Illawarra Hawks’ early struggles highlight roster and rotation challenges

The Illawarra Hawks were fortunate to have hung around with the Bullets for most of Sunday night’s clash at the WIN Entertainment Center, despite shooting so poorly.

The team as a whole, shot 37% from the field, a woeful 16% from beyond the arc and 62% from the charity stripe. They struggled not only hit shots, but even generating good shot opportunities were a battle.

A lot of the blame has been placed on the shot selection of star guards LaMelo Ball and Aaron Brooks, who went a combined 13 of 37 from the field, but factors leading to this statistic should put the onus less on the pair, and more on the wider context of roster makeup, and even lineup decisions.

A tale of two bigs

On Sunday, the Hawks' starting lineup included Emmett Naar, a guard that’s playing out of position at the 2 and averaged 9.2 points per 36 minutes last season.

More importantly, they ran a dual big man lineup featuring Josh Boone, a non-shooter, and AJ Ogilvy, a traditional 5 man who shot 31.1% from 3 on 0.7 attempts per game in the 2018/19 season. This left the team’s starting group looking decidedly archaic, and generated two two major issues for the Hawks' offence.

Starting a traditional, slower front court in Boone and Ogilvy drastically reduced the offensive pace of play. The team features a young point guard (Ball) that excels in transition, and this lineup sacrificed pace and transition opportunities.

The second issue? Spacing.

A whopping 25% of Illawarra’s possessions on Sunday night resulted in an isolation type shot, which isn't a surprise. It’s hard to blame the team’s fallback shot creators when the the primary unit's spacing is dire. It results in poor quality driving lanes, and allows defences to really key in on them. Not only that, many of their shot attempts were also the result of late shot clock attempts.

The team's trying to manufacture some spacing with Ogilvy, but his 68.1% free throw rate from last season doesn’t inspire potential on unlocking this aspect of his game. To be fair, Ogilvy did hit one of his two threes against the Bullets, but it’s a ‘prove you can make it’ look that’s not helping spacing out on the floor. This lineup flaw could be overlooked if the team was packed with perimeter threats, but the starting lineup went a combined 1/10 from behind the arc. (That’s right, Ogilvy had their only 3-point make.)

The first unit also struggled defensively, hobbling out to a 7-18 deficit halfway through the first quarter. The NBL has followed in the footsteps of the NBA's small ball era, and the Brisbane Bullets are about as small as you can get, running the 6’7 Taylor Braun, a conventional small forward at the 4 instead. This clash of conventions appeared to sway in the favour of Brisbane - they were able to deal effective damage from the three-point line (12 of 31, good for 38%). The extra mobility, ball-handling and passing acumen from having an extra perimeter player on the floor helped them accrue 21 assists for the game, as opposed to Illawarra’s 14. While the extra size did help the Hawks gain a +5 rebounding advantage, the cons definitely outweighed the pros.

Ogilvy’s presence at the four presented the greatest mismatch. He was exploited in pick and roll situations and left at a disadvantage, especially when keeping up with guys on the perimeter. This issue is compounded by the Hawks featuring two guards with exceptionally poor defensive reputations in LaMelo Ball and Aaron Brooks. Coupled together, these two issues spelt disaster for the Hawks' hopes on getting defensive stops.

These observations may appear to be a slight on AJ Ogilvy, but it’s more a knock on him being misused. The 31 year old centre has been a solid NBL piece for years now. With last season's per 36 numbers at 16.3 points, 11.5 rebounds, 3.1 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.9 blocks, Ogilvy has all the potential to be a productive piece as a starting centre in this league. It’s with that in mind that the signing of Josh Boone appears to be such a problematic one. Boone is a proven NBL veteran in his own right, and in a vacuum an excellent signing, but it forced the hand of coach Matt Flinn to slide him over to the power forward position, in an effort to maximize the court time of his two best front court pieces.

Unfortunately, it’s not working, and neither player is being used to their potential. In the home opener, Boone had 2 points in 14 minutes, whilst Ogilvy accrued a more commendable 13 points in 21 minutes. More importantly, it’s clear the starting lineup is in need of wholesale changes. Every starter was in double-digit negative plus/minus bar Ogilvy (at -7), while all bench players except Angus Glover (-2 in 2:33 of play) achieved positive plus/minus despite the team’s 9-point loss.

Potential lineup changes

Ball and Brooks to start?

With such promising depth, it’s a wonder that coach Flinn has not toyed with the starting lineup more. It’s even more confusing when they have the team’s best player and most devastating shooter, Aaron Brooks, coming off the bench. Despite the move being supposedly of Brooks’ own accord, it’s now time for the import to step into the spotlight from tip off.

There is merit to the notion that Ball and Brooks’ minutes should be staggered, to allow both of them to act as the primary initiator. As mentioned earlier, this could be a nightmare on the defensive end, but the duo are by far the team's two best guards. Brooks still works best sprinkled into the second unit at times, but the Hawks cannot afford any more slow starts, and starting their best player should help that cause.

Should Grida start instead?

