NBA Position Battles: Should Tim Hardaway Jr. or Thabo Sefolosha Start for the Atlanta Hawks?

While four of the five starters for the Hawks are set in stone, Sefolosha and Hardaway continue to alternate for that fifth spot. According to the numbers, which is the better option?

The Atlanta Hawks are pretty well locked into fifth place in the Eastern Conference, with a 2.5-game lead on the sixth-place Indiana Pacers and sitting 2.0 games behind the fourth-place Toronto Raptors.

With 15 games remaining on their schedule, there is of course still time for movement, but we basically know what this team is at this point: a little worse than the best teams in the conference, but a little better than the rest.

They rank 26th in the NBA in offensive efficiency (105.5 offensive rating) and fourth in the league in defensive efficiency (106.0 defensive rating), so they have a pretty clear identity as a defensively-minded team. Starting wing Thabo Sefolosha has a lot to do with that, since the former All-Defensive honoree (2009-10) is one of the league's best wing defenders.

While the Hawks have a pretty set-in-stone starting lineup on most nights at the other four positions, Thabo's starting spot is sometimes in flux, as head coach Mike Budenholzer has also occasionally gone with young scoring guard Tim Hardaway Jr. in his place.

The two are perfect for your typical switch, with Thabo being far more effective on defense than offense, while Hardaway Jr. is the other way around. Budenholzer seems more concerned with defense, though, considering the fact that he's started Thabo 37 of the 55 games he's played, as opposed to Hardaway, who has started only 18 of his 65 games.

For what it's worth, the Hawks are 23-14 (.622 win-loss percentage) when Sefolosha starts and 10-8 (.556) when Hardaway does (including six games in which they started together when another regular starter was missing).

But beyond simple win-loss records, which wing would be the better starter for the Hawks down the stretch of the season?

Let's see what the numbers say.

First, the per-36-minute numbers for both wings play out how you would expect, considering each player's strengths.

Hardaway Jr.19.145.6%34.0%74.6%

THJ has a major edge in scoring, while Sefolosha is the better rebounder and has a big advantage in the defensive categories, particularly steals.

The two have eerily similar shooting splits, but Hardaway is generally more efficient in that department -- he has a 56.6% true shooting percentage (weighted twos, threes, and free throws), compared to Sefolosha's 52.7%. THJ also shoots way more threes than Thabo (7.2 per-36 to Sefolosha's 2.7) at a comparable clip.

We'll call this one a draw, since one of scoring and efficiency versus rebounding and defense is not necessarily better than the other, depending on what your team needs at any particular moment in a game.

Instead, let's look at the advanced stats, most of which combine both ends of the floor to get a better idea of each player's overall balance.

CategoryThabo SefoloshaTim Hardaway Jr.
Offensive rating106109
Defensive rating103109
Player efficiency rating12.415.3
Win shares3.03.6
Win shares per 48 minutes.102.102
Box plus/minus1.5-0.4
Value over replacement player1.30.7

This way of analyzing the two players is also close.

Sefolosha gets the edge in defensive rating, box plus/minus, and value over replacement player, but Hardaway Jr. has him beat in nERD -- our proprietary metric that measures the total contribution of a player throughout the course of a season, based on efficiency -- offensive rating, player efficiency rating, and win shares.

Interestingly enough, the two are a dead lock in win shares per 48 minutes at .102. I guess we'll have to call this one a tie, as well.

Finally, let's look at how the Hawks perform when each of these wings is combined with the team's other four entrenched starters: Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore, Paul Millsap, and Dwight Howard.

Here's where we start to see some separation.

5-Man LineupMINOff RtgDef RtgNet RtgAST/TO RatioREB%eFG%
Including Sefolosha41197.7101.9-4.21.3350.7%49.6%
Including Hardaway Jr.227106.1103.52.51.7351.9%51.1%

Sefolosha's strengths clearly rest on the defensive end, but the Hawks are only 1.6 points per 100 possessions better on defense when he's on the floor with the regular starters in place of Hardaway. When Hardaway's on the floor, however, the team is 8.4 points per 100 possessions better on offense, and 6.7 overall (as per net rating). They also have a better assist-to-turnover ratio, rebound the ball better as a team (surprisingly), and shoot a better effective field goal percentage (weighted twos and threes) with him in place of Thabo.

In the end, the differences between these two wings is fairly minimal. If anything, which to use in any given moment is a situational decision, as opposed to a "best available" call. If we and the numbers had to make the decision, however, we'd be going with Hardaway.

Atlanta's lineup data suggests they're better in almost every aspect when Tim Hardaway Jr. is on the floor with the starters instead of Thabo Sefolosha. The difference in defensive efficiency -- Sefolosha's strength -- is minimal, as the remaining members of the Hawks' starting lineup are fairly sound defenders.

The boost in offensive firepower that would come with starting Hardaway Jr. is most likely the biggest need for the Association's 26th-ranked offense, while they can probably absorb the slightest of hits to their fourth-ranked defense.