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The Hawks Starting Front Court and Roster Decisions to Come

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Phoenix Suns Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Hawks current starting front court is made up of veteran players the youngest of whom, Dwight Howard (31 y, 62d), has played in the most games of the three by margins of 110 games (Paul Millsap) and 205 games (Thabo Sefolosha). There has been much trade speculation surrounding Millsap and as he is very likely to be heading into unrestricted free agency after this season (he has player option for next season that he is almost certain to decline). While the trade speculation regarding Sefolosha (also an unrestricted free agent after this season) has not gotten as much attention, it seems most NBA observers see him as a more obvious trade asset for the Hawks this season given that the he will turn 33 years old before the season is over and the fact that the Hawks can’t reasonably expect to bring him back anywhere near his current contract value of 4 million.

It is also noteworthy that most observers think it is in the Hawks best interest to trade Millsap as to avoid losing another top 35 player for nothing for a 2nd consecutive off season. Those same observers also tend to think that if Millsap is moved that it makes no sense to not move Howard as well. This is the nuclear option; a complete tear down and rebuild around a young core.

We obviously don’t know what is going to happen between now and the trade deadline. But as I dig into the numbers I see what might be a case for standing pat if this current season is the priority.

The Hawks entered Wednesday night’s match-up with the Denver Nuggets sitting 5th in the Eastern Conference standings, with a record of 30-22 (.577) and a point differential of -0.5. There seems to be a consensus that the teams sitting in the top 4 seeds are pulling away from the Hawks, not so much as measured by wins and losses, more just in terms of overall level of play. The Wizards are surging, having won 11 of their last 13 games after a terrible start. The Celtics have won their last 7 games. And while the Raptors have lost 8 of their last 12 games, their point differential of +4.6 supports a reasonable argument that they are in a different class than the Hawks even now.

Back to the veteran front court: Howard, Millsap and Sefolosha have all missed some time this season with minor injuries. Thus we can extract some data regarding how good the team is when all three players are available. The Hawks have a 23-14 (.621) record and a +1.7 point differential when all three play. The trio has a collective net rating of +8.0, which is the team’s second best net rating of any 3-man line-up having logged 350 minutes or more this season. All three players have strong reputation as defenders and it is clear that the defense is going to have to be what this team leans on as to make any noise this season; the Hawks can’t seem to play its way out of a bottom 5 offensive rating. Being more than 60% into this season, apart from an unexpected addition via a trade (as a buyer), I can’t find any reason for optimism in seeing the offense improve.

What this tells me regarding trade considerations is that if you move even 1 of these 3 players (even Sefolosha) you might as well move them all, because without all three playing the Hawks are an incredibly mediocre team. The Hawks playing without even just 1 of the 3 players are 5-6 (.454) with an awful point differential -7.9 (Brooklyn Nets territory).

So as we approach the trade deadline (February 23) or as we try to set reasonable objectives for the team this season, it seems to me that these 3 veteran players are attached to one another in terms of potential outcomes. The same can be said for this upcoming offseason. If the Hawks lose either Millsap or Sefolosha in free agency this summer there is certain to be a significant step back in play for this team barring an investment in comparable replacements which aren’t even certain to be available.

My best guess is that they keep the band together and see what they can accomplish this season. But for those that have been clamoring for sale-off and a rebuild, unless the Hawks have a predictable understanding of how they can retain Millsap beyond this season while avoiding a contract that does not eventually become an albatross, your argument is starting to win me over.