By the end of July 2016, the worst-kept secret in Atlanta basketball was how different the Hawks’ defense would look down the middle. Franchise cornerstone Al Horford was gone to Boston, replaced at the center position by hometown product Dwight Howard. The two couldn’t have been more different stylistically; Horford the savvy, undersized-but-mobile defensive fulcrum and Howard the glass-eating, shot-blocking interior pillar.
Centers are the most important defensive players in the NBA on balance, and Horford’s skills in particular made him indispensable to Atlanta’s approach. The Hawks didn’t have that traditional rim protector in the paint, but they made up for it and then some by leveraging the mobility of Horford and Paul Millsap into a harassing defense that applied pressure in the right places, making it hard work for offenses to ever find their way to the rim (or their other preferred spots) in the first place.
The Hawks with Horford trapped a ton, snuck hands into unexpected passing lanes and used a sky-high collective team IQ to move as one cohesive unit and beat the ball to the spots teams wanted it in.
It worked: Under Mike Budenholzer, Atlanta never finished a season lower than seventh for rate of opponent turnovers. They consistently forced shots late in the clock as teams found their primary options snuffed out and had to search for secondary stuff. The Hawks forced the fourth-longest average possession length in the NBA last season, per inpredictable.com, and have been in the league’s top third here every year Bud’s been in town. The result was three straight above average defenses, including second overall last year and seventh the previous season.
With Howard in town, some of the changes have been predictable. The Hawks were never bad rim protectors collectively, falling roughly around league average here the last few years. Now they’re among the league’s elite, per SportVU data, buoyed by a sub-45-percent-allowed figure from Howard that ranks among the league’s 10 best volume rim defenders. The effect has trickled down even when he’s off the floor.
“I think that we understand the importance of making sure teams only get one shot, and protecting the basket,” Howard told Basketball Insiders. “Coach [Budenholzer] has put the onus on me to start it, and get everybody going. And everybody else has stepped up and done a great job – I think Paul [Millsap], Muscy [Mike Muscala], all our bigs are really trying to protect the basket.”
You’d expect an improvement on the glass moving from the smaller Horford to one of the league’s premier rebounders in Howard, and you’d be right in a big way. The Hawks have been a bottom-five rebounding team by percentage each of Budenholzer’s three years in town; they’re in the NBA’s top 10 this year.
They’re collecting nearly 30 percent of their own misses with Howard on the floor, a number that would rank second in the league among teams, and their defensive rebounding has maintained even when Dwight leaves the floor – another testament to the culture he’s quickly helped instill.
“Both defensively and offensively, he really brings that presence, that physicality,” Budenholzer said of Howard. “Our rebounding is just significantly better.”
This is the part where things start to get a bit weird, though.
Along with the improvements Howard has brought with him to Atlanta, everything we know about NBA basketball would cause us to expect a regression in some of the areas Horford excelled in – namely the harassing, high-turnover defensive style he helped make possible for the Hawks.
Those regressions have not happened. The Hawks are forcing an almost exactly identical rate of opponent turnovers, a mark that remains in the league’s top five for the season. They’re generating 18 points a night off these turnovers, another top-five figure, and they’re still holding teams to longer than average possessions.
“I think the guys have a lot of confidence with Dwight behind them,” Budenholzer said. “I would say we’re never the ‘gambling’ type – we’re not really getting out of what I would call fundamental, sound defensive-type things to create turnovers. It’s mostly just happening out of activity, and hopefully just good, solid defense.”
With Howard on board, none of the gambling Bud wants to avoid is necessary in the first place. Those were good bets in the long run with Horford, but they probably aren’t with Dwight’s skill set. Horford has maybe the quickest hands in the league for a center, and his ability to clog lanes helped make the aggressive style a winning proposition; Howard can accomplish similar things by standing in the paint and being scary. Watch how he creates turnovers simply by positioning himself in the right ways:
The rest of the team hasn’t forgotten how to fly around and mess things up for the offense since Dwight joined up, and those skills are fusing with Howard’s interior protection to create a whole new beast. They’re forcing more cough-ups when he sits, understandable with guys like Millsap and Muscala playing center in a more aggressive style, but not by much.
“I think guys understand that I’m going to be behind them to protect them, so they can be more aggressive,” Howard said. “And that’s the way we want to play defense: Be aggressive, force turnovers and get blocked shots.”
