ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The Atlanta Hawks

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Last season: It was the end of an era. Josh Smith’s final season in Atlanta ended the only way it really could: with plenty of ill-advised shot attempts, tons of highlight-reel plays, and probably most importantly, another early playoff exit. After a first round loss to the Indiana Pacers in six games, it was fair to yet again classify the Hawks as a very good team that just didn’t have enough weapons to hang with the league’s elite in the postseason.

Signature highlight from last season: Jeff Teague summons Spud Webb. Nastiness ensues.

Key player changes:

IN: Paul Millsap (Jazz), Elton Brand (Mavs), Dennis Schroeder (17th pick), DeMarre Carroll (Jazz), Gustavo Ayon (Bucks),  James Johnson (Kings), Jared Cunningham (Mavs), Damien Wilkins (76ers), Pero Antic (Greece).

OUT: Josh Smith (Pistons), Devin Harris (Mavs), Ivan johnson (China), Dahntay Jones (Bulls), Zaza Pachulia (Bucks), Johan Petro (China), Anthony Tolliver (Bobcats), Deshawn Stevenson.

Paul Millsap should be able to replicate Josh Smith’s offensive numbers with shots from smarter locations, but replacing Smith’s rim protection and defensive abilities will be a much tougher task. To help Millsap out on that end, the Hawks brought in quality defenders like Brand and Carroll to help fill the void. Schroeder, meanwhile, should quickly cement himself as one of the best on-ball defenders in basketball. He’s a weapon in the mold of Avery Bradley defensively.

Although Smith was a highly underrated passer, Hawks GM Danny Ferry made sure to bring in big men highly capable of operating from the high post, which should be a great fit if new head coach Mike Budenholzer’s offensive system resembles what the Spurs ran while he was in San Antonio.

Keys to Atlanta’s season:

1. Can San Antonio’s blueprint work in Atlanta?

The Hawks have moved on from a period defined by stagnation to become “Spurs East” with Ferry and Budenholzer at the helm. Financial flexibility has been at the heart of most of the major decisions thus far, but the Hawks have still managed to do a fantastic job molding a team in the Spurs vision on the fly. Jeff Teague’s raw speed and ability to score in the paint with floaters is reminiscent of Tony Parker, and Al Horford’s bankable production and reliable 18-footer are a little Tim Duncan-esque. You don’t have to strain much to see the similarities.

It’s no wonder why after 17 seasons under Gregg Popovich, this was the team and situation Budenholzer left the nest for. The Hawks have the shooting with Kyle Korver and John Jenkins to spread the floor for their multi-talented big men, which could make this offense dynamic — particularly if sixth man Lou Williams comes back healthy off a torn ACL.

2. Can the Hawks defend well enough to take down the beasts of the East?

The East is littered with great defensive teams like Chicago, Indiana, and Miami. Will the Hawks defend well enough to approach that level of play? Ferry loaded up on intelligent players this offseason, but there will certainly be challenges on the defensive end. Can Millsap help protect the rim? Can the wings (Korver, Jenkins, Williams) close out against shooters after finishing 28th in three-point percentage allowed last year?

The Hawks did finish 10th in defensive efficiency last season, but the system this year will have to be greater than the sum of its parts. Depending on size and athleticism to clean up the messes simply won’t cut it anymore.

3. Can Jeff Teague make the big leap?

With the ball in his hands more than ever before, Jeff Teague enjoyed the best season of his career with averages of nearly 15 points and 7 assists a game. Is an even bigger breakout year on the horizon?

If you believe in the Parker comparison, the answer is yes. Through four years, Teague has put up nearly an identical PER as Parker did (15.6 to 15.5) along with a better true shooting percentage and a better assist percentage. Parker really blew up in his fifth season, however, earning his first All-Star bid while shooting a ridiculous 54.8 percent from the field.

Asking that of Teague is a little much, but the dynamite young point guard could be in line for a big leap this year. For the Hawks to really contend in the East, they’ll need it.

Why you should watch the Hawks: Korver’s jumper belongs in a textbook, Millsap and Horford’s post passing will be a treat, Teague’s crazy athleticism will make for plenty of highlights, and Schroder’s minutes will be must see TV. The Spurs play beautiful basketball, and so should the Hawks. If you get only five League Pass teams this year, make the Hawks one of them and thank me later.

Prediction: 49-33. This is an extremely intelligent basketball team that should be able to recognize and account for shortcomings elsewhere. With solid depth, good specialists, and a core that could be in line for big improvements in a new system that should better accentuate specific skills, I’m bullish on the Hawks improving from their 44 wins last season.

LaVar Ball rants about female referee after his AAU team forfeits another game

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Remember when LaVar Ball – father of Lakers rookie Lonzo Ball – pulled his AAU team off the court and forfeited a game it was winning?

