Thursday, October 27, 2016

2016 Atlanta Hawks Season Preview

It's the start of a new NBA season and that means it's time for the annual low expectations for the Atlanta Hawks. During the season premiere of Inside the NBA, Charles Barkley emphatically declared that the Hawks will miss the playoffs this season. Doesn't Barkley do that every year?

ESPN.com currently ranks the Hawks fifth in the Eastern Conference and 13th in the league although NBA.com ranks Atlanta fourth in conference and a surprising eighth in the league. Last season I had outsized expectations for the Hawks with the caveat of a healthy Tiago Splitter. That remains one of the biggest questions facing the Hawks, and Splitter's uncertain health led to the extraordinary step of waiving Jarrett Jack's fully-guaranteed contract for just under $1 million. The Hawks opted to go with only two point guards entering the season so the team could keep both Mike Muscala and Edy Tavares to bolster the front court depth.

My expectations for the Hawks are more modest this season: 50 wins. But that's still higher than most projections. A healthy Splitter last season wouldn't have put the Hawks anywhere near the preceding 60-win season, but just one additional win would have given the Hawks a top three seed and consecutive division championships for the first time in franchise history. Atlanta would have also avoided the Cavaliers in the playoffs unless the teams met in a rematch of the Eastern Conference Finals.


Would a healthy Splitter have allowed the Hawks to win 49 games instead of 48? I believe so. But the Hawks had plenty of chances to pick up that extra win. As I've mentioned, the Hawks are 4-15 over the last two seasons in games that were within a single basket at the end of regulation, including a current nine-game losing streak in overtime games that dates back to Nov. 7, 2014.

The Hawks also had an opportunity to get that 49th win in the season finale against a Wizards team resting four starters. Instead, Atlanta turned in an embarrassing performance with the starters ranging from Al Horford's -10 to Kent Bazemore's -24. In the first round series against the Celtics, ace defender Avery Bradley was limited to 33 minutes due to injury. The Hawks prevailed in six games against Boston but had to face the eventual champion Cavaliers in the second round since they mailed it in against the Wizards in the season finale.

The Hawks were swept in four games by the Cavaliers for the second season in a row, but there were signs of improvement. The Hawks held fourth quarter leads in three of four games but simply couldn't close out and win one. Among Hawks to play at least 100 minutes in the series, Bazemore, Horford and Jeff Teague were clearly the worst performers. Atlanta was outscored by a series-worst 27.8 points per 100 possessions with Bazemore on court while Horford (-25.9) and Teague (-24.4) weren't much better. Two of those players, Horford and Teague, are gone, while Bazemore was rewarded with a massive four-year, $70 million contract.

Horford decided he had a better chance to win by signing with the Boston Celtics. The Hawks finally resolved their quarterback controversy by shipping Teague to the Pacers in a three-team trade that returned lottery pick Taurean Prince, who looks like the small forward of the future. Atlanta was understandably cautious about entering the season with two point guards, Teague and Dennis Schroder, both entering the final seasons of their contracts. Given Teague's comments on social media and in interviews since the trade, he clearly didn't want to be here. So now the Hawks move on. What follows is a position-by-position preview of the Hawks' season.

Starters

Dwight Howard

Uncertain if Horford wanted to be here, the Hawks opened 2016 free agency by talking to Howard, who was looking for a new home after clashing with James Harden in Houston. Atlanta signed Howard to a three-year, $70 million contract with no options, then reportedly offered Horford a contract slightly below the max with the intention of pairing him in the front court with Howard. Although Horford has said in the past that he wanted to convert to a power forward, he apparently did not find the idea of playing with Howard as a stretch four appealing.

This changing of the guard from Horford to Howard as the Hawks' starting center is the primary reason behind the low expectations for the Hawks. Boston clearly got a lot better by signing Horford to a four-year max contract and letting Jared Sullinger depart to the Raptors in free agency. The Hawks predictably destroyed Boston by 15.4 points per 100 possessions with Sullinger on court in the playoffs as he proved incapable of guarding the mobile front court duo of Horford and Paul Millsap. But did the Hawks really get worse by swapping Howard for Horford?

