2019-20 Season Review: By the Numbers
Somehow, data has become a lightning rod in NBA discourse as players and teams have begun integrating it more heavily into their decision-making. The strawman argument that one must believe solely in analytics or dismiss them entirely has fueled many a senseless online basketball discussion, but in reality, most people fall somewhere between those two poles. Valuing numbers and watching basketball are not mutually exclusive, and can in fact be used quite well to complement one another. Data can give shape to an ambiguous concept, validate or disprove an anecdotal theory, or shed light on a previously overlooked part of the sport. Watching games helps contextualize those numbers and explain the process behind them (it’s also really fun!).
With that in mind, let’s examine four of the most striking statistics from the 2019-20 NBA season and the forces that caused them.
Lloyd Pierce used the most five-man lineup combinations of any coach in the NBA this season -- 926, to be exact. Almost none of those units were good, and as a result Atlanta had one of the league’s five worst offenses and defenses -- a double only two teams pulled off this year. Part of that lineup variability stemmed from an effort to experiment with different looks and approaches, but most of it was borne of necessity.
The Hawks battled constant injuries, a 25-game suspension to their second-best player, and rookie inconsistencies, which prevented them from finding any sort of rhythm or stability from game to game -- let alone week to week. Trae Young was the only constant, but there was only so much he could do to steady a shaky team. At times, Pierce tried unusual lineups as a means of trying to kickstart a sluggish team. On multiple occasions, the head coach cited a lack of effort from his usual rotation players as reason for using strange configurations.
Next season’s roster should lend itself to more stability and continuity, both because the talent will be more reliable and because it’s unlikely Atlanta has worse availability luck than it did in 2019-20. Pierce is the kind of coach who will experiment from game to game, but with loftier goals next season, he should have a clearer idea of what works.
One of the few lineups that played well in extended minutes was Atlanta’s “core five” of Young, Kevin Huerter, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, and John Collins. That group outscored opponents by 10.7 points per 100 possessions, with a dazzling 121.3 offensive rating in 442 possessions. That is far from a conclusive sample, but it is an encouraging one for a team seeking any reason to view the recent season optimistically. That crew might not be as readily available to Pierce next season once Clint Capela returns to the lineup and Atlanta has better players to fill out the rest of its rotation (those five logged a ton of minutes together down the stretch of the season). But the Hawks know they have an explosive offensive unit up their sleeve when they need it, and it will almost certainly be a fixture in next season’s rotation.
While this group’s offensive efficiency immediately jumps out, its defensive returns might be equally encouraging. The young lineup held opponents to 110.5 points per 100 possessions -- a run-of-the-mill figure relative to the league, but good enough to prop up a high-powered offense, if it sustains. Those five need only be passable on defense to be a net positive, and a league-average defense isn’t a bad place to start for five players still younger than 23. All five have room for improvement on both ends of the floor, and could very well set a defensive baseline high enough to simply overwhelm opponents on the other end.
Young is already one of the preeminent offensive creators in basketball and Collins is among the NBA’s most efficient and versatile big men. Neither Reddish nor Huerter currently project as elite on-ball players, but either could blossom into a perfectly serviceable secondary creator. Hunter’s game doesn’t fit into a central role, but he’ll likely do enough to complement other offensive threats well. All five have, at minimum, shown flashes of accurate 3-point shooting. The most relevant questions to Atlanta’s long-term future will be whether it can reach the defensive floor necessary to compete for a championship and whether that group contains another bona fide All Star. The Hawks haven’t answered those questions yet, but they have plenty of time to do so.
Attentive viewers of these Hawks don’t need reminding of the team’s shooting struggles this season. Atlanta was the worst 3-point shooting team in the NBA -- a main reason why its offense struggled so mightily -- and even with Young on the court, posted a modest 111.4 points per 100 possessions (a number buoyed by the aforementioned core five’s play in the final weeks). The Hawks simply didn’t have the shooting to capitalize on the shots Young created. Young spent much of the season passing into a void, and while Atlanta technically generated good shots, the players taking them inspired little confidence that the ball would actually go in.
If there’s a positive shooting indicator from the season, however, it’s that Young, Huerter, Hunter, and Collins combined to shoot 41.7 percent on catch-and-shoot 3s (712 attempts). They were the only players on the team that could consistently punish defenses for tilting too far toward the primary action or clogging the lane to take away the rim. Those four figure to start alongside Clint Capela next season, which could give Atlanta one of the most potent offensive lineups in the Eastern Conference if that shooting sustains; opponents will have a difficult time contending with Young with the ball in his hands, Capela rolling to the rim, and three shooters opening up the floor.
The challenge will be manufacturing more of those looks moving forward. Young attempted fewer than two catch-and-shoot 3s per game, and Huerter took less than four. In addition to the benefit of three points, getting more easy triples will command more respect from defenders who know leaving Young or Huerter for even a moment could invite an open jumper. As Huerter, Reddish, and Hunter round into more capable ball-handlers, look for Atlanta to deploy Young more often as a threat away from the ball, allowing him to come off of screens and spot up around teammates’ playmaking. Young didn’t have that luxury this season because of the Hawks’ lack of secondary creators, but a more balanced roster next season could help unlock one of the most dangerous weapons Atlanta has.
The Hawks were at their best offensively when they pushed the tempo and found easy opportunities in transition, but their opponents also benefited from that style. The Hawks allowed the most points per transition possession and the second-highest transition frequency in the NBA this season, putting even more pressure on an already shaky part of the team’s infrastructure. Add it up, and Atlanta posted the worst transition defense in the NBA this season, allowing 1.33 points per possession in that context. According to Cleaning the Glass, opponents added, on average, 4.4 points per 100 possessions via transition scoring to their overall offensive efficiency against the Hawks (for reference, that number was 1.2 for the Celtics, who had the best transition defense in the NBA).
Much of that was a product of Atlanta’s turnover struggles, which gave opponents more chances to run against an unset defense. The Hawks coughed the ball up on 15.5 percent of their possessions this year -- an improvement over last season, but still the third-worst mark in the league. They also struggled to fortify their defense when opponents pushed off of live rebounds, which could be partially traced to the high volume of long rebounds from missed 3-pointers. Atlanta also simply lacked quality defenders, which exacerbated good opportunities for enemies. Add in wavering defensive effort over the course of the season, and the Hawks never stood much of a chance stopping opponents on the move.
There’s no easy fix for this sort of issue other than increased effort and experience. Atlanta often neglected to get back on defense seemingly out of miscommunication or lack of familiarity with the expectations for NBA defenders (again, this was one of the youngest rotations in the league). Hunter and Reddish should develop into dependable all-around defenders, and having Collins and Clint Capela in the fold for an entire season should help strengthen the team’s transition defense. It may not be a strength next season, but simply cutting some of the most egregious sequences and floating toward league-average could provide a meaningful lift on that side of the ball.