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Why win projections are too low on the 2017-2018 Atlanta Hawks

Let’s consider a dissenting voice.

NBA: Atlanta Hawks at Charlotte Hornets Sam Sharpe-USA TODAY Sports

In recent news, the Westgate Las Vegas SuperBook released an updated over/under win total mark for the 2017-18 season with the Atlanta Hawks at 25.5 wins. It was just about a month ago that ESPN released their RPM-based projection with the Hawks pegged at 27 wins. I don’t track all sources of this type of information, frankly because I don’t gamble very often. While it seems I might be the only one, I just can’t resolve my current view of this Hawks roster with those projections.

Let me clear one thing up before proceeding. If the Hawks want to be a 22-25 win team or so to increase the number of ping pong balls they are allocated on the night of the draft lottery, they can absolutely accomplish that. But there would be work to do, maybe not difficult work, but some work. However, if one of the objectives for this season is to keep coach Mike Budenholzer reasonably happy and on board the plan that the organization will attempt to execute during at least the duration of his contract, it could make that work quite a bit more difficult.

The Hawks won 43 games last season but their expected win total based upon net rating was 39 games. They lost Paul Millsap in free agency, easily their best player, a bonafide all-star and a top 25 or so player in the league. They took on one of the worst contracts in the league to move on from Dwight Howard, who had a productive individual season on the court last year, but its clear that moving him was an avoidable priority even in the organization’s very short term plans. Additionally, they rightly declined to match the lucrative contract offer the New York Knicks extended to Tim Hardaway Jr.

So, three of the top four leading scorers on the 2016-17 Hawks team are now on other teams. And the Hawks were the 27th best offensive team in the league last season as measured by offensive rating. They were 23rd in the league in 3P% and that certainly factored in significantly to the overall offensive futility.

With that as the backdrop, the Hawks are not going to win 43 games this season and the basic reasons are clear. They are simply lacking the top end roster talent that an NBA team needs to have in order to be capable of winning more games than they lose. But as things stand right now, they might be lining up, in my view, to land about as close to that 43-win mark as a 25-win mark.

A talented roster versus a functional roster.

Last year’s team was obviously more talented than is this year’s team. But the 2016-17 Hawks roster had functional issues from the very beginning of the season. Dwight Howard was, as expected, anchored to offensive paint last season but the roster was lacking the shooters to operate around him. After Kyle Korver was traded, the roster became even more profoundly less functional on the offensive end of the court.

In the Al Horford era, Paul Millsap was brilliant at working the weak side baseline while Horford and Jeff Teague operated in the pick and pop action. His value to the team was significantly diminished when he was on the court during possessions in which Schroder and Howard operated in the pick and roll.

On the wing, last year’s team had what were mostly one-way players in Tim Hardaway Jr. (offense) and Thabo Sefolosha (defense). They had, in Kent Bazemore, a player that had displayed flashes of solid two-way play during the 2015-16 season but he struggled replicate that in any consistent way last season.

Offensively, they desperately needed to play the few shooters they had at a higher volume of minutes. But there were fit issues. For example, Pau Gasol was the only center in the league last season that shot the ball better from the 3-point line than Mike Muscala. But it was a struggle for Budenholzer to increase Muscala’s minutes because the only big man that worked next to Howard on defense was Millsap. In the 331 minutes that Howard and Muscala played together the Hawks had a defensive rating of 108.3

This season’s roster is far less talented but it is pretty significantly more functional in my view. For example, if Budenholzer wants to increase Muscala’s minutes, newcomer Dewayne Dedmon at age 28 is a more versatile defensive player than was the 31 year old Dwight Howard. Dedmon and Muscala will be able to play together in a way the Muscala and Howard could not. When certain match ups require the need for another shooter than can handle real minutes in the front court Luke Babbitt is available.

With Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry emerging at the wing position, the roster is moving back toward having more two-way players available there. Bembry is not yet a reliable shooter, but he profiles as a secondary play maker.

Bellineli profiles as a one-way player, but as Greg Willis pointed out he is a veteran that has contributed to very successful NBA defensive units. With a roster that should offer improved spacing. Bazemore could potentially contribute more on the offensive end as a cutter and as a generally active off the ball player that has the athleticism to punish a defense overplaying the primary action.

The shooting issue

A significant component of a projection model based upon RPM is raw shooting statistics. And, if the model replicates the same season for Malcolm Delaney that he had last season, and if it projects a significant increase in minutes for DeAndre Bembry, the output of that model is going to be awful.

Delaney joined the Hawks last season as player with the reputation of being one of the best offensive players that played in Europe over the previous several seasons. And he has the hardware to prove it. But playing in a reserve role for the first time in a long time (ever?), he struggled to find a consistent rhythm and ultimately struggled with his confidence.

All indications apart from his only NBA season suggest that he should be at least an above average shooter. The public comments he has made make him sound, to me, like a guy that completely expects more of himself as an offensive producer than he was last season.

And Delaney really understands the game. As I have been putting in the work to put together my offensive playbook series, it has resulted in my developing an even greater appreciation for his basketball IQ. Many of the best examples of half-court offensive execution by last season’s team occurred when he was on the court.

In 371 minutes of play last season, Bembry shot a woeful 1 of 18 from the 3-point line and 6 of 16 at the free throw line. And I am pretty confident that the projection models are forecasting at least 1000 minutes of play from him this season. I’m not saying he is certain to have a breakout season as a shooter, but I am confident he will resemble something more like an average NBA shooter than a player that shoots less than 10% from 3-point range. At the free throw line I would anticipate he will shoot something closer to a 75% than the 38% mark that he hit last season.

