With training camp right around the corner, the 2015-2016 NBA season is quickly approaching, and that means the return of the Atlanta Hawks. In the third installment of our season preview series, we will examine the team's situation in the frontcourt, featuring a deep stable of talented big men.
For reference purposes, this list includes all players slated to see significant time at either power forward and center, keeping in mind that some (or at least two) of them could be featured in a more "perimeter" role at times during the campaign. Let's get to it.
Al Horford is pretty good.
That, of course, is an understatement given Horford's immense ability and impact, and he continues to carry the torch as the team's best player. The 6-foot-10 big man continues to conjure debate concerning his "natural position", but he functions beautifully as Atlanta's center and given his recent barrage of All-Star appearances, things are going just fine.
The biggest question surrounding Horford actually has nothing to do with his on-court performance in 2015-2016, and that is his pending free agency after the season. The 29-year-old will become an unrestricted free agent on July 1, and Hawks fans are already in panic mode concerning the possibility that he may depart for greener pastures. It is far too early to worry about that, though, and provided that Atlanta pays up (and they will), Horford would be turning down money to move elsewhere.
On the basketball court, his age-29 season should be another productive one. Horford took a slight step back in counting stats (15.2 points, 7.2 rebounds per game), but much of that is based on a reduced workload (30.5 minutes per game), and that preservation attempt from Mike Budenholzer is likely wise. Horford is one of the best mid-range shooters in the NBA, regardless of position, and when you can pair that with a versatile defensive game that makes a real impact both around the rim and on the perimeter, it is easy to see how valuable he is.
Al Horford will never be a "superstar" in the minds of some, but he is a top-20 player in the NBA today and a fantastic centerpiece.
On heels of back-to-back All-Star appearances, Paul Millsap got paid this off-season, and he is worth every penny. There is some concern that the now 30-year-old forward will decline by the end of his four-year contract, but in 2015-2016, that shouldn't be a concern and that is our focus today.
Millsap is a wildly interesting player in that he doesn't fit the typical mold of a star power forward. Paul is (generously) listed at 6-foot-8, but he still averaged 8.6 rebounds per 36 minutes a year ago, and that is just the beginning of his impact. On the defensive end, Millsap has some of the best hands in the league, and that helped to result in 1.8 steals per game a year ago. He possesses the foot speed needed to guard perimeter players while using ingenuity to hold his own in the post, and if anything, Millsap is an above-average asset on that end despite his size.
Offensively, Millsap's transition into a full-blown shooter has been fun to watch. He has converted better than 35% of his threes in two straight seasons, peaking with a 56.5% true shooting rate in 2014-2015. Millsap isn't an elite shooter by any means, but he simply can't be left open, and that development has really helped to facilitate spacing for Mike Budenholzer's offense. Millsap's bread and butter remains his varied abilities near the rim, however, as he is a strong off-the-dribble player against bigger defenders while boasting the ability to take small forwards deep under the rim to generate points.
Like Horford before him, Millsap will probably always be underrated, but even as a $20 million player, his value outweighs his contract.
The Hawks didn't make the "big splash" that many desired, but their biggest addition should be pay real dividends.
Tiago Splitter is a more-than-capable starting center in the NBA, and when that type of player operates as your third big in the Eastern Conference, it is a win. Splitter averaged 15.0 points and 8.8 rebounds per 36 minutes last season in San Antonio, and his career 60.1% true shooting is an indication that his offense comes efficiently. The biggest concern with Splitter's integration into Budenholzer's offense is that he is the lone non-shooter in the projected rotation, but given that Budenholzer models himself after Gregg Popovich (who coached Splitter for his entire career to this point), the transition should come smoothly.
The biggest impact he will make is on the defensive end. Splitter is an above-average defender by any description, and while he isn't a dominant shot blocker, his flexibility in defending the pick-and-roll while acting as a deterrent on the interior will be a welcomed addition. Fans shouldn't expect anything particularly flashy from Splitter, but with Horford's ability to play both center and power forward, Splitter should see a prominent role as the team's third big, and he is vastly overqualified for that spot.
Remember when Pero Antic was the backup center? This will be better.
Mike Muscala was very good in a limited role a year ago, but now, the pressure is on. By all counts, Muscala is expected to act as the team's primary backup power forward this season, and while that may not come with huge minutes, he should be firmly implanted in the rotation.
Muscala produced excellent numbers (18.0 PER, 60.8% true shooting) a year ago, and he held his own defensively against both centers and power forwards. It remains to be seen what his ceiling will entail, but Muscala is a skilled big man with range, passing ability and defensive aptitude, and that makes him an upgrade on what Mike Scott brought to the table in 2014-2015.
Because of Splitter's presence, Muscala may not receive typical "backup" minutes at power forward (some of those will go to Al Horford playing alongside Splitter), but he is up for the challenge of joining the full-time rotation in his third season.
The off-court troubles for Mike Scott make this a cloudy situation. Scott was arrested over the summer and, if you believe the reports, he could face extended jail time. While that legal trouble won't affect his on-court availability this year, it was certainly a distraction, and some have speculated that the Hawks could still be looking to move on from Scott's contract.
Even if we ignore the off-court situation, though, Scott has flaws. His three-point shooting (34.4%) actually improved on the whole last season, but given that it was his prime asset, that figure doesn't justify extended playing time. Scott is a player that is capable of big things in short spurts, making him an outlier when compared to the steady approach of most of his teammates, but he remains a below-average defender (to be kind) who can shoot himself off the floor on any given night.
The battle between Scott and Muscala for playing time will be an interesting one, but Muscala simply brings more versatility and stability to the table. It is fair to suggest that Atlanta would want to get out of Scott's final contract year if they could, but if he's around, Scott will fill a role as a bench "gunner" who can and will play more minutes if injuries occur.
Walter (Edy) Taveras
We've broken down Edy Tavares in various forms, but the gist is that he probably isn't ready to contribute at the NBA level right now. The 7-foot-3 center showed flashes in Las Vegas this summer, posting a double-double and averaging 2.8 blocks per game in only 20.5 minutes. However, he was visibly affected by the speed of the game, and that is going to be an issue in year one.
Offensively, Tavares possesses more skills than you would imagine, but they come at a glacial pace. He can step out to shoot out to mid-range, but in the post, he is still raw, and this offense wouldn't revolve around his talents. His principle value in the NBA will come as a defender, where his shot-blocking could be utterly elite in a hurry. However, Tavares is going to have trouble staying on the floor with foul trouble if he plays real minutes early on, and his pick-and-roll transition will be an interesting one.
It is a positive thing that the Hawks have a deep stable of big men, simply because that will keep Tavares off the floor and allow him to adjust to the NBA game in practice rather than in important games. I'm still a fan of what he could be down the line, but fans expecting to see a contributor as a rookie will likely be disappointed.