The Hawks are fouling less often, though Budenholzer stops short of crediting Howard’s presence here specifically. They’ve long been among the best teams in the league at limiting opponent three-point percentage, and Dwight’s presence hasn’t changed things here either – they’re still allowing some of the fewest open threes in the league and the opposition’s percentage remains low.
Put it all together, and it seems no defensive adjustment period was needed: The Hawks are the top defensive team in the league through just under a quarter of the season.
To this point, the issues have been on the other side of the floor. Howard and the rest of the starters have struggled to mesh offensively, and the bench is actually doing the heavy lifting far too often. Howard and Dennis Schroder, fresh into his first year as the starting point guard in a detailed offensive scheme, are struggling to find their groove.
This isn’t entirely unexpected, though. Chemistry between point guard and center can be a delicate balance, especially when both guys are in a new situation. Sometimes things just click into place over time, and that’s the patient approach the Hawks are taking.
“It definitely does [take time], especially with a guy who came off the bench and now you’re asking him to start,” Howard told Basketball Insiders. “And then he has to really learn me, and then he has to learn to be that starting point guard, facilitate the offense, stuff like that. You’ve gotta be patient, you know. You’re going to have those games where it seems like it may not work, it seems like it’s never gonna get better. And then you have the games where it’s just, ‘Oh, that’s what we’re looking for.’”
How quickly Bud can reorganize the troops and find some scoring juice could determine this group’s ceiling. It’s still early, but Atlanta’s defense looks every bit like a group that’s been together for years.
Make no mistake, the rest of this Hawks roster deserves real credit for the early defensive success. They’re performing extremely well when Howard sits, even if their superior per-possession defense with him off the floor is a complete mirage (it is – he’s playing much tougher levels of competition, as evidenced by a still-strong figure in defensive RPM, which accounts for team and opponent context).
Leave some praises for the big guy himself, though. Howard has brought a new skill set to a defense that already had a great thing going, and the transition has been seamless.
More than just the skills, he’s brought a culture. Even units without him on the floor are exhibiting subtle signs of a shift. This is what impact veterans do, and Howard is out to prove this is a group to which he still belongs – and even leads.
“Dwight, man…. He commands a lot of respect from a lot of teams, a lot of opponents in the league. Just his presence out there alone changes the dynamic,” Hawks forward Kent Bazemore told Basketball Insiders. “He’s been good for us.”
NBA AM: Pacers Got Some Much Needed Tough Love
After a rocky start, Thaddeus Young spoke up, and it may have helped the Pacers find their identity.
A Little Tough Love
Indiana Pacers forward Thaddeus Young isn’t known as a vocal leader, in fact, his reputation is that he’s usually the most even-keeled guy in the room. However, after the Pacers were blown out by the Detroit Pistons in early November, the normally reserved Young was anything but that.
“When we lost, I think, we lost at the first Detroit game. I came in, and I spoke to the team, and I was a little out of character because I was yelling,” Young told Basketball Insiders. “It got through to those guys, and we understood what we had to do to go out there and win games.
“I made it clear that if we don’t move the ball, if we don’t do it by committee, if we don’t defend and guard the paint, it’s going to be a long season. It’s going to be one of those seasons where it’s going to be tough on everybody, and we don’t want that.”
The Pacers seemed to turn a corner after that moment. A sense of purpose was introduced to the team—a team that has so many new faces playing so many new roles. It also brought the team together.
“We love being around each other,” Young explained. “We’re doing it as a family, and we’re committed to winning games as a whole, not as one person. When I came in and got on those guys, it was out of the love for the game, the passion for the game, the passion for this team and understanding where we can go as a team.”
The Pacers have lost one game since Young spoke his mind.
Young, who is playing in his 11th NBA season, sees something special in this year’s version of the Pacers—a team many predicted would be rebuilding, but one that enters play on November 21 two games above .500 and setting the tone as much on defense.
“Defensively we’re coming along,” Young admitted. “We’re starting to lock in a little bit more on the defensive side of the basketball. Offensively, it’s there.
“We know what we have to do to win games, which is move the basketball, execute, and do it by committee. Defensively if we do it by committee each and every night, defensively we’ll be definitely a tough team to beat. Especially going into the later part of the season.”
