The Hawks entered the offseason with a problem almost any team would gladly accept: too many players outperformed expectations. By virtue of signing Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll each to contracts two summers ago that were swiftly proved as club-favorable, the Hawks had a salary cap crunch in trying to re-sign them both.
The duo’s two year deals had both expired, removing the team’s use of Bird Rights that requires three years with the same team to shoot past the salary cap to re-sign free agents. Market value deals in free agency ballooned with the rising cap, as teams were suddenly flush with cap space to match their deep pockets as the result of an upcoming luxurious national TV deal for the league.
Given that DeMarre was both recovering from a knee injury and wholly justified in looking to cash in off his rapid ascent from fringe rotation player just two seasons prior, a team-friendly discount was out of the question. Carroll would quickly ink a 4 year, $60 million deal with the Toronto Raptors soon after the calendar turned to the 2015-16 NBA season on the heels of postseason averages of 14.6 points per game and 40.3 percent from three. This was all despite a sagging Hawks offense around him from March onward.
At the same time, Millsap was being courted by the Orlando Magic with the lure of a max contract and the opportunity to be the face of a franchise. However, Millsap decided to return to Atlanta later that day on a 3 year, $58.9 million contract with a player option in Year 3 in an effort to “build off of last year.”
Despite retaining Millsap, the only Hawk to be an All-Star each of the last two years, and seven of the top eight scorers from 2014-15, the loss of Carroll has been characterized as huge and possibly an insurmountable blow to a team looking to build on a 60 win season. Offensively, his contributions can be replaced through an offense that routinely finds good looks with constant ball movement. But what about the other side of the ball?
Not so fast, my friend. All is not lost, despite the summer’s flurry. The Hawks can again compete in the Eastern Conference by plugging one of their biggest holes in the following ways.
The Swiss Army Knife
With the news that Thabo Sefolosha has been cleared to take part in practice, and his own hopeful comments to be 100 percent soon, “Sef” has the inside track to be the fifth starter come October 27, the Hawks’ regular season opener against the Pistons.
After increasing his true shooting percentage (TS%) for four straight seasons since becoming a starter with the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2009-10, Thabo hit a rough patch in 2013-14. His TS% dropped to a 51.7 percent figure that rates as below league average. The Hawks swooped in during his free agency, signing him to a cheap three year deal knowing his reputation as a flexible wing defender and glue guy. Whatever bounce back Thabo would feel on the offensive end would be icing on the cake.
While his long range shooting didn’t rebound to his early Thunder numbers, his defense was better than advertised. ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus, which better isolates on-court production than +/- through adjustments of teammates and opposition, was particularly fond of Thabo’s defense. Sef came in at 24th in the league last season among those that qualified at 2.97 defensive RPM, calculated on a per 100 possession basis relative league average. For comparison, DeMarre Carroll finds himself much farther down the list with a slightly below league average DRPM grade.
The story is the same when sorting by Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus/Minus, essentially comprised of the same components as RPM. Thabo is again 24th in the league in 2014-15 in this rating. Only four wings had higher figures: Tony Allen, Kawhi Leonard, Al-Farouq Aminu and Nicolas Batum. Carroll again is located outside the top 100, although this time with an above average Defensive Plus-Minus of 0.5.
A look through some of the tape from last year reveals some of what makes Thabo such a tough on-ball and off-ball stalwart.
Above, he has to navigate a side pick-n-pop between Jimmy Butler and Pau Gasol. Thabo “ices” Butler at the top of the screen by positioning himself between Butler and the middle of the court. This forces him toward the help man, Elton Brand, along the short side. Once he sees hesitation, Thabo uses his massive 7’2″ wingspan to bother Butler enough to double clutch a pass to Pau Gasol, allowing Brand enough time to rotate and affect Taj Gibson’s chip shot.
Thabo showcases his awareness and positioning in this second one. He is constantly drifting into passing lanes as the Bulls run through a pick-n-roll. Even on a Butler back cut, he keeps his head up, alert to cut off any angle Nikola Mirotic has to squeeze in an entry pass. The end result is a steal, something Thabo was quite adept at last season. He was 14th in the NBA in steals per 100 possessions among players with 900 minutes played last season, a testament to his ability to jump passing lanes.
Of course, a lot is riding on Thabo’s fractured fibula fully recovering. If he never regains the form he showed prior to a strained right calf and then NYPD run-in, the Hawks will be left searching for solutions. Thabo only averaged 18.8 minutes a game before having his season ended prematurely. Now the team may be pushing a less than 100% player to play up to 30 minutes a game, a feat he has yet to accomplish in any of his 10 NBA seasons. There is risk in placing so much faith in someone on the wrong side of 30, but the payoff could assure the Hawks remain legitimate title contenders.
