Matt Cianfrone is the newest contributor to Hickory-High. He’ll be handling the Friday links in Rants, References and Revelations, and offering longer pieces whenever the mood strikes. You can follow him on Twitter, @Matt_Cianfrone.
The Atlanta Hawks have done better than most people expected, after the loss of Al Horford early in the season. They sit fifth in the East, only a game behind the Indiana Pacers. Yet many people, myself included, cannot see them winning more than a first round playoff series, and even that may be tough if they can’t move up from the five seed. Something that may help them in their quest to go where this group has never gone before, past the second round, is something the team has not done much of this season, even without Horford – go small.
Looking at some numbers, the lineup of Jeff Teague, Kirk Hinrich, Joe Johnson, Marvin Williams and Josh Smith caught my eye. So far this season this lineup has only played 22.8 minutes together according to 82games.com. Part of that can be attributed to injuries; Hinrich, Williams, and Johnson have all missed multiple games at different points during the season. This lineup stands out, because it puts the Hawks’ five best players on the floor at the same time and, on paper, would give them some decided advantages in the speed and athleticism departments.
Even with the athletes they have, the Hawks check in at the bottom of the league in pace, ranking 23rd at 92.2 possessions per game, behind teams such as Boston, Dallas, and the Los Angeles Lakers. That number puts them just ahead of the Bulls and 76ers and their 91.9 possessions. This would not be an issue for the Hawks if that slow pace was the result of a deliberate and efficient offense, but the team checks in at 17th in the league in offensive efficiency, averaging 101.5 points per 100 possessions. In comparison, Chicago is fifth in the league at 105.1 points per 100 possessions followed by the Clippers, who also trail the Hawks in pace, yet score 104.6 points per 100 possessions. The Hawks have been able to win games this year with a strong defense, compensating for a mediocre offense.
The inability to score has been particularly striking against the teams in the playoffs at the moment: New York, Orlando, Oklahoma City, Indiana, Miami, the Los Angeles Clippers and Lakers, Boston, Chicago, Memphis, San Antonio and Philadelphia. In the 19 games the Hawks have played against those opponents since Horford’s injury the they have scored over ninety points 4 times; twice against Indiana, once against the Thunder, and once against the Knicks. In only two games did the Hawks score 100 points or more, one of two matchups with the Pacers, and one of two with the Knicks . Meanwhile in seven of those games the Hawks have scored less than 80 points, and in one game against the Magic, the Hawks needed overtime to score 89 points.
As can be expected, the Hawks’ record in these games is not good, an ugly 6-13. Of those 13 losses, eight have been double-digit blowouts including losses by 20 to Miami, 21 to Chicago, and 18 to San Antonio. Even the single digit wins were semi-deceiving as only two times were the Hawks able to simply keep the game within 5 points, once against Boston, a 79-76 slugfest, and once against Philadelphia. Quite simply the Hawks have struggled to be competitive against top tier talent, mostly because they cannot score the ball well enough to stay in games.
Plenty of this offensive problem is centered on how the Hawks offense is built. Atlanta runs isolation plays on 12.0% of their possessions according to mySynergySports.com, a number that is comparable to other isolation heavy teams such as the Thunder (13.7%) and Lakers (12.8%). Unfortunately for the Hawks they do not have a Kobe Bryant, Russell Westbrook, or Kevin Durant on their roster. What they do have is Joe Johnson; who is pretty good in isolation situations scoring 0.85 points per possession, only 0.02 points less than Bryant. The biggest problem for the Hawks is where the ball goes when a Johnson isolation does not work. So far this year that answer has been to Josh Smith. This season Smith has 161 isolation possessions more than anyone on the Hawks outside of Johnson’s 212. In fact the two, combined, account for about 53% of the Hawks 703 team isolation possessions. Smith though does not use his portion to produce anything near that of Johnson, scoring 0.75 points per possession in these situations, shooting only 35.3% from the field, and turning the ball over 6.2% of the time. In total, Smith only scores on 39.1 percent of his isolation attempts. There has to be a better option for a struggling offense.
