Monday, January 24, 2011

The Atlanta Hawks Defy the Percentages

NOTE: All shot location data cited comes from Hoopdata. League averages and rankings cited come from


The Atlanta Hawks have an above average offense but they're below average at two of the four factors (offensive rebounding, free throw rate) and their turnover rate is almost exactly at the league average. Only when shooting the ball do the Hawks exceed an average team's performance. If you were going to pick just one of the four factors at which to excel, that would be the one but the Hawks are a good, rather than an exceptional field goal shooting team. They rank 11th in the league in eFG%, as many percentage points behind league-leader Boston as they are ahead of 26th and 27th ranked Washington and New Jersey.

The interesting stuff

The Hawks aren't an above average shooting team because they take or make a lot of three-point shots. The average NBA team takes 22.4% of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. The Hawks take 23.1% of their field goal attempts from beyond the arc. The league averages 36% on three-point shots. The Hawks make 36.2% of their three-point shots. The Hawks pick up some ground on the league with their three-point shooting, but not a lot.

The Hawks aren't an above average shooting team because they take or convert a high percentage of shots at the rim. The average NBA team takes 27.2% of their field goal attempts at the rim and make 62.9% of those shots. The Hawks take 23.2% of their field goal attempts at the rim and make just 60.6% of those shots.

No, the Hawks are an above average shooting team because they make low-percentage shots far more often than an average team.

Here are a couple of graphs comparing the shot distribution of the league as a whole to the shot distribution of the Hawks:

Look at the size of that green piece of pie the Hawks make. Only the Wizards and the Heat use a larger percentage of their field goal attempts on 16-23' jump shots. However, only the Dallas Mavericks better Atlanta's 44.4% shooting from that range. The league, as a whole, shoots just 39.3% from that range.

One possible explanation for Atlanta's success: The Hawks earn assists on 69% of their made field goals from that range. The league as a whole earns an assist on just 61.2% of such shots. It's quite possible the Hawks create higher-quality long two-point jump shots than most teams.

Looking at the success of individual Atlanta players from that range this season lends some support to this hypothesis. Joe Johnson (36.4% from 16-23') and Mike Bibby (37.6% from 16-23') both create a lot of their own long, two-point jump shots with just 30.4% and 52.3%, respectively, coming off assists. Al Horford (57.7% from 16-23') earns a teammate an assist on 92% of his long two-point jump shots.

There's conflicting evidence, as well. Jamal Crawford has made 45.5% of his long two-point jump shots but just 36.9% of them are assisted.

Another way the Hawks thrive despite taking so many (generally speaking) low-percentage shots is by taking fewer of the next lowest-percentage shots. NBA teams typically use 25.5% of their field goal attempts on shots outside of the basket area but inside of 16 feet. The Hawks take just 24.4% of their shots from that vast mid-range. The Hawks best the league average field goal percentage from that range, as well, almost entirely on the strength of Joe Johnson and Al Horford combining to make 129 of 243 shots (53.1%) inside of 10 feet but not at the rim so far this season. The league shoots just 43.4% from that range.


Is the unusual nature of Atlanta's shooting success sustainable come the playoffs? The Hawks have played just 15 of their 44 games this season against teams with winning records and they've struggled horribly on the offensive end in those games, averaging less than a point per possession.

Given the small sample size and the across-the-board offensive declines the team has suffered against better opposition, it's difficult, if not unreasonable to proffer an answer with any certainty.

Based on what's happened, though, jump shooting has been the least of Atlanta's offensive problems against teams with winning records. The Hawks have shot slightly more frequently and slightly less accurately outside of 16 feet in those games, but the serious problem has been in converting shots inside of 15 feet:

OppeFG% (16+')%FGA (16+')
over .50047.254.2

OppeFG% (inside 15')%FGA (inside 15')
over .50047.145.8

Whether this is indicative of a larger inability to create high-percentage shots* or the nature of sub-dividing performance into smaller and smaller segments (especially considering said segment includes an historically poor performance) is a fair question. Additional evidence (the Hawks are scheduled to play 10 straight games against teams with winning records in February and March) should help us come to an understanding as to whether the Hawks are forging a distinct path of offensive success or have just discovered a way to leverage their strengths and limit exposure of their weaknesses against less talented and successful teams.

*Supporting this notion, Atlanta's below average free throw rate plummets from 22.2 (19th in the league) to 17.0 (would rank dead last, and is less than three-quarters of the league average) when they've played teams with winning records this season.


Bronnt said...

Very nicely done, Bret. Clearly, Horford's strength in the pick and pop is really the biggest asset the Hawks have on offense.

Adam Malka said...

Agreed--well done.

In mid-April, I'd be interested to return to this subject. That is, I'd love to see the final numbers detailing how the offense stacked up against good teams. Considering the amount of ink spilled on Drew's offensive scheme--and this goes for not only the local media but fans as well--it would be pretty damning if the 2010-11 Hawks were less offensively efficient against quality opponents than the 2009-10 team that allegedly quit on its coach when the going got rough.

Please note, though: I do not say that as a fan of Mike Woodson.