Hawks see their offense as evolution to defeat modern defenses

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The story of the Atlanta Hawks’ free-flowing, ball-movement/player-movement offense starts with the 2008 Celtics.

That was the year Tom Thibodeau’s defense took the league by storm and propelled Boston to the title. With Kevin Garnett as the quarterback and help defender, Kendrick Perkins snarling in the paint, and Rajon Rondo’s length on the perimeter, the Celtics unleashed a defense the NBA had not seen. That defense was designed to overload the strong side, take away options for penetration, and keep the ball on one side of the court. The defense targeted players who dominated the ball in isolation sets on the wing — say, Kobe Bryant during the 2008 NBA Finals — and it clogged their path to the basket. The defense also makes old-school, standard post up play from a big man far more difficult.

Over the years, as more teams adopted that style, the result has been declining percentages of isolation plays in the league. Now when you see players get the ball in isolation out on the wing it is more with the goal of starting the offensive set — drive the ball not to score but to quickly swing the ball to the other side and get the defense scrambling. Kick the ball to the opposite corner for a three. Make the extra pass. Break the defense down, and then get the open shot.

Which brings us to the Hawks… well, actually to the Spurs. They won a title last season with a motion offense made up of a handful of plays like the “loop” that are designed to tear apart a Thibodeau-style defense with player and ball movement. If executed properly.

This season’s Hawks — ranked sixth in the NBA at 106.6 points per 100 possessions — are executing it properly and it’s a thing of beauty.

“Coach Thibs’ defense, it was built for isolation basketball,” Hawks’ sharpshooter Kyle Korver told ProBasketballTalk, in an interview discussing the End It movement. “We’re going to keep the ball on one side of the floor, we’re not going to let the guys on the other side of the floor be a part of the game, and we’re really going to load up to that one guy. The way to beat that kind of a defense — even though it’s very difficult to do — is to get the ball to the other side of the court. So for us, I really think we try to get the ball to the middle and kind of read the defense.”

It’s part of the evolution of the game if you ask Hawks head coach (and former long-time Spurs assistant) Mike Budenholzer.

“I think the defenses have gotten better, the attention to detail on how to work defensively…” Budenholzer told ProBasketballTalk during All-Star weekend. “I think sometimes the defense is ahead of the offense and you have to adjust to score. I think the defense just gets better and better in our league. The effort, the commitment, the size of the players, so offenses have to figure out, what can we get?”

Every team has had to adapt on some level to what the Thibodeau defense took away. For example, look at the Golden State Warriors — last season Mark Jackson ran a lot of isolation-style sets and despite all the offensive firepower on that team they were 14th in the NBA in points per possession. Steve Kerr added motion and ball movement to get the defense scrambling, and now the Warriors are second in the NBA in offensive rating.

Not every team can do what the Spurs and Hawks do. It takes a certain mindset of player. Plus if you have talent you can get away with some old-school offense — the Clippers run a predictable pick-and-roll heavy offense, but they get away with it because Chris Paul and Blake Griffin are great talents. The issue for them is their margins of error are small — they need to execute brilliantly to win.

Meanwhile, the Hawks and Spurs are having fun and success playing this selfless, motion system — but putting together the right chemistry in the locker room to make it work is not easy.

“A lot of that is just because of how unselfish we are,” Korver said. “You’re going to touch the ball. Every quarter. You matter every single time down the court. Even if you don’t take the shot, you’re going to effect the shot in some way — you’re going to set the screen, you’re going to make the pass, you’re going to make the cut that opens it up. Every single time down the court everybody who plays matters and I think when you play that style of ball it’s just more fun.

“It’s just like anything in life, when you feel like you matter you do it with a little more energy, you invest a little more, you take ownership. And I think everyone on our team has done that, and it’s showing.”

So are other teams going to start running the loop, doing the same things?

“Is it going to catch on?” Korver asked. “Are more teams going to do it? I don’t know, but I think probably. I think everybody was trying to do the defense that Coach Thibs kind of created, everyone was trying to go to that the last few years. Because it is really hard to play against. maybe you will see more of this type offense, too.”

For the basketball purist in me, I would love to see that.

But the reality is that it takes a veteran team with the right players willing to do it. Teams have been trying to copy what the Spurs do as an organization for years, with limited success (at best). That’s not going to change now.

However, the Hawks may be the exception to the rule.

Atlanta G League affiliate promotes Tori Miller, first female GM in league

Tori Miller
Photo courtesy College Park Skyhawks
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The Atlanta Hawks aren’t just talking about progress and giving Black women a chance. They are acting.

The College Park Skyhawks, Atlanta’s G-League affiliate, has promoted Tori Miller to general manager. She is the first female GM in the G-League.

Miller, who grew up in Decatur (a city next to Atlanta), had worked for the team in Erie (when they were the Bayhawks) and followed the team with its move closer to its parent franchise. Miller served as an assistant GM last season before being promoted.

G League front office positions can be a stepping stone into an NBA front office.

The Hawks progressive move comes just as the team’s WNBA franchise, the Dream, has players trying to oust co-owner Kelly Loeffler, a Republican Georgia U.S. Senator, because she advocated against the league supporting Black Lives Matter. Loeffler has said she will not sell. It’s a problem not going away anytime soon.

Missouri U.S. Sen. Josh Hawley calls for NBA to put more politics into sports

Missouri U.S. Senator Josh Hawley
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Americans are increasingly inviting progressive politics into sports. Football players kneeling the national anthem are no longer an easy target. Even President Donald Trump has softened his tone on Colin Kaepernick.

So, some Republicans are pushing for MORE politics – their politics – in sports (sometimes under the guise of less politics in sports).

