Dennis Schroder will save the Atlanta Hawks…eventually

Nov 25, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Dennis Schroder (17) dribbles the ball during the second half against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Jazz won 95-68. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports
Nov 25, 2016; Salt Lake City, UT, USA; Atlanta Hawks guard Dennis Schroder (17) dribbles the ball during the second half against the Utah Jazz at Vivint Smart Home Arena. The Jazz won 95-68. Mandatory Credit: Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports /

The Atlanta Hawks are 12-13 through their first 25 games of the 2016-17 NBA season and they feel very much like a fringe playoff team. This basketball team has been a fixture in the Eastern Conference Playoffs for the last nine seasons but have only made it to the Eastern Conference Finals once, in 2015.

Yes, the Hawks are a comparatively good matchup against the crème de la crème in the Eastern Conference — the Cleveland Cavaliers — but who’s to say they can even meet Cleveland for a best-of-seven series in the Eastern Conference Semifinals? Overall, the Hawks have struggled to get to .500 this season. They got off to a hot 9-2 start, but have gone 3-11 since. Should the Hawks continue to falter in the coming weeks, key players like Paul Millsap, Kyle Korver, and Thabo Sefolosha could be traded on the cusp of an inevitable rebuild.

Going forward in Atlanta, the only veterans that feel like cornerstones for this club’s future are Kent Bazemore, Dwight Howard, and Dennis Schroder. That’s totally cool, because they aren’t necessarily built to win multiple playoff series this season and we all kind of already knew that.

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A lot of what has been problematic for the Hawks’ regression over the past few weeks can be traced to Schroder’s insertion into the starting lineup at point guard.

Schroder took over for long-time starter Jeff Teague, who was sent to the Indiana Pacers in a three-team deal involving former Pacers point guard turned Utah Jazz star George Hill and a first-round which became Taurean Prince. Schroder could have been a starting point guard for a lottery team as early as last season. Tabbed as the German version of Rajon Rondo, he is slowly but surely becoming that for the Hawks at age 23. He projects as a better 3-point shooter than Rondo, but where does his finite ceiling limit the Hawks in the coming years?

The truth is the Hawks had to pick between Teague and Schroder, and they went with the cheaper, younger player with higher upside. Teague hit his ceiling playing at an All-Star level in 2014-15 for the 60-win Hawks. Schroder could match his idol/prototype Rondo by his mid-20s and could even be a poor man’s version of Russell Westbrook as a relentless attacker who lives in the paint.

If Atlanta does view Schroder as a long-term solution at point guard, then the Hawks are going to have to build this team around his strengths and obvious limitations. Schroder is a more ball-dominant player than Teague. He’s not in Westbrook’s class in terms of overall talent but that seems like a reasonably good way to think about his skill set. Schroder attacks the rim with great ferocity. He’ll never have the raw power of Westbrook — Atlanta’s quasi-equivalent to that type of kinesthetic talent would be Bazemore.

However, Atlanta is still caught between two styles. Although they have made some adjustments to their style to accommodate Schroder and Howard, the Hawks still seem to be caught between what they were and what they would like to be. Schroder needs to play in an offense that accentuates his play off the dribble, with spot-up shooters on the outside and rim-running big men who can crash the offensive glass. The residual heavy ball movement and up-tempo pace has Schroder making passes for the sake of making passes to shooters who need clean looks to be effective from distance.

The Oklahoma City Thunder succeed with great play from its frontcourt, bullying opponents on the glass and around the rim defensively. Adding Howard instead of a departing Al Horford gives Atlanta the muscle it never had on the defensive glass. Howard is aloof, but is certainly the more assertive player over Horford. Drafting guys like Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry gives Atlanta the type of athletic bodies it needs from a 3-and-D guy. Bazemore is a solid player, but may never be the consistently reliable spot-up shooter or the bruising wing defender Atlanta truly covets.

What Atlanta needs to do is find its equivalent to Enes Kanter, really emphasizing their size and strength alongside Howard. Tiago Splitter would be perfect, but his health has been a major concern the last few years. Mike Muscala is becoming a nice rotational big on offense, but may never become a great rebounder in the NBA. If Atlanta could combine the best qualities of Muscala and Splitter, the Hawks would have that guy they need in the frontcourt.

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While we watch Schroder dribble the air out of the basketball, do know that he is the future of Atlanta basketball whether we want him to be or not. Nobody likes you when you’re 23 anyways. This is only Schroder’s first year as a starter. Schroder has the right coach in Budenholzer and the right cut-throat mentality to be an effective NBA point guard in Atlanta for long time.

The Hawks trusted him enough to trade Teague and make Schroder their starting point guard, now it’s time to let Schroder drive that gold car of his.