Why Atlanta Hawks Are a Real Threat in Remade Eastern Conference

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Why Atlanta Hawks Are a Real Threat in Remade Eastern Conference
Jason DeCrow/Associated Press

The Cleveland Cavaliers, regardless of whether they make their long-rumored trade for Kevin Love, are considered the presumptive favorites in the Eastern Conference. The Cavs are followed closely by the Chicago Bulls in most circles, but after that, the East is a bit of a jumbled mess. 

The Toronto Raptors, Washington Wizards, Charlotte Hornets, Miami Heat and Atlanta Hawks are all teams of roughly similar quality, with all projected to finish with between 42 and 47 wins, according to ESPN's Summer Forecast.

Legitimate arguments can be made in favor of each team (I've already gone to bat for the Hornets' bona fides in the wake of their Lance Stephenson signing), but today we're here to cape for the Hawks, who at 40-1 somehow have only the 10th-best odds to win the Eastern Conference, according to Bovada

Yes, the Hawks finished only 38-44 last season. But they also had the third-best record in the Eastern Conference when Al Horford went down for the season with a torn pectoral in late December. 

John Bazemore/Associated Press

The Hawks were 16-13 after Horford played his last game. That .552 winning percentage translates into a 45-37 record over the course of an 82-game season, a seven win improvement over last year's squad. 

Had the Hawks won 45 games last season, they'd have finished fifth in the Eastern Conference rather than eighth, and would have wound up with a first-round matchup with the Chicago Bulls rather than the Indiana Pacers. As it is, the Hawks gave Indy all they could handle, but with how easily the Wizards dispatched of the Bulls in the opening round, it's reasonable to expect Atlanta might have had a similar shot. 

If the Hawks were coming off a 45-win campaign that ended in a second-round appearance, they'd be thought of a lot differently than they are right now. It's arguable whether they'd have made it that far had Horford not gotten injured, but the numbers clearly show a team that became much different—mostly for the worse—after its best player went down. 

  Before Horford's Injury After Horford's Injury
O-Rtg 104.7 102.7
D-Rtg 102.3 105.0
Net Rtg +2.4 -2.3
FG% 47.1% 45.0%
3PA 23.9 26.9
3PT% 38.2% 35.4%
AST 25.9 24.3
Scoring Margin +2.2 -1.9

Before Horford's injury, the Hawks had a per-possession scoring margin of plus-2.4, which would have been fourth-best in the East and sat them between the Dallas Mavericks and Chicago Bulls at 12th-best in the league, per NBA.com. That's not elite by any means, but it's good enough to be considered solidly above-average and a clear mid-tier playoff team. 

From Horford's injury through the end of the season, Atlanta's scoring margin flipped over, with a minus-2.3 points per 100 possessions mark that would have sat them between the Denver Nuggets and Sacramento Kings for 21st in the league. 

It's difficult to pin a swing that large on any one player, but Horford is Atlanta's best and biggest offensive focal point, as well as its best interior defender.

Horford was using nearly one-quarter of Atlanta's possessions while on the floor when he went down, according to Basketball-Reference, and registered a true shooting percentage of .588 with those possessions, an excellent mark. 

After he was injured, those possessions had to be redistributed, and the results were not quite as good. Much of them were picked up by Paul Millsap, who did about as good a Horford impression as he could but still struggled relative to his production before Horford went down. 

  Before Horford's Injury After Horford's Injury
USG 23.6 27.2
TS% .562 TS% .536 TS%

Indeed, Millsap was a much more effective player when he was able to share the court with Horford. When Horford was on the floor, Millsap shot 49.2 percent from the field on 13.4 field-goal attempts per 36 minutes, as well as 40.5 percent from three on 2.0 attempts per 36 minutes. 

With Horford on the bench, Millsap took more shots—15.9 per 36 overall and 3.5 from three—but converted at far lower rates, shooting 45.2 percent from the field and 34.9 percent from three. 

In fact, according to NBA.com, the only place on the court Millsap didn't shoot better with Horford on the court with him was the back half of the paint, outside the restricted area. 

via NBA.com Horford on Court Horford off Court
Restricted Area 65.0% 58.3%
Paint (non-RA) 41.7% 43.6%
Mid-Range 34.4% 30.9%
Corner 3 44.4% 29.2%
Above Break 3 36.8% 35.6%

While Horford is not quite a Dirk Nowitzki-esque gravitational force on the floor, he does draw extra defensive attention due to his ability to score from basically any area inside the three-point line. Take a look at his scoring heat maps from the last two seasons, courtesy of Basketball-Reference

Credit: Basketball-Reference

As you can see, he was even experimenting with the corner three-point shot before getting hurt last season, yet another weapon in his vast arsenal. 

