NBA Season Preview: Atlanta Hawks

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Thumbnail image for Hawks_loss.jpgLast season: 53-29, three seed in the East. The Bucks pushed them seven games in the first round, then Orlando swept them in the second.

Head Coach: Larry Drew. Basically the Hawks decided to fire their coach and go for change by hiring the old coach’s right hand man. Interesting theory. Drew may have been the top assistant for just fired Mike Woodson, but swears he’s a different man with different plans. Maybe so. The real question is can Drew coax more out of essentially the same roster?

Key Departures: Woodson was the big one. The Hawks also had the rights to Josh Childress, who spurn their contract offer for Europe two seasons ago and now is now running with the Suns.

Key Additions: They kept Joe Johnson, who was a free agent. They’ll regret it in a few years, but they did it. Keeping Johnson was a Hawks priority and they made it a reality by making him higher paid than LeBron James this summer. But it’s not this year or next they’ll regret, it’s five years from now when he is still making max money but is performing like Michael Finley they’ll be sorry. Maybe the current Hawks ownership plans on being out the door by then, so it will not be their problem.

Larry Drew as coach is the one addition that matters. Also added to the roster were Josh Powell, Etan Thomas, Jason Collins and Jordan Crawford. Some small time role guys, nothing changes to the core.

Best case scenario: The Hawks jump into the elite of the East and compete for a title.

For that to happen: They make a trade for another elite player and the unwieldy ownership group decides to take on more salary. Seriously, that’s the only way it will happen. Because to expect more from the same roster is unrealistic. At best.

But lets say the roster does not change, what do they need to happen to take a step forward or three?

Better play at the point guard to start. Mike Bibby is your starter, but he has slipped over the years to a below average player. In a conference with Rajon Rondo, Jameer Nelson and Derrick Rose (just to name a few from teams at the top of the East) it’s going to be very difficult to make the jump with below average play at the point. Jeff Teague has been told to be more aggressive, be more selfish and take the job. Own it. He’s got talent, but we’ll see if he can.

Al Horford needs to take a leap forward, as well. Horford is already an All-Star, a guy who gave Atlanta 14 and 10 last season while taking on more of the offense and having his shooting percentage go up. He’s not a natural center forced to play against the beasts in the East (Dwight Howard, Shaq) but if the new motion offense in Atlanta can get him the ball in good positions to score he can take another step forward.

Larry Drew needs a system to get this team some easy buckets, rather than fighting through so much isolation ball to get them. That starts by getting the Hawks to run more (which ties into getting them to defend better, they were a pedestrian 13th in league last year in points given up per possession). In the half court, ball and player movement will allow the athletes on the Hawks to get some better, easier looks. All of it combined should mean more monster dunks from this athletic squad, which would be good for all of us.

Basically, the culture and system need to change for the Hawks to get more out of their talents. And that still may not be enough to make a big leap forward in the east.

More likely the Hawks will: To paraphrase Roger Daltrey: Meet the new Hawks, same as the old Hawks.

They didn’t change the roster, they brought the same team back. They changed coaches but got the No. 2 guy from the old regime in. They are basically fielding the same team but expecting more in a conference that got a lot deeper and a lot tougher.

The things to watch are defense and point guard. If the Hawks can play better defense, convert that into some easy transition buckets, and get better play out of Jeff Teague (or Mike Bibby, although that is unlikely) at the point, they can improve. But even that keeps them on the second tier in the East.

The Hawks will be good, don’t think anything else. This is a quality roster. They will be fun to watch. They will win a lot of games. But if the expectation is to get out of the second round of the playoffs, then they will fall short. They remain good but not good enough.

Prediction: 51 wins. The Hawks will be as good or slightly better than last year, but as the East got deeper we dock them just a couple wins. In reality, they are in the regular season second tier in the East — along with Boston, Chicago and Milwaukee — who will finish between 48 and 55 wins. Health and who blends best fastest will determine the order. But they will be in for a tougher first round playoff series than last year, and that one went seven games.

LeBron becomes oldest player with 39 points, 11 boards, seven 3-pointers (he’s also the youngest)

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The first question after LeBron James put up 21 and 8 to help the Lakers beat the Spurs Friday night was whether he would play in the back-to-back Saturday. He had just missed five games with a groin strain, after all.

Not only did LeBron play Saturday, he had a historic night.

LeBron had 39 points, 11 rebounds, and shot 7-of-12 from 3 — making him the oldest player in the history of the NBA with a 35+, 10+ with seven 3-pointer game.

The youngest player ever to put up that stat line? Also one LeBron James.

The 39 points were also the second most points ever scored by a player in his 20th NBA season, trailing only Kobe Bryant gunning his way to 60 in his final game.

