NBA PM: The Atlanta Hawks Are Getting Back To Bud Ball

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Last summer, the Atlanta Hawks made what seemed like a counter-intuitive move by signing center Dwight Howard. Coach Mike Budenholzer doesn’t run a lot of set plays, instead relying on his players to make quick reads and quick decisions to exploit the defense. Since Howard wasn’t an instinctive passer and couldn’t match the off-ball movement of former Hawks center Al Horford, he seemed an awkward fit in Atlanta. At NBA Media Day on Monday, Budenholzer said this season Atlanta will trend back toward the free-flowing and movement-based system observers had become accustomed to seeing from the Hawks.

“Last year there was maybe a slight shift or emphasis or adjustment to maybe trying to play inside out more,” said Budenholzer. “This year I would say there’s probably going to be a slight shift toward even greater pace, even greater space and even more pick and rolls; but not losing the movement we have away from the ball, the cutting and screening and opportunities for everybody to participate in the offense, much like you’ve seen for the last four years.”

Hawks point guard Dennis Schroder now becomes the undisputed centerpiece of Atlanta’s offense. Last season, Schroder was unable to establish a consistent pick and roll partnership with Howard, running fewer than 100 such plays together. Budenholzer attributed this partly to the randomness and unpredictability of Atlanta’s offense, but also seemed to imply that a lack of off-ball movement may have been a contributing factor.

“We played a ton of pick and roll last year and were about where we wanted to be,” said Budenholzer. “Who was in them and the numbers — the way we play — a lot of it’s random. A lot of it’s through reads and through opportunities. The more pace, the more aggressive you are and the more you move, the more you may be involved in pick and rolls.”

With the emphasis shifting back to greater ball movement and player movement, Budenholzer said the Hawks would leverage what is hoped will be improved spacing with the additions of shooters Marco Belinelli, Luke Babbitt, Nicolas Brussino and Quinn Cook to make Schroder’s talent at attacking the paint even more dangerous.

“Dennis as a pick and roll ball handler, I think with his speed and how he puts pressure on the rim and the way he can attack and get defenses to collapse is a big part of our offense, it’s a big part of our league,” said Budenholzer. “His speed is just very unique and special. So how do we create even more environments, even more opportunities for him to use his speed — not just in pick and rolls, but maybe in other situations and other schemes and environments? His speed and his ability to get to the paint in pick and rolls is unique, and that opens up a lot for himself and his teammates.”

Budenholzer also addressed the current political climate, and said the players have the complete support of himself and the organization to express themselves.

“I think it’s a conversation the whole country is having [and] I’m assuming most if not all teams are having,” said Budenholzer. “I think our players are incredible and thoughtful human beings. We encouraged them to think deeply about what’s happening in our country; to care deeply about, not just what’s happening, but about our country. I think if they do those two things — if they think deeply and they care deeply — our country [and] our conversation will be in a better place.

“They have the organization’s support to express themselves or not to express themselves in any way that they feel is important. Their experiences have shaped their lives. They’re really unique people and they have a lot to offer and a lot to say in some cases, and they have our full support.”

One of the biggest topics of Media Day was the low expectations that outside observers have for the Hawks, with multiple sources predicting the worst record in the league for Atlanta. Budenholzer said the team has mostly shut out the outside noise and is focused on meeting the organization’s internal expectations.

“Most of us live in our own little world and teams tend to kind of bunker in,” said Budenholzer. “We know what’s happening on our practice court, in our film sessions and our games. Our expectations of ourselves are significantly more important than what people on the outside expect of us. It’s kind of wasted time to think about or worry about what anybody else is expecting of us.”

While Budenholzer was moderate in describing his own expectations, that restraint was not shared by all of his players. Second-year forward Taurean Prince was direct and unapologetic in saying that anything less than a playoff appearance would be a disappointment.

Prince cited the Miami HEAT as a team that exceeded all external expectations last season, and a team the young Hawks will try to emulate. While external and internal opinions vary, Budenholzer was uncontroversial in stating his excitement for Atlanta’s new practice arena and the two-phase renovation that is ongoing at Philips Arena.

“We can’t be more excited about everything that’s happening with, not just the arena, but the practice facility,” said Budenholzer. “The new practice facility is going to be a game changer for us. The player development is so important to us, and having a first-class facility we feel is just going to enhance our player development program and give our players opportunities and ways to improve more and more rapidly.

“The new arena, for the players and the fans, I think everybody is excited to see what it’s going to look like going into this next season. I think there’s even more excitement about going into the ’18 season when both phases of the arena renovations are done. I think it’s going to be a unique and special place.”

While outside observers continue to cite the Hawks as a team that is not trying to win this season, Media Day showed that nobody within the organization shares that opinion. The Hawks are determined to be competitive immediately with new personnel, and a shift back toward a style of play that compliments the team’s centerpiece, Schroder, will give Atlanta an opportunity to make up systemically for some of the loss of talent.