Kyle Korver’s fit with Cavaliers undeniable as he returns to Atlanta

Ken Blaze-USA TODAY Sports

Kyle Korver served as a cornerstone of Mike Budenholzer’s Atlanta Hawks teams for three-plus seasons, his long-range fireworks igniting Philips Arena crowds while providing crucial floor spacing and oft-overlooked defensive help. On Friday night, Kyle Korver will visit Philips as an opposing player for the first time since March 2012 — this time as a member of the defending champion Cleveland Cavaliers.

Much has changed between Threezus in Chicago and Threezus in Cleveland.

Korver’s new megastar teammate, LeBron James, was still searching for his first NBA championship in Miami in March of 2012. Stephen Curry was sidelined with a season-ending ankle injury earlier that same month, ending his third season in the league with 372 career 3-pointers (a mark he would surpass during his unanimous MVP season alone four years later). Kevin Durant and James Harden were hunting for titles alongside Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, Dwight Howard was an All-NBA center in Orlando and Giannis Antetokounmpo, Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns were still in high school. Time flies.

Now Korver returns for the first time since the Hawks flipped him to the Cavs for Mike Dunleavy, Mo Williams’ contract (later traded to Denver) and a protected 2019 first-round draft pick. And the veteran guard returns with the franchise responsible for eliminating Budenholzer’s team from the playoffs each of the past two years.

“It just felt like I was on a really long road trip,” Korver told reporters during Friday’s shoot around. His family still lives in the Atlanta area.

Korver’s fit in Cleveland was apparent from Day 1. When sharing a court with James, one of the most lethal passers in NBA history, a shooter of Korver’s caliber needs to simply find space and pounce on open looks. Following a slow start with his new team, the 35-year-old owns a 50.5 3-point percentage in 23 games with the Cavaliers in nearly six attempts per night, a spike of more than six percentage points from his time in Atlanta this season. The projected benefits of Korver joining one of the most prolific outside shooting teams in NBA history are indeed playing out on the court (2016-17 splits per NBA Stats):

Games Played Field Goal Attempts Per Game Wide-Open Shot Pct.
Hawks 32 7.7 22.6
Cavaliers 23 8.0 29.9

“It’s a new system. It’s a much different style of play obviously,” Korver said. “I felt like in Atlanta I was searching shots out a lot — working off screens and moving around a lot. And here you’re just kinda waiting — not waiting, but more than that, waiting for the ball to come to you and waiting for plays to evolve rather than chasing shots. There’s a bit of a mindset change with that.

“ … Teams are game-planning for (James and Kyrie Irving) more so than me and it’s opened up a lot of things, a lot of inside-out passing, a few more open shots. Just been trying to knock them down.”

After dropping six of their first eight games with Korver in the lineup, the reigning champs have posted an 11-4 record to hold onto the East’s top seed.

“When we started off the Cavs were losing and the Hawks were winning and I was like, ‘Man, maybe I’m the problem here,’” Korver joked. “ … It always takes a little time. There’s a lot of moving parts.”

Trading Korver capped the front office’s near-complete roster teardown from the Hawks’ 60-win campaign.

With Korver, Al Horford, Jeff Teague and DeMarre Carroll now playing for Eastern Conference rivals, All-Star forward Paul Millsap is Atlanta’s last remaining starter from the 2014-15 season.

“I know (Korver’s) happy there. You can tell he’s happy. He’s getting a lot of shots, a lot of open shots. He’s excited about it, I know,” said Millsap, who played parts of three seasons with Korver in Utah prior to signing with Atlanta to join the sharpshooter in the summer of 2013. “ … When you’re playing with two or three of the top 15 players in this league, you’re gonna get wide-open shots. I think that for him, especially where he is in his career, that’s good for him.”

The Hawks, meanwhile, are battling for positioning in the middle of the Eastern Conference — and trying to move out of the No. 5 seed that would likely spell a rematch with Cleveland should they win their first-round series. The Hawks sit at 34-26 following back-to-back wins over Boston and Dallas with a difficult slate of Cleveland, Indiana, Golden State, Brooklyn and Toronto in a one-week span. (Aside from the lowly Nets, the other four teams are currently in the playoff picture.)

At the time of the Korver trade, the Hawks were viewed as potential trade deadline sellers, but by holding onto Millsap, who is likely to exercise his player option to hit the free-agent market at season’s end, and trading for swingman Ersan Ilyasova, the Hawks remain in win-now mode.

Beating their former teammate, who will receive a well-deserved video tribute on Friday night, and the Cavaliers for just the second time in 13 meetings would certainly be another step in the right direction.