In this two-part series, I’ll be looking at the Atlanta Hawks from a big-picture perspective, diving into each of the team’s key players as well as discussing the strengths and weaknesses of the squad and where the team is in their rebuilding process. This is Part 1—check back for Part 2 on Monday.
Even when a team is sitting at the bottom of the NBA standings with a 6-23 record, everything matters. If the Hawks stay at the bottom of the league throughout the balance of this season, every day of this season still matters. If two-thirds of the roster turns over in the next 12-24 months, every game and every practice with the current roster still matter. Every minute of one-on-one player development (one coach, one player) matters. In the front office, every meeting, every potential trade discussion and every scouting report and player evaluation matter.
Successful teams are not built by suddenly pulling the right strings or flipping the right switch. Luck is sometimes a factor. Still, I would argue that successful NBA teams are built with three common denominators: (1) a sound, unified strategy and vision that are shared from the top of the organization to the bottom. (2) a winning culture that is evidenced by strong coaching, work ethic, attitude, discipline and unselfish teamwork, and (3) a balanced roster with elite basketball talent.
In the Mike Budenholzer era, the Hawks quickly achieved success winning 60 games and reaching the Eastern Conference Finals in his second season with the team. Budenholzer’s second season was general manager Danny Ferry’s third. While the results on the court exceeded expectations, the formula for success was no quick fix. Two of the key pieces that led the Hawks to that 60-win season, Al Horford and Jeff Teague, were in their eighth and sixth NBA seasons respectively, all with the Hawks. Veterans Kyle Korver (third season) and DeMarre Carroll (second season) were not brand new to the team either. Paul Millsap was the one new, integral piece that helped elevate the team.
As quickly as the team ascended the NBA standings, their tenure at the top was short-lived, falling to 48 wins with a second-round playoff exit and then 43 wins and a first-round playoff exit in Budenholzer’s third and fourth season respectively. Now they they have fallen to the bottom of the NBA standings in his fifth.
A change in ownership and multiple changes in the front office have made continuity a challenge. Still, it is a fact that the Hawks put together a talented roster that could compete at the top of the NBA but, as a result of salary cap challenges and roster decisions, were not able to keep that roster together. This observation might as well lead us to qualify the third common denominator to now read: a balanced roster with elite basketball talent with a core that can stay together for multiple seasons.
As the Hawks work through a rebuilding season, it might be easy for fans to mail it in and not follow the team closely for the balance of the season. But I would contend that if the Hawks are to turn the franchise back in the right direction and again be an Eastern Conference contender in two to three seasons, every thing that happens this season sets the course for the seasons to come.
In that spirit, let’s ask a most relevant question. Are the Hawks making progress? Further, what can we all be watching to see if the Hawks continue on a path of progress for the balance of this season, regardless of the results on the scoreboard or in the standings?
Are the Hawks competing, game in and game out?
So far this season, the answer would be yes. The Hawks are playing hard in spite of dealing with a rash of injuries through the early stretch of the season. They have struggled to close out close games, but they are competing. If we just look at their last five losses, they include an overtime loss in Orlando, a four-point loss at New York during which Budenholzer sat Dennis Schroder for the final eight minutes, a nine-point loss in Cleveland that included a 37-point fourth-quarter effort by the Hawks, who refused to allow the Cavs to put them away, and a nail-biting two-point loss in Memphis on Friday night.
Teams that struggle in the standings can sometimes allow the frustrations of mounting losses to destroy the vibe in the locker room and on the bench. Players can sometimes point fingers at one another instead of continuing to play together and support one another.
While it’s true that there are no moral victories in sports, culture and environment are critical to the development of young players like John Collins, DeAndre’ Bembry and Taurean Prince. It will be very important that the Hawks continue playing hard and with energy on both ends of the floor regardless of the outcome of games. Whether or not the Hawks play this season with discipline and good habits will certainly set the tone for how the team plays in future seasons.
Are the Hawks prepared to make roster moves that could bring value in the coming seasons?
The Hawks have a number of veteran players who could help teams contending for post-season play. Marco Belinelli, Ersan Ilyasova and Luke Babbitt are all on reasonably-priced, one-year contracts that could be moved. Other players on one-year deals with a second-year player option (Dewayne Dedmon, Mike Muscala if healthy) could be moved as well. In today’s NBA trade market, first round picks are not moved for non-elite players on expiring contracts. Trading veterans for second round picks would not necessarily move the needle all that much for the Hawks in coming seasons.
The Hawks would do well to be both selective and clever in dealing veterans players. Veteran players do have value on a roster with young players. Giving players away to the highest bidder, whatever the bid, is not always the best move. Trades should be evaluated on a cost-benefit type of analysis.
Landing a young, affordable player with upside could certainly have more value than adding yet another second round pick to the Hawks’ stable of picks. A team dealing with injuries or desperate for shooting might be willing to move a young player that is getting little playing time. As draft picks go, improving position in the draft might yield a better result than simply getting another pick.
Is Dennis Schroder becoming a more complete player?
When the Hawks traded Teague in the summer of 2016 for the draft choice what would be used to select Prince, they handed the reins of the offense to Schroder, subsequently signing him to a four-year $70 million contract extension. While he is statistically putting up career highs this season, his numbers on a per 36-minute basis are not that different to when he was playing off the bench behind Teague.
