Hawks see their offense as evolution to defeat modern defenses

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The story of the Atlanta Hawks’ free-flowing, ball-movement/player-movement offense starts with the 2008 Celtics.

That was the year Tom Thibodeau’s defense took the league by storm and propelled Boston to the title. With Kevin Garnett as the quarterback and help defender, Kendrick Perkins snarling in the paint, and Rajon Rondo’s length on the perimeter, the Celtics unleashed a defense the NBA had not seen. That defense was designed to overload the strong side, take away options for penetration, and keep the ball on one side of the court. The defense targeted players who dominated the ball in isolation sets on the wing — say, Kobe Bryant during the 2008 NBA Finals — and it clogged their path to the basket. The defense also makes old-school, standard post up play from a big man far more difficult.

Over the years, as more teams adopted that style, the result has been declining percentages of isolation plays in the league. Now when you see players get the ball in isolation out on the wing it is more with the goal of starting the offensive set — drive the ball not to score but to quickly swing the ball to the other side and get the defense scrambling. Kick the ball to the opposite corner for a three. Make the extra pass. Break the defense down, and then get the open shot.

Which brings us to the Hawks… well, actually to the Spurs. They won a title last season with a motion offense made up of a handful of plays like the “loop” that are designed to tear apart a Thibodeau-style defense with player and ball movement. If executed properly.

This season’s Hawks — ranked sixth in the NBA at 106.6 points per 100 possessions — are executing it properly and it’s a thing of beauty.

“Coach Thibs’ defense, it was built for isolation basketball,” Hawks’ sharpshooter Kyle Korver told ProBasketballTalk, in an interview discussing the End It movement. “We’re going to keep the ball on one side of the floor, we’re not going to let the guys on the other side of the floor be a part of the game, and we’re really going to load up to that one guy. The way to beat that kind of a defense — even though it’s very difficult to do — is to get the ball to the other side of the court. So for us, I really think we try to get the ball to the middle and kind of read the defense.”

It’s part of the evolution of the game if you ask Hawks head coach (and former long-time Spurs assistant) Mike Budenholzer.

“I think the defenses have gotten better, the attention to detail on how to work defensively…” Budenholzer told ProBasketballTalk during All-Star weekend. “I think sometimes the defense is ahead of the offense and you have to adjust to score. I think the defense just gets better and better in our league. The effort, the commitment, the size of the players, so offenses have to figure out, what can we get?”

Every team has had to adapt on some level to what the Thibodeau defense took away. For example, look at the Golden State Warriors — last season Mark Jackson ran a lot of isolation-style sets and despite all the offensive firepower on that team they were 14th in the NBA in points per possession. Steve Kerr added motion and ball movement to get the defense scrambling, and now the Warriors are second in the NBA in offensive rating.

Not every team can do what the Spurs and Hawks do. It takes a certain mindset of player. Plus if you have talent you can get away with some old-school offense — the Clippers run a predictable pick-and-roll heavy offense, but they get away with it because Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are great talents. The issue for them is their margins of error are small — they need to execute brilliantly to win.

Meanwhile, the Hawks and Spurs are having fun and success playing this selfless, motion system — but putting together the right chemistry in the locker room to make it work is not easy.

“A lot of that is just because of how unselfish we are,” Korver said. “You’re going to touch the ball. Every quarter. You matter every single time down the court. Even if you don’t take the shot, you’re going to effect the shot in some way — you’re going to set the screen, you’re going to make the pass, you’re going to make the cut that opens it up. Every single time down the court everybody who plays matters and I think when you play that style of ball it’s just more fun.

“It’s just like anything in life, when you feel like you matter you do it with a little more energy, you invest a little more, you take ownership. And I think everyone on our team has done that, and it’s showing.”

So are other teams going to start running the loop, doing the same things?

“Is it going to catch on?” Korver asked. “Are more teams going to do it? I don’t know, but I think probably. I think everybody was trying to do the defense that Coach Thibs kind of created, everyone was trying to go to that the last few years. Because it is really hard to play against. maybe you will see more of this type offense, too.”

