As the Atlanta Hawks approach Thursday's NBA trade deadline, it is difficult to identify what a team with a 6.5 game lead over the number 2 seed in the East should do to improve. Atlanta has to be careful in making any move that may disrupt the team chemistry featured in their rise to the top of the East standings. With other contenders sure to get stronger in the months ahead, the Hawks do not want to be too careful in resting on the success of their 43-11 romp through to the All-Star break.
In the midst of Atlanta playing outstanding basketball on both ends of the floor, the team has one clear statistical weakness: rebounding. Is it simply a weakness or is it a problem? The rebounding issue could be merely a flesh wound that looks bad in the stat line, but does not have a very large effect on the outcome of games--as indicated by Atlanta's 19-game winning streak. However, a common ailment in Atlanta's losses this season has been a significant shortage in securing defensive rebounds versus opponents. In the playoffs, teams like Chicago, Memphis, and even a #8 seed like the Hornets could turn a small problem into a nightmare for the Hawks.
There are many dimensions to what makes a team successful at rebounding the basketball and no stat can perfectly evaluate team rebounding. Atlanta is the worst offensive rebounding team in the NBA (8.3 per game), but the lack of offensive boards appears to be mostly by design. Contending teams increasingly prefer solid transition defense over sending extra players to the glass. Currently, 9 of the bottom 11 teams in offensive rebounding are slated to make the playoffs while 8 of the top 11 are slated to miss the playoffs. The Miami Heat were the worst offensive rebounding team in the East last year (7.6 per game) while going on to win the conference and the champion San Antonio Spurs (9.3) finished only ahead of the Lakers in the West. Atlanta would certainly benefit from improving on the offensive glass, but its failure to do so does not project to be a problem for getting desired outcomes going forward.
If Atlanta getting offensive boards is not a problem, other teams consistently getting second opportunities might be. The natural response to the problem is to presume that Atlanta needs to add more size to its team to shore up this weakness. Unfortunately, the problem is not as simple as plugging a large hole in the roster. As well as Atlanta's starters play together on both ends of the floor, there are some holes in how well they rebound as both individuals and as a unit. Here are the defensive rebounding percentages and position rank for each Atlanta starter: Al Horford (20.4, 46th center), Paul Millsap (20.4, 28th power forward), DeMarre Carroll (13.3, 34th forward), Kyle Korver (13.3, 15th shooting guard), Jeff Teague (7.5, 62nd point guard). Atlanta's starting lineup has a total defensive rebounding percentage of 74.9 while the team overall is a 73.6. In order for Atlanta to make a notable improvement on keeping opponents off of the offensive glass, the Hawks will have to make a change to the starting lineup or the starting group will have to show improvement internally. With the level of play shown by this group throughout the season, it would be a panic move to shake-up the starting lineup. With Korver as the only player securing rebounds as a plus-rating for his position, each Atlanta starter must come out of the All-Star break with renewed focus on securing the ball on the defensive glass.
Before a panic trade is made (or suggested by fans), Atlanta's rebounding woes are more of a facade than the overall numbers indicate. More than acquiring a new acquisition at the trade deadline to secure the defensive glass, Atlanta most needs Thabo Sefolosha's calf to get healthy. In the seven games since Sefolosha left with the calf injury, Atlanta has surrendered a whopping 72 more rebounds than it has secured (a net deficit of 10.2 per game). Atlanta has only out-rebounded an opponent once in the 9 games that Sefolosha has missed this season. When you consider that Sefolosha currently leads all qualifying small forwards in defensive rating and in rebounds per 48 minutes, it may be that Atlanta already has an answer to its rebounding problem IF Thabo gets healthy.
When DeMarre Carroll and Thabo Sefolosha are both active on the roster, Atlanta is 35-5 on the season and 29-2 in their last 31 games together. Despite the revelation that Kent Bazemore has been in Sefolosha's place, he is just not in the same tier of skill at small forward as Carroll and Sefolosha. If Atlanta is to make any move at the trade deadline, it should be acquiring an additional wing in the event that Sefolosha is unable to return to form or Carroll should become hobbled or injured. I am not sure that Atlanta need to make that type of move, but it should certainly be a priority over picking up a shooter like Ray Allen or presumably available castoffs such as Amare Stoudemire or Larry Sanders. The Denver Nuggets appear willing to move Arron Afflalo or Wilson Chandler prior to the deadline, but the Nuggets want a first-round draft pick or two in return. Would Atlanta be willing to package John Jenkins, Shelvin Mack, and a future 1st to secure their chances of making a deep run (Mack would have to be included in any package to make the money work)? Mack may not be a part of the current rotation, but giving him up would seem to create another hole in the event Teague or Schroeder are injured. Is a likely one-year rental of Chandler or Afflalo worth giving up a future pick? I love Afflalo and wanted the Hawks to acquire him this summer but this type of trade seem like a little too much risk now and for the future to make such a move.
The best move in front of the Atlanta Hawks looks to be continuing to develop the core of players that has put them in position to have home-court advantage throughout the Eastern Conference playoffs. While the trade of Adreian Payne makes for easy speculation on subsequent moves being made, it could just as well be that the trade just made a lot of sense for future seasons. While some think Atlanta needs to make a move to prepare for the inevitable rise of the Cavs, the only calf Atlanta should be worried about is one on its roster.
Get well, Thabo!