Thabo Sefolosha came to the Atlanta Hawks from the Oklahoma City Thunder in July of 2014 via a sign and trade on a contract that would pay him and average of $4 million per season for a duration of three years. It’s hard to deny that the Hawks got more than a reasonable return on this deal as Sefolosha brought immediate credibility on the defensive end of the court. The veteran forward had already developed the reputation as being one of the league’s most prominent lock down wings defenders and apart from time missed due to injury (one of which was incredibly unfortunate) he really didn’t do anything other than back up that reputation with his play.
Prior to Sefolosha joining the Hawks, they were statistically a league average defense. During his tenure with the Atlanta the team would finish 7th, 2nd and 4th in defensive rating. The consistency of his individual play on the defensive end of the court has been incredibly impressive. Critics of statistical models such as ESPN’s Real Plus Minus (RPM) point to its season over season volatility and suggest a three-year sample as likely having the most value. In each of his three seasons with the Hawks, Thabo would rank 4th, 7th, and 7th (subscription required) at the small forward position in individual Defensive Real Plus Minus (DRPM).
Apart from Al Farouq Aminu of the Portland Trailbalzers, the only player in the league to appear in the top ten in DRPM at the small forward position for each of the past three seasons is Andre Roberson of the Oklahoma City Thunder, and this is not a coincidence. In Roberson’s rookie season, he was the under-study of Sefolosha and finished an impressive 18th at the position in DRPM. Why is that so important to include here in looking at the value that Sefolosha brought to this year’s Hawks team? This season rookie Taurean Prince finished fifth at the position in DRPM. I honestly don’t think I could point to anything that would more emphatically demonstrate the value the Hawks have gotten from Thabo’s tenure with the organization.
On offense this season Sefolosha shot 34.2% from 3-point range, the second best mark of his career for any season in which he had 100 or more attempts. Note that a 34.2% 3-point shooter equates to an offensive rating of 102.2 on possessions during which he takes a shot beyond the arc. The Hawks offensive rating on the season was 102.3. So by this measure it is reasonable to say that Sefolosha’s perimeter shooting was not holding the offense back when he was on the court.
Defensively this season Seflosha set a career best mark with 2.2 steals per 36 minutes. No one in the league that played 1500 minutes or more on the season was better at creating steals. To the (potential) end of his time with the Hawks, his defensive prowess has been pretty much undeniable.
Sefolosha was one of a handful of players that did not participate in media exit interviews last week. This in conjunction with his impending unrestricted free agency and the Hawks recent draft investments at the wing position would lead one to believe that it is highly unlikely that he will return next season.
Some found it curious that the Hawks did not look to move Thabo at some point this season rather than see him enter free agency with the team getting nothing in return. P.J. Tucker, another defense first wing (although less accomplished) also heading into unrestricted free agency, netted the Phoenix Suns a pair of second round draft picks from the Toronto Raptors in a deal at the trade deadline. And the decision could have been different had Sefolosha not missed the Hawks final nine games (due to injury) before the trade deadline.
If that is the case, the Hawks might have been lucky. Taurean Prince played 369 minutes in 34 games prior to the trade deadline; he played 613 minutes in 25 games after the deadline and 187 minutes in 6 playoff games all under the tutelage of one of the game’s premier wing defenders of the last decade. While it cannot be quantitatively measured, if Prince goes on to become the two-way player many in the Hawks organization hope he can be, it can definitely be argued that Sefolosha’s remaining with the team for remainder of this season is the most valuable outcome they could have gotten in this scenario.
Causal Hawks fans might barely remember much about Sefolosha 5-10 years from now. But if the Hawks can find a path to continue in building toward any measure of success with team defense being at the foundation; the organization and its supports, I hope, will never lost sight of the contributions and influence of, in my mind, one of the Hawks most significant role players in the team’s recent history.