The last few weeks have been quite disorienting for Atlanta Hawks fans and for those that follow the team in other capacities. There have been rumors of all sorts as speculation around the organization was the subject of a myriad of NBA news sources. Ultimately we would learn that Kyle Korver was traded to Cleveland but that apparently Paul Millsap is not going anywhere. We still don’t know what might happen with the other players on the roster with such a large number of them heading for unrestricted free agency, restricted free agency or team/player options for next season. But the obvious question on everyone’s mind is this: If Paul Millsap is not going anywhere, why was Korver traded?
I don’t have any insight or intelligence from within the Hawks organization. But I will try to offer a perspective as to how I think the team very well could have arrived as these decisions.
Last season, Atlanta underwent a pretty significant overhaul in their identity as they eventually would come to the realization that they were not able to recreate the offensive success of the 2014-15 season in which the team ranked sixth overall in offensive rating including being Top 3 in assist rate, effective FG%, and true shooting percentage. In the late December time frame in 2015-16 season, Coach Mike Budenholzer adjusted a lot of things within the defensive scheme in an effort to offset the realities of the offensive deficiencies that team just could not successfully address.
The result would be generally positive certainly in terms of regular season success as the Hawks would eventually make themselves into an elite defensive team finishing second in defensive rating trailing only a San Antonio team that would go on to set a franchise record in regular season wins.
Paul Millsap was a standout defender and would ultimately be recognized as such by the league as he to the NBA’s All-Defensive second team. Thabo Sefolosha unsurprisingly measured well in defensive performance landing in the top ten as his position in Defensive Real Plus Minus (DPRM) as measured by ESPN.com. It might be surprising to many that Kyle Korver last season also graded as a top ten defender at his position as measured by DRPM. But fast-forward to this season; as we near the season’s mid-point notice that Korver’s defensive metrics have slipped all the way to bottom 10 at his position.
Korver has pretty consistently been viewed as a solid team defender across the bulk of his career but with some noted limitations as an on ball defender especially on the perimeter. A simplistic explanation for Korver’s measurable defensive regression might be that he entered this season at the age of 35 and that none of this should be viewed as a surprise. But I think there is more to it than that.
With the transition at the center position from Al Horford to Dwight Howard, the defensive scheme, a work in progress during much of the early part of this season, seems to have landed on one that is founded on Howard’s rim protection and rebounding ability along with increased responsibility for the Hawks’ perimeter defenders to stay attached to the opponent as they work over ball screens. Last season, the Hawks leveraged the mobility of both Horford and Millsap to either trap the ball handler in the pick and roll technique or to at least have the big show hard and recover preferably avoiding a defensive switch. As the Hawks incrementally progressed towards the adjusted defensive scheme this season, Korver’s defensive skill set would ultimately become a difficult fit for what was required of the Hawks’ perimeter defenders. As such Korver would ultimately be moved from the starting unit to the bench and Coach Mike Budenholzer would increasingly look for opportunities to play Korver defensively at the power forward position largely against opponent’s bench units.
In my opinion, the reason the Hawks ultimately decided to not move on from Millsap was the very effective defensive foundation the Hawks would realize with Howard and Millsap deployed together at their respective positions. Per NBA.com, the two-man lineup data with Howard and Millsap on the floor demonstrates that the Hawks have a very impressive defensive rating of 95.1 with their starting bigs playing together.
When you start expanding the view to three-man lineup data, you will see that while Dennis Schroder has an individual defensive rating of 103.7, the three-man lineup of Schroder, Howard and Millsap measures in with a defensive rating of 95.2. Similarly, Kent Bazemore has an individual defensive rating of 103.8, but the three-man line up of Bazemore, Howard and Millsap has a combined defensive rating of 95.5 To continue the exercise, notice that Thabo Sefolosha has an individual defensive rating of 100.1 while the three-man line of Thabo playing along the starting bigs registers an incredibly impressive defensive rating of 87.4. Similar results can be seen in the analysis with Tim Hardaway Jr. (individual defensive rating of 101.8, but 94.8 in a three-man lineup with Howard and Millsap).
Korver was clearly the only wing player unable to benefit from playing alongside Howard and Millsap. He would complete his time with the Hawks this season with an individual net rating of 106.4 and a nearly unchanged defensive rating of 106.1 as measured in a three-man lineup with Howard and Millsap. These data points along with the observation of Coach Budenholzer increasingly trying to wedge Korver into opportunities to play at the power forward defensively convince me that the Hawks ultimately came to land on a defensive scheme in which they have solid confidence but with the unfortunate result that the scheme was a terrible fit for Korver.
Going forward, the Hawks, it appears, will try to build toward success relying on a starting unit that has the best defensive rating in the league (85.2) for any five-man unit that has logged 150 minutes or more together. Just as last season, the offense will be the variable that determines how much success can be realized (they currently rank 23rd in offensive rating), but now committed to a starting unit with a current net rating of +16.1 it seems the Hawks organization sees something that motivates them to move forward this season without completely tearing down a roster that had many questions marks according to most observers just a mere 2-3 weeks ago.
While the Hawks roster is quite different from last season, this point in the current season feels eerily familiar to where the Hawks were almost exactly a year ago: modest success thus far with many questions marks looming in the coming off-season. Most Hawks’ fans would likely be less than satisfied if the result of the decisions of the past few weeks include a 48-win season and an uncompetitive 2nd round post-season exit. But the plan appears to be fairly set going forward and only time will tell if the results might be meaningfully different this season.