Breaking down The Hawks’ high-flying start
Early season mirages aren’t uncommon in the NBL. Do The Hawks fit into that category, or are they for real?
Credit: Russell Freeman Photography
Hot starts that don’t end up as the basis of a successful season shouldn’t be surprising to us. Small sample sizes and variability within the sport leave a lot of room for potentially unsustainable success.
Look no further than last season’s South East Melbourne Phoenix, who opened their campaign winning five of their first seven games. They looked like fringe title contenders a quarter of the way through the season to many of us. The Phoenix then went on to lose 17 of their final 21, and by season’s end, we realised that their early success was nothing more than a mirage.
The follow-up question which needs to be asked is obvious: is there a version of that Phoenix team in this year’s NBL? Sitting at 4-0 after many during the preseason (including me) viewed them as a non-playoff team, the [REDACTED] Hawks are the obvious candidate.
Through four games, the Hawks are dominating teams on both ends. Per Spatial Jam, they’re posting a ridiculous point differential of +16.2 points per 100 possessions. As it stands, their defensive rating is around 8 points per 100 possessions better than last year’s Sydney Kings, who were NBL20’s best defensive team by a mile.
Without a doubt, those are highly impressive numbers. But so were South East Melbourne’s.
When you only use the eye test, it’s easy to see how the Hawks can diverge from last season’s Phoenix and maintain their excellent numbers.
For starters, coach/GOAT Brian Goorjian has his squad more prepared and better drilled for each game than any team in the league. No group has played as hard, or with as much attention to detail thus far. One listen to a Goorjian timeout or press conference, and you’ll see why. The man exudes knowledge, tenacity, and determination. He demands, and gets, the very best out of his playing group. Hearing him talk about Diet Coke makes me want to run through a brick wall wearing my panic-bought LaMelo Ball Hawks jersey.
Their effort and attention to detail is especially prevalent on the defensive end. The tenacity Goorjian has riled out of his role players — in particular, Justin Simon, AJ Ogilvy, and Isaac White — has set the tone for his team’s defensive attitude. They scamper after every loose ball and hound ball-handlers relentlessly. They have been by far and away the most active team in the league on that end.
To add to that grit, Goorjian has his team doing all the simple, small stuff that all adds up. They hardly ever miss a rotation, their help defence is superb, and they follow the scouting report diligently.
As a simple example of these attributes in one play, check out how effortlessly they defended Cairns’ Spain pick and roll action.
Ogilvy steps up to take away the Machado drive, and Harvey sinks back to take away the Oliver roll. In the meantime, Simon hounds Machado and only gives him the option of throwing a bounce pass, giving Harvey just enough time to recover to Djeric. Lesser teams struggle to deal with any action involving all three of Machado, Djeric, and Oliver. The Hawks defused it easily and forced a turnover.
Because they’re so well drilled and because they play so hard, they’re able to toggle between schemes without hesitation. Look no further than how they’ve discombobulated the Taipans’ offence with their zone and traps.
Just being well-drilled and exerting energy doesn’t take care of everything on defence, though. You need good defensive players, for a start. Through four games, this appears to be the case — with Cam Bairstow currently out of the lineup, the Hawks have no glaringly obvious weak points defensively.
This wasn’t the conclusion many of us reached during the offseason. I, for one, thought that their frontcourt would struggle and that they simply didn’t have a deep enough stable of quality perimeter defenders to succeed. Instead, Goorjian has squeezed the most possible defensive value out of all of his troops, and any roster worries appear unfounded.
With Goorjian steering the ship, a bunch of Hawks are significantly exceeding the expectations I had for them on the defensive end. Ogilvy’s bounce-back has, in particular, been ridiculously good. His activity is way up on past seasons. He is getting back to the 2013-16 version of himself who terrorised offences every week.
Deng Deng meanwhile, in Bairstow’s absence, has emerged as a two-way threat who can cover a variety of body types with his length and lateral quickness. Sam Froling, despite being a poor defender last year, now looks locked in under Goorjian. He’s not a stopper, but he's certainly not a minus with his foot speed, strength, and smarts. To pile on, despite being a scrawny shooting guard, Isaac White has been a ball of scrappy energy off the bench, more than holding his own.
And that’s all without mentioning Justin Simon, perhaps the scariest defender I’ve ever seen play in the NBL. Simon’s officially 6’5’’, but he plays like he’s 6’9’’ with eight limbs. He can switch on to anyone but does his best work tormenting ball-handlers, where he makes opposition guards sweat out every dribble.
Peak Damian Martin is the best defender the NBL has seen, but he definitely wasn’t scarier than Simon. There’s an element of Spurs-era Kawhi Leonard to him — he shares his ability to make ball-handlers look like they’re 8 years old.
Remember how Kawhi did this to Ben McLemore?
This is what Simon did to poor Anthony Drmic.
I feel genuine sorrow for anyone who has to dribble in his vicinity.
With Simon leading the way and a pack of hungry, competent compatriots surrounding him defensively, it’s hard to see how the Hawks could see significant regression on that end with the naked eye.
