In the summer of 2013, the Atlanta Hawks plucked their current head coach, Mike Budenholzer, from the San Antonio Spurs’ assistant coaching staff. Budenholzer brought Gregg Popovich’s wildly successful offensive and defensive systems to Atlanta, and the Hawks had the unselfish, high-character players to execute said systems on both sides of the ball.
In just the second year of Coach Bud’s tenure, Atlanta won an Eastern Conference-leading 60 games and won two playoff rounds for the first time since 1958. At one point, the squad had a stretch where it won 33 of 35 games.
San Antonio has won at least 50 regular-season games in 17 of the last 18 years. In the one campaign, they didn’t reach the half-century mark, the Spurs went 37-13 in a lockout-shortened season and won a championship. Now, they’re off to a 20-5 start in 2015-16 — getting to 50 wins will require just a 30-27 record the rest of the way.
The Hawks, on the other hand, played just one season of amazing basketball. They were great, don’t get me wrong, but it’s a lot easier to sneak up on opponents for one year than it is to be great year after year. Prior to last season, Atlanta had never strung together even five consecutive 50-win seasons, and it hadn’t won a championship since moving from St. Louis in 1968.
So far in 2015-16, the comparison is looking even more like a stretch. The 20-5 Spurs sport a historically great plus-12.8 point differential, and the Hawks are 14-11 with a plus-0.8 differential. The huge disparity has especially manifested itself in the teams’ two matchups.
The season series between the Spurs and Spurs East is already over, with the original Spurs taking both games in blowout fashion. In each contest, San Antonio led by at least 20 points at halftime.
So what was the problem with Atlanta in the two games? Was the team cold from the field? Was San Antonio hot? Was it executing its offensive and defensive sets poorly?
The biggest problem for Atlanta, both in those games and in general, is that the Spurs simply have much better players than the Hawks.
If I’m ranking the 10 starters on both teams, San Antonio has spots 1, 2, 5, 6 and 9 (Kawhi Leonard, LaMarcus Aldridge, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker and Danny Green) while Atlanta has 3, 4, 7, 8 and 10 (Paul Millsap, Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver and Kent Bazemore). That’s a significant difference.
The Spurs also have a huge advantage off the bench.
Manu Ginobili would easily be Atlanta’s fourth-best player, and Boris Diaw, Patty Mills and David West are all guys who would probably play more minutes if they were in Atlanta. The Hawks have a disappointing Dennis Schroder (who’s probably still dissatisfied with his bench role) plus Thabo Sefolosha and Tiago Splitter as their three main reserves. Although Budenholzer plays a few other guys, like Mike Muscala, Lamar Patterson and Justin Holiday, none of them would play anything besides garbage-time minutes under Coach Pop.
Aside from the talent difference, there’s just a better mixture of pieces right now in San Antonio.
Millsap and Horford are two great big men with tons of versatility, but their lack of size (6’8″ and 6’10”, respectively) and insistence on floating around the perimeter leaves opponents unafraid of the Hawks’ post game.
San Antonio, meanwhile has the 6’11” Aldridge, 6’11” Duncan and 6’7″ Leonard (all with excellent wingspans) as guys who excel at scoring and passing out of double teams when isolated in the post. The inside-out offense works because guys like Leonard, Green (sometimes), Mills and Ginobili can all drain threes off the catch.
And when a shot is missed, the Hawks just don’t have the bodies to bull their way to the majority of rebounds. Millsap and Horford are smaller than many of their counterparts, and Splitter has been a lightweight on the glass so far in Atlanta.
In fact, the Hawks rank third-last in rebound differential (minus-4.5), ahead of only the dreadful Los Angeles Lakers and Philadelphia 76ers. The Spurs rank second (plus-6.3) thanks to their big frontcourt and haven’t finished worse than 19th since Duncan arrived in 1997.
On defense, there’s a lot separating Atlanta’s 13th-ranked outfit from San Antonio’s unit that is (by far) No. 1 in the NBA, but it starts with the Spurs’ ability to force mid-range jump shots.
Take a peek below at a breakdown of where the Hawks’ and Spurs’ opponents score from. In today’s NBA, the goal is to prevent opponents from getting shots right near the hoop, from the three-point line or at the free-throw line. Forcing plenty of mid-range shots (any shot outside of the paint but inside the three-point line, for the sake of this table) is usually a good indicator of success.
San Antonio allows just 70.4 points per game from the three “Morey Areas” (shout-out to Houston Rockets GM and analytics guru Daryl Morey) while Atlanta surrenders 83.8 from the same areas. Spurs opponents get 20.2 percent of their points from the mid-range area while Atlanta’s nemeses only resort to the mid-range area for 15.9 percent of their points.
The reason for this? San Antonio has stickier perimeter defenders and more intimidating rim protectors than Atlanta.
Leonard and Green are experts at squeezing past screen attempts, so their big men don’t have to hedge. When they do this, it creates awkward spacing for the ball-handler where because he’s kind of past his man (but not totally) and there’s still a big man in perfect position to impede a drive to the rim.
Below is exactly what I’m talking about. Kawhi comes around the screen (admittedly not a great one by Nick Collison) and is still on the prowl. Durant is confused by the spacing and pulls up for a jumper, only to get it sent right back by the mitts of the best perimeter defender in the league.
Against Leonard and Green, ball-handlers find themselves in the mid-range area more often than they would like, and since both their defender and the guy guarding the screener have them contained, there’s no need for off-ball defenders to leave shooters waiting at the three-point line. This is why the Spurs allow fewer made three-point shots than the rest of the league.
To his credit, Sefolosha does well at this for the Hawks. But since he’s not a great shooter and doesn’t space the floor, he only plays 25.3 minutes per game. Kent Bazemore does it on occasion, but he can be prone to taking bad angles and foolishly helping on a ball-handler while leaving a shooter wide open.
The Spurs also have an edge in rim protection, and it comes back to the Hawks’ problems with size in the frontcourt. Duncan and (somewhat surprisingly) Aldridge have been experts at forcing awkward finishes in the lane with their fundamental defensive positioning and use of hands. Many times, opponents just pull-up from mid-range instead of challenging them. Horford and Millsap, meanwhile, aren’t as tall or long, and merely going straight up with their hands is not as effective.
Is it really a surprise that the Hawks have come back to the pack this season? Not so much.
Granted, I didn’t think they would be quite this average, as I didn’t expect slight regression from Teague, Schroder and Horford, but there are clear roster flaws that are keeping them from fulfilling the potential of the Spurs’ offensive and defensive concepts.
If Coach Bud gets a hold of a couple more impact players via trade or free agency, he might be able to one day form a squad that deserves the “Spurs East” moniker with its consistent success and professionalism on and off the court.
But he doesn’t have that team yet.