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Frontcourt making final roster decision difficult for Atlanta Hawks

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The Hawks have a decision to make and the timeline is now accelerated.

NBA: Preseason-Atlanta Hawks at Orlando Magic Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

The Atlanta Hawks entered the 2016 preseason with 15 players with a guaranteed contract, Mike Muscala with a non-guaranteed contract, and a handful of camp contracts. As the Hawks approach the Oct. 24 deadline to trim the roster to 15 spots, most observers seem to be looking at the center-power forward rotation as to where the final cut will be focused. Let’s take a look at the players that have logged significant minutes at these positions and see what it might tell us about potential roster decisions to come.

Before we dig in, though, there are a few maintenance items to cover. Matt Costello was waived on Monday getting the camp roster down to 19 players. Paul Millsap made his first appearance on Sunday and displayed triple-double level of play (19 points 9 rebounds and 7 assists in only 19 minutes of action). While Millsap has been the topic of trade rumors both this past summer and at last season’s trade deadline he is very unlikely to be the target of a transaction to get the roster count to 15 by next week.

Tiago Splitter has been unable to play and will miss at least four weeks of action as he works to recover from a hamstring injury. This is likely to at least influence the Hawks’ decision making process as we near next week’s deadline, but let’s cover that after taking a look at the play of Atlanta’s active “bigs”.

Dwight Howard (70 total minutes, ORtg 99.2 DRtg 101.7, net Rtg -2.5)

Howard has been extremely active offensively in his three games of play thus far, with a usage rate of 27.5% as compared to 18.7% last season as he was famously inconsistently engaged with a drama-filled Rockets team. He has been efficient during live play with an eFG% of 63.6% which would have landed him second last season at this statistic for qualified NBA Centers last year, trailing only DeAndre Jordan of the Clippers (70.3%). Howard has converted only 4 of his 9 free throw attempts thus far, and will likely see his free throw rate increase significantly as we enter the regular season if his effectiveness at the line does not improve.

Most encouraging in his offensive play is that of 17 of 21 of Howard’s made field goals have been assisted. This indicates that he is largely working within the construct of the offensive scheme. Seven of those field goals were assisted by the power forward on the court (Muscala 5, Humphries 1, Kelly 1) which indicates that he is doing positive things and is in the right place when the primary action is going through the other big. Schroder has assisted him five times which indicates solid production coming through the pick and roll. After turning ball over three times in his first game (18 minutes), he has turned the ball over just once in his last two games (52 minutes) which a critical part of his targeted offensive efficiency after being one of the most turnover-prone centers in the league last year. Howard’s defensive and rebounding presence is fully apparent as well including a defensive rebound rate of 27.9% (in comparison Al Horford had defensive rebound rate of 18.0% last season.) So far, things with Howard appear to be heading in a positive direction.

Mike Muscala (83 total minutes, ORtg 107.5, DRtg 99, net Rtg +8.5)

Muscala has seen a lot of work so far having logged minutes at power forward during Millsap’s absence and logging time at center in games when Howard has been rested. This volume of minutes could be related to Atlanta’s brass getting a good long look at the only returning player without a guaranteed contract heading into the season, or featuring him for the purpose of driving potential interest in the trade market, or both. He has played very well, going an impressive 13 of 23 on field goal attempts, while also delivering a very impressive assist ratio of 22.0% thus far (would have led all Hawks bigs last season). Maybe most importantly, Muscala has demonstrated excellent chemistry with Howard.

Muscala’s advanced defensive and rebounding metrics trail only the Hawks centers (Howard and Tavares) and Millsap (just one game of action) in the rotation; this combined with his offensive productivity seem to be driving the team toward what would be an extremely tough waiver decision or an increasingly optimistic trade outlook depending upon which way they decide is best to go.

Walter Tavares (90 total minutes, ORtg 94.1, DRtg 91.3, net Rtg +2.8)

Tavares came to the Hawks a season ago as an extremely raw prospect but with an interesting combination of size and coordination. In a vacuum he is a solid shooter for a player of his size (65.2% eFg and 70.7% FT in the DLeague last season) and demonstrates the ability to catch and finish impressively in transition. Thus far in five games of action, the Hawks play at a solid pace when he is on the floor (102 poss/48 min) compared to Howard (100 poss/48 min) and Muscala (98 poss/48 min) and his defensive rating (91.3) is comparable to what they were getting from Splitter last season (team best DRtg 94.2). The real question is as to what the Hawks can expect to get from him offensively at game speed against opponents full complement of rotational bigs.

