Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Others Leading an Atlanta Hawks Spacing Revolution

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There was a time in Atlanta when boos and jeers rang out when power forwards threw up three pointers. But that was a long long time ago, when one handband-fitted athletic freak roamed Philips Arena.

Josh “J Smoove” Smith was a one-time Slam Dunk champion, assassin of meekly shooting bigs, saturator of box score categories, and perennial All-Star snub. But no one would ever confuse him for Dirk Nowitzki from long range. Although his long two point shot selection was more detrimental to an offense from an effective field goal perspective, his Atlanta career 28.3% 3P% deservedly drew the ire of many onlookers in the deep south.

Paul Millsap, with aid from Mike Scott, Al Horford and even Pero Antic, have marched in a spacing revolution in Atlanta. Monday night, Millsap’s put on a display from downtown. His 10 attempts from behind the arc were 4 more than his previous career high and his 7 makes were 3 more than ever before.

Three pointers are worth 150% more than two pointers. Shooting 33% from three is equivalent to 50% from inside the arc. Elementary, right? This is the very reason the Hawks brass shelled out $24 million over four years to retain the rights of super sniper, Kyle Korver. But who would have thought that newcomer Paul Millsap would stretch the floor like his counterpart?

It seems to go against everything we’ve known as NBA fans. The two big guys are supposed to run down the court and set up camp on the blocks. Set a screen here, post up for a touch there, and get on the glass when the shot goes up. But through the first third of this season, it’s clear the Hawk bigs do much much more than that. It may be non-traditional, but it given the skill sets of the bigs in Atlanta, why not allow them to roam about within their shooting range?

As mastery of the new offense begins to take place, the Hawks shooters seem to have found their roles with regards to long range shooting. Here is a chart plotting three point rate as a percentage of field goal attempts (x-axis) versus three point percentage (y-axis). That’s Kyle Korver in the top right, leading the Hawks in both categories. The R2 is a correlation coefficient, where 1 means perfect correlation between the two factors and 0 is no correlation at all. Essentially the better shooters have been given a proper chance to succeed in the new offense that values spacing, and the case could be made that some like Millsap could even stand to take more threes.
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Coach Budenholzer knows how to design plays towards his player’s strengths. But he also believes his players could take some more chances in the games. In his words, “I’m a little disappointed the Al hasn’t shot more (3-pointers). He’s made a couple. Each time he makes one I tell him he’s got more in him.” These words were uttered prior to the Miami Heat game, and since then Al has started a two game three point streak of his own.

Here it is in action (click to watch the gif):

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Here we see how the Hawks utilize Paul Millsap’s skillset. Jeff Teague sets up a side pick-and-roll with Al Horford. Horford feigns setting his feet then slips the screen as is his customary tactic, leaving two guys stranded by Teague at the three point wing. Shane Battier, formerly Paul Millsap’s assignment, has to cover the open Horford and as he does so, Millsap sneaks over to the corner. The result is predictable.

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This time, we have one of the many lineups in which all 5 players are capable of hitting from long range. Shelvin Mack works his way towards the paint just enough to draw a double team. The ball moves around the horn from Mike Scott, to DeMarre Carroll, and finishing at Al Horford faster than Rashard Lewis can rotate. ALtomatic.

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Another cumulative effect of this tactic is clearing out the paint for Teague to explode to the rack unimpeded by the opponents’ big men. Here, Atlanta receives a switch off of a pick to put Chris Bosh on Jeff Teague, leaving no shot blockers in the paint. One step and Teague is laying the ball up on the rim with added contact.

Because of the abilities of Atlanta’s post duo, as well as the other roles players in the offense, it has given the flexibility of Coach Mike Budenholzer to run a variety of offensive sets. We have seen “horns” sets with Al Horford and Paul Millsap unconventionally positioned in the corners, “Princeton offense” type sets with all five players surrounding the three point line, among others. Look for a follow up post detailing each of those with specifics.

It has been a joy to watch thus far and it has been a big reason the Hawks sit comfortably at third in the Eastern Conference, atop a throne of first place assist rankings no less. So far, it’s almost impossible to doubt Atlanta’s offensive potency going into 2014 and beyond.

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Tags: Al Horford Atlanta Hawks Paul Millsap

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