Earlier this month, John Schuhmann did an excellent statistical breakdown for NBA.com of the best defensive season for the Hawks in 17 years. The Hawks were second in defensive rating for the season but had the best defense against the NBA's top 10 offenses. Horford was a huge part of this, as opponents scored only 98.2 points per 100 possessions with Horford on court. According to Schuhmann, this was the third-best mark among big men behind only LaMarcus Aldridge and Draymond Green.

Thus, while Horford may be underrated as a rim protector, it's possible that Howard is overrated. While opponents' at-rim field goal percentage numbers were similar for Howard and Horford, opponents scored 105.1 points per 100 possessions with Howard on court last season, almost seven points worse than Horford.

Was this a result of the porous perimeter defense in front of Howard in Houston? That will be one of the biggest questions facing the Hawks early in the season. Atlanta's perimeter defense should be significantly improved with Schroder replacing Teague in the starting lineup and Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver enjoying an offseason uninterrupted by surgery as it was the previous season. The Hawks also added Prince and DeAndre' Bembry in the draft, both of whom look like rotation wings and plus defenders.

Additionally, Howard has never played with a power forward who was anywhere close to as talented defensively as Millsap. Should the Hawks post something close to a top-two defense with Howard in the middle, it should become clear that Houston's defensive woes can't be laid at his doorstep.

While Schuhmann noted that the Hawks actually improved defensively after the previous 60-win season, Atlanta regressed offensively according to multiple metrics. This included the worst offensive rebounding season since the NBA started recording offensive rebounds in 1973. Howard should be able to improve Atlanta's rebounding, which could help ignite a bounce-back offensive season.

Paul Millsap

Millsap is, hands down, the most underappreciated star in the sport of basketball. He was fourth in the Eastern Conference in Real Plus-Minus last season, earned second team All-Defensive honors, had more total steals than any front court player except Paul George and Trevor Ariza and was fourth in efficiency among players to use at least 100 possessions in the post.

By contrast, of the 64 players who used at least 100 post possessions last season, Howard ranked in the bottom 15 in points per possession. This will be another major key to Atlanta's season: understanding that Millsap is one of the best, most efficient post players in the NBA while Dwight Howard is among the least efficient. If Howard wants to camp out in the lane and call for post-ups, it's going to hurt Atlanta's chances to win. If Budenholzer wants points out of isolation in the post, it's Millsap those plays should be run for, not Howard.

Dwight's optimal usage will come in the pick and roll. Instead of fighting over possessions with Harden, Howard will find that the Hawks are perfectly content to spread the floor with shooters, including Millsap, around Schroder-Howard pick and rolls. A big part of Howard's role will be to improve team rebounding to buy extra possessions for ultra-efficient scorers like Millsap and Korver.

Part of why almost nobody understands how good Millsap is resulted from a degree of duplication with Horford. Both Millsap and Horford are excellent shooters with the ball skills of a guard. The more Horford emphasized playing on the perimeter, the more he duplicated Millsap's role. No such duplication should exist between Millsap and Howard, a pure post player.

Dennis Schroder

There's no player that Atlanta's front office has gambled the fate of the franchise on more than Schroder. With rumors swirling over the summer that the Hawks might opt to trade Schroder and sign Teague to a long-term contract, I declared that such a move would be franchise suicide. I've stated on record that Schroder is the only veteran Hawk with superstar potential and that he's already a better player than Teague. I was ecstatic when Atlanta opted to trade Teague for a lottery pick to bolster the wing depth while handing the keys to Schroder as the new starting point guard.

On Monday, ESPN.com's Zach Lowe and Marc Stein reported that Schroder has signed a four-year, $70 million extension to remain with the Hawks after this season. The deadline for teams to complete such extensions was Oct. 31, so the Hawks have now signed three- or four-year deals with starters Howard, Schroder and Bazemore this offseason. The Hawks absolutely made the right choice in moving on from the malcontent Teague, who seemed threatened by Schroder's emergence. However, despite all my optimism, there's always the possibility that Schroder could stumble in the transition from reserve to starter, as I discussed on the Unquestionably Raw Podcast's Hawks preview.

