What’s the Main Cause of the Atlanta Hawks’ Recent Slide?


(AP Photo/John Bazemore)

We’ve all seen this movie before. In the past week, the Hawks have gone belly-up against lesser competition, including some teams more concerned with lottery balls than May basketball.

It’s frustrating. This year was supposed to be different. We were supposed to be able to trust the Hawks this year, and yet they have toyed with our hearts once again. The new regime lead by San Antonio disciples Danny Ferry and Mike Budenholzer sought to spurn the recurring lapses that spurred (pun intended) wildly varying results.

Every team loses to bottom feeders once in a wild, but for Atlanta from 2008-2012, embarrassing losses were seemingly a rite of passage. Like politicians in 2008, change was promised in the Peach State. However, through the first segment of the season, the team simply looks like a average one reaching for the same answers by which they were previously confounded. It’s like treating an infestation of ants first with bug spray, then with new carpeting only to have the pests return.

That’s not to say any of this is a lost cause. It has only been 18 games into what will be a multi-year process towards championship contention.

This is supposed to be a year of growth and development, and it is to some degree. Throughout his inconsistencies, Jeff Teague seems to be elevating his game coming off an uncertain offseason that almost sent him to Wisconsin. Teague is averaging 17.4 points and 8.5 assists per game coming into Saturday night, which are both career highs. Once his inexplicably poor three point shooting regresses to career averages, Jeff may find himself in the elite point guard conversation. Newcomers Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll have found their niches in this Hawks offense in short time. Shelvin Mack has solidified the backup point guard rotation.

Despite these revelations, the Hawks find themselves mired in a slump, dropping 4 of 5 games. The only win was a one point squeaker that needed the Hawks to overcome a 17 point deficit. Even though it’s just a five game stretch, it has raised many concerns about the Hawks abilities moving forward.

What is wrong with them? Why the recent poor play?

The statistics are very telling. The Hawks have lost by an average of 102.2 to 90.4. And it’s not as if their opponents have been world beaters. Boston was coming off of a 6 game losing streak. Orlando is last in the Southeast Division at 6-10 fresh off of a 20 win season. Washington has a worse point differential than even Orlando.

In those five games, the Hawks allowed opponents to shoot 47.5% from the field but an even more alarming 41.7% from three for a true shooting percentage of 57.8%. That true shooting percentage would currently rank third in the league, behind only the two-time champion Miami Heat and Houston should it have been a single opponent. Similarly, that three point percentage would be second in the league, behind only Golden State.

The primary cause would then seem to be the Hawks perimeter defense not just in the last week but all season long. The Hawks are in the bottom ten in 3FG% defense going into Saturday’s play, but not near dead last. And although the Hawks defense still ranks smack dab in the middle of the league in terms of defensive efficiency, opponents are getting over 25% of their points from the three point shot, per TeamRankings.com, which puts the Hawks fifth worst in that field.

Most current and former players or coaches would tell you communication is paramount to maintaining a top level defense. Some players, like Kevin Garnett, are universally renowned for the ability to solidify a defense through use of their voice even as they leave their physical primes. While I have no secret microphone located over the court in Philips Arena, there’s reason to believe this recently rebuilt Hawks team is struggling in that area, and it seems to especially show in defensive transition. In simple terms, there is no Kevin Garnett on this roster, and it shows.

Kyle Korver (left) and Al Horford (right) will both miss the Atlanta Hawks’ preseason finale in Dallas on Wednesday. (Source: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America)

The Hawks led the Orlando Magic 53-49 after halftime in a game on November 26, and 57-49 a few minutes into that third quarter. Then, the wheels came off. Orlando’s hot shooting buried the Hawks from deep and sent Atlanta to a loss at home. By the time Coach Mike Budenholzer called a timeout with 3:52 left to play in the third down 74-67, there were already looks of frustration and confusion on the faces of the home team. Here are some of the events that conspired in that third quarter which may shed light on some of Atlanta’s troubles.

In this clip, Teague is gifted a one-on-one leakout but the resulting blown layup starts a semi-transition opportunity for the Magic. The far side of the floor is flooded with players in both white and blue jerseys, but no one is covering point guard Jameer Nelson, presumably Lou Williams’ assignment. Maybe he assumed Teague would pick him up but it appeared to be a break down in communication nonetheless. The next series of events is predicable. Nelson dribbles into the open paint and draws two men. Kyle Korver has to help off his man, Afflalo, on the wing to cover for Paul Millsap. Teague cannot rotate over in time to prevent a buried open three.

In effect, poor communication leads to poor transition defense, which leads to poor perimeter defense, which would, in turn, negatively affect the offense due to mounting frustration.

Often we think of possessions as either halfcourt or transition, but it’s in the semi-transition that offense are taking advantage of the Hawks. The ball handler may be only walking the ball up the court, but the defense is not yet settled. Such is the case here:

Nelson looks to be in no hurry to bring the ball up the court and the possession may not be classified as a transition opportunity, but the Hawks find themselves bunched up near the top of the key while two Magicmen lurk on the baseline. Nelson spots the Atlanta defense sleeping, and a Nicholson jumper forced Coach Bud to call a timeout in obvious disgust.

The total effect the perimeter defense has on the overall defense is unfortunate, as seen by recent game results. These breakdowns cannot happen, and yet they are repeatedly and over longer than one game spans. This is part of the reason the Hawks allowed Washington to post a 12-24 mark from long range last night. Even worse, the Hawks offense seems to be suffering because of facing so many large deficits, and having to press to make up the gap has not been a solution.

Proper perspective needs to be had, of course. There’s a Gheorghe Mureșan-sized chasm between the Hawks and the tier of two in the East. There is nothing to suggest that the Hawks could even slightly dent the speeding cars of the Pacers and Heat in seven game series or otherwise. We’re in a player development stage; this is a work in progress.

Tanking, I believe, is not an option, nor should it be. For one, the Hawks have the rights to swap first round picks with the Brooklyn Nets in this upcoming draft and the next, who are currently sporting a spry record of 5-12. Boston owns the rights to the least favorable of these two picks in 2014 only, meaning under the assumption that the Hawks finish higher in draft positioning (a better record and/or advancing farther in the playoffs), where they finish will not correspond with a higher first round draft position this year.

Why play to win if it will only result in at most a second round exit? A culture of winning has to be birthed to advance in this league. Indiana was recently very happy to just be able to challenge the Heat in a first round series but a few years of improvement has them on a collision course with Miami in the Eastern Conference Finals this season. On the flip side, being in the bottom 5 doesn’t not guarantee landing a franchise-changing talent nor the subsequent rise to success, to which Charlotte, Sacramento, Washington and others may attest.

I understand it’s hard to stomach – the thought of more unsteady play. Hawks fans are all too familiar with it. Years of reliance isolation-dependent offensive play led to maddeningly inconsistent results in the capital of the American South. Even in 2013, defensive intensity, especially from the backcourt, seems to come and go. But every one of the 30 NBA teams are searching for the ever-eluding consistency and the Hawks are no exception. And I believe the right leadership is in place in the front office to eventually secure that vision. But for now, the lost focus is located on the arc.

*All stats courtesy of Basketball-Reference unless stated otherwise.

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