Hawks Hustle To Grab Top Spot In Offensive Rebounding
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Story by KL Chouinard
In a team session late in November, Lloyd Pierce unleashed the hounds.
"We need to pick it up," Pierce told his team.
At that point in the season, the Hawks had done little on the offensive glass relative to other NBA teams. With an offensive rebounding percentage hovering around 24 percent, the Hawks ranked 27th among the 30 NBA teams at that moment.
"He said that we need to put up more of a fight," center Alex Len said. "Before that (meeting), our focus was on getting back and setting up our defense."
While setting up the defense is still a priority for the perimeter players, the interior players have been freed to take their shots at hunting offensive rebounds. It also helped that their best offensive rebounder from the previous season, John Collins, got healthy and rejoined the starting lineup around the same time.
What has happened since then is nothing short of a revelation. Collins has averaged 3.5 offensive rebounds per game, a top-10 mark in the NBA. Len ranks 26th among all NBA players in total offensive rebounds, despite coming off the bench for most of the season (and playing fewer minutes than all of the 25 players ranked ahead of him.) The result? The Hawks have been the top offensive rebounding team in the league since Dec. 1, rebounding 32 percent of their own misses.
"I think it's just a mentality, first and foremost," Pierce said when asked about the turnaround.
Perhaps Collins has best embodied that frame of mind. It has become a routine sight to see Collins doing his thing on the offensive glass with multiple jumps. If he doesn't get the ball on the first attempt, he often tips the ball loose and keeps the ball free from the grasp of opposing players until he can get it on a second or third leap.
Collins' proficiency has gotten to the point where Pierce has noticed a change in how teams approach the task of boxing Collins out. Where it used to be one player trying to limit him, now it is often two – or occasionally three. When Collins snatched the ball from three opponents earlier this month, it led to this sideline exchange with Pierce when he left the game for a breather.
Pierce said that there is another factor in play as well, one that might not seem obvious at first glance.
"We have a unique situation where all four of our bigs can shoot: Alex, Dewayne, John and Omari," Pierce said.
How does one connect the dots from shooting to offensive rebounds? A number of NBA teams use switching defenses on pick-and-roll plays and dribble handoffs, in part, to deal with big men who can shoot. One counter to switching defenses is to find the big man being guarded by a smaller player and try to make a post play out of it. Pierce said that is not a focus for the Hawks.
"(Our philosophy) is not, 'Let's post them'. It's 'Let's keep it moving. Let's keep the ball moving. Let's keep our offense moving.' "
Instead of hunting a post mismatch, the Hawks look to punish switching defenses on the offensive glass. It is a tactic that is especially potent with Trae Young on the ball. If he is being guarded by a bigger player, he can often drive to the hoop for a shot around the rim. If it goes in, great. If not, it produces the softer type of rebound that typically lands in the hands of someone near the rim.
"When they switch," Pierce said, "we have their smalls trying to keep our bigs off the glass, and our guys have done a great job mentally taking advantage of that."
The Hawks have become a more efficient team with the extra possessions. Prior to Dec. 1, the Hawks had a 5-18 record. Since that turning point, the Hawks have gone 14-21. There is still much work to be done. To truly be a team that generates more possessions that their opponents, the Hawks still need to do other things, like limiting turnovers, which they commit at a rate well above league average. In the meantime though, the Hawks have given themselves a second chance on their season using, appropriately enough, second chances.