For the basketball purist in me, I would love to see that.

But the reality is that it takes a veteran team with the right players willing to do it. Teams have been trying to copy what the Spurs do as an organization for years, with limited success (at best). That’s not going to change now.

However, the Hawks may be the exception to the rule.

LeBron James again leads NBA jersey sales, Giannis Antetokounmpo second

Michael Reaves/Getty Images
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Combine the brands of LeBron James and the Los Angeles Lakers and it’s going to sell a lot of jerseys.

If you needed confirmation of that — and why would you? — the NBA announced that LeBron leads the league in jersey sales through the start of this season (October 2019 through the end of the calendar year). Giannis Antetokounmpo is second, and Stephen Curry rounds out the top three. Then the list gets interesting.

Here are the top 15 players in jersey sales:

1. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers
2. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks
3. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors=
4. Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics=
5. James Harden, Houston Rockets
6. Luka Dončić, Dallas Mavericks
7. Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers
8. Anthony Davis, Los Angeles Lakers
9. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers
10. Kyrie Irving, Brooklyn Nets
11. Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
12. Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets
13. Russell Westbrook, Houston Rockets
14. Kemba Walker, Boston Celtics
15. Zion Williamson, New Orleans Pelicans

Tatum climbing up to fourth — in front of Harden and some other established stars — shows both the growth in his popularity and the power of Celtics’ nation.

The fast-rising popularity of Luka Doncic also is evident with him being sixth, in front of Kawhi Leonard and Anthony Davis, both of whom switched teams (which often can spike jersey sales).

Also, note Zion Williamson is 15th without having stepped on an NBA court. Yet.

The Lakers head the list of the team with the most merchandise sold, with the Celtics second and the 76ers third. Toronto is fourth after its championship run (their first time in the top five), and the Brooklyn Nets are in the top 10, a first for that franchise.

These results are based on NBAStore.com sales from October 2019 through December 2019.

Frustrated Bradley Beal reportedly “angry with and emotional about” Wizards

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Just before the start of training camp, Bradley Beal locked himself in with the Wizards agreeing to a two-year, $71.8 million contract extension. That new contract meant not only some bigger paychecks down the line but also Beal could not be traded during this season — a season everyone realized would be difficult with no John Wall.

All the losing is wearing on Beal, however, who said after Thursday night’s Wizards loss to the Bulls:

“I don’t like losing. I’m sorry — especially winnable games… I don’t like losing, so [my frustration is] gonna keep building up for me until we starting winning and changing our culture.”

How do you change the culture?

“Winning games. Have a winning attitude, winning habits.”

This is more than just frustration of the moment with another loss, according to David Aldridge of The Athletic.

Bradley Beal’s pique after his team’s 115-106 loss to the Bulls was real. Really real. A source who was also there told me Thursday that Beal was as angry with and emotional about his team as he’s ever been since being drafted by the Wizards in 2012.

Beal may have intellectually understood what he signed up for this season, that doesn’t make going through it easier emotionally. This season in Washington was going to be about finding players to go around Beal and Wall and make this team a threat. They found a few — Davis Bertans has had a breakout season (but may be tough to keep as a free agent this summer), rookie Rui Hachimura showed promise before his groin injury, Jordan McRae and Thomas Bryant have had their moments.

The concern for GM Tommy Shepard and the Wizards is Beal gets so frustrated he demands out, throwing off Washington’s plan. Technically, Beal cannot be a free agent until the summer of 2022 (or 2023 if he picked up a player option), but that has not stopped players in recent years from leveraging their way out in “pre-agency.” Maybe Beal doesn’t go that route this summer, but you can be sure a lot of teams will be calling Washington just to check on his availability. (This is where we say “the league is cracking down on player-to-player tampering/recruitment,” but if you think that will stop players I know a Nigerian prince who needs a loan and wants to talk to you.)

