ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: The Atlanta Hawks

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Last season: It was the end of an era. Josh Smith’s final season in Atlanta ended the only way it really could: with plenty of ill-advised shot attempts, tons of highlight-reel plays, and probably most importantly, another early playoff exit. After a first round loss to the Indiana Pacers in six games, it was fair to yet again classify the Hawks as a very good team that just didn’t have enough weapons to hang with the league’s elite in the postseason.

Signature highlight from last season: Jeff Teague summons Spud Webb. Nastiness ensues.

Key player changes:

IN: Paul Millsap (Jazz), Elton Brand (Mavs), Dennis Schroeder (17th pick), DeMarre Carroll (Jazz), Gustavo Ayon (Bucks),  James Johnson (Kings), Jared Cunningham (Mavs), Damien Wilkins (76ers), Pero Antic (Greece).

OUT: Josh Smith (Pistons), Devin Harris (Mavs), Ivan johnson (China), Dahntay Jones (Bulls), Zaza Pachulia (Bucks), Johan Petro (China), Anthony Tolliver (Bobcats), Deshawn Stevenson.

Paul Millsap should be able to replicate Josh Smith’s offensive numbers with shots from smarter locations, but replacing Smith’s rim protection and defensive abilities will be a much tougher task. To help Millsap out on that end, the Hawks brought in quality defenders like Brand and Carroll to help fill the void. Schroeder, meanwhile, should quickly cement himself as one of the best on-ball defenders in basketball. He’s a weapon in the mold of Avery Bradley defensively.

Although Smith was a highly underrated passer, Hawks GM Danny Ferry made sure to bring in big men highly capable of operating from the high post, which should be a great fit if new head coach Mike Budenholzer’s offensive system resembles what the Spurs ran while he was in San Antonio.

Keys to Atlanta’s season:

1. Can San Antonio’s blueprint work in Atlanta?

The Hawks have moved on from a period defined by stagnation to become “Spurs East” with Ferry and Budenholzer at the helm. Financial flexibility has been at the heart of most of the major decisions thus far, but the Hawks have still managed to do a fantastic job molding a team in the Spurs vision on the fly. Jeff Teague’s raw speed and ability to score in the paint with floaters is reminiscent of Tony Parker, and Al Horford’s bankable production and reliable 18-footer are a little Tim Duncan-esque. You don’t have to strain much to see the similarities.

It’s no wonder why after 17 seasons under Gregg Popovich, this was the team and situation Budenholzer left the nest for. The Hawks have the shooting with Kyle Korver and John Jenkins to spread the floor for their multi-talented big men, which could make this offense dynamic — particularly if sixth man Lou Williams comes back healthy off a torn ACL.

2. Can the Hawks defend well enough to take down the beasts of the East?

The East is littered with great defensive teams like Chicago, Indiana, and Miami. Will the Hawks defend well enough to approach that level of play? Ferry loaded up on intelligent players this offseason, but there will certainly be challenges on the defensive end. Can Millsap help protect the rim? Can the wings (Korver, Jenkins, Williams) close out against shooters after finishing 28th in three-point percentage allowed last year?

The Hawks did finish 10th in defensive efficiency last season, but the system this year will have to be greater than the sum of its parts. Depending on size and athleticism to clean up the messes simply won’t cut it anymore.

3. Can Jeff Teague make the big leap?

With the ball in his hands more than ever before, Jeff Teague enjoyed the best season of his career with averages of nearly 15 points and 7 assists a game. Is an even bigger breakout year on the horizon?

If you believe in the Parker comparison, the answer is yes. Through four years, Teague has put up nearly an identical PER as Parker did (15.6 to 15.5) along with a better true shooting percentage and a better assist percentage. Parker really blew up in his fifth season, however, earning his first All-Star bid while shooting a ridiculous 54.8 percent from the field.

Asking that of Teague is a little much, but the dynamite young point guard could be in line for a big leap this year. For the Hawks to really contend in the East, they’ll need it.

Why you should watch the Hawks: Korver’s jumper belongs in a textbook, Millsap and Horford’s post passing will be a treat, Teague’s crazy athleticism will make for plenty of highlights, and Schroder’s minutes will be must see TV. The Spurs play beautiful basketball, and so should the Hawks. If you get only five League Pass teams this year, make the Hawks one of them and thank me later.

