If any of you actually put yourself through watching the All-Star Game, you know that Coach of the Year candidate Mike Budenholzer coached an Eastern Conference All-Star team with four Hawks on it. At one point he actually started a line up of Teague, Korver, Lebron, Milsap, and Horford, causing some of the Hawks faithful to sigh and think about what could have been. We had $18 million with your name on it ‘Bron, but we forgive you. Going home to a max contract to play with two of the best in the game is something that I think most us would have done. Just for kicks though, here’s what Nate Silver projected the Hawks to look like with Lebron:
This was Lebron’s best option while still being paid anywhere close to max money. Now obviously looking back we can see that things would have been different because these projections didn’t show D-Schrö being a legitimately positive presence on the team, didn’t take into account contributions by human emoji Mike Scott or Thabo Sefolosha (I know, I don’t get it either) and over-estimated the contributions of Antic and Payne. It also didn’t give much credit to either Horford’s return from surgery or Insani-Teague being a top-10 point guard and in the top 6% of all NBA players according to ESPN’s Real Plus Minus. I don’t think it’s ridiculous to say these Hawks could have possibly been a 70 win team with Lebron.
Even without the help of Lebron James, these Hawks are over-performing expectations in a historic way. The team has the best win percentage in franchise history and is a virtual lock to make the playoffs. At the moment, the team is projected to have a 65 win season (+/- 2 to adjust for error). Even when using Pythagorean win percentage, which calculates how many games a team should have won, the Hawks winning percentage is still .722, which is second best in the league. Using Py-Wins the Hawks projected record is more like 59 +/- 2 wins for the year. Now this does not guarantee a championship. If analytics have taught the world anything, it’s that outcomes are almost entirely random. But there are things we can do to the process to increase the probability of a desired outcome happening. The people over at 538 looked at title chances based on regular season wins and came up with this handy graph.
What we can see here is that every win over 55 increases a team’s chance to win, and every win from 60-65 dramatically increases a team’s chances. So, if the Hawks can keep over-performing (unlikely) they have about a 72% of winning it all. If they regress to where they should be according to Py Wins they have about a 15% of winning it all. Regardless of how big or small it might be, Atlanta has a chance to win a title this year. And although the Eastern conference is stronger than last year, the 54 win Miami Heat made it to the finals last year. So I would say Atlanta has a pretty good chance of making the Finals. Hollinger’s playoff odds agree with me–they give Atlanta a 33% chance of making the finals–which is the best in the conference and almost double the odds of the team in second. But the question remains: What changed? What is so special about these Hawks?
Mike Budenholzer came to Atlanta last year after spending the previous 17 years as an assistant coach to Gregg Popovich. He wanted to bring Pop’s style of ball movement and spacing to the team, but with more three pointers. Now, anyone who watches the Hawks regularly can attest that the Hawks ball movement is beautiful, and their drive and kick game is very strong. But now that we have Sport VU cameras installed in every arena in the league we can analyze these things like never before with player tracking data. For those of you that don’t know, Israel developed military cameras for missile tracking purposes. A few people in the states realized that these cameras could be used to track players movement on a basketball court and collect a variety of data, such as total passes per game, defensive impact, drives per game, and points off of catch and shoot opportunities. So now we can quantify things like ball movement, and spacing.
Budenholzer’s style of coaching was a great fit for the Hawks roster and vice versa. Jeff Teague has consistently had some of the best driving stats in the game since tracking data became public. Korver has always been a spot up monster. Milsap and Horford are so good offensively in the paint that defenses can’t cheat to send extra guys to the perimeter. Their proficiency down low allows for Teague-Horford pick and rolls and pick and pop situations that either create mismatches for Teague and Horford, or draw in help defenders that leave guys open behind the three point line for easy buckets. Now, that is a huge over-simplification of everything the Hawks do on offense but you get the idea. Now it’s time for the nerdy stuff.
Bombastic Budenholzer Ball Movement
The Hawks lead the league in passes per game. I was not kidding about Bud and ball movement. The guy absolutely loves it. He has the Hawks passing the ball an average of 324 times per game which is the fifth best in the league. And those passes lead to tons of scoring opportunities because the Hawks have the most assists in the league with a staggering 1389 assists. They create roughly 50 assist opportunities per game and 62 of their points per game are created by assists. That means about 60% of all points the Hawks score are a result of assists. That is a full 10% better than league average.
