Atlanta Hawks: Is Larry Drew Shortening the Rotation?

On a night where the Hawks played an unimpressive opponent (the Sacramento Kings, everybody!), Larry Drew chose to play virtually eight guys in his rotation on Friday evening. The eight guys shouldn’t/wouldn’t surprise you, as Horford, Smith, Pachulia, and Ivan Johnson manned the front-court while Teague, Williams, Harris, and Korver ran around the perimeter. Sounds about right, yes? These are the best 8 players on the roster (with Anthony Morrow at #9 for me), so there should be no concern about this tactic… except it’s a departure from the established “norm” this season.

On Wednesday night, Atlanta played without its best player (Al Horford) and still played nine guys 12 minutes or more, with Tolliver and Morrow being the extra players. The last time the Hawks had a full, healthy roster was Monday against Portland… and 10 guys played 9 minutes or more, with Ivan Johnson being the 11th at 5 minutes played.

There’s a lot of data here, but what does it all mean?

Frankly, an NBA rotation is usually a moving target, so there’s no surprise here, but the fluctuations based on match-up are about as wild as I can remember seeing. There have been multiple nights this season where DeShawn Stevenson, the team’s wing defender, has led the team in minuets. There are also multiple nights where he hasn’t scratched the floor at all (see Friday night). The same relative principle has made its way to the front-court, with Ivan Johnson emerging since the opener (where he got a DNP-CD) to a culmination of 17- and 22-minute nights this week on the West Coast at the expense of Anthony Tolliver, who mercifully was kept off of the court last night in Sacramento.

Because of the unique roster makeup of this year’s Hawks team, Larry Drew is being forced to tinker with his lineup even more strangely than in previous years. I’ve stated this before, but it’s very, very tough on a head coach when his best 5 players are 2 power forwards and 3 combo guards. That said, I am both encouraged and befuddled by what Drew chose to deploy on Friday.

Consider this, Sacramento entered the game 2-6 on the season, and coming off of a 22-44 campaign in 2011-12. In short, the Sacramento Kings aren’t a good NBA basketball team. So, why would Larry Drew choose this night to play Smith and Horford 40 minutes or more in a game in which the Hawks held a 16-point lead after three quarters? Why would this be the night that Zaza plays 34 minutes, Ivan logs 17, and we finally get bench splinters for Anthony Tolliver?

My hope is that Larry Drew saw an opportunity to put the peddle to the medal on the final night of a road trip, and decided to do so. The 40+ minutes for Smith/Horford aren’t inherently troubling because, well, they are the best players on the roster. My concern would be that both guys were sick at various points on the trip, and it was borderline irresponsible to see Horford on the court for the duration of the 4th quarter until the 1:24 mark. This is something to watch going forward, especially when remembering that this season’s slate features 82 games, and it is certainly a marathon of a campaign.

As far as Ivan Johnson vs. Anthony Tolliver is concerned, the returns are in. Ivan Johnson is a much, much better basketball player at this stage in their careers, and I struggle to find a match-up that I would choose to grab Tolliver off the bench instead of him. Just for reference, Tolliver’s PER this season is a ghastly 3.26. I can almost hear you screaming “small sample size!!” so I’ll also share that his PER last season was 8.3, and he’s never reached the “average NBA player” level of 15 in any season. On the flip side, Johnson’s PER was 14.37 in his first full campaign last year, and in a small sample this year, the rating creeps above 19. I realize this is one stat, but the eye test also tells us that the only thing Tolliver is better at on a basketball court than Johnson is shooting long jumpers, and when Tolliver is sporting a true shooting percentage of 37.7% this season, it’s very, very hard to deploy him

In the backcourt, the biggest storyline is the use, or rather non-use, of Jeff Teague in 4th quarters lately. There seems to be an underground swell of love among writers in the realm of Hawks blogging for Teague, and it is certainly true that he has played well in the early going, averaging 14 and 6 with a PER near 22. With that said, the decision to take Jeff Teague off the court late last night was basically one of a battle with Lou Williams, because Kyle Korver was absolutely unconscious (7-9 FG, 5-5 3-PT) and needed to be out there. Can Larry Drew really be faulted for leaving Williams out there on a night when he had it going to the tune of a 21/5/4 on 5-8 shooting and a back-court best +13? I would’ve understood the outrage a lot more if Williams struggled as a hot Teague sat on the bench, but the dirty secret of this season is that Lou Williams is averaging more points and has posted a higher PER than Teague and had a better season last year in Philly than Teague had in Atlanta. There’s a real argument to be made that Williams is the better player, so let’s take a step back on this one and give Drew some leeway.

It is tough to get a feel on an entire season’s rotation plans by examining one road trip, and more specifically, a Friday night in Sacramento. With that said, I’m encouraged by Drew’s willingness to look outside the box with the use of Deshawn Stevenson only in spots where he’s a high-leverage defender, and other tinkering with the roster. This is not your typical “find your best 8 guys and play them and them only” type of roster, and that’s what you get in a transition year. Let’s hope the head coach remains up to the challenge.

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