2015-16 NBA Preview: Atlanta Hawks

Sep 28, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague (0) and center Al Horford (15) and forward Paul Millsap (4) pose for a photo during media day at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 28, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague (0) and center Al Horford (15) and forward Paul Millsap (4) pose for a photo during media day at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports /
Sep 28, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague (0) and center Al Horford (15) and forward Paul Millsap (4) pose for a photo during media day at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports
Sep 28, 2015; Atlanta, GA, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Jeff Teague (0) and center Al Horford (15) and forward Paul Millsap (4) pose for a photo during media day at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports /


Every generation has its own folk hero, and right now the Hawks are the “whole is greater than the sum of its parts,” overachieving, superstar-less team of Campbellian legend. Like the Pistons a decade ago, coaches selected nearly the entire starting lineup to the all-star game out of respect for a ridiculous win percentage. This is also a good parallel to the Oakland A’s moneyball club in baseball. They didn’t have the resources to yank in someone like LeBron and they didn’t overpay for a pricey big-name veteran; instead they stockpiled on a select few underrated, slightly unorthodox good players and odd glue guys. Kyle Korver, for instance, was seen as just a shooter, and Pero Antic was not a conventional big man and spent most of his time on the court launching ill-advised three-pointers. Atlanta will need more of those tricks to build on their success.

2015 in review:

The Hawks were not supposed to win their conference in the regular season. They had a motley crew of low-level stars, from the center everyone still calls a power forward in Al Horford to the real power forward Paul Millsap, who many believed wouldn’t be an effective player when he left the bench in Utah and started playing “real” minutes. Korver emerged as an all-star at age 32 with one of the best shooting seasons ever witnessed, paired with a surprisingly complete all-around game. DeMarre Carroll was never projected to be this good either – he didn’t get serious minutes until he was 26 and didn’t start full-time until 27. Then midnight arrived, and the Hawks turned into a pumpkin. What will happen this season?

Rotation players in: Tiago Splitter, Justin Holiday, Tim Hardaway Jr.

Rotation players out: DeMarre Carroll, Pero Antic.

Atlanta made few changes, but there was one big shake-up: the starting lineup is gone now with Carroll’s price tag in Toronto too large. But at least they brought in Tiago Splitter for a strong frontcourt rotation, giving them a stout defender who’s used to a pass-first system with lots of shooting. The team performed really well with Antic on the court; it’ll be interesting to see how Tiago does in his place. Tim Hardaway Jr. has some utility with his shooting, but his defense has been horrendous and advanced plus/minus models saw him as one of the worst players of the modern era. Justin Holiday could be a steal though – he produced well for Golden State in limited minutes and saw little action because of their depth.

2016 Projections

The best projection systems look at years of information to make a determination. To say that the Hawks will win a huge chunk of games less than the previous ones doesn’t necessarily mean there’s been a huge talent drain. It’s more about the power of regression to the mean and the weight of history. The Hawks won 38 games a couple years ago, and other than an Al Horford injury they’re not all too different(Horford played nearly 1000 minutes in 2014, so they weren’t completely without him.). They’re not going to be a 60 win team again, but they’re not average either – the truth usually lies somewhere in between those two planes.

For those noting Horford’s presence, there is an assumption about him that he’s a significantly valuable star, but that’s a bit of an overreaction. There’s something about his working class game that lends respect, but he’s not a defensive game-changer and he’s not an offensive wizard either. He is, however, above average in several categories with few clear strengths that jump off the page. He’s one of the best midrange shooters in the frontcourt, and he’s usually near the top in field-goal percentage at the rim. Some advanced stats see him as simply above average, and his per game averages are pretty underwhelming. But in any case, his versatility and ability to fit in several types of lineups – able to score more, stretch the floor, defend a couple positions, and pass – translate to an extremely useful foundational piece for a team.

Paul Millsap is similar. It’s tough to describe what makes him so good because he doesn’t have a signature skill. He’s just very good across the board and is surprisingly good at jump shots and steals. He averaged two steals per 36 minutes last season, which is, obviously, rare for a power forward. Unlike Horford, plus/minus metrics love him. Most conventional analysts will see Millsap and Horford as even players or may prefer Horford, but there’s an interesting argument here about who’s the best frontcourt player. In any case, a versatile tandem means it’s tougher to use unconventional schemes against them and squeeze one of their players out with an aggressive strategy because they both have so few weaknesses. There’s no “guard Tony Allen with a center” maneuver.

