NBA Season Preview: Atlanta Hawks

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Last season: Just another Hawks season.

That’s the best way to put it after a year where despite losing Al Horford for the vast majority of the season, Atlanta managed to land a top four seed in the East. They had this bizarro season underneath the headline of “Boring.”

They would look awesome one night, as Josh Smith played at an elite level, and the team really gelled for long stretches. But then they would hit national TV and things would happen like the Heat not playing the Big 3 and still beating the Hawks, at home. It was like they were intentionally trying to look horrible at home.

Everyone was tired of the Hawks by season’s end. The inconsistent play, the isolation offense, the general blaise. The fans, the media, no one cared about them. They were supposed to lose in the first round, and they did.

But snuck under the talk of Ray Allen’s injury and Paul Pierce battling an MCL sprain along with a one-game suspension for Rajon Rondo was this: the Hawks played Boston tight. They were in that series, but the emotional lift from losing Rajon Rondo put a fire under the Celtics, and when they come out like that, they’re extremely difficult to beat. Meanhwhile, the Hawks’ bigest advantage against the Celtics was their size… and yet Horford took a few games to get back and then wasn’t 100 percent, and Zaza Pachulia, who always causes the Celtics issues, wasn’t around at all.

It was the kind of misfortune that creates a facade of failure. The Hawks were better than most people thought they were, but never good enough to matter, still.

Something had to change.

Key Departures: Joe Johnson has been an All-Star six times. Straight. Most people don’t really catch that, but it’s true. And Danny Ferry happily traded him for almost nothing after he took over the team as GM.

Johnson is an elite defender and at times can be a great scorer, but he’s also heavy on the isolation and not as efficient as he once was. Most importantly, the Hawks threw a max contract at him to keep him in 2010 that the Nets will be paying for at roughly the cost of the GDP of a small nation.

Ferry moved Marvin Williams to clear even more space, getting one of the most disappointing draft picks in team history and getting the memory out of people’s minds.

Jerry Stackhouse was let go, and Willie Green released in a sign-and-trade. Jason Collins was a very useful center the past two years but he also was not retained in free agency. Vlad Radmanovic, AKA VladRad, AKA Space Cadet, went to the Bulls.

Key Additions: In return for Johnson, Ferry took Anthony Morrow, DeShawn Stevenson, and some filler, most of which has been waived or won’t see much time this season. The idea was clear. Create space from a team with none by any means necessary. Adding Morrow does give them a crack shooter, however.

He traded for Kyle Korver to add yet another shooter to a team that had very little last year and now has a ton.

For Williams, Ferry landed Devin Harris, giving him a capable backup point guard behind Teague, or a replacement if Teague doesn’t make the required leap.

The team signed Anthony Tolliver as a free agent to give them another stretch four and brought in Lou Williams to replace Willie Green.

They drafted John Jenkins who showed a lot of promise in Summer League.

Three keys to the Hawks season:
1) All-The-Time Teague: I’ve started referencing the phrase “Playoff Teague” the past two years because Jeff Teague is an entirely different player when the playoffs begin than during the regular season. He makes bigger shots, plays faster and harder, and blows you away with his athleticism and big-play ability. So why doesn’t he do that throughout the year? Why did he so often lose his job to Kirk Hinrich when Hinrich was healthy?

Teague has to become a consistent star this season, not something that’s easy for point guards in a point-guard dominant league. He has better shooters to drive and kick to, and will have a lot more freedom in the offense now that ISOJoe is working in Brooklyn. But Teague stil has to take every game as crucial and really lead this team. They can’t afford to just care about the big games, because they’re not going to win a lot of them with this crew.

Teague has to convince himself every game is on the big stage.

2) Is Josh Smith ready to be the guy? Josh Smith is in a contract year. He’s been passed over for All-Star spots despite being more than deserving, has been ridiculed for his penchant to take long-twos, and largely overlooked. He’s also played out of his mind the past two seasons.

Without Johnson, this is Josh Smith’s team. Al Horford will play a big role. Jeff Teague will direct the offense. But this is Josh Smith’s team now. He has to be more efficient, take a bigger load, and be willing to act as more of the finisher than set-up guy.

And, as always, stop with the long twos. For the love. The man is dominant in the post. This mid-range tyranny must end.

3) Will Drew open up the offense? He has a lightning-fast point guard who can drive and dish. He’s got a set of dominant post players in Horford and Smith. He’s got shooters galore with Morrow, Korver, and others.

