Entering the summer, the Atlanta Hawks were coming off of a strong finish to the 2018-19 NBA season despite playing a young core of players alongside a handful of established veterans. Despite not contending for a playoff spot in a fairly open Eastern Conference, Atlanta was a darling of the league after the All-Star break.
The consensus view looking back at their season was that, underneath the leadership of general manager Travis Schlenk and first-year head coach Lloyd Pierce, the organization was moving in the right direction.
Heading toward the summer, there were a handful of decisions to be made regarding the roster. Would Kent Bazemore play the final year of his contract in Atlanta despite him being an unlikely member of the next very good Hawks team? Would Vince Carter and the organization have mutual interest in running it back for one more year? What would become of Taurean Prince as he approached the final season of his rookie scale contract? What would they do with their deep supply of draft assets on draft night?
I don’t recall seeing anyone predict that they would turn over 10 of their 15 roster spots en route to the 2019-20 season, especially when considering the chemistry they played with last season, but that is the path they have chosen.
Perhaps the most surprising transaction of the past month was the Hawks agreeing to a two-year, $13 million dollar contract with Jabari Parker (the second year being a player option).
Atlanta was already perceived to be loaded with offensive potential while lacking young defenders to balance their lineups. Parker, the former No. 2 overall pick in 2014, would not seem to be a solution toward achieving a better two-way fit for the team in the near future. He has consistently struggled to defend since entering the league and the two serious knee injuries he has had to work through have only made his challenge on that end of the court greater.
Parker also would not presumably, apart from near-term improvement, be a player that would replace some of the shooting the team has lost from last season. He’s a career 33.7% three point shooter and failed to reach that threshold last season.
So, what is to be made of the acquisition of the 24-year-old looking to reestablish his footing in the league?
While there is a decent amount of chatter among the fan base and observers regarding the potential for the Hawks to make the playoffs in the Eastern Conference this year, the fact that so many of the veterans who logged minutes for the team last season are no longer around must be kept in mind. Additionally, it seems very likely that three rookies will be a regular part of the rotation from the beginning of the coming season. With that in mind, it would seem that driving for a playoff berth is not the top priority of the organization.
So why not a 1-2 year trial relationship with a player like Parker? The development was unexpected but it does look like a low-risk move for Atlanta. Parker had a solid statistical finish to the year after being dealt by the Bulls to the Wizards just ahead of last season’s trade deadline.
When reviewing his play with Washington last season, it must be noted that a lot of what he was doing, even with reasonable success at times, does not seem even remotely sustainable for his Hawks tenure given the philosophy demonstrated under Pierce last season.
It seems unlikely that Parker will be encouraged to seek shot attempts like this one with Atlanta. He dribbles into the pick-and-roll action and converts a shot on the move in the paint despite it being quite contested.
He graded reasonably well in the pick-and-roll with Washington last season. As such, it would not be surprising to see him get opportunities to initiate the action on an Atlanta second unit. However, the shot profile Pierce looks for his team to execute will steer Parker away from shot selection that looks like this.
Transition opportunities will abound for Parker so long as he is willing to run the floor with effort, the way that he did on this play versus Phoenix last season. The Hawks have a number of quality ball handlers who are willing and able to serve as hit-ahead passers, and it’s not as if he will have any issue visualizing this. Barring injury, he should witness John Collins demonstrate this game in and game out across the season.
Likewise, he should be frequently rewarded if he is a willing cutter, as he was on this play versus the Raptors last season. This is a heady play as Parker switches positions with Trevor Ariza just as his defender, OG Anunoby, helps on the ball handler. He is able to slip to the baseline and collect the smaller defender in Jeremy Lin. The result is an uncontested shot at the rim.
Should he be trusted to initiate in the pick-and-roll, this is the type of play his coaching staff will be hoping to see him execute. On this play, Parker identifies an opportunity to attack a center that almost exclusively plays drop coverage.
When Wesley Iwundu threatens a dig from the strong side corner, he uses a stutter step to keep the ball on his right side. He then dribbles square into the frame on Nikola Vucevic and uses his athleticism edge to generate an excellent look at the rim.
Parker has a natural preference to operate in the post. Last season, the Hawks ran as few post sets as nearly any team in the league. However, when Collins is allowed to function in the post, it looks like this.
On this play, Parker attacks quickly, after getting a cross screen, and looks for his first opportunity to find a path to the rim. Should Parker mimic what Collins has been asked to do with his opportunities in the post it would not be unexpected to see him get occasional opportunities to do the same.
To further visualize this possibility, consider the Washington lineup on the court for this possession. The starters that handle most of the team’s offensive facilitation are on the bench and they have a center spacing the floor as to clear room in the paint for Parker.
Parker may be playing with similar lineups with Atlanta when his post opportunities might become available.
One thing to note when evaluating Parker’s play in the post last season is that he will need to become a more willing and more effective passer to satisfy the Atlanta coaching staff. During the play above, he gets the size advantage with Kyle Lowry after the switch. While he gets the shot to fall, his read is absolutely wrong. When the opposing rim protector, Pascal Siakam, crosses over to the strong side of the play and when the weak side defensive helper, Danny Green, slides down to help with Siakam’s man, the pass is the right read.
On this possession, Wesley Johnson times his lift to the three-point break with precision to create what should be an obvious passing lane. This type of read is unlikely to be tolerated by Atlanta’s coaching staff, at least on a regular basis.
In summary, Parker’s fit with this version of the Hawks’ roster certainly seems a bit curious. However, in looking at where he has functioned with some mixed success in the past, it’s a bit easier to see the upside play that Schlenk may have had in mind when agreeing to this contract with Parker, even while the overall defensive fit is still very much a question.