Atlanta's O after Iso-Joe

August, 21, 2012
8/21/12
2:03
PM ET
Mason By Beckley Mason
ESPN.com
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Jeff Teague
Brian Babineau/NBAE/Getty ImagesJeff Teague will be the driving force in Atlanta's new offense.
Months before dramatically re-shuffling their roster, the Atlanta Hawks had a real shot at the Eastern Conference finals. But in their tight, injury-riddled opening-round series against the Boston Celtics, the Hawks' offense seemed a team of two minds.

Ever since Joe Johnson arrived in Atlanta in 2005, the big scoring guard defined the Hawks’ tempo and style of play. Though Johnson himself was a reasonably efficient scorer in Atlanta’s isolation-heavy attack, the Hawks’ offense was usually in the middle of the pack during his tenure. In the Hawks' series with Boston, a team whose defense is specifically designed to counter isolation scorers, he managed just 37 percent shooting and was unable to get into the paint off the dribble -- he hoisted six 3-pointers per game.

Then there was the other side of the Hawks’ playoff offense, one fueled by high pick-and-rolls between Jeff Teague and Josh Smith. While Teague was, at times, sloppy with the ball, the explosive point guard routinely raced around the edges of the Celtics’ help defense, carving tunnels into the center of Boston’s second-ranked defense.

The two styles weren’t necessarily mutually exclusive, but certainly Teague’s fantastic athleticism would lend itself to a faster pace than the more controlled, measured isolation-focused offense.

But after trading Johnson to the Brooklyn Nets, it appears the Hawks have decided to give Teague the keys to the offense. Instead of wing isolations, the new Hawks roster is well-equipped to adopt an up-tempo, spread pick-and-roll attack more along the lines of Steve Nash’s old Suns than anything we’ve seen from Atlanta in the last five years. Expect the Hawks to incur some dings and scratches early on, but this offense has the potential to be one of the most efficient and prolific in the East.

Here’s how it could work:

The system
The fundamental purpose of a spread pick-and-roll offense is to open up the middle of the court. That’s the space that is the most difficult for help defenses to account for, which partly explains why Dirk Nowitzki’s high-post game was so devastating in Dallas’ 2011 championship run.

Typically, two or three shooters align themselves along the 3-point line (often in the corners, to make helping off even harder) while the point guard and big man run a pick-and-roll in the middle of the court. As the screener rolls to the rim, the other big man (assuming he isn’t a Ryan Anderson-type that can camp out on the perimeter) flashes up from the baseline to the top of the key.

While there are countless permutations, the essential goal is to create a 2-on-1 in the middle of the court between the point guard and the big man rolling to the rim. When a defender rotates off a shooter to help down low, the point guard must find the open man.

The engine
Though he doesn’t have to be Atlanta’s best offensive player, Teague, who is 24 years old and coming into his fourth NBA season, would be the most important piece in a pick-and-roll based offense. A passable 3-point shooter, Teague has a burst to the bucket that rivals elite athletes like John Wall and Derrick Rose. Because it takes only a sliver of daylight for Teague to end up with two points at the rim, his explosiveness puts real pressure on the entire defense. When defenses play soft, he can counter with a nice little floater. For a guard still considered somewhat raw, Teague is an adroit pick-and-roll scorer.

That helps, because though Teague reads the floor well, he isn’t an especially creative passer like Rajon Rondo. Still, Teague seems to regard himself as a more traditional point guard than a super-scorer like Russell Westbrook. Teague's 4.9 assists per game in 2011-12 are a bit underwhelming, but it’s not bad considering how much Johnson and even Smith dominated the ball in the half court. But even in his hybrid role last year, Teague showed good feel for knowing how to occupy the defense’s attention then pass off the dribble.

That’s going to come in handy this season, when he’s surrounded by a full stable of shooters.

The second (and third) gunman
A spread pick-and-roll is only as effective if the shooters pose a real threat to the defense. Enter lights-out gunners Kyle Korver, Anthony Morrow and rookie John Jenkins. Heck, even Devin Harris, who will likely share the backcourt with Teague in a two point-guard lineup along the lines of the Andre Miller-Ty Lawson pairing in Denver, shot 39 percent on spot-up 3-pointers last season.

HoopSpeak's Brett Koremenos has a theory I really like called “The Rule of Three,” which boils down to the idea that it’s much easier to have a really efficient NBA offense if at least three shooters are on the court at once. That doesn’t mean 3-point shooters, necessarily, which means Al Horford’s reliable long-2 game counts. Zaza Pachulia is decent from there, as well. After general manager Danny Ferry’s run on 3-point bombers, the Hawks have enough shooting depth to keep the corner-3 battlements manned at all times.

High on the High-Low
Al Horford and Josh Smith might be a little undersized for a starting front court, but they complement each other wonderfully in a pick-and-roll offense. Criticisms about Smith’s shot selection are deserved, but there’s no doubt he is one of the elite finishers in the NBA. Even though he’s listed at 6-foot-9, Smith stretches the floor vertically in a manner similar to 7-footers like Tyson Chandler. The threat of Smith catching on the move, whether it’s a lob or a bounce pass en route to the rim, can cause defenses to sink into the paint even before the ball is passed his way.

Meanwhile, Horford (a skilled finisher himself) is a deadly pick-and-pop player who can command attention even 18 feet from the rim, not unlike what Chris Bosh often does for Miami in secondary pick-and-roll actions. What’s more, both bigs are good passers and ball handlers that can be trusted to find cutters and shooters as the defense scrambles.

Filling the void
Stat guru Bradford Doolittle projects Atlanta to come in second in the East next year in large part because Johnson’s long jump shots will be replaced by more efficient shots like free throws and 3-pointers. Of course, Doolittle also expects Atlanta to win fewer games than they did last year (by percentage), perhaps because, despite getting Horford back, there are serious questions about whether this team can again be a top-10 defensive outfit.

But the departure of Joe Johnson is also a fresh opportunity for Atlanta’s team offense -- and especially Jeff Teague. If Atlanta’s personnel moves are an indication of the team’s on-court philosophy, we will see the 2012-13 Hawks evolve toward a more exciting and efficient style of offense.
Beckley Mason is an NBA contributor for ESPN.com.

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