Opponents were limited to 95.7 points per 100 possessions with Schroder on court last season while they racked up 102.5 during Teague's minutes. Overall, Schroder led the team in net rating among Hawks to play at least 600 minutes. While Atlanta outscored opponents by 7.8 points per 100 possessions with Schroder on the floor, that number dropped to 1.5 with Teague on court.

Is some of that differential due to Teague facing starters while Schroder went up against reserves? Undoubtedly. But I'm still convinced that Schroder is way ahead of schedule and could explode into stardom with an expanded role and a new contract that will keep him in Atlanta through the 2020-21 season. His per-year average of $17.5 million could end up being a significant bargain if he reaches the heights I believe he can.

Kent Bazemore

As mentioned before, Bazemore was Atlanta's worst player on a per 100 possessions basis in the Cleveland series. It was therefore somewhat surprising to see the Hawks lavish Bazemore with such a huge contract. However, after losing DeMarre Carroll to the Raptors, it made sense that Atlanta would try to keep Bazemore and see him reach his apex with the team that developed him. Bazemore is only 27 and should have additional upside as he enters his prime.

In contrast to the playoffs, Bazemore was a team-best +68 in 111 preseason minutes while averaging 9.8 points, 3.6 rebounds, two assists and a steal on 45.7% shooting from the field and 29.4% shooting from three. Although you can never place too much stock in preseason stats, Bazemore is certainly coming into the season in excellent form.

During the preseason, Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer sometimes used Bazemore to check opposing shooting guards while Korver guarded the small forward. This may not signal a permanent shift for Bazemore to what would seem his more natural position of shooting guard. More likely, Budenholzer will base these assignments on individual match-ups. Budenholzer also briefly used Bazemore as a point guard.

Kyle Korver

NBA.com's K.L. Chouinard has a nice piece on Atlanta wings Korver and Sefolosha. Per Chouinard, Korver's 77.8% effective field goal percentage led the preseason for players with at least 25 attempts. Sefolosha was third on that list at 74%. Korver told Choinard that he feels much better entering this season than last.

"If people didn't keep telling me I was 35," Korver said, "I wouldn't think I was. I feel better than I've felt in years, obviously much better than last year."

This time last year, Korver was rehabbing from multiple surgeries while Sefolosha was recovering from a broken leg suffered the previous season during his arrest by NYPD on charges that were overturned by a jury. In the Cleveland series, the Hawks were annihilated by a team-worst 35.7 points per 100 possessions in Games 1&2 with Korver in the starting lineup. For Games 3&4, Budenholzer brought Korver off the bench and Atlanta outscored Cleveland by 7.1 points per 100 in Korver's 57 minutes.

This dramatic difference led some observers (such as myself) to speculate that Budenholzer might move Korver into a bench role permanently. That has proven not to be the case. While Korver may lose a step as he enters the twilight of his career, he's undoubtedly in a better place than he was this time last year. That bodes well both for Atlanta's wing depth and for the potential for a bounce-back season offensively.

Reserves

Thabo Sefolosha

Sefolosha played in the preseason like a player entering a contract year. He led the NBA in preseason three-point percentage after hitting seven of nine attempts. He has also looked strong off the bounce and attacking the rim while providing his typically-elite defense.

People often complain about my "over-reliance" on the limited sample of net rating in a playoff series. However, these are the only samples available that can tell us anything about how a player performs in the playoffs against the best in the world. For example, trying to predict playoff performance by studying a regular-season sample against Cleveland is a waste of time. The regular season is meaningless and the playoffs are the only games that matter.

So, with that in mind, how much did Sefolosha help the Hawks in the playoffs against the best team in basketball, the eventual world champions? In Games 1&2 with Sefolosha coming off the bench, the Hawks were outscored by 30.3 points per 100 possessions in Sefolosha's 29 minutes, which placed him in the bottom six along with all five starters.

