PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:
Can the Hawks replicate last year’s success without DeMarre Carroll?
Even as the Hawks cruised to 60 wins and the first seed in the Eastern Conference last season, one question never really went away: can you contend for a title without a single superstar? That may have been the wrong question to ask. Their season was a tremendous success, making it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. If the matchups were different and a few health things broke right, it’s easy to imagine this team making it to the Finals as it was built. The better question to ask about their long-term potential is whether, for a team this balanced and precise in its construction, they can survive the loss of one of their most important players.
That’s the question the Hawks are going to have to answer this season. Heading into free agency, they had to choose between re-signing Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll; they opted to keep Millsap, while Carroll, their most important perimeter defender, signed a big contract in Toronto. In a vacuum, Carroll is a replaceable role player. But his physical, versatile defense and solid outside shooting were integral to what the Hawks were able to do last season. He was the only member of the starting lineup left off the Eastern Conference All-Star team, but there’s a reason all five starters shared Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors for January. The problem with the Hawks’ no-stars approach isn’t the lack of one go-to scorer, it’s the fragility of the construction. If one piece is out of place, things can fall apart quickly, and Carroll is a big piece to lose.
The Hawks have a few options to replace him, but none of them are ideal. They’re hoping they find their new Carroll in Justin Holiday, a little-used bench wing from the Warriors with similar potential. Like Carroll when he joined the Hawks in 2013, Holiday isn’t much of an outside shooter (he shot 32.1 percent from beyond the arc last season), but the Hawks are hoping their coaching staff can turn him into one, like they did with his predecessor.
Tim Hardaway, Jr., whom they acquired on draft night, is another player who will see a lot of minutes on the wing in Carroll’s absence. Hardaway is further along as a scorer than Carroll was when they signed him, but he’s a bit of a ball-stopper. It’s going to be an adjustment to fit him into Mike Budenholzer’s unselfish, movement-heavy offense, but he’s got the talent if he’s willing to buy in. He’s also going to need a lot of development on the defensive end, where he never amounted to much in his first two years with the Knicks. If Atlanta’s development staff can turn him into a solid two-way player, that trade will be considered a success.
The biggest question mark in the Hawks’ stable of wings, however, is Thabo Sefolosha. He’s still recovering from a broken leg suffered in April’s nightclub incident in New York. If he’s healthy, he can make a tremendous impact on the defensive end. The Hawks allowed 7.1 fewer points per 100 possessions last season when Sefolosha was on the floor than when he was off. But even when Sefolosha is healthy, he isn’t the offensive player Carroll is.
Replacing Carroll isn’t going to be easy, and it might have to be a by-committee effort unless Sefolosha is fully healthy or one of Holiday/Hardaway makes significant strides in their first year in Atlanta.
The good news is that elsewhere, the Hawks have gotten better. They picked up Tiago Splitter from the Spurs for nothing. Last year, their biggest weakness was lack of frontcourt depth outside of Millsap and Al Horford. Now, they have a legitimate three-man rotation up front and have the flexibility to play Horford at either frontcourt position, depending on matchups. Splitter will help the Hawks defensively and his passing ability for a big man is a good fit for what the Hawks do offensively. But Carroll’s versatility and ability to play power forward in smaller lineups will be missed, and there’s no immediate answer on their roster to replace that.
In all likelihood, the Hawks take a step back from last season, which was their best year in franchise history in regular-season wins and their first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since they lost the 1961 Finals as the St. Louis Hawks. But they’ll still be a playoff threat, competing with the Heat and Wizards in the Southeast Division. If Millsap and Kyle Korver can stay healthy, they will at the very least be a good team with a chance to be a top-four seed in the playoffs. If they get lucky with some of their new additions, they have the potential to be more than that.