Breaking Bud Part Three: The Frontcourt
While the Hawks backcourt features some familiar faces, the frontcourt has a very new look to it. Al Horford returns for his seventh season with the Hawks but has a very different supporting cast around him. Gone are the veterans he grew up in the organization with like Josh Smith and Zaza Pachulia, and in have come the likes of Paul Millsap, Elton Brand, Pero Antic and Gustavo Ayon. The only player that Horford has played any minutes with in the frontcourt is second year forward Mike Scott, who played a grand total of 38 minutes with him last season.
A new system and new players means building chemistry and trust between the players, especially in the frontcourt, which will be crucial to the Hawks’ success on both ends of the floor. Learning how to communicate and play off of each other will be important for the Hawks’ bigs in Coach Mike Budenholzer‘s system that requires a lot of motion and screening while maintaining proper spacing.
Horford’s apparent fit into Bud’s system is something I’ve detailed at length earlier this summer, and in speaking with Horford and Bud they appear to feel the same way. Horford will be asked to play a lot of pick-and-roll/pop in Bud’s offense, something he’s been effective with in his Hawks career. In pick-and-roll/pop plays last season Horford averaged 1.01 PPP (points per possession) as the roll man, good for 59th in the league (per Synergy Sports). Horford spoke about how he thinks Bud’s system will be a good fit for his preferred style of play.
“It does, it does excite me,” he said. “Movement is a big thing that we’ve lacked here in the past, and I think that with the players that we have here everyone’s going to buy into that. For me, I feel like it’s going to help my game, rolling to the basket or popping to the wing and making plays, getting those shots it’s definitely going to benefit me.”
Joining Horford in the frontcourt is former Jazzman Millsap. Millsap shares many of Horford’s offensive strengths as a strong mid-range shooter and athletic big that uses speed and quickness over brute strength. They shot almost the exact same percentage from 16-24 feet last year (where the majority of pick-and-pop looks come from) with Millsap shooting 42.4 percent and Horford shooting 42.3 percent. Millsap and Horford also had the exact same PPP on post-ups (0.85) and were very similar on spot-ups (0.86 for Paul, 0.83 for Al).
Bud’s system is very different from that Millsap operated in with the Jazz. In Utah, pick-and-roll accounted for just 12 percent of Millsap’s offense, where he averaged 0.91 PPP. That percentage will likely come close to doubling in Atlanta this season. Millsap thinks the pace of the offense and the emphasis on pick-and-roll will play well to his strengths.
“Well, yeah [I’m excited to play in this system],” Millsap said. “I haven’t played pick-and-pop for a while, you know, it’s been awhile, but I feel like I’m pretty strong in that area, I know Al’s pretty strong in that area, and we got the point guards and the guards to do it and make it happen.”
The biggest change for Millsap will be that he won’t be asked to create as much on his own. In Utah, only 69.3 percent of his 16-24 foot makes were assisted. For comparison, Horford, whose looks were primarily out of pick-and-pop, had 86.2 percent of his 16-24 foot makes assisted on and for Tim Duncan, in Bud’s offense, an incredible 94 percent of his made 16-24 footers were assisted. In the restricted area, Millsap only had 55.3 percent of his made baskets assisted on, while Horford had 77.2 percent of his makes assisted on and Duncan had 66.1 percent assisted (per NBA Stats). By allowing Millsap to work more off the ball, he can quickness to create separation from his defender better, especially in these areas on the floor, and get more open looks at the basket.
Millsap and Horford’s similarities have opened up questions to how they will work together on the floor. Both like to operate in space, whether on spot-ups or pick-and-pops, and are most effective in the mid-range shooting from the elbows rather than the baseline. They are also more effective facing up instead of backing down in the post because it allows them to better use their quickness advantage over bigger, longer bigs. The two will spend much of their time together on the floor as the starters at power forward and center, and I asked Bud how he plans on taking advantage of their similarities while maintaining floor balance and spacing.
“I think there’s a lot of potential for them to work well together and to learn how to space and read off of each other, and the whole group to learn to take advantage of Paul and Al’s strengths,” Bud said. “We also like to have Paul and Al extend to the corner threes and make that part of our spacing and part of our offensive attack. I think they’re both dynamic in catching and attacking a closeout and catching and making a pass, making a play for a teammate and especially for each other and the big to big relationship and finding each other. I think they’re going to be really good together because they’re such good passers. You know if the defense makes a mistake or the defense over-commits they know how to find each other, they know how to work off the ball.
So, I think, even though, it’s correct or accurate that they have a lot of similarities as far as the ability to make mid-range shots and play pick-and-pop, we’re also going to need them to roll and attack the basket and get in the paint to collapse the defense as a roller in screening action also. To have two guys that are very good at pick-and-pop or pick-and-roll situations, you have more options to attack the defense. You know, sometimes teams have a big or you can pick on certain situations or certain bigs and make them pay because you have two guys that are both capable.”
