We’re inaugurating our NBA player projection system, CARMELO, with 2015-16 season previews for every team in the league. Check out the teams we’ve already previewed here. Learn more about CARMELO here.
Note: I worked for the Hawks as a statistical consultant during the 2013-14 season.
How do you build on what was arguably the best season in franchise history? That’s the question facing the Atlanta Hawks on the eve of the 2015-16 season. And what a campaign to have to surpass: 60 wins, the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference and a berth in the NBA’s Final Four (albeit a brief one, ending in a sweep). Aside from the loss of swingman DeMarre Carroll, Atlanta will bring back all of its key players from a year ago, but FiveThirtyEight’s CARMELO projection system thinks it will still be difficult for the Hawks to reach last season’s heights. Our projections call for declines from practically all of the players who powered Atlanta’s unexpected rise, particularly Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver. What’s left over after the fall should still be a solid-enough team. But CARMELO projects Atlanta to go 45-37, which may not place the Hawks among the top half of Eastern Conference playoff teams, much less allow them to vie for the East’s best record again.
Here’s what to expect from Atlanta’s most important players in 2015-16 (you can find all of the Hawks — and every other NBA player — here):
The good news: There’s a lot of blue on the left side of Paul Millsap’s player card — the dude is darned good at just about everything. The bad: Most of Millsap’s closest historical doppelgangers (save for … Julius Erving?!) declined steeply from this point in their careers onward. The latter explains why CARMELO calls for Millsap to suffer the NBA’s fifth-biggest drop in wins above replacement between 2014-15 and 2015-16.
Speaking of the NBA’s likeliest regression candidates for 2015-16, CARMELO projects Kyle Korver to lose the ninth-most WAR of any player this season. Last year was a career year for Korver — unfortunately, you only get one of those. But Korver’s comp list is also littered with sharpshooters who played with grace into their late 30s. So despite the drop-off, Korver probably has at least a few more solid seasons left in his tank.
With Al Horford’s abundant skill set — look at all those pretty blue dots! — you feel like the sum of his parts should be worth more than mere “good starter” status. Yet that’s Horford, who according to VORP (value over replacement player) has been a top-10 NBAer only once (in 2010-11) and at age 29 is entering the decline phase of his career. Luckily, CARMELO predicts a gentle descent; while the comparisons to Googs and Reef are concerning, hope abides in the forms of Lanier, Gasol, Parish and ’Sheed.
Yet another Hawk who enjoyed a career-best season last year (are you sensing a theme here?), Jeff Teague skipped a couple of rungs on the NBA ladder during his climb from mediocre (2013-14) to very good (2014-15). CARMELO is skeptical that the latter will stick, and while good things were yet to come for some of his top comps — notably Paul Westphal, Kevin Johnson and Mark Jackson — the majority of Teague-like historical players were on the downturn by age 27.
One of the unsung heroes of the 2014-15 Hawks was DeMarre Carroll, whose combination of shooting and defense made him one of the NBA’s best all-around wings. However, Carroll left for Toronto over the summer, and the only major newcomer brought in to replace his minutes was Tim Hardaway Jr., a poor imitation at best. Sure, Hardaway is a solid shooter who can score some, but — unlike Carroll — he’s completely lost on defense. His sub-replacement-level projection is a big reason why CARMELO thinks the Hawks will take a step backward this season.
Another option for filling Carroll’s minutes on the wing is Thabo Sefolosha, an even better defender than the man he’d be replacing (to say nothing of his massive edge over Hardaway on D). But Sefolosha doesn’t come without concern: He’s old, injury-prone — not to mention the broken leg he suffered during an off-court incident involving police last spring — and a near non-entity on offense. It’s not even clear how close to full health he’ll be when the season starts, so the Hawks could be in trouble if they’re counting on Sefolosha to replace anything more than a fraction of Carroll’s production.
Acquired from the San Antonio Spurs in a salary dump that enabled the Spurs to sign LaMarcus Aldridge, Tiago Splitter might prove to be one of the steals of the offseason. Although he doesn’t stretch the floor with shooting like the outgoing Pero Antic did, Splitter does a bit of everything else well. He’ll put Atlanta’s backup big-man minutes to much better use than the likes of Antic, Mike Muscala or Mike Scott.
Dennis Schroder was drafted on potential — perhaps specifically the potential that he’d become the next Rajon Rondo. He has the dimensions — 6-foot-1 with a deceptively long wingspan and huge hands — as well as the passing; he even borrowed the poor shooting efficiency. But Rondo was an elite defender, at least once upon a time, and that couldn’t be further from what Schroder is. Instead, Schroder seems to be at a crossroads this season: Some of his comps eventually turned into pretty good players, while others disappeared from the league completely.