NBA Season Preview: Atlanta Hawks

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Thumbnail image for Hawks_loss.jpgLast season: 53-29, three seed in the East. The Bucks pushed them seven games in the first round, then Orlando swept them in the second.

Head Coach: Larry Drew. Basically the Hawks decided to fire their coach and go for change by hiring the old coach’s right hand man. Interesting theory. Drew may have been the top assistant for just fired Mike Woodson, but swears he’s a different man with different plans. Maybe so. The real question is can Drew coax more out of essentially the same roster?

Key Departures: Woodson was the big one. The Hawks also had the rights to Josh Childress, who spurn their contract offer for Europe two seasons ago and now is now running with the Suns.

Key Additions: They kept Joe Johnson, who was a free agent. They’ll regret it in a few years, but they did it. Keeping Johnson was a Hawks priority and they made it a reality by making him higher paid than LeBron James this summer. But it’s not this year or next they’ll regret, it’s five years from now when he is still making max money but is performing like Michael Finley they’ll be sorry. Maybe the current Hawks ownership plans on being out the door by then, so it will not be their problem.

Larry Drew as coach is the one addition that matters. Also added to the roster were Josh Powell, Etan Thomas, Jason Collins and Jordan Crawford. Some small time role guys, nothing changes to the core.

Best case scenario: The Hawks jump into the elite of the East and compete for a title.

For that to happen: They make a trade for another elite player and the unwieldy ownership group decides to take on more salary. Seriously, that’s the only way it will happen. Because to expect more from the same roster is unrealistic. At best.

But lets say the roster does not change, what do they need to happen to take a step forward or three?

Better play at the point guard to start. Mike Bibby is your starter, but he has slipped over the years to a below average player. In a conference with Rajon Rondo, Jameer Nelson and Derrick Rose (just to name a few from teams at the top of the East) it’s going to be very difficult to make the jump with below average play at the point. Jeff Teague has been told to be more aggressive, be more selfish and take the job. Own it. He’s got talent, but we’ll see if he can.

Al Horford needs to take a leap forward, as well. Horford is already an All-Star, a guy who gave Atlanta 14 and 10 last season while taking on more of the offense and having his shooting percentage go up. He’s not a natural center forced to play against the beasts in the East (Dwight Howard, Shaq) but if the new motion offense in Atlanta can get him the ball in good positions to score he can take another step forward.

Larry Drew needs a system to get this team some easy buckets, rather than fighting through so much isolation ball to get them. That starts by getting the Hawks to run more (which ties into getting them to defend better, they were a pedestrian 13th in league last year in points given up per possession). In the half court, ball and player movement will allow the athletes on the Hawks to get some better, easier looks. All of it combined should mean more monster dunks from this athletic squad, which would be good for all of us.

Basically, the culture and system need to change for the Hawks to get more out of their talents. And that still may not be enough to make a big leap forward in the east.

More likely the Hawks will: To paraphrase Roger Daltrey: Meet the new Hawks, same as the old Hawks.

They didn’t change the roster, they brought the same team back. They changed coaches but got the No. 2 guy from the old regime in. They are basically fielding the same team but expecting more in a conference that got a lot deeper and a lot tougher.

The things to watch are defense and point guard. If the Hawks can play better defense, convert that into some easy transition buckets, and get better play out of Jeff Teague (or Mike Bibby, although that is unlikely) at the point, they can improve. But even that keeps them on the second tier in the East.

The Hawks will be good, don’t think anything else. This is a quality roster. They will be fun to watch. They will win a lot of games. But if the expectation is to get out of the second round of the playoffs, then they will fall short. They remain good but not good enough.

Prediction: 51 wins. The Hawks will be as good or slightly better than last year, but as the East got deeper we dock them just a couple wins. In reality, they are in the regular season second tier in the East — along with Boston, Chicago and Milwaukee — who will finish between 48 and 55 wins. Health and who blends best fastest will determine the order. But they will be in for a tougher first round playoff series than last year, and that one went seven games.

