Forced to use small lineups, Hawks may find some advantages

Hawks forward Tyler Cavanaugh held his own against Trevor Booker and the Nets. (AP Photo)

Because of injuries the Hawks are down to one “true” center but what does that even mean nowadays in the NBA? One of their injured centers, John Collins, isn’t really a “traditional” center. But that’s the position Collins usually plays for the Hawks in the increasingly smallish and position-less NBA.

Anyway, my point is that the Hawks don’t have a lot of size with Collins and Dewayne Dedmon on the shelf. And their one “true” center, Miles Plumlee, just got off the injured list and had a bad season with Charlotte in 2016-17. Budenholzer started Plumlee against the Nets on Saturday but Plumlee played just 19 (effective) minutes, meaning the Hawks played 29 minutes with no real center on the floor.

Tyler Cavanaugh replaced Plulmlee and played in the frontcourt alongside Ersan Ilyasova. Later guard Marco Belinelli replaced Ilyasova, leaving the Hawks with Cavanaugh (a “small-ball” four) at center and wing Taurean Prince at power forward. But the small alignments worked, especially once point guard Isaiah Taylor entered the game and lifted the Hawks with his speed.

The Hawks have a size disadvantage without Dedmon and Collins (or Mike Muscala) in the power rotation, and opponents bigger and better than the Nets are better suited to exploit it. But the Hawks also can press some advantages while playing small.

“Hopefully we can spread it out with more shooting, even though we have ‘bigs’ that are good shooters,” Budenholzer said. “But I think (it’s) more (about) speed, more guys that can attack and handle the ball in pick-and-roll, get downhill, get to the basket and hopefully either score for themselves at the basket or create open threes versus help.”

Cavanaugh may be the key to making the super-small lineups work. If he can hold his own defensively at center, while also helping to spread the floor as a shooter, then the Hawks can remain competitive while using center-less lineups.

For the season, the Hawks have allowed 9.2 points per 100 possessions less with Cavanaugh on the floor for 130 minutes. His  6.1 defensive rebounds per 36 minutes are fourth among Hawks regulars.

“He’s really strong,” Budenholzer said. “He’s got kind of low center of gravity so he can battle big guys on the board, (like) one of the first games against (DeMarcus) Cousins. He has a strength that serves him well against some ‘bigs’ in the league.

“As a center, lots of time offensively his ability to shoot and pull them away from the basket puts the other team’s centers, if they are more traditional, hopefully in a territory where hopefully they are not that comfortable or familiar. . . .He’s just a good, versatile big, which is what we like.”

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