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.

Player mental health focus of NBA as league heads to restart bubble

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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Jrue Holiday expects basketball to be the easy part.

The Pelicans guard will be living in the NBA’s “bubble” when 22 teams gather near Orlando, Florida, this month to resume their suspended season.

Holiday’s wife, Lauren, a former U.S. national team soccer player, is pregnant with the couple’s second child at a time when much of society has been shut down by the coronavirus pandemic. The veteran New Orleans player might be away from home for more than a month.

Meanwhile, Memphis rookie Ja Morant expects to miss his daughter’s first birthday next month. Boston’s Gordon Hayward may leave the team when his fourth child is born in September. And players like Washington’s Bradley Beal and Portland’s Damian Lillard wonder how intense NBA restrictions on player movement will be received.

These are but a few examples of why the NBA, its teams and the players’ union are making mental health and wellness resources available to players now and once they arrive at Disney’s Wide World of Sports complex.

“It is going to leave the guys with a lot of time on their own, and challenges with families, newborns and whatever else they have going on in their personal lives are going to be magnified because they’re going to be in confined spaces for prolonged periods of time,” said William Parham, a Loyola Marymount psychology professor and director of the National Basketball Players Association’s mental health and wellness program. “There’s no way around it, so I would anticipate some increased anxiety, some increased tension, some increased restlessness.”

There will be no fans at Disney. There also will be restrictions on where players can go, plus rules keeping families away until at least the second round of the playoffs. The hope is to significantly limit exposure to COVID-19 inside the bubble.

Even under normal circumstances, Holiday sees family time as a cherished respite. Life at Disney will clearly complicate that.

“This is one of the mental parts about it that guys have to adjust to, where someone like me, I go home and it’s where I kind of relax,” Holiday said. “I try my best not to bring my work home with me so I can hang out with my wife, my dog, and my daughter and I can do things like that. … I think that’s going to be a little bit of a challenge, especially after like seven to 10 days.”

Likewise, Beal said living in the bubble will hardly be “a walk in the park.”

“We can’t just leave. We can’t just order whatever food we want. We can’t just do activities we want to do. We can’t go to our teammates’ rooms,” Beal said. “You’re restricted, and you can’t do the things that you’re normally used to doing.”

The Pelicans’ mental health and wellness program is led by team psychologist Jenna Rosen, and New Orleans general manager David Griffin calls it “critical.”

“Let’s not kid ourselves. This quarantine situation is going to be very difficult,” Griffin said. “We will work through mindfulness training with Jenna literally every day. … It’s going to be about who can keep themselves in the best frame of mind, quite frankly.”

Mental health has been a priority for the NBA and the NBPA, especially after players like Cleveland’s Kevin Love and San Antonio’s DeMar DeRozan opened up about their inner struggles.

DeRozan knows it won’t be easy at Disney.

“It’s tough,” he said. “You’re taking guys who’ve been with their families every single day for the last few months and all of a sudden separating everybody into this one confined space and taking away a lot of joyful things that we do outside of basketball.”

Milwaukee forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, who has played for Greece’s national team, said being away for three weeks during international tournaments was challenging. This trip to Disney could last three months if the Bucks make the NBA Finals.

“Not being able to see your family, being there for three months, playing games with no fans, it’s going to be mental,” Antetokounmpo said. “You’ve got to push yourself through this.”

Daniel Medina, the Wizards’ chief of athletic care and performance, said some players are concerned that an interrupted season might make them more prone to injury, which could be career-altering to players with expiring contracts. Some have decided not to play, notably Indiana’s Victor Oladipo.

Parham, who helped launch the NBPA’s mental health program in 2018, expects many players to handle the resumption well. He noted that after three months of relative isolation at home, they’ll be eager to satisfy their appetite for competition.

Still, the unprecedented nature of the bubble, born out of a pandemic blamed for about a half-million deaths worldwide, will present challenges. Another issue, Parham said, is how the restart coincides with the political and social upheaval spawned by the death of George Floyd, a Black man, while in police custody.

