Filling the Void: How the Hawks Have Dealt With Horford’s Absence

Friday, January 3, 2014
By Robby Kalland

Atlanta Hawks v Cleveland Cavaliers

It has been just over a full week since Al Horford tore his right pectoral muscle, and the Hawks have gone 2-1 in their three games since the injury. In his absence the Hawks have not looked sharp, but they have found ways to get wins over the Celtics and Bobcats in that stretch. Paul Millsap has stepped up and carried the load for the frontcourt, averaging 28 points, 11.7 rebounds, two blocks, and 1.7 steals per game in the three games without Horford.

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Millsap, as expected, has become the workhorse for the Hawks with Horford out. In Bud’s offense, which relies so heavily on pick-and-roll/pop, Millsap now becomes the primary roll/pop man after splitting that duty with Horford when both played together. Millsap’s Usage percentage shows how much his role has changed. In the three games without Horford, Millsap has had a 29.8% USG%. Prior to Horford’s injury, Millsap had a 23.3% USG%. Millsap’s spike in usage, while over a small sample size, is representative of the importance that he now has for the Hawks’ offense as the primary scoring option in the frontcourt.

In his new role, Millsap has excelled. He has a 62% TS% and has a net rating of +10.2 (offensive rating 105.5; defensive rating 95.3) in 38.3 minutes per game, up from 33.1 prior to the injury (although that includes an overtime game, so how much his playing time will increase still remains to be seen). Millsap has been a force on the defensive end and dominant on the offensive end, but, unfortunately for the Hawks, not everyone has adjusted as well.

The Hawks as a team have seen a drop-off in their production and efficiency in the three games since the injury. It is clear that the Hawks are still learning how to play in their new rotations, and it has effected the offensive rhythm. The Hawks were averaging an NBA-best 25.9 assists per game prior to the injury (including a recent stretch of three 30+ assist games), and in the three games since that has dropped to 23.3 assists per game (10th in the NBA in that stretch). Atlanta’s shooting efficiency has taken a spill, with their eFG% dropping from 52.6% to 47.2% since the injury, and their offensive rating has been just 99.9 (18th in the NBA) in the past three games after posting an offensive rating of 104.7 (10th in the NBA) in the 28 games prior.

The Hawks’ defensive rating has not been effected much, going from 102.3 to 102.4, but with the decline in offensive rating, the Hawks have actually posted a negative net rating (-2.5) with Horford out despite having two wins. Part of the drop-off in the Hawks’ offensive efficiency and success has been the lack of attempts and poor finishing at the rim. In the last three games, the Hawks are shooting just 52.9% in the restricted area (4th worst in the NBA) and have attempted only 25.9% (68-of-263) of their shot attempts in the restricted area. With Horford, the Hawks were attempting 29.9% of their shots in the restricted area, and were shooting 63% on those attempts.

What the Hawks have done instead is shoot more from the perimeter. The Hawks have taken an astonishing 40.7% (107-of-263) of their shot attempts from three-point range in the past three games, and have shot just 33.6% on those attempts. Prior to Horford’s injury, the Hawks were taking 28.5% of their shot attempts from the three-point line and were making 38.3% of those attempts. The dramatic increase in volume of three-pointers has been the result of three main things.

First, without Horford, the Hawks are relying more on their perimeter players for scoring, which would create a natural increase in perimeter shots taken. Lou WilliamsJeff Teague, and Kyle Korver are the Hawks’ three most effective scorers after Millsap, and Korver and Williams take a high volume of three-point shots. As they are leaned on more for offensive production, the Hawks’ three-point attempts will increase as well.

Also, the Hawks’ mid-range numbers will decline with Horford out, as the pick-and-pop game becomes a smaller factor. The Hawks’ pick-and-roll/pop attack will still have the threat of the mid-range jumper from Millsap and Elton Brand, but they will rely on Teague to drive and kick out more now. Within the pick-and-pop game itself, Millsap and Pero Antic often will pop to behind the three-point line rather than settling in on the elbow like Horford did, which will cause a spike in three-point attempts. Along with that, the Hawks, particularly in their first two games without Horford, had expended a lot of energy over the prior week and were playing with tired legs, which led to them settling for more jump shots rather than attacking the lane.

The Hawks will likely become more reliant on the three-point shot than they were with Horford as they move forward, but they will not likely continue shooting threes at such an incredibly high rate. For the Hawks to be successful, they will have to be more committed to attacking the rim, with their guards and their bigs, in order to get more efficient shot attempts and also to get to the free throw line.

Defensively, the Hawks biggest adjustment is protecting the rim. With Horford, the Hawks were allowing opponents to shoot just 59.2% within five feet of the rim and opponents took 34.7% of their attempts in that area. Without him in the past three games, opponents are shooting 68.3% inside five feet, and are taking 31.3% of their shot attempts in that area. The Hawks will have to find a way to either deter players from getting to the rim and/or get improved defensive efforts at the rim from their reserve bigs in their now expanded roles.

The Hawks face an uphill challenge with Horford out for the season, but they have shown in the past week a resiliency to play tough and battle even when they get down. Millsap is emerging as the Hawks’ most consistent and effective offensive weapon, and his efficiency has increased even with a dramatic jump in usage. The rest of the Hawks’ bigs will have to find ways to have a positive impact on the game offensively, even if it’s not scoring, by setting good screens, facilitating, and being strong on the boards. On defense, the Hawks must be effective as a unit, and they will need to play on a string together in order to make up for not having a true rim protector on the court. The first week without Horford has shown some of the weaknesses and major issues the Hawks will face for the rest of the season, but it has also shown that the team is still very competitive even without their star in the middle.

[Stats courtesy of NBA.com/Stats]

Photo by Mike Lawrie/NBAE/Getty Images

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