Jacob Eisenberg reports on how the Atlanta Hawks figure to compensate for their lack of size with their abundance of speed.
When the Atlanta Hawks traded two of their most versatile perimeter players away on July 2nd to clear millions of dollars worth of cap space for the future, many wondered what approach the team would take to compensate for their sudden lack of length.
As a result of GM Danny Ferry’s focus on the long-term, the Hawks are currently lacking size on the wing . Now, after two weeks of preseason training camps and a summer of open gyms, it is apparent that the team plans to combat underwhelming size with overwhelming speed. The team has already started practicing with an escalated offensive tempo which figures to translate to “controlled chaos” come gametime. “We played open gym with a 16 second shot clock over the summer,” starting point guard Jeff Teague told the media on Media Day.
Upping the pace on offense seems like a logical move given the team’s personnel. Head Coach Larry Drew admitted, “I can’t think of a faster backcourt than the one we have here. When you look at our backcourt, we brought some guys in who certainly get from one end of the floor to the other with the best of them.” With top-tier speed and the mindset to match, the Hawks figure to open up a lot more opportunities for their offense.
For Atlanta, an organization that has struggled to find depth and consistency at the point guard position for decades, Teague’s improved decision-making over his four year NBA career has solidified the 24-year-old as a legitimate starting floor general. Moreover, the additions of former All-Star Devin Harris and last year’s Sixth Man of the Year Runner-Up Lou Williams figure to enhance the team’s speed and will add depth to an already torrid offense.
With Teague, Harris, and Williams, the Hawks have three point guards who have all been primary late-game playmakers for competitive playoff teams. More importantly, however, is that variety the group provides.
“Our three point guards give us three different looks,” said Josh Smith, “They like to push the ball and they do a great job of breaking defenders down. They can do a lot of things, be it dishing the ball off or driving into the paint for Al (Horford) and myself to get easy buckets.”
The presence of two athletic big men like Horford and Smith also plan to be huge factors in Drew’s high-octane attack. Considering both players are particularly fast and agile for their positions, it makes sense for Coach Drew to expect big things from the pair inside. “With the up-tempo style we want to play, you need big men who can get up and down the floor. Al is one of the better big men at getting out in transition. Josh Smith has speed and that ability as well.”
Smith may actually be the biggest benefactor of the team’s faster pace. With a frame and athletic prowess paralleled by only a few superstars, it’s no surprise that Smith is looking forward to running the court more often. “Playing up-tempo is always fun,” Smith said. As the nine-year veteran has continued to progress his playing style away from the perimeter in recent years, the opportunities for open looks inside will certainly add to his scoring totals.
With the team looking to increase their offensive tempo, the offense will also be reliant on knockdown shooters to space the floor. Fortunately, Danny Ferry committed large parts of his offseason to assemble arguably the best shooting team in the NBA. Among the team’s top shooters is 26-year-old Anthony Morrow. Morrow, a former Georgia Tech standout, led the NBA in three point shooting in 2009 by making 46.7% of his shots from the arc. While Morrow is perhaps the most lethal shooter in the entire league, he does not anticipate himself as being the only player on the team who opponents have to watch out for behind the arc, “With Myself, Kyle (Korver), John (Jenkins), Lou (Williams), Devin (Harris), and Jeff (Teague), we can make threes from anywhere.”
A consensus belief surrounding the team is that they will not be starved for points. In terms of scoring, there are seven different players on the roster who have averaged at least 9.5 points per game throughout their NBA careers.
One question mark the team does face, however, will be the their approach to defense. While many critics believe the roster is too small to defend bigger players in a slow half court set, Smith believes the guards’ quickness will prove to be helpful, “Hopefully with the speed on the perimeter, we can keep guys in front of us. That will keep me out of foul trouble. With our speed, I think we will be more aggressive altogether.”
As for the concerns that are raised about who will defend bigger guards in crucial games, it is important to remember that the team has several players who have experience in defending out of their normal positions, “It’s not much different from my situation in Dallas,” shared Devin Harris referring to his early years in the NBA, “Although I did play point guard in Dallas, I had to defend the bigger guard when I started with Jason Terry. It’s something I’ve done in the past and it’s something I’m comfortable with doing.” Harris is not only familiar with defending bigger players; he has proven to be successful at it too. Some may recall that it was Harris who was called upon to defend several opposing star shooting guards in the 2006 playoffs. That decision paid off as the Mavericks reached the NBA Finals.
On top of Harris, the team also has Deshawn Stevenson on the roster. Stevenson, despite coming off a tumultuous season in New Jersey, figures to have an opportunity to crack the rotation as a defensive stalwart. After all, it was only a season-and-a-half ago when Stevenson successfully defended LeBron James in the 2011 NBA Finals.
While from the outset it appears as though the Hawks are considerably undersized to compete in the Eastern Conference, it is clear upon closer examination that the team is not starved for options to counter their shortage of size. With a mindset to be more aggressive, Atlanta figures to force more turnovers, which will lead to more opportunities for the offense. As Teague put it, “We’re small, but we’re fast. And I think speed kills in this league.”
If all goes according to plan, the Hawks could end up keeping pace with the NBA’s leaders in points per game — and perhaps also with the game’s best, atop the Eastern Conference standings.