By Brett Koremenos
It was just last spring that the Atlanta Hawks were just another member of the NBA's middle class. They were a nice team with an All-Star in Paul Millsap and a few other intriguing pieces, but no clear direction as to how'd they'd move forward. But with the return of Al Horford from injury and another season under the guidance of a coach, Mike Budenholzer, who might be the league's best offensive mind, Atlanta has skyrocketed both up the standings and efficiency rankings.
If you haven't been watching the Hawks lately, you're missing out on what is perhaps the most entertaining offense in the league. Though there are several elements that go into making the league's sixth-most efficient offense operate smoothly, we've broken down five key factors that should convince you to give Atlanta "Must-watch" priority on your League Pass scale.
1. Ball Movement
If you were a fan of the endless, mind-numbing isolations of the 1990s era NBA, then this Hawks team isn't for you. But if you enjoy the aesthetic beauty of a basketball team that pings the ball around the floor quickly and decisively until it finds the open man, then you need to be watching Atlanta. There isn't a single player on the team's roster that could be considered guilty of the dreaded "ball stopper" label. And the numbers back that up.
According to NBA.com's nifty SportVU team tracking data, Atlanta ranks fifth in passes per game, trailing only Utah, New York, San Antonio and Philly. Perhaps not coincidentally, all but one of those teams have Spurs-ties or are, ya know, the Spurs while the Knicks numbers are inflated by their insistence on using the archaic Triangle Offense. But the real impact of the team's passing frenzy comes when you take a closer look at where Atlanta ranks in the other categories SportVU data tracks for NBA.com:
*Definitions of those stats can be found here.
It seems like the Hawks regularly have at least a half-dozen passes during a single possession with nearly every player on the court getting a touch. Here's one from Wednesday's game against Indiana that has nine passes before the shot goes up:
What's even more incredible about that possession is that it's Atlanta's reserves that are moving the ball with such a purposeful unselfishness in garbage time when it's very easy for players to gun up shots without thinking in search of padding their own stats. But all this great ball movement wouldn't do much if Atlanta didn't employ …
2. Shooters galore!
Few teams can match the Hawks' proficiency from deep. Atlanta's entire rotation, sans Thabo Sefolosha, is shooting at least 32.2 percent from three-point territory, not too far from league average. And four of those players -- DeMarre Carroll, Kent Bazemore, Mike Scott and Kyle Korver (more on him later) -- are over 38 percent on the season. With perimeter players that can't be ignored and big men that can pull large, lane-clogging defenders far away from the paint, Atlanta can do pretty much whatever they want on offense and expect huge swaths of real estate to operate in. I mean, hell, even Pero Antic has gaps so large he can do this:
It's a far cry from a number of other teams that, while successful, become an eyesore to watch on offense because too often at least one of the five players on the floor can be ignored by their opponents. In Atlanta, everyone is a threat to hit shots from deep which creates all sorts of opportunities to score, particularly for the team's engine, Jeff Teague.
3. Knocking on Stardom's Door
In late 2013, I wrote that Teague had the opportunity under Budenholzer to take his game to a new level. But that prediction came with a caveat: Before Teague took a leap, he needed to improve both his mid-range game and finishing near the rim. So far this season, Teague has done that. Here's his shot chart from last year:
And here's this seasons numbers:
The two key areas of improvement for Teague are near the basket (up to 58.1 percent from 54.8) and from 15-23 feet (46.6 percent compared to 38.3). While the need to finish better near the basket is obvious, the progress in the latter brings us to a basketball gray area. Mid-range shots are seen as increasingly inefficient for nearly every player in the game. In a vacuum, the ideal solution is to simply avoid them, but that doesn't take into account that those shots are available for the taking because defenses are hellbent on taking away everything else.
For Teague and the Atlanta offense to continue to hum along like a finely-tuned machine, the talented point guard needs to knockdown mid-range shots -- particularly against "drop" coverages in pick-and-rolls (where the big man sags back toward the lane) -- in order to keep defenses honest. If Teague doesn't, he becomes easier to guard as opponents can just double down on sticking closer to shooters and lounging near the hoop without fear of repercussion. But Teague has refined his previous array of scoring tools while also adding crafty little shots, like this Steve Nash runner, to his game:
Teague was already a fun player before he took his latest mini-leap, but now he's damn near a bona-fide All-Star, and that improvement is a big reason why this Hawks offense is rampaging through the league. But to give one player too much credit takes away from the clever ingenuity behind the Budenholzer's system itself.
4. Good Ole' Misdirection
NBA defenses are getting smarter and smarter with each passing year. Chances are, if they know when and where a play is heading, good defenses will be well positioned to snuff it out. The beauty of the Hawks' offense is that all that passing and shooting combines with a carousel of movement that constantly has the opponent on their heels.
The above play is originally designed to free up Korver for a shot coming off a screen. The second option out of it calls for Teague and Paul Millsap to go into a two-man game at the elbow. Throughout the possession, Carroll, who get's the "And 1" is a total afterthought -- right until he scores.
That play epitomizes the team's offense. Just when you think you took something away, Atlanta finds another way to punish you. But a lot of this wouldn't work without the gravitational pull of one of the game's best shooters.
5. The Krovinator
If you need a singular reason to watch the Hawks' offense, Kyle Korver is it. NBA players who are 33-years-old aren't supposed to be on the verge of having a career year, but Korver is just a different beast. The dude makes three-point shots like they're layups. Literally.
He's shooting 53.5 percent from three on the season, a number that's been boosted by a recent four game stretch in which Korver was 15-of-24 from behind the arc. For comparison's sake, league average for finishing around the rim is 56.5 percent. Korver also pretty much owns NBA.com's catch-and-shoot tracking data page, where you can see that his effective field goal percentage (which factors in threes) in those situations is a mind-blowing 76.3 percent. Those are video game numbers.
Budenholzer has a number of sets in which opponents must track Korver through a maze of screens or try to keep tabs on him as the Hawks whirring machine of ball and man movement tempt defenders into leaving Korver free just long enough for him to squeeze off a shot -- something that happens so quickly it's like you're watching in fast forward.
If Teague is the engine of the team's offense then Korver is the wheels -- spinning along, tearing up the pavement in front of you until you eventually fall behind and end up choking on a cloud of dust while wondering what the hell just happened.
And that thought isn't just exclusive to some of Korver's astonishing streaks. It also applies to his Hawks team as a whole this season. They went from feisty first-round knockout to the class of the Eastern Conference in less than a calendar year. So make sure you tune in to watch them play, but don't blink, because you might miss something.
Brett Koremenos (@BKoremenos) is a freelance writer whose work has appeared on Grantland, Deadspin and other outlets. He coaches and trains basketball players from the high school to the professional level.