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Hawks’ Supposedly Improved Bench Still Working Itself Out

Brett Davis/USA TODAY Sports

According to most pundits, the defining moment of the Atlanta Hawks’ offseason was the loss of DeMarre Carroll. Carroll broke out offensively during the playoffs, scoring 14.6 points per game to keep the Hawks afloat in the first two rounds. Combine that with his very good perimeter defense, and he earned himself a whopping $60 million contract over four years with the Toronto Raptors.

But what went under the radar was all the additions the team made to improve its bench, moves that would hopefully mitigate the loss of the Junkyard Dog.

The Hawks acquired Tiago Splitter for peanuts from the San Antonio Spurs, 7’3″ Walter Tavares came over from Spain, Tim Hardaway Jr. was acquired on draft night in a (presumably) win-now trade and Justin Holiday brought over his championship experience from the Golden State Warriors, even if the defensive-minded wing hardly played during the postseason.

Plus, Thabo Sefolosha was returning after an injury-plagued second half of the season. A defensive stud, Sefolosha’s on-court net rating in 2014-15 was plus-11.4. When Thabo was on the bench or injured, that number dropped to plus-3.9. Whether he would start or come off the bench, his presence would at least provide more depth.

Leaving the team to make room for the additions were Pero Antic, Elton Brand, John Jenkins and Austin Daye. The latter three of those players barely saw the court, and most Hawks fans were sick of seeing Antic in the rotation by the time the playoffs rolled around.

Below is a real stretch of play that happened for Atlanta’s first big man off the bench last season:

Screen Shot 2015-10-31 at 4.01.26 PM

Naturally, I was intrigued to see how head coach Mike Budenholzer would work with a new, significantly more talented bench in 2015-16.

So far, the results have been disappointing for the 2-1 Hawks, but actually more weird than disappointing.

Hardaway was on the inactive list for the first game and was then a DNP-CD for the next two contests, including a game in which Atlanta was without starting 2-guard Kyle Korver and ended up playing only nine guys. He’s now back to the inactive list for Sunday’s game.

Coach Bud and the rest of the front office knew about his defensive struggles and shoot-first mindset when they gave up a valuable first-round pick to get him, right? Is sitting him out a way for Bud to motivate the 23-year-old shooting guard to play harder (or smarter) in practice?

Before the Hawks’ second game, Budenholzer insisted it’s not because he doesn’t like Hardaway as a player, per the Atlanta Journal-Constitution‘s Chris Vivlamore:

“We’ve got a group of wings who are all fighting for opportunity,” Coach Bud said. “They’ve all done things well in the preseason. You have to make some hard decisions. [Hardaway] is somebody we feel strongly about. He’s going to be good for us.”

I’m not going to definitively judge Budenholzer for this move, because he obviously sees what’s going on behind the scenes, and I don’t. But it would be nice to see Hardaway get some sort of burn soon to find confidence and an offensive rhythm, two things needed for a microwave scorer cut out of the same cloth as J.R. Smith and Nick Young.

Holiday has also gotten two DNP-CDs, and he was also supposed to be a key rotation piece due to his 3-and-D skill set. When he did play against the New York Knicks, he scored just two points on two shots in 13 minutes and failed to register a rebound, assist, steal or block.

The key beneficiary of the available minutes has been Lamar Patterson. A 2014 second-round pick of the Hawks, the 6’5″ wing got Atlanta’s last roster spot after a strong preseason, and he’s surprisingly emerged as the team’s No. 1 swingman off the bench.

Sure, Patterson works really hard and does several productive things on the floor within Atlanta’s system. But he’s not as athletic or skilled as Hardaway or Holiday, and nobody would’ve predicted he would play 60 minutes through the Hawks’ first three games.

Looking down the road, a hypothetical rotation of Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore, Thabo Sefolosha and Lamar Patterson isn’t capable of holding down the wing position for a team that hopes to contend for a NBA title. Thankfully for the Hawks, I don’t anticipate this will become a permanent thing, as Bud’s surprising early moves are probably just a motivator for Hardaway and Holiday.

In terms of interior players, Splitter hasn’t been terrible in his new digs, but he’s mostly failed to bring the much-needed inside presence Hawks fans were expecting. He’s averaged 3.0 rebounds in 18.3 minutes per game so far, which is extremely emblematic of Atlanta’s 29th-ranked differential on the boards (minus-12.4 rebounds per game) through three games.

Tavares, meanwhile, has played only one total minute through three games after getting more than 17 minutes of burn during the preseason. The Hawks will have to use his size at some point, because they can’t expect to continue winning two-thirds of their games while getting killed on the boards every night.

Yes, it’s frustrating to see so little from Atlanta’s new toys off the bench early in the season, but we’ll just have to let the NBA’s 2014-15 Coach of the Year do his job.

The Hawks are only three games into their season, after all.

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