February 15, 2019
Paul Millsap, Hawks
The Hawks are rolling out interesting lineups with Paul Millsap at center. (Photo: Brett Davis – USA TODAY Sports)

By Reinis Lācis

For years, Paul Millsap has provided remarkable value for the Atlanta Hawks, filling in any gaps by expanding his versatile skill set on both ends of the court.

With reports of the front office listening to trade offers for its long-time power forward, the timetable for the Hawks and his free agency might push Millsap out just as Atlanta is stumbling across, perhaps, his most useful utility as a part-time center.

The trends in today’s 3-point happy NBA have created an environment where the best small ball units are extremely hard to match up with for opponents. Unleash a unit with five dangerous floor spacers or multi-skill guys who can play above their height on defense and it’s very likely that the other team won’t have a small-ish lineup at its disposal of equal skill.

Just look at the Golden State Warriors and the way their “Death Lineup” has demolished whoever stands in their way. The current rendition (Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Andre Iguodala, Kevin Durant and Draymond Green) has registered a net rating of +28.5 (122.2 – 93.8) in 143 minutes and is only 0.5 behind Toronto’s league-best five-man unit of Cory Joseph, Kyle Lowry, Terrence Ross, Patrick Patterson and Lucas Nogueira, per NBA.com.

If the Warriors do manage to overtake the Toronto Raptors, a small ball lineup of theirs will have finished first in the league in net rating for the third straight year (among units that have clocked at least 100 minutes), unless an unexpected competitor shows up.

Golden State has rolled out a unit of Draymond Green and four other wings and guards for 284 minutes this season, which predictably leads the league in minutes played by such small ball lineups (where the center is shorter than 6’9’’), according to NBAwowy.com.

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Certain other experiments by other teams are close by, though. Thanks to the length of Danilo Gallinari and Wilson Chandler, Denver’s played Kenneth Faried as the lone big for 262 minutes. Montrezl Harrell and Paul Millsap-lead lineups are in the 100s for the Houston Rockets and Atlanta Hawks, respectively.

The Los Angeles Lakers playing Julius Randle and Larry Nance together has looked fun, though, the latter is a legit 6’9’’ and thus might not belong on this particular list (obviously, some of the wings like Durant are also past that mark and that’s part of the reason why their unit can thrive when a supposed small forward can provide a decent amount of rim protection).

Given the reports by Marc Stein and Brian Windhorst on Atlanta’s willingness to trade Paul Millsap before possibly losing him in free agency this summer, his 109 minutes at center provide us with quite the interesting material to research. If a team like the interested Toronto Raptors manages to acquire Millsap, his versatility could at least somewhat bolster their chances against the dominating Cleveland Cavaliers who can put out their own versions of five-out lineups.

However, the evidence doesn’t give one a straight-forward answer about Atlanta’s success with this lineup. Even though its most regular and promising form (Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore, Kyle Korver, Thabo Sefolosha and Paul Millsap)  has a healthy net rating of +9.7 (104.9 – 95.2) in 33 minutes, lineups with Millsap at center overall have been at -4.3 (108.7 – 113.0), per NBAwowy.com.

Both samples are small enough for there to be a lot of noise in those numbers, but the most notable times that Atlanta went so small—like a road victory at Oklahoma City with Dwight Howard out and Millsap clocking 32 minutes at center—make one think that these experiments don’t deserve the negative connotation of a net rating under zero.

While the absence of Howard has been the reason for a decent amount of these minutes, we’re also far away from coach Mike Budenholzer explaining to Zach Lowe that he’s “a little scared when you put it out there, but it usually works,” when talking about a lineup of Paul Millsap and Mike Scott manning the middle. That was back in 2015 when Lowe wrote one of the quintessential columns on the emerging trend of small ball.

Now we’re at a place where coach Bud closes out some games with Millsap and four outside players. Such units only played 21 minutes combined for the 2014-15 and 2015-16 seasons.

Partially responsible for that is the fact that some other teams are better equipped to either go small themselves initially or at least respond to Budenholzer’s maneuver. Atlanta’s drop-off from 76.5 percent in Defensive Rebound Percentage (good for 14th in the league) to 75.5 (the equivalent of the 22nd best team) with the aforementioned lineups on the court seems small enough to be encouraging. After all, securing the glass against bigger players could be the most hardest thing to do for smaller units. However, too many of those minutes have come against other variations of small ball to take it as conclusive data.

For one, the Thunder grabbed 33.3 percent of potential offensive rebounds against Atlanta in the previously mentioned game where Millsap started at center.

With that in mind, Paul Millsap does have some of the stature and skills that make Draymond Green effective at anchoring such a lineup. Despite being only 6′ 7.25″ according to Draft Express, Millsap has the girth to battle against the behemoths of the league. When the Heat remained big down the stretch of a game that had them facing Atlanta’s small unit, Hassan Whiteside didn’t get a single point or rebound against Millsap.