Much like with Karl-Anthony Towns, expect teams to be monitoring this situation. Just in case. Wizards fans may want to monitor it, too.

 

 

Barrier to entry for NBA playoff race is historically low

NBA playoff race includes Grizzlies, Nets
Joe Murphy/NBAE via Getty Images
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As free agency neared last summer, Andre Iguodala told his wife he suspected he’d get traded. She asked, where?

“I’ll probably end up in Memphis or some s—,” Iguodala replied.

The tone seemed apt. The Grizzlies were in the initial stages of a rebuild. Hardly a fit for 35-year-old Iguodala. In fact, Memphis – which of course traded for Iguodala – has agreed to let Iguodala sit out since training camp began. The Grizzlies could search for a trade. Iguodala could stay fresh for a team ready to win now.

But a funny thing happened: Halfway through the NBA season, Memphis is in playoff position.

The Grizzlies are exceeding expectations, of course. Ja Morant and a young core are thriving far sooner than expected. That isn’t the whole story, though.

Memphis (19-22) has won just 46% of its games. That would have been good for 11th place last season. In the East.

The Grizzlies are fortunate to play in Western Conference with a weak middle class. Memphis on pace to become the first sub-.500 Western Conference playoff teams since the conference expanded to 15 teams.

And it’s not as if the Grizzlies are getting pushed hard from behind. The ninth-place Spurs (17-22) are on pace for the worst ninth-place finish in the West in this era (since 2004-05).

It’s a similar story in the East.

The Nets (18-22) are in playoff position with a winning percentage barely ahead of the 2003-04 Celtics, who went 36-46 and made the postseason. That Boston team set the low watermark since the Eastern Conference expanded to 15 teams (since 1995-96).

Like Memphis in the West, Brooklyn faces uninspiring competition. The ninth-place Bulls (15-27), 10th-place Pistons (15-27) AND 11th-place Hornets (15-29) are all on pace for the worst finish for their spot in the standings in this era.

Here’s how each team’s win percentage in each conference compares to teams in the same place in the standings in prior 15-team conferences. The 2019-20 teams are shown by their logo. Prior teams are marked with a dot. Columns are sorted by place within a conference, 1-15. After the graphics, 2018-19 teams are compared to the worst, average and best teams ever to finish in each place, 1-15.

Western Conference

NBA Western Conference standings

NBA Western Conference standings

Eastern Conference

NBA Eastern Conference standings

NBA Eastern Conference standings

At least several decent teams are lurking in the West. Even the 14th-place Kings would rank ninth in the East. Between the Grizzlies, Spurs, Trail Blazers, Suns, Pelicans, Timberwolves and Kings, one probably emerges with a winning record.

Both conferences feature relative strength in the 3-6 range. That could mean a high-quality first-round series or two in each conference.

So, why do the conferences look how they do? I wouldn’t rush to ascribe meaning.

The NBA implemented lottery reform last season, and that might have something to do with a lack of teams deeply bottoming out. But it’s too soon to say with certainty how the new lottery odds will affect things. After all, the shape of the standings looked quite different around this time last season.

The league getting further removed from the 2016 cap spike might also play a part in producing parity among good teams. Again, though, it’s too early to carve conclusions into stone.

Mostly, I think there’s just a randomness to it. Some years, the standings shake out a certain way. Other years, it’s a different way.

But now that we know how this year looks, we can see that only a few teams are out of the playoff race. Twelve teams ought to believe they have at least a fair chance of winning a postseason series. That could produce more buyers than usual before the trade deadline.

PBT mid-season awards: Defensive Player of the Year, Rookie of the Year and more

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The 2019-20 NBA season reached its midpoint by games played last night. So, we’re naming winners for mid-season awards. Yesterday, we picked Most Valuable Player and All-NBA. Now, we’re onto the other major honors.