One possibility lies in using Teague and Johnson to run pick and rolls with Smith. That is where the small ball lineup mentioned above of Teague-Hinrich-Johnson-Williams-Smith could be useful. As the ball handler in pick-and-roll situations this season, Jeff Teague has been excellent scoring 0.9 points per possession, good for 30th in the league. The problem with the Hawks is that instead of making that a greater part of their young point guard’s offense than the 31% it is, he runs isolation sets 15% of the time he has the ball. Johnson also runs the pick-and-roll well as a ball handler, scoring 0.83 points per possession. With two adept pick-and-roll handlers on the floor the Hawks should be running this more than they do.
Another problem is that when the Hawks do run a pick-and-roll they are using the wrong player to set screens. For much of the season the Hawks have used Zaza Pachulia or Ivan Johnson as the primary screeners on pick-and-roll plays, instead of their most dynamic finisher in Smith. While Pachulia is scoring 1.12 points per possession off of rolls, he has only attempted thirty eight shots for the entire season in these sets. Smith on the other hand has 68 attempts and still scores over a point per possession, checking in at 1.01. In addition, when Smith is on the floor but not involved in a pick-and-roll it usually means he’s spotting up for a jump shot, not a strength of his.
On plays where Smith sets screens Pachulia’s man is normally able to help on Smith when he dives to the basket, mostly because Zaza is not a threat from anywhere outside of the front of the rim. When Horford was around he was able to clear out the paint because of his ability to shoot from 16 to 18 feet and Smith was allowed much more room to operate off of rolls. Instead this year, Smith tends to pop after he screens and settles for jump shots, which as anyone who has watched the Hawks knows is a not a great use of his talents.
If the small lineup was playing, Williams, Hinrich, and either Teague or Johnson combination would be able to spot up in the corners or on the wing during those Smith pick-and-rolls. All four of the players are shooting well enough from three point land this season, (Teague and Hinrich shoot at 33 percent, while Johnson is at 38.5 percent and Williams leads the group at 40 percent) for the defense to have to respect them and be less willing to help to the middle. The spacing this lineup would allow would also help the team if they did want to run isolation sets, exploiting the mismatches it would cause, notably Smith on opposing centers. This lineup would also allow the Hawks to get out and run more in transition without the plodding Pachulia slowing them down.
Defensively the lineup seems like it could be problematic, but looking at the teams the Hawks are likely to face in the Eastern Conference playoffs, it may not be as big a problem as it seems. The Hawks are just about locked into the 3-6 seed range, and with the Magic fading as of late it looks like they will finish somewhere in the 3-5 range. This leads to possible matchups with either Boston, Indiana, or Orlando. Boston is already playing a small lineup with Kevin Garnett manning the center position and Brandon Bass at power forward. Bass is much more of a perimeter threat than a post-up one, which would allow Marvin Williams to at least hold his own defensively. It allows allows the Hawks to get matchups they would want such as Johnson covering Paul Pierce and Smith on Garnett without cross-matching on the fly. Against Indiana and Orlando the Hawks would not have to break this lineup out as often because the team has had success against both this season playing the way they are currently constructed.
If they were to advance past the first round and face either Miami or Chicago, the players that Williams would match up with are both more known for shooting jump shots than playing with their backs to the basket. In fact recently we have seen Carlos Boozer play very averagely with Carmelo Anthony covering him. Combine this with the fact that Williams does a good job in the post, giving up only 0.77 points per possession, and the Hawks worries at defending those possessions should drop some. At the center position, neither Miami or Chicago have player that could be classified as offensive weapons. In fact against Miami, Atlanta could choose to play Josh Smith on Chris Bosh and Marvin Williams on Joel Anthony without much worries.
The Hawks have about two weeks left in the regular season to try out lineup combinations such as this one. These combinations won’t necessarily have to start or finish games, but the team should at least experiment some. In the end the decision comes down to one thing. Do they want to stick with what has not worked because that’s what they have always done? Or do they want to try something new and see if it can take them where they have never been? Knowing the Hawks the answer is probably the former, but maybe, just maybe, they will decide to give something new a chance one of these days.