Narrowing down the rotation for the Atlanta Hawks


Nov 7, 2013; Denver, CO, USA; Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer reacts on the sidelines during the second half against the Denver Nuggets at Pepsi Center. The Nuggets won 109-107. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

With the recent return of Lou Williams and the improving health of Gustavo Ayon, Atlanta Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer has an interesting conundrum.

He has too many quality players.

That doesn’t seem like much of an issue, as every NBA team strives to stockpile talent wherever they can, but when a head coach is dealing with playing time concerns, it becomes a problem. Ideally, an NBA team needs to center on about a 9-to-10 man rotation (obviously this can come and go a bit) through the regular season, and that number may even become shorter as the playoffs approach. This edition of the Hawks, however, hasn’t come close to finding that group just yet.

After the return of Williams and Ayon to the rotation, the Hawks now feature a staggering thirteen players who are averaging more than 10 minutes per game. Obviously, they aren’t all appearing in each and every game, as guys like Shelvin Mack and Elton Brand have taken repeated “DNP – Coach’s Decision” assignments during the young season, but even with that, the playing time is exceedingly crowded.

First, let’s go ahead and add these players as “absolutes” with regard to any rotation (if healthy):

  • Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Jeff Teague, Lou Williams

There is absolutely no scenario in which any of those 6 players get tied to the bench for an entire game unless injury is involved, and for me, there isn’t a lot of debate on that. Some people may double-take at the name “DeMarre Carroll”, but he has started all 10 games for the 2013-2014 Hawks, and he also doubles as the one and only above-average wing defender on the roster. He’s playing.

Now, that leaves us with a staggering 7 players to choose from in forming the “ideal” rotation for this team, and for me, it comes down to a couple of position battles.

Up front, the team must use at least one of the trio of Gustavo Ayon, Elton Brand, and Pero Antic, as Al Horford is a grown man, but even he can’t play 48 minutes per game at the center position. For me, Ayon is probably the “safest” choice as a rebounder/defender who could play in most match-ups, and we’ll choose him for the purposes of “backup #1” to Al Horford.

Then, there is the question of the backup point guard position. Many people feel (and I would agree to an extent) that the Hawks don’t need a backup point guard with a healthy Lou Williams on the team, but for me, there isn’t a likely scenario that gives all of Teague’s off-court time to Williams as the pure point guard. With that, there is a battle between Dennis Schröder and Shelvin Mack for that 10-18 minutes per game, and in the end, Schröder is the more talented player that the Hawks have a big-time investment in moving forward.

After adding Ayon and Schröder to the mix, that gives us exactly 8 players, and that leaves room for two “wild card” assets. Before the season began, I would’ve wagered a significant amount of money on 2nd-year shooting guard John Jenkins grabbing a spot in the rotation, but it appears for all the world as if Mike Budenholzer has other feelings on the former Vanderbilt sharpshooter. He has appeared in only 3 games this season and isn’t one of the 13 players averaging double-figures in minutes played. If we elect to cross him off (and my eyes tell me we should), we’re left with a choice between Cartier Martin, Mike Scott, Pero Antic and Elton Brand for two spots in the rotation.

If you’re observant, you’ll see that Cartier Martin is the “last man standing” as an alternate on the wing, and that virtually assures him playing time at this point. There is an argument that Williams could serve as a 30-minute per game shooting guard, leaving Korver and Carroll to duke it out for minutes, but that seems semi-unlikely to me, and with that, Martin gets the nod.

The debate between Scott, Antic, and Brand is an interesting one. I famously trumpeted the off-season signing of Brand as a tremendous move, but the 34-year-old big man has looked a step slow (read: slower) in his 6 appearances this season. There are certainly situations where his defensive acumen and rebounding would be incredibly valuable, but he isn’t quite athletic enough to move well in this wide-open offense, and his use seems to be more specialized at this point in his career.

With Brand eliminated, the choice between Mike Scott (who is admittedly “my guy”) and Pero Antic is an easy one for me. Scott has been the far superior player this season (16.4 PER to 9.6 for Antic), and while that is an incredibly small sample, the eye test also favors Scott by a considerable margin. Throw in the fact that his inclusion would allow Paul Millsap to play some small forward (an interesting) wrinkle, and the fact that Scott’s defense has noticeably improved from last year, and it becomes a virtual no-brainer for me.

If you’re scoring at home, that leaves us with the following rotation:

  • Bigs – Al Horford, Paul Millsap, Gustavo Ayon, Mike Scott
  • Wings – Kyle Korver, DeMarre Carroll, Cartier Martin
  • Ball-Handlers – Jeff Teague, Lou Williams, Dennis Schröder

It should be noted that I don’t expect a “firm” 10-man rotation to emerge any time soon, and it is quite possible that Coach Bud will mix and match for the duration of the season. At this moment, Williams has been declared “unavailable” on back-to-backs (as he should be) on account of his knee rehab, and I would love to see John Jenkins see the court in developmental situations.

However, it would be wise (in my view) for Budenholzer to at least attempt to nail down a more consistent group moving forward, and that should help with both projection and evaluation. It’s going to be a fun season (have you seen this offense?!), and I can’t wait to see how this shakes out.