Atlanta Hawks: Is Their Three-Point Shooting Success Sustainable?


In the late 1990s Atlanta Braves pitchers Tom Glavine and Greg Maddux were both part of a humorous NIKE ad campaign. The tagline was “Chicks Dig the Long-Ball”. The premise was that these pitchers were trying to hone their batting skills so that they would become as popular as Mark McGwire. Baseball was in the midst of a shift in playing style. While speed and defense were hallmarks of earlier eras, the homerun became king in the 90s.

It was a cute, albeit sexist, commercial that poked fun at the guys for their smaller statures, but it also provides a nice snapshot for where the game was at that particular time. Basketball, the NBA in particular, is in the middle of a similar transformation.

While the 80s and 90s saw the midrange jumper and solid post play rule the day, the 2010s have seen a three-point shooting revolution. This is the era of “pace and space”. Quick ball movement around the perimeter, power forwards that can knock down three-pointers and small-ball.

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Advanced statistics have proven that the most efficient shots are either at the rim or behind the three-point arc (especially in the corners). Teams have taken advantage of these simple truths by tailoring offenses that maximize their efficiency. That means generating and shooting plenty of three-point shots.

The notion that a “jump-shooting” team can’t win a championship has been forever put to bed by the recent titles from both the San Antonio Spurs and more recently the Golden State Warriors. Whether basketball purists like it or not, NBA organizations dig the long-ball.

In fact, the four teams that reached the Conference Finals this season all ranked in the top 7 in three-pointers attempted per game. The Houston Rockets led the way with 32.7 per game, the Cleveland Cavaliers were second best in the NBA with 27.5 a night, the Golden State Warriors were the most deadly shooting team making a whopping 39.8 percent of their threes and also attempted the fourth most in league at 27 per night and Hawks brought up the rear attempting the seventh most three-pointers per game this season.

No matter what Phil Jackson thinks things are going pretty well for teams that rely on the three-point shot. Triangle forever!

As I’m sure you’ve guessed, the Atlanta Hawks are absolutely an organization that has embraced this new way of life. Especially after Mike Budenholzer took over before the 2013-2014 season. That season Atlanta attempted the second most three-pointers in the NBA (25.8 per game), converting 36.3 percent of them. That mark was only good enough for 13th best in the league, but it began their transformation into a three-point shooting machine.

Last season their volume increased slightly to 26.2 attempts per game, though a general boost in three-point shooting around the NBA meant that amount only ranked 7th most in the NBA. Thanks to improvements from Dennis Schroder, DeMarre Carroll and a God-like season from Kyle Korver their accuracy increased tremendously. The Hawks trailed only the NBA Champion Golden State Warriors in three-point field goal percentage, shooting 38 percent. It doesn’t take a basketball expert to understand that their sizzling three-point shooting was a huge key to their 60 win season.

But, the question remains, is their success sustainable? A new season brings a whole new set of obstacles.

To repeat for the millionth time, DeMarre Carroll now plays for the Toronto Raptors. Last season Carroll made 120 of the 304 three-pointers he attempted last season, good for 39.5 percent or 4.5 percent better than league average. Plenty of people on Twitter have suggested that I’ve overrated Carroll and his three-point shooting ability. The prevailing thought has been that Carroll’s open looks were either created by Jeff Teague or a product of the threat of Kyle Korver on the other side of the court. While both those may be true, Carroll still made those shots. The NBA is hard. Making three-pointers is also hard. Carroll’s contributions cannot be overstated and will be difficult to replicate.

Still, that notion is somewhat true. Consider this passage from a July Kirk Goldsberry article.

"Before joining the Atlanta Hawks in 2013, Carroll had never made more than 20 3-pointers in a season. Last year, he made 120 on 40 percent shooting. It was a breakout performance, but again, we have to ask: How much of it had to do with the brilliant spacing and ball movement of Budenholzer’s offense? The Hawks trailed only the Rockets in 3-point assists last season, and 92 percent of their triples were assisted. Carroll was almost completely teammate dependent: He made a grand total of one unassisted 3 all season long."