It’s true that he is now matched up against starting point guards and he has less talent on the floor with him this season. Still, the progress that Schroder makes this season is integral to the team’s development for seasons to come.
This season, as goes Schroder, so go the Hawks. When the Hawks win, his offensive numbers are very strong (31.9 minutes, 24.2 points, 7.5 assists, 51.8 FG percentage, 36.4 3P percentage). When the Hawks lose, his numbers are starkly different (31.9 minutes, 18.4 points, 6.4 assists, 42.5 FG percentage, 30.3 3P percentage). If Schroder is going to become a more complete player, he must make strides in three key areas.
First, he must play with consistent focus and energy on the defensive end of the floor. Early in his career, when playing off the bench behind Teague, Schroder developed a reputation as being a tough defender who challenged ball handlers for the full length of the floor. In his 1+ seasons as a starter, that reputation has all but disappeared.
His defensive rating, as measured by nba.com, is 113.4, which ranks second-worst among NBA point guards. Numbers aside, his lapses and inconsistent effort on defense have set the tone for a Hawks’s defense that ranks 28th in defensive rating and 27th in opponents’ 3-point percentage. The Hawks defensive system starts with ball pressure from the point guard and Schroder’s poor effort in providing that pressure has been insufficient.
October 27 - Schroder jogs back on defense, loses track of Nuggets’ point guard Jamal Murray allowing and uncontested layup in the half-court offense.
December 10 - Schroder provides zero ball pressure resulting in an uncontested three-pointer for Knick’s guard Frank Ntilikina, a play that likely had a role in Schroder sitting for the final 8+ minutes of the Hawks’ loss to the Knicks.
Second, Schroder must become a better than league average shooter. Schroder is a career 43.5 percent shooter from the field and 32.9 percent shooter from the three-point line. Schroder’s strongest offensive weapon is his ability to beat defenders off the dribble and score around the rim, but if opponents do not respect his perimeter shooting, they are able to sag and challenge him to make jump shots.
Early in the season, Schroder’s shooting was on the uptick. In his first nine games, he was shooting 47.6 percent from the field and 40.0 percent from the three-point line, but in his 18 games since, he is shooting just 42.6 percent from the field and 27.0 percent from the three-point line. It is critical that Schroder’s shooting does not regress for the balance of the season.
His three-point shooting is important, but his mid-range shooting is important as well. Throughout his career, when his confidence in his three-point shot has waned, he has been able to rely on his mid-range jump shot to keep his perimeter game afloat. If he continues to struggle with his perimeter shot, his opportunities to score around the basket will become more difficult.
Third, Schroder must embrace contact when playing around the basket on the offensive end. He ranks fourth among NBA point guards in field goal attempts within five feet of the basket but he is 12th in the league in free throw attempts among the same group. Schroder simply does not get to the free throw line enough for a player who attacks the basket as often as he does.
NBA players who carry a scoring load for their team understand that when shots aren’t falling, they need to get to the free throw line so they can get points on the board for their team and in hopes of finding a shooting rhythm. This season, Schroder is shooting fewer free throws (2.4) per 36 minutes than any other season in his career. Chalking the lack of free throws up to officiating is too easy an excuse. Schroder’s history is that he can finish around the rim when his speed and explosiveness create space for him, but he struggles to finish in traffic when he should focus on drawing contact to get himself to the free throw line.
In Friday night’s game versus Memphis, Schroder tied his season high with eight free throw attempts (converting seven). During the game with the Grizzlies, he seemed to be more willing to accept contact to draw the foul. Perhaps he can build on this and make trips to the free throw line more frequently taking advantage of his 85.4 percent free throw shooting.
December 15 - Schroder is unable to separate himself from Memphis’ Ben McLemore so he takes on the contact to draw the foul resulting in two made free throws.
What to make of Kent Bazmore?
Unfairly, Kent Bazemore is sometimes referred to as the player the Hawks chose to keep while players like Horford, Millsap, and others got away. The correlations are not that direct but the questions asked in hindsight are understandable.
The reality is that the assessment of Kent Bazemore’s production related to his contract are more a result of the team’s performance than Bazemore’s individual performance. Bazemore’s production is very much in line with his numbers from three seasons ago, before the Hawks re-signed him to four-year, $70 million deal. If the Hawks were still a 50+ win team competing for a top seed in the Eastern Conference, fewer references would be made about Bazemore’s contract. But the Hawks are not, so the references are made.
As the Hawks’ roster turned over the past two seasons, the Hawks have asked Bazemore to do more on the offensive end to compensate for a drop in talent. Bazmore always thrived as a 3&D type wing who could also excel in transition. What the Hawks have added is the responsibility to handle the ball and create, at times. Bazemore is a fine player, but initiating offense is not his strength.
As the Hawks work through the rebuilding efforts in the coming seasons, Bazemore’s on court responsibilities should again become more aligned with his skill set. As the team gets better, as young players get stronger and more experienced, Bazemore becomes a better fit.
Some might say he is an over-priced player that is simply bridging the gap from the old to the new and hopefully towards being competitive again. Contract aside (what’s done is done), the Hawks need Bazemore. He works hard, plays hard, plays with energy and enjoys himself while doing it. When we talk about the team competing in spite of the record, we could easily assume it would be less so without Bazemore.
Stay tuned for Part Two on Monday.