September 30, 2015

ATHENS, Ga. (AP) Even while emerging as one of the NBA's best teams, the Atlanta Hawks had a very glaring weakness.

Rebounding.

So, after setting a franchise record with 60 wins and reaching the Eastern Conference final, the Hawks got bigger.

A lot bigger.

Atlanta acquired 6-foot-11 Tiago Splitter from San Antonio and signed massive prospect Walter ''Edy'' Tavares, who checks in at 7-3 and 260 pounds. With 6-11 Mike Muscala also expected to get more minutes, it won't be nearly as easy to push the Hawks around this season.

''We've got some big bodies,'' said guard Kyle Korver, clearly excited as he looked around the court at the start of the training camp.

Despite their success, the Hawks ranked near the bottom of the league in most rebounding statistics. They were 27th in average margin (a deficit of 3.0 per game), 28th in total rebounds (40.6), and last on the offensive boards (8.7).

Coach Mike Budenholzer wasn't too concerned about the deficit while the Hawks were romping to the best record (60-22) in the East during the regular season, considering it a necessary evil to play the sort of fast-paced, ball-moving style he wanted.

But Atlanta's size disadvantage proved to be more problematic in the playoffs, as teams clamped down defensively and referees tended to be more lenient with physical play. The Hawks struggled at times against Washington's imposing front line in the second round and were totally dominated on the boards by Cleveland while getting swept in the conference final.

The Cavaliers outrebounded Atlanta by double-digit margins in three of the four games and finished with a staggering 52-39 average lead on the boards.

''One of the major improvements this team can do this season is rebounding,'' Splitter said. ''Of course, if you improve the rebounding you also improve the defense. That's one of the reasons I'm here.''

Coming off the bench, Splitter will allow the Hawks to go with a bigger lineup when paired with either 6-10 center Al Horford or 6-8 power forward Paul Millsap, who are both a bit undersized for their positions.

Muscala, whose playing time increased in the playoffs, can also rotate between those two spots, giving the Hawks another option for going big.

''There's definitely more help with rebounding, more of a shot-blocking presence, more presence in the paint,'' Muscala said.

Then there's Tavares, who might be the most intriguing player of all.

While only 23 and still raw, the native of Cape Verde will give the Hawks an entirely different look even if playing only limited minutes.

''You just throw it to him, and he literally reaches up and dunks it,'' Korver said. ''He's soooo big.''

With more help on the inside, the Hawks are counting on Horford and Millsap to show even more out of their versatility at both ends of the court. Defensively, they can pop out on the perimeter, knowing someone has their back. Offensively, they are likely to get more open jumpers if Splitter and Tavares have defenders worried about protecting the rim.

With the Spurs, Splitter showed he's capable of guarding some of the league's top power forwards, players such as LaMarcus Aldridge and Dirk Nowitzki who can stretch defenses with their perimeter skills.

''It's going to add to the versatility of our bigs,'' Budenholzer said.

Horford and Millsap are certainly excited about the prospect of having a few more teammates capable of banging in the lane.

They're still going to get plenty of rebounds.

They just won't have to go it alone.

''It takes some of the pressure off,'' Millsap said. ''It's going to help us a lot.''

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Follow Paul Newberry on Twitter at www.twitter.com/pnewberry1963

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