Mike Muscala played a career high 1,237 minutes during the 2016-17 season but that number might look quite small next to the number of minutes he could play this season for the Atlanta Hawks. Roster decisions the last two summer have resulted in the respective exits of veteran big men Al Horford, Dwight Howard and Paul Millsap who collectively have started more than 2,000 games, played almost 80,000 minutes and made a combined 16 all-star appearances in their careers.
The centers and power forwards slated to begin the 2017-18 season on the Hawks roster have collectively started less than 700 games and played less than 30,000 minutes in their NBA careers. Muscala enters the season as the Hawks front court player with easily the most tenure in the Mike Budenholzer system.
That should mean that, while he might continue to play in a reserve role, he is almost certain to play the entire season in the rotation. If he does play off of the bench, Muscala very well could lead the second unit in minutes played.
It was not a certainty that Muscala would return to the team for his fifth NBA season. But he and the Hawks eventually came to an agreement on a two year contract that will pay him $5 million dollars during each of the next two seasons. The contract is one that has immense value for the team this season but offers him flexibility in the form of the second season being a player option. If the center from Bucknell University takes advantage of the increased role to elevate his value, he can opt out of the contract next summer and hit the market again in search of a more lucrative contract.
Muscala’s greatest strength is his versatility, especially on the offense end of the court where he can do anything the modern NBA asks of a big man. He is effective in the pick and roll, is one of the elite floor spacers for his position and handles the basketball securely and productively.
He does not have quite the size to anchor an NBA defense for 35 minutes per game. But he is better defensively than the casual NBA fan might think. The Hawks finished 4th in the league last season with a defensive rating of 103.1. While Muscala had an individual defensive rating of 105.1, lineup data suggests that garbage time lineups likely contributed to that number ending up higher than it otherwise might have. When he played next Paul Millsap last season the team had a defensive rating of 101.3 and when he played along with Ersyan Ilyasova they had a defensive rating of 99.9.
When considering how Coach Budenholzer might manage the rotation of the Hawks big men this season, there should be no issue having Muscala play along with the likely starting power forward, Ilyasova, for extended time. In fact, that combination might be part of one of the Hawks best offensive lineups this season.
Playing him next to Luke Babbitt would probably be problematic from a rebounding perspective. But I expect over the last 20-30 games of the season Muscala and rookie John Collins could be an increasingly effective duo. Collins will be, I expect, one of the most naturally gifted rebounders in the league even as a rookie. And Muscala’s ability to stretch the floor could be ideal as the team looks to give Collins opportunities to operate near the rim.
Newcomer Dewayne Dedmon will offer the Hawks a center that can pressure the rim in the half court offense without expecting to be a priority on that end of the court. He finished 6th among centers last season in TS%. But given that he can be a little turnover prone it helps that he does not expect to have the ball in his hands very much. Dedmon and Muscala might not play a lot together but their skill sets offer Coach Budenholzer immense offensive versatility at the center position.
Expectations for the Hawks entering the season are not high. But both Muscala and Dedmon could probably not find themselves in a better situation to increase their value as each hopes to hit the market again as potential free agents next summer. Also, the trio of Muscala, Dedmon and Ilyasova form a terrific environment for John Collins as he launches his NBA career.
Even if a few if not all of the three veterans are not with the team a year from now, should the play of Collins be on an exciting trajectory by season’s end his veteran front court mates will have contributed significantly to that. And Muscala offers unique value as a teammate given his extensive experience in the Hawks’s systems and schemes on both ends of the court.
I won’t be surprised if Muscala and Dedmon split time at the center position at almost exactly 24 minutes per game for each of them. And neither will I be surprised if Ilyasova and Collins are doing the same at the power forward position over the second half of this NBA season.
If you are a fan of Mike Muscala, there should be no shortage of opportunities to cheer him on to potential if not likely new highs in his level of play on both ends of the court.