Sometimes, you've got to trust the numbers.
When the Atlanta Hawks opened the 2008-09 season 6-0, I started rooting against them. You see, it's become something of an annual tradition for me to spotlight the track record of sub-.500 teams that start the following season quickly over the first 10 games. In 2005-06, Basketball-Reference.com's Justin Kubatko and I used the performance of teams beginning 7-3 or better to tout the Los Angeles Clippers; last year, no fewer than three teams (Boston, New Orleans and Orlando) started 8-2 and my column focusing on the Hornets and the Magic turned out prescient when each team won its division and a playoff series.
So why was I so opposed to writing a similar column spotlighting the Hawks? Simply, I could not come up with a compelling argument for why Atlanta would have improved dramatically. After all, the Hawks' offseason could have been described with little hyperbole as being semi-disastrous; the team did not make a draft pick, signed two minor free agents (Maurice Evans and Flip Murray) and lost super sixth man Josh Childress with nothing in return when Childress balked at their offer and decided to lead an exodus of NBA rotation players to Europe. SCHOENE's projection of a return to the lottery did not seem especially pessimistic at the beginning of the season.
When the Hawks first lost Josh Smith to a sprained ankle, then their next four games after the 6-0 start, I was off the hook. Or so I thought. A month and a half later, I'm wishing I had written that column because Atlanta is apparently here to stay. Monday's commanding 109-91 victory over the visiting Denver Nuggets pushed the Hawks to 20-10 on the season and marked the first time since 1987-88 they've won 20 games before January. Atlanta's point differential is not quite as impressive as the team's record, but still has the Hawks on pace for 50 wins and solidly fourth in the Eastern Conference behind Cleveland, Boston and Orlando, well ahead of the struggling Detroit Pistons.
Forty percent of the way through the schedule, I think I've come to a little bit better understanding of how the Hawks could take a dramatic step forward after a net loss of talent during the offseason. Explaining it starts with knowing that the difference is virtually all at the offensive end of the floor. Atlanta has improved just slightly in terms of Defensive Rating and continues to hover right around league average. On per-possession offense, however, the Hawks have gone from 16th in the NBA to sixth (not including Tuesday's game).
Let's take a look at the league's most improved offenses along with a mystery stat that has seemed to mirror their overall improvement.
OFFENSIVE RATING MYSTERY STAT
Team 0708 0809 Diff 0708 0809 Diff
Cleveland 107.5 115.1 +7.6 .190 .256 +.066
Portland 108.5 115.6 +7.1 .218 .258 +.040
Miami 102.2 107.7 +5.5 .217 .244 +.027
New Jersey 105.6 111.0 +5.4 .222 .253 +.031
Atlanta 108.3 111.2 +2.9 .165 .279 +.114
New York 105.6 107.6 +2.0 .215 .344 +.129
Any guesses as to what the mystery stat might be? Here's a hint--and what makes this so interesting. The mystery stat is not an "outcome" stat like a shooting percentage or offensive rebounding. Instead, it's a tendency stat, and one that in theory should not necessarily have anything to do with the performance of an offense. Got it? Maybe the enormous leap by the Knicks tipped you off that the mystery stat has to do with three-point shooting. It is, in fact, the percentage of the team's field-goal attempts that have come from beyond the arc.
On a league-wide basis, teams have attempted the same percentage of their shots as threes this year as last (22.2 percent), so that doesn't explain the change for the improved offensive teams. All of them were at league average or below a year ago; now they're all above it, some (including the Hawks) dramatically so.
If this seems like something more than a coincidence, that's because it is. Looking merely at three attempts, without any regard for success, is a surprisingly decent indicator of offensive performance. The correlation between 3A/FGA and Offensive Rating so far this season is .562 (a correlation of 1 or -1 indicates two variables move in lockstep, while a correlation of 0 means no relationship), almost as good as the correlation between three-point percentage and Offensive Rating (.590).
My friend David Locke of The Fan Sports in Salt Lake City took a slightly different look at the numbers last week, finding that the top ten teams in the league in three attempts per possession were winning at a combined .620 clip. Considered either way, the evidence seems to point to one conclusion: The old adage "live by the three, die by the three" is about half correct.
The Hawks present an interesting case study in the value of the three. Their increased number of attempts can be traced to three factors: a full season of prolific bomber Mike Bibby, newfound three-point range for forward Marvin Williams and replacing reluctant outside shooter Childress with trigger-happy Evans and Murray.
How have the changes affected the holdover Atlanta starters?
2P% 3P% TS% TO%
Player 0708 0809 0708 0809 0708 0809 0708 0809
Bibby .438 .486 .373 .437 .515 .580 15.5 9.5
Johnson .453 .499 .381 .364 .534 .553 11.8 11.1
Williams .466 .509 .100 .382 .540 .583 10.4 8.0
Smith .477 .474 .253 .278 .520 .513 15.5 15.7
Horford .503 .511 - - .540 .559 15.3 13.5
With the notable exception of Smith, the other Hawks starters have improved virtually across the board. I suspect we are seeing the benefit of a well-spaced floor and the need for defenses to respect four of the five players beyond the arc. The improvement in turnover rates is especially striking, while Bibby is hitting a career-high percentage of his two-point shots and Williams too has made major strides inside the three-point line as well as outside it. Johnson's two-point improvement is not actually as impressive as it looks; he hit 50.4 percent of his twos in 2006-07 before suffering through a fluky 2007-08 campaign.
Add it up, and the starting five has improved by more than enough to offset swapping Childress' hyper-efficient 64.7 True Shooting Percentage for Murray's woeful 50.0 percent mark. The Hawks now boast one of the deepest first units in the league. All five starters have been worth at least two Wins Above Replacement Player this season; East stalwarts Boston and Cleveland are the other teams able to make that same claim.
There's an intriguing parallel to all of this. In this space and elsewhere, a different East team was projected to make the leap from fringe playoff squad to contender, that being the Philadelphia 76ers. The two teams were relatively similar last year, but Philadelphia made a big splash in free agency, signing Elton Brand to bolster a below-average offense and--on paper--complete a deep starting five.
What the 76ers forgot, and the rest of us did not pay enough heed, was (naturally) three-point shooting. Philadelphia is 29th in the league in three attempts per field-goal attempt, and lo and behold the Sixers' offense has in fact declined substantially from last season. Of Philly's starters, just Andre Iguodala and Andre Miller have outperformed the weakest Atlanta starter so far this season.
The question marks that factored into the mostly-dour numbers-based projections for the Hawks still exist for the most part. Atlanta's depth remains a major weakness, especially on the perimeter. Murray has come back to earth after a fast start, while Evans has not shot the ball as effectively as he did last season in Orlando, and Acie Law has yet to prove he can contribute regularly at this level. An extended injury to any of the three perimeter starters could prove devastating to the Hawks, given how well all three have played.
When Atlanta is healthy, however, the starters can play with almost anyone in the league. The Hawks have a decent chance of hosting a first-round series if Detroit continues to stumble, and they are a threat to the East's top three teams. Unlike last year, if Atlanta takes a team the distance this year, it will probably be a much more competitive series than the Hawks-Celtics matchup that featured four blowout losses in Boston, including the deciding Game Seven. If you're looking for the biggest reason why Atlanta has become so dangerous, it can be found beyond the three-point line.
Kevin Pelton is an author of Basketball Prospectus.
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