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The Hawks Are Trying to Shoot Their Way Into the Playoffs

Atlanta’s offseason spending spree is paying off so far. With Trae Young channeling James Harden and the supporting cast letting it fly, the Hawks are turning heads out of the gate.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

It’s been a few years in the wilderness, dear friends, but the Atlanta Hawks are once again starting to play a brand of ball worthy of a gym nicknamed the Highlight Factory—a place where, with respectable regularity, very cool shit happens. Like this:

After belching up the fourth-worst winning percentage in the NBA in the past three seasons, the Hawks set their sights on dramatic improvement in 2020-21. It started with February’s trade for Clint Capela and continued through a whirlwind free agency period, with Atlanta shelling out more than $200 million to import skilled, smart, bona fide NBA talent that could augment an enticing but still green young core and return the Hawks to the postseason conversation. Their chosen path to the playoffs? Points, points, and more points, produced by ascendant All-Star Trae Young and enough complementary shooters and passers to stretch defenses past their breaking point.

We’re a long way from the postseason, but so far, so good. Atlanta enters Wednesday’s meeting with the Nets a perfect 3-0. Considering the Hawks didn’t win three straight games once last season, that’d be pretty cool on its own. Even better: They’re doing it thanks to a league-leading offense that is scoring a scorching 123.7 points per 100 non-garbage-time possessions, according to Cleaning the Glass.

A team that ranked dead last in the league last season in 3-point accuracy has suddenly surged into the top five. New arrival Bogdan Bogdanovic, one of the NBA’s most accurate high-volume 3-point shooters, has carried that combination with him to Atlanta, attempting nearly 10 triples per 36 minutes of floor time and hitting 37.5 percent of them. Young holdovers Kevin Huerter, DeAndre Hunter, and Cam Reddish are all off to hot starts from the perimeter. And when high-profile addition Danilo Gallinari missed two games with a left foot contusion, low-profile addition Solomon Hill, who emerged from years of underperforming obscurity to offer positive contributions last season in Memphis and Miami, stepped into his place, going a pleasantly surprising 5-for-10 from deep (with some nice defensive plays to boot).

With the exception of fourth-year power forward John Collins, every member of Atlanta’s rotation is shooting better than league average from beyond the arc; that, obviously, is unsustainable. Even so, an infusion of talent like the one the Hawks secured this offseason can serve as both a floor-raiser and a force multiplier. Forcing defenses to account for multiple legitimate shooters along the arc—not just the prolific Young—creates more driving lanes, cutting angles, and playmaking opportunities. Giving those opportunities to more players who have the vision, timing, and touch to maximize them creates cleaner looks for teammates off the catch. Cleaner looks go down more often.

The Hawks haven’t undergone a wholesale strategic or schematic change; it’s not like they’re suddenly an egalitarian attack flinging the ball all over the lot to bedevil defenses. (Last season, Atlanta averaged 271 passes per game, 27th in the league. They’re up to 285 this year—more, but not a crazy amount more.) It’s just that more of the guys charged with making plays can … y’know … actually make them. That’s how you get a 10-point jump in points per game created by a direct assist—even with Young averaging fewer dimes himself.

If you take enough possessions where nobody except Young and occasionally Huerter can create a quality look, and redistribute them to lineups featuring three or more dudes capable of both making a shot and the next play, suddenly a choppy and moribund offense (Atlanta finished 26th last season in points scored per possession) can look awfully fluid—and pretty damn lethal.

At the heart of it all is Young, the third-year All-Star, who’s off to a scintillating start. He’s still draining deep pull-up triples and performing magic with a live dribble, and he’s still the Hawks’ unquestioned focal point, finishing nearly 35 percent of Atlanta possessions with a shot attempt, foul draw, or turnover. But with more dependable creators around to share the load, he has loosened his grip on the reins, averaging fewer touches, seconds and dribbles per touch, and total time of possession than he did last season. The early returns of that slight reduction in shot-jacking and possession-commandeering have been stellar: 34 points and 7.3 assists in just 31.3 minutes per game, on sparkling 53/42/91 shooting splits.

