After the Sixers jumped out to a surprising 3-0 start, point guard Michael Carter-Williams deservedly received much of the publicity. The rookie introduced his tantalizing skill set to the NBA by leading the Sixers to wins over two title contenders, the Miami Heat and Chicago Bulls.
Yet the Sixers were also aided by other strong performances. Near the top of that list is center Spencer Hawes, who through five games has slapped together an impressive 17-11-3 line on 58 percent shooting, 50 percent from beyond the arc.
Hawes’ three-point shooting has been the biggest revelation. During the first six years of his NBA career, Hawes never shot more than 1.8 threes per 36 minutes, and even that total came back in 2008-09 as a member of the Sacramento Kings. So far this year, he’s shooting over four threes per-36.
Under Doug Collins, Hawes largely eschewed three-pointers for jump shots from 16-23 feet, the “long two.” During the last two seasons, he attempted more shots from this range than anywhere else on the floor, per Hoopdata.
As a general rule of thumb, players shouldn’t take this shot in bulk because it’s the most inefficient one. There are some exceptions (Kevin Garnett, Dirk Nowitzki, and Chris Bosh to name a few), but Hawes is not one of them. He shot a career-low 36 percent from 16-23 feet last year, despite taking over three per game.
Brett Brown has done something that can seem counterintuitive on the surface: He’s instructed Hawes to take a step back. Early on, the move has paid big dividends. When Hawes is on the floor, the Sixers are scoring a blistering 123 points per 100 possessions through four games.
How is this being accomplished? For one, Hawes is knocking down half of his three-pointers. That won’t continue, but he does have a chance to improve on last year’s career-high 36 percent mark from deep. As long as Hawes is at least a threat from long distance, the Sixers have the ability to space the floor, a major problem the last few years. Hawes has done a lot of his damage as the screener in the pick and roll/pop so far, scoring 1.53 points per possession according to mySynergySports. He’s always been a “pick and pop” player, preferring to flare out for a jumper after setting a screen. Brown’s system has played to his strengths:
The Bulls are extremely difficult to run pick and rolls against, and inside the box is their trademark coverage, “Ice.” More times than not, one of those two offensive players inside the box will shoot the ball. The Bulls instruct their other three defenders to offer minimal help.
The point guard’s defender, Derrick Rose, has one job: Keep Carter-Williams on the left side and steer him into the help defender. Joakim Noah, waiting at the foul line extended, is ready to corral Carter-Williams.
Rose does his job successfully, as you can see in the second picture. There’s one major problem, though: Hawes is behind the three-point line, where he’s a threat.
The main goal of “Ice” is to surrender one of those inefficient long two-point jump shots to a big man not particularly proficient in making them, like Hawes last year.
So far, in an admittedly small sample, Hawes is using the three-point line as a weapon. On this play, he has time to knock down the shot. Additionally, in the game’s final minute, Hawes hit a dagger after getting Noah to bite on a pump-faked three-pointer. Here’s the first play in real time:
Another popular NBA set that utilizes Hawes’ newfound three-point range is “Horns,” even though the Sixers haven’t featured it very much yet. On this play, the two big men are stationed near the top of the three-point line and the two wings are in each corner.
In the screenshot above, Carter-Williams can elect to use either Hawes or Thaddeus Young’s screen at the top of the key.
Carter-Williams decides to go right and run pick and roll with Young. While Young’s defender, Trevor Booker, is preoccupied with containing Carter-Williams’ penetration, Young dives straight to the rim.
The floor is spaced properly, and Marcin Gortat has to rotate in front of Young in order to prevent an easy layup. When Carter-Williams sees this progression and swings the ball to Hawes at the top of the key, Gortat’s momentum is still carrying him the other way. And with James Anderson in the left corner, Bradley Beal also can’t reach Hawes in time. The big man knocks down a huge three.
The main reason I suspect that the Sixers haven’t run a ton of “Horns” yet is because Brown first wants the team to master some of the basics of the “4-out, 1-in” motion offense he’s brought over from San Antonio. “Vanilla offense,” as the coach puts it. Schematically, there’s only one major difference between the two alignments: One of the two big men near the top of the key in “Horns” would be stationed on the block at the beginning of the motion attack. The wings are still in each corner. Even though the big men are interchangeable in “4-out, 1-in,” Hawes has been at his best as the “trailer” outside the three-point line. His role is somewhat similar to the one Matt Bonner plays for the Spurs. Bonner (2012-13 shot chart on top) has made a living on above-the-break threes. Hawes (this season’s shot chart on the bottom) is starting to get comfortable there.
Hawes isn’t the sniper Bonner is, nor does he have Tony Parker spoon-feeding him open looks. Still, he’s a better overall player and much better passer. As a screener, Hawes can make plays for his teammates if Carter-Williams is trapped. This happened a lot in the season opener:
On this play, both Norris Cole and Chris Bosh “blitz” the ball screen. Miami’s aggressive pick and roll coverage wants to get the ball out of the point guard’s hands, forcing the screener to try to beat their quick rotations on the back line. Many big men struggle making quick decisions on the move. Not Hawes, as passing is one of his strengths.
With LeBron James and Dwyane Wade out of the game, it’s a bit easier for Hawes to make a decision after slipping the screen to the foul line. But against this type of aggressive defense, there’s always going to be one open man.
Both Rashard Lewis and Ray Allen crash into the paint, leaving Hawes with the choice of Anderson on the wing or Evan Turner in the corner. Even though Turner eventually misses the open three, he proved capable of making that shot last year. Brown will take that type of look every trip down the floor. Here's the video of the play in real time:
It’s not clear how Spencer Hawes will fare the rest of the year, but it does seems like his offensive skill set is finally being maximized. That’s a positive development.
Bob Cooney has been at the Daily News for more than 20 years, working in the sports department for the past 15. This is his third season on the Sixers beat. He has covered just about everything, but mostly college basketball, where he was the La Salle beat writer for six seasons. E-mail Bob at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.