The Blame Game: What’s wrong with the NBA’s most disappointing teams

Dec 9, 2022; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) and Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert (27) battle in the first half at Vivint Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports
Dec 9, 2022; Salt Lake City, Utah, USA; Utah Jazz center Walker Kessler (24) and Minnesota Timberwolves center Rudy Gobert (27) battle in the first half at Vivint Arena. Mandatory Credit: Jeffrey Swinger-USA TODAY Sports /
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Dejounte Murray Atlanta Hawks
Dejounte Murray (5) and guard Trae Young (11)NBA-USA TODAY Sports /

NBA: Atlanta Hawks: Free Throws

The Hawks are 13-13 but have lost seven of their last ten. Their once-promising power forward, John Collins, has become an afterthought’s afterthought in the offense (a paltry 14.3% usage rate and eighth on the team in FGA/36 minutes). The coach and the star player are fighting. And the team’s two guards have quickly become the least-likable duo in the league. The vibes are maculate.

On the court, however, there is a clear culprit on both sides of the ball: fouls, and the lack thereof.

The Hawks are simultaneously hacking the heck out of opponents and shying away from contact like a scared puppy, which is a bad combination. They only accumulate 21.2 FTA per game while giving up 25.2. Assuming a 75% free throw percentage, Atlanta is starting every game with a three-point deficit.

Defensively, there’s not much to analyze. There just aren’t a lot of good team defenders in the rotation right now. Dejounte Murray is an excellent point-of-attack bulldog, but Trae might be the worst defender in the league.

Jalen Johnson and AJ Griffin (who’s shown flashes!) are still learning how to play NBA defense, De’Andre Hunter can be frustratingly inconsistent tracking his man off the ball and a little too eager on the ball, John Collins and Onyeka Okongwu get pushed around and have to foul out of necessity. Clint Capela remains very good but has lost a half-step; he can’t make up for everything. There are a lot of scramble situations that lead to disadvantaged help defenders.

Fouling can be coached up when emphasized, but Atlanta’s defense hasn’t really been the issue this NBA year. Instead, their offense has suffocated from a lack of free points. Trae Young is averaging over eight free throws per game, a very strong number, but nobody else on the roster is garnering more than De’Andre Hunter’s 3.5 freebies.

Here’s a damning stat: Dejounte Murray is currently 28th in the league in drives, attempting twelve per game, but he’s averaging the fewest free throw attempts on an absolute and per-drive basis of all twenty-eight players! Despite his condor-sized wingspan and quick first step, Murray has trouble getting all the way to the rim and rises up for floaters at the first hint of contact.

He has a nice teardrop in his bag, but it’s not nearly as reliable as, say, shooting free throws (especially since he shoots almost 84% from the line!). I wouldn’t say Murray is soft, exactly; he’s a hellacious on-ball defender, and he has no lack of confidence. But he sure has a few marshmallow tendencies.

The design of the team’s offense limits the number of free throw opportunities for everyone else. Trae and Dejounte have the ball, and everyone else is expected to shoot immediately after catching it. The role players are almost exclusively rim-runners or spot-up shooters, and neither of those archetypes generates many free throws.

And that’s the problem. The team shoots more mid-rangers than the rest of the league by a mile (a shot type that rarely creates free throws) and never gets to the rim, where most shooting fouls occur. An archaic offensive system that revolves around one-pass-and-shoot possessions (the Hawks make the fewest passes per game in the league) will almost always generate mediocre looks and few free throws.

The good news for Atlanta faithful: Nate McMillan has to stand up, his seat is so hot. If Nate is replaced, some easy tweaks should be made to open things up a little. Murray will never generate free throws, but a more egalitarian offense can open up the floor and allow someone other than the guards to occasionally drive the ball. And this won’t help with the free throws, but if the team is going to shoot a million jumpers, can they at least stand two feet further back?