Sep 30, 2013; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks power forward Al Horford (15) and power forward Paul Millsap (4) pose with head coach Mike Budenholzer (center) during media day at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Daniel Shirey-USA TODAY Sports

Analysis: Atlanta Hawks Are Smart for Focusing on Mid-Range Shooting

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You can never have too much of a good thing. Or at least that’s the vision Atlanta Hawks management and coaches are trying to bring to fruition.

For years, Al Horford has been one of the best big shooters this side of Dirk Nowitzki. Horford obviously and deservedly gets less acclaim than Nowitzki, but it’s become clearer and clearer Big Al never quite receives the recognition he’s due.

As the longest tenured Hawk and their de facto leader, Horford has overcome the eclipsing of such notable shot chuckers such as Joe Johnson, Jamal Crawford, and even Josh Smith, to become the well-deserved centerpiece of the team.

The way in which Horford operates has become a norm among many forwards and centers in this era of small ball lineups and optimizing floor spacing. Here was his shot chart last season he accumulated last season before going down to injury in late December. At the time he averaged a career best 18.4 points per game and 56.7 field goal percentage (57.1 eFG%).

All the green areas represent where Al shot significantly better than league average last season. As you can see, there’s a lot of them. Horford was also among the league leaders in catch-and-shoot shooting percentage, according the the NBA’s player tracking, at over 50%. The Teague-Horford pick and pop has quickly become one of the more unstoppable plays and I don’t see any reason for that to change going into this season.

If you could clone Horford and stick another one of him on the Hawks, would you? What about an additional four Horfords? There is of course the issue of redundancy but shooting prowess is as flexible a basketball skill that exists.

Rangy forwards are all the range today. See the aforementioned Dirk, Lamarcus Aldridge, Chris Bosh, the eternal Tim Duncan and many other examples.

When the Hawks selected Adreian Payne with the 15th overall pick this June, I and others assumed it would crowd out Mike Scott for a spot on the roster. At the time, Scott was entering the unknown as a restricted free agent for a team who had drafted two bigs, Payne along with the 7’3” center Walter Tavares, and his time in Atlanta seemed to be coming to a close. But he recently agreed to a three year deal to stay as a Hawks, much to the surprise of many including myself.

And let’s not forget Paul Millsap, last offseason’s prized acquisition who had a career year aided by the bitter loss of Al Horford to a pectoral injury that ended this season for the second time in three years. Though he takes more shots nearer the rim than Horford, as evidenced by shot distribution below, defenses know not to leave him near the elbow or anywhere else.

First is Al Horford’s shot distribution. Notice the blue areas above the paint near the free throw line. Those areas Horford takes a higher percentage of shots than league average.

horforddistribution

Second for comparison is Paul Millsap’s distribution. Notice the cluster of blue near the rim. And this is a guy who was told he was too small to play the power forward position.

millsapdistribution

While Millsap’s shooting percentages suffered from having to shoulder the load of Atlanta’s offense of most of the season, he proved to be an effective PnP (pick-and-pop) and PnR (pick-and-roll) partner. But it’s become clear that health permitting, he won’t be the only one used in that role in 2014-15.

Despite ending the season under .500 in a very weak Eastern Conference, the Hawks prided themselves on the ability to shoot from anywhere. The Hawks were above league average in all the Basketball Reference distances intervals, including shooting 41.3% from 16-23 feet, also known as Horford and crew’s pick-and-pop sweetspots.

The Teague to Horford/Millsap/etc. connections were ones that produced great results. The Hawks assisted on more 2 point field goals than all teams except for the Bulls last season, partially due to Joakim Noah’s heroics after Derrick Rose went down.

Joining those twin towers will be at least three more PnP candidates, Scott, Payne, and three point specialist/enforcing center Pero Antic. Payne may be worked into the rotation slowly but he certainly proved a lot at the collegiate level, shooting 53.6% overall and 42.3% from three on a sizeable amount, 3.6 attempts per game. Whether that kind of shooting can transition to the next level we’ll see, but he’ll certainly have plenty of help being a catch and shoot target.

Scott and Antic can make their mark from beyond the arc this upcoming season. While neither shot particularly well from there last season (both under 33%), they both had their hot streaks from that area.

And there’s very little spacing overlap between the two. Scott is a power forward who occasionally plays the small forward while Antic is typically a center who may moonlight as a power forward, so they can certainly share the floor. Scott prefers the top of the key and the left corner while Antic prefers the right according to NBA.com’s shot charts. Stick each in a separate corner and will watch defenses struggle to cover both areas all season long.

This staple of the offense lends reasoning to the re-signing of restricted free agent Shelvin Mack, even with the presence of Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder. While all three can play off guard, they will all be counted on the run the offense in part by delivering passes to the bigs in space. The key is penetration, as that will successfully suck the defense in to kick out to an open shooter.

According to TeamRanking.com, the Hawks were first in the league last year in assists per made field goal and second in assists per possession. Sharing the ball has been a major focal point from the new regime, as I’ve covered here and at many other points. This is a testament of Coach Bud’s selfless offense he worked tirelessly to try to install in just a season’s time.

A common criticism is that midrange shots are the least efficient shots a team can take. Shots at and near the rim go in more often. Take a few steps back and a field goal is worth a point more. But within the confines of a 24 second shot clock, it’s hard to consistently find great shots. Sometimes the best shot is a semi-contested 18 footer. If you have a team with the ability to knock down those shots, it can go a long way to pulling out wins you normally would drop.

There’s a weak but existent positive correlation between winning percentage and average distance of shot and offenses should be aware and able to hit long range shots.

Screen Shot 2014-08-19 at 9.12.32 PM

Basketball shots are not taken in a vacuum. They’re completely dependent on the spacing an ability of the offense as well as the stiffness of the opposing defense.

Typically defenses will guard the rim and the arc heavily and everything in between in a slightly more relaxed fashion for reasons mentioned above. Why not counter that and hit shots from the least guarded range?

One of the most popular basketball mantra goes, “Take what the defense gives you”. The Hawks will be well-equipped to do so, and in the process make teams pay come November.

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Tags: Adreian Payne Al Horford Atlanta Hawks Mike Scott Paul Millsap Pero Antic

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