The Atlanta Hawks had a better regular season than anyone could’ve expected last year. Lacking a true superstar who can take over the offense, Atlanta relied on incredible teamwork, ball movement and shot selection on their way to the best record in the Eastern Conference.
Despite dominating great stretches of the regular season, Atlanta seemed to run out of steam in the playoffs. Their beautiful brand of basketball lost effectiveness against dialed-in defenses that were prepared for the whirring ball movement. Offensive sequences that produced wide open threes on a Wednesday night in February didn’t create the same great looks in May. And while the Hawks were able to make it to the conference finals, they hit huge bumps along the way against the lowly Nets and the upstart Wizards.
A huge part of their regular-season success was due to the excellent play of DeMarre Carroll. Carroll enjoyed a breakout season at the age of 28, knocking down 39 percent of his threes and playing superb defense along the perimeter. Carroll, the only Hawks starter to not make the All-Star team, was responsible for a lot of the dirty work on the defensive end that kept the Hawks’ machine running so smoothly for 82 games.
Unfortunately for the Hawks, they weren’t the only team to notice Carroll’s great season. It didn’t take long for the Raptors and the Junkyard Dawg to come to terms on a four-year, $60 million contract and break up the Hawks’ superb starting unit. Carroll’s departure left a big hole on the wing for Atlanta, but it also created an opportunity.
The biggest free agent to change teams this summer was LaMarcus Aldridge. Aldridge, who was sacrificing some money by leaving Portland, was still no great discount for the Spurs, who needed a way to create salary cap space that they could sign LMA in to. Enter Atlanta, an organization with a lot of ties to San Antonio, and an organization suddenly flush with cap space after losing out on Carroll.
In a trade that was buried beneath the massive movement of July 1, the Spurs sent Tiago Splitter and his $8.5 million salary to the Hawks for a protected second rounder and the rights to a guy named Georgios Printezis, whose rights have now been owned by seven different teams, and the Spurs twice!
Nabbing Splitter basically free of charge was an incredible rebound for the Hawks, who hours earlier had lost their starting small forward. While the addition of Splitter doesn’t fill the void on the wing left by Carroll, he gives Atlanta additional lineup diversity that they didn’t have in 2014-15.
Last season, the Hawks’ starting big man duo of Al Horford and Paul Millsap was superb. Their ability to stretch the defense with shooting created other opportunities for their teammates around the court. But behind the dynamic starters was little support. Pero Antic struggled mightily in his second season, shooting 30 percent on threes while hoisting up six attempts per 36 minutes. The retired Elton Brand, legally troubled Mike Scott and ineffective Mike Muscala soaked up the backup power-forward minutes behind Millsap.
Splitter is a far more effective player than anyone the Hawks had coming off the bench last season. A defensive specialist, Splitter also shot 55.8 percent from the field and 75 percent from the line. That high free throw percentage allows coach Mike Budenholzer to leave Splitter in the game for crunch time if the big Brazilian is playing well. (Splitter was a dreadful 31.6 percent from the line in the postseason, but that was a small sample size and an anomaly.)
Splitter also gives the Hawks a lot of lineup flexibility. He obviously can play alongside Millsap, but can also play with the 6’10” Horford and let him shift to power forward. Horford and Antic only shared the court for 164 minutes last season, but they were very effective in posting a +10.2 net rating. I expect Horford and Splitter will play together a lot to combat bigger teams or to try and deter teams from going small.
Carroll will undoubtedly be missed, but the Hawks are banking on a handful of guys to recreate his production. Thabo Sefelosha (once he gets healthy), Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore and the recently acquired Tim Hardaway Jr. will each be counted on to provide solid defense and floor stretching ability to keep the machine moving. None of those players will be able to completely replace Carroll, but they’ll hopefully combine to do a decent impression.
Atlanta would’ve loved to bring back Carroll and create the advantage of continuity that not many teams enjoy today. But being able to trade for Splitter without sacrificing any future or present assets could prove to be the better outcome for the Hawks. Splitter’s size and defense gives the Hawks an ability to play big and small that could prove useful in the postseason, when series are often swung by matchups and coaching adjustments.