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.

Anthony Davis, Patrick Beverley, more return to sweet home Chicago for All-Star

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CHICAGO — For Anthony Davis, it means a lot of things. Like snow.

“I don’t get to see the snow as much now. Me and my cousins would go outside and have snowball fights almost every day after school,” Davis said. “I kinda miss that.”

And deep-dish pizza.

“Giordano’s pizza is my go-to,” Davis said.

For Patrick Beverley, it means grit.

“My Chicago grit goes everywhere with me,” Beverley said. “It’s something, when I get on the court, I try to represent. That’s just a part of my game.”

For a handful of players — Davis, Beverley in the Skills Challenge, Miami’s Kendrick Nunn in Rising Stars, Detroit’s Derrick Rose (who had to pull out of the Skills Challenge due to injury) — the NBA All-Star weekend of events is a chance to come back home, to the city where they grew up and learned to play the game.

“Really excited to be back home, really excited to see my friends, the high schools I went to,” Beverley said. “I’m really excited to smell the Chicago air. I’m so happy to be back home right now…

“It’s an emotion I really can’t explain. It’s surreal to me, I find myself trying to pinch myself. I think the last All-Star Game (in Chicago) was 32 years ago, so I wasn’t even born yet. You know me, I represent Chicago, the grit of Chicago, I’m just fortunate to be able to represent the city the right way.”

“It’s good to be back home, spend time with my family, my friends…” Davis said. “Just trying to stay warm. But to get back here and play in front of the fans in the place I grew up, the place I had my first big-time game, the McDonalds game at UC (United Center). It’s been great to get back here and re-live some of the high school memories I had here in Chicago.”

Davis didn’t attend one of Chicago’s basketball powers. Kind of the opposite. He went to Perspectives Charter School — which didn’t even have a gym on campus at the time. They played at a church nearby. Davis entered school as a 6’2″ guard who was relatively unremarkable, but he grew 8 inches in 18 months, bringing those guard skills with him, and suddenly he was on the top of everyone’s recruiting lists.

Davis could have transferred to any of Chicago’s power schools, like Rose’s Simeon Career Academy, but he stayed at Perspectives.

“I was just being loyal, it was my junior year and I didn’t want to leave and have to sit out a year, so I kinda just stayed around and tried to stick it out,” Davis said. “My dad always gave me the saying ‘no matter where you are they’ll find you,’ and I kind of took that to heart and kept doing what I was doing, working hard, and eventually someone would come see me. Then Coach Cal [Kentucky’s John Calipari] came to one of my games and the rest is history.”

Chicago influenced all of their games.

For Beverley, he said it was another Chicago guy, Will Bynum, who served as a mentor. Plus, when Beverley was in elementary and heading into middle school, it was the Michael Jordan Bulls era.

“There were a lot of parades at that time, the city was on fire. Literally on fire,” Beverley said. “Seeing all that made you want to go out and play basketball. I guess that was every kid’s dream.”

When Davis was having his growth spurt and starting to emerge in high school, Derrick Rose was drafted and took over the NBA — right there in Chicago.

“Derrick Rose is still one of my favorite players to watch,” Davis said. “He was the guy every guy underneath him looked up to. The things he did for the city, and him getting drafted to the Bulls and that whole run, it was just inspiring for all of us.”

All-Star weekend is not a time Davis is going to get to chill on the couch with family and friends. The games, the charity events, the sponsor events — and not to mention a few parties — pull the players in the events a lot of directions.

“I haven’t been able to take it all in, I’ve been running around,” Davis said.

But they are still home. They get to smell the Chicago air, see some friends.

And maybe throw in a slice of pizza.

Fellow NBA players think Aaron Gordon was robbed in Dunk Contest, too

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Aaron Gordon got robbed.

At the conclusion of the best NBA All-Star Saturday night Dunk Contest in years, Orlando’s Aaron Gordon jumped over 7’5″ — without shoes — Tacko Fall, and still got a 47 score that cost him the contest to Derrick Jones Jr.

“Jumping over somebody 7’5″ [note: without shoes] and dunking is no easy feat,” Gordon said, stating the obvious. “What did I get, like a 47? Come on, man. What are we doing?”

Gordon’s fellow NBA players have his back.

There was one dissenter: Andre Iguodala thinks the judges got it right.

NBA loses hundreds of millions of dollars in China, may return to play preseason games in 2020

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CHICAGO — The NBA’s damaged relationship with China hit the league’s bottom line hard, and the relationship is not yet back to normal, but NBA Commissioner Adam Silver is convinced it will get there. Eventually.