But in Games 3&4, with Sefolosha starting in place of Korver, something crazy happened. The Hawks were only outscored by .3 points per 100 in Sefolosha's 62 minutes. This was in spite of the fact that Sefolosha shared significant floor time with three starters whose net differential ranged from Teague's -16.7 per 100 to Horford's -25.2. The frequent complaint about plus-minus numbers is that a player's performance can be over-inflated if that player is on the floor when a teammate goes on a scoring spree.

Well, the opposite is also true. If a player is on court while teammates are performing poorly, it should drag down that player's on/off numbers. That's why it's surprising that Sefolosha practically broke even while sharing court time with Bazemore, who was -21.2 per 100 in 70 minutes in Games 3&4. That means Sefolosha's minutes with Bazemore on the bench had to be so positive that they counteracted the time he shared on court with Bazemore, whose on/off numbers were significantly in the negative.

So, can Thabo Sefolosha help you in a playoff series against the world champions? His performance in Games 3&4 showed, emphatically, that he can. With Sefolosha entering a contract year fully recovered from the injury issues he faced a year ago, you can expect to see the best version of Thabo we've seen in a Hawks uniform.

Mike Muscala

When the Hawks committed guaranteed money to Malcolm Delaney to take over the reserve point guard duties Schroder is vacating, Muscala seemed like a prime candidate as the odd man out. The Hawks had 15 guaranteed contracts plus Muscala's partial guarantee for just over $500,000. Past experience with Hawks ownership has conditioned fans to expect them to take the cheapest path. But this is a new ownership group that appears ready to spend to win. As such, the Hawks took the unusual step of granting Jarrett Jack a guaranteed veteran's minimum with no assurance that he would be ready to contribute any time soon.

This means the Hawks essentially paid just under $1 million to be the only team with access to Jack's medical information. If his recovery went as hoped, the Hawks owned his rights for the season. If not, Atlanta fans could be exposed to a brand new world where Hawks' ownership is willing to gamble real money on the possibility of a healthy Jack, then cut their losses and move on if it didn't work out. This concept is so foreign it's kind of hard to process.

What this meant for Muscala is that his summer of hard work paid off and Budenholzer recognized his value to the team. Muscala was +25 in 110 minutes for the preseason, the team's fifth-best total. He also hit half of his three-point attempts, which hearkened back to his standout performance in the Wizards series the season before last. Muscala didn't seem to build on his momentum much last season, but he's obviously coming into the year determined to prove that he belongs in the final season of his deal.

Kris Humphries

Humphries made an impression in the playoffs as a big man with perimeter skills not unlike Horford and Millsap. He shot 5-for-10 from three-point range in four playoff appearances but also showed that he could attack the basket off the bounce against slower big men. It was a limited sample but the positive returns, along with Horford's uncertain future, made Humphries a priority to add to Atlanta's interior depth.

In the preseason, Humphries shot just 2-for-12 (16.7%) from three and hasn't looked like the Horford-lite Atlanta hoped it was getting. But preseason numbers are some of the worst predictors of performance over an 82-game season, so mark Hump down as a bargain at $4 million for one season. He's spent much of his career averaging close to a double-double but it's unlikely he plays enough minutes to approach the numbers he put up in Washington. However, with Budenholzer and GM Wes Wilcox opting to eat Jack's guaranteed money to keep both Muscala and Edy Tavares on the roster, Humphries can be seen as more proven and experienced Tiago Splitter insurance.

Tiago Splitter

When healthy -- and we haven't seen much of that in a Hawks uniform -- Splitter puts pressure on the rim with savvy and skill rather than explosion. He's a masterful pick-setter who rolls hard to the basket and uses his body and guile to manufacture layups since he's not usually jumping over anyone.