If Horford becomes a respectable threat from deep—and he did shoot a perfectly acceptable 4-of-11 last season—that just moves the Hawks one step closer to coach Mike Budenholzer's dream scenario of having outside shooting at every position on the floor at all times.

The Hawks took firing away from outside to a whole new level in their first-round series against the Pacers, jacking up 32.9 three-point shots per game, a full 4.0 three-point attempts per game more than any team has taken over the course of a full season in NBA history

It's unlikely they'll take quite that many threes during the regular season, but they're a good bet to be among the league leaders in triples. 

David Goldman/Associated Press

Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Millsap and Mike Scott are all above-average three-point marksmen, and backup center Pero Antic is not afraid to let it fly either. The Hawks also drafted stretch big man Adreian Payne out of Michigan State, adding another to their stable of shooting forwards, and hope Mike Muscala can eventually play the same kind of role. 

Just attempting threes has historically correlated pretty strongly with a good offensive efficiency because of the spacing it manufactures, and indeed the Hawks were playing top-10 offense until Horford went down. 

Having him back in the fold gives Teague—as well as secondary ball-handlers like Korver, Dennis Schroder and Shelvin Mackmore options in the pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop, and also allows for a bit more of an inside-out game than the Hawks were able to feature last year due to his prowess on the block.

Horford has a nice back-to-the-basket post-up game where he is able to turn and finish over either shoulder, but he's at his best facing his man up for a jumper or a quick two-dribble move to the rim. He's also a sharp passer, able to spot cutters in the paint or shooters on the perimeter whether he's working from the post or on the move in a pick-and-roll. 

Horford should also help Kyle Korver find more open looks—not that he really needs them. As Grantland's Zach Lowe wrote recently, Korver is an offense unto himself, and Budenholzer knows exactly how to use him:

Budenholzer also understands that the very best shooters don’t necessarily maximize their value by standing around. Great shooters have a gravitational pull, and they can shift the range of that force around the floor as they move. A defense can go haywire if that force collides with another object — a teammate screening for Korver, or a defensive player suddenly realizing that Korver has drilled him in the back with a nasty pick.

With Korver jetting around screens and drawing multiple defenders into his wake, it only provides more avenues for the Teagues and Horfords and Millsaps to do their damage.

A shooter like Korver also allows the Hawks to play more defensive-minded wings like Carroll and new signing Thabo Sefolosha alongside him. Korver's presence on the floor affords those guys more space to get off their shot, something Carroll capitalized on last year with a career-best outside shooting performance and something Sefolosha sorely needs because he has one of the slowest releases on his jumper in the league. 

The biggest question marks for the Hawks will come on the other end of the floor.

When Horford got inured, the Hawks ranked 13th in the league in defensive efficiency at 102.3 points allowed per 100 possessions. They ended the season ranked 14th, but their efficiency slipped to 104.1 points per 100 overall, and it was 105.0 after Horford went down, the full-season equivalent of the 20th-ranked mark. 

That's not good enough to get it done, so the Hawks went out and signed Sefolosha this summer to help shore up the wings.

AJ Mast/Associated Press

But Sefolosha's 20 or so minutes a night won't be enough improvement to get the Hawks where they need to be. They need internal improvement, especially from Teague at the point of attack. He can be a bit spacey as a pick-and-roll defender at times, jumping out too soon or too high and leaving the ball-handler with a clear lane to attack, then not recovering fast enough. 

Having Horford as a partner will help, as will having a year of experience defending with Millsap and Antic. But it's not just the two guys in the action who need to be on the same page—all five guys on the floor have to be on a string, and the Hawks weren't quite there yet, even before Horford's injury. 

That type of cohesion can be the difference between a defense that's average and one that's good, and if the Hawks want to be a for-real Eastern Conference Finals contender, average on defense likely won't cut it.

Their innovative offense and the all-around brilliance of Horford, Millsap and Korver will get the Hawks to the playoffs, and maybe even into the second round. But it's improvement on the other end that can take them another level up. 

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