The NBA’s annual GM survey is always interesting, although it’s hard to know how many of the league’s actual decision makers fill it out as opposed to their interns or whoever happened to be by their fax machine. It’s definitely a reactive survey, with whatever happened most recently having an outsized importance in the results. There’s no better example than the Atlanta Hawks, whom most of the GM’s have as the third best team in the Eastern Conference. After being Twitter darlings for almost all of last season, the Hawks have fallen off everyone’s radar after being swept out of the Eastern Conference Finals by an undermanned Cleveland Cavaliers team.
Atlanta certainly didn’t look like a 60-win juggernaut in the playoffs. They struggled to put away the 38-win Brooklyn Nets in the first round and they barely survived the Washington Wizards in the second, even though John Wall missed three games in that series. Jeff Teague and Dennis Schroder were streaky, Kyle Korver was game-planned out of every series while Al Horford and Paul Millsap struggled against the size of some of the Eastern Conference frontcourts and their bench gave them nothing. DeMarre Carroll was their most consistent player before getting injured against the Cavs and he left in free agency to the Toronto Raptors.
With such a disappointing taste lingering in everyone’s mouth, it’s no surprise the Hawks aren’t being talked about much. Not only did they lose Carroll, their biggest acquisition was a guy (Tiago Splitter) whom the San Antonio Spurs literally gave away for nothing to clear cap space. Their over-under win total at Las Vegas is only 50.5 wins, 10 below their 60-22 record from last season. Is the magic over?
The good news for the Hawks is they still have the combination of Horford and Millsap, which was the key to their unexpected success. Everyone wanted to talk about their star-less system and the way they were copying the Spurs and their unselfish approach to basketball, but it was their two star big men that allowed them to pose such a problem to the rest of the league. The only reason they came out of nowhere last season was because Horford only played in 29 games the year before. Horford is one of the most complete big men in the NBA and Millsap is a 20-10 threat who can create his own shot, spread the floor and create shots for everyone else.
Playing the two of them at the same time allowed the Hawks perimeter players to operate in maximum space, with two big men operating at the elbows and opening up the floor for everyone else. Whether it was Teague or Schroder attacking the rim, Korver running off their screens or Carroll getting out and running when they cleared the defensive glass and pushed the tempo, all of the Atlanta perimeter players benefited from the Hawks five-out system and their two All-Stars upfront. When they were both in, the Hawks had an offensive rating of 113.7 and a defensive rating of 104.5. Without either, they were at 106.7 (offense) and 107.8 (defense).
If there was a problem for Atlanta, it was that neither Horford or Millsap had a lot of size. Horford, at 6’10 240, is a power forward playing as a center while Millsap, at 6’8 240, was a combo forward who had become a full-time PF. Playing small and downshifting guys a position is the way the modern NBA is going but the downsides became more apparent in the post-season, when other teams could game-plan for their lack of size and attack them upfront. It was the same story with Brook Lopez in the first round as it was with Nene and Marcin Gortat in the second round and Timofey Mozgov and Tristan Thompson in the ECF.
What would have helped is another option in their frontcourt but all the Hawks had were spare parts more suited to giving their stars a break than giving the team a different look. Pero Antic was a crafty European big man but he wasn’t very athletic and he couldn’t finish around the rim or actually spread the floor - he fired away from 3 but other teams were more than happy to let him shoot. Mike Scott was a good shooter but he was yet another undersized big men who didn’t bring anything else to the table. Elton Brand was a savvy veteran who knew their system but he was old and could barely move anymore. Mike Muscala is a 2nd round pick who needs to upgrade on both sides of the ball to stick in the league. They probably would have been better off going small with Carroll at the 4 but they didn’t have a lot of extra depth on the wings to get away with that, especially with Thabo Sefolosha out of the picture following his beatdown from the NYPD.
That’s where Splitter comes in. He never got enough credit for all that he brought to the table in San Antonio and their decision to flip him for nothing says more about LaMarcus Aldridge than anything wrong with his game. The Spurs offensive rating was +4.5 points higher with Splitter on the floor in the regular season and their defensive rating was -2.3 points lower without him. At 7’0 240, he has the size of a C and the mobility of a smaller player as well as the skill-set to be a factor in a number of different roles on offense. He’s only 31, he’s a positive contributor on both sides of the ball and he gives the Hawks a whole different element in their frontcourt.
The still have their 5-out look with Horford and Millsap, but now they can go 4-out with Splitter as a more traditional center and use his ability to roll to the rim to open up room for Horford and Millsap to create from the high post. He will fit right into their system, as he’s a capable passer who knows how to read the floor and find the open man. He gives them someone who can fight on the boards (they were 28th in the league last season due to their lack of size) as well as an interior defender who can battle with the bigger post players in the NBA. Instead of Horford and Millsap and pray for rain, they have three different frontcourt combinations they can go with over the course of the game - Horford + Millsap, Splitter + Horford and Splitter + Millsap.
For as good as Carroll was for the Hawks, taking 25+ minutes a night from replacement level big men and giving them to a legit two-way 7’0 like Splitter could end up having a bigger effect on the team. Carroll had the lowest net rating of their starters (their defense was actually +3.0 points better without him on the floor) and he was probably the most replaceable of the five. There aren’t a lot of guards who can be sparkplugs like Teague, not many wings who can provide Korver’s spacing and not many big men with Horford and Millsap’s versatility. What the Hawks are gambling on is that Carroll’s 3-and-D skills can be replicated by some combination of Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore, Justin Holiday and Tim Hardaway Jr.
Maybe they are right or maybe they are wrong. Sefolosha was very effective with the other four Atlanta regulars last season and he was a key cog in Oklahoma City before his inconsistent three-point shot ended up killing their spacing. The difference is that the other Hawks starters provide way more shooting than Thunder line-ups with a non-shooter at C. Bazemore, Holiday and THJ, on the other hand, have a lot to prove in the NBA. They are all long, they are all athletic and they have all shown the ability to shoot 3’s - whether or not any of them can put it together over the course of a whole season will be one of the more interesting subplots in Atlanta.
While established players with 3-and-D skills have become really valued in free agency, that hasn’t really translated to the draft. That’s because offensively limited wings with decent athleticism and a projectable outside shot are everywhere on draft night. Carroll and THJ were late first-round picks while neither Bazemore nor Holiday were drafted. Which ones make it and which ones don’t - that’s the million dollar question. How much of it is situational and how much of it is something intrinsic? What was Demarre Carroll before he came to Atlanta and can the Hawks find the next Carroll for cheap rather than paying out huge money for the one they had? THJ’s career certainly didn’t get off to a good start in New York but he has some tools. Will Atlanta be able to turn his career around?
As it stands now, the Hawks a great three-man frontcourt combination, a great three-man guard rotation and a lot of questions on the wings. They have a great coaching staff and a system that has proven it can integrate a lot of formerly marginal players successfully. That might be enough to get them to 50 wins and it might not but I’m betting on the over.