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New Orleans finds path to winning runs through San Antonio

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The New Orleans Hornets are standing at the top of the hill, 7-0. They beat the Clippers last night, but the lineup before that — Milwaukee, San Antonio, Denver and even Miami — is a bunch of teams that would bring most teams to their knees.

Standing there, the Hornets have a good view. They are as good a team as there is in the league right now, but they see the long road of the season stretching out before them. Standing there the questions about the future remain — key among them is can they keep Chris Paul? — but the road looks open and the future promising.

However, if they were to turn around and look back at the road that led them to this spot, they would see it runs straight through San Antonio.

The Hornets started to retool their organization this summer, something that was expected to come with a change in ownership that has yet to materialize. But the change in the organization went forward anyway.

It started with the hiring of Monty Williams as coach then Dell Demps as general manager (in that odd reverse order, but it seems to work here). Demps was a member of the San Antonio Spurs brain trust who was general manager of their D-League affiliate the Austin Toros (among other jobs in the Spurs organization). Demps came in with a mandate to “change the culture” of the organization, to make the culture more Spurs-like. Which is what everybody says when they hire a GM, but Demps really has changed things.

He didn’t hire Monty Williams — a coach who learned the NBA game at the right hand of Gregg Popovich in San Antonio — but he’s the kind of guy Demps would have hired. A like minded, Spurs culture guy.

And you can see that on the court in how the Hornets play defense. The Spurs have won four titles by defending the rim and closing out hard at the arc, forcing teams into a lot of long twos and midrange shots. The least efficient shots in the game.

Sound strategy, but could Emeka Okafor really be that guy defending the rim? He can, it turns out. Okafor has been a force all season, really controlling the paint. He’s had room to do that because David West — who seemed to sleepwalk though the last couple seasons — has brought energy at both ends of the floor. With West focused and Okafor not having to help him as much, it has freed Okafor up to defend the rim with gusto. Okafor also leads the league right now with a 72.7 shooting percentage. He can’t miss, like a Pacer in the third quarter.

Of course, the biggest change for the Hornets has been the return of a healthy Chris Paul. He is playing at an MVP level, giving the team 18 points and 10 assists per game, doing it with the highest shooting percentage of his career. Right now, when he is on the court he assists on about half of his team’s baskets scored. His PER is at 29.8, a career best by a mile (and second only to Dwight Howard so far this season).

Add in smart pickups like Trevor Ariza to fill needs, and you have really got something.

It all looks good. Does that mean Chris Paul is staying?

Nobody knows. Maybe not even Paul himself. Nothing is going to happen short term. The Hornets are not looking to move him right now, instead they are looking to woo him to stay long term by proving he can win here. The 7-0 start is just that, a nice start, but winning in the playoffs is what matters and that is a long way off.

Paul isn’t talking, and the Hornets do not face the deadline pressure to make a move that Denver does right now. But that will change — by next summer and into next season the Hornets will need to get a commitment from Paul (who will be in the last year of his deal) or they have to look to move him. They have until then to change his mind. Certainly some kind of resolution with the ownership sale and that outcome will play a role in Paul’s decisions as well (as will outside influences, such as what happens in New York).

But the Spurs never really lost their core players. If the Hornets stay with that model… maybe you can win big in the Big Easy.

Brandon Ingram with the steal, slam (VIDEO)

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Very little has gone right for the Lakers of late. They have dropped five in a row. Around Los Angeles, the talk has gone from “this team could make the playoffs” after a 10-10 start to “they need to tank and try to keep the pick” after going 5-21 since. (The Lakers pick this draft is top-three protected, if it’s outside that it goes to the Sixers. The Lakers currently have the fourth worst record in the NBA.)

The Lakers young players look… young. D'Angelo Russell admitted he just started trying to follow a game-day routine, then said Tuesday night he didn’t focus and deserved to be benched down the stretch. Brandon Ingram shows flashes, he’s smart and sees the game, but he’s still physically pushed around.

But those flashes, like the steal and dunk above are fun.

Lakers fans, welcome to the process. This is what rebuilding is like. It’s a roller coaster, you just hope the trajectory generally remains up.

Rumor: Is Cleveland done making moves?

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 13:  Kyle Korver #26 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots over Arron Afflalo #40 of the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center on January 13, 2017 in Sacramento, California.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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LeBron James has made it clear he wants the Cavaliers to add a veteran point guard to the mix. Cavs GM David Griffin has talked about wanting to add playmakers to the roster.

The Cavaliers made a savvy move picking up Kyle Korver recently, he brings shooting and some high IQ play to the table. But was that it? Does Cleveland have another trade to pull off?

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst is about as connected as they come with the Cavaliers organization and he said on ESPN Cleveland radio not to bet on seeing another move.

Windhorst is right, in terms of players the Cavaliers don’t have much to move — James Jones? Kay Felder — and they don’t have a first-round pick to move until 2021. The buyout market may be something to watch, but a solid playmaker or point guard may be hard to come by.