I understand that these projection systems try to account for sample size and common regression to the mean trends and such. But Delaney and Bembry had massive outlier shooting seasons last year and it would seem to me that these models struggle to account for such significant anomalies than less extreme examples .

If each player on this roster simply replicates the season they had last season from the 3-point line, they would merely improve as a team from 34.1% to 34.7%. And that factors in zero improvement from Delaney and Bembry; I think improvement from them is a very reasonable expectation. I also think it is reasonable to anticipate some improvement from Prince as a shooter. Hawks wings pretty reliably have remarkably better shooting performances in their second season with the team than in their first season.

Additionally, Dennis Schroder quietly sneaked past the 85% mark at the free throw line last season. That type of improvement at the free throw line has often proven to indicate an oncoming improvement from the 3-point line. Nineteen guards shot better than 85% at the free throw line last season. Thirteen of those players were better than league average shooters from 3-point range. Eight of those players shot 40% or better from the free throw line. As a group those nineteen players shot a collective 38.3% from the 3-point line.

I don’t expect the Hawks to be one of the ten best teams 3-point shooting team this season. But I do think there are a number of reasons to believe they will be an improved team in that critical area of offensive play. If nothing else they should be a more empowered and confident group of shooters that have the possibility of increasing their volume of shots from 3-point range this season. The were 16th in 3-point attempts last season after being 7th during both the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

The distribution of minutes

Another reason I expect the Hawks to outplay their win projection on the season is the fact that there is not a single player on this roster that has the equity with this team to expect to deserve playing time and/or being treated as an offensive priority ahead of other players. Apart from an intentional plan to tank, the players on this team that will get the most minutes will be the players that have earned them.

Last season, the free agent acquisition of Dwight Howard gave him equity to get every opportunity to play a normal starters workload and to get some level of priority on offense. Paul Millsap certainly had well deserved equity. He played more minutes per game last season than he had in any of his previous three seasons with the Hawks. His 14.1 FGA/game matched his first season with the Hawks as the highest shot volume of his four seasons with the team.

Howard played the fewest minutes per game of his career (29.7) and his 8.3 FGA/game matched his rookie season as a career low. Budenholzer sat Howard during closing stretches of games when they needed to play faster as to try to catch teams from behind. This often did not sit well with Howard.

I expect this season to look similar to Coach Budenholzer’s first season with the team. No one on that roster had had clear team or organizational equity to expect to automatically be a higher priority than everyone else on the roster. This year, I expect that players will get the minutes they earn.

Let’s compare this dynamic with the Hawks roster entering this season to a handful of other Eastern Conference teams.

Imagine at some point this season that the Philadelphia 76ers being on a 2-8 stretch in December and are playing .400 basketball or so. If things are not clicking with Ben Simmons, will Brett Brown have the option to sit him for a week or so and play someone else who is making fewer mistakes on defense? The same question applies to Markelle Fultz. A first overall pick comes along with a certain amount of presumed commitment to prioritize the players development above what might be in the best interest of the team’s short term success.

What about the Knicks and Tim Hardaway Jr.? What happens if he is not putting in the effort on the defensive end of the court and has a 5 game stretch or so in which he is struggling to make shots? With that contract of his, will the optics restrict Jeff Hornacek from doing something different that he might otherwise do to in an attempt to get the team back on track?

The Pacers are certainly under pressure to feature Victor Oladipo in a way that improves the perception regarding the outcome of the Paul George trade. What happens if they way they are drive toward that outcome is hurting their likelihood of winning games? Will Nate McMillan feel restricted from making an adjustment with the aim of getting the team headed in a better direction?

What happens in Charlotte if Cody Zeller and Dwight Howard can’t function on the court together, which would not be a surprise. Or if Zeller is wildly outplaying Howard? Does Howard get to start and get starters minutes anyway? If the answer is yes, how is the rest of the team going to react to that? If no, how is Dwight Howard going to react to that.

Apart from Dennis Schroder, there is not a single player that will be entering camp with an outright expectation to start at his position. And last season, Budenholzer was not afraid to bench Schroder if he was not handling his business correctly.

One of the dynamics of the Miami Heat team that outplayed expectations last season was this same thing. After the departure of Dwyane Wade there was no pecking order based upon status or equity. When Justice Winslow, a former number ten overall draft pick, went down with an injury there really weren’t any players on the team attached to critically important individual developmental objectives.

Observers seem to have accepted that this Hawks team has already tacked a course toward a top 5 overall pick in the 2018 NBA draft. But the combination of the skill and track record of their head coach and the amount of experience and functional fit of the roster he has me feeling like taking a wait and see approach might be more appropriate.

If I had to guess, the season will start with Coach Budenholzer empowered to guide the team toward the best on court results he can produce. Perhaps the the approach will be to let him drive through the end of December or so with an opportunity to produce a record that could further positively reflect on his ability to deliver impressive results with a generally less than impressive collection of talent.

And once they have possibly overachieved deep enough into the season that no one would fault him for the team falling off after the experienced, veteran players are moved for what assets could be had in return for them, the plan will shift towards playing the younger, more error prone players. Even if that is the plan that the organization ultimately executes, 25-27 wins still seems a bit too low to me.

Five teams won fewer than 30 games last season. Perhaps they will try to walk a tight rope toward the 5th or 6th worst record in the association and hope for a little luck in the draft lottery. We will have to wait and see how this eventually unfolds.