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.

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.