2016-17 Atlanta Hawks Season Preview

Graham Chapple —  October 24, 2016
 Source: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America)

Source: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America

It’s time. After a whole summer of talking and a little bit of action in the preseason, it’s time for Atlanta Hawks basketball — proper. This Thursday, at Philips Arena, the Hawks tip off their season against the Washington Wizards. And let’s be honest, we have no idea how this Hawks team is going to fare this season in the Eastern Conference. We’ll get to why that is in a bit, but first let’s go over what the Hawks did this summer and we’ll take it from there.

In: Dwight Howard, Malcolm Delaney

Out: Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Kirk Hinrich,

Drafted: Taurean Prince, DeAndre’ Bembry

For better or for worse?

Al Horford is gone — gone because the Hawks didn’t want to max him (and not even the max as it turned out) for five years and gone because he wasn’t the front office’s top priority. It’s as simple as that. Jeff Teague requested a trade, that was granted and now he resides in Indiana. The two most important positions on the court are, arguably, the point guard and center positions and now the Hawks have to plug in new players into those respective positions. That’s always a concern heading into a new season, especially for a team that preached continuity at the end of the season.

To replace Horford and Teague the Hawks added Dwight Howard and gave the point guard reigns to Dennis Schröder.

I still believe that Schröder is not ready to be a starting point guard in this league. I feel he’s still too erratic and one of those players where he’ll do something and you’ll sit there and think “What the flip was that, Dennis???”. And that happens often too. I also worry about his shooting. One of the better things Teague did last year was shoot 40 % from behind the arc — a team best. Schröder shot 32% from behind the arc. Offensively, Jeff just makes better decisions and is a better offensive player than Dennis. But the one thing Dennis does have going for him is his defense — his defense is absolutely ready for a starting role and he should improve the team at the point guard position from a defensive point of view. I still think it’s too soon though…

Dwight Howard. Hmm…

There’s so many questions when it comes to Dwight. Is he healthy? Will he play according to Bud’s system? Will he be invested on the court? How will he and Dennis connect on the court? Will he get on with Paul Millsap? These are only but a few questions surrounding Dwight this season. How successful Dwight can be in Atlanta really depends on if he can have something of a resurgent season. If he plays as he did in Houston last season… That would be awful for Atlanta.

Dwight adds a dynamic that Al Horford didn’t always provide in his ability to roll hard to the rim — Horford prefers the shooting game and that’s fine, he’s very good at it. Dwight also adds a true rebounding force that the Hawks have really needed in the last few years. You could argue that this is the move the Hawks have needed to make for years. I think it helps the Hawks that Dwight and Al are very different centers and Dwight is very different to Paul Millsap because in many ways Horford and Millsap were the same player. They can both play great team and individual defense, block shots, can shoot threes, can both pass, both shoot mid-range, they can both operate in the post and both are also prone to get out-rebounded by their opposite number. They’re like-for-like in many ways.

Dwight’s game is very different to Horford’s, so now we’ll see how Coach Bud adjusts to Dwight’s set of skills. You’d imagine you’ll see a lot more of that 1-5 pick-and-roll with Dennis and I’m looking forward to seeing what this opens up for the wings as well as Dwight and Dennis. What Dwight will also give Coach Bud is a huge body to aim and a target to draw up plays for coming out of timeouts. Dwight should really get Bud’s creative juices flowing with his out of timeout plays with how much pressure he puts on the rim. Bud already does a great job drawing up plays as it is, what can Dwight open up for him? For Coach Bud, he mentioned that adding a center who can put pressure on the rim is “big” and it goes back to what Coach Bud knows better and is more comfortable with, having worked with David Robinson and Tim Duncan in San Antonio.

Coach Bud speaking at Dwight’s introductory presser:

“Offensively, I think having a guy that can put pressure on the rim is big.”

“In a lot of ways, we’ve adjusted to who we’ve had the first three years and in some ways, it will be going back to what I know maybe even better and maybe even more comfortable with having someone who can put that kind of pressure on the rim.”

Those comments would seem to suggest that Dwight is the type of center Bud has wanted to work with the entire time and that he had to adjust his offense around the skill set of Al Horford. Maybe this is the shake up the Hawks have needed.

