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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.

51Q: Can Dave Joerger get DeMarcus Cousins, rest of Kings on same page?

OAKLAND, CA - APRIL 13:  Head coach David Joerger of the Memphis Grizzlies looks on during the game against the Golden State Warriors at ORACLE Arena on April 13, 2016 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season. Today:

Can Dave Joerger get DeMarcus Cousins, rest of Kings on the same page?

This season is a crossroads in Sacramento.

In two weeks the Kings will play their first preseason game in the beautiful new downtown building that kept the Kings in Sacramento. It’s the season that owner Vivek Ranadive desperately wants to see end with a trip to the playoffs — it would be the first time the Kings made the postseason in 10 years. It is the season the Kings need to show that they are developing a basketball culture that can win, which matters because it is the last chance to convince their All-NBA, gold medal winning center DeMarcus Cousins that this is a franchise headed in the right direction and he should want to stay. (Cousins is a free agent in the summer of 2018, if the Kings can’t get a commitment from him after this season the team has to consider trading him;, they can’t afford to lose him for nothing.)

That’s a lot on the shoulders of new coach Dave Joerger.

Considering the roster he was given, and the timeline to meet, maybe too much.

Joerger was brought in to work with GM Vlade Divac and turn the Kings from a laughingstock organization to something respectable — a team that wins consistently. The kind of franchise where it’s star player doesn’t tweet things out on draft night about how much he hates the picks (but sure, he tweeted about hot yoga).

Joerger had a lot of success in Memphis building on the “grit and grind” culture that Lionel Hollins had established. He’s a strong Xs and Os coach who puts players in good positions, playing to their strengths. Joerger had good relationships with some challenging personalities on that Grizzlies roster (Tony Allen, Matt Barnes, Zach Randolph, Marc Gasol at times, and others). It’s why Sacramento wanted him, management saw someone who could handle their roster and start building a culture.

A new coach in a new building for a new day.

Joerger seems to have passed the one big summer test — he and Cousins get along. At least so far, before Joerger calls him out on a missed defensive assignment or gets in his face over effort getting back in transition. This summer Joerger has been seen golfing and speaking with Cousins, trying to build a bond between himself and the elite center who is not always trusting of coaches. To put it kindly. At least this summer we have seen no snake in the grass tweets from Cousins, it’s been all good.

Cousins is coming off winning an Olympic gold, and while he never figured out FIBA officiating — which is not all on him, FIBA officials have all the consistency of Jim Carrey’s acting career — players coming out of the ultra-competitive, high-level Team USA practices and environment often have one of their best seasons.

The Kings are going to need that from Cousins, and a culture from Joerger that catches on quickly, because they have some other serious hurdles to overcome this season if they are dreaming of the playoffs.

• Their starting point guard is Darren Collison, and the Kings were better with him on the court last season than Rajon Rondo. Collison looks for his own shot first but is an efficient scorer who can get into the lane or hit the three. This all sounds good except for one problem: He is going to be suspended to start the season. Collison pled guilty to a domestic violence charge and the last player to do that was suspended 24 games (Charlotte’s Jeff Taylor). That’s a quarter of the season where Ty Lawson and Jordan Farmar (with maybe some Garrett Temple) will run the point for the Kings, and that is a considerable step down.

• Their starting three is Rudy Gay, an inefficient isolation scorer who loves to shoot from the midrange — a guy who doesn’t fit in the modern NBA. And a player who has said he is leaving as a free agent at the end of the season, so the Kings are shopping him around. That will be a distraction.

• Can a bench of Kosta Koufos, Omri Casspi, Matt Barnes, Anthony Tolliver and a few others keep the team close in a deep Western Conference?

And that’s not even getting into the questions of Willie Cauley-Stein‘s fit, Ben McLemore‘s development, Skal Labissiere‘s development (I think he could become a quality stretch four next to Cousins in a couple of years), why Georgios Papagiannis was drafted that high (a Cousins’ replacement?), or what Arron Afflalo has left in the tank?.

I believe Joerger can build the kind of culture and — with some roster tweaks — team that can make the playoffs and start to turn things around in Sacramento. But it is going to take one thing:

Patience.

Which has never been owner Ranadive’s strong suit. Last time he had a coach who got along well with Cousins and understood how to build a culture, Ranadive fired him mid-season because Cousins got sick and the owner wanted a faster style of play.

Plus, the Kings don’t have much time to win Cousins over, assuming that can still be done (the conventional wisdom around the league is that it is too late and he is gone, the only question is how much the Kings get in return). Sacramento is not going to make a rash decision here, they are going to keep Cousins in Sacramento the full season in the new building and work to make him want to stay. But next summer, if there is no commitment from him, the team has no choice, it needs to get something for him before he walks.

I see the Kings as a 35-win team this season, give or take a couple. About where they were a year ago, but with a foundation being put in place for the future.

That may not be enough, or at least fast enough.

