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.

Report: Bulls talking Jabari Parker trade

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The Bulls are reportedly pulling Jabari Parker from their regular rotation.

That might spell the end of Parker in Chicago.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Parker is having a dismal season. His defense has been as advertised. He’s shooting a lot and inefficiently and turning the ball over too much.

He’s also earning $20 million this season, which will make matching salary in a trade difficult.

At least Parker is on a de facto expiring contract. (His $20 million team option for next season will surely be declined.) His contract could help facilitate a trade. Maybe the Bulls deal him for an unwanted player with a multi-year guarantee plus sweeteners. Chicago is far enough from winning that punting 2019 cap space for draft picks and young players makes sense.

Parker is just 23 and talented. While his expiring contract is likely to be the central appeal of any trade, his potential is higher than the typical player in such a deal. That only helps his value.

The Bulls won’t get much for Parker. He’s not even good enough to play on their lousy team. But both sides are probably ready to move on, and maybe they can make it happen.

Parker and his agent know how to work their way out of undesirable situations.

Former Knicks center Joakim Noah: ‘I’m too lit to play in New York City’

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When Joakim Noah signed a four-year, $72 million contract with the Knicks in 2016, his father – former tennis star Yannick Noah – boasted about how well his son would fit in New York:

“He knows the city,” Yannick Noah said. “He was born here. It’s not like he’s coming from the countryside and he’s coming to New York City. He lived here for a long time. Of course, it can be dangerous for an athlete. But he knows and he’s so motivated. It’s a great opportunity for him. He’s going to give all he has for the city.”

Oops.

Noah played terribly, got suspended for taking a banned substance and feuded with his coach. Before this season, the Knicks cut him, preferring to pay him out than have him continue to occupy a roster spot.

Noah, who previously played for the Bulls, signed with the Grizzlies. He’s now addressing what went wrong in New York.

Noah on the Chris Vernon Show:

I could look back on it and say I thought I was ready for New York City, but I wasn’t. And it’s something that I’ve got to live with.

Not just the pressure. I remember after the first game, I probably had, like, 60 people in my house. I’m too lit. I’m too lit to play in New York City. I’m too lit to play in New York City. Memphis is perfect for me.

We were lit in Chicago, but I was young. So, you recover faster, you know? You recover faster.

I respect the honesty. Not many players would have revealed so much about their partying.

But I’m also not convinced a smaller market will fix Noah.

The 33-year-old might just be too worn down to help an NBA team.

Anthony Davis doing it all for Pelicans

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DETROIT – Anthony Davis repeatedly entered and exited the visitors’ locker room after the Pelicans win over the Pistons on Sunday. At a time most players go from their locker to the shower and back then leave, Davis was busy. He visited with people in the hall. He breezed back by his locker then left to attend to other matters. He returned again and, before showering, turned to the assembled media.

“Y’all need me?” Davis asked.

Davis is used to getting pulled in every direction and still being needed even more.

The superstar is having another MVP-ballot-caliber season. Yet, New Orleans is just 15-15, 11th in the Western Conference.

It’s for a lack of effort by Davis. He has expanded his game offensively. Playing center regularly, his defensive responsibilities are as great as ever. And he leads the NBA with 37.0 minutes per game.

“You don’t have Secretariat run half the race then step out because it might be too far,” Pelicans coach Alvin Gentry said. “No. You’ve got a great player, you use him the best you can.”

New Orleans has little choice but to lean heavily on Davis. With him on the floor vs. off, the Pelicans score 9.7 more points and allow 6.2 fewer points per 100 possessions.

Put another way: New Orleans plays like a 59-win team with Davis and a 20-win team without him.

Here are the leaders in win-rate difference with off-court on the left, on-court on the right and difference between (minimum: 300 minutes):

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It helps Davis plays a large majority of minutes with Jrue Holiday, who actually rates better by this metric. But Davis is clearly driving New Orleans’ success.

Not only does Davis lead the NBA in real plus-minus (+7.11), he does so with an unparalleled two-way efficiency. Nobody nears his combination of offensive (+3.73) and defensive (+3.38) real plus-minus.

Here’s every NBA player by offensive and defensive real plus-minus with the positive outliers’ photos:

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Davis is producing in all his usual ways – 28.1 points, 12.4 rebounds, 2.8 blocks and 1.7 steals per game. But he’s also averaging 4.7 assists per game, more than double his previous career high.

The Pelicans increased their pace and passing last year, and the system did wonders for setting up Davis. But they lost key component Rajon Rondo in free agency last summer, and replacement starting point guard Elfrid Payton has missed most of this season due to injury.

