Atlanta Hawks: Lords of the Garbage Fire

The NBA is no longer a division-intensive league. Gone are the days when a team could get a top-4 seed just by lording over a trash division, a situation that has on occasion given us garbage like the 44-38 Denver Nuggets getting to be the 3 seed in 2006, or a similarly terrible 44-38 2007 Miami Heat team making the playoffs on a championship hangover and getting swept by a 47-win Chicago Bulls team that was the lower seed in the bracket.

In theory, we could see a situation where a division winner doesn’t even make the playoffs at all. Since 2016, the NBA went to conference seeding by record, all but abolishing divisions. Indeed, the division winner doesn’t even get a playoff tiebreaker; in 2019, the Orlando Magic went 42-40, won the Southeast Division, and saw themselves the 7 seed as the Brooklyn Nets won their season series two games to one.

Something similar may be brewing in the Southeast this year. Miami, despite making the NBA Finals in 2020, is off to a rotten 6-11 start, 13th in the East and the fourth-worst record in the entire league.

The Washington Wizards acquired Russell Westbrook and learned why you shouldn’t trade for Russell Westbrook. They’re 3-11, losing their last three games by a combined 57 points after a lengthy delay for a COVID-imposed quarantine; they didn’t play a game between January 11th and the 24th. They have since played those three blowout losses (20, 19, and 18 points) in four days.

Charlotte is…well, Charlotte; LaMelo Ball has been ridiculously bad shooting the ball, as we’ve come to expect from the Ball brothers, the rest of the roster is a G-League team, and the Hornets’ 7-11 record and 11th-place standing might actually count as overachieving.

Orlando is 8-11; technically they’re in the top eight, but c’mon, 8-11 is a prorated 34-48 record over an 82-game season. That’s “earned the right to get their ass kicked in the first round”, hardly a feisty 8 seed like, say, the 2007 Golden State Warriors or even a 2008 Atlanta Hawks team that took the mighty Boston Celtics to seven games in the first round.

Speaking of Atlanta, they’re the kings of this mountain. At 9-9, they’re tied for sixth with the Cleveland Cavaliers and sit just two games behind the third-place 11-7 Indiana Pacers through games of January 27.

Which, in turn, means that while we’re probably not going to see a division winner miss the playoffs—unless the Hawks and Magic somehow end up crashing out of the play-in games and yielding both spots to the presently 8th and 9th-ranked New York Knicks and Chicago Bulls, respectively—we are once again set to see a division winner finish with a dreadfully mediocre record and status as a sacrificial lamb for an actual contender.

If the season ended today, the Hawks would be the 7 seed; Cleveland beat them in their only head-to-head matchup and so would get the 6 seed.

That would stick them in a seven-game series against Milwaukee. Good luck with that.

The rest of the division? Even if one of the other squads snuck into that final playoff spot, that just means they’d get smoked by Philadelphia.

The Hawks, however, are an interesting case actually worthy of study.

Because this team, while not exactly a “trendy playoff sleeper”—their Vegas over-under was 34.5 wins in this 72-game shortened campaign, the equivalent of 39-43 in 82 games, not exactly setting the world on fire—was at least supposed to be a feisty squad, and despite the record, that really hasn’t been the case, not statistically speaking.

Sure, the Hawks own some impressive wins—they beat the Nets, Sixers, and Clippers—but they also haven’t beaten teams that good teams are supposed to beat, running up a four-game losing streak against the Cavaliers, Knicks, and (dreadfully) twice to the Hornets, part of a 1-6 stretch that included that inexplicable win over Philadelphia.

But then again, they’re otherwise 8-3, so who knows?

Trae Young continues to be a volume-scoring chucker in the Allen Iverson mold; while he is a LOT more efficient than Iverson ever was even in his wildest dreams (Young has 26.2 points on 18.1 FGA per game, a raw efficiency of 1.45; Iverson for his career scored 26.7 points on 21.8 shots per contest, a much less efficient 1.22), Young isn’t playing in the Dark Ages where you could get away with being that lousy a shooter if you scored enough points to snow the casuals.

Young’s eFG% is a hideous .472, 63rd out of 72 players with at least 200 attempts so far this season. Back the minimum FGA down to 150 and Young is 100th out of 116 players, in the bottom 15 percent.