Missouri U.S. Senator Josh Hawley, like Tennessee U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn, has criticized the NBA for its relationship with China. It’s grandstanding while the United States itself has a trade deal with China.

Now, Hawley is objecting to the NBA’s pre-approved list of social-justice messages players can wear on their jerseys.

Hawley press release:

Today Senator Josh Hawley (R-Mo.) is sending a letter to NBA Commissioner Adam Silver blasting the league’s apparent decision to strictly limit messages players can wear on their jerseys to a few pre-approved, social justice slogans while censoring support for law enforcement officers or the military and any criticism of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Senator Hawley writes that, as the NBA is now sanctioning political messages, they must stand up for American values and make clear where they stand on China’s human rights abuses.

Senator Hawley writes, “The truth is that your decisions about which messages to allow and which to censor – much like the censorship decisions of the CCP – are themselves statements about your association’s values. If I am right – if the NBA is more committed to promoting the CCP’s interests than to celebrating its home nation – your fans deserve to know that is your view. If not, prove me wrong. Let your players stand up for the Uighurs and the people of Hong Kong. Let them stand up for American law enforcement if they so choose. Give them the choice to write ‘Back the Blue’ on their jerseys. Or ‘Support our Troops.’ Maybe ‘God Bless America.’ What could be more American than that?”

OF COURSE the NBA was going to limit jersey messages to a pre-approved list. The league doesn’t want the pressure of censoring players’ individual choices. Nor does the league want to condone messages that would offend offend customers and jeopardize revenue. Support for Hong Kong protesters would definitely qualify as financially perilous.

The NBA – a business trying to make money – wants to support its employees and appeal to its audience. These relatively benign phrases accomplish those goals.

That doesn’t prevent NBA players from criticizing China. I take NBA commissioner Adam Silver at his word (especially after the Daryl Morey controversy) that the NBA endorses its employees right to speak out.

The NBA just isn’t going to allow players to give just any message through their jerseys.

Some players are understandably bothered by that limitation. But the biggest pushes for change aren’t going to come through multi-billion-dollar corporations. That’s just reality.

Likewise, though Hawley raises legitimate concerns about China’s treatment of Uighurs and Hong Kongers, scolding an American company for legally acting in its best financial interest is… um… certainly a choice for a U.S. Senator.

Also, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski sent a profane two-word response in response to Hawley’s press release.

Wojnarowski:

NBA executive predicts every team will lose money next season

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The NBA is launching an unprecedented and ambitious operation – hosting the rest of its season in a centralized location with frequent testing – because that’s what’s necessary to play amid the coronavirus pandemic.

What about next season?

Coronavirus will likely remain a danger on Dec. 1, when the league hopes to begin. That threatens fan attendance. Heck, that could undermine teams playing at all in their home markets. All 30 teams, rather than just 22, adds complications.

Even if the season gets off the ground, there will be financial issues.

Brian Windhorst and Tim Bontemps of ESPN:

“The truth is, things are changing so fast that, when it comes to next season, the best we can do is put a stake in the ground and make a guess,” an Eastern Conference team president said. “The reality is nobody is probably going to operate in the black next season.

“The only question is how much each of us are going to lose.”

NBA owners love to cry poor. The actual math often reveals a different picture. There are complexities that teams can hide.

Some teams have already cut employees salaries. But some teams are also doing extravagant things like shipping their courts to Disney World for practice:

Still, NBA commissioner Adam Silver estimated 40% of league revenue comes from ticket sales and other game-day sources. If teams are ever believable about losing money, it’d be now. Coronavirus has wrecked so many sectors of the economy.

Revenue falling significantly would be felt by players, who – per the Collective Bargaining Agreement – receive about half of Basketball Related Income. (That 50-50 agreement supersedes players’ stated salaries in their contracts.)

It’s undecided how and when players would suffer those losses.

The 2020-21 salary cap could be reduced. But that would put the burden on players – free agents, draft picks – signing new contracts next offseason.

That’s why the salary cap is reportedly expected to remain roughly flat. There are a couple options within that scenario.

Players could have a larger share of their salaries withheld (as they’re doing this season). Then, at the end of the season, owners would return whatever money is necessary to reach the 50-50 split. However, that would reduce players’ spending power during the season.

Or players could collect their usual salaries with an artificially high salary cap. However, that would likely mean they get more than their entitled 50% share and the salary cap would be reduce in future seasons to offset. Current players – some of whom won’t be in the league in future years – would probably love that. Owners likely wouldn’t accept paying players more sooner.

Increased withholding from player salaries is probably the best option. But there’s plenty to decide about the exact withholding amount and how long the money is held. To ensure enough money is withheld, the percentage should initially be fairly high. Then, as the revenue picture becomes clearer, the withholding amount could decrease in future paychecks.

Of course, that assumes the league finds a safe way to play. Which is the biggest challenge.

Report: Wizards’ Thomas Bryant and Gary Payton II test positive for coronavirus

Wizards players Thomas Bryant and Gary Payton II
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Bradley Beal not playing sunk the Wizards’ for the NBA’s resumption, anyway.

If that and Davis Bertans sitting out weren’t enough, Washington is also without Thomas Bryant, Gary Payton II and Garrison Mathews.

Ava Wallace of The Washington Post:

The NBA announced 25 players tested positive from June 23-29. It’s unclear whether Bryant and Payton were among that group or additional positive cases.

It’s also unclear whether Bryant, Payton and Mathews will join the team at Disney World.

Bryant would be a particularly significant loss. His optimism and energy in tough situations are exactly what the Wizards need right now.

With the Nets severely shorthanded and the Magic looking uninspiring, Washington still has a path to the playoffs.