What made last season’s 60-win Atlanta Hawks so special? In my opinion, it was a killer starting lineup that featured five players who were so dangerous on the offensive end and tirelessly worked to get each other clean looks.
Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Paul Millsap and Al Horford was a five-man unit that was a nightmare to deal with. Which player could you have hidden a bad defensive player on?
Teague would just speed right past the helpless sieve. Korver and Carroll would pierce him with daggers from the great beyond. Millsap and Horford, two of the quickest and most skilled big men in the NBA, would outwit the poor sap.
When Carroll left Atlanta for the Toronto Raptors in free agency this summer, I figured the Hawks’ depth would become their trademark instead. Tiago Splitter, Dennis Schroder, Mike Muscala, Tim Hardaway Jr., Kent Bazemore, Justin Holiday and Mike Scott would create a formidable reserve unit.
In the starting lineup, Atlanta would replace the departed Carroll with Thabo Sefolosha, an excellent defensive player who’s inconsistent as an offensive threat, and just accept that their top group would be slightly worse than it was in 2014-15.
But thanks to Bazemore’s development, maybe the Hawks don’t need to settle for that this season.
The 26-year-old wing, not Sefolosha, has seamlessly stepped into Carroll’s spot for 7-1 Atlanta, which is again the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and has now won seven games in a row. Bazemore and Carroll provide (or provided, in DeMarre’s case) almost exactly the same contributions next to their fellow starters: efficient spot-up shooting, above-average defense and the ability to occasionally attack the rim via cuts or dribble penetration.
Is Bazemore’s improvement merely a result of more playing time? Both statistical and anecdotal evidence would suggest otherwise.
Check out his numbers per 36 minutes from the first eight games of this season, compared to 2014-15:
Bazemore’s teammates are vouching for him actually getting better, too. Horford said the following about him, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Chris Vivlamore:
Last year, he was hurt. The last summer he was injured when he came into the season. I know he’s not going to make excuses but he was dealing with that. This year, he had a healthy summer, he worked really hard and it’s paying off right now. He’s playing really well.
Keep in mind that Bazemore is still getting used to playing the majority of his minutes with a new set of teammates, and that adjustment period has come mostly against the opponent’s starters, as well.
And yet, he still has put together performances like this 25-point gem against the formidable Washington Wizards:
One thing you’ll notice from the above highlights is how confident Bazemore has become in his shot. If he catches the ball and is decently open and in rhythm, he’ll shoot it. Last year, if he caught the ball behind the arc and was open, he would usually think about whether to shoot, before either doing so or passing the ball.
The results of that confidence have been fantastic. Baze has a team-leading 15 threes, making them at a Korver-esque 55.6 percent clip. His accuracy is bound to regress some, but I think 40 percent from three while taking about four treys per game (he’s at 3.4 now) should be a reasonable goal.
On defense, Bazemore is just a pest. At only 6’5″ and 201 pounds, he’s one of the smallest starting 3s in the league. However, a 6’11.5″ wingspan (longer than Carroll’s 6’10” spread, per DraftExpress), excellent lateral quickness and explosive leaping ability make up for that.
He’s not a perfect defender, not even close. He can fall asleep off the ball and make incorrect rotations.
But when he does make a mistake, like gambling for a steal on Brook Lopez while ignoring his man, Joe Johnson, he can often make up for it:
At this point, I’d put Bazemore’s defensive impact on par with what Carroll provided the Hawks last year. Baze is more dangerous in the passing lanes and is quicker and more energetic in one-on-one situations, but Carroll was stronger and smarter.
An occasional Hawks watcher from last season might label Carroll an elite defender, but his effort would sometimes fade out against non-contenders. He wasn’t the fleetest of foot, and was mainly helpful against bigger small forwards like LeBron James. He didn’t have the quickness to cover most point and shooting guards, which Bazemore does.
Kent isn’t there yet, but he does have the potential to be an elite defender if he continues to establish chemistry with his fellow starters and sharpens up his defensive fundamentals.
Overall, Bazemore’s impact as the Hawks’ No. 5 option is very similar to what Carroll provided for Atlanta’s starting lineup last year.
If Baze keeps knocking down open threes while attacking the rim on occasion and uses his energy and athleticism to wreak havoc on defenses, Atlanta could get closer to last year’s 60 wins than any of us predicted.