Atlanta Hawks: Will They Go Big This Season?


Ever since DeMarre Carroll bolted Atlanta for the cold, wintry north and Paul Millsap re-signed, the prevailing thought was that the Atlanta Hawks starting five was basically locked in. If everyone was healthy that would place Jeff Teague as the starting point guard, Kyle Korver at shooting guard, Thabo Sefolosha at small forward, Paul Millsap at power forward and Al Horford at center. Sefolosha slips into Carroll’s spot and every other spot remains the same as it was  last season.

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Is there a chance that things aren’t as settled as common sense would suggest? The splashiest move Atlanta made this offseason was acquiring Tiago Splitter for essentially a pack of Juicy Fruit and a bottle of store brand ginger ale (a second round pick and the rights to an overseas player). Splitter has been a starter most of his career and a darn good one at that. Is there a chance the Hawks elect to go big and start Splitter instead of Sefolosha?

The small-ball revolution is taking over the NBA and the Hawks have been on the front of that bandwagon. Millsap and Horford aren’t exactly tiny, but they are generously listed at 6-foot-8 and 6-foot-10 respectively, making them among the smaller frontlines in the NBA. They are also one of the most productive combinations in the league.

When paired together last season the duo was + 7.4 points per 100 possessions. Their playing-styles go together like peanut butter and jelly. Millsap’s shooting and Horford’s passing and low-post scoring make beautiful basketball music together. The only issue is on the glass. When the two undersized big men shared the court together last season their rebounding percentage per 100 possessions was a disappointing -4.3 percent. Not a number you’d like to see from your starting power forward and center.

That may not have harmed them during the regular season, but that weakness showed up in the Playoffs against the Wizards and the Cavaliers. They were out-rebounded 46.5 rebounds per game to 44.7 rebounds per game in the Eastern Conference Semifinals against the Wizards and 39.3 per game to 52 per game against the Cavs. Splitter has never been known as an elite rebounder, his rebounding percentage is only 15.2 percent for his career, but at nearly 7-feet tall he gives Atlanta more size in the frontcourt at least.

Was that rebounding disadvantage what ultimately led to their downfall? Probably not. You can thank injuries and LeBron James for that, but it sure didn’t help. Perhaps a dose of Tiago Splitter can improve the defense, improve the rebounding and help the Hawks better deal with some of the larger front-courts in the NBA.

Inserting Splitter into the starting five will place him at center, shift Horford to power forward, keep Teague and Korver at their usual spots and shift Millsap to small forward. Horford can obviously handle playing against power forwards, if he can defend offensively skilled centers he can certainly handle power forwards. The longtime debate among Hawks fans has been whether or not Horford is better suited as a power forward or a center (shoutout to Adam McGee). Horford has more than proven that he is one of the best centers in the NBA, but a shift to power forward to better the team is not out of the question.

But, doesn’t placing Splitter into that five man unit hurt Atlanta’s spacing? Not so fast. Horford may not be a three-point shooter, but he can still stretch the floor. Horford shot 49.4 percent from between 16 feet and the three-point line, so Mike Budenholzer doesn’t have to worry about a Splitter/Horford combo clogging the paint. Splitter could also see time in the high post. He may not have the shooting touch of Horford or Millsap, but his passing is good enough that he can serve as a creator from the high post. Splitter with the ball at the top of the key surveying his surroundings allows for off the ball screens and movement, just what the Hawks do best.

The biggest issue is asking Millsap to play the majority of his minutes at small forward. Since joining the Hawks Millsap has seen his game become more perimeter oriented, so offensively the transition could be rather seamless. He shot 35.6 percent from three-point range last season and 44.2 percent from the corners. With great passers like Splitter and Horford down low, and playmaker like Jeff Teague at the point, Millsap would be the recipient of the catch and shoot opportunities that DeMarre Carroll benefited from last season. In theory anyway.

The difference between Millsap and Carroll is Millsap can create his own shot off the dribble. Even though Splitter is not known as a scorer this five man combination could be even more potent than last year’s starting five because of his passing and Millsap being much more talented offensively than Carroll.

Millsap could handle a shift to the perimeter offensively, defense is where a problem may arise. Millsap is a good defender, but defending the likes of Kevin Durant and LeBron James every night would be a difficult task for anyone.

He may not have the quickness to guard players like that for long periods of time. Still, even if Millsap struggles to guard quicker players the rim protection Splitter provides serves as sort of a security blanket. It may be unconventional, yet, I think this bigger lineup provides better defense without suffering much or at all on offense.

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  • Is this a lineup the Hawks could get away with using for large stretches? I think so. There are obvious issues, but nothing that can’t be overcome. While I don’t think this particular lineup will end up being the primary starting five, I imagine we will see it on occasion.

    Especially when the Hawks match-up with a team that boasts a particularly sizable front-line. The ability to go toe to toe with bruising front-courts like the Cavaliers, the Bulls or the Wizards will be huge come the playoffs.

    Losing Carroll may have hurt the Hawks in the short term as they adjust to a new rotation, and I’m not sure that Sefolosha will ever be able to match his production, but in the long term the Hawks might be better off. Splitter gives  them the ability to go big when the small-ball look isn’t working. That may be just what it takes to get Atlanta over the hump and into the NBA Finals.

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