything stupid.
That isn’t the case with Josh Smith. You can always count on a few rainbow jumpers that barely graze the rim, an overreaction to a missed call, and a pair of silly turnovers, but does all of that really matter? Smith may fall into the classic case of players who are so good, but could be so much better, but the issue with classifying Smith as such is that his “so good” is frighteningly good. Smith is one of the most versatile power forwards in the league; he’s a guy who can handle the rock in transition, play efficiently in the post, move well without the ball, and most intriguingly, utilize his court vision to pass his way through defenses.
That’s the most underrated aspect of Smith’s game and what might just create an interesting dynamic within the Hawks’ offense. Clearly, as a pick-and-roll handler, the Hawks would prefer Teague, Williams, or even Harris, but what would a Smith-Horford P&R look like? (Alright, yeah, I know, probably a disaster.) Smith has issues with his handle, so it’s clearly not optimal, but putting your two best players in a situation where they can feed off of each other is never a bad idea. While it’s not likely to be in a P&R scenario, I’m sure you’ll see plenty of Smith and Horford finding ways to play off of each other’s skills, especially in the post. Because this is one of the best frontcourt passing duos in the league, Larry Drew would be wise to allow them to pick defenses a part by setting one on the block (likely Horford, the better post player), and having the other cut hard to the paint off of a screen (likely Smith, the better finisher and cutter). Obviously, I’m no head coach so coming up with sets isn’t what I do for a living, but if the Hawks were to look at how, lets say Memphis’ bigs benefit from each other’s presence in terms of passing and ball movement, they could gather some interesting ideas that work with two heady passers down low (I’m not saying that Smith or Horford can pass from the post like Marc Gasol, but in fairness, can anyone?).
The bottom line is that there are so many options for the Hawks offensively this season, and it would be foolish not to explore all of them. The spread pick-and-roll seems like it will be a common set based on the way the Hawks’ personnel fits within it, but that isn’t to say that other ideas shouldn’t be thought through. If Larry Drew can finally string together a consistent performance from his motion offense that we’ve been hearing about for 2 years now, then ball movement shouldn’t be an issue. Ball movement, actually, cannot be an issue. Not with this team and not with this roster. Danny Ferry constructed a team built for transition and semi-transition basketball, so ideally there should be more natural and freelancing ball movement than anything, but the Hawks need to have success in the half-court as well. The question is how will the players use their strengths to benefit each other? You’ve got guys on this team who can shoot, guys who look to score off picks, guys who look to make plays off picks, guys who set good picks and finish, and guys who can run off of off-ball screens for open looks. You’ve got it all here in Atlanta, Larry Drew, maybe not a superstar or a lockdown defender on the wing, but offensively, you have the pieces to make this work. Let’s see what you can do.