At media day today, someone asked Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer about his goals for the team when training camp opens tomorrow. His answer was not surprising.
“Defense is always something we’ve taken a lot of pride in,” Budenholzer said. “Any team that wants to have some success and wants to be good, your priority and the first thing you work on is establishing a defensive identity. I’ve been a part of a lot of training camps and tomorrow will feel a lot like that and look a lot like that.
“And obviously you’ve got to start putting in offense and hopefully some concepts and points of emphasis and building a foundation.”
That sounds about right for Budenholzer: Defense as the focus, and then offense.
The Hawks finished 14th in defensive efficiency in Budenholzer's first season and then sixth, second and fourth in the next three. But Budenholzer’s teams have ranked 18th, sixth, 22nd and 27th in offensive efficiency.
The offensive outlier is the 60-win team in 2014-15. That squad had three players more accomplished offensively than any on this year’s squad: Al Horford, Paul Millsap and Jeff Teague. Those Hawks also had peak-shooting Kyle Korver and career-shooting-year DeMarre Carroll .
I believe the Hawks will be solid defensively because of Budenholzer's coaching and their personnel. But chances are the Hawks will struggle to score because they have some shooters but no one who demands double teams and not much in the way of consistent shot-creating or play-making.
But maybe Budenholzer has something up his sleeve. He can't do anything about the personnel, but he can influence the style of play.
According to NBA.com stats, the percentage of catch-and-shoot plays for the Hawks declined from 55.3 in 2014-15 to 53.9 in 2015-16 to 50.5 last season. As you would expect the percentage of touches less than two seconds also declined from 62.3 to 61.5 to 57.8.
The Hawks’ pace, a measure of possessions per 48 minutes, increased from 93.9 in 2014-15 to 97.1 in 2015-16 and 97.4 last season. But the numbers suggest that the ball didn’t move as quickly within those possessions and there weren’t as many catch-and-shoot chances created.
Budenholzer said there was a “slight shift” to playing inside-out more often last season, when the Hawks had since-departed Dwight Howard in the middle. Maybe that changes this season.
“This year I would say there is going to be a slight shift to even greater pace, even greater space and even more pick-and-rolls,” Budenholzer said. “But not losing the movement we have away from the ball and the cutting and screening and opportunities for everyone to participate in the offense, much like you’ve seen for the last four years.”
Point guard Dennis Schroder is the obvious choice to spearhead a movement toward more pace-and-space. His decision-making on pick-and-rolls can be inconsistent (honestly, that might have something to do with the decline in catch-and-shoot chances) but Schroder has an elite ability to get to the basket.
A young, rebuilding team that wants to play faster shouldn't hesitate to hand the keys over to Schroder, the best player on the roster. That could be the Hawks' offensive identity this season.
“Dennis, with his speed and how he puts pressure on the rim and the way he can attack and get defenses to collapse, is a big part of our offense, a big part of our league,” Budenholzer said. “His speed is just very unique and special. So how do we create even more environments, even more opportunities for him to use his speed, not just in pick-and-rolls but maybe in other situations and other schemes and environments? His speed and his ability to get to the paint is unique and that opens up a lot for his teammates and for himself.”
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