The Lakers got the second straight win over the Spurs on Saturday behind LeBron, 143-138, a game more likely to be remembered for Zach Collins getting ejected for a foul that left Russell Westbrook bloody. The Lakers have won three straight and 5-of-6 but have done it against a very soft part of the schedule (three of the wins were over the tanking Spurs). Los Angeles beat the teams in front of it and started to show signs of life this season, but now they have to carry that over into a stretch against better teams, beginning Monday against the Pacers.

Watch Deandre Ayton put up 29 points, 21 rebounds, lead Suns past Jazz 113-112

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PHOENIX — There was much debate during the NBA offseason about whether Deandre Ayton was worth a max contract.

On nights like Saturday, the answer is a resounding yes.

Ayton notched season highs with 29 points and 21 rebounds, Devin Booker added 27 points and the Phoenix Suns held on for a hard-fought 113-112 win over the Utah Jazz.

The Jazz led 81-78 after three quarters, but the Suns pushed ahead 99-93 by midway through the fourth. The game remained tight through the final minutes, but Phoenix never lost the lead. On top of Ayton’s scoring and rebounding, he also had a crucial steal in the final minutes that helped thwart a final Jazz rally.

“I don’t know what he ate for Thanksgiving,” Booker said. “I should have been over there.”

Ayton grabbed his 21st rebound of the game on the final possession, securing Booker’s miss off a 3-pointer to keep the Jazz from a final possession. Ayton signed a four-year, $133 million deal during the offseason after the Suns matched an offer sheet from the Indiana Pacers.

“That young man has been coming to the gym at crazy hours, lifting with (coaches), so that he can be prepared for moments like this,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “It’s just good to see the work pay off. It’s good to see him have monster games against really good teams on a back-to-back. That’s pretty impressive.”

Ayton was the first player to have at least 28 points and 20 rebounds in a game for the Suns since Amar’e Stoudemire in 2007. He shot 11 of 19 from the field and added three assists and two blocks.

“I want to do more, I feel like I can do more,” Ayton said. “I’m just trying to do what I can to contribute to my team.”

Curiously, the Jazz didn’t foul the Suns on their final possession, essentially allowing them to run out the clock. Utah coach Will Hardy said the last play simply didn’t unfold like the team expected and there was some miscommunication.

“We wanted to get the ball out of Booker’s hands, and then foul,” Hardy said.

Ayton scored a season high for the second straight night. He poured in 28 points against the Pistons in a 108-102 win on Friday. Booker had a tough night shooting, making just 8 of 27 shots.

Utah was one of the NBA’s surprise teams in the first few weeks of the season, starting with a 10-3 record. The Jazz are just 3-7 since that point.

“One game, one stretch of the season doesn’t define your season,” Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk said. “You’ve got to go through ups-and-downs. Adversity – learn from it and come out the other side better for it.”

The Suns have an 11-1 record at home this season and have won four straight games.

Jordan Clarkson scored 22 points for the Jazz. Collin Sexton added 20 while Lauri Markkanen had 15 points and 10 rebounds.

The Jazz had a 54-51 lead at halftime. Clarkson led the Jazz with 12 points while Ayton had 11 points and seven rebounds.

Watch Spurs Collins bloody Russell Westbrook with a foul, get ejected

Los Angeles Lakers v San Antonio Spurs
Ronald Cortes/Getty Images
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Jakob Poeltl was dominating the paint, scoring 12 points on 6-of-8 shooting with nine rebounds in 10 minutes, and giving the Lakers serious trouble. Then he had to leave the game with a sore quad, meaning Zach Collins would get more run.

Collins was ejected for a flagrant foul 2 on Russell Westbrook that left the Lakers guard bloodied. Westbrook bounced back up and LeBron James had to hold him back from going after Collins.

Collins plans to appeal the ejection he said after the game.

Collins will face a fine or suspension from the league, although he doesn’t have a history of this kind of foul, something the league takes into consideration. Westbrook also got a technical for going after Collins.

The Lakers went on to beat the Spurs 143-138, behind 39 points from LeBron James. It’s the second time the Lakers have defeated the Spurs in three days, the kind of wins over tanking teams the Lakers need if they are going to turn their season around.

Watch Victor Wembanyama drop 30-point double-double in France

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Maybe you spent your Saturday afternoon watching Lionel Messi doing Lionel Messi things. Or intense college football rivalries.

In France, they spent part of the day watching Kylian Mbappe be brilliant but then flipped over and watched future No.1 pick Victor Wembanyama drop a 30-point double-double.

That’s two straight 30-point double-doubles for Wembanyama.

He will be the No.1 pick next June (barring something catastrophic), and teams are already thinking about the lottery next June.

Expect some other teams to jump in that mix at the bottom because the depth of this class goes well beyond just Wembanyama with Scoot Henderson, Amen Thompson and others. The tanking is coming people.