I like Kent Bazemore.
He is a high-energy player with athleticism, the ability to defend at a high level in certain situations and a recklessness that I have always enjoyed. In the same breath, though, his prominent place in the 2015 NBA Playoffs for the Atlanta Hawks has brought me to a realization.
I miss Thabo Sefolosha.
In all fairness to Bazemore, this was the not the role he was acquired to fill. The 25-year-old guard was acquired with a two-year, $4 million contract in the off-season with the express purpose of providing insurance on the wing. In a perfect world (or anything approaching one), Bazemore would be deployed as the fourth wing player on the roster, and he proved to be more than adequate in that role, knocking down 36.4% of his threes and providing a lift of energy (copyright, Larry Drew) when he stepped on the floor.
The absence of Sefolosha has forced Bazemore into a more prominent playoff role (with good reason considering the other options), however, and that has shown to be a weakness for the Hawks. Bazemore was lights-out in Game 2, making all three of his field goal attempts including two threes, but prior to that showing, the playoff results were borderline disastrous in the playoffs, including a 35.8% true shooting.
That kind of shooting mark was unsustainably low, but the difference between lineups that include Bazemore and lineups that include Sefolosha has been marked throughout the season. For example, Kent Bazemore produced a -0.7 net rating during the regular season, meaning that Atlanta was actually outscored with him on the floor over his 75 games of action. In a vacuum, that isn't insane given his status as a bench player, but when compared against the team's overall rating (+5.6) that of Sefolosha (+10.3!!!) and the fact that the Hawks were 10.4 points better with him off the floor (per Basketball-Reference), the issue begins to take focus.
A glimpse into that double-digit net rating for Sefolosha reveals that the Hawks are at their best defensively when he played this season, allowing only 95.3 points per 100 possessions. Bazemore's numbers were respectable, but not great, defensively during the year, and to be honest, there is a clear line of delineation between the two players on that end of the floor. When you include their differences on the offensive end, namely that Bazemore's recklessness is often a negative while Sefolosha's even-handed play usually takes nothing off of the table offensively, the contract is there.
Can the Atlanta Hawks continue to advance in the Eastern Conference Playoffs with Kent Bazemore as their primary backup on the wing? Absolutely. He must, however, make shots in order to achieve that team-wide goal.
As we saw in Game 2, the threat of Bazemore on the offensive end is crucial. Obviously, there won't be a great deal of 3-for-3 games on the horizon, but the former Old Dominion standout shot just 6.7% (not a misprint) from three in the first seven playoff games, with a hideous 31% clip from the field. The truth for Bazemore is somewhere in the middle, but for the Hawks to be ultimately successful, it must trend toward the top half of any chart of likelihood.
Thabo Sefolosha is criminally underrated, and most (if not all) evaluators of the Atlanta Hawks throughout the season can see that. His absence was a red flag from the moment that the "incident" took place in New York City, and the Hawks realize the hole that they were placed in when it was announced that he would not return this season.
Kent Bazemore is not as valuable as Thabo Sefolosha, but he doesn't have to be. What he must do, however, is convert open shots and operate as a deterrent on the defensive end in fewer than 20 minutes per game, and if the player that Mike Budenholzer deploys is closer to the Game 2 version than the version we have seen in a small sample previously, that is a reasonable projection.