With the Hawks crossing the halfway point of their 82 game regular season, it is time to look back at some of the successes and failures of the team.
The team’s record sits at 24-17 prior to Monday’s match against the Orlando Magic, on pace for 48 wins for you math majors. This would be a 12-win drop off from last year despite only a couple of roster changes during the offseason. It was common thought that the Hawks wouldn’t be able to match their performance from a season ago given natural regression. The first half of the season has only proved that line of thinking correct. Still, the team has a real shot at a top two seed in the Eastern Conference and will look to enter the playoffs in better shape this time around.
Let’s dive right into what has gone right early in the 2015-16 season.
By now you’ve heard Baze’s story. A four year player at Old Dominion, Kent went undrafted in 2012 and has had to fight for playing time in the Association. James Herbert of CBS Sports recently detailed his early struggles and his improvement since becoming a Hawk in 2014.
Kent shot 32.7% from three in sporadic time over his first two seasons in the NBA with the Warriors and Lakers. Last season, he shot 36.4% from long range. This year? A brilliant 41.9%. Kent credits a revamped shooting stroke and it has showed in his results. But he has also elevated his game in other ways.
Kent is playing the most minutes of his career at over 28 a game and has responded with double digit scoring for the first time as well. He is fourth on the team in points per game (12.8) and third in True Shooting Percentage (59.2%). In addition, he has turned into a real pesky defender with a 0.4 Defensive Box Plus/Minus (DPM) and over a steal per game.
Long regarded as just a slasher with monster hops, the man from Kelford, North Carolina has refined his game into a well-rounder contributor. Baze was once only known for his bench celebrations, but now his electrifying play between the baselines is causing others to go wild from the sideline. It was only a few months ago when questions surfaced about the team’s ability to replace DeMarre Carroll. Well, I’d say the Hawks have found their replacement plus some.
Paul Millsap encroaching on superstar territory
You can’t point to one elite skill Paul shows on a nightly basis, but his ability to contribute in many different areas makes for an incredible output. Millsap fills up box scores like a pump fills up a car’s gas tank. So far on the young season, Millsap is averaging 18.5 points, 8.6 rebounds, 3.5 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.3 blocks in 32.9 minutes per contest all while True Shooting 57.8%. Many metrics rank him as an elite player due to his versatility in adding value in many different ways.
HawksHoop contributor Eric Yeboah recently detailed all the things Millsap does for the Hawks here. He has expanded his game over the last three seasons to shoot long balls while remaining a talented ball-handler and low post operator. Did I mention his defense is still devasting?
Long story short: the Hawks finally have their superstar.
Offense still sharing the ball
A major staple of the team over the last 2.5 seasons has been the crisp ball movement and unselfishness of the players. It wasn’t long ago that the Hawks were widely panned for their stagnant isolation offenses but the arrival of Coach Bud has brought to Atlanta a ball-sharing movement.
The Hawks are once again in the top two of assists per field goals made at .662 ast/FG. If it holds, it will actually be the fourth season in a row of holding this honor, dating back to Larry Drew’s final season as Atlanta’s head coach. The Hawks also have recorded nine games with 30 assists or more so far in their first 41 games, second to the Golden State Warriors.
The team does this without the benefit of a ball-dominant pass-first point guard a la Rajon Rondo or Ricky Rubio but rather by running their offense through any of the five players on the court. You won’t find many teams with centers who dish out three assists per game like the Hawks have in Al Horford. Plays like this are a beautiful thing to watch and the longer this core stays together, the more chances they’ll have to grow together and play unselfish basketball.
Tiago Splitter not arriving as advertised
Tiago Splitter was brought in from the San Antonio Spurs in an effort to aid the Hawks on the glass and in defending the rim. The seven foot Brazilian was a consistent performer in his days in San Antonio whenever he saw court time, averaging 15 points, 9 rebounds, 2 assists, a steal and a block per 36 minutes while providing solid rim protection over his first five years in the league before coming to Atlanta.
