After guiding his team to a 110-91 destruction of the Pacers last Wednesday, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer was officially named the coach of the eastern squad in this year's NBA All-Star Game on Feb. 15. It’s a fitting honor, considering Budenholzer is the favorite in the running for Coach of the Year due to his role in Atlanta’s stunning rise to the upper echelon of the NBA this season.
The Hawks have a seven-game cushion on top of the Eastern Conference, thanks to a franchise-record 16-game winning streak. They boast the best road record in the NBA at 17-5 as well as the second-best overall record (37-8) and average point differential (+7.3) behind only the Warriors.
How have these Hawks ascended so quickly after barely qualifying for the playoffs last season with virtually the same cast of players? Research engine FindTheBest produces interactive graphs for each NBA team and player, which helps provide some insight into the meteoric rise of “Spurs East.”
Budenholzer has groomed a team full of players who are more than happy to pass up a good shot for themselves in favor of a great shot for their teammates. The Hawks spread the floor with capable shooters (and passers) at every position, forcing opposing defenders to run around the perimeter without an answer to the Hawks' fluid offense.
Case in point: since Jan. 11, Atlanta has had seven 30-assist games. The other 29 NBA teams have combined for six.
In terms of numbers, the main beneficiary of this pass-happy approach has been point guard Jeff Teague. The 26-year-old is averaging career bests in assists per game (7.5) and assist/turnover ratio (2.85) while simultaneously adapting well to Budenholzer’s defensive scheme in the coach’s second year at the helm.
Teague’s player efficiency rating (PER) has accordingly shot up. After logging a 17.1 PER last season and averaging a 15.1 PER in his first five campaigns, he’s up to 22.8 this year -- good for 12th in the NBA, above the likes of All-Star starters Kyle Lowry (18th) and John Wall (33rd).
The former Wake Forest standout has done enough to earn his first All-Star selection, and it would be a shame if he was shut out of the Eastern Conference reserves. With two full seasons remaining on his contract paying $8 million per year, Teague is an absolute steal for a franchise that has repeatedly struck out on signing big free agents.
The one high profile free agent to recently ink with Atlanta, power forward Paul Millsap, has proved to be another immense bargain (two years, $19 million) while transforming into a stretch-4. He attempted 113 three-pointers in seven seasons with the Jazz, but has already launched 124 treys this season and 336 total during his tenure with the Hawks.
This season, 31 percent of Millsap’s shots have been at least 16 feet from the rim, with 22 percent coming from three-point range. His conversion rate isn’t lethal, but the possibility of the 6-foot-8 power forward popping out of a pick-and-roll for a three-pointer has added another wrinkle to the Hawks’ dynamic offense.
Millsap’s versatility has left center Al Horford plenty of room to operate efficiently in the post. Horford is shooting 65.4 percent from the restricted zone, more than 10 percent above the league average. Fortunately for the Hawks, that’s where Horford takes 44.8 percent of his shots.
Horford can also capably step out to midrange, as he shoots far above league average from the zones along the left baseline and around the elbows.
Note: You can hover over each zone in the chart below to see the live-updating shooting percentages of Horford and the average league output from each area.
And let’s not gloss over Atlanta’s defensive maturation, perhaps the most significant factor in the team’s climb up the Eastern Conference standings. The Hawks own the league’s stingiest defense by points allowed per game (96.1), as well as the third-best defensive rating (99.3 points allowed per 100 possessions).
They’ve been even more stifling lately, as opponents have scored just 91.8 points per game in Atlanta’s last 11 contests. These haven't been easy matchups either -- the Hawks have beaten the Clippers, Grizzlies, Thunder, Wizards, Raptors and Bulls during that span, with a different leader on offense almost every game.
Atlanta has been extremely fortunate from an injury standpoint thus far. But it seems the team’s depth would prevent a complete collapse even if the squad’s worst fears came to fruition and one of the team’s potential All-Stars (Teague, Millsap and Horford) succumbed to a lengthy injury.
Heck, in the aforementioned win over Indiana, unheralded small forward DeMarre Carroll led the Hawks with 17 points on 7-of-11 shooting (3-of-5 from downtown). By the way, Carroll has the worst field goal percentage among Atlanta’s starters at 46.6 percent -- still a highly passable mark.
Chances are the casual NBA fan won’t completely buy into the Hawks until they win a postseason series or two this spring, which is to be expected. Maybe this team will go the way of the 1993-94 Hawks squad, which topped the Eastern Conference during the regular season before crashing out in the second round of the playoffs, losing to No. 5 seed Indiana in six games.
But Atlanta fans aren’t focusing on that possibility in the present, as the Hawks have invigorated a previously stagnant fan base by exceeding all reasonable preseason expectations. For now, that’s good enough.
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