Recently, rumors abounds regarding the Hawks going complete rebuild. Over the past two weeks I’ve seen rumors suggestion Jeff Teague will get traded to the Knicks, Al Horford to the Celtics, a combination of Horford, Millsap, and Korver to the Cavs, as well as Bazemore and Sefolosha being parts of various three-team trades.
Suffice it to say, the Hawks are looking to completely rebuild their team. Some of these moves make sense. Teague’s backup, Dennis Schröder, is arguably a better player, and absolutely a better fit in the modern NBA. Al Horford, who is a free agent at the end of this season, may want to go to a big market, championship contender to end his career. And Korver is at the age where trading him for youthful players provides great long-term benefit.
With all of that said, why rebuild? More importantly, why rebuild right now? The Hawks are currently battling for the third seed in the Eastern Conference. Furthermore, they are coming off their best season in two decades. Finally, per Kurt Helin, between 2008-2015 ten teams have made the playoffs at least five times. Only two teams – the Hawks and the Spurs – have made it all eight years. Essentially, the Hawks are as close to a dynasty as any team that never reached the finals can get, coming off their greatest season during an eight year span, and have the possibility of gaining first round homecourt advantage this season. So, as I stated to begin this paragraph, why rebuild?
The answer boils down to one simple factor and two sets of statistics. Let’s begin with the simple factor, though. Frankly, the Hawks do not have one constant all star caliber player on their entire roster. Milsap and Horford are about as close as they get, and Korver, at his best, is one. But frankly, they don’t have anything close to a player that, if push comes to shove, can take over a game. And when you look at every NBA champion following the 2004 Pistons, there is one factor they all have in common, a go-to, all star player.
Outside of the historical difficulties, there is one other reason why having a star player is necessity: it provides an easy way to improve. For an example, let’s look at the Dallas Mavericks. Over the past decade, Dallas has had one historically great team, a few great teams, and plenty of playoff teams that had no chance of competing for a title. Pointedly, the presence of Dirk Nowitzki has allowed the Mavericks to rebuild following solely “good” seasons. Let’s look at last year for example.
The Mavericks starting lineup last season was Rondo-Ellis-Parsons-Chandler-Nowitzki. This season, however, their starting lineup is Williams-Matthews-Parsons-Pachulia-Nowitzki. I have written about their reformation before, and this is not the place to go into full detail, but the presence of Dirk essentially allows the Mavericks to retool year after year in an effort to get more competitive. The Hawks, however, do not have that player. This means they are effectively stuck with their current roster, plus or minus a few pieces, hoping without rationale that they will be able to compete for a title every season. Consequently, if trading away current talent could allow the Hawks to nab a future franchise player, then it is something Atlanta should seriously be considering.
Additionally, though, there are two advanced statistics that explain why the Hawks are doomed to fail. The first is the inability of their ball handlers to succeed on pick-and-rolls. Per Synergy, the Hawks are fourth worst in the NBA in this statistic. More specifically, the top-five teams in this metric are the Warriors, Raptors, Clippers, Blazers, and Thunder. But, the issue goes beyond simply failing at ball handlers scoring off pick-and-rolls, and more onto why the Hawks are predictable off screens. Let’s look at the top three teams in each conference, and the breakdown of points off certain types of screens, then compare those numbers with Atlanta:
Figure 2 via Statmuse
Essentially, the Hawks’ disparity in points scored on pick-and-roll play types is the most vast when compared with the top-six teams in the NBA. This is crucial because it signifies the pick-and-roll, which makes up 25.4% of Atlanta’s offensive plays, is at worst predictable, and at best easy to defend. Additionally, the way it is balanced is problematic, resulting in more defense necessary against the roll man, resulting in less offensive pressure against the opposing team’s guards. This is evident in Atlanta’s positional point per game breakdown.
Figure 2 via Statmuse
The reason this is important is, in today’s NBA the most important players are guards, and Atlanta does not put nearly enough pressure on opposing teams’ guards as they need to in order to contend. In effect, the Hawks’ strategy of making their opponents’ bigs use more effort on defense than on offense does not effect the way most of these players play anyways.
The other statistical factor where Atlanta is flawed is their rebounding percentage. The Hawks rank last in the NBA in rebound percentage. This is compared to the Thunder, Spurs, Cavs, and Warriors who rank first, second, third, and fifth respectively. Offensive rebounds create more possessions and defensive rebounds limit your opponents’ possessions. Effectively, rebounds are the ultimate measure of efficiency. And in a league where efficiency is the style de jour, having an inefficient team frankly will fail.
In conclusion, while it may sound unfeasible that the Hawks should absolutely look to rebuild, a holistic analysis suggests otherwise. Atlanta’s roster is constructed without a star player, making winning more difficult and season-on-season refitting nearly impossible; their pick-and-roll strategy is backwards; and they do not play to maximize efficiency. Consequently trades that allow the Hawks to address these problems, especially those that do not mandate a full-out rebuild, should be closely examined by the team’s management.