Young has always been something of an all-purpose player who understands that on this team, he has to be part of the defensively solution.
“I have tough matchups each and every night,” Young said. “I’m switching on guys; that’s point guards or centers or just all different positions. I have to be able to do those different things, and for me, I take pride in my defense each and every night. Going out there and executing on the defensive end because the offense is going to come. I don’t really worry too much about offense. I’ve been in the league long enough to know how I’m going to score the basketball and what I’m going to be able to do, but it’s ‘Can you get stops on the defensive end?’ which is going to win games for us.”
While most would see a 10-8 record as a positive thing, Young and the Pacers know they have to get better at the little things to be the team they want to be.
“We feel like we should be better and we’re continuing to get better as a team,” Young said. “We continue practicing, playing, and going out there and executing in games. We’re getting better as a team. We can’t have stretches like that where we lost four games in a row or a couple of games in a row. We have to try to bounce back from one loss and try to get to the next game. So far, we’ve been doing a good job. We’ve just been playing. Like I said, we’re executing and having fun playing with each other.”
Young smiled when explained why he felt that he had to get on his teammates.
“Some guys could have been like ‘forget what he’s talking about,’ but everybody was on the same page,” Young explained. “Everybody understood exactly where I was coming from. Besides the fact when I get mad, they know something’s wrong. I’m pretty laid back and chill, so when I do get mad, and I do get upset, it’s something that has to change.”
The Pacers seem to have found their way, and maybe a little tough love from an unexpected place was all that was needed.
As things stand today, the Pacers are the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. Their next stretch of games includes home contests against Toronto, Boston, and Orlando before finishing November on the road in Houston.
Time will tell if the Pacers are as good as they seem to be, but there is no questioning that they are playing some pretty inspired basketball.
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NBA PM: Clippers In A Hole, Hoping For Spark From Beverley
The Clippers are in an early season free-fall and are hoping Patrick Beverley can help get them back on track.
The Los Angeles Clippers came into the season with the intention of turning the departure of Chris Paul into a positive. His departure led to the team netting the small forward it had always lacked in Danilo Gallinari, a replacement point guard in Patrick Beverley and a number of other new faces. With the massive turnover in key players, the hope would be that the Clippers would take this new mix of players and build around the franchise centerpiece, Blake Griffin, and thrive in a new era of Clippers basketball.
For now, at least, those offseason hopes have been dashed. The team is in the midst of a horrid skid where they have lost their last eight games and 10 of their last 11 going back to October 28. After losing the first two games, the team is playing their third of a five-game road trip tonight against the New York Knicks. When the team returns, they will host the Los Angeles Lakers who have been playing well as of late. Although the season is still young, the team is currently 13th in the Western Conference, nestled between the Phoenix Suns and the Sacramento Kings, and behind the Lakers. Not good company to have if your goal is to make the playoffs.
The team is coming off of an overtime loss to the Cavaliers in Cleveland and a 102-87 loss to the Charlotte Hornets that had been closer than the final score indicates. Yet, Head Coach Doc Rivers didn’t mince his words when judging the team’s performance against the Hornets.
“Overall this is a tough stretch to go through,” Rivers stated. “I thought we were selfish as far as moving the ball and playing together.”
Rivers didn’t hold back and made it clear how unhappy he was with the team’s effort.
“This was the first game that I wasn’t happy as a coach,” Rivers stated. “I can take losing even poorly if we play right. I just didn’t think we played right tonight.”
Coach Rivers is frustrated and with good reason. Only Griffin and bench sparkplug Lou Williams made their mark on offense with 19 and 25 points, respectively. DeAndre Jordan was the only other Clipper to register in double digits with 10 points.
Offense overall isn’t exactly the issue for the Clippers. Per nba.com, the Clippers’ offensive rating is 105.9, good for 10th in the league. However, the team’s assist percentage is 28th in the league at 51 percent, echoing Coach Rivers’ concern regarding selfish play. Look no further for proof than Jordan, whose shooting percentages have dropped from 71.4 percent to 64 percent, his worst shooting since the 2012-2013 season. Jordan depends on others to create for him through lobs, pick and roll finishes, dump offs and opportunistic put backs.
