ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 Preview: Atlanta Hawks

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Last season: Until Al Horford went down in December, the Hawks looked like the only Eastern Conference team not named the Miami Heat or Indiana Pacers that wasn’t a complete joke. Even after Horford underwent season-ending surgery to repair a torn right pectoral muscle, they were able to make the playoffs and give the top-seeded Pacers a serious scare in the first round. A lot of that credit goes to the offensive scheme installed by first-year head coach Mike Budenholzer. Newcomers Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll thrived in Bud’s spacing-heavy system alongside Kyle Korver, and even the toughest defense in the league found it a nightmare to figure out.

Signature highlight from last season: Korver, who has been one of the deadliest long-range shooters in the NBA for a decade, broke Dana Barros’ long-standing record of 89 consecutive games with at least one made three-pointer. Korver’s streak didn’t end until it reached 127.

Key player changes: The Hawks mostly filled in around the edges, leaving their core as-is but swapping out some role players. They drafted power forward Adreian Payne and signed former Thunder guard Thabo Sefolosha to bolster their perimeter defense. Backup point guard Lou Williams was traded to the Raptors, replaced by Kent Bazemore.

Much more pressing, of course, was the scandal that broke last month. Majority owner Bruce Levenson copped to sending a racially insensitive email about fans attending Hawks games, and agreed to sell his stake in the team. Then, details of even more racially insensitive remarks made by GM Danny Ferry about free-agent forward Luol Deng during a scouting meeting surfaced, kicking off a firestorm that resulted in Ferry taking an indefinite leave of absence.

Keys to the Hawks’ season:

How much of a distraction will the off-the-court mess be to players? The Hawks enter the season with Budenholzer overseeing basketball operations during Ferry’s leave, and ownership in limbo. Even though the roster and coach are relatively stable, situations like this can weigh on teams — just look at the Clippers in the weeks immediately following this spring’s Donald Sterling revelations. They’re going to have to answer questions about it, and at some point a new ownership group will come into play. That’s a lot of uncertainty, but hopefully the players and Budenholzer will be able to tune out the drama and focus on basketball.

Will Horford stay healthy? The Hawks’ 39-43 record last season doesn’t look great on its own, but they played much of the year without their two-time All-Star center. When Horford went down on December 26, the Hawks were 16-13. Over the rest of the season, they went 23-30. Horford has had two season-ending injuries over the last three years, but he’s been largely durable throughout his career and he’s only 28. Budenholzer implemented the five-out lineup after his injury, and although it took some time to get it in place, it was extremely effective by the time the playoffs came around. Horford isn’t an outside shooter, but he’s a skilled defender who gives the Hawks the kind of weapon on both sides of the ball they didn’t have without him.

Is Jeff Teague the long-term answer at point guard? The Hawks let Teague test restricted free agency last summer. He ultimately signed a four-year, $32 million offer sheet with the Bucks, which Atlanta immediately matched. He had a solid year, but there’s been nothing to indicate the Hawks view him as a foundational piece, or that they wouldn’t be open to trading him. They’re very high on second-year point guard Dennis Schröder, who didn’t play much in his rookie season but should get more opportunities this year. There’s a chance he could take some of Teague’s minutes if he blossoms and make the five-year veteran expendable.

Why you should watch: The Hawks have one of the prettiest offenses in the NBA, a ball-movement-heavy machine adapted from Budenholzer’s time with the Spurs. They’ll hit a ton of three-pointers, and a healthy Horford is extremely fun to watch.

Prediction: 48-34. Provided Horford stays healthy, the Hawks are in a position to compete for home-court advantage in the playoffs. Horford’s return and the addition of Sefolosha will strengthen Atlanta’s defense, while their offensive scheme remains extremely tough for opposing defenses to figure out.

The time Kendall Gill stayed out all night then led Hornets to early-afternoon win (video)

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In the great history of NBA party-then-play stories, 15-year-pro Kendall Gill has a new tale from his rookie year with the Hornets in 1991.

Gill on Off The Dribble:

We pulled into D.C. My cousin took me out. I was out until 6 in the morning. He brings me back to the hotel. My coach, Gene Littles, is sitting in the lobby. And as I walked in the door, he’s like, “What the hell are you doing out here, rook? Don’t you know we’ve got a game at 12 o’clock in the afternoon?” Well, turns out, I go and I score 28 points that day, the high for my rookie season. I scored 28 points. He comes to me after the game and says, “You can go out and hang out any time you want to until 6 in the morning – if you play like that.”

A couple details are off. Gill scored 24 points to lead Charlotte over the Washington Bullets on March 31, 1991. But that wasn’t his season high. He scored 28 a few days earlier in Phoenix. The Washington game also had a listed start of 1 p.m., not noon.

Still, this comes close enough on the verifiable facts. Besides, I want the fun parts of this story to be true, so I’ll choose to believe them, anyway.

Birthday boy Karl-Anthony Towns giving Timberwolves even more reason to celebrate

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Tom Thibodeau is gone. Jimmy Butler is gone. Karl-Anthony Towns has taken greater ownership with the Timberwolves.

Towns organizes team-building activities like Topgolf and a halloween party. Towns gives the pump-up speech before each game. Towns communicates more on the floor.

That’s why, Towns said, he didn’t even realize his birthday was approaching until his parents recently reminded him.