But Larry Drew has stuck to the grind-it-out offense that kept his team mired in the mud. The team has athleticism and skill, and needs ball movement. There are no Kobe Bryants on this team, no LeBron James. But they have speciality players who can play well in their roles. This team may only go as far as Drew lets them. There has to be some imagination and push in the way the offense is set.

What Hawks fans should fear: Smith’s not elite. And without that, this team could fall prey to the “good enough to not be terrible, not good enough to do anything of note.” But then again, that’s where they’ve been for three years, so really what’s the difference?

The Hawks are moving towards an all-out rebuild eventually. This is the year in-between. But if the opportunity to snag a lottery pick comes available, bet that the Hawks will jump on it. Ferry knows he needs a new, legit star. He won’t hesitate to go get it via the draft.

How it likely works out: The Hawks could honestly wind up making the playoffs. They have good skill players, some athleticism, a good to great defensive coach and shooters. But they lack in total star power, we don’t know what Horford will look like after injury, whether Josh Smith will buy in, if Teague will make the leap, if Drew will open the offense up.

The Hawks won’t be terrible, but they may not be good either. This is one where we have to see what happens when you put all the ingredients in the oven.

And again, don’t discount the possibility of a midseason tank job. Ferry knows the long-term game here.

Prediction: 43-39, they’ll be right there for the eighth seed. Atlanta has a good set of players but not enough to be in the elite category. A long losing streak could be followed by a long winning streak, and much will depend on the health of their shooters. But Drew coaches defense so well, and Teague-Smith-Horford is enough to carry them to at least .500.

Report: Atlanta trades Kent Bazemore to Portland for Evan Turner

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Portland is always on the search for some quality play and shot creation at the forward spots (something that is a long-running weak spot), and with this trade the Trail Blazers get a little better.

Atlanta is sending Kent Bazemore to Portland in exchange for Evan Turner in a straight up, two-player trade, a story broken by Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN.

Both players are in the final year of their somewhat overpaid contracts, Bazemore will make $19.3 million while Turner will pull down $18.6 million. Atlanta does save about $640,000.

This trade makes a lot of sense for Portland. Bazemore is a quality wing rotation player who averaged 11.6 points per game, is athletic and can create shots. Last season Bazemore was on his way to a career year until a mid-season ankle injury, and while he did come back to the court he was never healthy and the same player. He’s not a knock-down three-point shooter but he has usually been at around 35 percent or a little higher five of the past six seasons (he was down to 32 percent last season because of the ankle injury). This is more than just Rodney Hood insurance, this is an upgrade.

Turner was the guy Portland counted on as another shot creator, but he could not do that consistently or under pressure. He averaged 6.8 points per game last season, shot 21.2 percent from three, and is not a great defender. He is a popular teammate and good in the locker room (something useful with a young Hawks squad), but this is not an upgrade for the Hawks.

Then why did Atlanta make this trade? Good question. The franchise does save $640,000, which is helpful but not earth-shattering. Maybe it’s a favor to Bazemore to get him on a team that went to the Western Conference Finals a season ago and is a threat going forward. However, the best reason may be the Hawks have three young players they like — Kevin Huerter, plus just-drafted DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish — at the same spot and this frees up minutes for them to play.

Whatever the reason, the deal can get done soon, before free agency opens.

Knicks fined $50K for violating NBA’s media rules

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Knicks owner James Dolan escalates fight after fight after fight after fight after fight after fight after…

One of his latest battles has been with the New York Daily News, the newspaper that urged him to sell the team. The Knicks have repeatedly denied Daily News reporters access. Barring the Daily News from a recent press conference apparently crossed a line.

NBA:

The NBA announced today that the New York Knicks have been fined $50,000 for violating the NBA’s rules regarding equal access for media.

The Knicks did not allow the New York Daily News access to their post-draft press conference on Friday, June 21 while allowing all other credentialed media who cover the team to attend.

The organization has agreed to comply with NBA Media Access Rules moving forward.

The Knicks released this statement:

“The Knicks acknowledge that we did not comply with the NBA’s media policy, and made an error in interpreting Friday’s announcement as an invite only event.  As we do throughout the year, we have and will continue to provide access to credentialed media as per the League’s policy.” <

This has been a dumb plan by the Knicks. Even executed as designed, it makes them look bad.