Worth noting, Russell Westbrook’s .411 eFG% is an absolute atrocity as he seems bent on cheapening the triple-double (he has four in nine games this year) into irrelevance even more than he already has.

Young is shooting just 44.3 percent on 2-point shots, largely due to his complete inability to properly attack the rim.

Fully 20.8 percent of his shots have come in Aborted Drive Land, and on those shots—between 3 and 10 feet out from the basket—he is shooting a disastrous 34.4 percent.

And even though he’s a decent if not particularly good 3-point shooter—35.4 percent, good for a .531 eFG% from that range—he’s only got a 3PAR of .341. He wants to be Stephen Curry, but Steph would never get forced into the short midrange so often while trying to attack the rim.

And it’s not like Young’s a great finisher either; he is, in essence, the Newtonian equal and opposite reaction to Domantas Sabonis.

On Tuesday, we looked at Sabonis’ efficiency from inside 3 feet; among 83 players with at least 50 attempts from that range so far this season, Sabonis is 14th in FG% at a mind-boggling 76.0 percent.

Young? His 56.6 percent finishing from that close is 14th up from the bottom, 70th out of 83, just ahead of Andrew Wiggins and Malik Beasley (yikes) and behind Victor Oladipo and Cedi Osman (double yikes.)

The Hawks have built an offense around a high-volume shooter who can’t shoot.

And in turn, they’re one of the worst shooting teams in the league, sitting 23rd in eFG% as a squad.

And yet…they’re 10th in Offensive Rating and 13th in Defensive Rating. What gives?

Well, for one thing, they’re fantastic offensive rebounders, which you’d kind of expect when they’ve got a YMCA chucker like Young taking so many bad shots. They’re fourth in offensive rebounding percentage, and Clint Capela has been the biggest beneficiary—he’s snagging 4.9 offensive boards a game and his 14.5 rebounds per contest overall stands second behind only Andre Drummond (14.7) for the league lead

The ones Capela doesn’t hoover up, John Collins (2.1 ORB/game) does. Collins stands 29th overall in rebounding at 7.7 a game, one slot behind LeBron James, and is likewise 29th in offensive boards per contest, no mean feat when one of the best rebounders in the league gets most of the spoils on the glass.

Then again, if your team misses enough shots, there are certainly enough rebounds to go around for two guys.

But let’s swing back to that point about getting rebounds because there are a lot of missed shots.

The Hawks rank third in opponents’ eFG% behind the Knicks and Jazz, which in turn is a big part of the reason Atlanta ranks 13th in Defensive Rating.

And again like the Knicks and Jazz, the Hawks do this by not worrying about forcing turnovers, merely making sure the enemy gets the worst possible shot on the possession.

New York has the lowest opponents’ eFG% and the second-lowest opponents’ turnover rate. The Jazz reverse that, with the second-lowest shooting percentage and fewest takeaways per 100 possessions.

And the Hawks, third-stingiest in terms of eFG% defensively, stand fifth-lowest in opponents’ turnover rate.

The Jazz, Knicks, and Hawks rank third, sixth, and 13th in defensive rating. We may be witnessing the birth of a defensive revolution in the league…especially since a team with a defender as utterly cover-your-eyes awful at defense as Trae Young ranking 13th in defense is nothing short of a miracle; that’s only marginally easier to do than a hockey team playing great defense despite the other team spending the entire game on the power play.

(OK, OK, Young’s defense is improving. It’s just “crap” as opposed to “steaming hot garbage that couldn’t guard my dead grandmother, and she’s been rotting in the ground since Trae was 15.”)

The Hawks are an injury-riddled mess in the backcourt (their second and third-string point guards, Kris Dunn and Rajon Rondo, are both injured, as is shooting guard Bogdan Bogdanovic), their offensive spacing needs a lot of work—with Nate McMillan now an assistant coach in Atlanta, this may be creeping into Lloyd Pierce’s coaching—and their defense is middling.

But at the same time, the ingredients are there for the kind of team that makes noise in the new four-out rim-protection big-man-and-a-cast-of-shooters league the NBA has become over the past couple of years.

Atlanta is 9-9. In a garbage fire of a Southeast Division, that’s enough to rule the roost, and who knows? Miami was a 5 seed last year and made it all the way to the Finals out of that wretched hive of a division.