It’s a lot to ask of Joerger. He’s walked into maybe the most challenging coaching job in the NBA. Good luck.

Pelicans sign D-League Rookie of the Year Quinn Cook

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With Jrue Holiday away from the team and Tyreke Evans and Quincy Pondexter both hurt, the Pelicans need help on the perimeter.

The latest candidate to provide it: Quinn Cook.

Pelicans release:

The New Orleans Pelicans today announced that the team has signed free agent guard Quinn Cook.

Cook went undrafted last year after a four-year career at Duke then went to the D-League, where he won Rookie of the Year, went to the All-Star game and made all-league third team. It was an encouraging start to his pro career.

Despite having 15 players ( the regular-season roster limit) with guaranteed salaries, the Pelicans keep attracting players – including Lance Stephenson – to training camp on unguaranteed or barely guaranteed deals. I wonder whether New Orleans has assured anyone it would open a roster spot somehow. If so, Cook has a real chance to claim it.

Jrue Holiday’s wife gives birth to healthy daughter, according to Anthony Davis

NEW ORLEANS, LA - OCTOBER 31:  Jrue Holiday #11 of the New Orleans Pelicans handles the ball during a game against the Golden State Warriors at the Smoothie King Center on October 31, 2015 in New Orleans, Louisiana. 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 Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Jrue Holiday took a leave of absence from the Pelicans to be with his wife, who was pregnant and had a brain tumor.

Good news: Lauren Holiday gave birth, according to Anthony Davis.

Davis, via Justin Verrier of ESPN:

“She had a baby girl, so she’s doing fine,” Davis said at the Pelicans’ media day. “Now it’s time to get Lauren back on track.”

The next step is Lauren Holiday undergoing surgery to remove her tumor, which was always slated to occur after she gave birth. Hopefully, that goes as smoothly.

Pat Riley believes Chris Bosh’s career is over: ‘We are not working toward his return’

Miami Heat players Josh Richardson, left, Chris Bosh, center, and Tyler Johnson, right, look up as they watch a video replay during the final seconds of the second half in Game 5 of an NBA basketball playoffs first-round series against the Charlotte Hornets, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, in Miami. The Hornets defeated the Heat 90-88. (AP Photo/Wilfredo Lee)
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When the Heat and Chris Bosh reached détente during last year’s playoffs, the team released a statement saying both sides would continue working together to get him playing again.

After not clearing Bosh for training camp due to lingering blood-clot issues, Miami is pulling its support from that joint mission.

Tim Reynolds of the Associated Press:

There were reports the Heat believed Bosh is finished. Saying they’re no longer working toward getting him back on the court is blunt as can be.

I believe Riley cares about Bosh. Bosh has spent six years with Miami, become a part of the community, sacrificed his game when called upon, acted professionally and helped the Heat win two championships. He remained an excellent player when his blood-clotting became a problem, and losing his production would be a major blow. I believe there was and is genuine concern about Bosh’s health.

But to act as if the cap ramifications never crossed management’s mind is absurd. To review the situation:

Bosh has three years and $75,868,170 remaining on his contract. The Heat could waive him and have his remaining salary excluding from their team salary on Feb. 9, 2017 – one year from his last game – if he doesn’t play between now and then and a doctor determines he has suffered a career-ending injury or illness.

That doctor, selected jointly by the NBA and players union would have to determine Bosh “has an injury or illness that (i) prevents him from playing skilled professional basketball at an NBA level for the duration of his career, or (ii) substantially impairs his ability to play skilled professional basketball at an NBA level and is of such severity that continuing to play professional basketball at an NBA level would subject the player to medically unacceptable risk of suffering a life-threatening or permanently disabling injury or illness.” II would be the likely route here.

Bosh would still be paid if waived, but the doctor’s determination is the only way for Miami to get his salary off its books. That could open considerable cap space in 2017

Bosh never playing again would be bad for the Heat. Bosh getting waived then proving the doctors wrong and playing 25 games elsewhere would be worse for the Heat, because that would put his salary back on the their cap – though Miami could use the cap space in the 2017 offseason first. That’s why an even worse scenario for the Heat is Bosh playing sporadically and ineffectively between blood-clot problems over the next three years, continuing to count against the cap and putting his health at risk the entire time.

If the Heat can’t get a fully productive Bosh back, they might just want to get his salary off the books. The quickest way to do that is ensure he plays no games before Feb. 9.

Maybe Bosh shouldn’t play again. Playing on blood-thinners, according to most doctors, is dangerous. The common recommendation is for Bosh to remain on blood-thinners after his second episode.

But the cap ramifications are unavoidably part of the considerations now. If it gets to that point, the opinion of the jointly selected doctor will be huge. The Heat can’t unilaterally declare Bosh done.

And Bosh certainly isn’t declaring himself done, which puts him at odds with his team. There’s no more working together.

It’s now Heat vs. Bosh with several potential outcomes in play.