Elsewhere, Kyle Korver’s season was so great that any reasonable expectation should mean his 2016 season will be much worse. That’s not a slight at Korver or blind ignorance at his hard work. It’s just unlikely that any player will repeat a season with a TS% near 70, especially one reliant on outside shots, and at his age any small injury will take longer to heal. There’s too much that has to go right for another season like the one he had, and if he simply repeats his perfectly fine 2014 season that’s a success for his mid-30’s.

Rounding out the starting lineup, Jeff Teague made his first All-Star team, though one wonders the chances of this on a normal team. In what world does it make sense that Mike Conley, Ty Lawson, Goran Dragic, and others have no appearances while Teague has one? One of the issues of a conference-imbalance is that it distorts a few historic markers, like all-star appearances, which are still important to people for big picture stuff even with all the problems of the selection process. He’s a good point guard and there’s nothing nefarious about him – he’s just not a top tier point guard. With Carroll gone, Thabo Sefolosha presumably will hold down the small forward position as he recovers from a shocking police brutality incident. He’s still an effective wing defender, one of the best in the game, and he rebounds like a power forward. Atlanta will need his three-point percentage to recover since he’s replacing one of the more efficient small forwards in the league.

For a balanced club, Atlanta’s bench was relatively weak. Splitter is a great addition, but since Sefolosha is moving to the starting lineup the net effect is slim. Holiday will get his best opportunity he’s had in the league to make a rotation. He’s a defensive pest with long arms and an ability to generate steals; he just hasn’t shown a dependable outside shot. Schroder has been pegged as the German Rajon Rondo for a long time, but he doesn’t defend like a motivated young Rondo and without a huge leap forward in his shooting or playmaking skills he’ll be a drag to their team and the Hawks should look for a different backup point guard. The rest of the bench reflects the team’s philosophy with shooters everywhere, from Hardaway to Mike Scott.

Quick statistic/graph

Atlanta is widely-known for its love of the three-point shot and their emphasis on converting players to be outside shooters. They had only one player who did not take a significant number of shots behind the arc who played at least 750 minutes, Al Horford, and he’s a bit of a floor-spacer too and was actually starting to take shots from three-point land. But they’re not the first team like this. The Knicks accomplished this in 2013, which not coincidentally was their best offensive season in a long time, and the 76ers were like this a couple years ago – they’re an analytics-savvy team too, and they urge even poor shooters to take outside shots. The Lakers, oddly enough, were the first club with only two non-3PT shooters since they flanked Shaq with shooters, although they were helped by the minute requirement: Rodman and Travis Knight both missed the cut-off, and the lockout season was only 50 games long. But the seven-seconds-or-less Suns were the next team in history to employ a 3PT heavy rotation, followed by a couple crazy Don Nelson-led Warriors clubs. Now it’s common to see three teams like this a year, and the trend is ever-upwards.

Table: teams with few players with less than 2.5 3PTers per 36 mins, 750 MP min.

SeasonTeamNon-3PT shooters


Add it all up together, and it’s a decent team but it’s probably not a conference leading one again. Most projection systems agree; I’m not the one with a contrary opinion. For instance, based on how well they outscored opponents in the regular season and playoffs, they did not function like a 60 win team. Unless they’ve discovered some secret about winning close games consistently a year ago, I doubt they’ll be able to outperform their expected win percentage again. Atlanta will be good again, but without a major change the fairy tale is over and the league’s giants will take back their crown as the eastern conference’s one seed and the league’s second best record overall.

PBP-Metric[1. This is the initial version of my own metric, which uses a full range of stats collected from play-by-play logs and tested extensively to avoid overfitting.]: 44.0

PT-PM: 50

Nick‘s[2. For a short description, the predictions use regression models and neural networks to apply various stats like BPM, RAPM, and Win Shares to 10,000 simulations of the season game-by-game to select the “best” result.]: 48

Nathan Walker’s[1. Methodology to come on Friday!]: 43