So, Davis has stepped up.

He’s done it while continuing to protect the ball, an overlooked but important aspect of his game. His assist-to-turnover ratio is better than 2-to-1, impressive for a big.

Davis faces frequent double-teams and generates many of his assists by passing out of those:

After scoring so well in transition for so long, Davis is now taking advantage of his speed by playmaking in the open court:

Davis has also become adept at flipping short passes to a teammate then walking into a screen ball screen. That threat has sparked more creative options with Davis’ improved distributing abilities:

Davis’ teammates appear invigorated to receive his passes.

They run the court with him on fastbreaks. They cut actively. They re-position themselves around the 3-point arc to create passing angles.

With Davis attracting so much defensive attention, openings abound.

“He just finds me, and it’s an easy look,” said Nikola Mirotic, who’s shooting 70% on 2-pointers and 52% on 3-pointers off passes from Davis.

Davis keeps putting more on his plate. He said he has to play nearly perfectly for the Pelicans to win, and he hasn’t shrunk from that responsibility. In fact, he keeps raising his personal standard.

New Orleans is trying to keep up. The Pelicans are reportedly one of the most active buyers on the trade market, but they lack trade chips beyond their draft picks. Davis is propping up a mediocre supporting cast.

Of course, Davis will be eligible for a super-max extension – which projects to be worth about $240 million over five years – this offseason. That will be the moment of truth for his future in New Orleans.

Most players so good on teams so bad would have left already.

But Davis – for now, at least – is still with the Pelicans, still doing everything he can to carry them.

“Being the guy on the team, the leader, franchise player you say,” Davis said, “the team asks a lot of me. So, anything less than what they expect, it’s on me.

“Anybody who wants to be that great player, it comes with the territory.”

Jimmy Butler may miss 76ers-Pacers

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Coming off just their second home loss of the season, a 127-124 defeat to the visiting Brooklyn Nets on Wednesday, the Philadelphia 76ers now have to deal with the freight train that is the Indiana Pacers at 7:30 p.m. on Friday at Wells Fargo Center.

Indiana has won five straight, including a 16-point win over the Milwaukee Bucks on Wednesday night, the team’s seventh win in nine games. The Pacers have crept up to within a half-game of Philadelphia in the standings at 18-10 (the Sixers are 19-10) by relying on one of the deepest offenses in the league.

On Wednesday in the 113-97 win over the Bucks, Indiana had six players in double-figures (Milwaukee had four) and the Pacers’ reserves outscored the Bucks’ 34-25. Indiana’s backups also stifled a Milwaukee offense that shot 41 percent from the field and 25 percent from 3-point range, with Giannis Antetokounmpo finishing with just 12 points.

“That second unit is back intact and we want to continue to build off of what we are doing and establish ourselves as this team that keeps guys out of the paint and focuses on limiting rotations so that teams are trying to beat us over the top,” head coach Nate McMillan said. “That way we can stay at home with our man, box out and rebound.”

With Victor Oladipo back from a knee injury that sidelined him 11 games, Indiana is back at a full complement of players and climbing in the East.

“Guys stepped up and played huge,” Oladipo said after his first game back. “Myles (Turner), Thad (Young), D.C. (Darren Collison) hit big shots down the stretch. I’m just glad to be back to help.”

Oladipo’s return complicates things for the 76ers, who could be without star Jimmy Butler for the second straight game with a strained groin. Butler’s absence was missed against the Nets on Wednesday as Brooklyn shot 51 percent from the field, with Spencer Dinwiddie contributing a career-high 39 points off the bench.

“When you look at the bench scoring, we got hurt there tonight; I give their bench credit,” Philadelphia coach Brett Brown said. “I give Brooklyn a lot of credit. I think that they are a good team to begin with. I do not feel like their record reflects how good they are, I especially know that no matter what their record said, we struggle with that type of team and we did tonight. It doesn’t discount for me that we do struggle with that type of team.”

Even with Joel Embiid‘s 17 rebounds to go along with 33 points, the Sixers still managed to just tie the Nets in boards at 41 while Brooklyn made it to the free-throw line for an absurd 43 attempts, making an even more impressive 37 of them.

“I think that some of it was bad defense, some of it was let down schematically, some of our good shooters still getting off shots, I think it’s a hybrid of them making some shots, us being a C- at times with our aggression and maybe a C schematically trying to execute a game with their individual players. I would put some blame proportionally all over the place.”