The only question about the Cavaliers roster is this: How does it match up with Golden State? Barring a major catastrophe, the Cavaliers are coming out of the East, but can they beat the Warriors four out of seven? The MLK Day blowout was not an indicator one way or the other, the Cavs mailed that game in, but there certainly are questions about the potential Finals matchup. One more playmaker would help the Cavs, I just don’t know where he comes from.

Report: Pelicans explored Dwight Howard trade before Hawks pulled him off table

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 07:  Dwight Howard #8 of the Atlanta Hawks at American Airlines Center on January 7, 2017 in Dallas, Texas.  NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Who are the Pelicans? They look like a movie where the writer, director, and studio suits all had very different versions of the film in mind, and the result is a jumbled mess. Think “Suicide Squad.”

There are a lot of questions about the roster and style of this team, but at the heart of all of it is this: Do they play Anthony Davis at the four or the five? They are better with him at the five but keep spending money on bigs to push him to the four.

They considered doing it again in the past month, reports Zach Lowe at ESPN (in an article that brilliantly lays out the quandary in New Orleans).

But they haven’t committed to staying small, and sticking Davis at center. They worry about the physical toll it would take, and fretted after Davis picked up two quick fouls jostling with Dwight Howard two weeks ago. In the days that followed, Atlanta and New Orleans had exploratory talks about possible Howard trades before the Hawks pulled everyone off the market, according to several league sources. It is unclear how interested New Orleans was, and there was not unanimous support within the team for acquiring Howard.

Dwight Howard? He’s played better this season and finally is staying within himself in Atlanta, but why would the Pelicans want him and that contract next to Davis? To be fair, these kinds of conversations happen a lot in the NBA and most don’t go anywhere. Still, this one is perplexing. It’s the opposite of the style they had success with this season. It’s back to the confused push-and-pull within that franchise.

Maybe this goes to having Saints people oversee the basketball side and thinking, like the NFL, you can rebuild on the fly quickly with smart fifth round picks and a couple free agents. The NBA doesn’t work that way (and there aren’t fifth round picks, although the second round serves that purpose). The Pelicans should have tanked in recent years. If the Pelicans brought in Alvin Gentry to run a more Warriors-style offense, then give him the players to do it. Davis is a foundational piece and will be a stud in any system, maybe Holiday can work in that free-flowing, fast-decision style with shooting everywhere, and after that… I don’t know.

Bottom line, if the Pelicans brought in Alvin Gentry to run a more Warriors-style offense, then give him the players to do it. Davis is a foundational piece and will be a stud in any system, maybe Holiday can work in that free-flowing, fast-decision style with shooting everywhere, and after that… I don’t know.

But the indecision and hodgepodge of a roster in New Orleans leaves it in the same place as always, and that is squandering one of the game’s best players.

Video Breakdown: What is Hammer action? An explainer

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Hammer action — sometimes referred to as a Hammer play or a Hammer set — was made ubiquitous in the modern NBA by the San Antonio Spurs. It’s really not as complicated as it sounds to identify, and it’s got two main principles.

First, the Hammer part of any set is a back screen to setup a cut by a wing player around the arc to the corner (or sometimes on a flare to the wing).

Second, the Hammer always happens away from the ball side of a play. It’s a weak side action, and typically anything happening with the ball on the strong side at the beginning of the play is purposeful distraction.

You can learn all about the Hammer by watching this week’s NBA Glossary video above, or by reading the text version down below.

The Diagram

Here we have a set where the ball is on the right side of the floor, with one post high and one low. The Hammer action happens on the weak side of the court between the shooting guard and the center:

The small forward is going to start the pick and roll with the power forward going to the right side. Meanwhile, the center is going to set the back screen on the left left side of the floor. This is our Hammer action, and the shooting guard will run off that screen to the corner.

Once the play starts and the small forward gets to the baseline, he passes it out to the guard, who shoots the corner three.

Let’s take a look at it in action and how the Spurs mix it into different looking plays.

Here they have the ball at the arc on the right side of the floor. Kawhi Leonard is coming through the paint to receive a pass off the screen.

Meanwhile, Patty Mills is the player that’s going to run off a hammer screen here on the left elbow.

The ball is passed, and with Kawhi dribbling toward the arc, the trap is set, and the Hammer action commences.

The defender turns his head, and Mills runs toward the baseline unimpeded to take the jumper.

In this example, we have the pick and roll to the right side. The hammer action is going to happen between the guard and the post on the weak side.

As the pick and roll is run, the Hammer screen is set.

Notice San Antonio has cleverly positioned Tony Parker at the top of the arc, and when LaMarcus Aldridge pops out, it’s up to Parker’s defender to stunt over to help.

This makes Danny Green’s defender slide over to help cover Parker, basically leaving Green unguarded in the corner.

Aldridge sees this, and passes the ball to Parker for the quick rotation over to Green.

That’s the basics of the Hammer play. It’s nothing super complicated, but it shows you how spacing and exploitation of defensive tendencies can be programmed into an NBA offense.