One area in which Young has taken a massive leap, though, is finding his way to the charity stripe. The Hawks rank no. 1 in free throw rate and team free throw percentage, almost entirely on the back of Young, who has drawn 30 fouls through three games and attempted a downright Hardenian 46 free throws in 94 minutes of floor time.

Those numbers, gaudy as they are, aren’t out of character: Young tied for second in the league last season in fouls drawn per game and finished third in free throw attempts per game. But after two full seasons of digesting NBA defenses, learning the tendencies of defenders and officials alike, Young seems to have reached a new level of comfort for how to navigate in the half court, catch opponents off-balance, and reap the benefits.

He’s getting really good at putting defenders in jail in the pick-and-roll, stopping short, and forcing them into contact ...

… and maddeningly adept at raising up in the split second when a defender goes over the screen, frequently getting himself three freebies in the process. Young drew 43 fouls while shooting a 3 last season (second only to James Harden’s preposterous 72), and he already has five in just three games this season, according to PBP Stats. You can almost feel Young—all of 6-foot-1 and 180 pounds, so slight of frame that most bumps could seem like a foul—twirling his mustache after creating the contact, like a cartoon villain seeing his plan come together and reveling in the consternation it causes his quarry:

As we’ve seen with stylistic antecedents like Harden and Chris Paul over the years, plays like these can drive opponents, opposing fan bases, and neutral observers crazy. The more Young does this stuff, and the more successfully he does it, the more you’ll probably start to hear people carp about him chiseling and grifting and engaging in tax evasion for personal gain. I’m guessing Lloyd Pierce and the Atlanta faithful won’t mind those slings and arrows so much if the upshot is 10 to 12 free points a night, getting to play larger chunks of each quarter in the bonus, and potentially making defenders more leery about closing too hard to Young, affording him more airspace to fire away or rifle a pinpoint pass to a teammate and keep the Hawks’ offensive machine churning.

There are caveats, of course. It’s been only three games, and it’s certainly possible that Young and the Hawks have looked like such an unstoppable offensive wrecking crew because they’ve played Bulls and Pistons teams widely expected to be brutally bad, and a Grizzlies squad off to a rough start without Jaren Jackson Jr. (and now Ja Morant). No matter what caliber of defense they play against, the Hawks will inevitably cool down at least a bit; they’re shooting better than 71 percent at the rim and 43 percent from long range as a team, marks that no team in the Cleaning the Glass database (which goes back to 2003-04) has surpassed for a full season.

Thanks to that hot shooting, Atlanta has significantly outperformed its shot profile. The Hawks’ actual effective field goal percentage—which accounts for 3-pointers being worth more than 2-pointers—ranks third in the NBA. But according to Cleaning the Glass’s “location effective field goal percentage” metric—which looks at all of the shots a team takes and asks how efficiently its offense would operate if its players hit a league-average share of them—their expected eFG% sits right around league average. Translation: If and when the outside shooting cools down, an Atlanta offense that’s generating way more shots from beyond the arc than it is at the basket will come back to earth.

Any offensive regression will put more pressure on the Hawks’ defense, which was projected to be an area of concern heading into the season, and whose middle-of-the-pack showing thus far has also significantly outperformed its shot profile, allowing a ton of 3s but benefiting from opponents’ frigid shooting. There are plenty of moving pieces, with Capela and Rajon Rondo just making their season debuts on Monday while Gallinari, Onyeka Okongwu, Kris Dunn, and Tony Snell all have missed time. We still don’t know how Pierce will juggle his rotation when everyone’s healthy. Three games isn’t enough to answer every question. It is enough to pique your interest, though—and to put opponents on notice. If you take your trip to the Highlight Factory too lightly, this season’s Hawks might bring the whole building down on top of your head.