Despite a 53-29 record last season, Mike Woodson was fired by the Atlanta Hawks, who promoted assistant Larry Drew to lead the team. The reason for the switch was on the offensive end as the Hawks' front office felt that the Hawks reliance on isolation sets (particularly for Joe Johnson, aka Iso Joe), while successful in the regular season (the Hawks ranked second in the NBA when it came to Offensive Rating, scoring 111.9 points per 100 possessions), could not work in the playoffs.
So when Drew came on as head coach promoting team basketball, ball movement, and player movement, everyone was expecting the Hawks, who have a lot of talented players, to match their success on the offensive end last year and take that into the playoffs, making them a very dangerous team. That hasn't happened. The Hawks' offense has gone from scoring a robust 111.9 points per 100 possessions to 106.3 points per 100 possessions (19th in the NBA).
The first thing we need to look at when examining the Hawks' offense is their iso performance. Last season, the Hawks ran isolation sets 17 percent of the time (third most in the NBA) while scoring 0.89 points per possession (PPP), seventh highest in the NBA, on those plays. Drew has kept his promise and the Hawks are running isolation sets less frequently, going iso just 13.5 percent of the time (11th most in the NBA). However, the biggest problem is the efficiency of the Hawks' iso possessions has also dropped. The team is scoring only 0.79 points per possession this season (22nd in the NBA).
When looking at the reason for this significant drop-off in Atlanta's isolation performance, the initial thought is to look at Joe Johnson. However, Johnson's play in iso sets this season has almost been identical to his performance last season (0.86 PPP this season, 0.88 last season--both good for 165th in the NBA during their respective season). The biggest reason for the Hawks' drop in efficiency when working out of isolation sets has been Josh Smith. Smith has gone from posting a PPP of 0.96 on 45.4 percent shooting last season to posting 0.72 PPP on 35.9 percent shooting so far this year. Smith's drop-off when going iso comes down to the fact he is shooting more jumpers (24.4 percent last season vs. 36.9 percent this season) when he is isolated. Smith is shooting 27.3 percent on these jumpers:
Here, Smith makes the catch in the corner with eight seconds left on the shot clock. Instead of attacking a less athletic Kenyon Martin, Smith takes the easy way out, settling for a jumper after a pump fake.
On this play, Smith makes the catch and his defender, Amar'e Stoudemire, doesn't even try to close out on him. It has been said that in the NBA if you keep finding yourself open for jumpers, there must be a reason. With Smith, that reason is the defense knows that he will shoot and miss if left open.
Again, Smith makes the catch in the corner, and after a pump fake takes and misses the jumper. The problem with this shot (and the previous two) is that he isn't challenging the defense. He isn't trying to penetrate then taking the shot after being cut off. Smith is simply settling for these jumpers; with the type of athletic ability Smith has, it is frustrating to see him settle for so many jumpers.
The other reason why the Hawks' offense has had trouble being efficient is all of the empty possessions they have due to turnovers. Last season, the Hawks were the best team when it came to taking care of the basketball, only turning it over 11.4 percent of the time. This season, the Hawks turn it over 13.5 percent of the time, which ranks them 12th in turnover rate.
Without looking at the numbers, one would assume that the increase in turnovers is due to the fact that the Hawks have stopped running iso sets so much that when they attempt to move the ball around they turn it over. However, that isn't the case:
As you can see, the Hawks are actually turning the ball over less this season (red) when compared to last season (blue) in most categories. In only two categories is there a jump in turnovers, and the biggest jump in percent of possessions ending in turnovers is the isolation category. The Hawks have gone from turning the basketball over 8.4 percent of the time in iso sets last season to turning it over 10.8 percent of the time this season:
On this play, Damien Wilkins gets the basketball in the corner and tries to take his man one-on-one. Wilkins attacks baseline, but he is cut off by the defense. Unable to do anything on the drive, Wilkins tries to make the pass, but the ball goes sailing out of bounds.
Here, Al Horford gets the basketball and, despite the zone, he still tries to work out of an iso. Horford tries to make something happen by attacking the middle, but the defense collapses on him, forcing the turnover.
Finally here, Johnson tries to take his man one-on-one by backing him down. He makes a nice move, but as the defense collapses on him, he holds onto the basketball a little too long, forcing a pass that ends up going out of bounds.
The Hawks have tried to get away from running iso sets all of the time, and have succeeded in this goal, but their performance when running isolation sets has dropped off so much that it is bringing down Atlanta's entire offense. While you can't take iso sets out of the game completely, it would probably benefit the Hawks to try and get away from it a little more. If they do that, their efficiency could increase.
Sebastian Pruiti is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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