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.