Josh Smith

NBA Season Preview: Atlanta Hawks

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Last season: Just another Hawks season.

That’s the best way to put it after a year where despite losing Al Horford for the vast majority of the season, Atlanta managed to land a top four seed in the East. They had this bizarro season underneath the headline of “Boring.”

They would look awesome one night, as Josh Smith played at an elite level, and the team really gelled for long stretches. But then they would hit national TV and things would happen like the Heat not playing the Big 3 and still beating the Hawks, at home. It was like they were intentionally trying to look horrible at home.

Everyone was tired of the Hawks by season’s end. The inconsistent play, the isolation offense, the general blaise. The fans, the media, no one cared about them. They were supposed to lose in the first round, and they did.

But snuck under the talk of Ray Allen’s injury and Paul Pierce battling an MCL sprain along with a one-game suspension for Rajon Rondo was this: the Hawks played Boston tight. They were in that series, but the emotional lift from losing Rajon Rondo put a fire under the Celtics, and when they come out like that, they’re extremely difficult to beat. Meanhwhile, the Hawks’ bigest advantage against the Celtics was their size… and yet Horford took a few games to get back and then wasn’t 100 percent, and Zaza Pachulia, who always causes the Celtics issues, wasn’t around at all.

It was the kind of misfortune that creates a facade of failure. The Hawks were better than most people thought they were, but never good enough to matter, still.

Something had to change.

Key Departures: Joe Johnson has been an All-Star six times. Straight. Most people don’t really catch that, but it’s true. And Danny Ferry happily traded him for almost nothing after he took over the team as GM.

Johnson is an elite defender and at times can be a great scorer, but he’s also heavy on the isolation and not as efficient as he once was. Most importantly, the Hawks threw a max contract at him to keep him in 2010 that the Nets will be paying for at roughly the cost of the GDP of a small nation.

Ferry moved Marvin Williams to clear even more space, getting one of the most disappointing draft picks in team history and getting the memory out of people’s minds.

Jerry Stackhouse was let go, and Willie Green released in a sign-and-trade. Jason Collins was a very useful center the past two years but he also was not retained in free agency. Vlad Radmanovic, AKA VladRad, AKA Space Cadet, went to the Bulls.

Key Additions: In return for Johnson, Ferry took Anthony Morrow, DeShawn Stevenson, and some filler, most of which has been waived or won’t see much time this season. The idea was clear. Create space from a team with none by any means necessary. Adding Morrow does give them a crack shooter, however.

He traded for Kyle Korver to add yet another shooter to a team that had very little last year and now has a ton.

For Williams, Ferry landed Devin Harris, giving him a capable backup point guard behind Teague, or a replacement if Teague doesn’t make the required leap.

The team signed Anthony Tolliver as a free agent to give them another stretch four and brought in Lou Williams to replace Willie Green.

They drafted John Jenkins who showed a lot of promise in Summer League.

Three keys to the Hawks season:
1) All-The-Time Teague: I’ve started referencing the phrase “Playoff Teague” the past two years because Jeff Teague is an entirely different player when the playoffs begin than during the regular season. He makes bigger shots, plays faster and harder, and blows you away with his athleticism and big-play ability. So why doesn’t he do that throughout the year? Why did he so often lose his job to Kirk Hinrich when Hinrich was healthy?

Teague has to become a consistent star this season, not something that’s easy for point guards in a point-guard dominant league. He has better shooters to drive and kick to, and will have a lot more freedom in the offense now that ISOJoe is working in Brooklyn. But Teague stil has to take every game as crucial and really lead this team. They can’t afford to just care about the big games, because they’re not going to win a lot of them with this crew.

Teague has to convince himself every game is on the big stage.

2) Is Josh Smith ready to be the guy? Josh Smith is in a contract year. He’s been passed over for All-Star spots despite being more than deserving, has been ridiculed for his penchant to take long-twos, and largely overlooked. He’s also played out of his mind the past two seasons.

Without Johnson, this is Josh Smith’s team. Al Horford will play a big role. Jeff Teague will direct the offense. But this is Josh Smith’s team now. He has to be more efficient, take a bigger load, and be willing to act as more of the finisher than set-up guy.

And, as always, stop with the long twos. For the love. The man is dominant in the post. This mid-range tyranny must end.

3) Will Drew open up the offense? He has a lightning-fast point guard who can drive and dish. He’s got a set of dominant post players in Horford and Smith. He’s got shooters galore with Morrow, Korver, and others.

