Twenty-seven games into the season, the Atlanta Hawks are 16-9, good for 3rd in the Eastern Conference and 8th best in the NBA. These 27 games marks almost exactly a third of the season completed, as well as all of the pre-Christmas games finished. There goes a popular saying that the season really begins after Christmas, but the games before it still count in the standings. It is as good a time as any to assess the Hawk’s start to the season.
The record makes for a .640 winning percentage thus far. If it held, it would be the best winning percentage since 3 seasons ago, the first season of Jamal Crawford’s stop in Atlanta when the Hawks were 53-29 and reached the second round in the playoffs. Before that season, the last season to eclipse a .640 winning percentage was the 1996-97 Hawks that finished 56-26 and were led by Christian Laettner, Steve Smith, Mookie Blalock and Dikembe Mutombo to an Eastern Conference Semifinal exit to Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls.
So what have the Hawks done well in 2012 and what areas need improvement?
Per Hoopdata.com, the Hawks are 12th in offensive efficiency, points per 100 possessions, and 5th in defensive efficiency. On offense, the Hawks take a lot of three pointers, which makes sense considering having two of the best three point shooters in the league in Korver and Morrow as well as a few other long range options. The Hawks use 28.4% of their field goal attempts on three pointers, 4th most in the league behind the Knicks, Rockets and Lakers. The Hawks have hit 36.4% of those, or 54.6 points per shot, for tenth in the league.
Also, the Hawks have a high assist rate, 61% for eighth best in the association, or put differently, a large majority of their made field goals are assisted. There are many possible reasons for this: a byproduct of getting rid of a major isolation player in Joe Johnson, many lineups with two of the three guards with an ability to run point guard (Teague, Williams and Harris), or possibly less of one player slashing to the bucket and more ball movement and jump shooting. A combination of these three is the most likely answer, as the many patrons of Philips Arena have been able to see, but many would agree that the main factor is that Iso-Joe is no mo’. A large criticism of previous Hawks team have been large amounts of one-on-one play but this year’s team seems intent on removing that label. We may actually be able to trust the Hawks once again.
A drag on their offensive performance, however, is their high reliance on jump shots. Atlanta is 25th in percentage of shots at the rim, with only 27.7 of shots at close range. Point to Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow and DeShawn Stevenson in part for that low number, as the trio has combined for 16 attempts at the rim (and only 9 makes) in 1075 combined minutes on the floor. For comparison, those three have 208 three point attempts in the same span (86 makes for 41.3% shooting). Their jump shooting contributions are certainly welcome and these three players have never been mistaken for slashers but it creates redundancy when multiple members of that group are in the same rotation.
On the other hand, Josh Smith and Al Horford are both skilled big men that get to the rim and finish with ease. Even Jeff Teague and Lou Williams have a high percentage of shots at the rim, due to their explosive speed in transition. However, the midrange has not been nice to the Hawks’ pillars in the paint for one reason or another. The duo of Smith and Horford is only 33.4% on two pointers beyond three feet from the rim. League average from that range is 39.2% for comparison. Horford has a long track record of shooting well from that range, whereas Smith does not possess the same career mark but neither are performing like the top 30 NBA players that they are in that area thus far. Expect that mark to rise by season’s end.
The most remarkable mark of this Hawks club has been their stellar defense, an area in which they were expected to struggle preseason. The Hawks have done this by forcing the second most turnovers on a per possession basis. Jeff Teague, Josh Smith, Kyle Korver, Lou Williams and Devin Harris all average over a steal per game. In a similar light, a block counts as a shot for the opponent but sometimes results in a change in possession. Josh Smith also averages over 2 blocks a game, in the top 10 in the NBA, and Al Horford adds 1 a game as well. In addition, although individual defensive performances are hard to rate and quantify, Smith is in the top 10 in Defensive Rating and Defensive Win Shares per Basketball-Reference.com.
One area of concern for the home team is securing rebounds. So far, they rate 20th in total rebound rate, 11th in defensive rebounding and 24th in offensive rebounding. This is mostly because of a rotation front court of the 6’9” Josh Smith, 6’10” Al Horford, 6’11” Zaza Pachulia, and the 6’8” Ivan Johnson, according to their listed heights on B-Ref, a fulfillment of Billy Knight’s dreams. The guards have rebounded poorly even for guards, as none of Teague, Williams, Harris and Morrow have even grabbed 5% of available rebounds (league average for guards is 6%). Even at the small forward position, they have been undersized with the 6’5” DeShawn Stevenson and the 6’7” Kyle Korver. Still, this is a trade off for having a quick defense that forces a lot of turnovers and limits the opponents’ shots that many would take, shown the results.
Given that this team is comprised largely by loose parts that the Nets were eager to part with to bring in Joe Johnson as well as remaining contract year players from the Sund era, this has been a remarkable start to the season that even the most optimistic fans probably never saw coming. Though the Hawks are not regarded as contenders despite the quick start, fans have to be pleased at the ability to get better through the draft and free agency going forward with little future financial commitment to speak of.