Bench production helps Mike Budenholzer's group jump out to 2-0 record
Eighty-two games leaves ample space for analysis, questions, 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 Atlanta’s fast start, featuring two convincing wins against the Wizards and 76ers.
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Thabo Sefolosha turns back the clock
The art of blending in seems so natural to Thabo Sefolosha on this Hawks roster — so natural, in fact, that his importance can get lost in the shuffle. It’s easy to forget how he was a vital defense-first piece on the franchise’s 60-win roster two years ago and how his injury at the hands of New York City police officers was quietly devastating to Atlanta's playoff aspirations. It’s easy to forget his second season in Atlanta was undermined by that same fractured fibula and ligament damage, costing him an entire offseason of training. Reserves can get lost in the league’s high-profile summer reconfiguration. But two games into his age-32 season, Sefolosha appears to be back in top form — perhaps an understatement — as one of the NBA’s ultra-valuable contracts ($3.85 million this season).
In 41 minutes, Sefolosha has hit 10 of his 12 shots (24 points), grabbed 11 rebounds, dished out six assists and come up with six steals. He and fellow reserve wing Tim Hardaway Jr. turned the tide in the season opener against Washington — it was a one-point game after three quarters before the Hawks went on a 33-19 fourth-quarter run — and he made a near-perfect 20 minutes against Philly look far too effortless. The Hawks do not boast one of the NBA’s elite two-way wings that alter franchise fortunes, but when Sefolosha and Hardaway Jr. are operating at a high level it can give Atlanta’s bench a significant advantage on most nights.
Sefolosha ranks fifth among qualified players in player efficiency rating (in a far more limited sample size), sandwiched between DeMarcus Cousins and Kevin Durant. If it’s possible to make a Sixth Man of the Year statement in Week 1, Sefolosha did just that.
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Dennis Schroder’s Jekyll-and-Hyde opening statement
The Hawks’ new starting point guard now comes fully equipped with a team-friendly long-term contract, barring regression. In the NBA’s new financial landscape, four years and $62 million with performance incentives is the going rate for NBA starters, particularly those with untapped potential. It’s a deal that locks Schroder, a 2013 first-round pick, into Atlanta’s cap dynamic into the next decade and one that signifies a certain confidence level that he can handle the full-time responsibilities. It’s a smart front office move, but not one immune to risk.
In the season opener, a matchup with three-time All-Star John Wall, Schroder turned in a decent defensive performance but committed twice as many turnovers as assists. (Wall missed 12 of his 15 shots for a quiet double-double.) Mike Budenholzer’s offense looked stagnant at times as neither Schroder nor rookie backup Malcolm Delaney could find an early rhythm. The hyped Schroder-Dwight Howard pick-and-roll threat was virtually nonexistent. Then the 23-year-old went out and tied a career high with 11 assists against Philadelphia. Perhaps it was a more favorable matchup. Perhaps it was better individual play and a commitment to facilitate on Schroder’s part. Either way, the Hawks will need more of the latter.
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Can Dwight Howard avoid foul trouble?
In a stat-stuffing hometown debut, Dwight Howard walked away with two fouls in 30 minutes. His first road offering was less productive: four fouls limiting the 7-footer to just 19 minutes. Aside from a couple loose-ball fouls, perhaps the biggest difference can be traced to the opposition: Marcin Gortat and Joel Embiid.
Gortat represents the post presence of yesteryear, the bruising big man rarely stepping out for a shot farther than 15 feet. That’s Howard’s bread-and-butter defensive assignment. But Embiid is yet another import from the future, the Anthony Davis or Karl Anthony-Towns of this “rookie” class. He steps away from the basket for 3-pointers and when big men rush out to challenge he can put the ball on the floor with ease. Howard’s attempts to crowd Embiid’s space were punished by officials, once being too physical on a drive and another through pure cleverness as the 76ers’ young star raked his shooting motion up through Howard’s outstretched arm. Howard remains a defensive stalwart, but his qualities differ from those of Al Horford, whom the Hawks asked to switch and fly all over the floor while also protecting the rim. That type of away-from-the-basket activity could get Howard in trouble.
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Mike Muscala, full-time rotation player
In the absence of Tiago Splitter and Mike Scott, the Hawks have needed frontcourt minutes behind Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard. Enter Mike Muscala. The fourth-year big man is off to an impressive start (17.6 points per 36 minutes, 77.3 true shooting percentage) as the first big off Budenholzer’s bench, likely carving out a career-high workload if and when Atlanta returns to full strength. Muscala’s versatility and shooting ability has allowed Budenholzer to pair him with Millsap, Howard and Kris Humphries so far; it’s too early to gauge the effectiveness of these lineups but Muscala is poised for the best (and most impactful) season of his career.
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