Bud sees advantages having two bigs with the athleticism and shooting ability to both be weapons as pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop situations. As I noted in Part Two, Bud likes having options to run multiple pick-and-rolls within the same offensive possession using two guards that can handle the ball. Having a pair of bigs that are efficient and effective in both pick-and-roll/pop plays opens up more opportunities to create mismatches in those sets.
“I think the first thing is we want to get early, deep post ups,” Bud said. “So we want to play with pace and that includes early, deep post ups. I think Al and Paul will have the ability to beat their opposing bigs and the defense down the court, establish deep post-ups and score early in the clock, score deep in the paint. That comes with running and a commitment to running with pace, but also with the proper spacing and the proper discipline, and the whole group knows this, looking at them early in the post is a priority.
I think both of them, again, with their quickness and their abilities, I think they can play one-on-one or they can play in the post. If they’re playing against guys with length or guys bigger than them, then they can beat them facing, driving, and attacking and getting to the free throw line. Making bigs move their feet, making bigs do things that maybe are to Paul and Al’s strengths and not to playing to the opponents strength, and they’ll learn to play to theirs with is quickness and speed.”
Semi-transition will be a big part of the Hawks offense off of opponents makes and misses. The Hawks have shown a commitment to this in their first two preseason games. Bud feels that the Hawks bigs can out-run other teams’ bigs down the floor, which will allow them to get that early, deep post position for easy baskets. Along with quick post-ups for the bigs, one of Bud’s favorite ways to use semi-transition is in the quick high pick-and-roll. This set here is one of the pet plays of Bud’s system that they will run a variation of a number of times each game.
The set up is simple, the two wing players go to the weak side with one in the corner and the other on the wing, one of the bigs on the strong side baseline, and the point guard bringing the ball to the wing with the other big trailing. The trailing big will set a quick high pick-and-roll and slip towards the basket as the other big flares to the corner, clearing the paint. The point guard drifts towards the top of the key to open up the passing lane to the big. The weak-side corner defender is forced to choose between helping down on the big or stay with the shooter in the corner. The key to the play is the pace they run it at. Going quickly and making the pass early to the big forces the defense to make the choice which can lead to either an easy basket at the rim or a quick kick-out for the corner three (and if the wing defender drops to the corner a touch pass to an open three from the wing).
A variation of this set you could see from the Hawks, and one that would take advantage of the versatility of the guards to handle the ball and the bigs as pick-and-roll threats, is something like this.
The set up is similar, but has the wing in the strong side corner rather than the weak-side, and the big on the weak side baseline instead of the strong side. The first high pick-and-roll would operate out of the same look, with the big coming from the top of the key and slipping to the rim and the guard driving toward the elbow from the wing. The weak side big clears up to the opposite elbow and if his man helps on the roller, it opens up a second pick-and-roll opportunity.
Here, you see the point guard quickly kicks to the opposite guard, who starts a screen-and-roll with the big that moved up to the elbow. Once the pass is thrown to the other guard, the initial roller clears out to the corner and the first guard goes back to the wing to keep the floor balanced and spaced.
Along with playing in transition and semi-transition to get quick post-ups, these types of concepts with multiple pick-and-roll opportunities in the same offensive set will be one of the ways Bud neutralizes size advantages of the opposition and makes it an advantage for the Hawks athletic bigs.
Horford and Millsap will be the likely starters, and how they work together will be important to the success of the team. Bud mentioned passing as a strength for both players, and the high-low game between the bigs will be another part of the offense this season. We saw it at times in the first two preseason games, and it’s something Horford excelled in last season with Smith.
Horford had 118 of his made baskets assisted on by Josh Smith, which was the second highest combination for Horford behind Jeff Teague at 151. The Hawks’ two-man game was lethal last year and was a major part of their offense, especially in the final minutes of games. The Hawks will use different sets this year to work the high-low game with Al, Paul and the rest of the bigs, but Bud likes the passing ability of his bigs, especially Paul and Al, and expects that to continue to be a big part of the Hawks offense.
This is one such play that the Spurs ran last year using their bigs together, especially with Boris Diaw on the floor as the trigger-man and Tim Duncan as the shooting big. The concept is simple with one big operating with the ball on the wing, the point guard in one corner, and a wing in the other. The two-guard comes down from the top of the key and sets a pin-down for the big on the baseline who comes up to the elbow for a shot. As I mentioned in Part Two, using guards to set screens is something that is regularly done in Bud’s system to put extra pressure on the defense to execute, and this is an example of that. If the defense switches then the big can then operate from the elbow with a mismatch, if the screen is successful the big has an open look from 16 feet, and if both go with the big the guard is open underneath for an easy layup.
Horford and Millsap will be the likely starters all season and their success on the court together will be vitally important to the Hawks success this season. The other four bigs on the bench also have Bud excited, and when asked about how his rotations will look next year, he said that he sees players staying in their traditional roles rather than going big or small, like we saw last year with so many line-up combinations.
“I think we’ve got a good group of bigs, you know six guys that I’m excited about and I think most of the time you’ll see two of them on the court, a couple of wings and a point guard, and you could possibly see two point guards in at times,” he said. “But, I think the way the roster’s constituted right now we’re going to be fairly traditional. Our bigs I think are athletic and versatile enough that I think we can stay big even when other teams go small.”
