The Schroder-Howard duo is showing promise, but Millsap keeps stuffing stat sheets
Eighty-two games leaves ample space for analysis, ideas and speculation. By way of The Quarters, FOX Sports Southeast's Zach Dillard offers a weekly look at the Atlanta Hawks throughout the 2016-17 season. Here are four thoughts on Paul Millsap rounding into form, Atlanta's defensive identity and more.
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The Dwight Howard Experiment is working, but Paul Millsap runs the show
In the Hawks' win over the Houston Rockets, the team's most complete effort against a formidable foe to date, Paul Millsap returned to his stat-stuffing ways. Millsap reminded the league how he can morph into a Swiss Army knife at any given time, logging 23 points, 11 rebounds, five steals and four assists — joining only Anthony Davis, who posted one of the greatest single-game stat lines in league history, as the only players to hit those numbers this season.
In fact, those marks have only been reached six other times over the past five seasons: Russell Westbrook (2012), Paul George (2013), Thaddeus Young (2014), Draymond Green and DeMarcus Cousins (2015) and Davis.
Much attention has been diverted to the Dwight Howard and Dennis Schroder partnership, for good reason. The Hall of Fame-bound big man is Atlanta's biggest free-agent acquisition in recent memory, a player who can still lift a franchise when healthy and locked in. Meanwhile, the young point guard holds the keys to the organization's ceiling.
Millsap sits in the driver's seat, though.
At 31, Millsap could post a career-high usage rate as Atlanta runs more and more of its offense through him. It's been slow going early on — despite the Rockets game, he's still searching for his shooting touch and his turnover rate is a bit too high — but he's doing all of this despite missing a good portion of preseason. He remains one of the rare NBA standouts whose presence affects every possible aspect of the action.
The Hawks' most important player has not changed — in fact, while anchoring another promising defense, Millsap may be more important than ever.
Mike Budenholzer and his staff deserve more credit for building a defensive power
The distraction was planted early. Unselfish ball movement, shooting galore, after-timeout playcalling gems, intuitive off-ball cuts, even the catchy mantra/nickname: pace-and-space. Mike Budenholzer's Spurs-ian system put the Hawks near the forefront of the league's offensive revolution a few years ago, at least stylistically, when he was hired before the 2013-14 season.
But the Hawks have never once finished the season ranked higher in offensive efficiency than they did in defensive efficiency.
Sure, the 60-win team had its moments of scoring brilliance. Atlanta finished sixth in offensive rating that season — the exact same ranking they held on the defensive end — but Budenholzer preached throughout that his team's core identity rested in stopping opponents. That's played out ever since.
As the offense fell off last year, the defense climbed. It's happening again this season. Despite a different collection of talent — Dwight Howard is a very, very different defender than Al Horford — the Hawks keep putting the clamps on opponents. (The light schedule has helped, but at this point we probably need evidence that the Hawks defense is not good, not vice versa.)
Howard's presence all but discards Atlanta's blitz-happy schemes from a year ago, when they would attack ball-handlers in the pick-and-roll with mobile bigs in Horford and Millsap and rely on their perimeter players to scramble and pressure shots. There are still flashes of this approach depending on personnel and opponent, but in their new 7-footer they have a traditional big that sits back more in the two-man game and protects the rim. Budenholzer's staff simply continues to make adjustments on the fly.
There have been lapses, as expected with any learning curve. Still, the Hawks once again rank No. 2 in defensive efficiency in the early going, allowing just 94 points per 100 possessions. Until proven otherwise, it appears Budenholzer's defensive empire remains intact.
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Malcolm Delaney, impact rookie
Behind the tidal wave of $140-plus million spent in free agency, Atlanta's front office quietly needed to address their backup point guard position this offseason. As Schroder moved into Jeff Teague's starting position, the organization's cupboard was bare, especially after trading former third-string point guard Shelvin Mack last season.
Budenholzer & Co. essentially made two acquisitions: The veteran safety net and the unknown commodity. The former was longtime NBA floor general Jarrett Jack, who planned to enter his 13th season in the league coming off a torn ACL. The other was Malcolm Delaney, an undrafted player out of Virginia Tech who spent five seasons overseas. The expectation was for the Hawks to carry three point guards into the campaign.
Then the Hawks got aggressive.
After cutting Jack before the season, Delaney's burden got heavier. He immediately became the only other option — aside from non-traditional floor generals like Thabo Sefolosha, etc. — if the Schroder gamble went south.
Judging by his first few games, Delaney's time in Europe was well-spent. He's helped anchor a Hawks bench that leads the league in net rating; he and Sefolosha are the individual league leaders in this category for players averaging at least 15 minutes played. Not bad for your first six games on the job.
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Kent Bazmore found other ways to contribute amid shooting slump
Taking on difficult defensive assignments can be a thankless task, especially when your own shot abandons you. Budenholzer's responsibility during Kent Bazemore's early-season shooting slump was to remind him of his priorities.
“To be honest with you, whatever it’s been, six games — four or five, or four or a half and five a half of those he’s been great. I think his defense has been phenomenal," the Hawks coach said after Atlanta's win over Houston, in which Bazemore scored a season-high 20 points. " … The challenge of guarding a (James) Harden, you put your focus into that. You’re so locked in there. He and I talk a lot about just focusing on his defense.
"It’s great for him to see him work that hard defensively and get rewarded on the other end.”
Such assignments like Harden are not going away. Bazemore is the team's best perimeter defender in the starting lineup, and with Schroder being a bit undersized for the league's bigger guards (i.e. Harden), Bazemore is going to expending great amounts of his (seemingly boundless) energy on slowing them down.
So far, he owns a career-best 96 defensive rating and 2.7 defensive box plus-minus. Opponents are shooting 3 percent lower from the field when Bazemore is guarding them, per NBA Stats. The Hawks would like such trends to continue ... and, of course, for his open shots to keep falling.