“I get caught up in work,” Towns said.

Whether or not Towns actually needed the reminder, let alone for such a flattering reason, his birthday – which is today – got him reflecting. He felt old.

So, Towns mentioned to Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders that his birthday was around the corner. Saunders had the opposite realization: Towns is turning 24 today. Just 24!

“He’s still young,” Saunders said. “As a coach, that gets me excited.”

Towns is one of the NBA’s special talents – a proven star with room to improve. Picking up the momentum he built last season, Towns appears to be really coming into his own this year.

The center is posting his usual impressive numbers (25.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), but his new attitude has stolen the show. He fought Joel Embiid and went face-to-face with Rudy Gay.

Don’t let the antics completely overshadow an impressive basketball story, though. Towns has led Minnesota to a surprising 7-4 start by revamping his game. Most of his shots are coming from beyond the arc, and his 4.2 assists per game are a career high.

By creating spacing and keeping the ball moving, Towns is contributing to a style that lifts all the Timberwolves. Perhaps, nobody has benefited more than Andrew Wiggins, who’s fitting right into this modern look.

The transformation is only the latest chapter for Towns, whose reputation has fluctuated significantly throughout his five-year career. This might explain why he already feels so old:

Minnesota drafted Towns No. 1 in 2015, and he won Rookie of the Year. In the 2016 and 2017 NBA general-manager survey, a plurality of voting executives picked Towns as the player they’d most like to start a team with. In the 2017 survey, Towns also received the most votes for league’s best center (even while getting a couple votes as league’s best power forward).

On paper, Towns delivered. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams the following season. He also reached the playoffs for the first time.

But Thibodeau and Butler butted heads with Towns, who never showed the hard edge those former Bulls tried to coax from him. After trading Butler, Minnesota went right back to losing.

In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, no general manager picked Towns to start a team with. Only a few picked him as best center.

Now, the landscape has shifted again. Anthony Davis spends a lot of time at power forward. Joel Embiid doesn’t stay as healthy. Nikola Jokic has fallen way off.

Towns is the early frontrunner for All-NBA first-team center.

“Everybody takes big steps in their growth at different times,” Saunders said, “and I think we’re seeing that from Karl.”

Towns can’t take anything for granted, and neither can the Timberwolves. But he at least has a good chance for vindication after his preseason playoff talk.

The way Towns has implemented more 3-point shooting into his game is particularly impressive. His 9.0 attempts per game lead NBA bigs, and he’s converting more than 40%. But floating on the perimeter was once a sign Towns was being too passive. Now, Towns is finding the right balance between spotting up beyond the arc and playing aggressively.

That’s in part his own mentality changing, in part his teammates’ mentality changing. Gone are the days when Towns could be an afterthought outside the paint.

“The ball is always going to find KAT,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “He’s the center of our offense.”

Towns’ defensive intensity still comes and goes. He still must prove himself in the playoffs, and that usually requires trials and tribulations he hasn’t yet experienced.

But at age 24, Towns is finally/already showing something special.

DeAndre’ Bembry gets ejected for taunting Ricky Rubio, continued talking (video)

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The Hawks are rapidly changing. General manager Travis Schlenk took over just two years ago and has already turned over nearly the entire roster. Only DeAndre’ Bembry remains as an inherited player.

It’s not an easy situation for Bembry, who’s headed toward free agency next summer. He’s playing for a team with a lead executive who never chose him. Bembry can’t count on any team investing in him.

That’s the context in which Bembry got ejected from Atlanta’s loss to the Suns last night. He blocked Ricky Rubio‘s shot, taunted the Phoenix guard, got a technical foul, kept talking and got another technical foul.

The ejection seems pretty weak, but Bembry left himself vulnerable to the techs.

Hawks rookie Cameron Reddish also got ejected for multiple flagrant fouls.

Eric Bledsoe apparently bothered Bulls with post-buzzer dunk (video)

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Eric Bledsoe doesn’t care about the rules – written or unwritten.

As the buzzer sounded in the Bucks’ 124-115 win over the Bulls yesterday, Bledsoe dunked then hung on the rim. The basket came after time expired and didn’t count.

Bulls forward Thaddeus Young and coach Jim Boylen confronted Bledsoe on the court:

Young, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“We all know what it is,” Young said. “They had the game won. There are some things you just don’t do at the end of games just out of common courtesy. We’ll move on. It is what it is. It happened. We just have to be ready when we play them in four or five days. We gotta be ready to get a win.”

“That’s with any team that cares about the morals and principles of the game,” Young said. “If we did that and the score was the opposite, they’d say the same thing. It is what it is. We just gotta be ready in four or five days. We gotta get a win. That’s the only way we can follow it back up now.”

Usually, I’d say: If you don’t like it, stop it. But that doesn’t really apply for a post-game dunk. There’s no defense after the buzzer.

Still, I’m not outraged by Bledsoe’s dunk. I bet, aside from Bulls partisans, most people aren’t (though plenty could work themselves into a tizzy if they desire). Some of Chicago’s bitterness probably stemmed from losing and allowing Bledsoe to score 31 points on 12-of-12 shooting inside the arc.

If the Bulls want to use this as motivation, more power to them. They should. Young, whose professionalism appears exemplary, is an ideal messenger.

But Boylen, who wouldn’t comment on this to the media, can’t claim the moral high ground.