Injuries have helped to create and magnify many of the individual issues the team faces. In fact, all of the key players that have been missing from the Clippers rotation are capable playmakers and passers that can help to create a more fluid offense. Unfortunately, there is no clear timetable indicating when Gallinari and Euro passing sensation Milos Teodosic (only two games played) are set to return. Help is on the way with the Beverley set to return to the lineup tonight against the Knicks after missing the last five games.
On offense, Beverley is averaging 12.5 points, three assists and 3.9 rebounds. These are acceptable statistics that only partially indicate his worth to the team. Beverley had had success taking (5.3) and making (2.1) three-point shots at nearly a 40 percent clip (39.6). Beverley does a good job of creating space off the ball, allowing Griffin to be a scorer and a facilitator. In addition, Beverley has had success driving to the rim, where he is shooting 59.3 percent (0-3 feet from the rim), he can score, run pick and roll with Jordan or kick the ball out and keep the offense moving from side to side.
Coach Rivers made his view of Beverley’s value relative to their recent poor play abundantly clear.
“We get Patrick [Beverley] back Monday night,” Rivers stated. “[We can] start playing the right way, we will be all right.”
Beverley had been developing chemistry as a complement to everything the team does on defense as well as offense. Beverley has taken his aggressive defense to the Clippers and by doing so had taken up a shared role as a lead defensive weapon alongside Jordan. The team could use the help on defense where, over the last 11 games, they sport the worst defensive rating (111.3) in the NBA.
Having Beverley’s balance of defense and offense should be a boost to the team. The Clippers have earned a reputation over the years for sniping at the refs and getting flustered when things don’t go their way, which has bubbled up in their recent losing skid. Beverley helps with the intangibles as well including effort and hustle, which may help offset the team’s penchant for complaining.
Another benefit will be the ability of the team to re-insert Beverley back into the starting line-up and place guard Austin Rivers back on the bench. Rivers can be a productive player who brings a scoring punch against opposing second units while being available as a small ball small forward when necessary. Rivers can also be a pest on defense when focused. However, injuries have forced Rivers into the starting line-up where he has been less effective.
In an exclusive interview with Basketball Insiders, Lou Williams discussed the value of the team’s injured players.
“It’s three starters,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “One guy’s [Beverley] our heart and soul on the defensive end. We have another guy [Teodosic] who was leading us in assists and we have another guy [Gallinari] who’s second in scoring.”
Whether the return of Beverley alone is enough to halt the team’s recent losing streak is unclear. The team is buried deep in the Western Conference and needs to get back on track sooner rather than later before the team falls too far behind to be competitive. As stated, there is no clear indication as to when the team will get Teodosic or Gallinari back. In addition, Griffin has his own history of injuries, having missed at least 15 games a season over the last four years. This year, the team has so far shown an inability to rise above injuries. The season is young but these are perilous times for the Clippers.
Williams, Clippers Will Keep Pushing Through
The Clippers veteran guard chats with Spencer Davies in a one-on-one Basketball Insiders exclusive.
For the second straight year, Lou Williams started his basketball season as a resident of California.
Despite being moved by the Los Angeles Lakers at the trade deadline back in February, it wasn’t a long stay for the 31-year-old in Houston. After bolstering the Rockets’ bench in a big way during their playoff stretch, the organization dealt the veteran guard to the LA Clippers, meaning he was going right back to the City of Angels.
Which begs the question—did he even relocate from his old place?
“Yeah, I moved,” Williams told Basketball Insiders in Cleveland on Friday. “But I ended up moving back into the same neighborhood that I was in, so it was all good.”
The familiarity with the area must’ve been comforting, but playing for three different teams in such a short amount of time can’t be easy. It’s only been 15 games, but he already notices a discrepancy between the two that share the same arena.
“Obviously when you have different people running it,” Williams answered when asked to compare the Los Angeles franchises. “I think the Lakers were in a different space than the Clippers are. The Clippers are a more veteran group, so two completely different atmospheres.”
Winning four straight games to kick off the 2017-18 campaign, the year started out great for he and his new team, but it’s gone downhill in a hurry.
The Los Angeles Clippers are hurting in every way. Literally.
Only halfway through a five-city road trip, they’ve lost eight consecutive games and 10 of their last 11. Key members of their team are absent and they have been plagued by injuries out of the gate.
