Before the acquisition of Ersan Ilyasova in February, Mike Muscala finally got his shot as the third big for the Atlanta Hawks, after three previous seasons buried in the depth chart under guys like Mike Scott, Elton Brand, and Tiago Splitter. With Splitter injured and Scott facing uncertain legal trouble and a sharp decline in his on-court play, Muscala got the call in the first half of the season, averaging 21 minutes per game through the first 39 games of the season.
Muscala came through in those minutes, shooting 51.1 percent from the field and a stellar 43.7 percent on three-point attempts on relatively decent volume considering his minutes load. Muscala’s usage rate was the lowest of his career, but a lot of that can be attributed to the lineups around him; as the third big, he played most often with one of Paul Millsap or Dwight Howard.
Muscala has increased both his usage and efficiency on threes each of the four years he’s been in the league as Hawks University has gotten to work on his game. He showed flashes in college of being a good shooter; his 79 percent free throw percentage in his senior season was used as an indicator that he may be able to spread the floor in the pros.
His ability to space the floor was key for the Hawks in the post-Al Horford era; the Millsap-Muscala pairing is as close as the Hawks got to replicating the five-out system that turned so many heads the past few years. On top of developing into a three-point shooter, Muscala has always been a solid passer and opportunistic cutter and rebounder to add to his offensive game.
Defensively, Muscala offered the 2016-17 Hawks a little more authority protecting the rim than Ilyasova did. Ilyasova was brought in at the trade deadline, a move that pushed Muscala down the depth chart but didn’t totally eradicate his minutes. Against certain matchups, Muscala’s defensive ability in the paint was a plus upon which Budenholzer relied.
Muscala can move his feet a little bit on the perimeter and though it’s not a feature of his game, those Millsap-Muscala lineups could mimic a bit of what the Hawks did defensively in the Horford era as wella: a heavy dose of trapping and switching on pick-and-rolls in an attempt to stifle opposing point guards and force other players to beat them. With Howard manning the middle, this strategy was rare, but Muscala was able to execute it alongside Millsap. The Hawks’ defense was actually better throughout the regular season and postseason with Millsap and Muscala out there—though the Millsap-Howard duo would most often go against the opposing team’s starting lineup, which often packed more offensive punch.
Muscala will be an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career this summer. While he’s said publicly that he’d love to remain with the Hawks, nothing is certain for somebody who has made a grand total of $2.9 million in his NBA career. If another team offers him a larger role and more money, it’s hard to imagine Muscala wouldn’t take them up on their offer. For the Hawks, running it back with the same core and relying on internal development and improvement to vault up the standings is a lot more palatable if the Hawks bring back the players most familiar with their system.
It remains to be seen what the Hawks’ plans are and they’ll almost certainly wait until Millsap has made his decision before going about any of their other business, but Muscala would be a loss if they weren’t able to move quickly enough to retain him.