“Prior to COVID, and prior to these social justice demonstrations, there were sufficient daily distractions for people to not really even think about their stuff. They were just sort of on automatic pilot,” Parham said. “You know what they say: A person will never see their reflection in running water. It is only when the water is still that their reflected image begins to emerge.”

Clippers guard Landry Shamet tests positive for coronavirus

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Clippers’ guard Landry Shamet just a few days ago talking to the media: “There’s no option with no risk at this point.”

Saturday we learned that Shamet has tested positive for the coronavirus. Shams Charania of The Athletic broke the news.

This comes a couple of days after a positive test for one member of the Clippers traveling party caused the team to shut down its training facility (that may have been Shamet, it may not have been, the Clippers are not saying).

Shamet has to go through a 14-day quarantine and two negative tests 24 hours apart before he can join his teammates in Orlando, which he still plans to do. If there are no setbacks, he will be in Orlando and cleared well before the Clippers take on the Lakers on opening night.

The second-year shooting guard is an important role player for the Clippers, scoring 9.7 points per game but shooting 39.2% from three — he is critical to their floor spacing in certain lineups. He is exactly the kind of player that will need to have a couple of big playoff games — when defenses collapse on Kawhi Leonard and Paul George — if Los Angeles is going to be a threat to win it all. As they believe they are.

Utah’s Rudy Gobert ‘in a good place,’ trying to move forward

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There were the tweets from strangers.

“I hate you.”

“You ruined the whole world.”

“You deserve it.”

And there was the scorn from inside his own locker room, the presumption that he infected a teammate with coronavirus, the suggestion that his recklessness somehow caused the entire sporting world to come to an absolute standstill.

Utah center Rudy Gobert is still standing tall, after all that and more.

Plenty of eyes will be on Gobert when the NBA season, the one that shut down March 11 when he became the first player in the league to be diagnosed with the coronavirus, takes a giant step toward returning by having teams gather at the Disney complex in Central Florida over the next few days. The Jazz will be a fascinating case study during this restart, particularly regarding whether or not Gobert and Donovan Mitchell — a fellow All-Star who was diagnosed with the virus shortly after the shutdown began and did not hide his anger with Gobert about it all — can coexist peacefully again.

“I’m happy now. I’m in a good place, you know,” Gobert told reporters Friday. “And I’m happy that I get the joy back from playing basketball with my team and the competitiveness is back. I’m ready to try to go out there and try to win the championship. That’s the goal. And to be honest, after everything we’ve been through as a team and as human beings, it would be a great comeback.”

Gobert answered questions for about 11 minutes. He talked about the relationship with Mitchell. (“It’s never going to be perfect,” he said, acknowledging strains that have been no secret.) He talked about the potential of signing a lucrative extension — he’s supermax-eligible — with the Jazz, which could happen before next season. (“I don’t plan on leaving right now,” he said.) He talked about his recovery from the virus, which is ongoing, at least in how his sense of smell hasn’t totally recovered. (“Smelling, I took that for granted too. It’s back now, it’s back at 80%, I’m not worried,” he said.)

He spoke softly, calmly, thoughtfully. And even though he is the two-time reigning NBA defensive player of the year, he didn’t swat any question away.

“Obviously, when you have the whole world judging you and threatening you or sending you a lot of negative energy and stuff like that, it’s something that I would say is not easy as a human being,” Gobert said. “But at the same time, people just judge you on the perception they have and the perception they get. Sometimes it can be one picture, one video, one interview, one action.”

In this case, that’s pretty much exactly what happened.

A picture, a video, an interview, an action. It was the start of the downfall.

It was the morning of March 9: Before leaving a media session at shoot-around in Salt Lake City on Monday in advance of a game against Detroit, Gobert touched all the tape recorders that were placed before him on a table, devices that reporters who cover the Jazz were using. He meant it as a joke. When he tested positive two days later, it was no laughing matter.