The Knicks should be trying to generate enthusiasm around No. 3 pick R.J. Barrett and double-max cap space (which could turn into Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving). Instead, the Knicks are drawing attention to their thin skin and pettiness. And they’re not stopping the Daily News from writing about the team, anyway.

For Dolan, a $50,000 fine is small. But it’s larger than my confidence his franchise will abide by the league’s media rules – which are designed to ensure fans receive information – going forward.

Rumor: Kevin Durant not happy with Warriors

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Kevin Durant‘s torn Achilles in the NBA Finals is the type of life-changing event that could significantly alter his thinking entering free agency.

But we don’t know how Durant was thinking before the injury. And we don’t know how he’s thinking now. He has yet to speak publicly.

That won’t stop rumors, though.

Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report:

the indication from several league sources is that Durant is not happy with the team, and the presumption is that it stems from whatever role Warriors officials played in his decision to suit up. Coach Steve Kerr says he was told Durant could not further injure himself by playing, which obviously proved not to be true. If Durant was told the same, it would give credence to the notion that, as one league executive claims, “He’s really pissed off at the Warriors.”

Jay Williams, who’s close with Durant, said the Warriors misdiagnosed Durant and mishandled public statements about him. Williams doesn’t necessarily speak for Durant, but that might be the best indicator so far of Durant’s mindset.

Do Bucher’s sources have other reason to believe Durant is upset with Golden State? Or are they just assuming Williams is representing Durant’s thoughts? The possibility of the former is what makes this intriguing. But I’m skeptical, especially of someone Bucher identifies as just “one league executive.” That’s light credentials for someone spewing rhetoric like “really pissed off.”

Still, Kendrick Perkins and Brian Windhorst reported on momentum building toward Durant to the Nets. There’s plenty of smoke behind the idea Durant will leave Golden State.

Re-signing with the Warriors might be the way for the injured 30-year-old to maximize his earnings, though. Their max offer projects to be worth $221 million over five years. Other teams’ max offers project to be worth about $164 million over four years. Durant could agree to a delayed sign-and-trade. Of course, he couldn’t actually guarantee Golden State would ever trade him.

So, if he’s that upset with the Warriors, he’ll just leave once free agency opens next week.

Adam Silver likes NBA teams moving away from term ‘owner,’ prefers ‘governor’

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Warriors star Draymond Green has objected to using the term “owner.” The 76ers use “managing partner,” not “owner,” as Josh Harris’ title.

Does NBA commissioner Adam Silver like teams moving away from the term owner?

Silver, via TMZ:

I do. I don’t want to overreact to the term because, as I’ve said earlier, people end up twisting themselves into knots avoiding the use of the word owner. But, we moved away from that term years ago in the league. We call our team owners governor of the team and alternate governors. So, I think it makes sense. As I’ve said, I don’t want to overreact, and you’ll find the word throughout memos over the past decade in the NBA. But I’m sensitive to it, and I think to the extent teams are moving away from the term, we’ll stick with using governor.

Players have gone both ways. I think a few players have actually spoken out and said the greatest thing that ever happened was when Michael Jordan was able to call himself an owner. But, of course, Draymond Green has been very public about the fact that we should be moving away from the term, and I completely respect that.

The elephant in the room: Slavery. The history of white people owning black people is the subtext to this entire discussion. Slavery looms over a league where most owners are white and most player are black.

However, the term “owner” here doesn’t refer to owning the players, but owning the team. “Ownership” has far wider historically usage than slavery. In most fields, “owning” companies – which NBA teams are – doesn’t generate backlash.

Are we too loose with the term “owner” in sports? Perhaps. It’s common to say something like, “Players should strongly consider their potential owners in free agency” rather than “players should strongly consider their potential team’s owners in free agency.”

But there are power differences between players and owners/managing partners/governors/whatever you want to call them. Unless addressing the actual underlying issues, changing terms will accomplish nothing.

Those power dynamics are why the Warriors referred to Mark Stevens as “Mr. Stevens” and Kyle Lowry as Kyle Lowry after Stevens pushed Lowry during the NBA Finals. Those power dynamics are why Donald Sterling took guests into the Clippers’ locker room to ogle players. Those power dynamics are why LeBron James is remembered as the bad guy from The Decision despite Dan Gilbert’s wild letter.

There will always be differences between players and owners. Owners have more money and staying power. But the NBA can create a better, fairer environment for its players.

It’ll just require deeper consideration than a simple word change.