Brand is the best known player of the other free agent bigs that were brought in this offseason. The veteran center (as Brand, Coach Bud, and Danny Ferry have all noted, he is very much a center at this point in his career) comes to the Hawks after an up and down year in Dallas. Despite early difficulties, Brand adjusted to his new role as a bench player and had a very solid season for the Mavericks. As he told me earlier this summer, he’s excited about getting to play in Bud’s offense because of the emphasis on ball movement and where the bigs get touches.
“Yeah, I know the bigs are spacing the floor, touching the ball, shooting the mid-range, and facilitating also,” Brand said. “I feel like I fit in well. I can be very effective in it. I know I’m excited to touch that ball in those spots.”
Brand was around the league average from 16-24 feet last season and shot 42.1 percent from that range. Brand was good in pick-and-roll/pop scoring finishing 70th in the NBA among roll-men with 0.98 PPP and shot 47.7 percent from the field. He struggled as a spot-up shooter, shooting just 41.1 percent from the field on spot-up attempts and had just 0.76 PPP, 320th in the NBA. From 16-24 feet, Brand shot much better from the right side of the floor (54.5 percent), than the left or middle of the court (32.6 percent). From a floor-balancing perspective, the Hawks have versatility with their bigs, but, to put them in their most comfortable spots in the mid-range, will have to allow them to operate in different spots on the court.
Al Horford, Paul Millsap, and Elton Brand (left to right) shot charts from 16 to 24 feet.
As their three shot charts show, each is very similar in their overall percentages (only a 0.3 percent variance between the three) and that Horford had a great deal more attempts than the other two combined, due to the offense he was in and his role as one of the primary offensive weapons. However, it also shows how the Hawks can put all three in different areas to space the floor and have them be at their most efficient from the mid-range.
Millsap works best from the baseline rather than the elbows, while Horford excels on the left-side and especially from the left elbow, and Brand is most comfortable on the right side (although with an admittedly small sample size). How those shots are created is crucially important to how efficient the shot is, but this offers an idea of ways to use these three players together and keep proper floor spacing and balancing.
The other two free agent acquisitions for the front-court this offseason were Ayon and Antic. Ayon has never been used as a major offensive option in the NBA, and got most of his shots from cuts to the basket last season, which was cut short due to injury. He had just 10 post-up shot attempts (he made seven of them) among his 126 attempts last year and does not present much of an offensive threat in the post.
Ayon did have a tremendous FIBA Americas tournament and looked exceptional for Mexico as they won the championship and he won tournament MVP. The Hawks will hope that he continues to show that good form once he returns form his shoulder injury, but do not expect him to be a primary offensive option; rather he will get his opportunities on the offensive end by cutting to the basket and getting put-back attempts on offensive rebounds.
Antic is an intriguing 6’11” power forward that has range to the three-point line. He said at media day that he is most comfortable on the offensive end on the outside and in early preseason action Antic has looked for that three-point shot and has been used more as a floor-spacing jump shooter on the offensive end.
The final big on the roster is Scott, who despite only being in his second-year in the league is tied for third, only behind Horford and Teague, in longest tenured players on the team. Scott has trimmed down 15 pounds this offseason and has said all summer that he’s been working to become a more versatile player on the wing, adding a more consistent three point shot and trying to become a more agile defender. With Bud’s focus on playing a more traditional lineup, I asked what Scott’s role will be this year and whether he would look at Mike as an option at small forward.
“I really think I want Mike to focus on the four position and learning the four position and being really efficient and really good,” Bud said. “In the system it’s a significant difference in those two positions, and it’s not something we do a lot with the four-to-three or three-to-four. I’m not saying it hasn’t ever happened, it has occasionally, but I think for Mike to start the season I think his focus and our focus is on him to play the four even though he does have some natural abilities and some things defensively and offensively where you could at least consider that or think about it, but that’s not really the plan.”
While Scott will not be played at the three, he still can have value in the offense. He has been extremely impressive in the preseason, leading the team in scoring through the first two games, and has looked very comfortable stepping out and spacing the floor all the way to the three point line, something Bud’s mentioned he will look to see out of his bigs. Scott is a polished jump shooter that has an opportunity to succeed in Bud’s offense as a pick-and-pop player with the ability to also knock down corner threes regularly. The biggest question for Scott will come on the defensive end, where he will be undersized against other fours and will have to stay committed on that end and show he’s capable of matching up with power forwards to earn and keep his minutes.
The offensive system Coach Bud is bringing over is, as Kyle Korver said, very different from what the Hawks had been running under Larry Drew. With new players and a new system that emphasizes ball movement and motion, building on-court chemistry in camp will be crucial to how successful the Hawks will be early on. Finding a rhythm together on the court and learning how each other plays is going to take time. The Hawks will be slowly implementing their offense and more complex sets and concepts as the season progresses, which we will detail for you as it is instituted. For now, look for pace and motion to be the hallmarks of the Hawks offense, along with some of these basic pick-and-roll principles outlined in this series.
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