Prediction: 49-33. This is an extremely intelligent basketball team that should be able to recognize and account for shortcomings elsewhere. With solid depth, good specialists, and a core that could be in line for big improvements in a new system that should better accentuate specific skills, I’m bullish on the Hawks improving from their 44 wins last season.

Kyrie Irving: “there’s enough oppression and stuff going on in America” that is his focus

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Kyrie Irving finally got some preseason run on Friday night. A fracture in his face had limited his time on the court, including playing just one minute in China against the Lakers, but back home in Brooklyn he put on a mask and dropped 19 points in almost 25 minutes of action.

However, the issues from China followed the Nets back to Brooklyn.

Hundreds of supporters of the Hong Kong protesters attended the Nets game, wearing “Stand with Hong Kong” T-shirts and masks.

After the game, Irving was asked about the protesters and the now scarred NBA/China relationship. He mentioned the meeting with Adam Silver and said he understood the protestors but his focus was more domestic, via Nets Daily.

“Listen, I stand for four things: inner peace, freedom, equality and world peace, man. So if that’s being conflicted inside of me, I’m definitely going to have something to say, and I left it in that room,” Irving said of his conversation with Silver [adding the teams agreed after that meeting to play the games]…

“When you think about communities across the world, a lot of people would stand for world peace,” Irving said. “Government gets involved, it impacts different communities in different ways. And the reality is as individuals it’s our job to stand up for what we believe in. Now, I understand Hong Kong and China are dealing with their issues, respectively. But there’s enough oppression and stuff going on in America for me not to be involved in the community issues here as well.

“That’s one of those four pillars that goes in terms of the black community, colored people here in America. We’re fighting for everyday freedoms. So when I think about Hong Kong and China, the people are in an uproar; and for us as Americans to comment on it, African Americans or American Indians to comment on that, you’re connected nonetheless, especially when it impacts freedoms or world peace.

“So for me as an individual I stand up for those four pillars; and when they’re being conflicted I can understand why protestors come to the games.”

That is much better handled than LeBron Jamessomewhat rambling statement that mentioned financial repercussions. Irving supported the rights of the protesters at the game, but he avoided touching the third-rail issue in China (or, at least with Chinese officials) of the protests in Hong Kong themselves. Remember, Irving does have shoes to sell.

We’ll see if there’s any fallout on the issue, but Irving is not as big a brand and target as LeBron.

Some of those lined up to bash the NBA on this issue will use what Irving said to continue doing so (and many would have no matter what Irving said). There are people who didn’t like what LeBron and Irving and Kevin Durant and others had to say when they spoke out on issues such as Black Lives Matter and now they see an opening to make lazy political points. It’s the way of the world.

However, as much as the league wishes it would the NBA/China issue is not going away. It may go dormant for a while — the NBA certainly wants it to as they try to promote the start of the season this week — but it will flare up again, one way or another. Hopefully, the league’s response next time comes with a better understanding of its priorities and what it stands for.

 

Watch James Harden drop 44 in final preseason game

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MIAMI (AP) — James Harden sure seems in midseason form.

Russell Westbrook isn’t there yet.

Harden, the reigning NBA scoring champion, scored 44 points in 35 minutes – 18 of those points coming in the third quarter – and the Houston Rockets ended the preseason with a 144-133 victory over the Miami Heat on Friday night.

]”James was ridiculous,” Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni said.

Harden was 12 for 26 from the field, 8 for 16 from 3-point range and 12 for 13 from the foul line. He also had seven assists and five rebounds, and finished the preseason averaging 31.5 points.

“That’s the way he’s wired,” D’Antoni said. “He loves to play. I couldn’t take him out in the fourth quarter if I wanted to. He’d play 48 if he could. He’s wired that way. He gets better every time. I don’t know what his ceiling is. But he’s, to me, the most improved player every year. He’s just ridiculous.”

The Rockets didn’t get out of the game unscathed, however. Austin Rivers could play only seven minutes before being downgraded to out with neck soreness, and Westbrook – who has been dealing with some dislocated fingers on his right hand – left the game in the fourth quarter in obvious discomfort.

Westbrook lost the ball, immediately grabbed at his right hand, then ran off the court and straight into the tunnel leading to the Rockets’ locker room without stopping. He finished with 16 points, four rebounds and four assists on 6-for-13 shooting in 26 minutes.

