Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Atlanta Hawks Big Men

Over the last month, the Atlanta Hawks have quietly become the talk of the league. The Hawks have never been the most high-profile franchise and now that they are being run like San Antonio East, their media profile has never been smaller. However, like the Spurs, their play on the court speaks volumes for what they are about. Atlanta is 26-8 and they have won 18 of their last 20 games. Nor are they beating up on a bunch of sorry East teams either - their recent streak includes wins at Houston, at Dallas, at Portland and at the Clippers.

In a recent article over at True Hoop, Kevin Arnovitz tries to diagnose the unexpected success of the Hawks, a team many had barely sneaking into the playoffs and now looks like a legit contender to win the Eastern Conference:
These are the Atlanta Hawks, who are every bit as measured off the court as they are on it. These are grown men who go about the business of surgically dissecting two Western Conference contenders, then go en masse to a non-mandatory team dinner, something they do routinely after both wins and losses. The camaraderie is authentic, even if the personalities are, with a few exceptions, pretty mellow.  
“The reason it’s authentic is that everyone has bought in,” Al Horford said. “We enjoy working with each other.”
Working isn't an idle word choice. Locker rooms come in any number of shapes and sizes.  A giddy one doesn’t mean the players inside aren't serious about winning basketball games, but spend time with the Hawks and there’s a distinct air of buttoned-up professionalism -- an office populated by well-balanced adults who understand work-life balance and the division of labor. 
“We have guys who don’t play, who have guaranteed contracts beyond this year and they work their asses off because they want us to be better and want to contribute,” veteran big man Elton Brand said.   
One thing that often gets lost in the discussion about culture and chemistry -- the system installed in Atlanta by way of San Antonio demands a strict selflessness. Break off from the sequence of actions in the half court and the stuff falls apart. Everyone on the floor devotes himself to the idea that if you stay in motion, the ball will work its way to the logical recipient before the shot clock expires.
The Hawks, as Arnovitz tells us, are full of professionals who always give reporters good quotes, who eat dinner together after games and who play the game The Way It Was Meant To Be Played.

I'm not saying any of those things aren't true because I'm sure they are. What I'm wondering is if all those things held true last season, when the Hawks had a 38-44 record and barely snuck into the playoffs. Did the players become more professional in the off-season? More unselfish? More willing to hang out together after games? Or maybe it was because they got better players? Maybe having Al Horford healthy all season is the biggest reason for their turnaround and we should act like it instead of trying to pretend that the Hawks are better gentleman than the rest of the league. Because even if they are - who cares? The NBA is a bottom line business and the reason the Hawks are succeeding is because of what they are doing on the court.

If anything, my guess is the lines of causation are reversed. Atlanta isn't winning games because of their amazing on-court chemistry as much as all this winning has caused them to have this great chemistry. It's easy to be everyone's friend when everything is go well. Point me to the team that wins 18 of 20 games and doesn't have great chemistry and I'll be impressed.

The vast majority of NBA players, especially once they are in their second or third contracts, are pros who understand how to balance life and work, how to interact with their colleagues and how to make sense of their coach's X-and-O's schemes. The reason they don't win as many games as Atlanta is because A) they don't have the same type of schemes because B) they don't have the types of players to pull them off.

The biggest mistake you can make with the Hawks is to buy into the idea that they don't have a lot of talent, especially upfront. While they are built around a system, it's a system that requires very skilled, athletic and versatile big men and not many big men around the NBA can run it. When we focus on what type of dinner conversation they have, we are missing the picture on just why they have been so successful.

The first (and really the only) thing you need to know about the Hawks is that it all comes down to spacing. Atlanta plays five-out basketball, in that neither of their big men start the possession on the block. Al Horford and Paul Millsap can score with their back to the basket, but they are primarily used in Atlanta as face-up floor spacers, operating out of the high post and stretching defenses out to the three-point line.

All the space

If you look at the diagram, the first thing that should jump out to you is the amount of space around the rim. Unless the defense wants to play a zone, and open up shots along the three-point line for the Hawks shooters, there's no one they can keep around the basket. Everyone has a responsibility 25+ feet from the rim and it opens up driving lanes for all 5 of the Atlanta players on the floor. Ever since Mike D'Antoni and Steve Nash teamed up in Phoenix, the NBA game has been all about spacing and Mike Budenholzer, Danny Ferry and the Hawks are taking that revolution to its logical conclusion.

They play five-out basketball for all 48 minutes, bringing in two more big men off the bench - Pero Antic and Mike Scott - who can shoot 3's. You can see they are fully committed to their system in their drafting of Adreian Payne, a stretch 5 from Michigan State. Payne hasn't been able to get any minutes on this season's team, but he might as well have been built in a laboratory due to how perfectly he fits the Hawks system - an athletic 6'10 240 with a 7'4 wingspan who shot 42% from 3 in his final season of college.

Atlanta isn't the first basketball team to play true five-out basketball - Fred Hoiberg has been doing it for awhile at Iowa State and Miami did it with Bosh and LeBron. A generation ago, guys like Horford, Millsap, Bosh and LeBron wouldn't have been able to beat you from 20+ feet on offense. It's their ability to stretch the floor while still playing D and cleaning the defensive glass that allows their teams to be so successful.

If the Hawks do end up making the NBA Finals, it will be because Horford and Millsap can play enough interior defense to get them past huge teams like the Wizards and the Bulls and uber explosive offensive teams like the Raptors and the Cavs.

