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Why Re-signing Mike Muscala Should be One of the Hawks’ Biggest Priorities this Summer

Muscala heads into the summer as an unrestricted free agent...

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

Mike Muscala’s NBA journey has certainly been an interesting one up until this point...

From various assignments to the NBA D-League to being buried at the end of the bench, from making surprise contributions in the 2015 playoffs to being buried at the end of the bench again next season, from becoming the Hawks’ primary back-up big to finding himself receiving DNP-CD’s after the acquisition of Ersan llysaova to seeing valuable time in the NBA playoffs

It really has been a roller coaster ride for the man affectionately known as “Moose” but while his role hasn’t always consistent there was alway one thing that was: Mike Muscala has improved every season of his career.

After the best season of his career, Muscala now reaches an interesting crossroads. For the first time in his young NBA career, he can test the market as an unrestricted free agent.

Moose — among league circles — is one of those players who’s considered to be a ‘sneaky-good’ type of player: a player who is good but not a lot of people really know it. The general fan certainly wouldn’t assume so, but those who know, know. He’s a player that’ll be on a lot of team’s radars this summer, his name amongst those that appeared on the Orlando Magic’s infamous whiteboard...

The Hawks have quite a number of players hitting the market this summer: Paul Millsap, Thabo Sefolosha, Tim Hardaway Jr. (restricted), Ersan Ilyasova, Mike Muscala, José Calderón and Kris Humphries.

Paul Millsap is the Hawks’ biggest priority this summer (and rightly so) but Mike Muscala should be the Hawks’ second biggest priority and ahead of the likes of THJ, Ilyasova and Calderón.

Let me make the case for why this should be the case...

He’s a modern stretch four/five

One of Muscala’s strengths is shooting, he has a great shooting touch for someone his size at 6”11. His ability to hit the three-pointer/stretch the defense instantly renders him a very valuable commodity in this league.

Just as a visual example, Gorgui Dieng doesn’t really want to cover Muscala in the corner on this possession and Moose makes him pay for it.

His ability to shoot the three-pointer makes life uncomfortable for bigs like Dieng, players like that with his size don’t really want to go out and guard that shot — it leaves the paint more vulnerable.

Muscala has worked hard at improving his stroke and it’s paid off. In fact, fewer people — at his position (power forward/center) — shoot the ball better than Muscala.

Amongst centers who played 60 or more games and attempted at least one three-pointer per game, only Pau Gasol (53.8%) and Jason Smith (47.4%) shot better percentages from behind the arc than Mike Muscala (41.8%). That’s a higher percentage than the likes of some the league’s most notable three-point shooters from the center spot in Marc Gasol, Al Horford and DeMarcus Cousins, though those particular three players average over 3.6 three-point attempts per game compared to Muscala’s 1.7 so...take that as you will.

From the forward spot, Muscala is still amongst the top company from three. Under the same criteria as above, only Otto Porter (43.4%), Joe Ingles (44.1%) and Jason Smith (47.4%) shot higher percentages from three than Muscala this season. Porter and Ingles are small forwards, so the only power forward/center to shoot a higher percentage from three was Jason Smith.

I really want to hammer this home: that stat is not pulled from players only in the Southeast Division or the Eastern’s the entire league. Mike Muscala is right up there as one of the best three-point shooter from the power forward/center spot... Believe it.

Muscala’s ability to play both the 4 and 5 gives coach Bud freedom to experiment with different lineups. His versatility means that coach Bud is not restricted to playing him in certain lineups like he has to with Dwight Howard or Tiago Splitter in the past.

Players with Muscala’s skill-set at his size aren’t common in this league and they’re players you want to bring to your club, not let go...

Muscala plays an important offensive role

With Al Horford and Mike Scott no longer with the team, Muscala’s ability to stretch the floor has become extremely important for the Hawks. It’s become important because it meant (at least before the acquisition of Ersan Ilyasova) that Moose was the only big — other than Paul Millsap — who could stretch the floor.

In the past, Bud has been spoiled for choice when it comes to bigs who can stretch the floor, the likes of Millsap, Horford, Scott, and Pero Antić all available at Bud’s disposal as floor spacers. However, with different roster moves/decisions made, it’s just been Millsap and Muscala who have been able to stretch the floor from the forward/center spots.

At times, Bud likes to play both Millsap and Muscala together, and the two-man numbers for that lineup are pretty decent: plus-68 in 472 minutes. Were it not for their respective injuries, those numbers would probably be higher. When those two are on the floor, there’s good spacing, good pace, good defense and good ball movement. In short, the Hawks look the most like their older selves when Millsap and Muscala are on the floor.

Bud — as we’ve seen more of as the season has come to an end — has also leant toward sitting Dwight in fourth quarters/down the stretch in the fourth quarters in favor of spacing the floor, valuing Muscala’s ability to space the floor (as well as his ability to get up and down the court much quicker than Dwight) which opens opportunities up for other players.

