Certainly, through their first nine games, the Hawks have had games where the ball is moving, shots are falling and they’re getting stops when needed.
But, often, they’ve looked off in one way or another.
It’s still a small sample size, but you’d expect better chemistry on offense from a team that returns nearly all its roster from an Eastern Conference finals appearance last season. Better shot selection from a group actively aware they’ve been taking too many rushed and midrange shots. And, better effort on defense when a game is on the line, early regular season though it may be.
Enough is going wrong — or at least, not quite right — that after giving up 77 second-half points in Thursday’s collapse to the Jazz, bringing them to a 4-5 record, coach Nate McMillan said he’d consider changing the rotation if players don’t give effort on defense, which he thinks stems from shots not falling on the other end.
“We need a spark,” McMillan said. “We need some energy to lift us, and we need some guys that’ll go out there and defend.”
To be fair, the starting lineup of Trae Young, Bogdan Bogdanovic, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins and Clint Capela has a net rating of 8.3 in 160 minutes played together (118.3 offensive rating, 110.2 defensive rating). It gets trickier when they go to the bench, though the sample sizes of minutes played together are small. The all-bench lineup of Lou Williams, Cam Reddish, Kevin Huerter, Danilo Gallinari and Gorgui Dieng has a -5.4 net rating in only 19 minutes (94.6 offensive, 100 defensive).
On an exceptionally deep team, McMillan has options, though having all those options on a single roster can create some issues of its own. It’s difficult to balance, having many players on a team needing or expecting a certain chunk of playing time or amount of shots to get in a rhythm. And that equation must add up not only to good individual performances, but wins, if the Hawks want to achieve their lofty playoff goals.
“I can’t give minutes, you have to earn them,” McMillan said. “That’s what I’ll start to do more of, if you’re not giving it to this team on both ends of the floor, then we’ll rotate some guys in. You can’t play everybody, and everybody can’t get the minutes that they probably want, the shots that they probably want, because we do have a number of guys, and you have to sacrifice.”
“Sacrifice” is what McMillan has preached from the very beginning of this season. He preached it last season, too, after taking over as interim head coach in March, but injuries plaguing the Hawks meant the issue of sacrificing individual playing time, statistics or certain shots for the greater good never was really forced. They were short-handed, not overflowing with depth.
To start this season, the Hawks often have rushed shots, settling for a midrange jumper or making one pass instead of playing in their third and fourth option, as McMillan likes to say. If you ask him, it’s a product of players taking turns shooting, essentially trying to get their own shot going and get into the game, instead of moving the ball and making the defense work more.
In shooting frequency, per Cleaning the Glass, they rank No. 2 in the NBA in midrange shots (39% of their total shot attempts), No. 27 in 3-pointers (30.8%) and No. 23 at the rim (30.3%), which is not an ideal shot distribution. They’re No. 24 in defensive rating (109.8), No. 11 in offensive rating (107.5), No. 26 in 3′s made per game (10.2) and No. 20 in assist percentage (57.5%).
The Hawks normally are starting Young (who plays an average of 34.4 minutes per game), Bogdanovic (29.6), Hunter (29.1), Collins (30.3) and Capela (28.5). Off the bench, Reddish (22.9) is getting the most playing time, with Huerter (20.3) next, then Gallinari (16.5). Dieng has averaged 11.9 minutes in nine games, Williams 11.8 in six games, Delon Wright 10.5 in eight games, and Solomon Hill 14 in three games. Jalen Johnson, Sharife Cooper, Skylar Mays and Timothe Luwawu-Cabarrot have been limited to garbage-time minutes.
To ward off any letdown in last season’s playoffs, McMillan staggered starters more, which led to ample success against the Knicks with either Young or Bogdanovic always on the court, so that may be an option that could give them a boost.
“Sacrifice” also means simply giving the team more of what it needs in the moment, and making decisions accordingly, which in Thursday’s loss was a defensive voice in the second half. To McMillan, the Hawks have been dropping their heads when a shot doesn’t fall and “really, just not guarding.”
“I don’t care how much talent you have, if you don’t make those sacrifices to do less and be that example of how we want to play, how we need to play, you’re going to look like tonight,” McMillan said. “That is a challenge. It’s just very difficult to try to play 10 guys, and we’re playing sometimes 11, 12 guys. So that’s just something that we’ve talked about from the start, when we knew we had all these guys coming back. … There’s not a lot of minutes to keep everybody happy.”
After Saturday’s 122-94 loss in Philadelphia, Young pointed out that the Hawks are re-incorporating Hunter and Reddish, both of whom were injured for most of last season, and getting them up to speed. McMillan has said the Hawks have a handful of guys, including Hunter, Huerter, Bogdanovic and Capela who weren’t 100% healthy in training camp, so they’re still working into game shape and rhythm.
Both of those points can certainly be true, and again, it’s very early in the season, so players will continue to adjust. But there’s also the question of whether the team will fully buy in to the “sacrifice” that McMillan has talked about. Figuring out playing time, shots and rotations has been a challenge so far, Young said after the loss to the Jazz.
“For sure, I definitely see that being a struggle right now,” Young said. “We’ve got a lot of guys who can play on this team, so a lot of guys feel like they deserve minutes and playing time, and we’ve just got to figure it out. We’ve got to figure out the rotations and who’s going to play and who’s not going to play, and who’s going to sacrifice for this team to win, you know what I’m saying? That’s pretty much it, we’ve got to figure out how we’re going to get through that. It’s all about winning at the end of the day. If you win, everybody eats.”
In Philly, Young first mentioned that the Hawks are the hunted now, no longer the hunters after what they proved in the postseason earlier this year. Asked if it’s harder to sacrifice in the regular season as opposed to the huge stage the Hawks were playing on in the playoffs, he brought that point up again Thursday.
“I think guys are learning that, man,” Young said. “We’re no longer the hunters anymore, and at the same time, it’s regular season. I’m not gonna lie, it’s a lot more boring than the playoffs, so you’ve gotta find a way to find that motivation and go out and play every night like it’s the playoffs and play like we did last year. I remember how we were saying all last year, we want to treat every game like it’s a playoff game, and I think we’ve kind of gotten away from that, and we’re kind of just playing for flow and everybody wants to get it and feel good and everything like that.
“And that’s good, but at the end of the day, if we’re not winning, it doesn’t matter. I don’t know if we need to go back to playing like we did in the playoffs and that, but yeah, I think that’s a big thing. We just need to get back to playing like we did in the playoffs, and we will. It’s early, and it is what it is right now, but we’ve got to figure it out.”
The concept of “sacrifice” isn’t just an unspoken, understood thing for the Hawks, Young said.
It’s something that needs to be stressed, and players must recognize if they play whatever role is needed and it leads to wins, that benefits everyone.
“It’s nothing that’s just understood. We’ve got a lot of young guys on our team,” Young said. “We’ve got a lot of young guys who want to play and want to make their name in this league, you know what I’m saying, so everybody wants to play and everybody wants to play well. So I think that’s something that’s got to come from the coaches, and I think it’s going to come from each other, but we’ve all individually got to understand that. We’ve got to understand that this is a team sport and we know at the end of the day if we win, everybody’s going to win.”