Three-Point Play: Observations from Atlanta's Road Trip

Ben Ladner

The Hawks have played 14 of their first 25 games this season on the road, including three clusters of at least three away games at a time. Their last trip included games in Charlotte, Miami, and Chicago – each of which had its own style and tenor. Atlanta played perhaps its most complete game of the year in a comfortable win over the Hornets before letting a hard-fought overtime game slip away to the Heat. Wednesday night they reverted to their undisciplined ways in a blowout loss to the Bulls.

The team will return home on Friday to host the Pacers and Lakers before another road-heavy stretch to close out 2019. Before that, let’s evaluate the Hawks’ performance this week with three thoughts from games in three different cities.

Atlanta’s ball movement picked up with Kevin Huerter in the lineup

Nearly 68 percent of the Hawks’ buckets on the road trip were assisted – an increase of nine percentage points over their mark for the season. Trae Young, who assists on over 40 percent of Atlanta’s shots when he’s on the floor, was a major reason for that, but it was Kevin Huerter who unlocked an offensive connectivity the Hawks haven’t had in weeks. Lloyd Pierce used Huerter as a backup point guard for much of the trip, and he didn’t look a step out of place. Huerter averaged just under six assists in the last three games, but his greatest contribution to the offense was his ability to take pressure off of Young.

With a more capable release valve for its point guard, Atlanta’s offense flowed even when Young didn’t have the ball. Huerter isn’t the same genius passer his backcourt-mate is, but he has been more than capable as a secondary playmaker when healthy. Much like Young, his ability to shoot off the dribble gives defenses more to consider when defending him in the pick-and-roll. Huerter leverages his shooting into getting downhill and finding teammates. He reads the game and makes quick reactions in a way Atlanta’s other wings don’t, and slings fastballs to shooters before the defense can recover:

Having a second playmaker in the lineup also allowed for more improvisation and side-to-side ball movement. Young was able to take plays off or act as a decoy while Huerter facilitated:

It wasn’t just Huerter who helped connect the offense. Vince Carter, Allen Crabbe, and De’Andre Hunter routinely made the extra pass to keep the offense moving against the Heat and Hornets. When opponents trapped pick-and-rolls and Young gave up the ball, the Hawks made quick reads that often resulted in open 3s against a scrambling defense:

The Hawks’ best path toward running an efficient offense is being decisive and unpredictable when Young doesn’t have the ball. They lost some of that magic against the Bulls, in part because Huerter and Young didn’t shoot the way they had in the prior two games. Off nights happen, but the more time Atlanta’s guards play with one another, the more dynamic they will become.

Trae Young, a little bit too ambitious

Part of what makes Young such a singular player is his ability to launch 3-pointers from virtually anywhere inside halfcourt. Even as a rookie, when he made just 32.4 percent of his 3s, defenses guarded him as though he were Damian Lillard – blitzing pick-and-rolls and fighting like mad to get over screens. Young ranked second in the NBA in made shots from at least 28 feet last year, and leads the league in deep 3s this year. He can stroll into his shot out of the pick and roll – especially when he’s moving left – or hit defenders with a mean right-to-left crossover when they cheat toward a screen. He’s added a more consistent stepback 3 to his game this year, which he can unleash moving in either direction:

Those shots unlock much more than three points for Atlanta’s offense. They all but force defenders to sell out and throw extra bodies at Young, who just happens to be one of the most gifted passers in basketball. He has counters for everything, which benefit both himself and his teammates. When opponents run him off the line, Young simply roams into the paint and lofts up a floater or finds big men for layups:

But while preposterously deep shots are a central part of Young’s arsenal, he could show a touch more restraint in taking them. Defenses are well aware he’s capable of hitting from that distance; he doesn’t need to prove it by forcing difficult shots outside the flow of the offense:

One could argue that Atlanta’s offense has no flow and thus needs Young to be overly aggressive. A shooter can’t make shots he doesn’t take, and great shooters need to force the issue at times. But with Huerter back in the lineup, the alternative outcome to Young taking a 28-footer is far more profitable than it used to be. When he gets off the ball early and trusts his teammates, good things can happen:

Changes to the wing rotation

As the Hawks have gotten healthier, Lloyd Pierce has been forced into some tough decisions on his second unit. Playing time is a zero-sum game, and on most teams, deserving players will be squeezed from the rotation. On the recent road trip, Evan Turner and DeAndre’ Bembry were the odd men out. The stylistic overlap between the two wings was a concern entering the season, but injuries to Turner and Atlanta’s other wings allowed each to mostly stay in the rotation when healthy. But playing two non-shooters together on a second unit is a formula for disaster, and Crabbe’s emergence has put Turner and Bembry in a complicated position.

With Huerter healthy, Pierce has trimmed his wing corps to Huerter, Hunter, Reddish, Carter, and Crabbe. Turner didn’t play against the Hornets or Heat and logged just 12 minutes in the final game of the road trip. Bembry, who has been a favorite of Pierce’s for his energy and versatility, played sparingly in Charlotte and only saw the court in garbage time against the Bulls.

Turner’s ability to make plays in a pinch was a boon when Huerter was injured, but now that Huerter is functionally serving as the backup point guard, Turner’s offensive value has diminished significantly. Defenders practically ignore him when he doesn’t have the ball, which clogs space for other players. Bembry has a similar effect on the offense, though he at least finds creative ways to exploit the space defenses give him.

By contrast, Crabbe has opened up the floor for Atlanta’s second unit. After missing the first 10 games of the season and two more in early December, his shot has finally begun to come around. He was 6-of-11 from 3 on the road trip – far from a definitive sample size but enough to solidify his place in the rotation. Crabbe’s shooting has been a central component of Atlanta’s bench offense and a useful counter to teams blitzing Young in the pick-and-roll. Pierce has even used him as a screener for Young and Huerter – an action amplified by each player’s shooting ability:

In the role the Hawks need filled, Crabbe’s specialized skill set has more utility than Bembry or Turner’s funky blend of abilities. Pierce’s rotation is far from finalized, but Crabbe looks as though he could have staying power.