Kyle Korver Katch and Shoot
Well, whipping the ball around the court is great and all, but it doesn’t really matter if you don’t have guys who can catch and shoot right? The Hawks lead the league in points off of catch and shoot situations (Any jump shot outside of 10 feet where a player possessed the ball for 2 seconds or less and took no dribbles) at 1,859 points. The next best team has 216 less points off catch and shoots. This is an area the Hawks dominate in. Teague’s drives, along with Milsap and Horford’s paint production, suck defenses in and create open looks for shooters who knock ’em down like machines. The Hawks eFG% (field goal percentage that accounts for three pointers being more valuable) off of catch and shoot situations is a league leading 57 percent. A huge part of this is Kyle Korver. Since three pointers make up 73% of his shots,lets take a look at his three point shot chart this season.
He is well above league average from every spot beyond the arc. His 3 point shooting percentage is 52 percent. He is hitting three point field goals at a higher rate than Paul Milsap is hitting 2 point field goals. If he keeps this ridiculous pace up, Kyle Korver will have 2 of the top 5 greatest three point shooting seasons of all time. And Kyle on a Catch and Shoot is borderline unfair. He leads the league in points per game from catch and shoot situations. He also leads the league in catch and shoot field goal percentage , three point percentage, three pointers made per game, and effective field goal percentage. Kyle Korver is the human version of the fire emoji.
If life is a Highway then Jeff Teague is doing 150 in a 60 MPH zone
This section is about Jeff Teague’s driving ability. Teague is tied for third in the league for drives per game among players who have played in 30 games or more (I applied this filter for all stats in this section to filter out the players with much smaller sample sizes). Teague is in the top 10 for points off of drives per game (7), which is really good. But he is top 5 in team points per game on drives (13), which is exceptional. Jeff Teague is one of the best players in the league when it comes to creating points off of drives, whether it’s him or his teammates that score. In fact 46% of his team points per game come from assists. Jeff Teague forcing his way into the paint are a big reason the Hawks are so deadly on catch and shoot plays. He’s such a threat that he sucks defenders in and then finishes it, whips it to a spot up shooter, or finds Horford/Milsap who are usually rolling toward the basket after setting a pick for Teague. When adjusted for play time D-Schrö actually has very similar stats as Teague. The Hawks have two of the top five players in points per 48 minutes on drives. So even when Teague is not on the court, Schröder can still run Coach Bud’s offense very well.
Picks and Screens
Watch this gorgeous pick and pop by Horford and Teague.
I wish there was data out there to quantify the value of good screens and picks. Sadly for now we will just have to watch to see the impact. Horford is one of the best pick and roll guys out there because he’s such a versatile scoring threat. He’s good from mid-range and deadly around the basket, so he usually sucks in a help defender. Milsap is the same way, except he has a better jump shot. He is another pick and pop guy, or when his defender leaves to help against Teague/Horford pick and rolls, he is also a good spot up shooter. Since coming to Atlanta, Milsap’s range has stretched and he is hitting three pointers at the highest rate of his career while taking more of them then ever. The Hawks also use a ton of different screens and picks to get their shooters looks. Watch how this Milsap screen gives Kyle Korver an open look in the right corner, which is money because Korver has made 63% of all the threes he has taken from the right corner.
The Hawks have the 6th best defensive rating in the NBA. This is due to nine Hawks players having a defensive rating (an estimate of points allowed per 100 possessions) better than league average. Thabo Sefolosha and Paul Milsap are in the top 4% of all defenders according to this metric. Horford and Milsap have both been above average defenders, but have struggled at rim protection. Opponent’s shoot over 50% at the rim when guarded by either Horford or Milsap. However, the Hawks are very good at forcing turnovers. Their opponent turnover rate is 14.3%–the eighth best in the league–and the Hawks have eight players who have an above league average steal rate. The Hawks also have the eighth lowest opponent eFG% and the fourth lowest free throws/shot attempts ratio. The Hawks play smart defense, go for steals at a high rate, and force opponents to take tough shots. The only thing holding back this defense is that it is 21st in the league at defensive rebounding and cannot protect the rim.
This Hawks team looks primed to contend this season and watching them play is just beautiful. So far this season the machine has been humming along beautifully. The Hawks are playing a brand of basketball that is almost impossible to stop once it gets going. They are going to the playoffs, and maybe the Finals, but remember, very good teams have about a coin flip’s chance at winning the finals. Don’t let your feelings about what the Hawks have built be influenced by the results, because those are almost entirely random. Instead, praise the process that got the Hawks this far. Praise Coach Bud’s offense. Praise Danny Ferry’s smart acquisition of players, and good contracts. Praise the tremendous growth we have seen in the Hawks this year. Praise Jeff’s Drives. Praise Kyle’s threes. Praise Al’s offense. Praise Millsap’s jump shot. Praise Schröder’s growth. Praise Demarre, Mike, Thabo, Kent, Pero, Muscala, and even John Jenkins when they do something big. This year’s Hawks are playing fantastic and beautiful basketball, so let’s enjoy it for as long as we can.