Is Wally Pipp Syndrome beginning to befall some of our favorite former Atlanta Hawks?
While DeMarre Carroll sits with a sprained knee, his Brooklyn Nets seem to be already shopping him, and didn’t skip a beat with substitute Joe Harris as they fell just short in Toronto on Wednesday. Jeff Teague is eager to heal his knee sprain, too, not the least of which because his Minnesota Timberwolves are looking mighty fine lately with Tyus Jones in the starting lineup.
And then there’s Paul Millsap, the four-time All-Star ex-Hawk, and the headlining 2017 free agent acquisition of the Hawks’ hosts tonight, the Denver Nuggets (9:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude in DEN). The uneven fostering of his frontcourt relationship with the precocious Nikola Jokic was curtailed, just 16 games into the season, by a wrist ligament tear that has him on the sideline until probably the All-Star Break.
It turns out, Denver’s energies to breach the NBA’s postseason party, for the first time since George Karl’s 57-win post-Melo crew in 2013, weren’t Sapped by the injury to their $31 million Anchorman. And despite a recent downturn, the Nuggets (21-19; 12-12 without Paul) are right where they imagined they’d be with him around, in the thick of the race for a bottom-seed in the Western Conference.
This, with Jokic sliding over to power forward, and a Plumlee Brother, Mason, plugging in the hole where Millsap resided on the top line, at least as best he can. But another development has made things intriguing in the Rockies for their future with (or, maybe without) Millsap.
The recently-promoted Tim Connelly and the Nuggets’ brass are probably kicking themselves over the decision to swap 2017 draftee Donovan Mitchell to division rival Utah for the G-Leaguable Tyler Lydon. But the throw-in in that deal has been much more than a salve for the burn from what’s shaping up to be a trade steal by the Jazz. Largely buried in Salt Lake since last year’s All-Star Break, third-year forward Trey Lyles is blowing up off the bench for coach Mike Malone.
Lyles is putting up solid per-36 numbers (19.7 points, 9.0 rebounds) as a reserve, but he’s also unleashed a killer three-point shot, the 6-foot-10 Kentucky product ranks 2nd in the NBA with a scintillating 46.7 3FG%. Along the way to a 124-114 victory in Oakland on Monday, the Warriors got only a glimpse of the 22-year-old’s perimeter exploits (1-for-2 3FGs), but they also got a full sample of his expanding fullcourt skills.
Lyles carried the Nugget bench with 21 points (8-for-13 2FGs), plus five rebounds, three dimes and three steals. A few days, before, he showed the Jazz (career-high 26 points, 4-for-8 3FGs, two steals) a taste of what they abdicated in pursuit of Mitchell.
Previously seen as a long-term project, Trey, with his treys, has rendered Denver’s frontcourt depth downright gluttonous. Beyond becoming a surprise Most Improved Player and Sixth Man award candidate simultaneously, Lyles also makes Malone’s decisions to perma-stash veterans like Darrell Arthur and the beleaguered Kenneth Faried fully justifiable. But what will Malone’s lineups look like once Millsap returns to action?
Lyles’ 2-man pairings on the court with the emerging Gary Harris (+8.2 per 100 possessions, in 373 minutes, as per basketball-reference) are proving to be even more fruitful than Harris’ duos with either of Jokic (+7.8 in 725 minutes) or Sap (+7.1 in 373 minutes). Jokic and Lyles, together, have produced a +9.5 net in the scoring column (225 minutes), roughly equivalent to the +9.6 produced by Sap and The Joker together in the early going (324 minutes) at about eight percent of Millsap’s current price tag.
“We don’t need him actually,” Jokic joked of Millsap, whose wrist cast was just removed yesterday, at today’s shootaround media session before semi-seriously backtracking. “I’m not kidding, we really need him. He’s a really good player for us.”
Kidding aside, Denver can’t wait to see what a playoff-tested Millsap could accomplish alongside young up-and-comers like Jokic, Harris (team-high 16.7 PPG), and Lyles’ fellow Wildcat alum Jamal Murray (16.2 PPG in his second NBA season; 91.8 FT%) once the calendar turns to spring. But Sap’s backloaded short-term deal does have a team option for 2019-2020. Even the most optimistic Lyles supporter could not have foreseen that option, and Lyles’ forthcoming fourth-year contract extension by extension, becoming a conundrum so soon.
Jokic’s innumerable offensive talents (15.9 PPG, team-highs of 10.1 RPG and 5.0 APG, 35.8 3FG%) effectively turn Murray and Harris into ball-caddies, bringing the basketball up the court primarily to let their Super Serbian engineer the offensive plays. Thanks largely to Jokic, Denver ranks top-ten in eFG% and TS% while also ranking second with a 26.5 O-Reb%; they make a lot of shots AND clean up their misses.
For the Hawks (10-30), it’s essential that Dennis Schröder and Kent Bazemore pressure the initial ballhandlers, and for Baze and the Hawk forwards to front Denver’s perimeter shooters, to try and throw off the timing of the Jokic-led offense. Plumlee Brother #2, Miles, and Dewayne Dedmon will have to come out of the paint on occasion to keep Nikola from plopping jumpers, but the Atlanta swingmen have to support by fronting to keep accomplished cutters like Harris from picking the Hawks’ halfcourt defense apart.
The Hawks have a shot at keeping up only if they don’t try to engage in a battle of wits with Denver’s halfcourt offense. Atlanta’s defensive efficiency has been subpar no matter the location (108.8 D-Rating at home, 108.1 on road), but it’s in away games like these where the offensive efficiency falls through the floor – 101.3 O-Rating, compared to 107.4 at Philips Arena.
When the ball sticks, Atlanta (56.1 Assist% on road, 67.9% at home; 51.0% past 4 games) gets stuck, as merely clearing the runway for Schröder’s layup-and-elbow-jumper practice won’t be sufficient to get the job done. Dennis registered just one assist (while 7-for-18 from the field; 4 TOs) in Monday’s 108-107 close-shave loss to the Clippers, and has produced five-or-fewer dimes in every game of this five-game road trip so far, after six-or-more assists in his prior eight starts (Atlanta was a respectable 4-4 in those games).
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