Suns’ Dudley has surgery on left toe ligament and bone

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PHOENIX (AP) Phoenix Suns forward Jared Dudley has undergone a left toe ligament and bone procedure.

The Suns issued a statement on Tuesday saying Dudley had surgery last Friday and is expected to return to full basketball activities in 3-4 months.

The 31-year-old averaged 6.8 points and 3.5 rebounds in 64 games with Phoenix last season. Dudley is in his sixth season and second stint with the Suns. He has two years and nearly $20 million left on his contract.

Dudley has career averages of 8.3 points and 3.4 rebounds in 10 NBA seasons.

Report: Knicks owner James Dolan expected to part ways with Phil Jackson Wednesday

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Kristaps Porzingis skipped his exit meeting with the Knicks to express his frustration with the way the organization is being run. He is spending the summer working out in Latvia rather than the Knicks’ facilities. If a franchise cornerstone, unicorn of a player skipped the exit meeting with 29 other franchises, the team president and GM would have been knocking on his door the next morning looking to talk about his concerns, listen, and make a guy the team should be building around feels appreciated and listened to.

Instead, Phil Jackson took it as a slight and threatened to trade Porzingis to send a message.

Add that to a treatment of Carmelo Anthony that has free agents seeing the Knicks as a refuge of last resort, not to mention forcing the triangle offense on players who do not want, and there’s a lot of reasons to question Phil Jackson’s leadership of the Knicks.

All of that has James Dolan, the Knicks owner, ready to let go of Jackson and make a change, something first reported by Adrian Wojnarowski of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports. The move will be sold as a mutual parting of the ways, which is true in the sense that Jackson started to realize in the past week what was about to go down and made it so.

The New York Knicks are planning to part ways with embattled President of Basketball Operations Phil Jackson later this morning, league sources told The Vertical.

Owner James Dolan has been weighing Jackson’s future role running the franchise and seriously considering his dismissal despite two years and $24 million-plus left on his contract, league sources told The Vertical….

Dolan has become increasingly concerned about Jackson’s fitness for the job and the long-term prospects of success for the franchise, especially in the aftermath of Jackson entertaining trades for Kristaps Porzingis, the franchise’s 21-year-old burgeoning star, league sources told The Vertical.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN added:

Conversations about what was best for the team’s future between Jackson and Knicks owner James Dolan accelerated this week when the franchise decided it would not buy out embattled forward Carmelo Anthony, sources said….

It had become clear, sources said, that Jackson had no plans to remain beyond the two years left on the five-year contract he initially signed in 2014. So with no clear path forward from the toxic situation with Anthony, a constant public relations war over Jackson’s preferred triangle offense, and new concerns about the organization’s relationship with Latvian phenom and 2015 No. 4 overall pick Kristaps Porzingis, sources said it was clear things had reached a breaking point by the eve of free agency.

How are Knicks fans reacting?

HALLELUJAH.

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With free agency starting in just days, the timing of this is tough, but frankly, the Knicks stand a better chance of landing free agents without Jackson in the mix. Expect current GM and trusted Dolan confidante Steve Mills to get the job temporarily.

When Jackson took over the Knicks it was hoped that for $12 million a year he could keep James Dolan at arm’s length from basketball decisions — he has done that — and that he would finally provide a direction and for the Knicks. The latter part has not happened. He hired Derek Fisher as coach, who realized the Knicks were not ready to run the triangle so he tried to run a hybrid offense, but that never clicked. Fisher also never clicked with the players, and got into a spat with Matt Barnes that was very public. Fisher was let go and Jeff Hornacek was brought in to run his more modern, up-tempo offense, but then he was given Derrick Rose and Joakim Noah to go with the aging Anthony, with little else but Porzingis around them, and that didn’t work. Now the Knicks are back to the triangle, and players are not happy.

