How the Atlanta Hawks Can Get the Best out of Their Frontcourt

Fred KatzFeatured ColumnistNovember 13, 2013

Streeter Lecka/Getty Images

The question of the day in Georgia back on July 5 was a simple one: How the heck did the Atlanta Hawks get Paul Millsap for such a cheap price?

On that day, Millsap agreed to sign a two-year, $19 million contract to play alongside Al Horford in Atlanta, a deal that would keep Horford at center even with the offseason departure of Josh Smith

That's what the Hawks needed to replace this past offseason—Josh Smith's production. And by signing Millsap, Atlanta might have found a way to do just that for a fraction of the price and yearly commitment. Now, the Hawks are winning with a Millsap-Horford frontcourt, and that's likely something that will continue.

It's funny how the Hawks are always forgotten. Maybe that's deserved after a decade of first- and second-round playoff exits, but aren't we just looking at the logo and generalizing at this point? Aren't we being basketball stereotypers?

These aren't the same Hawks we're used to seeing. They’re becoming—dare we call them—Spurs East.

Atlanta plucked away San Antonio Spurs alum Danny Ferry to take over the general manager spot. They picked former Gregg Popovich assistant Mike Budenholzer to be their head coach this past offseason. And with that, the Hawks have made Spursy moves to no end.

They ridded themselves of Joe Johnson's albatross of a contract and Josh Smith's jumper-heavy offensive game. They drafted two international players and one small-school player this past June, stashing two of them in leagues overseas. It's all so Spursy.

Atlanta is stuck in the middle with this weird philosophy of rebuilding while still trying to contend for the playoffs. It's a strategy that's rare, but one that works with smart management. Now, the Hawks have smart people at the top, and the Millsap signing only fits their frame of logic.

Millsap and Horford look like a perfect frontcourt on paper, at least offensively. They can both shoot. They can both pass. They can both create. But even with the early success they have both seen together, there have been some causes for concern. 

Mainly, Millsap and Horford are still learning how to play together.

There have been times we've seen Horford working on the right side, only to see Millsap sprint over to his area, ruining the spacing the Hawks have tried to create by starting a center capable of spotting up consistently from all the way out to the three-point line.

That's a chemistry issue, though, and not necessarily one that might continue. Players progress as they get a feel for one another. 

When Millsap sprints over to Horford's area of the court, it's actually not the worst problem to have. That's a problem caused by off-ball movement, but it's easily fixed considering how smart both of those bigs usually play.

Again, that's just an issue with chemistry, a complication that might exist after seven games, but one that probably won't survive through the first quarter or third or half of the season.

So what's one way to solve that? Let Horford and Millsap play a two-man game together.

When you work Horford in the high post and let Millsap cut off the ball, you're going to get points. Millsap is one of the stronger finishers in the East, and Horford is one of the best passing bigs in the game. 

So far, we haven't seen Millsap and Horford play a two-man game much. Actually, when we have, it's mainly been with Millsap as the passer. And considering how well Millsap passes when he has room to move in the open court, that actually makes sense.

In limited time, the Hawks look good when point guard Jeff Teague gets Millsap the ball in the high post. He's found Horford well, like after rolling off this screen:

Millsap's versatility (his ability to hit open, mid-range shots and finish around the rim) draws in defenses. DeMarcus Cousins is apparently fully aware of this. Watch Cousins worry so much about Millsap going to the hoop, even with other defenders rightfully in place, that he leaves Horford open in the corner:

Those plays work. The Hawks just make sense when Millsap and Horford play off each other, especially when they get help from Teague, who can score on his own, but who is off to a high-volume, low-efficiency start to the season. That's not what you want from your point guard, especially when that point guard should be your third offensive option.

The Hawks need to get the ball into the hands of their bigs more—and that's something that will probably happen. Better chemistry just needs to develop first.

When it does, Atlanta has a chance to contend for the No. 5 or No. 6 seed in the Eastern Conference, and for a team that's "rebuilding", that's not all too bad.


Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36 minutes numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at or on ESPN’s TrueHoop Network at Follow him on Twitter at @FredKatz.