NBA Season Preview: Atlanta Hawks

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Last season: 44-38, fifth seed in the East. Took out the Orlando Magic in six in the first round, before losing in six to the Chicago Bulls in the second.

Head Coach: Larry Drew

Key Departures: Jamal Crawford is technically still with the Hawks, but several reports have him trying to decide between Portland, the Knicks, or the Kings in free agency.

Key Additions: Tracy McGrady, Vladimir Radmanovic

Best case scenario: The Hawks make another trip to the second round of the playoffs, led by the emergence of Jeff Teague at point guard, along with Al Horford and Josh Smith playing to their strengths instead of to their desires.

Teague played well in last year’s playoff series against the Bulls, and if given the starting nod from day one as expected, should be able to provide some continuity and solid defense at the point guard position. Horford and Smith regressed offensively a season ago, and whether that was due to having to adjust to Larry Drew’s new system or simply preferring to shoot jumpers (and in Smith’s case, three-pointers) will be seen soon enough.

Joe Johnson is the team’s leading scorer, but Atlanta has always had one of the more balanced offenses in the league. He’s capable of increasing his level of production, but only if his bigs can play more traditional roles — at least some of the time — offensively. And the addition of Tracy McGrady, who was serviceable by most accounts last season, should help in that regard off the bench.

For that to happen: Horford and Smith need to use their size, skill, and athleticism in the paint to punish teams down low for easy baskets. That didn’t happen last season, and as pointed out by NBA.com’s StatsCube, it was a big reason the Hawks dropped from third in offensive efficiency the previous season all the way down to 21st a year ago.

If Drew can get them to buy in, Atlanta should go from a below average offensive team to an above average one, which would drastically improve its long-term prospects. The team was middling defensively in the regular season, but managed to slow Dwight Howard and the Magic enough in the playoffs to advance.

More likely the Hawks will: Struggle to be as good as they were last season. Even if the obvious improvements that need to be made are taken into account, the loss of Crawford’s scoring and the expected rise of the Knicks in the East are going to make it tough for Atlanta to remain in that four-to-five seed range. The team’s best hope to compete for fifth is that the Magic trade Dwight Howard for spare parts at some point this season, although at least as of today the Magic appear to be preparing to begin the season with him on the roster.

Prediction: 36-30, fifth place in the East.

Paul George says he talked to Nike about his shoes after Zion Williamson injury (VIDEO)

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The basketball community lost its collective mind on Wednesday night when Duke Blue Devils star Zion Williamson was injured after blowing out a pair of Nike basketball shoes in a rivalry game against the University of North Carolina.

Williamson’s injury was such that shares of Nike actually fell come Thursday. Meanwhile, the debate about whether Williamson should continue to play for free in the NCAA raged on all day.

Of course Williamson was wearing Paul George‘s signature shoe when he experienced the blowout, which apparently prompted the Oklahoma City Thunder star to contact Nike about it.

Via Twitter:

George’s shoes are very popular across basketball, and he told reporters that this had never happened to his knowledge.

I do wonder if players will be more reticent to wear one of the more popular shoes in the NBA. Then again, Williamson is a freak of nature in of himself so it’s not likely that the forces created by his power would be exerted by a normal player in the league.

Zion Williamson’s sprained knee became bad day for Nike

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When presumptive No. 1 pick Zion Williamson went to the ground, his knee twisting, early in Duke’s game against North Carolina Wednesday night, the basketball world collectively gasped.

Former President Barack Obama was there and quickly recognized the problem:

It did, unquestionably. The  6-foot-7, 284 pound Williamson was wearing the  PG 2.5 PEs (the Paul George signature line of Nikes), and when he made a hard cut the shoe gave out and Williamson went to the ground in a heap. The television cameras closed in on the busted Nike.

That’s not good press.

Fortunately, Williams suffered only a mild, Grade 1 knee sprain, and is day-to-day.

Nike released a statement to multiple media outlets that said, “We are obviously concerned and want to wish Zion a speedy recovery. The quality and performance of our products are of utmost importance. While this is an isolated occurrence, we are working to identify the issue.”

Nike stock dropped one percent on Thursday, although that level of fluctuation is not serious.

Bottom line, if this remains an isolated incident, Nike’s reputation — and position as the dominant force in basketball shoes — is not in danger. Fans and players will forgive one random incident. Have it happen again to a high-profile player and… Nike doesn’t want to find out.

 

Marcus Smart on today’s NBA: “Everything’s become real cute… Everybody’s scared to get hit”

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“I think it’s wonderful what we’re seeing in the league right now, some of the rules changes we’ve made in the last few years that really focus on skill-based playing. I’d like to think that young people around the world are able to look at this game and say, I can be as great as my desire to dedicate myself to this game, especially when it comes to shooting and ball handling. I get it, you can’t dream about being seven feet tall, but you can dream about having ball-handling skills like Steph Curry.”

That was NBA Commissioner Adam Silver All-Star weekend in Charlotte, and television ratings and overall interest in the league back him up — NBA ratings have been largely rising for years, both on the local and national level. Fans seem to gravitate towards fast-paced, entertaining teams and games.

But not everybody loves it. Charles Barkley can lead the “get off my lawn crowd.” However, there is a role for throwback players in the game. Guys who would have thrived in the 1990s, or the 1960s. Boston’s Marcus Smart is one of those guys — he told Mirin Fader of Bleacher Report he wishes there was more physicality in the league.

“Back in the ’60s, ’70s, my mindset and the way I play would be perfect. They play like that every game,” Smart says…

“That’s just what it is! Exactly!” he says, a smile breaking through. “I think we kind of lost that in today’s game. Everything’s become real cute. Everybody’s scared to go to the rim. Everybody’s scared to get hit. Everybody’s scared to touch.

“I thrive on the contact. Contact is in my nature.”

The NBA has always had to strike a balance between physicality and allowing skill to flourish. Right now the pendulum has swung well over to the skill side, and some fans romantically recall 1990s basketball when the pendulum was on the other side. They think of Michael Jordan or Allen Iverson and remember the era fondly through the haze of time. Of course, what that time obscured were the slogs of games with scoring in the 80s and maybe 90s, they forget how hard it could be to watch Mike Fratello’s Cavaliers clutch and grab their way to a slow, tedious, and coach-controlled four quarters. The 90s were not filled with the beautiful game.

But in any era, a guy like Smart has real value because he’s a good basketball player. Plain and simple. Just one who would like to be allowed to be a little more physical.

 

76ers coach Brett Brown: Markelle Fultz didn’t mean to insult Philadelphia coaches

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After getting traded from the 76ers to the Magic, Markelle Fultz said, “It just excites me really to know that I have coaches that’s going to push you to be better and not just going to tell you what you want to hear.”

I don’t know whether Fultz intended that to sound like a shot at Philadelphia coach Brett Brown. But it sounded like a shot at Philadelphia coach Brett Brown.

Keith Pompey of The Inquirer:

Brown said Fultz “didn’t mean that.”He said the two have spoken back and forth.

“He’s a good kid,” he said. “He’s a good young man, and, truly, we wish him well.”

I’d prefer to hear that directly from Fultz. But I doubt he’ll do any more interviews this season until he plays again – and who knows when that will be?

Still, it can be difficult for a player to compliment his new team without sounding like he’s admonishing his old team. There was always a good chance that’s all that happened with Fultz. Brown’s explanation makes that even more likely.