The Atlanta Hawks had an eventful offseason. They traded Jeff Teague before the draft, lost Al Horford to the Boston Celtics in free agency, landed Dwight Howard to replace him and brought back Kent Bazemore after his breakout season. There will be a mix of familiar faces and new additions next season, as Atlanta tries to continue its playoff streak.
The talent is certainly there for them to accomplish that. There's a case to be made that the 2016-17 roster is actually better than the one from last season, especially considering all that wing depth they added through the draft.
Yet despite a relatively successful offseason, how good the new-look Hawks end up being will largely come down to whether Dennis Schroder and Howard can find a way to make their games fit.
The losses of Horford and Teague are big, but in terms of individual talent and production, Atlanta found good replacements. Howard is not a great offensive player anymore and he can't space the floor the way Horford did, but he can still make an impact on defense and especially the boards, where the Hawks have struggled greatly in past years (they ranked 13th in the league in defensive rebounding in 2015-16.) If he helps them become elite on their own end, it might not matter that he's a downgrade in the other.
Schroder might be an upgrade over Teague in terms of talent and is six years younger. Coming off the bench, he has gotten better every year, so it makes sense that his trajectory could have him ostensibly match or exceed Teague's production once he takes over the role of starting point guard. Their numbers last season were eerily similar on a per-minute basis.
Again, individually Howard and Schroder seem like they can match the impact of the players they are replacing. The problem is their playing styles don't match one another.
Schroder used the pick-and-roll more often than any other set to score, according to Synergy Sports. Now he will play with a center who isn't happy just being a dive man. The spacing will be compromised with Howard parked in the paint, which might give Schroder the excuse to abuse his mid-range jumper like he has at times in the past. His three-point shot is inconsistent and he's always looked disengaged when he's been off the ball, but he might be asked to be a floor-spacer more often than before.
If the old version of Schroder shows up next season, the Hawks could be in trouble. Of course, it's entirely possible that he evolves. He's 22 years old, after all, and has never been a starting point guard. Maybe some of the tendencies that make him a bad match with Howard are the result of his role as a scorer off the bench. If he gets cleaner looks from outside, his percentage might climb.
That doesn't seem all that likely but it's much more realistic than expecting Howard to change at this point in his career. Despite leading the league in post touches last season, he has been complaining about a lack of involvement in the Houston Rockets' offense all summer. Coach after coach has tried to get him to buy into setting screens and rolling hard to the rim, but he simply doesn't want to do that. When he doesn't get his shots, he stops trying on defense. Atlanta needs to keep Howard happy, which is not easy.
The best way to do that is to have a low-usage lead ballhandler who can spot up around him when he posts up and is willing to feed him. The paint will be cluttered, but the point guard has to be willing to drive anyway and explore his options instead of settling for mid-range looks. With Howard likely using more possessions than Horford, the rest of the team will need to be fed by a place-setting, mistake-averse lead ballhandler.
Ironically enough, that sounds a lot more like Teague than it does Schroder.
|2015/16 season||Drives per 36 minutes||3-point FG%||Assist-to-turnover ratio|
Considering the starting unit did better with Schroder in Teague's place for six games last season, it's understandable that the Hawks decided to promote him. Yet changing one of the key components of that lineup -- Horford -- changes everything. The fact that the high-maintenance Howard is replacing him only complicates things further and could make Mike Budenholzer miss Teague.
The gamble the Hawks seem to have made is that talent will trump everything else. If Howard can anchor the defense, clean the glass and get some of his potency back on offense, it won't matter that he'll break the flow by demanding post touches. If Schroder's pull-up shot improves just a bit more and he makes enough plays on both ends, his occasional recklessness will be forgiven.
Many teams have taken such risks in the past and there are probably as many success stories as there are failures. The Hawks were not true contenders last season anyway, so no one can blame them for shaking things up. If it works, it will keep them in the playoffs while allowing them to remain young and conserve cap flexibility. It's just surprising that a team that relied so heavily on chemistry has decided to go through with this experiment.
The Hawks might post similar offensive and defensive efficiency numbers next season and they might even win the same 48 games, but their essence will be fundamentally different.
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