But Larry Drew has stuck to the grind-it-out offense that kept his team mired in the mud. The team has athleticism and skill, and needs ball movement. There are no Kobe Bryants on this team, no LeBron James. But they have speciality players who can play well in their roles. This team may only go as far as Drew lets them. There has to be some imagination and push in the way the offense is set.

What Hawks fans should fear: Smith’s not elite. And without that, this team could fall prey to the “good enough to not be terrible, not good enough to do anything of note.” But then again, that’s where they’ve been for three years, so really what’s the difference?

The Hawks are moving towards an all-out rebuild eventually. This is the year in-between. But if the opportunity to snag a lottery pick comes available, bet that the Hawks will jump on it. Ferry knows he needs a new, legit star. He won’t hesitate to go get it via the draft.

How it likely works out: The Hawks could honestly wind up making the playoffs. They have good skill players, some athleticism, a good to great defensive coach and shooters. But they lack in total star power, we don’t know what Horford will look like after injury, whether Josh Smith will buy in, if Teague will make the leap, if Drew will open the offense up.

The Hawks won’t be terrible, but they may not be good either. This is one where we have to see what happens when you put all the ingredients in the oven.

And again, don’t discount the possibility of a midseason tank job. Ferry knows the long-term game here.

Prediction: 43-39, they’ll be right there for the eighth seed. Atlanta has a good set of players but not enough to be in the elite category. A long losing streak could be followed by a long winning streak, and much will depend on the health of their shooters. But Drew coaches defense so well, and Teague-Smith-Horford is enough to carry them to at least .500.

‘It’s eating me alive:’ DeMarcus Cousins again leading Kings’ longshot playoff push

Sacramento Kings forward DeMarcus Cousins, right, drives against Memphis Grizzlies center Marc Gasol (33) during the second half of an NBA basketball game Friday, Jan. 20, 2017, in Memphis, Tenn. (AP Photo/Brandon Dill)
AP Photo/Brandon Dill
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When the Kings drafted DeMarcus Cousins, he named his rookie goals: “Get to the playoffs, go for the championship.” But the NBA humbled the young player, as Sacramento went just 24-58 and missed the postseason for the fifth straight year. Cousins emerged for his second season resolute on a more-modest goal: “Playoffs. We’ve got to make the playoffs this year. It’s not even a goal. It’s basically in our contract, I believe. So, we’ve got to make the playoffs this year.”

Five seasons later, Cousins is still chasing that elusive postseason trip.

“It’s eating me alive,” Cousins said. “Every loss or every time another team wins in battling for the eighth spot, it’s eating me alive. Our only goal is to be in the playoffs this season.”

A depressing chase for the No. 8 seed in the Western Conference, where every team in the race is at least seven games under .500, has opened the door for the 17-27 Kings. They’re 1.5 games and three teams out of playoff position – a more daunting challenge than often realized. Not only must they play better, they must hope a couple teams ahead of them don’t also heat up. 538 gives Sacramento just a 5% chance of reaching the postseason, and ESPN is even more pessimistic at 3.8%.

Beginning his career with seven straight lottery trips would be another crushing blow to Cousins, who has built a credible case as the NBA’s best center. Greg Monroe is the only current player with more win shares who hasn’t reached the playoffs:

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Nobody nears Cousins besides Monroe, and the next-closest player, Jazz center Rudy Gobert, likely makes the playoffs this year. Monroe leads in win shares, because he entered the league more polished than Cousins and built a head start (and because this stat probably inflates’ Monroe’s contributions relative to Cousins’.) Monroe has never neared Cousins’ peak, and Monroe is now a backup for the Bucks. The only thing second-team about Cousins is his two All-NBA appearances.

Kevin Love is the only other player since the NBA-ABA merger to make multiple All-NBA teams before his first playoff season. He, of course, left the Timberwolves for the Cavaliers to escape lists like these.

On the other hand, there have been indications from both sides Cousins will soon sign a veteran-designated-player contract extension projected to be worth more than $219 million over five years. Staying in Sacramento and playing for owner Vivek Ranadive seems like the surest bet to keep Cousins’ postseason drought active.

Cousins already ranks in the top 25 all-time in win shares before a player’s first playoff season (which doesn’t count this season, because playoff teams aren’t yet determined):

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Cousins has 5.2 win shares this season and counting. Missing the playoffs again would launch him into the top 10 of this dubious list – and he could keep climbing.