Obviously there have been questions about Dwight’s fit on the offensive end. He doesn’t fit the conventional criteria of a Hawk as we’ve come to know the Hawks. He can’t stretch the floor from behind the arc, he can’t really hit the mid-range shot in real game situations, he’s limited to dunks and post moves that don’t always come off and he’s not the greatest passer in the world. I’m not as worried as I was about this; Dwight’s a very different player than Al. He’ll have his uses and he’ll shine where Horford couldn’t shine in the same way as Horford shines in ways Dwight can’t. Where I think Dwight will shine on the offensive end: he’s going to open up opportunities with his screen setting, he’s going to put pressure on the rim as we’ve talked about, he’s going to have better fortunes on the offensive glass (leading to extra possessions and second chance points) than Horford did and I think he’s going to allow Paul Millsap the opportunity to pick his spots and roam a little more because you know Dwight is going to be close to the basket. Horford would look for similar opportunities Millsap did and Dwight’s not going to be looking for those pockets that Horford and Millsap do.

Howard and Horford give you two very different dynamics and, at the end of the day, if you don’t look at it like that and compare the two like-for-like, you’re going to miss the point. Don’t expect a chef to change the wheels on your car. They’re just two very different types of center. And if all I’ve said does nothing for you, just trust Coach Bud. He’s going to adjust accordingly. He knows what he’s doing.

My main worry with Dwight is that he’s very prone to checking out of games and when he’s checked out that dude is gone. Ask Magic fans, ask Lakers fans and ask Rockets fans. And if the Hawks come stuttering out of the gate I worry he might begin to check out and deviate from the way Coach Bud wants to play and ask for the ball in the post where he’s just not that great. You should be much more worried about this than offensive fit because when Dwight’s checked out it’s all bad.

You can at least talk yourself into why the Hawks are better/worse without Al Horford and with Dwight Howard, but this team is definitely worse off without Jeff Teague. With all due respect to Malcolm Delaney, who I think can contribute, he’s not as good as Schröder in a backup role and he’s definitely not as good as Jeff Teague. And I say that with the utmost respect because I really like Malcolm Delaney and if he proves me wrong, I will be absolutely delighted. Atlanta had one of the better point guard rotations last year and that’s gone now. I think the Hawks are worse off with Dennis as the starting point guard; he’s not as good as Jeff Teague right now. But that’s not to say the Hawks made the wrong decision trading Teague. He didn’t want to be in Atlanta any longer and he’s an unrestricted free agent next year. It’s likely he would’ve left for nothing and so the Hawks needed to act accordingly and they did. However, that doesn’t mean that the Hawks aren’t worse off without him.

In my opinion, the center and point guard positions are the most important on the court, so if Dwight and Dennis aren’t up to the task then you can write this season off — just forget about it. As important as Paul Millsap, Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha and Kyle Korver are to this team, the true success of this team (which is winning an NBA title) lie at the doors of Schröder and Dwight. If they’re not up for it forget about it. Forget about contending for the second seed in the East, forget about any relevant playoff hopes and forget about any hope home court advantage. And if they’re really not up for it, forget about making the playoffs altogether. That comfort margin in the Eastern Conference is gone now. A few years ago, sure, you could play without Al Horford and still make the playoffs. Not so anymore. There will be teams that will punish the Hawks if they struggle.

Ask yourself, and be honest: are the Hawks a better team this season than last?

Strange decisions made

The front office made some strange decisions this summer.

This, surely, is the season the Hawks have to go for it. Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha — and others — are free agents next summer. They can all leave for nothing next summer and they’re all on the other side of 30. And it might not be as simple as ‘re-tooling’ next summer if they depart. Taking a look at the other free agents in 2017, there aren’t many better PF’s than Millsap available. I mean, Blake Griffin might be a free agent, but is he realistically available? JJ Reddick is the only Korver-like shooter available next summer, is he realistically going to be available? Thabo Sefolosha is one of the better defensive wings out there, is it possible to upgrade if he leaves?

The Hawks might not necessarily be better next season, if things don’t go well this season and if Millsap and Korver leave they will be a lot worse off next season. This has to be the year they gun for the title. Their legitimate title window is closing. And when I say legitimate title window, I mean actually legitimate, not the title that fans talk themselves into when their team is clearly not good enough. But the Hawks’ summer doesn’t reflect that. They made themselves worse at the point guard position by trading Jeff Teague for a rookie wing. Rookies don’t normally help playoff teams in their rookie season. In a season where the Hawks are in a situation where they have to win this season (given the complicated nature of Paul Millsap’s impending free agency), it’s strange that the Hawks have put themselves in a position where they could potentially fall backwards in the Eastern Conference.