The really interesting thing, though, is what happens down the line, as more and more big men come out of college with games like Adreian Payne. In a lot of ways, you almost have to divide the best young big men in the sport along one dimension - can this guy play for the Atlanta Hawks or can't he? Given the way the league is going, someone who can't answer this question in the affirmative is going to have a hard time scratching out his career, unless he's big enough to be the only C in a four-out configuration, ala Andre Drummond in Detroit.

Over the last generation, the big question in the NBA has been four out vs. three out. A three-out team is a traditional team with three perimeter players and two post men. This is your archetypal mid 1990's Eastern Conference team. In this alignment, the PF doesn't necessarily need to be a great outside shooter because he is playing in either the high post or the low post for most of the game. A four-out alignment makes use of the stretch PF to open up the floor for four perimeter players to drive to the rim. Think Shawn Marion on the Suns. Five-out is the next step - two big men on the perimeter and no one in the paint. My guess is the next great philosophical battle in basketball will be five out vs. four out.

When it comes to evaluating young big men, you can put them in three categories. A five-out guy is a jump-shooting, perimeter-oriented big man who can function as a 5 or a 4 in a small-ball offense. A four-out guy, in this sense, is the traditional big man who dominates the paint and has the size and athleticism to be the sole big man protecting the rim on defense. A three-out guy is an interior minded player who doesn't have the offensive game to play on the perimeter or the defensive game to be the only rim protector. The key is that a five-out guy can play in a four-out and a four-out can play in a three-out but not vice versa. If you are thinking archetypes, five-out is Al Horford, four-out is Andre Drummond and three-out is David Lee.

Let's take a quick look at this year's crop of big men and see where they fit in. These are most of the guys in the most recent DraftExpress mock:

Karl Towns
Jahlil Okafor
Cliff Alexander
Kriztaps Porzingis
Willie-Cauley Stein
Montrezl Harrell
Kevon Looney
Robert Upshaw
Chris McCullough
Myles Turner
Dakari Johnson
Kennedy Meeks
Frank Kaminsky
Mouhammodou Jaiteh
Chris Walker
Bobby Portis
AJ Hammons

Jarrell Martin
Kaleb Tarczewski

Jonathan Holmes

A few notes:

- I could go either way on Looney, Turner or McCullough. Turner might not have the mobility to be a five-out guy while Looney doesn't currently have the J, which is the same problem with McCullough. All three of those guys are uber-talented but (at the moment) those are the three who could probably use another season of school the most.

- Bobby Portis (Arkansas) and Jarrell Martin (LSU) are my two most underrated players at the moment. These are big-time athletes with the size to be NBA big men and the skill-set of perimeter players. They could both play for the Atlanta Hawks, let's put it that way.

- You don't want to be a three-out guy in the modern NBA. All the guys on that right list should be living in the gym to become better jump-shooters. Unless you are a 7'0, the bell tolls for the non jump-shooter. Even if you are a 7'0, the league would still like you to be able to shoot.

Check out this interview from the always fascinating Holger Gerschwinder, whom you might know as Dirk's Mr. Miyagi:
SPOX: How do you grade the balance of power int the NBA? Are the Spurs still the team to beat?

Geschwindner: The Spurs under Gregg Popovich have a concept. For example they know they’ll never get a high draft pick because of their constant success, so they look in other directions. They get players which fit into their system, like Tiago Splitter. It’s striking, that Gregg Popovich is one of the few remaining old school coaches. Even members of the next generation, like Rick Carlisle, have become rare and a whole new generation of coaches appears, like Jason Kidd, Steve Kerr and Jeff Hornacek - and with them, basketball is going to further develop and change a lot.  
SPOX: What do you mean?  
Geschwindner: We’re going to return to the basic idea of basketball. The game of basketball was designed as an offensive game, and when watching Golden State under Steve Kerr, the game returns exactly to that concept. Previously, teams had a specific players branding on them: Kobe Bryant and his Lakers, Dirk and the Mavs. In today’s NBA it’s more of a team challenge. You need at least three to five performers with firepower. I think in two or three years, any professional who can’t shoot has little chance to stay in the NBA. Even for the big guys, it won’t be enough to get a rebound and give it to a shooter. 
SPOX: The Spurs team basketball is only an interim stage? 
Geschwindner: In the past it was enough to be athletic. Now, almost everyone is. After that, teamwork and basketball IQ became increasingly important. Many have caught up in those fields. What matters now is shooting. Hit rates in today's basketball are not as high as they could be. Eventually, the guideline for made three-pointers won’t be 40 percent anymore, but 50 percent. That’s the future. Intelligent coaching can ensure the last possession and the team with the very last shot has an increased chance to win close games. 
When you are trying to project players into the NBA, skill-set is what you should be worrying about, not whether or not his facial muscles code him to be a good person. More often than not, basketball is the reason guys bust out and you can't always trust college statistics, not that some guys can't handle their money or don't have the mentality to be pros. As David Stern would say, it's all about them basketball reasons.

Here's the problem. If you aren't looking for "basketball reasons" for why a guy didn't make it, you are going to start talking about his character and the way he conducts himself off the court. And here's the problem with that - EVERYONE has things in their character that don't reflect well upon them. Even the guy with the most impeccable character has things that they struggle with. We are all sinners. It doesn't matter who a person is or what he does, if I go into a story wanting to write something negative about him, I can do that. So when a guy doesn't win a championship or doesn't stick in the NBA, it's pretty easy for us to come up with reasons why.


  1. The Atlanta Hawks believe that more white people will come to see white players play. So that is why they will always have a white player at 6'9 or above, who can't score.

  2. Randolph Morris 6'11" Once Atlanta Hawk scores 37 in china.