When an NBA coach enters his fifth season at the helm of a given team, the organization has typically reached a cruising altitude of sorts. In five seasons, a head coach has installed his system on both ends of the floor. Usually, the core of the roster has stabilized with some level of turnover on the bench. Coach Mike Budenholzer’s tenure with the Atlanta Hawks has been that story exactly, except in reverse.
Heading into Budenholzer’s fifth season, the Hawks return just six players who were with the team for the full 2016-17 season. Gone are Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard and Tim Hardaway Jr. who all finished among the team’s top four in points scored and minutes played. In the last two years, four players who ascended to All-Star levels under Budenholzer have departed, either by trade or through free agency.
Entering the new season, the roster presents more questions than answers. How will young players adapt to new roles and increased workloads? How will new veterans fit in the with club? Even Coach Budenholzer can’t precisely predict the answers to those questions.
While most pieces of the roster look more like variables than constants, there is one piece of the equation upon which Budenholzer can rely. That player is Marco Belinelli. Though he is new to the Hawks, Belinelli brings 10 years of NBA experience playing for seven different teams, including the NBA champion San Antonio Spurs in 2013-14. Having played with the Spurs for three seasons, he will adapt very quickly to the similar system the Hawks run.
In a recent article, we identified Belinelli as a “known quantity” player. He’s been remarkably consistent throughout his NBA career. In his last nine seasons, he has ranged between 7.1 and 11.8 points per game and has shot better than 35% from the 3-point line in all but one season. He is an established veteran, a plus shooter who has proven that he can produce whether he starts or comes off the bench. In 216 career starts, his TS% is .545 and his Usage% is 19.5. In 428 career games off the bench, his TS% is an identical .545 and his Usage% is 19.4. The similarities are beyond coincidence.
He has played for teams team that have finished at the top of the league and for teams that have finished near the bottom of the league. He’s played for four teams in the Western Conference. The Hawks will be his fourth team in the Eastern conference. He’s played for coaches that play up tempo basketball and for coaches who choose to grind it out. Regardless of the uniform he wears or his team’s place in the standings, Marco Belinelli professionally brings the same consistent effort and production. Hawks’ fans can expect as much this season.
As Coach Budenholzer works through rotation scenarios, he’ll be deciding how to allocate the 240 minutes of playing time available each game. Equally important, he will be deciding which players will be on the floor together. He may find that there are two factors that are important to Belinelli thriving.
(1) The more he plays, the better he shoots. This is not an uncommon phenomenon, especially for rhythm shooters. If we look at the correlation between playing time and three-point shooting, we see this is the case for Belinelli’s career numbers.
- 40+ minutes (20 games), 3P% is .449
- 30-39 minutes (120 games), 3P% is .407
- 20-29 minutes (294 games), 3P% is .383
- 10-19 minutes (151 games), 3P% is .293
- 0-9 Minutes (59 games), 3P% is .289.
(2) Belinelli also thrives with a strong team on the floor around him. His shooting numbers when his team wins are starkly better than when losing.
- 325 career wins, .445 FG%, .408 3P%, .578 TS%.
- 319 career losses, .406 FG%, .351 3P%, .515 TS%.
So, how does this stack up? Is Belinelli a poor fit on a team that is expected to finish near the bottom of the Eastern conference who may be motivated to allocate more minutes to developing players? Can he help this team?
Certainly, he can help this team. His shooting splits between wins and losses are not an indication of hot and cold effort. Instead, its an indication that he thrives as a floor spacer punishing double teams or defenders that leave him to give help. When he plays with teammates who command double teams or break down the opposing defense drawing a help defender, Belinelli is in a position to thrive. In contrast, playing with a second unit with fewer scoring options will push the ball towards Belinelli without the space he needs to make shots.
As for playing time, the Hawks are effectively four deep at the two wing positions with Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Deandre Bembry and Belinelli expected to carry the load. Nicolas Brussino and Tyler Dorsey are not expected to be rotation players. Finding minutes for Belinelli should not be all that difficult. He may be fourth in minutes among that group of wings, but 20+ minutes per game should not be hard to come by.
Ultimately, the Hawks may find that Belinelli’s greatest value is as a trade asset that could bring some long term value in return. Approaching the trade deadline, he could be just the veteran shooter a contender is looking to acquire. If the Hawks believe the trade route is viable, perhaps the best approach might be to maximize his minutes with the first unit to build his trade value.
The Hornets seemed to be doing just that a year ago. Early in the season, though playing off the bench, Belinelli played a majority of his minutes on the floor with Kemba Walker. In November and December, playing heavy minutes with Kemba on the floor, he shot .467 on 3PA. During this stretch, his usage was down, his minutes were up and he was more an efficient shooter than a volume shooter.
Later in the season, rotations changed. He spent less time on the floor with Kemba Walker, his usage went up and the results were not the same. After December, he shot just .297 on three-point attempts.
With the Hawks, perhaps Belinelli’s best fit is on the floor with Dennis Schroder breaking down the defense, Kent Bazemore or Taurean Prince taking the tougher defensive assignment and John Collins commanding attention in the middle of the floor. If this happens, look for Belinelli to be a pleasant surprise.
However, if he is relegated to minutes with a group of excellent shooters like Ersan Ilyasova and Mike Muscala but no one to force the action and break down the defense, Belinelli is likely to find the ball in his hands with little room to work, resulting in low-percentage shots.
Some NBA players are the same, regardless of who is on the floor. Some even thrive with the freedom of being a first option scorer playing with second unit players. Marco Belinelli is not one of those players. His success in a Hawks uniform will heavily depend on the group he finds around him when he is on the floor.