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.

Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts makes Russell Westbrook ‘next question’ jokes (video)

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Damian Lillard took a well-deserved victory lap after his buzzer-beating 3-pointer sunk Russell Westbrook – who seemingly took a shot at Lillard last year – and the Thunder.

Trail Blazers coach Terry Stotts had fun at Westbrook’s expense, too.

Westbrook has repeatedly answered questions from Berry Tramel of The Oklahoma with, “Next question.” Though Westbrook shifted to variants of “not sure” after the last couple games of the series, he still didn’t meaningfully answer Tramel’s questions.

Stotts interjected himself into Westbrook’s feud with Tramel before Game 3.

Clay Horning of The Norman Transcript:

Also, when former Sooner standout Terry Stotts, who is head coach of the Trail Blazers, entered the pregame interview room on Friday, the first thing he said was, “Go ahead, I’ll answer your question, Berry.”

Then, Stotts really laid it on thick after Game 5 last night, as shown in the above video. He specifically called on Tramel to ask a question then joked how badly he wanted to answer with “next question.”

Stotts landed on the hot seat after Portland got swept in the first round last year. He kept his job and did a fantastic work with the Trail Blazers this year. It’s great to see him enjoying himself.

I also can’t help but wonder how Westbrook feels about Stotts.

Kyle Lowry’s ring finger “popped out” during Game 5, he will be ready for Game 1 vs. 76ers

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In the second quarter of the Raptors’ close-out win against the Magic, Kyle Lowry injured his finger, apparently dislocating the ring finger on his right hand, his shooting hand.

However, it’s the playoffs, he was back in the game quickly and he will certainly be ready to go Saturday when Toronto begins a second-round showdown against Philadelphia. Kevin Arnovitz of ESPN has the details.

Lowry jammed the finger while deflecting a ball in the second quarter. During the subsequent timeout, the Raptors’ medical staff attended to Lowry’s hand on the bench. He returned to play but went back to the locker room with 2:41 remaining in the first half.

Lowry, who was wearing a splint on the finger during the postgame news conference, started the second half for the Raptors and finished with 14 points, 9 assists and 4 rebounds in 26 minutes.

“It popped out, but it’s fine,” Lowry said. “I popped it back in. Got a couple days to get it back and recover, and hopefully it will be better by Game 1. Well, it will be better by Game 1.”

It needs to be because the Raptors can’t have another 0-of-7 shooting start from him, which is what they got in an ugly Game 1 loss to Orlando. The 76ers are not the Magic, Toronto can’t have another dreadful start in Game 1 and dig themselves a hole at home.

Lowry’s shooting and playmaking will be a big part of that next series.

Grizzlies’ Jaren Jackson Jr. wants to work out with Kevin Garnett this summer

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Last summer, Jaren Jackson Jr. did some workouts with Kevin Garnett before embarking on his rookie campaign. It made sense for a lanky 6’11” rookie who can score in the post or step out and shoot threes to work with Garnett. There’s a similarity to the style of their games.

This summer Jackson wants to go back to that well, he told David Cobb of the Memphis Commercial Appeal.

Specifically, Jackson said he wants to improve his “motor” and his ball-handling and his shooting mechanics entering year two.

And he hopes to work on some of those skills with Garnett over the coming months. Jackson and Garnett spent time together last summer and again in February when Garnett visited Memphis to feature Jackson game for his “Area 21” segment on TNT.

The veteran Conley had some ideas for that workout and what Jackson needs to add to his game.

“I think for him, working out of the post, like mid-post, being able to jab and shoot off the glass, basically like Kevin Garnett would do,” Conley said.

Jackson had an impressive rookie season, averaging 13.8 points a game, shooting 35.9 percent from three, playing good rim-protecting defense, and he fit well with veteran point guard Mike Conley (and Marc Gasol, before the Grizzlies traded him). Despite being shut down with a thigh bruise after 58 games, Jackson is almost a lock for All-Rookie First Team.

He showed the potential to be a future All-Star and the cornerstone of the Grizzlies franchise into the future. Most importantly, he seems willing to put in the work to get there.

 

Kings reportedly meet with Jeff Hornacek about lead assistant coaching job

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Among the questions and frustrations with the Lakers this past season — and there were many, most of them much more significant than this — were questions about the construction of the coaching staff under Luke Walton. Brian Shaw was the lead assistant, a former NBA head coach with plenty of experience, but there were questions about the experience on the rest of the staff.

Throw in the uncertainty circling Walton right now after a sexual assault allegation against him, it makes sense to have a veteran coach right next to Walton on the bench in Sacramento. That may be Jeff Hornacek, Sam Amick of The Athletic reports.

According to sources, Walton and Kings general manager Vlade Divac met with former Phoenix Suns and New York Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek in Sacramento about the possibility of him being the team’s lead assistant coach.

Amick’s primary point is that as of right now the Kings and Walton are moving ahead as if their working relationship will continue. They are lining up assistant coaches and taking the other steps expected this time of year for a new coach.

Both the Sacramento Kings and NBA are investigating the allegations of sexual assault against Walton, put forward in a lawsuit by a former female reporter for the Lakers’ regional sports network. Kelli Tennant, the accuser, conducted a press conference to state her case on Tuesday. Walton, through his attorney, has denied the allegations.