“When we need to score and we need to catch up, we need to play a little more of a spread offense,” said Budenholzer after Atlanta’s Game 6 loss against the Wizards when asked about the decision not to play Dwight Howard in the fourth quarter of a must win game.

Though Muscala didn’t play much in that particular fourth quarter, it’s still his type of skill-set that Bud values and a skill-set he can depend upon when he feels the Hawks need to play with spacing and shooting — similar to how they played when Al Horford was with the team

"He can play the 4 or the 5," Budenholzer said of Muscala in December. "He can score in the paint. He can space the court, and shoot and make threes. He can pass as well. He protects the rim. He's a really good player."

Bud relied heavily on Muscala in April 9th’s home game against the Cleveland Cavaliers, a game the Hawks trailed by 26 points heading into the fourth quarter. Muscala played 11:59 (according to of that fourth quarter.

With Muscala’s ability to make passes like this:

And stretch the floor and hit huge shots like this:

And this (in overtime):

...The Hawks were able to pull off one of the most unlikeliest comebacks in NBA history. Without Muscala’s shooting and the spacing/opportunities for others he provides (because of his spacing), the Hawks probably don’t make this comeback.

When Al Horford and Mike Scott were with the team last year (and their ability to stretch the floor), the Hawks didn’t urgently need Moose’s skill-set and that was reflected in Muscala only playing 9.4 minutes a game in 60 games. However, with those two players no longer in the mix and with Dwight Howard — a completely different type of center than Horford — now in the fold in Atlanta, and with Muscala’s continued development, Moose’s skill-set is as valuable for the Hawks now than it ever has been. It’s one the Hawks need to keep around.

A versatile defender

When we looked at some of the shooting company Muscala was hanging with from the forward/center spot there was one name that Muscala was tied with: Jason Smith. Offensively, the two do a great job stretching the floor while also being able to score inside. Defensively, however, it’s a very different story...

In the playoffs, the Hawks looked to exploit Smith on the offensive end — especially with Millsap — because Smith isn’t a great defender. You could argue that Smith is a better shooter than Muscala but Moose is certainly the better defender.

Muscala’s ability to stretch the floor is what most people talk about when it comes to his overall game, but his defense is no joke either.

One of the greatest aspects of Muscala’s defensive game is his vertical defense, his ability to go straight up without fouling.

On opening night, Kelly Oubre operates in transitio, and as he rises to lay the ball up he finds there’s a wall in his way: Mike Muscala. Moose does a good job going straight up (not bringing those arms down) and deflects the ball out of bounds.

Against the much more experienced David West in transition, Moose proves to be the last line of defense between West and an easy layup. He sticks with the play and keeps his arms straight up and challenges the shot cleanly. As a result, West’s shot misses.

I know what you may be thinking at this point. “Yes, yes this is all well and good, but Kelly Oubre is not exactly an offensive juggernaut and David West is 1,000 years old” and that’s a fair point, but Muscala is capable of effectively challenging shots from much more advanced and athletic offensive players. Like, say, James Harden. Yeah, bet you weren’t expecting that, but it’s true.

Moose’s verticality makes life for Harden difficult on this possession and his shot rolls off the rim.

An excellent challenge against one of the league’s best offensive players.

Muscala is also an underrated shot blocker and does a good job in ‘help’ situations.

After doing a good job raising his arms and forcing Greg Monroe to pass the ball out of the post, Jabari Parker attacks Taurean Prince off of the dribble and gets a shot up but Muscala — arriving as the help defender — is on hand to block the shot.

This isn’t a development of his game that has only emerged in the last year or two, Muscala could always protect the rim when called upon. In his four years in college with Bucknell, he averaged 2 blocks per game. Shot blocking has been a facet of Muscala’s game at every level, even as a young NBA player.

From the 2014-15 season:

Again, Muscala goes straight up and doesn’t just challenge Waiters’ shot but blocks it outright.

Muscala is a very capable shot blocker, both in help situations and in one-on-one situations.

Part of what makes Moose a good defender are his physical attributes. He’s quick on his feet which helps him get back in transition in a hurry, he can move his feet well defensively and he utilizes his size and length to challenge shots at the rim.

The only area you could say Muscala is lacking is, perhaps, his strength which is sometimes taken advantage of in the post by some of the stronger bigs in the league. He hasn’t got the body of a Dwight Howard or Hassan Whiteside, sure, but he’s not exactly a twig either. He can absorb contact.

(Moose also showcasing those quick feet which helps keep Jabari in front of him on this possession)

Alright, so Jabari might not be the best example of showcasing Muscala’s ability to absorb contact, I understand. But how about this example with Hassan Whiteside? Sure, he’s is knocked back a bit but Moose takes the hit and the shot from Whiteside misses.

Though he’s no loose root in a sapling, Muscala is targeting on getting stronger in the off season.

"I think strength for me, defensively, it can help a lot and that is going to be a focus for me too," Muscala said recently.

We’ve talked about offense and defense separately, but Moose is also capable of combining the two. Off of the block, Muscala rebounds the ball, passes it to Jeff Teague, runs the floor, gets the ball back, takes Nerlens Noel off of the dribble and scores at the rim plus the foul.

