The Atlanta Hawks enter the 2013-14 NBA season with one of the most flexible frontcourt depth charts in the league. Looking at their roster, they have a stable of players who can play both the 4 and the 5. This versatility makes predicting their usage really hard to figure out.
Today we will take a look at the center position and which players are likely to get minutes there. To do so, we will have to start at the power forward position.
As with any team in any sport, the best players are generally expected to play the most minutes at their respective positions. That considered, Paul Millsap will be the starting power forward. We can anticipate that he will only play at that position, and he should play nearly 31 minutes per game, leaving only 17 minutes open at the 4.
Al Horford will likely slide down to the 4 when Millsap is not on the court to give him a reprieve from guarding opposing bigs down low. If new head coach Mike Budenholzer spaces out Millsap and Horford's breaks so that Al sees more time on the floor without Paul, he may get about seven minutes at the 4.
That leaves only 10 minutes open at power forward, but it also leaves about 20 minutes open at the center position.
With Mike Scott having worked on improving his outside shot, he will likely see more action as a backup small forward than a power forward. Not only does such a move give the Hawks more size in their frontcourt, it also affords the other guys the opportunity to take more of the remaining minutes at the 4. Even so, if he sees 12 minutes per game, he'll probably get three at power forward, leaving six.
That is only 27 minutes left to split between three players (Elton Brand, Pero Antic and Gustavo Ayon) at the power forward and center positions.
With all of that said, let's dig deeper—taking a look at Atlanta's depth at the center position.
Starting Center: Al Horford
Many will say that Horford—who has practically spent his entire six-year career at center—plays out of position. Considering that he played three years in college at power forward next to Joakim Noah, they'd be right. However, six seasons of experience suggest he can hold his own at the 5.
Standing 6'10", he is not exceptionally tall for a center. He is, however, very agile and quick. He moves well and has exemplary footwork. He has a versatile offensive game, capable of playing in the low post and pulling defenders away from the basket with his 18-foot jumper.
He is not a great rebounder, having averaged 10 boards only once in his career, but he is adequate. He also is not a great rim protector. In past seasons, the Hawks relied more on Josh Smith's freakish athleticism to block shots with weak-side help than they ever relied on Horford to turn back opponents' attacks.
His quickness and agility do, however, enable him to stay between his opponent and the basket and allow him to rotate quickly when switching defensively.
As mentioned previously, expect Horford to see some minutes at power forward this year—probably seven. He'll likely average a total of 35 minutes, 19 points, 9.8 rebounds and 1.2 blocks per game.
Primary Backup: Elton Brand
Brand is entering his 15th NBA season. Standing only 6'8", he has seen his share of minutes as an undersized center over the course of his career. His 7'6" wingspan helps make up for his lack of height.
He is a savvy veteran. He knows how to play in the post, using his 275-pound frame to his advantage against taller, yet lighter, big men. He knows how to use his body for position, whether blocking out for rebounds or getting post positioning on offense.
As he has gotten older, it only makes sense that his production has begun to decline. Over the course of the past three seasons alone, his minutes have nosedived by 13.5 per game. He is speed deficient and is more suited to a slower, half-court oriented game. This may mean even less minutes this season, as the offense Coach Bud will be instituting will play at a quick pace.
That considered, he will still be the primary backup behind Horford. Expect him to get about 15 minutes (13 at center) per game this season. He will likely average six points, six rebounds and one block per game.
Rotation Player: Pero Antic
Antic is a player that few Americans know much about. Let's start with his vitals. He is 6'11", 260 pounds and 31 years old. In the same vein as European players like Dirk Nowitzki, he plays a perimeter style offensive game.
This past year, while playing 31 games for Olympiacos in the Euroleague, he averaged six points in 18 minutes while taking nearly 64 percent of his shots from three-point range. His quickness, agility and ability to shoot from distance should allow him to fit into Coach Bud's system.
His range allows him to stretch the floor, pulling defenders away from the basket. Unfortunately, his career three-point percentage is only .259—not the kind of numbers that will invoke fear in opposing defenders.
However, statistically, he's an inadequate rebounder and defender. In that same 31-game stint, he averaged only 3.5 rebounds, 0.4 steals and 0.2 blocks.
Odds are he will play limited minutes until he can prove that he can contribute at the NBA level. Expect him to play primarily at power forward, averaging about seven minutes (two at center). He'll likely average 2.5 points and 1.7 rebounds per game due to his restricted role.
Rotation Player: Gustavo Ayon
Ayon is a 6'10", 250 pound center entering his third season in the NBA at 28 years of age—not quite the spring chicken.
He has, in the past, played as a backup center in New Orleans, Orlando and Milwaukee. He has good footwork, moves well and is most comfortable in the offensive low post. Like Antic, he's not much of a defender. However, he's a decent rebounder. In 55 games (for the Magic and Bucks) last season, he averaged 3.7 points and 3.6 rebounds in 13.3 minutes per game.
That's a per 36-minute average of 10 points and 9.8 rebounds. Not terrible.
Unfortunately for him, the center position in Atlanta now has a logjam. In what may be a limited role behind Horford and Brand, Ayon will likely play five minutes at center, averaging two points and two rebounds.
If Antic doesn't adjust well to the American game, Ayon may assume some of his minutes.
As difficult as it may be to try to figure out how Atlanta's frontcourt rotation will be managed, the Hawks are not lacking in intrigue as it relates to their personnel.
This should be an interesting season for Hawks fans as the team builds its new identity.