Out of the running for Chris Paul and, ultimately, Dwight Howard, the Atlanta Hawks surprised many fans by signing free-agent power forward Paul Millsap this summer. The move all but insured that two-time All-Star Al Horford will be required to play center for much of the 2013-14 season.
Millsap’s game is quite similar to Horford’s, though he is a less accurate shooter. They both are natural power forwards with respectable, if not good, post presences. They also have considerable range, each shooting well outside of the painted area.
If the two players are so similar, how will they be utilized on the floor together?
To answer that question, first we must understand the offense that the Hawks will be running. Then, we can better ascertain how they will play together.
Understanding the Hawks’ New Offense
This summer, Hawks general manager Danny Ferry opted to let coach Larry Drew leave, choosing to replace him with longtime San Antonio Spurs assistant Mike Budenholzer.
According to Charles Odum of the Associated Press (via RealGM.com), Coach Bud, as he is often called, will install an offense similar to that of the Spurs:
I think the league and the NBA, whether it’s fundamentals or the style of playing, is moving toward the style that we’re playing. I look forward to bringing to Atlanta the ball movement and people movement and people sharing and participating and a little bit less of the one-on-one.
It’s something you have to believe in and you have to sell. I think in the initial stages, it may be a little difficult, but in the long run players, coaches, fans and everyone will enjoy it and see the benefits.
Riding the legs of speedy point guard Tony Parker, San Antonio likes to push the pace. The Spurs often benefit from beating the opposition down the floor and getting a shot before the opponent can get set defensively.
The Spurs run masterful half-court sets that are worthy of admiration and imitation. They do so by employing good shooters, enabling them to space the floor. This creates room within which the offense can operate.
Within that space, their half-court offense utilizes many variations of the pick-and-roll, multiple off-ball screens and misdirection to force mismatches and poor rotations that result in favorable shots.
This offense is not possible without players who move well with and without the ball, are willing and capable passers, and are good shooters. Atlanta’s personnel doesn’t quite resemble San Antonio’s, but the team is heading in the right direction.
In Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder, the Hawks have point guards who are quick and capable of using screens to find shots for themselves and others. The Hawks have a trio of three-point shooters in Kyle Korver and second-year players Mike Scott and John Jenkins.
In Millsap and Horford they have two starting frontcourt players capable of stretching defenses and running the floor.
Horford and Millsap's Roles in the New Offense
Al Horford and Paul Millsap are interchangeable pieces. Both can play in the post. Both can shoot the mid-range jump shot. Where Al is a much more efficient post scorer, Paul can shoot the corner three more effectively. It may take a half a season, it may even take a whole year, but as they build chemistry and grow more familiar with Coach Bud's offense, expect the Hawks to be more creative with their use of the Spurs’ motion offense.
The Spurs are limited by Tiago Splitter’s inability to shoot effectively outside of the post. Last year, he shot a pathetic 29.6 percent from three to nine feet, a respectable 40 percent from 10-15 feet and an abysmal 13 percent from 16-23 feet.
Can you imagine the Spurs running their offense with two lesser forms of Tim Duncan and no Splitter?
Hard to imagine, but that is likely what Atlanta will look like when all of the pieces are in place and they have established solid chemistry.
The Hawks will be employing high-post screens with two respectable shooters.
In 2012-13, Horford converted an exceptional 76.6 percent of his shots at the rim, and 42.6 percent of his shots came away from the rim.
His jump shot accounted for nearly half of his point production, having taken 516-of-1060 total shots from outside the post. He was 43.9 percent from three to nine feet, 43.2 percent from 10-15 feet and 43 percent from 16-23 feet.
In contrast, Millsap is actually more effective when shooting outside of the post. He only completed 37.5 of his shots from three to nine feet, but his numbers increase further out. He's not as efficient as Horford, but he shoots 37.5 percent from three to nine feet and 39 percent from 16-23 feet.
His best range is 10-15 feet, where he shoots 47.7 percent. He is also made 33.3 percent of his three-point shots.
Interestingly, looking at their shot charts, both players shoot better percentages from the left side of the basket, yet both have attempted more shots from the right. Millsap is best when shooting from the corners along the baseline (outside of 15 feet), converting 52.4 percent of his shots.
If he can improve his three-point shooting, he'll become even more of a threat in the motion offense.
As currently constructed, Coach Bud's squad will enjoy running his motion offense to either side, utilizing both of his starting big men in pick-and-roll and pick-and-pop scenarios.
Having two versatile scoring bigs will enable the Hawks to be more creative with their motion sets. However, with all due respect to Horford and Millsap, the success of the motion offense will rely more heavily on the guards' ability to handle the ball and attack off of their screens.
Without active guards, the system won't work. The frontcourt will depend on the guards to get them the ball in positions in which they can score.
Stats via HoopData.com and Basketball-Reference.com