It’s also strange that the Hawks have left themselves with just two point guards after they surprisingly waived Jarrett Jack. You leave yourself one freak injury away from being completely screwed at the point guard position. I thought the Jarrett Jack signing was great since the team already had Malcolm Delaney, it gave Jack all the time he needed to recover from his ACL and meniscus injury and when he was ready he’d be able to step in as the third guard, maybe even work his way to the backup point guard. Plus, if Delaney or Schröder did happen to get injured, Jack would be able to provide some sort of insurance. But it seems that Jack wasn’t as ready as the Hawks believed he was and off he goes.

To add even further to the list of the strange things the Hawks did this summer, they decided to draft — and keep — their two first round draft picks and are going to somehow implement them in a year where they need to be gunning for the title. I’m not saying that Prince and Bembry can’t be good players for the Hawks, but in a season where the Hawks’ title window might be about to close, that concept seems a little strange to me. I’m not saying the Hawks should’ve flipped both of those picks for a vet, it’s just a bit strange to implement two rookies in a must win season.

You could argue it’s all in vain since it’s going to be very hard to beat the Cavs to make it to the Finals and even harder to beat the Warriors, but you have to go for it. Don’t half ass it. You’re either in it to win it or you’re not.

Simple as.

Rookies

Let’s — briefly — talk about those rookies: Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry.

I’m expecting Prince to see more minutes than Bembry this season. He’s a more capable defender and he’s a better shooter than Bembry — that’s always going to help your quest for minutes. That said, Bembry — with this decision the Hawks have made to only keep two point guards around — might see some minutes at point guard but I imagine these will probably be kept to an absolute minimum. It’s hard to say how many minutes the rooks will see. I imagine Prince will be a frequent rotation player in the regular season and I wouldn’t be at all surprised if Bembry saw some time in the D-League to refine aspects of his game. Fans are going to love these two rooks but if they’re able to contribute anything meaningful this season, that’ll be a bonus. We shall see.

The rest of the roster

I’ve spent a lot of time talking about Dennis and Dwight, but what about the rest of the roster? Let’s take a look at the final roster.

PG: Dennis Schröder, Malcolm Delaney

SG/SF: Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, DeAndre’ Bembry, Thabo Sefolosha, Tim Hardaway Jr.

PF: Paul Millsap, Mike Scott, Mike Muscala, Kris Humphries

C: Dwight Howard, Tiago Splitter, Edy Tavares

I’m ready for contract year Paul Millsap. I’m ready. Does the knee issue — the one that kept him out of a few preseason games — bother me? No. He’s ready to go and I cannot wait. I think he’ll benefit from having Dwight Howard on the court. I just think the way that Dwight plays (rim-rolling, underneath the basket type of play), it compliments Millsap more than Horford did. But more than that, we all know what Millsap brings to the table — scoring (coming in many different and beautiful ways), shot blocking, great defense, playmaking, rebounding and, of course, “f***ing amazing hands” that cause havoc on the defensive end. He’s the best player on this team and I can’t wait to watch him get to work.

Last season some of the Hawks’ wings had disrupted preparations to their seasons. Kyle Korver was very, very limited in what he could do in terms of preparation coming off a very bad ankle injury and surgery on his shooting elbow, Thabo Sefolosha was recovering from a broken leg he suffered in that scuffle with police in New York and he was dealing with the resulting court case (which he eventually won, cleared of any wrongdoing) ongoing in the build up to the regular season and Tim Hardaway Jr. came into camp a little out of shape and with a wrist injury while trying to learn the Hawks’ system.

This season there’s none of that. Korver has been able to fully prepare this time around and shot 50% from behind the arc in preseason. Expect a return of the Kyle Korver we’ve grown accustomed to seeing in the past this season. Thabo will be good to go from opening night and THJ, though he had a rough preseason (but fared better as it ended), has now a full year of Hawks experience and is coming into this season highly motivated.