On the other end of the court, being so well-drilled has benefited them equally. Even without fully integrating Adel or Bairstow, they have cobbled together an exciting offence which, at times, looks unstoppable. To my eyes, without Adel and Bairstow, Goorjian’s Hawks have three central ingredients contributing to their offensive success.
First, there’s their work in transition. Given the pressure they’re able to put on the point of attack, it shouldn’t surprise you that The Hawks, as of publishing (February 1), are the league’s most prolific transition team. 15.4% of The Hawks’ offensive possessions have come in transition, per jordanmcnbl.com. With Adel back in tow, Simon still wreaking havoc, and Tyler Harvey jetting up and down the court, I wouldn’t expect The Hawks to fall from that perch.
When they’re restricted to the halfcourt, their off-ball brilliance comes into play — the second core facet of their offence. In my estimation, Goorjian’s Hawks have shown a level of off-ball mastery bested only by the Wildcats. The Hawks have bludgeoned the Bullets and Taipans with exceedingly simple but extremely well-executed off-ball movement. Goorjian’s men cut with purpose; they rarely waste a movement with a lazy jog. As a result, their go-to sets are remarkably have been remarkably hard to guard.
The ring leader of that off-ball devastation is Harvey (who makes up the third ingredient of their offence by himself). Harvey is the second shiftiest player in the league already, trailing just Bryce Cotton. If his defender naps for a second, he notices it immediately. If a defender tries to deny him the ball, he’ll shake them out of their boots, making them look like toddlers learning how to walk. He’s truly mesmerising to watch.
The rest of the Tyler Harvey show is just as fascinating. He seems to get his floater off in whatever situation he wants and can create space for himself off the dribble whenever he wants to. In an albeit small sample size, he is scoring at an elite rate of 1.11 points per possession in isolation thus far, per jordanmcnbl.com. He has shown nothing through four games to suggest that he can't be the number one option on a great offence.
But do the Hawks actually have a great offence? Do they actually have a great defence? As we’ve established, the eye test absolutely says yes. But to figure out our initial question, we have to look past the film and past the 4-0 record. To do that, we have to look even deeper into the numbers. Once you do that, the Hawks’ hot start begins to look a bit like a…
The biggest indication that their success isn’t entirely what it seems relates to their shot distribution numbers. Simply put, the Hawks are taking a disproportionately low percentage of their field goal attempts from the most desirable areas on the court (the rim and from three). On the other hand, they’re giving up a ton of shots from those same zones:
The fact that 47.2% of opponent shot attempts are coming from deep is especially concerning for an elite defence. Goorjian’s Hawks seem perfectly happy giving up lightly contested threes. Against the Bullets, they went under Anthony Drmic and Nathan Sobey ball screens bizarrely often.
So why are the Hawks succeeding on both ends despite their shot attempt distribution not being ideal? Simply put, their three-point shooting numbers have been unsustainably favourable.
For our purposes, opponents shooting way above average in the paint and mid-range areas of the court is insignificant — the Hawks are giving up basically no shots from those zones anyway.
What is significant is that the Hawks are making nearly 40% of their threes, while their opponents are shooting in the mid-20s. Both of those things are unsustainable. Yes, the Hawks’ perimeter defence has been awesome, and they’ve got a bunch of good shooters in their lineup. But the reality is that three-point shooting is incredibly variable and relies a lot on luck, especially defensively. Opponents will simply not continue to shoot 25-ish% from deep for the remainder of the season.
If those percentages do indeed edge closer to the mean, the Hawks are in trouble. If they don’t change their shot distribution numbers, they’re in danger of giving up a huge math advantage to their opponents week in, week out.
There are other statistical anomalies within the Hawks’ fast start, too. In particular, their turnover rate through four games is absurdly low. According to Spatial Jam, the lowest turnover percentage in league history was recorded last year’s Wildcats at 10.6%. In recent NBL history, most teams have tended to be in the 13-14% range. This year’s Hawks are at 8.4%. The Hawks take care of the ball and don’t do a lot of overdribbling (especially since they’re so great off the ball). Still, their turnover rate so far is too low to not be some sort of outlier.
This is not to say that there aren’t causes for Hawks optimism, though. Their best two-way player in Deng Adel has played less than half an hour across three rounds. Cam Bairstow is in the same boat. Adding two guys with NBA experience is seldomly ever anything other than a boon.
Not to mention, the Hawks have been stuck in Queensland this entire time! They’re yet to play a home game. The next part of their schedule should be fairly favourable.
And even better than that there’s this: they’ve got a bunch of great players, they are really well coached, and they’re already four games above .500. That’s a handy place to be and not a bad safety net to fall back on if they start to regress.
Ultimately, it’s too early to tell if the Hawks are indeed the contenders they’ve made themselves out to be thus far. That’s the beauty of small sample sizes. Only time will tell if they’re this year’s version of the 2019-20 Phoenix or another team to add to the Goorjian pantheon.