The Atlanta Hawks are a bit of a mess

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Even with their best player out of action, the Atlanta Hawks had no business being completely eviscerated by the Philadelphia 76ers on Tuesday night. Philly is a solid team, but Atlanta is supposedly superior. They’re supposedly worthy of their decent seed in the Eastern Conference playoff picture, even if their efficiency differential puts them just a tick above those very same Sixers who embarrassed the Hawks on their own home floor.

The Hawks are regarded in a particular way because of their now-recurring standing as a playoff team. Their multiple All-Star selections (some deserved, some not) and a fortunate win-loss record don’t hurt either, but more sophisticated — and telling — measures of team success paint a darker story of the Hawks’ season. Atlanta has some serious issues, with roots lying in the team’s collective effort, the roster’s construction, and rookie head coach Larry Drew’s handling of the Hawks’ rotation. Winning games by slim margins can only disguise that for so long, and only now are Drew and his team really starting to look inward.

According to Michael Cunningham of the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Drew appears ready to shake things up, if only superficially:

“It is just totally unacceptable to come out and play with that type energy, that type so-called passion, to play almost as if they don’t care,” Drew said. “And that’s a reflection of me. If that’s the case, then I am going to have to make some changes to my starting lineup. I’ve seen that way too often, and if that’s the way we are going to start basketball games, I am not going to sit here and take it. I am going to make some changes.”

I think it’d be difficult for any basketball coach to sweep such a glaring loss under the rug, but I suppose some credit is due to Drew for meaning business. He’s going to make an effort to improve his team, even if swapping out the starters may not do much to actually change the Hawks’ performance. There are obviously some moves that can be made (I’ve preached the virtue of giving Jeff Teague some of Mike Bibby’s minutes in this very space) to subtly improve Atlanta’s performance, but for the most part, the Hawks are doomed by the limitations of their roster. The effort level of poor perimeter defenders still matters, but it’s not like Joe Johnson or Jamal Crawford will suddenly transform into lockdown wings. The Hawks roster doesn’t have much room to grow internally, which would theoretically put pressure on Rick Sund to make some kind of move to salvage this team. Again via Michael Cunningham, Drew seems to see the need to some kind of roster move:

The Hawks are a good team so a blockbuster deal isn’t necessarily in order. But Drew acknowledged there have been internal discussions about how to shore up the team’s weaknesses through the trade market.

“With the trade deadline coming up, there is always discussion about possible trades, personnel changing,” he said. “There is always that dialogue going on about looking to improve the team. ‘Would this be a good fit? Would that be a good fit?’ There is always that possibility. Certainly at this stage we have to continue to explore those possibilities. I don’t think at this stage . . . at least I don’t feel comfortable, totally comfortable with where we are after 52 games. We have had some bad losses here at home. That may be a sign, I don’t know. I never want to throw out the possibility of making our team better.”

In a sense, the Hawks are a bit helpless. They need to make a trade but likely won’t, and then their head coach will lament the limitations of a team that simply can’t do much better. Atlanta’s players aren’t playing their best, per se, but even their best wouldn’t put them in a terribly competitive position. The Hawks are merely good, and for both better and worse, that isn’t likely to change. Woe is the NBA’s middle ground, where team officials feel no pressure to address their roster’s more glaring problems, nor the temptation to properly rebuild. The Hawks will make the playoffs, but seem incapable of accomplishing anything more.

Russell Westbrook fined $10,000 for confrontation with Gobert, no suspension

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The rule in the NBA is clear and strictly enforced (just ask Amar’e Stoudemire and the Suns): Leave the bench during an altercation and you get suspended for a game.

Monday night, in the fourth quarter of the chippy game Monday where the Jazz beat the Thunder, Russell Westbrook was set to check into the game when there was a little dust-up between Rudy Gobert in Raymond Felton, and Westbrook came in and escalated it. Did he leave the bench, or was he coming into the game and that’s different.

The NBA decided he was coming into the game already — Westbrook got a $10,000 fine and an after-the-fact technical, but no suspension.

OKC needs Westbrook — and an aggressive Westbrook who is knocking down his midrange shot — to have a chance to avoid elimination in Game 5 Wednesday. The Thunder have had their strengths turned against them, and have not shown the versatility to adjust in this series, and if Westbrook and company cannot change that Wednesday their season will end.

