NBA Season Preview: Atlanta Hawks

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Last season: 44-38, fifth seed in the East. Took out the Orlando Magic in six in the first round, before losing in six to the Chicago Bulls in the second.

Head Coach: Larry Drew

Key Departures: Jamal Crawford is technically still with the Hawks, but several reports have him trying to decide between Portland, the Knicks, or the Kings in free agency.

Key Additions: Tracy McGrady, Vladimir Radmanovic

Best case scenario: The Hawks make another trip to the second round of the playoffs, led by the emergence of Jeff Teague at point guard, along with Al Horford and Josh Smith playing to their strengths instead of to their desires.

Teague played well in last year’s playoff series against the Bulls, and if given the starting nod from day one as expected, should be able to provide some continuity and solid defense at the point guard position. Horford and Smith regressed offensively a season ago, and whether that was due to having to adjust to Larry Drew’s new system or simply preferring to shoot jumpers (and in Smith’s case, three-pointers) will be seen soon enough.

Joe Johnson is the team’s leading scorer, but Atlanta has always had one of the more balanced offenses in the league. He’s capable of increasing his level of production, but only if his bigs can play more traditional roles — at least some of the time — offensively. And the addition of Tracy McGrady, who was serviceable by most accounts last season, should help in that regard off the bench.

For that to happen: Horford and Smith need to use their size, skill, and athleticism in the paint to punish teams down low for easy baskets. That didn’t happen last season, and as pointed out by NBA.com’s StatsCube, it was a big reason the Hawks dropped from third in offensive efficiency the previous season all the way down to 21st a year ago.

If Drew can get them to buy in, Atlanta should go from a below average offensive team to an above average one, which would drastically improve its long-term prospects. The team was middling defensively in the regular season, but managed to slow Dwight Howard and the Magic enough in the playoffs to advance.

More likely the Hawks will: Struggle to be as good as they were last season. Even if the obvious improvements that need to be made are taken into account, the loss of Crawford’s scoring and the expected rise of the Knicks in the East are going to make it tough for Atlanta to remain in that four-to-five seed range. The team’s best hope to compete for fifth is that the Magic trade Dwight Howard for spare parts at some point this season, although at least as of today the Magic appear to be preparing to begin the season with him on the roster.

Prediction: 36-30, fifth place in the East.

Watch Michael Jordan’s best highlight from each of his playoff runs (video)

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I’ve become a sucker for this highlight format.

Jazz deny rumored promise to draft D.J. Wilson

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Michigan forward D.J. Wilson said he’d stay in the draft only if he’d go in the first round. Yet, despite not doing any on-court work at the combine, the borderline first-rounder remained in the draft beyond the withdrawal deadline.

What gives?

Rod Beard of The Detroit News:

Kyle Goon of The Salt Lake Tribune:

NBA teams sometimes promise to draft a player. They never reveal that before the draft. So, Utah’s denial doesn’t mean much – even if it’s true.

The Jazz were the last team to give Wilson a full work out before he injured himself in a Spurs workout. So, this rumor could be based on circumstantial evidence rather than leak of a Utah guarantee.

Wilson would make sense for the Jazz, who could see their payroll bloat if they re-sign Gordon Hayward and George Hill (and maybe even Joe Ingles). They could move Derrick Favors, an interior who doesn’t exactly fit with Rudy Gobert. Wilson would give Utah another option with Trey Lyles as developing stretch fours behind Boris Diaw. (Utah could even move Diaw and count on Lyles/Wilson to emerge sooner than later.)

Watch LeBron James’ top highlight from each of his postseason appearances (video)

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LeBron James and Tony Parker are the only players to play in the last dozen postseasons.

(If you’re wondering, Manu Ginobili missed the 2009 playoffs due to an ankle injury.)

It’s fair to say LeBron was a bit more spectacular than Parker in that span. As LeBron enters his seventh straight Finals, the NBA released this awesome video showing LeBron’s best playoff highlight from each year:

There’s no entry for this year. Here’s betting it comes against the Warriors in the NBA Finals.

David Stern: We thought we could re-work Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade until Mitch Kupchak ‘panicked’

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NBA commissioner David Stern – acting as New Orleans’ owner representative, he says – infamously vetoed a potential Chris Paul-to-Lakers trade in 2011.

But that didn’t close the possibility of Paul going to the Lakers.

The New Orleans Hornets (now the Pelicans and not be confused with the current Charlotte Hornets), Lakers and Rockets tried to rework the three-team trade that would’ve sent Paul to the Lakers, Pau Gasol to Houston and Lamar Odom, Kevin Martin, Luis Scola, Goran Dragic and a first-round pick to New Orleans. But talks fell apart around the time the Lakers dealt Odom to the Mavericks.

Stern on Nunyo & Company (hat tip: Harrison Feigen of Silver Screen & Roll):

In fact, in the course of the weekend, we thought we could re-do the deal. We really thought that Houston would be ready to part with Kevin Lowry, and we had a trade lined up for Odom that would have gotten us a good first-round draft pick – not we, but my basketball folks. But Mitch Kupchak at the time panicked and moved Odom to Dallas. So the piece wasn’t even there for us to play with at the time. So that was it — just about what was good for the then-New Orleans Hornets.

Remember, Stern – roundly criticized for his handling of this episode* – has blamed the Lakers and Rockets for the lingering perception. This could just be him again trying to shift responsibility.

*Somewhat fairly, somewhat not. Owners veto general manager-approved trades often enough, and Stern was acting as New Orleans’ owner after George Shinn sold the franchise back to the league. But Stern had an agenda as commissioner. He never should have assumed such a large conflict of interest. What he did with the Paul trade was reasonable for an acting owner, but because Stern was also commissioner, it’s fair to question how much New Orleans’ interests and how much the league’s interests factored into the decision-making.

But let’s take Stern at his word – that he and the Hornets thought they could re-do the trade and send Paul to the Lakers. That doesn’t mean they were right. Maybe the Lakers and Rockets (who had Kyle Lowry, not the “Kevin Lowry” Stern named) were never going to part with enough to get Stern’s approval.

And maybe New Orleans didn’t properly convey its interest in still completing a deal. Perhaps, Kupchak acted reasonably by trading Odom to Dallas – for a first-round pick, a deal Mark Cuban would ultimately regret – rather than wait around for the Hornets, who eventually sent Paul to the Clippers.

It’s easy to blame Kupchak, but he might tell a different story.