However, the obvious detraction is his lack of ability to fend off injuries and stay on the floor, as he has never averaged more than 25 minutes a game in any NBA season. That trend has continued into this season, as a balky hip and calf have limited his play in the 2015-16 season. Tiago is down to just 12.4 points and 7.4 rebounds per 36 minutes on 50.8% shooting from the field, all the worst rates of his career. He’s also been a below average defender compared to other centers (0.1 DRPM rates in the bottom third of centers) and has logged fewer than a block per 36 minutes.
Splitter has missed 12 games due to injury and there’s a serious indication that even when Splitter sees the floor, he is not 100%. His agility and coordination appear to be hampered and he cannot finish at the rim as well as in previous seasons. The Hawks are used to giving up a few inches on the interior as their rangier forwards and centers provide opposing defenders their own set of problems, but the flashbacks to Tristan Thompson’s feast at the rim last May is a brutal reminder of the need for a low post bruiser. Here’s to full health for Splitter going forward.
Korver’s long range shooting
Kyle Korver has been widely regarded as one of the best NBA shooters in the past decade, but thus far Korver has shot the three ball more like Steve Blake than Steve Kerr. A season after nailing a league best 49.2% from beyond the arc, the Creighton Blue Jay is hitting just 36% from deep, a career-worst mark. Korver is on pace to post his first negative Offensive Box Plus/Minus since his rookie season.
To find a silver lining, some of his peripheral stats may indicate a turnaround in the second half of the season. Korver is still hitting 85.7% of free throws and is shooting 53.8% from two-point range. Still, his value on the court is rather dependent on his ability to hit long range shots and make defenses respect him. With almost two thirds of his field goal attempts of the three point variety, Korver has to return to being a serious threat from downtown if the Hawks are to make another long postseason run.
Justin Holiday, Tim Hardaway Jr. and Lamar Patterson have yet to truly form a deep rotation on the wings, which was expected to be the most glaring hole on the roster. All three are spending their first year in a Hawks uniform and have yet to fully become acclimated to the team’s scheme on either side of the court.
Holiday was brought over from the champion Golden State Warriors equipped with the skills to lock down wing players, but shaky on offense. Hardaway had the opposite problem; he would need to be transformed from a high volume shooter into a team offensive player and something greater than a turnstile on defense. Patterson was a 2014 second round draft pick expected to merely fill a role as the 15th man on the bench but was quickly thrust into the regular rotation to middling results.
Combined into one player, that trio is averaging just 8 points, 4 rebounds, 2.7 assists per 36 minutes on 35.5% shooting from the field and 25.2% from three. This group was supposed to provide long range shooting and a defensive presence, but in 764 minutes of action, all three are hitting less than 27% from long range and grade out as below average defenders in Defensive Box Plus/Minus.
Save for a trade, the Hawks will have to find a solution somewhere within the confines of Philips Arena. Maybe it means more Millsap at small forward or shortening the rotation and playing Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder together more often. But the current reality behind Korver, Baze and Thabo isn’t pretty.
This one is the elephant in the room. The Hawks are 29th in the league in OReb% at 20.2% and 27th in DReb% at 73.7%. I previously discussed why this has become the status quo and it essentially boils down to equal parts scheme and effort. On the defensive glass, the Hawks are undersized and their effort has wavered on a nightly basis. On the other side of the floor, the coaching staff routinely sacrifices crashing the glass for improved transition defense. Still, the numbers are an eyesore and the team has given opponents more and more chances to punish them for their aversion to rebounds.
Interestingly, Atlanta’s paltry numbers on the glass may not be a death knell for the team’s contender status. For historical teams who rebound on the offensive glass about as poorly as the Hawks (including three other teams this season), there doesn’t seem to be a strong correlation with winning or losing. In fact, five of the seven teams who accomplished this feat prior to this season made the playoffs and two made it to the NBA Finals.
At the time of writing this, the Hawks have just easily dispatched the Orlando Magic for their 25th win and sit third in the East and at the top of the Southeast Division. Even though the Hawks assuredly won’t repeat last year’s success, maybe this time around that sacrifice will mean Atlanta can enter postseason play on a hot streak with all pieces intact and healthy. It’s very difficult to solidify your status as a contender in just a few months but you can certainly remove yourself from that discussion with ease. The Hawks still have a few words to add to that conversation.
*all stats per Basketball-Reference as of 1/18