At 37-8, the once-middling Atlanta Hawks have the second-best record in the NBA. If they beat Brooklyn tonight, they’ll match last season’s win total with more than two months to go in the regular season. Did anyone see this coming? Yes, last year’s Hawks snuck into the playoffs and nearly knocked off the top-seeded Indiana Pacers. And observers should have noted the significant number of games the Hawks’ top players missed due to injuries last season; a healthy team couldn’t help but be better. But this much better? The most important difference seems to be a new coach, former Greg Popovich understudy Mike Budenholzer, who knows how to utilize the players he has, and a group of players that is on board with and executing their brand of team-oriented basketball.
Indeed, as numerous writers have observed,* Atlanta is scoring more by passing more. They have the fourth-best field-goal percentage, and of those field goals they make, more than sixty percent of the two-pointers and nearly ninety-three percent of the threes are assisted. Both of those rates lead the NBA. Behind them: the equally high-flying Warriors, the only team with a better record (36-7).
The principle that passing, rather than isolation play, is the best way to generate good shooting in the NBA also seems to apply in the NHL, where new research indicates that teams generally score at a higher rate on assisted shots as compared to unassisted shots. When further breaking down the assisted shooting percentage into shots generated by one pass and shots generated by two passes, the difference between assisted and unassisted shooting percentage can be extreme. One example is the Florida Panthers, with an unassisted shooting percentage of about 5.5% and a two-pass assisted shooting percentage of nearly thirteen percent.
It probably shouldn’t be surprising that similar strategies would be similarly effective in generally similar sports (five active players per team engaged in free-flowing gameplay). With camera-driven player-tracking technology recently implemented in the NBA and on its way to the NHL, perhaps the rudimentary analogy set forth above can serve as a call for inter-sport collaboration between basketball and hockey analysts.
* Blogger code for, “I can’t find the article I previously read that made my precise point, so get ready for me to wave my hands over the raw data and hope you’ll buy the general premise.”