On December 26th, 2014, the Atlanta Hawks were eviscerated by the Milwaukee Bucks at home, 107-77, to fall to 21-8 on the season.
It would be the last time they lost in a while.
Between then and their 115-100 loss to the New Orleans Pelicans yesterday, the Hawks did not lose a single game, ripping off a nineteen game winning streak that caught the attention of everyone in the NBA. Within the streak, they had impressive wins over contenders such as the Cavaliers, Trail Blazers (twice), Clippers, Grizzlies, Wizards, Raptors, Bulls, and Thunder.
The most impressive part of all of this? They are 40-9 overall and are winning at ridiculous rates without a true superstar on their roster. Yes, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap, and Al Horford are all really good players, but would anyone really consider any of them superstars? Outside of Atlanta, probably not. The fact that they are winning is a testament to how well they play as a team and how well coached they are.
Last season was Mike Budenholzer’s first as Atlanta’s head coach, and there were some grumblings that he was not doing a good job and would be fired after this season if they were not successful. Then, as they 8-seed in the playoffs, Atlanta took the top-seeded Indiana Pacers to seven games and proved to the world that they could play. This year, with their roster nearly identical to last season’s, they are lighting the world on fire.
How exactly have the Hawks done this? Let’s take a deeper look into what exactly made the Hawks so successful during their streak and how it will be useful to them as the season progresses.
1. Extraordinary Ball Movement
You’ve probably heard the experts talking about it over and over, but that’s because it’s true: the Hawks move the ball as well as any team in the NBA. They are second in the league in assists per game with 25.9, trailing only the Golden State Warriors.
A key reason why the Hawks are so good at moving the ball is that they have one of the best passing duos for big men in the league. After starting PG Jeff Teague (7.5 assists per game) and backup PG Dennis Schroder (3.5 APG), Paul Millsap and Al Horford are the two players on the Hawks with the most assists. Horford gets 3.3 APG, while Millsap gets 3.0, making them one of only two Power Forward-Center combos in the NBA where both players average at least 3 assists (San Antonio is the other).
It’s no coincidence that of the top 10 teams in assists per game, only one is not in the playoff picture currently, while of the bottom 10, only two teams are. Ball movement is very important in today’s NBA which puts a premium on floor-spacing and shooting over isolation ball, which reminds me…
2. Shooting from all Five Positions on the Floor
In today’s analytically-minded world, the value of the three-point shot in the NBA has never been higher. As such, teams in recent years have started to go away from the traditional power forward and gone more towards small-ball lineups that include power forwards who shoot the three at a high clip.
However, something that is not common is the development of the center who shoots threes well. When a team has a center who can hit shots from deep, that will usually pull the opponent’s best rim protector away from the hoop, leaving open space for guards to drive to the hoop.
When both your power forward and center can shoot? That causes worlds of trouble for defenses for so many reasons, and that’s exactly what the Hawks do.
Typically, shooting 33% percent from deep is considered a solid mark by NBA standards. The Hawks have seven (!!!) players who shoot 33% or higher from three. Kyle Korver is shooting an otherworldly 54% from beyond the mark, and if he is given even the slightest amount of space by a defense, he will make them pay.
Obviously, Korver provides space to the offense, but it may be more important to note that Millsap (35.7%) and Horford (33%) can also shoot the three at a very good clip for their positions. This takes big men on defense away from the basket, in turn opening up the lanes for easy drives to the bucket by Teague. It also makes it impossible to “hide” a less-mobile big man on either Millsap or Horford, because they will be killed from the perimeter otherwise. All of the other top teams in the East start a center that isn’t exactly known for his mobility; Jonas Valancunas for the Raptors, Marcin Gortat for the Wizards, Pau Gasol for the Bulls, and Timofey Mozgov for the Cavaliers. You can bet the Hawks will expose whichever of these guys they face in the playoffs on defense, which is only made possible because everyone on the floor can shoot.
The Atlanta Hawks are not a good defensive team. They are a great defensive team. Got it? Good.
The Hawks have been holding opponents to a measly 96.5 points per game, good for third in the NBA. Their team defensive rating is 103.5, which is 7th in the NBA. And opponents only shoot 43.6% against Atlanta, the 5th best mark in the NBA. These are all indicative of a team that plays great defense.
It is even more impressive when you note that they do not have a team full of elite individual defenders. With the exception of Thabo Sefolosha (and DeMarre Carroll to an extent), no one on the Hawks is really known for their defense. They aren’t an elite defensive rebounding team, as they are middle of the pack in both defensive rebounding and opponent’s offensive rebounding. And while Center Al Horford is a decent rim protector, he is by no means elite.
Then why are they so good on defense? It’s simple: they just play really darn well on that end as a team. They clearly all have trust in one another, communicate very well, try really hard, and stay in front of their guys. There really isn’t too much else to explain as to why they are so good.
Overall, the Hawks will look to continue to share the ball, space the floor, and play good defense. These are winning qualities and are the reason the Hawks won 19 in a row in the first place. They possess the ability to continue these trends into the playoffs, which will make them incredibly dangerous.