In a twist nobody could have ever predicted, LaVar apparently relished the attention that garnered and again sparred with referees today at the Adidas Summer Championships.

First, LaVar received a technical foul from a female referee. A lengthy stoppage followed, and LaVar apparently threatened to remove his team from the court. The referee was replaced mid-game, and play resumed.

Then, LaVar received a second technical foul. He apparently refused to leave, so the referees called the game.

Afterward, LaVar addressed the situation. Via ESPN:

LaVar:

She got a vendetta, because she’s a woman who’s trying to act – I get that she’s trying to break into the refereeing thing. But just giving techs and calling fouls, that’s no way to do it. I know what she’s trying to say: “I gave him a tech. I’m strong.” That ain’t got nothing to do with it. Just call the game. If you’re going to be qualified, you better be in shape, and you better know the game. And she’s bad on both of them. She not in shape. She not calling the game right. And she don’t understand. So, now she’s trying to make a name for herself. So, she walking around like, “You know I’m the only woman in here.” Yeah, we get it. I don’t care if you’re a woman or a man or whatever. Just be good at what you do. Don’t try to step in the lane – she need to stay in her lane, because ain’t ready for this. Coach the little kids first and then come up. Because she ain’t did enough. She ain’t got enough on her résumé. I can tell.

I don’t know whether LaVar is sexist, but he keeps coming across as sexist.

This saga puts a dent in Lakers president Magic Johnson’s theory that LaVar is truly focused on training young players and NBA commissioner Adam Silver’s theory that LaVar would settle down once Lonzo got drafted.

Lonzo’s talent demands dealing with LaVar, who wouldn’t be the first parent of an NBA player to be difficult. But it seems LaVar might be a bigger sideshow than the Lakers bargained for. They ought to be wary of that affecting them – if it hasn’t already.

Heat: We didn’t offer Cavaliers trade for Kyrie Irving

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The Heat were among the six (or more) teams that have submitted a trade offer to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Fake news, says Miami.

Barry Jackson of the Miami Herald:

Teams rarely go on the record to correct reports like this. Why did Miami do it here? It might have something to do with Pat Riley’s feelings toward LeBron James.

Other incentives are more clear. The Cavs want to showcase interest they’re receiving in Irving. The Heat want to protect their players from handling trade rumors.

Whether the Heat submitted a formal offer barely matters, anyway. They could’ve offered Goran Dragic straight up for Kyrie Irving. Cleveland wouldn’t have accepted that, anyway. Nobody has published specifics of any Irving offers, so it’s unclear any are viable.

Miami is willing to deal Dragic and Justise Winslow for Irving, per the same report from Wojnarowski. Again, whether the Heat offered that pair for Irving or just acknowledged that they would is splitting hairs. That shouldn’t be enough for the Cavs.

Bottom line: The Heat probably won’t trade for Irving. Whether they made an offer, planned to make an offer or just discussed parameters so far is a fight over imaging. It’s nearly irrelevant to whether the teams eventually complete a trade for Irving.

Kyrie Irving could become one of youngest stars ever to change teams

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Kyrie Irving knows, as well as anyone, the value of being an All-Star – how the status validates on-court performance, sells shoes and can be flipped for even more exposure. Irving is comfortable in that environment, promoting his brand at four All-Star weekends already and winning All-Star game MVP in 2014 in New Orleans.

He was back in New Orleans for this year’s All-Star game when he was asked to name his all-time All-Star team.

Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com:

As Irving announced his team — he was responding to a question — he said “I’d put MJ at the 1, Kobe at the 2, Ray Allen at the 3, gotta space it out, got to have a spot up 4, so I’m probably going to go with KG, he’s going to rim-run, do the dirty work. I’d put Shaq at the 5.”

What about LeBron?

Irving, via Vardon:

“Yeah, yeah, yeah well, I mean, he (James) understands,” Irving told cleveland.com, as he walked off the podium.

Foreshadowing? Perhaps.

Irving has requested a trade from the Cavaliers, reportedly to escape LeBron’s shadow.

But take a step back from Irving’s answer, and his mere presence in New Orleans for All-Star – again, already – foretold immense demand in the trade market.

Irving is just 25 and a four-time All-Star. Only two players have reached so many All-Star games and changed teams while as young as Irving is now: Shaquille O’Neal and Tracy McGrady.

