Greatest of All-Time Atlanta Hawks Series #14: Tree Rollins


Welcome back to the GOAT Atlanta Hawks Series. Missed the previous entries? Check them out here:

Preview, #16, #15

#14 is a player that I am very fond of, as he was part of the first Atlanta Hawks team I was able to watch via Channel 17 on the UHF dial. He is also the origin of my long standing shot blocker fetish, a disease that has led me to be enamored with the games of Acie Earl, Greg Ostertag, and Shawn Bradley.

He was slow and couldn't even be considered an afterthought offensively, but he could rebound, block shots, and was the undisputed leader of the best Atlanta Hawks teams ever.

Our #14 Greatest of All-Time Atlanta Hawk: Wayne "Tree" Rollins.

Tree was a player whose reputation and historical importance isn't based solely on the fact that he was selfless, a good guy, and a leader. His production on the defensive end was prodigious and those Hawks teams enjoyed a healthy offensive rating (111, tied for 6th all-time ATL) as well as a stellar defensive rating (100, third all-time ATL).

Rollins was drafted as the 14th pick overall in 1977, an after effect from a trade during the previous season that sent their own pick to Washington with guard Tom Henderson and brought the Hawks, for the remainder of that season only, the services of Truck Robinson. The Hawks pick ended up being #4 overall and the Bullets took Greg Ballard while the Hawks settled back at #14 and took Rollins. But what may have looked like a high payment for a rental of a scorer like Robinson in the end produced one of the all-time greats in Atlanta history and a leader for a pair of great teams over the next decade.

To put it bluntly, during Hubie Brown's tenure as the Atlanta Hawks head coach, rookies didn't get much run. In an era where the NBA draft went (8) rounds and players in the middle of the draft regularly made teams, Hubie managed to only allow (3) rookies to make his squad in the first three seasons, and Rollins played immediately.

Hubie had good reason to in those first three seasons with Rollins, as Tree finished 5th (93.9), 7th (98.2), and 1st (95.9) in defensive rating in those years, as well as providing league leadership in rebounding (4th in NBA, 19.6) and, of course, blocked shots, where Tree finished in the top 3 in total blocks (2nd, 2nd, and 3rd), blocks per game (3rd, 3rd, and 3rd), and led the entire league in block rate (Block percentage is an estimate of the percentage of opponent two-point field goal attempts blocked by the player while he was on the floor.) all three of his first seasons in the league.

With Rollins patrolling the middle, grabbing rebounds, and leading defensively, those Hawks under Brown, despite not having a single player who anyone would describe as a "star" player or certainly not a hall-of-famer, the Hawks improved from 31 to 41 to 46 and concluded Tree's third season with an amazing run to the Central division title with 50 wins.

After Brown had run his course in Atlanta, Rollins continued his excellence defensively, popping into the top 10 three more times during his decade as a Hawk and finishing in the Top 10 in block percentage every single season as a Hawk.

He endured the Hawks drafting not one, but two centers to replace him (Kevin Willis, Jon Koncak), but his leadership and effectiveness never flagged even with having to share more playing time.

Rollins finished his run in Atlanta ranked as follows:

9th in Offensive Rebound Rate (10.0)

4th in Defensive Rebound Rate (21.8)

5th in Total Rebound Rate (15.9)

7th in Rebounds per game (7.4)

3rd in Defensive Rating (100)

4th in Win Shares (58.8)

1st in Defensive Win Shares (37.4)

1st in Block Percentage (6.5)

2nd in Blocks per Game (2.8)

Rollins is also Top 10 all-time NBA in blocks for career.

Rollins spoke about his blocks in a terrific "Old School" interview with Dave Hollander in 2005.

Money quote:

Well, I attribute a lot of my blocks to Dominique Wilkins because Dominique wouldn't play defense. He'd [essentially tell opponents], "just go on back there to the big fella." So, I'd get a lot of blocked shots.

Tree was a special player that spanned the first great Atlanta Hawks team under Hubie Brown and carried over onto the Dominique Wilkins led, Mike Fratello coached squad in the 80's.

In his draft class, only Jack Sikma rebounded more and nobody topped Tree in blocks.

He is an easy choice as our #14 Greatest of All-Time Atlanta Hawk.

All stats from the amazing basketball-reference.com.

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