Expanding the Range in Atlanta

Posted by Kevin Arnovitz

Kevin Pelton at Basketball Prospectus was a little skeptical of the Atlanta Hawks' early success:

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.

But at 20-10, the Hawks have proven their staying power and warrant a closer examination by Pelton. So what accounts for the improvement? Pelton concludes that the Hawks' surge -- as well as that of some other teams that have increased their win totals -- might be traced to the "the percentage of the team's field-goal attempts that have come from beyond the arc." More from Pelton:

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?

...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.