A combination of speed, quickness, technique, size and length help make Muscala a versatile defender who can just about everything — at his position — defensively. His defense is part of the reason why Bud can call upon him when the Hawks go away from Dwight because, unlike some, Muscala isn’t a give-give back type of player...

He’s one of the Hawks’ own

‘Hawks University’ is a term used by some to describe how the Hawks and their developmental coaches take a player who has usually been disregarded/underrated by other teams, or a player who has maybe been forgotten/given up on, and develop him into a serviceable NBA player.

In the past the Hawks have turned DeMarre Carroll, Kent Bazemore and more recently Tim Hardaway Jr. into serviceable NBA players and they have earned/are in line for big-money contracts as a result of enrolling at ‘Hawks University’ (as well as, of course, putting in huge work themselves).

Mike Muscala is another such example and everyone who has watched the Hawks over the years can see how far Mike has come as a player thanks to all the hard work both from him and the coaching staff. You can see the progress he’s made on both sides of the floor.

In fact, they’ve done such a good job that I can honestly say that Mike Muscala is the one player (other than Paul Millsap) who runs the Mike Budenholzer system almost every time he’s on the floor.

When I say the Mike Budenholzer system, I’m talking about ball movement, man movement, cutting, good shot selection etc. And Muscala does all of these things.

He moves the ball, moves off the ball (sets screens off and on the ball which keeps offense moving) never holds the ball for too long, never stays in one spot for too long, takes good shots and makes smart basketball decisions. And he’s doing these things every time he’s on the floor.

When you watch a team for long enough, you can see who is and isn’t running what the coach wants him to run. Dennis Schröder is an example of a player who doesn’t always (and that’s being kind) run the Budenholzer offense when he’s on the floor. No disrespect to Dennis (he’s a very talented player), but he’s not running the Hawks system as often as he should, being the point guard of an what’s supposed to be a selfless offense and all... I couldn’t look at Dennis Schröder and say he’s the extension of Mike Budenholzer on the floor. I could with Mike Muscala, I could say “I can see the Mike Budenholzer in him on the floor”.

That sounds wild, I understand, but if you’ve watched this team play you might understand what I mean. Maybe I can explain this another way...

Take a look at this sequence from Muscala in a game against the Minnesota Timberwolves earlier this season and we’ll talk afterwards.

Let’s go over what happened in that incredible sequence.

  1. Muscala stretched the defense with his perimeter game and hit the open three after Millsap collapsed the defense after a switch onto Ricky Rubio occurred.
  2. On the defensive end, Moose did a good job covering for Dennis Schröder (who was beaten by Rubio) and did a good job challenging Gorgui Dieng at the rim following the pass from Rubio.
  3. Following the miss, Muscala was hustling the other way, beating every other Hawk up the floor.
  4. After relocating behind the three-point line, Mike received the ball.
  5. Instead of forcing something that isn’t there, Muscala realised quickly there was nothing on for him and instead of using valuable clock time or chucking up a shot (as Dennis, THJ and Baze are all prone to do in the same situation at times) he gave the ball up quickly and immediately went to to set a screen for the man he passed the ball to. Never standing still, always moving and looking to make something happen whether he has the ball or not.
  6. After receiving the ball back from Dennis, Muscala had the presence of mind to know that Bazemore was open behind the line. Moose could’ve taken the ball inside and try shoot over the smaller Andrew Wiggins but he didn’t. Instead he made the better basketball play and found the open man.
  7. Baze declined to shoot and drove inside.
  8. Muscala helped facilitate the offense by setting a good screen on Wiggins that removed Wiggins from the play.
  9. Bazemore missed the shot over the outstretched Karl-Anthony Towns but Muscala was there to crash the offensive glass and tip the ball home.

Ball movement, man movement, screening, defense, outside shooting, smart decision making, hustle...Mike Muscala did it all in 57 glorious seconds, though in reality it took hundreds of hours of practice and hard work.

Mike Muscala is one of the Hawks’ own. It would be terrible for the club (and the fans, he is a fan favorite) if they allowed him to slip away as they did with Edy Tavares.

They say the point guard is the extension of the head coach, but Mike Muscala is the extension of the entire Hawks’ coaching staff when he’s on the floor. What kind of message would it send if the Hawks allowed him to leave?

Though Muscala has said he would like to stay in Atlanta, the fact of the matter is this: Muscala has earned less than $3 million in his four year career and given his unique skill-set and his overall game, he’s in line for a sizeable increase in salary, possibly more than the Hawks might be willing to pay him.

Smart teams know about him and some of those teams — unlike the Hawks — have cap space to splash. Atlanta is probably the best place for Muscala to be at this stage of his career, but will the thought of a lucrative deal lure him away from Atlanta? The Hawks own Muscala’s Bird Rights, meaning they can go above the cap to re-sign him, but will other their free agents such as Paul Millsap, Tim Hardaway Jr. and possibly Ersan Ilysava distract the Hawks from Muscala?

Only time will tell...