Atlanta is apparently very, very desperate for another center

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The Hawks were long linked to Shaquille O’Neal, but despite the Hawk’s need for a big, strong post defender (to tackle the challenges Al Horford is ill-suited for) and some interior scoring (ATL was 21st in the league in field goal attempts at the rim last season), it wasn’t meant to be. O’Neal is now a Celtic, and he’ll have tons of fun tangoing for minutes next season with Jermaine O’Neal and the recovering Kendrick Perkins.

To the Hawks’ credit, they drew the line for Al Horford’s benefit (link via Hoopinion). Shaq doesn’t deserve to start over Horford even if the Hawks lack an interior presence to deal with the the league’s giants, and going with Al over Shaq was the right move.

So instead of O’Neal, the Hawks will look to Plan B. Or, judging by the talent of their targets, Plan Q, at the very least. According to Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, the Hawks are looking at signing Francisco Elson, Josh Boone, or Brian Skinner to fill in minutes at the middle. These are harsh times, and teams looking for bigs are finding the remaining pool of useful free agents rather meager.

O’Neal may only vaguely resemble the player he once was, but he’s still much, much better than any of the Hawks’ remaining options. Shaq is still a reasonably effective low-post threat even at his advanced age, and while concerns over his pick-and-roll D are both well-known and very valid, he does have some defensive application.

Boone? A wiry non-rebounder that exists in never-ending state of biting on pump fakes. Elson? Stuck without particularly usable size or mobility (He’s 7’0”, but would you know it?), and lacking in the offensive utility that could secure him a roster spot. Skinner? Fantastic beard, and perhaps the best player of the three. Still, all Atlanta has at center right now is Al Horford, Zaza Pachulia, and Jason Collins. Skinner may not be an awful option for a third center, but if the Hawks signed Collins, they would have two low-quality Cs in reserve, without adding any quality bigs.

Right now, Atlanta can’t win. They’re set to be a tad soft inside once again despite Al Horford’s best efforts (and Zaza doing what Zaza does), and the only heroes on the horizon are highlighted by their generally ineffective largeness or quirks in their coiffure/facial hair stylings. Well done as always, Hawks. They may  end up getting bigger, but they’re still not getting any better.

Report: Seattle hosting Kings-Warriors preseason game

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Kevin Durant spent his rookie season in Seattle, before the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City and became the Thunder. He has said Seattle fans deserved to see him grow up in the NBA after supporting his promising start.

They’ll get their chance.

Ailene Voisin of The Sacramento Bee:

The Kings and Golden State Warriors have scheduled a preseason game next season in Seattle, according to multiple league sources.

The Oct. 6 meeting between Northern California teams will be the first NBA game in the Key Arena since the Sonics moved to Oklahoma City after the 2007-08 season and became the Thunder.

This game will be loaded with storylines. Not only Durant, but the Kings considered moving to Seattle a few years ago. And of course, the return of NBA basketball to Seattle.

At some point, Seattle will get its own team again. For now, this preseason game creates intrigue there.

Report: Kawhi Leonard cleared medically, seeking second opinion

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Spurs coach Gregg Popovich said he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard played again this season, a stark reversal from just a month ago. Back then, even while announcing Leonard was out indefinitely with a quad injury, the San Antonio coach said Leonard wouldn’t miss the rest of the season.

What’s going on?

Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN:

After spending 10 days before the All-Star break in New York consulting with a specialist to gather a second opinion on his right quad injury, All-NBA forward Kawhi Leonard bears the burden of determining when he’s prepared to play again, sources told ESPN.

Leonard has been medically cleared to return from the right quad tendinopathy injury, but since shutting down a nine-game return to the Spurs that ended Jan. 13, he has elected against returning to the active roster, sources said.

The uncertainty surrounding this season — and Leonard’s future which could include free agency in the summer of 2019 — has inspired a palpable stress around the organization, league sources said.

At first glance, this sounds like Derrick Rose five years ago. Even after he was cleared to play following a torn ACL, the then-Bulls star remained mysterious about when he’d suit up. His confidence in his physical abilities seemed to be a major issue, and he was never the same player since (suffering more leg injuries).

But the Spurs famously favor resting players to preserve long-term health. They seem unlikely to rush back Leonard. They might even sit players who want to play more often. And Leonard isn’t Rose.

Still, it’s clear something is amiss in San Antonio. Maybe not amiss enough to end Leonard’s tenure there, but the longer this lingers, the more time for tension to percolate.

Report: Dennis Smith Jr. planned to have J. Cole dunk in dunk-contest routine

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Mavericks rookie Dennis Smith Jr. seemed pretty steamed about getting eliminated in the first round of the dunk contest:

The dunk-contest scoring system – five judges ranking dunks on a scale of 6-10 – is plenty flawed. There should have been a larger difference between the Smith and Victor Oladipo dunks the Dallas point guard mentioned. But Oladipo didn’t advance, either. Personally, I thought the right two players – eventual-winner Donovan Mitchell and runner-up Larry Nance Jr. – advanced.

Maybe Smith was more upset about the missed opportunity – dunks (plural!) involving rapper J. Cole.

Amin El-Hassan of ESPN on Black Opinions Matter:

If Dennis had made it to the finals, Cole was going to throw him the alley-oop. But then the plan was, he was going to throw him the oop, Dennis would dunk it, and then Cole would catch the ball, and then he’d dunk it too. That was going to be the ill, craziest dunk-contest use of a prop or a person ever. But we never got to saw it, because they were holding out until the final round. They didn’t want to bring it out in the first round.

This certainly would have been unprecedented and cool. But unless Smith had something amazing planned for the alley-oop, the best element would have been Cole dunking. That would have upstaged Smith, who’s presumably the one being judged.

For what it’s worth, Cole can dunk. We’ve seen it in the celebrity game:

Spurs coach Gregg Popovich says he’d be surprised if Kawhi Leonard returns this season

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When announcing last month Kawhi Leonard was out indefinitely due to a lingering quad injury, Spurs coach Gregg Popovich dismissed the idea his star forward would miss the rest of the season:

Apparently, Popovich’s expectation has changed.

Michael C. Wright of ESPN:

The Spurs (35-24) are third in the West despite Leonard playing just nine games. Popovich has done a great job (maybe Coach of the Year-worthy). LaMarcus Aldridge is having a bounce-back season in a leading role. Pau Gasol leads a supporting cast of players good in their roles.

But San Antonio’s ceiling is so much lower without Leonard.

He’s an elite defender who shuts down opposing scorers on the perimeter and can comfortably switch inside. He can isolate offensively to score efficiently, and he spaces the floor off the ball with strong 3-point shooting. Those are all skills that translate to the playoffs.

Without him, the Spurs rely too heavily on older, slower defenders. That’s ripe to be exploited in the postseason.

Teams might even jockey to match up with San Antonio – the most vulnerable-appearing Western Conference team in line to get home-court advantage in the first round.

Of course, this doesn’t eliminate the possibility of Leonard returning. Popovich could just be trying to shut down speculation. He clearly doesn’t like discussing this issue.

But the Spurs are the most cautious team on injuries. If Leonard risks further injury, they’ll keep him sidelined.

This injury has already caused tension. This won’t help.