The Jazz were in Oklahoma City, just moments away from starting a game against the Thunder, when word came that Gobert tested positive. The game was called off. The season was suspended that same night.

Just like that, Gobert was a center of negative attention.

“First of all, you make sure he’s OK,” said Orlando guard Evan Fournier, a fellow French national-team player, who reached out often to check on Gobert. “You know, you call him and once we’re on the phone or just talking, text, whatever, you just ask him a few questions. How is he feeling, blah, blah, blah. And then once he starts to open up and say things about how he sees the whole situation, then you just try to give your best judgment to him. And you know, that’s what I did.”

Gobert immediately started trying to show remorse. He donated $200,000 to a fund established to help those who work part-time at Jazz games, people who lost income because contests were canceled. More money — about $310,000 — went to families affected by the pandemic in Utah and Oklahoma City, plus in his native France. He taped a public-service announcement for the league.

“I won’t be able to control everyone’s perception of me, but I can control my actions,” Gobert said. “I can control, you know, the things I do for the people around me, for the community, the things I do for my teammates on the court, off the court. All that stuff, I can control and that’s what really matters to me.”

For his part, Mitchell said the relationship with Gobert has improved.

“Right now, we’re good,” Mitchell said Thursday. “We’re going out there ready to hoop.”

The Jazz have secured a playoff berth. They’ll be without the injured Bojan Bogdanovic for the remainder of the season, yet still have enough depth to be considered a contender in the Western Conference.

And Gobert expects he and Mitchell, on the court anyway, will be fine.

“As long as we respect one another and we both share the same goals and we both do what’s best for the team, that’s what matters,” Gobert said. “And, you know, I think over the last few years that’s what we’ve been doing and that’s what we plan on continuing doing.”

Celtics’ Gordon Hayward may leave bubble in September for birth of child

Celtics' Gordon Hayward
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The Celtics’ Gordon Hayward has been at his wife’s side for the birth of their three children, he’s not going to miss the fourth — even if that means leaving the bubble.

Hayward’s wife Robyn is due with their fourth child in September — very possibly while the team is still playing — and he said in a conference call with reporters that he will leave the bubble to be with her. Via Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

“There’ll be a time if and when we’re down there and she’s going to have the baby, I’m for sure going to be with her,” Hayward said of his wife, Robyn. “We’ll have to cross that bridge when we get there…

“It’s a pretty easy decision for me on that,” Hayward said. “I’ve been at the birth of every one of my children, and I think there are more important things in life. So we’ll cross that bridge when we get there.

“I know the NBA has a protocol for that type of thing, and hopefully I can do the quarantining and testing the appropriate amount of time and then be back with the boys.”

That protocol says that if Hayward notifies the team and league, is gone fewer than seven days, gets tested and is negative every day he is outside the bubble, then upon his return he will have a four-day quarantine (so long as he continues to have negative tests). This applies to all players who might need to leave the Walt Disney World campus for a family emergency or situation (Utah point guard Mike Conley‘s wife is due with their child in late August, for example).

If Hayward is gone longer or isn’t tested every day outside the bubble — or, if a player leaves the bubble without notifying teams — he has a 10-day quarantine upon his return.

The second round of the playoffs are set to begin Aug. 30 and will run as long as Sept. 13. The Eastern Conference Finals — which the Celtics have a good chance of making, but likely would need to beat out a strong Toronto squad — start Sept. 15 and run through the end of the month.

Hayward will be missed, and it’s not just his 17.3 points, 6.5 rebounds, or 4.1 assists per game, or the fact he shot 39.2% from three and is an important part of the Celtics’ floor spacing. It’s also that Brad Stevens uses Hayward in versatile lineups — Jayson Tatum, Jaylen Brown, Marcus Smart, and Hayward make a very switchable foursome — that can both defend and difficult for opponents to stop. Boston loses some of that versatility without him, Semi Ojeleye is not going to be able to give the Celtics the same quality minutes.