By Featured Columnist Brad Rowland
In the aftermath of a catastrophic 97-58 loss on Monday night in Chicago, the focus is understandably on the performance of the night, and just how dreadful the entire Atlanta performance was on that ugly night. I will spare the full and gory details (which can be found here), but the performance was “highlighted” by a 5-point 3rd quarter, a near-franchise low in total points (58), and an NBA record-low 37 points in the first three quarters. There’s no analysis of that other than to say that it was unacceptable and, frankly, embarrassing. The real issue, however, is that it was simply the low point in an already tenuous stretch of the season that has seen Atlanta lose 6 of their last 7 games, and there are some disturbing trends that have developed since the calendar turned to 2013.
Offensively, the Hawks have struggled mightily in recent days. Atlanta has failed to reach even 90 points in 5 of the last 7 games, and the ball seems to be refusing to go in the basket. As a team, the Hawks field goal percentage has dipped from over 45% in both November and December to just 43.4% in January, while the three-point percentage has mirrored the dip as it ranged from 38.5% in December down to 35.3% in January. There are certainly sample sizes issues with this, as the Hawks have only played eight games, but when the sample coincides with the worst stretch of the season, it isn’t a coincidence. Individually, the trend continues in a disturbing way. Josh Smith (44%), Al Horford (50.5%), Kyle Korver (41.7%), Jeff Teague (41.7%), and Lou Williams (39.4%) have all posted their worst shooting percentage (by month) of the season in January, and while that seems almost impossible, it certainly explains the offensive outage.
Elsewhere, Atlanta’s struggles have poured into the non-shooting areas of rebounding and steals. Rebounding has never been a strength of this Hawks team (and it won’t be), but the team, led by Horford and Smith, had been competitive in this area through the first two calendar months. In January, however, Atlanta is being out-rebounded by a staggering 8.4 rebounds per game, and the offensive glass has fallen off from approximately 10 per game in November and December to just 8 per game in January. This accounts for a small loss in “easy” baskets through put-backs, and when coupled with the fact that Atlanta’s defensive steal numbers (9 per game in Nov/Dec. down to under 7 per game in January), the automatic points through lay-ups/dunks don’t seem to be there.
Even with all of the faulty shooting, there is still an elephant in the room. The biggest offensive weakness of this team throughout the season has been an inability/unwillingness to get to the free-throw line, and this issue really exposes itself when the ball isn’t going through the basket in other ways. Atlanta is 27th in the league in free-throw attempts, and that number is falling lower each day. Through January 1st, the Hawks were averaging just under 20 FT attempts per game, and that number has fallen to a meager 16.4 attempts in the first eight games of January. In the NBA, free throws should be considered “easy wins” as most teams (28 of them to be exact) convert 70+% of these shots, and more than half of the teams in the league make 75+% from the stripe. With that said, only Philadelphia makes less free throws per game than Atlanta, and the numbers are jarring in January. 67% from the free-throw line is completely unacceptable at this level, and when you’re only attempting 16 per game, the inefficiency magnifies itself. Unfortunately, Atlanta’s supposed offensive “leader” in Josh Smith converts only 51% of his attempts on the season, and with a not-so-stellar 43% clip in January, the problem isn’t improving. I could pen another 1,500 words on the accountability of Smith in each and every one of these issues, but you’ve read it before.
In the end, offense is to blame for the struggles of this team at the moment. It is awfully surprising to say that considering the roster make-up, but even on a team blessed with some unique offensive advantages, the lights have gone out on the offensive efficiency. Defensively, the Hawks have leveled off after a ridiculously hot start, but at #9 in the league in defensive efficiency, that simply isn’t the issue. It is incumbent on Larry Drew to press the right buttons to address the offensive depression, and it begins and ends with shot selection. Too many contested two-point jump shots, not enough aggressiveness in the lane to get lay-ups (and more importantly, free throws), and no true point guard to get the offense engaged. In addition to Drew, the focus shifts to two particular individuals for me, and they are Josh Smith and Jeff Teague. Smith, for obvious reasons, receives the most scrutiny, and while it is almost always deserved, he shoulders the load because of his immense talents. He is unguardable on the block at times, but the shot selection issue won’t go away. Teague, on the other hand, has bottomed out in 2013, posting season-lows in FG%, 3-PT%, FT%, points, and assists while looking utterly lost at times on offense. He’s never been a “traditional”, pass-first point guard, but the trends have been ugly in recent days, and this edition of the Hawks desperately needs a floor leader from that position.
Do I believe that the problems are unsolvable? Absolutely not. But in the discussion and media frenzy around the abject disaster in Chicago, the focus should be wider than a miserable 48-minute period.