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Deeper Dive: Are the Atlanta Hawks the 2.0 version of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks?

by Photo of Tommy Dee

Like Dirk and company, the Hawks are very skilled on both sides of the ball. Do they represent the NBA’s new school way to build a title contender?

Deeper Dive: Are the Atlanta Hawks the 2.0 version of the 2011 Dallas Mavericks?

There's something brewing in Atlanta behind the Greg Popovich-esq leadership of NBA coach of the year Mike Budenholzer and the rapid rise to elite level play from Jeff Teague that have the Hawks primed for a run in this year's NBA playoffs.  It hit me when I was watching them at home a few weeks back in a game against the tanking New York Knicks, who were in the midst of probably their best performance in the past two months. Trailing by 11 points at halftime, the Hawks had the ball to start the second half and they were going through the motions during the first 10 seconds of the possession, clearly not running the play Coach Budenholzer drew up in the locker room. Without hesitation Budenholzer channeled Pop and called a 20-second timeout to lash into his lethargic group and to remind them what he wanted them to run. 

I immediately thought to myself, "Who the heck calls time out on the first possession of a half besides Pop?" 

The result? Kyle Korver getting fouled on a wide open 3 pointer. The Hawks would go on to lose that game, but the thing that stuck with me was that there was a clear togetherness and sense of accountability that centered around their head coach. A clear message that he and his players are on the same page, which to me is some of the most important signs of winning come playoff time.  

The Hawks finished the 2014-15 season ranked 6th overall in both offensive and defensive rating (Basketball-Reference.com) speaking to their collective balance as a team on both sides of the floor. They are not elite, or top 3, in either like the Golden State Warriors, but that balance and consistency is at the foundation of their 60-win team. It means they haven't shown any real weaknesses over the course of the 82 game season. And as I've watched them most recently I can't help but feel reminded that they are very similar to another balanced team from the past few years the 2010-2011 Dallas Mavericks. On the surface, at least offensively in terms of style, they aren't all that comparable. And I'm not saying the Hawks are destined to win a championship like the Mavericks did in 2011, but the stats suggest that they certainly can make it out of the east. Either way the statistical similarities are fascinating between the two defining each as extremely well-rounded teams. 

Consider first that the 2010-11 Mavericks were 8th in both offensive and defensive rating. Both teams did a wonderful job defending the 3-point line (Atlanta 34.1% - Dallas 34.3%) each ranking 7th overall, while shooting it at a higher percentage than their opponents per game (Atlanta 38%  - Dallas 36.5%). Winning that battle is a key to any team's success and when you have two of the game's premiere shooters in Dirk Nowitzki and Kyle Korver certainly helps make that more of a probability. Both teams don't didn't shoot a ton of two point field goals, which doesn't make them more reliant on the three ball, instead it's a sure sign of solid ball movement. Fewer field goal attempts while not turning the ball over a ton is a sure sign that teams share the ball later into the shot clock for the best possible shot and that is certainly the case here as both teams ranked 2nd overall in assists per game. The Hawks shared the ball 25.7 times per game, while the Mavericks led by Jason Kidd did so 23.8 per contest. The Hawks share the ball more as a team and aren't as reliant on one player, but good ball movement and teammate awareness is a championship quality regardless of individual frequency.

The fundamental difference between the two teams is in their offensive philosophies. Dallas relied heavily on post up but also integrated continuity in the form of pick and roll during the Finals at the urging of Kidd (Ziller, SB Nation, 6/13/11). However, when they needed the big basket it was ISO Dirk in the pinch post hoping for a double team and an opportunity for a guard to get an open look off the catch as displayed here...             

The Heat were an exceptional defensive team guarding pick and roll that series, but they struggled communicating on assignments when there had to be defensive rotation following double teams. The veteran Mavs exploited it here as Lebron James and Mario Chalmers couldn't get on the same page in the help on the open Kidd who made them pay by burying an important three pointer during their famous come back in Game 2.  

Here's another example of how Dallas was able to counter Miami's ability to protect the paint: Precise execution on half court sets after adjustments. Lebron and company loved to go under screens when defending pick and roll shutting off the lane, so the Mavericks countered by pinning down for Nowitzki giving him a wide open view of the basket off of a staggered double screen. The Hawks should look to get Korver open in such sets if they continue to struggle with ball movement.         

The Hawks all the offense to run through the dribble drive continuity of both Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroeder and the Nets have done a very good job in this series stifling their ability to attack the basket with the dribble. The results of their effort is a 2-1 Atlanta lead heading into tonight's game in Brooklyn with the Nets looking to even things up. The problem with continuity is that come playoff time is that teams who are able to off penetration do not have to help off of shooters meaning there's less room to close out. When that rhythm is disrupted the entire team's offense feels it, which is why the Hawks are struggling mightily from the floor shooting just 45% over the first 3 games. Teague's usage rate has increased from 25.5% to 28.3% in the playoffs and he's shooting a woeful 39% from the field, while Schroeder is managing just 38% from the floor and 29% from three in his 22 minutes per game.        

The Nets have done well to force Teague mid range (Gomez, SB Nation, 4/23/15) and it's all but eliminated Kover's ability in catch and shoot situations where he is most comfortable. Korver has been guarded closely and the lack of airspace is a direct result in his weak 41% from the field and 34% from behind the arc. We are talking about a guy who may have had the best shooting season in the history of the NBA (Levy, fivethirtyeight.com, 2/13/15) whose eFG% in the series is only 47.6% a far cry from the 72.3% he put up in the regular season. If they can't spread the floor and do a better job of forcing help, it will be difficult to see how they can escape this series in less than 6 games. Ironically, the 2011 Mavericks struggled getting past the Portland Trailblazers in round 1 losing games 3 and 4 on the road, before winning the series 4-2.

If the Hawks want to advance they need to make adjustments and utilize more post ups starting with Paul Milsap and Al Horford who have combined for just six touches per game within 12 feet of the basket a sure sign that the offense is being initiated from the perimeter. This was not a big time part of their offense during the regular season as post ups were run just 16% of the Hawks total possessions for Horford (73rd in the NBA) and just 13% of the time (97th) for Milsap (stats.nba.com/postups). Either way, Budenholzer and the Hawks offense has to figure out a way to restart the offensive engine and would do well to look at how the 2011 Mavericks were able to navigate their way through the playoffs utilizing their similarly balanced and equally efficient roster. 

While the rosters may be similar it remains to be seen if the difference between the two teams is actually on the sidelines. Budenholzer is going to have to adjust to the fine job Lionel Hollins and staff have done disrupting the offensive rhythm and the answer, in my opinion, is to throw the ball into the post and try to create mismatches.        

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