Hawks fans are furious with Budenholzer for tying up cap space to help the Spurs land LaMarcus Aldridge, but the reality is that a healthy Splitter is a prototypical big man in Bud's system. He helps your spacing -- not with rangy jump shots -- but with a chess master's command of positioning. And when he draws a crowd to the rim eager to block his shot, cutters will always find a softly- and precisely-delivered pass hitting them exactly in stride.

I'll say this again: What have the Spurs accomplished in the playoffs since the last time Splitter was healthy and available? His $8.55 million expiring deal is a ridiculous bargain for a player capable of starting for an NBA champion. But it's the same dilemma for the Hawks that the franchise faced when Zaza Pachulia was pulling his Rocky act. Their value is obvious when they're available. But for Atlanta, it simply comes down to Splitter hitting a healthy stretch that coincides with the playoffs. If that happens, he can make the difference in a series, even in a backup role. If his body won't cooperate, he'll likely depart Atlanta much as Pachulia did, with most of our thoughts turning to what could have been.

Malcolm Delaney

As much as I've been Schroder's bandwagon chauffeur, we're entering a strange new world of uncertainty about what we're getting when the starting point guard goes to the bench. Simply put, Will Bynum looked a lot more like an NBA player in the preseason than Delaney. Bud and Wes have once again gambled both guaranteed money and a roster spot that this is the guy who can keep the offense rolling when Dennis needs a quick breather. His 38% field goal shooting didn't inspire a lot of confidence but he got to the free throw line a good bit and knocked them down at a 91% clip. But the real question is whom can Delaney stay in front of? Bud was never going to be able to keep two starting point guards happy in a platoon situation. A lottery pick was a fantastic return for Teague's expiring contract, but until we see Delaney establish himself, there will be some nervous moments.

Mike Scott

He's been slowed in the preseason with a sore left knee but he remains a valuable piece to add offensive competence behind Millsap. The Hawks must hope that, once he's back up to speed, he'll be able to remain focused and contribute to winning basketball despite the ominous cloud hanging over his head with a pending trial on felony drug charges. Scott is a player who can go supernova and win you a playoff game but it's far from guaranteed that his legal issues will allow him to play out the season uninterrupted. His -36 in 44 preseason minutes showed that it may take some time before he's ready to resume a consistent bench role.

Tim Hardaway Jr.

Hardaway made major strides as a defender last season but the offensive prowess that allowed him to average double digits early in his career has yet to manifest itself in a Hawks uniform. He struggled with his shot last season due to a slow recovery from an offseason wrist injury. In the preseason, no Hawk has struggled more as he posted a team-worst -63 in 119 minutes while shooting a woeful 30% from the field and 17.4% from the three point line. Hardaway is apparently healthy and Budenholzer seems determined to let him round into form while playing rotation minutes, despite the fact that he has a pair of impressive rookie wings nipping at his heels.

Taurean Prince

I flew down to Orlando to catch the Hawks' preseason game there and Prince completely humiliated touted former lottery pick Mario Hezonja. Magic starting small forward Aaron Gordon combined with Hezonja to shoot 3-for-16 and Prince let them know about it throughout the game. I waited until the bottom of this list to talk about Atlanta's rookie wings because Budenholzer told the AJC that his rotation to open the season won't include significant minutes for them. I think this is a mistake. Prince will be a rookie of the year candidate if Budenholzer plays him enough to get the exposure he needs.

DeAndre' Bembry

Bembry was the player I really wanted for the Hawks in the draft. But in the preseason, I don't think he's shown as much as Prince. Nonetheless, I believe both Prince and Bembry are more NBA-ready than Delaney, the rookie Budenholzer has forced himself to play due to the depth issues at point guard. If Hardaway continues to struggle, I don't think it will be long before Prince and Bembry start taking minutes from him.

Edy Tavares

There was a time when I was really excited about Tavares, but that time has passed. I don't know if he's ever going to have the quickness, agility or reliable hands to be a consistent rotation NBA player. He's as big as Boban Marjanovic but he'll never be the basketball player that Marjanovic is. I would have preferred to see the Hawks cut Tavares and keep Bynum in case the Delaney experiment doesn't work.

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