The roller coaster ride for the Hawks so far this season cannot be resolved in a few adjustments, the roster is what it is and therefore instead of asking what they’re missing, ask who needs to step up. Out of all the lineup changes and injuries this team has endured so far, they will need more production out of their first year starting point guard Dennis Schroder to be that stable force.
Now that may seem unfair for a guy playing at the deepest position in the league with a team lacking shooters and a real on-court identity. Preseason polls predicted the Hawks would finish in the bottom half of the East, but this team believes they have all the right pieces to finish well beyond that prognosis and in order for them to meet those goals they need Schroder at his best. Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard may draw the most attention from opposing defenses, but make no mistake Schroder is the most important component and this team follows his lead.
“When he’s playing downhill it opens everything up, not too many people can stay in front of him,” said Kent Bazemore on Schroder. “He does such a great job putting pressure on the rim. I think he is a very underrated passer. Some of the passes he makes can shock you. When he is balling like that it gives us a very good chance of winning. But it is an adjustment for him playing starter minutes and us demanding so much from him.”
Three-time Hawks All-Star Paul Millsap gave Schroder similar praise.
“He puts a lot of pressure on the defense, especially when he’s attacking downhill,” said Millsap. You have to respect it and when he doesn’t have it he’s good at making the pass to get another guy a shot.”
Here you can see Schroder’s knack of finding the open man and not only finding the open man. He not only finds the man but uses his penetrating ability to draw defenders and create easier scoring opportunites for guys like Sefolosha, Bazemore and Millsap. These plays also show his development in reading defenses properly and making the correct pass.
The numbers don’t lie, when Schroder scores 24 points or more the Hawks are 6-2. In those eight games he went for 31 against Westbrook, 27 against Derrick Rose, 28 against the Golden State killer that is Kyrie Irving and 24 a piece facing Steph Curry and Kyle Lowry. Majority of those games have two things in common: matchups with elite point guards that were on the road.
That brings forth another task within this quandary to solve, because it is apparent he’s carrying a little extra motivation away from Philips Arena than in it. Schroder admitted postgame after falling to the Timberwolves for a third consecutive home loss that he has a bigger appetite for away games. Now that may be due to the lack of home court advantage offered to him in Atlanta, but regardless, admitting is one thing; actually dissecting as to why there is such a vast difference in production is another. Along with his home-away dilemma, Schroder’s ability to dissect the way defenses are choosing to guard him is still a work in progress, but his level of aggressiveness can’t be, it must be there every night for this Hawks team.
“Being a point guard is a hard job because you need to score,” said Kyle Korver on Schroder. “Getting into the paint sucks in the defense, but you also need to get everyone involved. I think Dennis has done a good job, especially the last couple weeks of finding a balance of knowing when to score and when you need to get the ball moving, get others involved, get them feeling like they are on their game. It’s a hard thing to do and honestly there aren’t a lot of guys in the NBA that do a great job at it. Its tough to be a real scorer and real playmaker, there’s not many, but I believe Dennis has the talent to do that and he’s been finding his way.”
As Russell Westbrook and Damian Lillard have adjusted their games to the individuals surrounding them by accepting more responsibility and being that catalyst, so should Dennis. Even in an offense that believes strongly in sharing the ball, head coach Mike Budenholzer trusts Dennis more than any other guard as he is presently accounting for a 26-percent usage rate. The time is now for him to place more attention on looking for his own shots just a bit more than being a distributor with the team consistently fluctuating in and out of playoff contention.
So far he’s accepted the challenge from the doubters who said he couldn’t shoot the deep ball, he’s currently shooting career best 36-percent. When they said he’s not enough of a mid-range threat, he’s responded by shooting 52-percent from 15-19 feet. The season is still relatively young, but these are big strides for such a young player stepping into a bigger stage.
Many were wondering coming into the season how Schroder would fair as a shooter now that he is the starting. He began the year struggling, but since has improved significantly. During the 9-2 start he was shooting just 34% from 20-24 feet and since has upped that to 42%. He looks a lot more confident stepping into those shots and is understanding defenses are playing him for the drive.
Even nine time all-star Chris Paul is plagued with the same dilemma, whether to look for his own early or to defer to his teammates. It’s a tough balance for pass first primary ball handlers who are surrounded by dependent pieces.
“I like to feel the game out in the first few minutes and see what they [defense] are doing,” said Schroder. “If they are heavily shifting I have to pass the ball more and if they are not then I just try to be aggressive. Coach is letting me know every time that I have to be aggressive for us to be successful, so I am just trying to find the balance.”
Those dependent pieces like Sefolosha, Bazemore and Howard do not thrive strictly on whether or not they take a certain amount of shots per game, but playing alongside a point guard who is looking to annihilate defenses anyway possible can also affect those individuals to play at a level much higher than their ceiling. Jason Kidd accomplished that in 2001 with the likes of Keith Van Horn, Kerry Kittles and Todd MacCulloch. After the departure of Shawn Kemp, Gary Payton stepped up and led his team to a first round appearance in 2000. Allen Iverson’s MVP season and Finals run is even more remarkable looking at the parts around him. Schroder can relate closely with Derrick Rose’s time in Chicago, who also played alongside few legitimate scoring options for a defensive minded head coach. Those are some of the greatest basketball talents this game has ever seen and comparing Schroder to them may seem unfair, but the focus is the intent, not from whom it came. Each of those guys precisely gauged the hand they were dealt and responded in the only way they knew possible.
“There are times we go in a scoring drought and we just look at him like you can get your shot, get to that pullup, get to the rim, and get us going,” said Bazemore post Hawks victory versus the New York Knicks. “He did that tonight, there was a point there where it was back and forth and we weren’t getting any stops. He came back in and hit some very big pullups for us and that’s what you need out of your point guard. Being that floor general and seeing that his guys aren’t doing well or cant it going, to step in and fill that void is huge for us”-
For the past couple years this team have relied on Al Horford and Paul Millsap for majority of their offense, but this is a different team now that requires a bigger scoring presence from its point guard than ever before.