Tavares has converted 13 of his 21 field goal attempts and made 4 of his 6 free throw attempts (all good) and has shown marked improvement in other phases of the offense such as dribble hand off’s and in his screen action. But he still struggles at times in typical areas for raw big players, for example he has a high turnover rate of 20.8% despite a low usage rate of only 14.4% (roughly half the usage rate of Howard). His advanced defensive and rebounding numbers are right in line with Howard’s, which is probably the most critical part of his performance thus far. If he can perform on par with Howard in those phases for 10-12 minutes per game with consistency, he could start to make Splitter a potential jettison target at some point.

He still has a solid way to go on the offensive end to be trusted with normal rotation minutes each game and has even further to go to be considered a player than can log starter volume minutes on the occasion that Howard might need to rest on some throughout the season. Splitter’s injury status increases Tavares’ chances of starting the season with the team as I believe the Hawks will want to significantly limit the number of minutes Millsap plays alongside another true Forward at any point during this season . If so, Tavares’ early season play behind Howard might be extremely critical to the Hawks plans for him in the big picture.

Kris Humphries (76 total minutes, ORtg 98.1, DRtg 98.3 net Rtg)

The 31-year-old veteran Humphries continues to demonstrate what he has to offer with solid but not spectacular play from the bench. His shooting (8 for 23 FGA, 5 of 5FTA, 1 of 3 3PA) is a little off overall from last season, but not so much that can’t be explained with sample size and considering has had a lot of run with the Hawks non-roster players. He moves well and moves the ball well on offense and knows how to use his body defensively to stay in front of his opponent and rebound solidly. Humphries and Tavares could be effectively battling for the same rotation spot as the season begins and could even split time game to game depending upon match ups. But as the season progresses both are probably up for some amount of consideration as the odd man out in the longer term.

Mike Scott (29 minutes, ORtg 63.6, DRtg 109.0, net Rtg -45.5)

Scott’s sample size will encourage us not to take too much time examining his numbers. There is nothing pretty in them, but the normal observer can see he is still working to get himself into game shape and get his legs to the point that he can shoot the ball and continue to be one of the Hawks primary sources of offensive production off the bench. Given that Hawks had an opportunity to move on from his previously non-guaranteed contract for this season a few months back and decided to pick up his contract, it would appear that they continue to view him as a critical offensive producer on their second unit such that his spot on the roster seems pretty secure.

Ryan Kelly (84 total minutes, ORtg 103.2, DRtg 87.2, net Rtg +16.0)

Kelly has been by far the most impressive of the “camp invitation” players under non-guaranteed contract for the Hawks this preseason. He has shot the ball with confidence (12 of 26 FGA, 3 of 9 3PA) and has demonstrated an advanced ability in his passing game with an assist rate (21.1%) similar to that of Muscala (22.0%) He has looked good deployed with true centers Howard and Tavares. In addition to production at the power forward position he has logged some quality minutes at Small Forward as well. His advanced rebounding metrics are poor as compared to the rest of the group such that this is probably the one obvious area that keeps him from being seen as a viable rotation piece on this roster.

(I predict he will find a landing spot within the first 4-6 weeks of the season with a team that need a bench forward than can provide some offensive spacing.)

Summary

Someone has to go and Splitter’s current injury status and track record make this decision especially tough. I think the decision has yet to be made and that Tuesday’s game might be a serious final audition for a number of players. It appears that Mike Budenholzer and Wes Wilcox are very invested in Muscala as a player that can really provide some nice offensive balance with Howard (and potentially Tavares). He is the one player than can produce nicely at power forward offensively and cover some defensive minutes at the center position from time-to-time with solid results.

With the Splitter injury, the Hawks may need to look at another position for the final cut as none of the returning players in the big rotation have done anything to obviously warrant a cut. On the flip side, it may be time for the decision makers to have a really honest moment of introspection as to what they can reliably get from Splitter going forward.

If I had to make a prediction at this point, I would say the cut comes at a different position unless Splitter’s injury is either worse than we know or he suffers a set back before the deadline next week. Stay tuned.