One Hawk that hasn’t had the best of luck is Tiago Splitter. After nearing a return following season ending hip surgery, Splitter suffered a hamstring injury and will be sidelined for the first few weeks of the season. I’ve said in the past that I simply don’t trust Splitter’s body — he’s been playing professionally since 1999 and he hasn’t played over 60 games in an NBA season in the last three seasons. We’ll see if this hamstring injury is a just a case of bad luck or a sign of things to come. If Splitter is going to be consistently on the sidelines, the backup center spot is going to be an area of concern. Sure, Mike Muscala and Edy Tavares can all play a bit of center but you wouldn’t want those guys to be the primary backup center. Muscala I think is best placed at power forward in a second unit role with Dwight Howard (which looked good in preseason) and Edy is still a little too raw to play 10 minutes per game. Kris Humphries would probably be best suited to play as the backup center in Splitter’s absence but this will probably be a case of filling the need ‘by committee’. Plus, the Hawks can always cheat a little bit by subbing in Mike Scott for Dwight Howard (who’ll probably follow a similar rotation as Horford has in the past, coming out at around the six minute mark) and sliding Paul Millsap over to center. Millsap can operate inside and Scott can space the floor with his three-point shot. It’s a lineup I like a lot.

Hopefully Tiago can ease the Hawks’ injury and backup center concerns by returning from this injury and putting together a good run in the side. The Hawks’ second unit would really benefit with a healthy Tiago Splitter, something Atlanta fans have not seen since Tiago joined the team.

The verdict: what is possible this season?

If things click this season for the Hawks (Dwight and Dennis are up for it, they gel well and the team is healthy) the Hawks could win 45-50 games this season. They could make some noise in the East, but things have to click.

There’s a strong case to be made the Hawks will be an even better defensive team this season with Dwight and Schröder in the picture and if you can defend and stop teams you have a great chance to win a lot of games. They should be a better rebounding team too. The Hawks lost quite a few games last season because they conceded a lot of offensive rebounds and second chance points. With Dwight Howard in the mix, the Hawks should fare better in that department. I think that alone is worth a game or two.

However, one thing the Hawks will have to be better at this season is their deliverance in clutch situations and overtime. They lost all six of their overtime games last season and their end of game execution was awful at times.

Example 1

Example 2

Jeff Teague was at the fore for both of these possessions, so we’ll see if that’s just him or the coaching staff.

One thing that slightly concerns me is the ball movement. With Dwight taking the occasional bad possession in the post where no one else touches the ball once he gets it, Dennis’ boneheaded plays where he tries to do it all by himself and Malcolm Delaney’s tendency to keep the ball to himself at times, I’m slightly concerned about the ball possibly sticking. Coach Bud will have to be on top of it.

Looking at their competitors, you’d imagine the Hawks’ biggest threats around them will be the Celtics, the Raptors, the Pacers and possibly the Pistons. The Hawks should be in contention for home court advantage and, if they are, for goodness sake make sure it’s not the fourth seed. Failure to win in Washington (who were without all of their starters) on the final night of the regular season meant that they missed the opportunity to take the three seed, took the fourth seed instead and they booked themselves a second round sweep against the Cavaliers right there and then.

On the flip side, if things go pear shaped and Dennis and Dwight don’t get on, if there are injuries and if other teams just turn out to be better, I would not be surprised if the Hawks looked to deal Paul Millsap, who can opt out at the end of the season and possibly even some of their wings such as Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha, who are also free agents next summer. Again, if things go desperately wrong it’s possible. All of those guys are players who playoff teams would absolutely love to have on their team, especially Korver.

Ultimately, I think the Hawks will be one of the best defensive teams in the league this season, I think Dwight will have a resurgent season (not Orlando Dwight but the best Dwight since his Orlando days), I think Schröder will have a decent season (I don’t think he’ll be spectacular or what his fans expect him to be, which is the best point guard in the league apparently), Millsap is going to have a great season, Korver’s shooting percentages will return to normal, and the Hawks should be in the mix for home court advantage.

But I could also — for all the reasons I’ve touched on — see the Hawks winning 42 games and fighting for a spot in in the playoffs. It’s possible, there’s definitely an air of unpredictability around the Hawks.

We shall see. It’s going to be a very unpredictable season, but one thing is for sure: it’s going to be a hell of a ride.

Graham Chapple

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