Here’s every All-Star to switch teams before turning 26 and their age when the transaction occurred, Irving included for reference as if he were dealt today:

Player All-Star berths Year From To Age
Jrue Holiday 1 2013 PHI NOP 23 years, 1 month, 0 days
Terry Dischinger 2 1964 BAL DET 23 years, 6 months, 28 days
Jason Kidd 1 1996 DAL PHO 23 years, 9 months, 3 days
Ray Felix 1 1954 BLB NYK 23 years, 9 months, 7 days
Jamaal Wilkes 1 1977 GSW LAL 24 years, 2 months, 9 days
Shaquille O’Neal 4 1996 ORL LAL 24 years, 4 months, 12 days
Stephon Marbury 1 2001 NJN PHO 24 years, 4 months, 28 days
Don Sunderlage 1 1954 MLH MNL 24 years, 8 months, 29 days
Mel Hutchins 1 1953 MLH FTW 24 years, 9 months, 1 day
Andrew Bynum 1 2012 LAL PHI 24 years, 9 months, 14 days
Tracy McGrady 4 2004 ORL HOU 25 years, 1 month, 5 days
Chris Webber 1 1998 WAS SAC 25 years, 2 months, 13 days
Bob McAdoo 3 1976 BUF NYK 25 years, 2 months, 14 days
Billy Knight 1 1977 IND BUF 25 years, 2 months, 23 days
Len Chappell 1 1966 NYK CHI 25 years, 3 months, 0 days
Len Chappell 1 1966 CHI CIN 25 years, 9 months, 25 days
Kenny Anderson 1 1996 NJN CHA 25 years, 3 months, 10 days
Kenny Anderson 1 1996 CHA POR 25 years, 9 months, 14 days
Butch Beard 1 1972 CLE SEA 25 years, 3 months, 19 days
Frank Selvy 1 1958 STL MNL 25 years, 3 months, 7 days
Kyrie Irving 4 2017 CLE ? 25 years, 4 months, 5 days
Otis Birdsong 3 1981 KCK NJN 25 years, 5 months, 30 days
LeBron James 6 2010 CLE MIA 25 years, 6 months, 10 days
John Johnson 1 1973 CLE POR 25 years, 6 months, 6 days
Frank Selvy 1 1958 MNL STL 25 years, 7 months, 22 days
Sean Elliott 1 1993 SAS DET 25 years, 7 months, 29 days
Dennis Johnson 2 1980 SEA PHO 25 years, 8 months, 17 days
Alonzo Mourning 2 1995 CHA MIA 25 years, 8 months, 26 days
Andrew Bynum 1 2013 PHI CLE 25 years, 8 months, 22 days
Baron Davis 2 2005 NOH GSW 25 years, 10 months, 11 days
Bernard King 1 1982 GSW NYK 25 years, 10 months, 18 days
Vin Baker 3 1997 MIL SEA 25 years, 10 months, 2 days
Kiki VanDeWeghe 2 1984 DEN POR 25 years, 10 months, 6 days
Frank Selvy 1 1958 STL NYK 25 years, 11 months, 13 days
Kevin Love 3 2014 MIN CLE 25 years, 11 months, 16 days
Mike Mitchell 1 1981 CLE SAS 25 years, 11 months, 22 days

Irving didn’t sneak into only one All-Star game like Jrue Holiday and Andrew Bynum. Irving is a near-perennial selection.

And unlike several players on the above list, he’s also doing it in era where there are more NBA teams than All-Star spots. In the 60s, when the league was smaller, NBA teams averaged more than two All-Stars each.

Irving is under contract for two more years before he can opt out, and his salaries – and $18,868,626 and $20,099,189 – became bargains when the new national TV contracts caused the salary cap to skyrocket.

The timing of Irving’s trade request becoming public has certainly contributed to the frenzy, as other NBA storylines have quieted for the summer. LeBron’s enormous profile also draws attention to anything involving him and his team.

But players like Irving – young established stars – rarely become available. No matter when this story leaked or whom Irving was playing with, this is a special opportunity for whichever team acquires him.

Andrew Wiggins says he’s worth ‘nothing less’ than max contract extension

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I’d hesitate to offer Andrew Wiggins the full max on a contract extension.

He would not.

Ben Golliver of Sports Illustrated:

While Wiggins said that he is taking a “day by day” approach to the contract discussions, he didn’t waver when asked whether he was worthy of a max contract, which could reach $148 million over five years with a starting salary of $25.5 million. “I definitely do,” Wiggins told The Crossover. “Nothing less.”

File this under: What else is he supposed to say? The two big questions:

1. Would Wiggins accept less than the max?

He might feel he’s worth it, but there’s value in security.

The Timberwolves could offer less now, knowing he couldn’t leave in restricted free agency next summer. There’s risk he signs a shorter contract next summer, but there’s also risk in overpaying Wiggins now.

Of course, Wiggins might get offered a max extension, anyway. But if not, he’ll have to decide whether he’d rather guarantee himself life-altering money or roll the dice on even more.

2. Would Wiggins’ extension kick in with Minnesota or Cleveland? Though the Timberwolves are negotiating with him, they could still trade him – even after he signs the extension – to the Cavaliers for Kyrie Irving. Minnesota is a known suitor of the point guard, and Wiggins makes sense in a potential trade.