Don’t count out the Bazed God (or Justin Holiday)
Seth Partnow and the crew at Nylon Calculus have been doing yeoman’s work assigning position estimates to NBA players based upon play-by-play data. In an era of positional fluidity, typecasting a player as playing a static position all season is no longer accurate or even meaningful in many cases. By parsing play-by-play data, Nylon Calculus estimated percentages of time spent at each position by analyzing every single lineup used last season.
While Kent Bazemore is seen as a shooting guard, he was actually estimated to play small forward 59.2 percent of the time in 2014-15. Kent was forced into more minutes when Thabo Sefolosha went down, often spelling DeMarre and playing alongside two point guards, hence his SF designation.
Bazemore stands in at a slender 201 lbs. in a 6’5” frame, and the 40 lbs. and three inches he gave up to Lebron James in the Conference Finals shone brilliantly last May, unfortunately for Hawks fans. Still, he possesses great agility and a 6′ 11 1/2” wingspan, enough to disrupt passing lanes and pester ball-stopping wings on switches from time to time. Objectively, Baze matched Thabo’s two steals per 100 possession last season and grades out as an above average defender in DBPM.
Small ball isn’t just sliding a small forward to power forward to exploit a speed mismatch. It can be lineups with three guards and two cooperating ball handlers, resembling a college team. Defensively, a team can be more aggressive in sending double teams to harass star players, knowing it has the speed on the backside to recover in rotations. Bazemore fits this archetype well, with blinding quickness in transition and hops to match. It’s probably too much to ask him to lock down LeBron, Carmelo, or other big, talented wings for long stretches, but in a pinch he could still pester them enough to keep them out of rhythm.
The late signing of Justin Holiday may also prove significant. Holiday has a reputation for frustrating on-ball defense, and in limited playing time, allowed just 40.4% shooting when contesting shots, per NBA.com’s player tracking numbers. He has bounced around from stints of professional ball in Belgium, Hungary and twice in the D-League before landing on the bench of the reigning champions last season. Holiday knows the worth of grinding in practice to hone his craft and may finally realize his dream of cracking an NBA rotation.
Improved point guard and interior defense can more than offset Carroll’s loss
The Hawks had all sorts of trouble combating pesky offensive glass crashers like Brook Lopez and Tristan Thompson in the postseason. The Hawks allowed 26.6% of possible defensive rebounds to be grabbed by the opposition last year according to B-ref, 22nd in the NBA. That high a number gave teams too many opportunities for second and third chance points. One way to close the gap left by Carroll is to limit teams to one shot by securing the defensive boards.
Atlanta went into the offseason with an eye on acquiring more size to both provide more resistance at the rim and crash the glass, and came away with a 6’11” Brazilian and a 7’3” Cape Verdean.
With San Antonio making a run at LaMarcus Aldridge, the Spurs had to clear cap space to offer the longtime Blazer a max contract. Tiago Splitter was the odd man out after failing to crack 60 games in either of the last two seasons. The Hawks received Splitter in exchange for a bag of sweet Vidalia onions to be complicit in the Spurs’ carving out of cap space.
For his career, Splitter has grabbed 20 percent of available defensive rebounds according to B-ref, a figure that would have tied Paul Millsap for the team lead in 2014-15. Players also shot just 43.4 percent last season when defended by Splitter, according to the NBA’s defensive tracking numbers. Tiago’s aptitude in these areas will give Al Horford the chance play alongside him as a more rangy forward for the first time in his career.
The few minutes Walter “Edy” Tavares will receive this year loom large in many respects. That much is especially true in a literal and physical sense. His 7’9” wingspan and 9’10” standing reach are only rivaled by Mister Fantastic. In terms of learning curve, however, Tavares is the definition of raw on both ends of the court, but did block over two shots a game and post a tiny 86.6 DRtg during six games at the 2015 Las Vegas Summer League. In addition, while both were craftier and more effective than expected, the departures of Pero Antic and Elton Brand won’t exactly bring peril to the Hawks’ defense.
Neither Jeff Teague nor Dennis Schröder have reached their ceilings, especially defensively. When focused, both have the speed and tenacity required to be a menace from the opposite baseline down to the top of the key. For Teague, it was clear he never fully applied himself on that end during the Larry Drew years and is playing catch up in his development. Schröder, on the other hand, just turned 22 and enters his third year in the league comfortably in the rotation. There’s no reason to think both aren’t trending in the right direction.
Defense is more than the sum of five players in a specific arrangement. It is a collective identity, a five-limbed monster whose survival depends on its ability to master ever-changing surroundings. The monster’s central organization remains the same despite a minor transformation. Coach Mike Budenholzer has never sat on the bench for a team that finished with a below-average defense in either San Antonio or Atlanta, and surely won’t again in 2015-16. DeMarre Carroll didn’t exactly leave a barren cupboard after all.