“Both of them told me they were OK, so we’ll take that,” D’Antoni said.

D’Antoni said Westbrook aggravated the finger issue, and will be fine. A top task for the Rockets in this preseason was figuring out all the ways to best utilize their new point guard, with D’Antoni acknowledged is still a bit of a work in progress.

“I was with him for eight summers in USA Basketball,” D’Antoni said. “He’s a great guy. Works hard. Unbelievable athletically. Just the speed and power that he can play with … he’s relentless.”

Some of D’Antoni’s favorite moments during Westbrook’s brief Houston tenure so far have been ones that few people have seen – since they’ve come in practice, in moments where the competitive juices have perhaps overflowed.

“He gets ticked off in practice sometimes and the next 3 minutes, he’s killing people,” D’Antoni said. “He needs that competitiveness to juice him up. He’s not like the old guy at the Y who will knock you down and shoot it. No, no, he’s coming at you with all the athleticism that he has.”

Westbrook will have a few extra days to get through the issue with his fingers. He and the Rockets don’t open the regular season until playing host to Milwaukee on Thursday.

Eric Gordon scored 23 points for Houston and Clint Capela finished with 20 points and 13 rebounds.

Kendrick Nunn scored 40 points in 40 minutes for Miami, making 15 of 27 shots. Tyler Herro scored 14 points and Bam Adebayo made all six of his shots on the way to a 13-point, 11-rebound night.

Jimmy Butler didn’t play for the Heat, held out to rest.

Andrew Bogut appears to take shot at LeBron on Twitter

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The NBA wants it to, and it will eventually fade some (only to flare up again later), but the NBA/China relationship issue is not going away.

The latest spark comes from across the ocean, down in Australia, where former Warrior (and Buck and a couple other teams in the middle) Andrew Bogut takes what is a pretty clear a dig at LeBron James over the China issue.

Let me explain… No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Rockets GM Daryl Morey Tweeted support for the Hong Kong protesters just before the NBA was about to send the Lakers and Nets were about to head to China for a couple of exhibition games. China flexed its muscle to punish the NBA for touching a third-rail issue by having corporate sponsors pause their involvement with the league and preseason games were not shown in China. Adam Silver issued a milquetoast statement that seemed aimed to appease China, and when a backlash from the United States — still by far the largest NBA market — came swiftly Silver adjusted his position and came out more backing Morey’s right to free speech.

After all that, once back in the states, LeBron vented about the situation, saying Morey wasn’t “educated” on the topic, and seeming frustrated because the Tweet put the players in China on the front lines of an international trade dispute — remember, there is a trade war and tariffs. However, LeBron’s meandering comments came off as being more concerned about money than free speech. LeBron said he was saying Morey didn’t think through the consequences of his Tweet (true) and that he doesn’t have to take a public stand on every issue (also true) but it all came off as LeBron prioritizing protecting his brand,

Which leads to a lot of criticism. Some a lot more direct than what Andrew Bogut said.

Report: Grizzlies, Bulls have conversations with Iman Shumpert

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Iman Shumpert is just 29 years old, which seems crazy because it wasn’t that long ago he was making the All-Rookie team in New York or winning a title with LeBron James.

The point is he’s still young, was on the court for the Rockets during the postseason last year, and is the best free agent available. He turned down a contract offer from the Rockets before the preseason (which may have been incentive heavy, like Nene’s) and remains on the market.

Some team is going to snap him up. That team could end up being the Memphis. Or, maybe Chicago. That according to Shams Charania of The Athletic.

Free-agent guard Iman Shumpert has had conversations with teams, including Memphis and Chicago, league sources said. Shumpert, an eight-year NBA veteran, is one of the best players remaining on the market.

Chicago has Zach LaVine and Otto Porter starting on the wing, but they may want more veteran depth behind them. Memphis has the combination of Dillon Brooks and Grayson Allen at the two, they may want to add some veteran depth to that mix.

At this point, teams are just starting to accurately assess where they are and where they need help — players they thought would step up didn’t, or there are injuries creating gaps — and that will continue into the first weeks of the season. As that happens, a few of the veterans on the sideline will get picked up (no, probably not Carmelo Anthony, that’s another topic).

Shumpert should be at the front of that line. He’s already got interest.