First, it was international sensation Milos Teodosic who went down with a foot injury in just the second NBA game of his career. Then there’s Danilo Gallinari, whose ailing hip has kept him out of action for two weeks. To top it all off, Patrick Beverley is dealing with a sore right knee that has forced him to miss over a week as well (he’ll reportedly be active on Monday night).
Without the trio, the Clippers are missing a little bit of everything, and Williams is eager for them to return to the floor because of it.
“It’s three starters,” Williams told Basketball Insiders. “One guy’s our heart and soul on the defensive end. We have another guy who was leading us in assists and we have another guy who’s second in scoring.
“Three very important pieces of our team are missing. But we have other guys that’s stepping in doing the best job that they can. We’re just falling short.”
Aside from their most recent 15-point loss to the equally struggling Charlotte Hornets at the Spectrum Center, Los Angeles has competed and been in almost every game during the long skid.
In Cleveland, they led for most of the way until midway through the fourth quarter. It was a back-and-forth affair when the Cavaliers struck back, and once the game went into overtime, the Clippers went cold and ran out of gas.
Taking out the element of overtime, the “close game, but no win” trend has been apparent as they attempt to get over the hump for a victory. Williams sees his team battling. They’re just not getting the outcomes they desire.
“Just continue to push,” Williams said of how LA can climb the wall. “We’ll have a couple of guys back this week from injuries.
“We’ve been playing extremely hard giving ourselves an opportunity to win these games and just haven’t been able to finish. Get guys back, just continue to push. We’ll break through.”
If Williams keeps on producing the way he has, especially as of late, that could be sooner rather than later. Over the last five games, the scoring assassin has put up over 30 points in two of them and 25 in another. In addition, he’s averaged over four rebounds, four assists, and more than a steal per game during the stretch.
When asked about what’s made him so comfortable, he kept it simple.
“Just playing,” Williams told Basketball Insiders.” Taking what the defense gives me and try to make shots. That’s it.”
Williams is special when it comes to how much he can impact a game in the snap of a finger. Over the course of his career, he’s one of those guys that have been able to just go off at any given moment.
“Just continue to play,” he said. “Play [as] hard as I can. I never really think about it until after the game. I just go out there, play [as] hard as I can. Put myself in position to score points and live with the results.”
You can recall Williams being an elite sixth man in this league for just about every team he’s been a part of. Whether it was with the Philadelphia 76ers, Atlanta Hawks, Toronto Raptors, Lakers, Rockets or even with the Clippers now, he’s constantly been a guy to provide a powerful punch off the bench.
With the consistency and the energy he’s provided with second units throughout his career, it’s rather surprising that Williams has only won the Sixth Man of the Year award one time in his career. Having established this reputation, it should only be a matter of time before he’s rewarded again.
That being said, it’s got to be one of his aspirations, right?
“Not anymore,” Williams told Basketball Insiders, admitting he felt slighted in last year’s race. “Nah. Probably had one of the best seasons of my career and finished third, so I don’t really care no more.”
Furthermore, as one of the top sharpshooters the NBA has to offer, he told Basketball Insiders he doesn’t wouldn’t care to participate in the three-point contest, either.
Moving away from the individual side of things, Williams has enjoyed his time with the Clippers for the short time he’s been a part of the franchise.
One good reason is the opportunity to play under one of the league’s most respected head coaches in Doc Rivers, whom he credits has a unique manner of making adjustments.
“Doc is a high basketball IQ coach,” Williams said. “He knows how to break down the game on the fly, which is impressive. A lot of coaches, they make a lot of corrections at halftime or in film sessions. Doc makes them on the fly, which is great.”
Playing alongside two superstars isn’t so bad. DeAndre Jordan and Blake Griffin are a pairing that can dominate each and every time they step on the floor. In fact, having those two alone should be enough for the Clippers to get things turned back around.
When the frontcourt duo clicks on a nightly basis and the team returns to full strength, Williams believes that’s exactly what’s going to happen.
“It’s been fun,” Williams told Basketball Insiders of the experience with Griffin and Jordan. “Obviously, we would like to win some games and I think that tide is gonna turn once we get back healthy.
“But these two All-Star guys in this league that’s done an exceptional job for this organization—so it’s been a good time being with these guys.”