The Atlanta Hawks got off to a 7-1 start to the 2015-16 NBA season and climbed their way the top spot in the Eastern Conference, but have since fallen to 11-8 and the seventh seed.
For those keeping score at home, that means the Hawks, who won 60 games a year ago, have now lost six of their last 10 games.
You can place a little bit of the blame on various injuries to key rotation players Jeff Teague, Kent Bazemore and Tiago Splitter. The team has also gone through two four-games-in-five-nights stretches already and has played more contests (19) than any other squad so far this season.
But the biggest underlying issue is something that has nothing to do with tough luck or scheduling quirks: the Hawks are just a bad rebounding team, and it all begins with their starting unit.
Atlanta’s opening lineup is one that seems to be an ideal fit for the modern NBA: Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap and Al Horford all have shooting range out to the three-point line, and they also create a unit that is defensively versatile enough to navigate a pick-and-roll heavy offensive attack from opponents.
You have some problems, however, because three players are playing up a position. The 6’5″ Bazemore and the 6’10” Horford have the size and game more suited to the shooting guard and power forward slots, respectively, but play small forward and center. Millsap is 6’8″ and fits the profile of a combo forward, but gets nearly all of his minutes at the 4.
Of course, this approach makes the Hawks extremely vulnerable on the glass.
Atlanta’s starting unit has played 146 minutes together which makes them the 10th-most used lineup in the NBA. That group only grabs 45.9 percent of available rebounds—a rate worse than all the other lineups in the top 15 of minutes played. When those five are on the floor, and a given shot is missed, the opponent is 17.9 percent more likely to grab it than the Hawks are.
The Hawks’ top group also only rebounds 14.1 percent of its missed shots. The nine units directly above the Atlanta starters in total minutes are all above 19.7 percent in that statistic.
Unfortunately, Atlanta doesn’t have any hulking rebounding stalwarts it brings off its bench, either. Tiago Splitter is the closest to qualifying, but he’s averaging a career-low 7.6 rebounds per 36 minutes and is currently out with a hip injury.
The other two rotation bigs behind Millsap, Horford and Splitter are the two Mikes, Muscala and Scott. Both are basically just shooting posts, and they each average fewer than six rebounds per 36 minutes. At least swingman Thabo Sefolosha (7.7 rebounds per 36 minutes) is active enough to provide some relief in grabbing missed shots.
But long-term, it’s going to be tough for Atlanta to do anything in the playoffs with the minus-3.6 rebound differential it currently sports. Last year, the team was at minus-3.0, and we all saw the interior beatdown the Cleveland Cavaliers performed on them in the Eastern Conference Finals.
What’s the solution then?
Walter “Edy” Tavares is a 7’3″, 260-pound giant who’s only played five total minutes in three games, but he was presumably brought in this summer to make a difference in the glass. The 23-year-old center is raw, but the Hawks need him badly right now, especially with Splitter out. He’ll probably see the court more and more as the season wears on.
Sefolosha, the guy I thought would start at small forward coming into the season, is coming off the bench and having a great season. As mentioned before, he’s a very strong rebounder, and could stand a little bit more playing time than the 23.2 minutes he’s currently getting.
Korver, an All-Star last February, is shooting pretty well again (44.4 percent from three) but needs to use his 6’7″ frame more frequently to help on the offensive glass. He has a single offensive rebound in 537 minutes this season, which is pathetic for a player of any stature.
There’s also always the option of a trade for more rebounding help, and backup point guard Dennis Schroder is solid bait for Atlanta to dangle at opposing teams who want to take on the young floor general as their point guard of the future.
Without some sort of rebounding help, it looks like it’ll another year of playoff disappointment for the Hawks. So how will head coach Mike Budenholzer and possibly general manager Wes Wilcox fix the problem?
We will see.