The greatest weakness of the 2013-14 Atlanta Hawks was the inconsistency of the bench. The Horford injury clearly hurt the quality of the starting lineup, but the greatest impact may have been how it damaged the Atlanta rotation. Statistically, Atlanta starters fared well following Horford's injury, yet the bench was unable to hold up to the increasing pressure of keeping a high seed. You can read about individual players in our positional previews (GUARDS, FORWARDS, CENTERS). Let us peer to how the prospective bench players will find a role in the upcoming season:
The "I Got This" Guy
There were questions this time last season as to whether or not Shelvin Mack would make the team. He began the season as an afterthought at point guard, yet never relinquished the role of being a backup point guard when given the opportunity. His performance in the playoffs was outstanding and his ability to settle the team down mostly went unnoticed--and may have contributed to Lou Williams becoming expendable. Mack became the man for Coach Bud to send in when things became uncomfortable and Mack consistently responded with much needed poise and fearlessness. The Hawks do not have a clear sixth man entering the season, but Mack provides an instant injection of confidence when things are not going well. Additionally, he showed improvement as a shooter, distributor, and on-ball defender last season. He is not ideally suited to play the 2, but does pair well with Teague late in games when the team needs more ball-handling.
This role did not exist for Atlanta last year. Atlanta's option when turning to the bench to defend the perimeter was to choose the least limited to defender. The gap between Demarre Carroll and his backups was greater than the distance between Mike Scott and a Luis Scola jumper in Game 2 of the playoffs. Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore are significant upgrades over last season's options. Both players have similar skill sets while being on opposite ends of their careers and Atlanta desperately needs both to shore up the perimeter defense when Carroll or Korver leave the floor. Sefolosha will likely be the primary stopper to begin the season, but Bazemore may prove to have a Carroll-like impact in fewer minutes this season. Both players may knock down shots at a high enough rate to be more than simply stoppers, but their ability to upgrade the perimeter will be a key factor in how many games Atlanta wins this season.
In case of emergency, pull the alarm! It helps to have players that you can call upon when all else fails. What Mike Scott fails to bring in consistency on the defensive end is not much of a liability when you need a scoring punch. Scott's role will probably get reduced this season as he loses minutes to Adreian Payne, but he still provides an important set of skills for Atlanta. While it is difficult to find players that Scott can capably defend, he does create problems on the offensive end for many power forwards. Scott is unafraid to mix things up in the post, is underrated in the screen game, and can get white hot from outside. I would expect to see Scott see significant minutes on nights where Coach Bud is looking for a scoring punch or where an opponent uses a player with limited offensive ability.
What I most liked about Adreian Payne as a prospect prior to Atlanta selecting him was the ability to come off an NBA bench as a pseudo-starter. I am not sure how ready he is for a significant role, but I expect him to be an impact player almost immediately due to his diverse skill. Atlanta needed shooting and post defense on the bench which would usually require adding two players. Payne should be able to bring both as an ideal bench player who can be used as a 3 in big lineups or a 5 in small lineups depending on the opponent. I am not sure how Coach Bud will use him but he could be a "7th man" by the time the playoffs begin and show the gifts to be a borderline starter.
The Designated Inbounder
Pero Antic was the best passer on the Hawks last season. Yeah, I said it. He has a remarkable understanding of angles and bodies and movement that he adeptly uses when moving the basketball. Furthermore, he may have been sent to earth from the planet Naismith for the sole purpose of inbounding the basketball. The ball moves well when Pero is in the game due to his passing and screening. While his shot attempts were high near the end of the season that was out of desperate design due to team limitations than Antic seeking out his shot on his own. His outside shot was a horror film against the Pacers, but it should become more of an asset as he takes on a more appropriate role with the return of Al Horford. An underrated post defender, Antic should also bring toughness against more physical opponents.
Can Dennis Schroeder become a stopper at the top of Atlanta's defensive attack? Dennis has the potential to be a star in the NBA, but he has to find a role first. His distribution and decision making look improved in the summer league, but becoming an elite defender is where Atlanta most needs him. Jeff Teague has grown into a very good point guard, but he has played lone enough that only the most optimistic fan can project him to become a plus defender. Atlanta needs a point guard to defend Russell Westbrook, Derrick Rose, and other elite athletes at the point guard position. Teague does not have the size for it and Mack lacks the athleticism. The emergence of Schroeder as an emerging defensive presence would be the best way to find him a role on this team and give Coach Bud an injection of athleticism and length to put pressure on opponents.
The Old and the Restless
Mike Muscala, Elton Brand, and John Jenkins are three players that I hope make little impact in the upcoming season. If the other 12 players stay healthy and meet expectations, none of these three should be playing important minutes. I love what Elton Brand was able to give a desperate team last year, but he is simply no longer able to be a significant factor in an NBA game. Likewise, Mike Muscala may have a long NBA career and be able to keep the ship from taking on water if players go down, but he is still a year away from being ready to be a "stretch 5" on a game-to-game basis. I will be cheering for Jenkins to have a surprising healthy season that helps him realize the promise of his marksmanship, but I hope it is in minutes that mostly do not matter. His lack of presence on the defensive end is too much of a liability to help Atlanta make much progress, but maybe he knocks down a couple of big shots in spot duty to be viewed again as an option to backup Kyle Korver. I would just be surprised if it is in 2014-15.
Atlanta has the talent and roster depth to host a first-round playoff series. If the Hawks are able to do more than simply host a series, but be a contender for the Eastern Conference Finals it will likely be due to the players near the bottom of the roster as much as the top. When Coach Bud looks to his bench this season, it will be more than simply trying to buy minutes for exhausted starters. He will be able to match opponents of multiple combinations with a diversity of skills and abilities. Players who were forced into heavy minutes last season may be battling to simply be available for some games this season. When the tired legs of February and March get heavy, there may be no greater difference between 2014 and 2015 than Atlanta's ability to rest players out of discretion rather than necessity.