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.

Devin Booker forces OT with deep turnaround buzzer-beating 3-pointer, but Bucks beat Suns (video)

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I’m not sure who benefited from Devin Booker‘s buzzer-beating, overtime-forcing 3-pointer. The Suns still lost to the Bucks, 113-107. The extra five minutes featured more of the same relatively bad basketball we’d seen between Phoenix (bad) and Milwaukee (shorthanded) through 48 minutes.

But darn if this shot wasn’t really cool and clutch.

Three Things to Know: Angry Russell Westbrook sparks Thunder against Warriors

Associated Press
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Every day in the NBA there is a lot to unpack, so every weekday morning throughout the season we will give you the three things you need to know from the last 24 hours in the NBA. As a matter of housekeeping, this will be the last Three Things of this week, as we take a holiday break. Happy Thanksgiving!

1) Angry Russell Westbrook sparks Thunder we’ve been waiting for. Don’t make Russell Westbrook angry. You wouldn’t like him when he’s angry.

Unless you’re a Thunder fan, then you’ll love him. Westbrook came out with an edge we haven’t seen from him this season as he has tried to play nice and integrate Paul George and Carmelo Anthony. Not Wednesday night. Wednesday night Kevin Durant and his Warriors came to town, and Westbrook was not taking it from anyone.

That sparked the Thunder team we have been waiting for all season. Westbrook finished with 34 points, 10 rebounds, 9 assists, and he was joined by Anthony with 22 points, and George with 20 points, 11 rebounds, and 4 steals. The Thunder used a 22-10 first-quarter run to take the lead and never looked back, leading by 26 at one point and going on to win 108-91. This was by far the best the Thunder have looked all season as they have stumbled to a 7-9 start before Wednesday. Maybe this game was the spark they needed to start playing well at the end of games — they closed out well against Golden State. Maybe this was what the Thunder needed to find themselves and become the playoff threat to the Warriors we expected.

As for the Warriors… ¯_(ツ)_/¯. We haven’t said this about them this season (only the Cavaliers), but they looked disinterested much of the night (outside of Durant). Give credit to the Thunder, physical and aggressive defenses that can overplay the Warriors (and recover) give them trouble, and OKC did that. The Warriors just didn’t care to counter. They looked like a team coasting through a road trip (2-2 in their last 4), and when they ran into a quality, motivated team they didn’t have the gear. That doesn’t mean anything long-term, but it means they may be vulnerable during the season until they find their edge again. Whenever they flip the switch.

2) Miami ends Boston’s win streak at 16. For a couple of weeks now the Celtics had been living dangerously — they had to come back from double-digits to win four of their last five games heading into Wednesday night.

Their luck ran out against the Miami Heat.

Miami raced out to a double-digit first-quarter lead, pushed that lead to 19 and were comfortably ahead most of the game, and we kept waiting for the Boston run. It came in the fourth, a 13-0 push that made it a game again. However, Miami responded with a 5-0 run of their own, Dion Waiters seemed especially motivated to take on Kyrie Irving, and the Heat held on for the 104-98 win. Goran Dragic had 27 points, Waiters 26 and 6 assists.

Boston’s streak was bound to end, but they established themselves as a strong defensive team during that run, and the squad in the East best poised to knock off LeBron James and the Cavaliers. We’re a long way from the games that matter in that push — the Cavs have won six in a row, and are playing defense again — but we know the pecking order for who gets a shot at the champs. Boston will get their shot, and early on they look like they will be ready.

3) Patrick Beverley is out for the season and the Los Angeles Clippers have some hard questions to answer. For the first four games of the season, we saw the potential of what this Clipper roster could be — four head-turning wins. Then the injuries started to pile up — Milos Teodosic, Danilo Gallinari, and starting point guard Patrick Beverley — and so did the losses. Nine in a row, until they picked up a road win in Atlanta Wednesday.

Now comes a brutal blow — the Clippers have lost point guard Patrick Beverley for the season. He had microfracture surgery on his knee and will be out until next season.

That’s a real blow to the Clippers, and it means they may need to answer some harsh questions. If the losses continue to pile up and this is clearly not a playoff team by the time we get to Christmas — a reality that became a more possible on Wednesday — do they need to trade free agent to be DeAndre Jordan? Other teams are already calling and asking if he is available in a trade, if the Clippers think they can’t resign him this summer (or at least the odds are lower than they like) they have to consider the move. Los Angeles wouldn’t get a lot back for a rental, but they would get something to help the rebuild they need to consider.

The other question: How much longer is Doc Rivers the coach. The sense from many around the league is the reason he wasn’t let go when he was stripped of his GM powers this summer was he is making more than $10 million a year and had a couple of years left on his deal, and that was too much for even Steve Ballmer to just eat. Plus Rivers has shown he can coach. Whether he can coach this team still is a different question entirely. Right now, this team is not responding to him, and the sense around the league is the question is when, not if, he will be let go.

Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook go head-to-head, literally (video)

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This sure didn’t look like just another game for Kevin Durant – and not only because the Thunder beat the Warriors for the first time since he left.

The 108-91 Oklahoma City victory didn’t look like just another game for Russell Westbrook (34 points, 10 rebounds, nine assists and four steals), either.

Harrison Barnes banks in game-winning, buzzer-beating 3-pointer (video)

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With the shot clock off in the fourth quarter and the game tied, Grizzlies big JaMychal Green put back Tyreke Evans‘ miss with a clutch flush. There’s a very fine line between ensuring the last shot and leaving time for an offensive rebound, and Memphis threated it almost perfectly.

Emphasis on “almost.”

The Grizzlies left the Mavericks 0.5 seconds, which Harrison Barnes used to bank in a 3-pointer – off a pinpoint bounce pass by Dennis Smith Jr. – to give Dallas a 95-94 win.