Not only do the Kings face daunting odds to reach the postseason this year, it’s difficult to project them into the playoffs for the foreseeable future. Years of roster mismanagement have taken a toll.

Since drafting Cousins, Sacramento has held top-10 picks every year. Those have netted on draft night: Jimmer Fredette, John Salmons, Thomas Robinson, Ben McLemore, Nik Stauskas, Willie Cauley-Stein, Georgios Papagiannis, Skal Labissiere and Bogdan Bogdanovic – who’ve combined for a measly 2.2 win shares this season. And most of those win shares come from Stauskas and Robinson, who no longer play for the Kings.

In fact, Stauskas was sent out in a disastrous trade that gives the 76ers swap rights on Sacramento’s 2017 first-rounder* and Sacramento’s unprotected 2019 first-rounder.

*The Kings’ first-round pick must fall in the top to be swap-eligible. Otherwise, it goes to the Bulls, the result of another botched trade.

Sacramento has also recently struck out on major free agents and then settled for Arron Afflalo, Kosta Koufos, Anthony Tolliver, Garrett Temple, Matt Barnes and Ty Lawson. That adds up to one mediocre supporting cast.

Meanwhile, Cousins is better than ever. He has taken a larger offensive burden, including as a distributor and suddenly dangerous 3-point shooter, while cutting down his turnover rate. Defenders are often overmatched, and they foul him more than anyone in the league. And while Cousins’ defense comes and goes, it can be quite impressive while he’s locked in.

The result is a team that plays at a 41-win pace with Cousins on the floor and a 17-win pace when he sits, continuing a disparity seen over the last few years. Hera are the Kings win paces over 82 games with Cousins on (purple) and off (black):

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Obviously, teams generally play better with their stars and starters on the court, and Cousins is a star who usually shares the court with other starters. But this gap is particularly egregious, and Cousins’ fellow starters have underwhelmed.

So, more and more falls on Cousins’ shoulders.

Playing for his sixth head coach and third general manager in seven seasons, Cousins sets the tone for the Kings, for better or worse. He plays with a unique rage, sneering resentfully at anyone who gets in his way on the court – like players trying to defend him or referees, gasp, calling a foul on him. He leads the league with 12 technical fouls and is on pace to get (at least) 16 and an automatic suspension, which he also triggered last year.

His highs are incredibly high and his lows are unnecessarily low.

That moodiness has frustrated coaches and teammates, but it also sometimes works himself and his teammates into a productive frenzy. Sacramento usually plays passionately, which is both to its credit and a sign of a talent scarcity considering the team still loses so frequently.

“I’m still confident,” Cousins said, “and I still believe we’re going to make that push for the playoffs.”

For the last few years, Cousins has looked unstoppable while the Kings have been quite easily stoppable. He’s trying to drag the franchise up with him, but optimism and desire might not be enough. At a certain point we must ask: What more can Cousins do?

Russell Westbrook keeps trying to show up Rudy Gobert

Oklahoma City Thunder guard Russell Westbrook (0) goes to the basket as Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert (27) defends in the second quarter during a NBA basketball game Monday, Jan. 23, 2017, in Salt Lake City. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer)
AP Photo/Rick Bowmer
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Jazz center Rudy Gobert is having an awesome season, credibly putting himself in the mix with Anthony Davis, DeMarcus Cousins and Marc Gasol as the NBA’s best big men.

But that doesn’t mean Russell Westbrook respects him.

Before the Thunder’s win over Utah yesterday, Westbrook was asked how Oklahoma City would contain Gobert. Westbrook just laughed and walked off.

Fred Katz of The Norman Transcript:

Then, in the game, Westbrook tried to jump right over the 7-foot-1 Gobert and dunk on him:

I would say Gobert proved his ability by successfully protecting the paint, but I’m just too astounded by Westbrook’s leap.

Zaza Pachulia, running up court, turns back to smack Luke Babbitt in face (video)

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Is Zaza Pachulia a dirty player?

That debate can be rekindled after the Warriors center earned this flagrant foul for smacking Heat forward Luke Babbitt.

Just don’t forget: Pachulia is more than an unskilled enforcer. He brings plenty to the table as Golden State’s fifth starter, and his ability was on display earlier in the game:

Three Hawks lose uncontested rebound out of bounds (video)

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How did Mike Scott, Mike Dunleavy and Malcolm Delaney fail to secure this rebound?

No wonder the Hawks lost to a Clippers team playing without Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.