Jackson is unquestionably one of the great coaches the game has ever seen, a man with a great basketball mind, but the skills of coaching and the skills of running basketball operations are different things.

You can say it’s time for the Knicks to move on from Jackson but If not Jackson, then who?

Go ahead and joke that “anybody is better” but we have seen Dolan’s hires before and know that’s not true. Isiah Thomas is still out there. Much like Dan Gilbert in Cleveland, you don’t want to just fire your GM at this point of the year unless you have the next guy lined up. Does anyone believe Dolan has thought that far ahead? There are plenty of quality candidates, including the released David Griffin from Cleveland, but how fast can the Knicks get a man with a plan in place.

Still, this is a good thing for the franchise. The timing of it is just very Knicks.

Report: Rockets becoming “increasingly serious threat” to sign Chris Paul

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The Houston Rockets are one of only a handful of teams in the NBA with a legitimate ability to add a couple of key pieces and try to make a run at the Golden State Warriors.

Chris Paul would be that kind of piece, and the Rockets are ramping up efforts to land him.

From Marc Stein of ESPN.

The Houston Rockets have emerged as an increasingly serious threat in the chase for soon-to-be free agent Chris Paul, according to league sources.

The Rockets still have work to do in terms of clearing sufficient salary-cap space to make a representative offer for Paul, but sources told ESPN that Houston star James Harden has been advocating hard in favor of the Paul pursuit and has made his interest in teaming with the Los Angeles Clippers’ point guard known directly to Paul.

Sources say Houston also remains at the heart of the trade hunt to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers, despite the fact George is only under contract through next season and is known to be angling to sign with his hometown Los Angeles Lakers in July 2018.

The challenge in all of this is the Rockets have just about $10 million in cap space this summer, which is about a third of what it will take to land Chris Paul. That means they need to trade Ryan Anderson and his $19.6 million owed next season and take no salary back, and while there are a few teams in a position to be able to take on that salary — Philadephia, Brooklyn, Sacramento and others — they are going to want a young player or first-round pick as a sweetener. The Rockets also are considering moving Lou Williams and his $7 million salary, or Patrick Beverley and his $5.5 million. However, even moving both of the later two is not getting near the salary Paul will demand.

Chris Paul met with the Clippers front office on Tuesday to talk about the future, but he’s expected to meet with a number of teams in free agency, with the Rockets and Spurs being key suitors. The question is, will any of these teams bring him closer to toppling the Golden State Warriors, and is it worth it to take less money for that chance? Especially after he got the CBA changed so that as of July 1 the “over 36” rule becomes the “over 38 rule” so the Clippers can give him one more five-year max contract.

How much will Dion Waiters earn as a free agent?

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Dion Waiters had the best season of his career last year at age 25 in Miami. The Heat pushed Waiters to get in the best shape of his life (just check out his Instagram), and combine that with the fact that Justise Winslow went down Waiters got the ball in his hands more with a chance to create for himself, and you had a little rush of scoring. He’s still not the most efficient player ever (to be kind), but he’s close to average.

Waiters opted out of his $3.2 million he is owed next season, and he is now a free agent. How much is he will he get now on the open market? Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald wrote this:

One scout said he would be surprised if the bidding for Waiters soars much above $10 million, if that, because of his small sample size of high-level play this past season. One prominent agent who does not represent Waiters predicted he would get $8 million to $10 million annually.

That number seems about right, if it’s a two-year deal (or a team option on the third year). The league average salary will be around $8.5 million, and that’s where Waiters should fall next year.

Whether Miami has that money to spend comes down to whether they land a big free agent such as Gordon Hayward or Blake Griffin (both max guys). If so, the Heat will not have the money, and what they do have would be more focused on keeping James Johnson. However, if the Heat strike out then Waiters could be back in Miami.

One way or another Waiters is going to get a raise. That doesn’t mean teams are not still leery.