Nets hire Pablo Prigioni as assistant coach, Tiago Splitter as scout

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired former NBA player and Argentine guard Pablo Prigioni as an assistant coach.

The Nets also announced Tuesday that former Spurs center Tiago Splitter was hired as a pro scout.

Prigioni spent most of his professional career in Spain and won a bronze medal with Argentina in the 2008 Olympics before coming to the New York Knicks in 2012 as a 35-year-old rookie. He spent four years in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets and Clippers.

Splitter helped San Antonio win the 2014 NBA championship before spending the final two seasons of his seven-year career with Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nets said Splitter, who also played for Brazil’s national team, will have added duties related to player on-court development.

 

Celtics to get Marcus Smart back for Game 5 Tuesday

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It’s a series that has hinged on defense — Boston has played it well for the majority of five games, bottling up Milwaukee in the halfcourt. The Bucks only played it with real energy at home (and only for about six of the eight quarters the last two games) but when they do they have overwhelmed the Celtics, then converted turnovers and missed shots into transition and early clock opportunities the other way.

For Game 5 Tuesday night, Boston gets its best perimeter defender back — Marcus Smart. He has been out since before the playoffs following thumb surgery last March.

Stevens, via NBC Sports Boston:

“He hasn’t played in six weeks, so it’s hard to say how much (time he will get) but will certainly play,” Stevens said. Stevens said there would not be a minutes restriction on him, but added that the fourth-year guard wasn’t going to play 35 minutes.

Smart is a very good perimeter defender who is very physical and usually assigned to the other team’s best guard (or wing, depending upon the matchup). When Smart was on the court this season, the Celtics allowed less than a point per possession and were 3.6 points per 100 better defensively than when he sat.

Smart likely will get time against Eric Bledsoe and Kris Middleton of the Bucks. Just his presence brings needed depth to the Celtics in what is a critical Game 5 in a series tied 2-2.

Report: Pelicans have discussed offering DeMarcus Cousins less than max over two to three years

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Last month, Anthony Davis said he heard DeMarcus Cousins planned to re-sign with the Pelicans. Cousins was out a torn Achilles, and New Orleans was rolling with Davis playing more center. But New Orleans’ ceiling looked higher with Cousins, and Davis made clear he wanted to keep Cousins – in itself a big deal. More important than keeping Cousins is keeping Davis, which requires keeping Davis happy.

Then, the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers, becoming the lowest seed to sweep a first-round series.

Is everyone still sure Cousins warrants a max contract, which projects to be worth about $176 million over five years?

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Pelicans have broached internally the idea of offering Cousins a two- or three-year deal at less than the max, per sources familiar with the discussions. I would not expect that to go over well with Cousins’ camp. But the Pelicans have the dual leverage of winning without Cousins and a tepid market for him.

Only a half-dozen or so teams have max-level space this season, and most won’t pursue Cousins at that level, sources say.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pelicans leaked this to test the waters. Word will get back to Cousins, and they can gauge how strenuously he objects. If they want, they can deny ever considering this and try to avoid offending Cousins.

But New Orleans has leverage.

It will be a tight market. Many of the teams with significant cap space are young and rebuilding, and they won’t want Cousins’ attitude. Even teams ready to win might not bring him into the locker room. Returning from a torn Achilles – hard for any player – will be especially difficult for the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Cousins.

That said, Cousins has leverage on the Pelicans, too. He’s extremely talented, and players that talented are hard to come by. New Orleans would still essentially be capped out if he walked, left with only the mid-level exception to replace him. Cousins and Davis play well together, and Davis – who can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 – wants Cousins around.

Confronted with a similar situation with Jrue Holiday last summer – capped out and no mechanism to adequately replace him – the Pelicans spent big. But Holiday wasn’t hurt and didn’t have any fit concerns with Davis.

For New Orleans, it’s clearly worth securing the 27-year-old Cousins for the next couple years. The upside is too high. But, especially given the injury, guaranteeing him money into his 30s is undesirable.

On the flip side, Cousins should want long-term security. This might be his last chance to get it.

So, maybe both the Pelicans and Cousins can meet in the middle. But finding that point is never simple.