Freelance Friday: Why the Atlanta Hawks’ Offense Might be in Trouble


Mar 16, 2015; Sacramento, CA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague (0) reacts to a call during the third quarter of the game against the Sacramento Kings at Sleep Train Arena. The Atlanta Hawks defeated the Sacramento Kings 110-103. Mandatory Credit: Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Freelance Friday is a project that lets us share our platform with the multitude of talented writers and basketball analysts who aren’t part of our regular staff of contributors. As part of that series we’re proud to present this guest post from Johannes Becker. Johannes is interested in basketball and statistics and is a PhD student in bioinformatics. You can follow him on twitter @SportsTribution and on his blog,

[Ed. Note: This piece is part II of a series from Hannes on shot distribution, defender distance and efficiency. You can find part 1 here, which explained the methodology and focused on the defensive side of the ball.]

We are diving directly into the distancology of offenses, showing you the heatmaps for shot distribution frequency, shooting percentage and defender distance. Just like in part I, I will first show the raw data and then the ‘column-normalized’ one for the 2014-15 season:

Comparing the general shape between offense and defense distancology leads to the interesting observation that the variance between teams for shot frequency and defender distance are around twice as high on offense in comparison to defense[1. Note: I used the famous ‘rule of thumb’ for this analysis. Just compare the color keys for the normalized offense data with the one of the defense data]. This holds also true for average shot clock time (data not shown), but interestingly not for shooting percentage.

A vague argument for this could be that outcomes like shot distribution and defender distance can be influenced by strategies, for which offensive tactics account around twice as much as defensive tactics (something that has been mentioned before). Shooting percentages on the other hand have an additional level of noise, therefore the difference between offense and defense becomes less striking.

This argument would play very well in my concept of focusing on shot distribution and defender distance, which I will now cluster in one summary plot:

A general understanding of a good offense has two principals: a) try to create shots from locations where the general outcome is advantageous (basket or three-point line), b) try to create shots that are as open as possible.

Looking at our heatmap, we can see that four of the top five offenses are successful fulfilling parts of a) and b) in very similar combinations. Golden State, Dallas, Cleveland and the Clippers have a mix of above average three-point frequency combined with above average openness on inside shots.

On the other hand, looking at those teams that are in the Randy Wittman, ‘we take open mid-range shots’ section of Wizards, Lakers, Knicks, Wolves, Hornets, Nets and Pacers, only Frank Vogel’s and Randy Wittman’s teams seem to actually achieve open mid-range shots. This is a debatable achievement, as open midrange shots from 16 to 20 feet still net them less than 0.9 points per possession. Of course, all my figures do not include any individual information about player strength and teams like the Knicks and Lakers simply stink at the moment. But Philly’s team might stink even more, and they least try to get to the basket or create open shots (even though nobody on that team can actually shoot).

I have one short note for Houston, Moreyball. What the last figure shows once again is that Houston’s frequency of midrange shots (or the lack thereof) is impressive and unprecedented. At the same time, it shows that Houston does not at all produce open shots. This might be part of the explanation for their middling offensive efficiency and puts an asterisk on the idea that the absolute focus on shot selection automatically leads to great results. But once again, if you look at their roster, you can also see that it is not as star-powered as other teams.

One other team that has a striking distancology is the Atlanta Hawks, whose openness from 9 feet to beyond the three point line has no comparison this year. Which leads me to my clickbait section.

I really hope the Hawks go deep into the playoffs, but I think they’re might be a problem. I know, I am not alone in the idea that ‘The Hawks have no superstar and come playoff time, the will be in big trouble!’. The problem is that this might be true. This becomes visible if we use the last figure, but include the data from the 2013-14 regular season and playoffs:

I know, it’s a lot od data at the same time. But I made some red marks between the heatmap and the row names to help focus on my points.

Even though the openness of this year’s Atlanta Hawks is unprecedented, there are teams that were similarly open during last year’s regular season. One being the Miami Heat and the other one — the Hawks!

Now I know, looking at a seven-game playoff round is the definition of a small sample size and it is not helpful that both Miami and Atlanta played against a killer 2013-14 Indiana defense – but both were not even close to sustaining their open shooting. Which Miami probably survived in large parts because they had a few superstars. San Antonio on the other hand managed to play exactly the same style during the regular season and the playoffs. Which does not look to be perfect in Moreyball/distancology terms, but seems to work perfectly for them.