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.

Russell Westbrook dogs Warriors, Damian Lillard after Paul George misses All-Star roster

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Ah yes, let the mud-slinging begin.

Russell Westbrook is on a team with three huge stars in the Oklahoma City Thunder. It was always going to be difficult for all of them to make the 2018 NBA All-Star team out west.

But that doesn’t matter to Russ.

After Tuesday night’s win over the Brooklyn Nets (where Westbrook hit the game-winning shot, no less) the reigning NBA MVP had some thoughts about teammate Paul George missing out on the All-Star Game, calling it “outrageous”.

Westbrook wasn’t too happy with teams getting “four people” onto the team (a dig at the Golden State Warriors) and that players are, “Talking about getting snubbed until they get in.”

That last part seems to have taken aim at Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard, one of the most talked about snubs in recent years who finally got another All-Star bid.

Via Twitter:

Westbrook also said that George was “Top 2 at his position” which really colors the underlying issue at hand: Russ likes PG and wants him to stay in OKC.

Nobody reasonable would say that George is a Top 2 player on the wing. Not while LeBron James and Kevin Durant are alive, at least. And Westbrook’s comments about folks being stars vs. not stars, even if the voting goes one way says a lot.

The Warriors are the best team of all time. A bunch of guys getting on All-Star teams in their heyday makes sense, even if one of those guys is Klay Thompson (sometimes). We all have Warriors fatigue, I guess.

Meanwhile, Lillard is one of adidas’ biggest athletes when it comes to basketball, the face of a franchise, and has put up numbers deserving of making the team in years past. He’s also a big personality and a rapper. Lillard’s name is in lights each and every night. The issue with him sees to be that nobody watches him consistently east of the Cascades.

But all this arguing gives legitimacy to Westbrook’s point, which is mostly personal. George’s numbers have taken a dip in some areas, particularly when it comes to things like VORP, assist percentage, and true shooting. They’ve gone up in others, like 3-point shooting. He’s still a very good player and very valuable to the Thunder.

Each year, guys get left off the All-Star team for various reasons. Sometimes it’s just their turn to be on it or be off it. Nice of Westbrook to stop by with some takes.

Here’s hoping for him that George stays in OKC.

Russell Westbrook hits game-winning shot to beat Nets (VIDEO)

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Spencer Dinwiddie hit the game-winning shot for the Brooklyn Nets on Tuesday night. At least, many thought he did.

But that honor actually went to Oklahoma City Thunder star Russell Westbrook, who had hit the real game winner with a little more than three seconds to go.

Westbrook’s bucket came on after a sideline inbounds play led to a hard drive to the right side of the bucket for the reigning MVP.

Then, Dinwiddie got the ball and had appeared to make a 3-pointer to win the game for the Nets. However, it clanged off the side of the rim, moving the net in a way that many watching on TV and in the arena thought had gone in.

Via Twitter:

OKC beat Brooklyn, 109-108.

Here’s LeBron James scoring the 30,000th point of his career (VIDEO)

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LeBron James is officially the youngest player to ever reach 30,000 points in an NBA career.

The Cleveland Cavaliers great, who preemptively congratulated himself in a weird Instagram post earlier in the day, got points 30,000 and 30,001 at the age of 33 years and 24 days, edging Kobe Bryant by a year and 80 days.

The play came with just a second to go in the first quarter while the Cavaliers played on the road against the San Antonio Spurs.

Dribbling on the left arc against Danny Green — a formidable defender — LeBron gave a hesitation dribble before stepping just inside the 3-point line for a pull-up jumper.

Via Twitter:

LeBron still has Dirk Nowitzki, Wilt Chamberlain, Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Karl Malone, and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar ahead of him on the NBA’s all-time scoring list.

Where he ends up might just depend on how long Nowitzki plays.

Top five 2018 All-Star Game snubs

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We fans love to talk about who gets snubbed. There are 68 teams in the NCAA tournament and we argue about who was 69th and deserved to be there.

With the NBA All-Star game, there are always legitimate snubs — and with the Western Conference so ridiculously deep this season good players were going to get left out. Just picking my reserve choices for a podcast felt brutal.

We now know the All-Star Game starters and reserves, so who got snubbed. Here are the top five.

1) Lou Williams, Los Angeles Clippers. Los Angeles has been devastated by injuries this season (not to mention losing Chris Paul in the off-season) yet they are still in the playoff hunt in the West and the main reason is Lou Williams. The leading Sixth Man of the Year candidate is averaging 23.3 points per game, 5,3 assists a night, and is shooting better than 40 percent from three. He had a red-hot January so far, averaging 29.2 points per game. This may be a case where Damian Lillard got the nod from the coaches for his multi-year body of work (he’s been good a long time), but Williams is having his best season ever and has a great case.

2) Chris Paul, Houston Rockets. He likely didn’t get selected because he has missed 17 games this season — but Stephen Curry missed 15 and is a captain. When CP3 has played he’s been brilliant, averaging 19.1 points and 8.9 assists per game, he’s been crucial to improving the Rockets defense this season, and when he is on the court the Rockets outscore opponents by 10.9 points per 100 possessions. The Rockets are 23-5 when he plays. Houston is the second best team in the NBA, they should have more than one representative tonight.

3) Andre Drummond, Detroit Pistons. The coaches went with four guards for the East reserves, and that left just three frontcourt spots and four deserving players. Drummond is the odd-man out. Which sucks — he is averaging 14.3 points per game on 54 percent shooting, and he remains the best rebounder in the game today pulling down 15 a night. He has improved his defensive play as well, but what everyone notices is he hitting his free throws (62.9 percent) and that means Stan Van Gundy can play him at the end of games and not sub him out.

Drummond was more than a little frustrated he didn’t make the cut.

4) Paul George, Oklahoma City Thunder. George has played well on both ends this season next to Russell Westbrook. He is averaging 20.8 points per game and shooting 42.9 percent from three on one end of the floor, and defensively he is averaging 4.4 deflections per game and has 93 steals — both tops in the league. George is a four-time All-Star and it feels weird to see him left out, but he came to the ridiculously deep Western Conference and good players were not going to make it. He’s the odd man out in the frontcourt.

5) Kemba Walker, Charlotte Hornets. Could have got a lot of directions here – Ben Simmons and Goran Dragic can make their cases on appeal — but people have been sleeping on just how well Walker has been playing this season. Walker is averaging an efficient 21.8 points per game, dishing out 5.9 assists per night, and when he is on the court the Hornets outscore teams by 5.1 points per 100 possessions (that’s better than the Celtics or Timberwolves net ratings for the season). The problem is when he sits they fall apart, and Walker pays the price for his team struggling this season. His name has popped up in trade rumors, and he is the best guy available right now (not that he gets moved in a tight market). Walker was an All-Star last season and had a very strong case to be one again.