Last year, the Atlanta Hawks stunned almost everyone by reeling off a perfect January and winning 60 games. They went to the Eastern Conference Finals, where, beset by injuries, they fell to the Cleveland Cavaliers in relatively uncontested fashion. After an eventful offseason, the question looms: Can they repeat their success next year?
In many ways, the Hawks return the same team they courted last season. They retained the services of power forward Paul Millsap, who was an unrestricted free agent. And starters Jeff Teague (point guard), Kyle Korver (shooting guard) and Al Horford (center) were already under contract. All four of them were All-Stars last season.
They did, however, lose DeMarre Carroll, their starting small forward. Without full Bird rights and with Millsap’s contract pending, they just didn’t have the ability to offer Carroll the money to grant him the four-year, $60 million deal he inked with the Toronto Raptors.
The loss doesn’t directly appear to impact the Hawks as much as it might seem on its face. According to NBA.com, they posted a net rating of +5.7 with him on the court and +5.5 when he was on the bench, with the team both scoring and yielding roughly three points per 100 possessions fewer without him.
That said, per Basketball-Reference, the ATL was 53-17 when he played and only 7-5 when he was out. When any other starter was out, the Hawks were 11-4. And there we start touching on an issue that may or may not hinder them next season. It’s not so much about what Carroll brings as it is about him being the piece that holds their entire ecosystem together.
The Hawks’ success came on the premise of teamwork. Their 26.7 assists per 100 possessions was the second-best total in the NBA, and their 67.6 assist percentage was the highest in the league. They were fifth with 322.9 passes per contest and second with 60.6 points created by assist per 48 minutes.
They led the NBA with 33.7 catch-and-shoot points per game. They scored 1.01 points per possession off screens (third). Their 2,000 total points on spot-ups were second best, and they were ninth on cuts with 855 points.
They were a whirling, winding dervish of curls and cuts, with multiple screens per play and a popping ball flowing from player to player until they found the right shot and parted the nylon. They were an offense for the modern age of basketball.
And while they had multiple All-Stars, it was a team without any superstars. And even the selection of so many Hawks to the NBA’s midseason exhibition game was due to the precision of what happened when they were all together.
But now the Hawks have lost Carroll, and Thabo Sefolosha will likely step in to replace him as the starting small forward when Sefolosha recovers from his leg injury. When Carroll was on the court without Sefolosha last year, the Hawks had an offensive rating of 108.1 and a defensive rating of 101.5. When Sefolosha was without Carroll, the offensive rating was 103.0 and the defensive rating 104.6. The defensive drop-off isn’t a concern, as Sefolosha is a terrific defender, and that’s going to resolve itself.
The greater concern is on the offensive end, where Carroll made 120 three-point shots at a 39.5 percent rate. Sefolosha made just 25 on 32.1 percent shooting. And it’s not just there that they lose range either.
In addition to the departure of Carroll, there was the understated loss of Pero Antic, who decided to return to his home and play for Fenerbahce in the Euroleague. And with him go another 52 threes. Tiago Splitter, who made just one shot from more than 10 feet away last season, is his replacement.
Finally, Mike Scott’s legal issues are much greater than basketball, and he’ll likely be spending his time dealing with those (and/or being suspended). That’s another 66 threes that may not be back next year.
The concern is that the Hawks haven’t done enough to replace all that shooting. Tim Hardaway Jr., acquired in a draft-night trade, might replace some of that, but neither he nor Korver are lockdown perimeter defenders. Korver has developed into a highly capable team defender, but he’s not going to stop elite wings. That’s going to limit the chances for the two to play together.
All that beautiful passing and activity off the ball that leads to open shots doesn’t matter much if the player can’t hit the shot. And if there are one or two players on the court with no range, that’s that much less concern defenses have to give those non-shooters. And without that, they don’t have the spacing that makes everything work.
Atlanta had the seventh-best defense last year, and that could improve this year as Sefolosha and Splitter are both upgrades in that regard. However, the offense will likely struggle more, both directly and indirectly because of the loss of spacing. They’ll still be a playoff team, but it’s hard to see them matching last year’s 60 wins. Something in the low 50s is more realistic.