The team's in dire need of athleticism, defence and shooting right now, and it may not be out of the question for Dan Grida to get consideration to start at the two spot. Grida came off the bench for nine points, four rebounds, a steal and two blocks in 14 minutes of play, and most importantly turned the tide of the game with his tenacity on defence and overall hustle.

As Brad Winter noted in his article on the young star last month, Grida is a talented shooter, rivaled in volume and efficiency by only five other players in the league, and set the highest defensive rating on the team last year. He also possesses the athleticism to run the court and leak out for transition opportunities alongside LaMelo Ball. If the Hawks are adamant about Aaron Brook’s sixth man title, Grida should be a shoo-in for the starting two guard spot.

Reshuffling the front court

We return to the aforementioned front court dilemma. Ogilvy undoubtedly deserves a large role on the team, but it would appear best for either Boone or himself to step into a role off the bench.

The Hawks have numerous power forward options to go with, but I would advocate for the starting of veteran sharpshooter Tim Coenraad. Despite the ripe old age of 34, Coenraad just came off a season posting the highest scoring rate on the team outside of now-departed import Brian Conklin, scoring 18.9 points per 36 on an uber-efficient TS% of 59.4.

Between Coenraad and fellow shooter Todd Blanchfield, the Hawks would have an elite spacing forward combination, a legitimate pick and pop threat, and much greater room in the paint for pick and roll action.

While Andrew Gaze was correct in stating that “you see signs they are doing it individually rather than [as a] collective”, the Hawks might be in much better position to do so with a more functional and balanced starting lineup.

The Bench

Another point of issue for coach Flinn to iron out in the coming rounds, is just what he’s planning to do with his depth. Against Brisbane on Sunday, Flinn seemingly took the ‘throw [stuff] against the wall and see what sticks’ mentality to his bench minutes, playing a total of 12 guys.

Whilst the Hawks are blessed with the luxury of a deep glut of solid young players, not having a more refined rotation at this point is not doing anyone any favours. Consider this: Angus Glover hit the court for a total of 2:33, Sunday Dech 2:48, Sam Froling 8:07, and veteran David Andersen 4:21. There’s no consistency in lineups or chemistry, and no one player is allowed the freedom to explore their ability and build confidence out on the court.

It’s a predicament for Matt Flinn. Does he leave proven veteran Andersen on the bench, or explore Sam Froling's ample talent? Who deserves minutes between Sunday Dech and Angus Glover? I don’t think there’s any clear cut answer looking from the outside in, but it seems both ineffective and unsustainable to try and continue to cover all bases with his rotation.

How Illawarra's third import could change things

It’s easy to critique coach Flinn for his lineup choices, but ultimately, he’s been dealt a tough hand. This Hawks roster has a confused identity, and it’s tough to see what the overall vision was, with the semblance of pieces we see as the roster today. There is simply no answer that manages to tick all the boxes when it comes improving the defence, shooting and pace of the starting lineup, all whilst attempting to maintain an effective and balanced bench unit.

While many of these are beyond fixing with a singular roster change, it’s pertinent to remember that the Hawks have their third import allowance up their sleeve, and if they plan to exercise that right as the season goes on, it could really change the dynamic of this team.

The potential addition of a more conventional four who can ideally run the floor, shoot the three, and play defence could transform the way the starting lineup plays. By providing Ball with a superior athlete and shooter offensively, the group could achieve the spacing required for its lead guards to excel, and for Boone or Ogilvy to operate in the paint at the 5, as well as get out and run like any LaMelo Ball-led team is at its best doing.

Alternatively, if the Hawks feel comfortable with their existing options at the power forward spot, they could bring in an athletic 3-and-D import wing. This addresses the spacing issue with players like Coenraad at the 4, and provides a clear cut starting 2-guard piece who can get out and run with Ball, and help shore up the abysmal back court defence.

While Illawarra always have their salary constraints, it should be emphasized that neither piece need be a star. The Hawks already have two bona fide shot creators and facilitators in Brooks and Ball - the addition needs only be strong in his role.

With only two teams rolling with two imports this season --the other being the Sydney Kings, who are stacked with talent regardless-- it’s hard to justify the Hawks, clearly at a disadvantage both in pure roster talent and fit, not exploring this option - particularly when one of their best players, LaMelo Ball, is getting paid for by the league. With ticket prices on the up to capitalise on the attention their league-sponsored attraction is warranting, the least the club can do is maximise their avenues to provide a roster that could actually be competitive this season.

Either way, the Hawks need to make some changes, because the current lineups are not working. Whilst the team fought valiantly to stay within reach of the game on Sunday night, they could be a lot better. Coach Flinn will have to be creative with the lineups he rolls out to connect his awkwardly fitting puzzle pieces. Improvement could mean alleviating the difficulty put upon creators like Ball and Brooks, while finding a way to compete with other teams from behind the arc.

If nothing changes, and the Hawks continue to shoot like they did on Sunday, it's likely they’re not winning many games this season.

*Statistics referenced via SpatialJam.