As Ilyasova nears return, should he start for Hawks over Babbitt?

Ersan Ilyasova (right) guarding Paul Millsap, his predecessor as Hawks starting power forward. (Photo by Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images)

Ersan Ilyasova is likely to play against the Kings on Wednesday after missing 10 games, including the past eight, with a knee injury. The Hawks upgraded Ilyasova from “out” to “probable” on the injury list, and his pending return means coach Mike Budenholzer has a decision to make.

Will Budenholzer keep Luke Babbitt in the starting lineup, or will Ilyasova regain the role he had for the first four games of the season? The answer likely will come at shootaround later today. Like so many things with the Hawks, your preference may depend on your perspective about the team and organizational goals.

If you think Hawks should do everything they can to win, then Babbitt probably is your guy. If you are looking ahead to potential trades, then getting Ilyasova as many minutes as possible probably is ideal because he’s the more proven NBA player of the two and is likely to attract more interest on the trade market if he can be healthy and productive.

Babbitt became the starter by default once Mike Muscala followed Ilyasova to the injured list and Budenholzer decided John Collins would get nearly all of his minutes at center.  I think Babbitt has been pretty good in his new role (relatively speaking). In five games a starter (155 minutes) Babbitt has scored 12 points per 36 minutes with a 59.76 effective field-goal percentage that includes 13-for-27 shooting on threes (48 percent).

Babbitt’s -3.4 net rating per 100 possessions over 292 total minutes is third-best among the team’s regulars, and his 62.8 effective field goal percentage is tops among Hawks rotation players. Babbitt’s history suggests that he should remain an efficient, low-usage offensive player, and his stint with the Heat last season showed that he can be part of a good defensive group.

Ilyasova didn’t play well over the first four games, especially offensively, though Budenholzer lauded him for his defensive grit. Ilyasova showed signs of wearing down while playing career-high minutes last season but he’s been a solid rotation player for a long time so the expectation is that he will get better. If he does, Ilyasova’s longer and better track record means there’s likely to be more trade interest in him than Babbitt.

If your outlook on the Hawks is cynical (or existential), you may think that it doesn’t matter much in either the little or big picture whether Ilyasova or Babbitt starts. The Hawks can ride with Ilyasova as the starter because the difference between his production and Babbitt’s is not the kind of thing that much concerns a rebuilding team. But based solely on winning games now, I’d say Babbitt is the better choice as starter.

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