The bulky forward’s lower body strength and active hands allow him to hold his ground against taller centers and bother their moves:

Interestingly enough, Millsap was the one to convince Budenholzer to stay small with him at center this particular game. The 31-year-old felt like he could successfully body up Whiteside.

His amazingly quick hands allow him to do things like be a pseudo-rim protecter who can cover up for some of the leaks on the perimeter. Obviously, he’s no Draymond Green (and doesn’t have a player of Durant’s length on his side), but it can save Atlanta from giving up a few layups.

With athletes like Thabo Sefolosha, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder, Atlanta seemingly also has enough long-armed perimeter players to make this work. Don’t get it wrong, the Hawks don’t have the personnel to legitimately stop teams with such small ball lineups. They will give up points around the basket due to a lack of length.

Yet it can be serviceable enough of a unit not to bleed points on defense and make the math work in their favor.

There’s certainly enough there to switch against the ensuing action, stall the offense and collectively fly in for the defensive rebound. Versatile defenders like Bazemore can be used in interesting ways like, for example, put on Channing Frye to begin with.

Ironically, the offense is the side of the court that almost puts a worse taste in one’s mouth, despite the supposed advantages that should be there.

Going small makes a lot of sense for an Atlanta Hawks team that has been subpar on offense. The Hawks are only 22nd in offensive efficiency at 101.8 points per 100 possessions. Losing Al Horford and Jeff Teague has left a dent in their ability to create shots and just put out better offensive units. Being 28th in 3-point shooting percentage doesn’t help as well, with Kent Bazemore struggling (27.7 percent), Thabo Sefolosha cooling off after a hot start (31.7 percent) Tim Hardaway’s percentage being just blah (32.4 percent) and Malcolm Delaney preferring the long two as 45.5 percent of his field goal attempts have come in between 16 and 23 feet from the basket (for the record, he’s at 17.4 percent from three).

Playing the all-around Millsap at center and having four other wings out there is a way to open up things for everyone involved. Without Dwight Howard taking up space in the paint, a player like Taurean Prince has an easier time at finding an opportunity for a layup.

The drive coming against a team that remained somewhat big and had Kristaps Porzingis on him helps as well, of course.

Even though his percentage from three has never been all that good (currently at 31.8 percent), playing Millsap at center keeps his match-up out of the paint. There’s just enough juice and creativity to his driving game that you don’t want to be on the wrong side of a 20-foot long close out.

Dennis Schroder, in particular, has benefited from this as he gets the chances to attack an unguarded basket off the dribble, with centers sticking close to Millsap:

Per NBAwowy.com, 50.0 percent of Schroder’s field goal attempts are layups whenever playing with these small units. That’s a massive increase from the usual 36.9 percent.

Even though it only makes sense that Atlanta’s Effective Field Goal Percentage rises from 50.5 percent to 52.1 when such lineups are on the court, in the meantime it also results in a fall of the team’s Assist Percentage (from 62.1 percent to 58.9).

If you close your eyes and imagine what small ball looks like, chances are that you are thinking of the ball whizzing around the perimeter as the defense tires itself out chasing numerous actions and threats. Well, while the Hawks do have nice players, it isn’t exactly the personnel to pull that off. You can do the same what they do against you and just switch.

Paul Millsap is an All-Star and one of the 20-25 best players in the league, but looks most comfortable when engaged in an active, read and react offensive. Past playoffs have showed that Millsap’s effectiveness can be lessened by making him beat you in isolations or post ups. Dennis Schroder is quite the prospect and has had a good season, but is still learning the ropes, especially when it comes to creating quality looks. Kyle Korver has extreme gravity, however, the task of guarding him is easier when there are three other perimeter players to switch on. Kent Bazemore so far hasn’t been up to the task of a bigger role.

For that reason, Atlanta itself will go through possessions where this small ball experiment is stalled by a switch and reduced to an isolation jumper after too many dribbles:

Such a pull-up 3-pointer by Schroder isn’t even the worst shot an offense can get. There are possessions where the Hawks will look for that supposed size mismatch after a switch and find out how ineffective such attempts can be. The expected outcome of a Thabo Sefolosha post up is probably a rather measly number:

Nevertheless, it’s a nice playground in which guys like Schroder and Bazemore can improve their games and it should be used in the future, irregardless of the uneven results.

As for Paul Millsap,this particular alignment does give him extra room to work in. He has punished burlier bigs thanks to his mobility and range at center. Atlanta will prepare sets that throws said centers in unenviable situations:

No matter will he be traded this season or not, it’s a look that he has to get comfortable in. The Louisiana native is nearing his 32nd birthday (it’s on February 10) and should be at the tail end of his physical peak. As he enters the years of his last big contract, it could become a phase of his career where he thrives in such situations.

Provided he can keep the opposing big of the glass (or has the help to do so), the advantage of playing him as a small ball center from time to time could allow him to age gracefully in a new chapter of his career.


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