Replacing Carroll’s shooting will be a patchwork effort. Thabo Sefolosha will most likely nab his spot in the starting five, but a shooter he is not. After back to back seasons where he shot over 40 percent from outside, both with the Oklahoma City Thunder, Sefolosha has shot 31.6 percent and 32.1 respectively in his last two seasons. He is shooting a below league average 34.6 percent for his career, so while he has shown that he is capable of having full seasons where he is deadly from behind the arc, those day may be long behind him.

Then there’s Tim Hardaway Jr. The former New York Knick brings with him impressive physical abilities, the reputation for being a poor defender and a rookie season that featured an above average mark from outside (36.3 percent). However, his rocky sophomore season saw that dip to 34.2 percent.

Those aren’t stellar numbers, but he was playing with the Knicks. A team that won only 17 games and featured the 29th ranked offensive rating in the NBA last season (99.9). It’s easy to imagine Hardaway Jr. performing better in organization with more stability, a team with better players around him and a clear role in a system that will conceivably get him better shots. After months of being skeptical about Tim Hardaway Jr. am I finally buying in? Probably not, but the optimism is growing.

Kent Bazemore, Justin Holiday and Jason Richardson will also be thrown a few minutes here and there, but neither should be expected to light it up from downtown. Richardson’s career three-point field goal percentage is 37 percent, but given his recent injury history he may spend most of his time mentoring young players from the bench.

Bazemore has potential to develop into a capable outside shooting. He made 36.4 percent of his threes last season and shot 37.1 percent in a 23 game stretch for the Lakers the season before. Will the combination of Bazemore, Hardaway Jr. and Sefolosha be enough to replace Carroll’s production? As Goldsberry pointed out, the Hawks are still likely to generate open shots, they just have to find somebody else to knock them down.

Paul Millsap (35.6 percent), Dennis Schroder (35.1 percent) and Jeff Teague (34.3 percent) should put up similar numbers to what they shot last season. I’d be surprised to see a serious regression for either of those three players. If anything I’d anticipate Millsap getting a little better as he continues to adjust to shooting three-pointers on a regular basis. The third year is the charm, right?

Then there’s Threezus. The almighty God of three-point shooting otherwise known as Kyle Korver. Korver was on another planet last season. He shot a ridiculous 49.2 percent from behind the arc, making 221 of the 449 threes he shot. That’s NBA 2K levels of ridiculousness. The average 8th grader can’t even make 49.2 percent of the paper balls they shoot at the trash can when the teacher isn’t looking.

Some regression from Korver has to be expected. It’s not often a player shots nearly 50 percent from three-point range and it’s even rarer to see that same player do it in back to back years. Not to mention Korver is coming off of shoulder and ankle surgery this offseason.

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  • If he is slowed in any way that obviously hampers his ability to get open which could cause his shooting percent to take a slight dip. Now, a dip for Korver would still see him be an excellent three-point shooter. He shot 45.7 percent his first season in Atlanta, 47.2 in 2013-2014 and is a 43.2 percent three-point shooter for his career. Even a down year for Korver would likely be over 40 percent. In other words he’ll be just fine even if he isn’t approaching record high percentages.

    Trying to pin down exactly how these various players will shoot from season to season is like trying to find logic in the Sacramento Kings front office. It’s not impossible, but I sure wouldn’t bet my house on it. I’m expecting a little drop off from Atlanta’s 38 percent three-point performance. Nothing huge, but enough to knock a few wins off of last season’s total. Fortunately for them they can score in other ways.

    Three-point shooting is all the rage right now and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. Part of Mike Budenholzer’s offense is based on generating as many open looks from three-point range, so they’ll still take their fair share of open triples even with Carroll up north and Korver recovering from two surgeries. The question is; how many will they make?

    Next: Offseason Grades

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