The fallout from a Tweet from Rockets’ GM Daryl Morey supporting the protestors in Hong Kong — and the league’s refusal to publicly punish him or remove him from office — has hit the league’s pocketbook hard, NBA Commissioner Adam Silver admitted Saturday night.

“I think that the magnitude of the loss will be in the hundreds of millions of dollars,” Silver said in his annual All-Star Weekend press conference. “Certainly, probably less than $400 million, maybe even less than that.

“It’s substantial. I don’t want to run from that. We were taken off the air in China for a period of time, and it caused our many business partners in China to feel it was, therefore, inappropriate to have ongoing relationships with us. But I don’t have any sense that there’s any permanent damage to our business there, and as I’ve said before, we accept the consequences of our system and our values.”

That financial hit has impacted the league’s bottom line, and the salary cap.

After a slow and rocky start, the NBA eventually backed Morey’s right to express his opinion on the political matter of the protests in Hong Kong. However, that is a third-rail issue for the Chinese government, and the fact Morey apologized and soon removed the Tweet was not enough — the Chinese government pushed for him to be fired. The Rockets and the league made no such move, Morey remains the Rockets GM.

As a result, NBA games are still not broadcast on state-run television in China, although they are available for streaming (and the viewership is similar to past years), Silver said.

Silver struck an optimistic tone that the NBA’s relationship would return to normal, eventually. That includes the possibility that the league will play preseason games there next fall, something it has done most years for a long time.

“There were two sets of games that may be potentially played in China,” Silver said. “There have been discussions about pre-Olympic games. So this would be USA basketball playing in China. So there are ongoing discussions there, and there also are ongoing discussions about whether we will return for preseason games next year.”

Silver said that the outbreak of the Coronavirus has put all those talks on hold as China focuses on that health crisis.

“It’s almost hard for us to be having conversations about the broadcasting of games when there’s a major national, if not global, health crisis happening,” Silver said. “So the answer is I just don’t know sort of next steps in terms of the process. We’ve had lines of communication open for a long time with counterparts in China, and as I said, I think there’s a mutual interest in returning to normalcy in terms of the distribution of our games.”

Silver added that the league has helped, donating to relief efforts tied to the virus, as it does in the wake of disasters around the world.

For now, all the league can do is be patient and wait.

Aaron Gordon dunks over 7’5″ Tacko Fall, somehow still robbed of Dunk Contest win

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CHICAGO — Aaron Gordon cannot catch a break in an All-Star Dunk Contest dunk-off.

In the best Dunk Contest since 2016 — when Gordon controversially lost in a dunk-off to Zach LaVine — Gordon lost another dunk-off, this time despite dunking over 7’5″ Tacko Fall for the final dunk of the night.

“Jumping over somebody 7’5″ [note: without shoes] and dunking is no easy feat,” Gordon said, stating the obvious. “What did I get, like a 47? Come on, man. What are we doing?”

Yes, Gordon got a 47 out of 50 for that dunk and the crowd in the United Center was not happy with the judges, but that was a theme for the night. The judges, for their part, apparently were conspiring to send the dunk-off to a third round but screwed it up.

 

Gordon, who now has lost three Dunk Contests, two in dunk-offs, leaves the peoples’ champ but he is not coming back.

“It’s a wrap, bro. It’s a wrap. I feel like I should have two trophies,” Gordon said when asked if he would do another Dunk Contest.

Gordon should have gotten a 50 and won on that last dunk, but make no mistake, Derrick Jones Jr. earned the win — most of the night his dunks were cleaner and, to my eyes, right there with Gordon’s.

Jones — who turned 23 on Saturday — started the final round by leaping over two people and taking the ball between the legs.

Then went off the side of the backboard, between the legs and threw it down.

Jones was ready for the extra dunks.

“I got a whole lot in my arsenal,” Jones said of the couple extra dunks. “I knew every dunk that I was going to do even if it went to overtime. I planned this.”

This was a great dunk contest because it wasn’t just the two finalists who were throwing down epic dunks.

One of the most entertaining dunks of the night came from the Bucks’ Pat Connaughton — the white guy in the contest leaned into it and went with the White Men Can’t Jump dunk. He did it over the Brewers Christian Yelich, but somehow only got a 45.

Connaughton won the crowd over again with his second dunk, taking the ball from Giannis Antetokounmpo, tapping backboard, and then dunking. That got him a deserved 50.

Dwight Howard broke out the Superman dunk again, but this time as a tribute to Kobe.

The NBA history books will record this as a Derrick Jones Jr. win. But everyone who watched this contest knows who won.