There has been been a ton of speculation surrounding the Hawks and Rockets center Omer Asik, even after the Rockets rescinded their self-imposed trade deadline. Knowing that, HawksHoop has brought some coverage between Buddy Grizzard monitoring the situation regularly and Bo posting this on Elton Brand. So I figured I would throw my hat in the ring.
To sum up the long version, Millsap is simply a better and more vital player to team success. Sure, everything is contextualized, but Atlanta already has the ninth best defense in the league. Stopping the opponent from scoring hasn’t been an issue. Some nights the team lapses, sure, but over the course of 82 games that happens. There will be nights where the defense fails Atlanta, and that’s okay. So far, they are better on that side of the ball and replacing Millsap with Asik is going to make that more imbalanced.
Next comes the rumor that the Hawks need more of a rim protector in order to thrive. While there is very good reason why rim protector has become a buzzword in NBA circles, Atlanta is already a strong defensive team in the paint. Al Horford’s opponent field goal percentage at the rim is currently 47.2 percent at 6.5 attempts a game. There are only twelve players who contest more shots at a better percentage in the whole league. Most of those players are consistent defensive player of the year candidates such as Joakim Noah, Tyson Chandler, Tim Duncan, and Roy Hibbert. Maybe Horford isn’t elite in the skill, but he’s no Al Jefferson who is allowing 56.3% of his contested attempts to go in. Paul Millsap chips in at times as well. His percentage isn’t the best at 54.9%, but the fact he reaches 9.1 attempts at the rim at their pace is important.
Further on, speed and discipline are the integral cogs for Atlanta’s defensive machine. Atlanta allows opponents to only shoot 20.5 free throws. This ranks fifth and the only teams that rank higher are the plodding — in terms of pace — central teams (Chicago, Indiana), the team that is worst in the league at opponent percentage at the rim (Minnesota, 65.9%), and Coach Bud’s old stomping ground (San Antonio). Paul and Al find ways to contest 15.6 shots together, while stopping 48.1% of the attempts there, while keeping the opponents away from the free throw line. That doesn’t even include Brand’s contribution. So while Atlanta is a middle of the pack team in terms of team field goal percentage and attempts allowed at the rim, they make up some ground by not allowing free throws.
As for the speed, that’s another beast. Paul and Al combine to make one of the quickest front-court tandems in the league, and that allows for the Hawks to force more mid-range attempts than other teams. The Hawks force opponents into taking 25.1 mid-range attempts per game, fifth in the league. The teams ahead of them are the Pacers, Bulls, Spurs, (familiar, huh?), and the Magic. Three of the top five defenses in the league and Bud’s former team show up, and a Magic team that seems like an outlier. This is in large part due to that speed and the system, both of which can be seen in how the Hawks have guarded the pick-and-roll this season. According the MySynergySports.com, Atlanta is the fourth best team defensively when the ball handler takes the shot in the pick-and-roll, and that is the shot they have defended the most outside spot-up shots. Of these 441 possessions, they have allowed 53 threes, 50 shots at the rim, 19 shooting fouls, while creating 83 turnovers. That leaves 236 mid-range jumpers. Here’s some video on how they do it.
Pick-and-roll isn’t the only place where this speed kills on the defensive end. Atlanta is able to get defensive help from any position, at any time. With Omer Asik, they would probably have to tailor the defense a little more to his strengths. His pick-and-roll style is more about sinking in and being able to brace for whatever opposing point guard comes in at full speed. While effective, it seems to go against everything that has worked for Atlanta. They have imposed their style defensively, why switch it up to be more like the rest of the league? At best there is slight improvement, and at worst they compromise the fundamental building blocks to why they are a top ten defense.
Plus, even if Asik makes Atlanta’s defense even better, what are the repercussions on offense? Omer’s lone elite offensive skill is his offensive rebounding. While this is a nice skill for a center to have, it has zero fit in what the Hawks are trying to do in the transitional defensive game. The Hawks allow 11.3% of their defensive possessions to break out in transition, a number that beats the likes of the Spurs and Heat. Yet that comes with a price and they rank 29th in offensive rebounding percentage by grabbing 21.6% of all possible offensive rebounds. Mike Budenholzer has brought Pop’s philosophies on this particular issue over to Atlanta as well, and that leaves Asik with little value offensively. Also, that doubles with the worry of his potential inability to get back on the defensive end.
Sure, being the 55th best pick-and-roll screener in terms of PPP last season is a solid mark. One that makes Omer Asik even usable on the offensive end to some degree. However, while he can be looked upon as good, Millsap ranks out as elite. He’s 11th in the NBA as a pick-and-roll screener, which leaves Asik as a worse offensive player in every potential facet on this side of the floor. Meanwhile, Paul Millsap has put together one of his finest season’s scoring the ball. He’s shooting 45.5% from deep this season on 2.4 attempts per game, making him one of the best stretch power forwards in the game. Asik, for comparison sake, shot 48% on layups according to Ethan Sherwood Strauss of TrueHoop. While he is able to put home 94.6% of his dunks, the fact he only shot 27.4 percent from 3-10 feet would hamper the Hawks spacing. Once again, this completely throws out the Hawks identity on offense and leaves them searching for answers. It’s no surprise that Millsap has the highest positive influence on the Hawks offensive rating with all the different skills he brings. While his his +2.9 mark seems like a little number to consider, seeing that it is better than the other four players is telling. His versatility is a vital cog in moving the machine on offense, and without it there will be some major growing pains. DeMarre Carroll and Jeff Teague — who can’t seem to get himself out of a bad shooting slump — would have to shoulder more load on the perimeter, and a player would have to take more responsibility in facilitating the offense because Asik certainly can’t. Korver and Carroll are such nice fits in Atlanta because they don’t have to dribble the ball, but without Millsap one of them would likely have to do so more. This would take Lou Williams off the bench, where he’s been such a spark plug for the team. The offense has been 7 points per 100 possessions better with Williams on the floor, but part of that is due to his role.
So while this Omer Asik can come in and bright that true rim protecting presence that Atlanta doesn’t have, it comes at such a cost that makes it seem like a wasted risk. The identity of this team would seismically shift, and the offense — the side of the ball where they have been worse at — would require major retooling and players needing to step into more expanded roles. With the style in which Atlanta has defended this season, is that a risk I’m willing to take? Not really. Asik may have some valuable skills but he isn’t the player Paul Millsap has been. Plus, Al Horford has been defending the rim fine. The gains are only minimal and in terms of the risk, I’m not buying.