Defensive Player of the Year

Kurt Helin: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

This is the hardest award for me to pick mid-season, but the Jazz put more on the plate of Gobert this season and he has responded amazingly (even if the Jazz’s defense is a little off from its usual highs this season). A lot of other players still in the mix here for me including Joel Embiid (if he plays enough games), Giannis Antetokounmpo, Jimmy Butler, Anthony Davis, Kawhi Leonard, and Marcus Smart.

Dan Feldman: Rudy Gobert (Jazz)

Even as reigning back-to-back Defensive Player of the Year, Gobert doesn’t have the final award sewn up. Anthony Davis, Giannis Antetokounmpo, Brook Lopez and Kawhi Leonard are in the mix. But in a tight race, Gobert gets the benefit of the doubt. Utah’s strong defense is built entirely around Gobert’s rim protection.

Rookie of the Year

Kurt Helin: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

This is a runaway award, but not for the guy we expected to run away with it. Zion Williamson makes his debut next week and maybe he could climb to third in this race, but he’s not winning the award. Morant and his fluid athleticism have turned Grizzlies into must-watch television, and he looks every bit the franchise player. Kendrick Nunn is a clear second in this race.

Dan Feldman: Ja Morant (Grizzlies)

Some rookie point guards put up big numbers. Some rookie point guards produce electric highlights. Some rookie point guards show promising flashes of winning basketball. Few rookie point guards are actually good. Morant is actually good. His athleticism, shooting and overall offensive control form an incredible package for his age. Sure, Morant is sometimes too reckless. He doesn’t completely break the mold of a young point guard. But Memphis has a gem.

Most Improved Player

Kurt Helin: Devonte' Graham (Hornets)

Last season, Graham was an end-of-the-bench guy in Charlotte. This season, he’s averaging 18.7 points a game, hitting 38.7 percent from three and is the team’s best player. Nobody saw that coming and it’s a radical improvement. Also in the mix for this award are Bam Adebayo and Luka Doncic — yes, the MVP candidate, he as made a massive leap this season.

Dan Feldman: Luka Doncic (Mavericks)

It’s a two-man race between Doncic and Devonte’ Graham. As the reigning Rookie of the Year, Doncic will get overlooked. He’s a second-year player. He was supposed to be this good. BS. The leap into superstardom is generally more difficult than the climb from non-rotation player to good starter, which Graham made. For Doncic to get this good this quickly is unprecedented.

Sixth Man of the Year

Kurt Helin: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

Harrell was in the mix for this award last season and came back this season as a better defender and more efficient on offense. He’s a critical element for a contending Clippers team, and closes games for them at the five. However, this is not a decided race by any means, both Derrick Rose and George Hill deserve serious consideration. Also, Spencer Dinwiddie in Brooklyn could be in the mix, but likely starts too many games to qualify.

Dan Feldman: Montrezl Harrell (Clippers)

I nearly chose Harrell for this award last season. Since, he has improved his offensive skill and defensive effectiveness. His big role in L.A. gives Harrell the edge over another highly productive reserve, the Bucks’ George Hill. Derrick Rose and Harrell’s teammate, Lou Williams, also warrant consideration.

Coach of the Year

Kurt Helin: Erik Spoelstra (Heat)

This is a wide-open race and my spreadsheet goes eight deep with worthy candidates: Nick Nurse has done an impressive job in Toronto, same with Brad Stevens in Boston and Frank Vogel with the Lakers, and the list goes on. Spoelstra, however, leads for me because of a combination of player development — Kendrick Nunn, Bam Adebayo, Tyler Herro, etc. — and smart utilization of the players’ he has. Plus, Spoelstra is getting it all to mesh around Jimmy Butler.

Dan Feldman: Nick Nurse (Raptors)

Nurse kept Toronto humming when Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green left. Nurse kept Toronto humming when key players, including breakout star Pascal Siakam, got hurt. Nurse kept Toronto humming when unproven young players had to join the rotation. Nurse’s defenses are particularly exemplary – both his creativity and ability to get everyone up to speed. The Heat’s Erik Spoelstra and the Pacers’ Nate McMillan aren’t far behind.