51 Q: Can Hawks maintain balance without DeMarre Carroll?

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PBT is previewing the 2015-16 NBA season by tackling 51 big questions that we can’t wait to see answered once play tips off. We will answer one a day right up to the start of the season Oct. 27. Today’s question:

Can the Hawks replicate last year’s success without DeMarre Carroll?

Even as the Hawks cruised to 60 wins and the first seed in the Eastern Conference last season, one question never really went away: can you contend for a title without a single superstar? That may have been the wrong question to ask. Their season was a tremendous success, making it all the way to the Eastern Conference Finals. If the matchups were different and a few health things broke right, it’s easy to imagine this team making it to the Finals as it was built. The better question to ask about their long-term potential is whether, for a team this balanced and precise in its construction, they can survive the loss of one of their most important players.

That’s the question the Hawks are going to have to answer this season. Heading into free agency, they had to choose between re-signing Paul Millsap and DeMarre Carroll; they opted to keep Millsap, while Carroll, their most important perimeter defender, signed a big contract in Toronto. In a vacuum, Carroll is a replaceable role player. But his physical, versatile defense and solid outside shooting were integral to what the Hawks were able to do last season. He was the only member of the starting lineup left off the Eastern Conference All-Star team, but there’s a reason all five starters shared Eastern Conference Player of the Month honors for January. The problem with the Hawks’ no-stars approach isn’t the lack of one go-to scorer, it’s the fragility of the construction. If one piece is out of place, things can fall apart quickly, and Carroll is a big piece to lose.

The Hawks have a few options to replace him, but none of them are ideal. They’re hoping they find their new Carroll in Justin Holiday, a little-used bench wing from the Warriors with similar potential. Like Carroll when he joined the Hawks in 2013, Holiday isn’t much of an outside shooter (he shot 32.1 percent from beyond the arc last season), but the Hawks are hoping their coaching staff can turn him into one, like they did with his predecessor.

Tim Hardaway, Jr., whom they acquired on draft night, is another player who will see a lot of minutes on the wing in Carroll’s absence. Hardaway is further along as a scorer than Carroll was when they signed him, but he’s a bit of a ball-stopper. It’s going to be an adjustment to fit him into Mike Budenholzer’s unselfish, movement-heavy offense, but he’s got the talent if he’s willing to buy in. He’s also going to need a lot of development on the defensive end, where he never amounted to much in his first two years with the Knicks. If Atlanta’s development staff can turn him into a solid two-way player, that trade will be considered a success.

The biggest question mark in the Hawks’ stable of wings, however, is Thabo Sefolosha. He’s still recovering from a broken leg suffered in April’s nightclub incident in New York. If he’s healthy, he can make a tremendous impact on the defensive end. The Hawks allowed 7.1 fewer points per 100 possessions last season when Sefolosha was on the floor than when he was off. But even when Sefolosha is healthy, he isn’t the offensive player Carroll is.

Replacing Carroll isn’t going to be easy, and it might have to be a by-committee effort unless Sefolosha is fully healthy or one of Holiday/Hardaway makes significant strides in their first year in Atlanta.

The good news is that elsewhere, the Hawks have gotten better. They picked up Tiago Splitter from the Spurs for nothing. Last year, their biggest weakness was lack of frontcourt depth outside of Millsap and Al Horford. Now, they have a legitimate three-man rotation up front and have the flexibility to play Horford at either frontcourt position, depending on matchups. Splitter will help the Hawks defensively and his passing ability for a big man is a good fit for what the Hawks do offensively. But Carroll’s versatility and ability to play power forward in smaller lineups will be missed, and there’s no immediate answer on their roster to replace that.

In all likelihood, the Hawks take a step back from last season, which was their best year in franchise history in regular-season wins and their first trip to the Eastern Conference Finals since they lost the 1961 Finals as the St. Louis Hawks. But they’ll still be a playoff threat, competing with the Heat and Wizards in the Southeast Division. If Millsap and Kyle Korver can stay healthy, they will at the very least be a good team with a chance to be a top-four seed in the playoffs. If they get lucky with some of their new additions, they have the potential to be more than that.

Russell Westbrook trade to Houston official, Thunder praise him on way out door

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Whatever their long-term intentions, after Paul George was traded the Oklahoma City Thunder changed focus. General Manager Sam Presti sat down with Russell Westbrook and his agent, talked about the future, what the former MVP wanted, then worked on trading him where he wanted to go.

That was Houston.

The Westbrook to the Rockets trade for Chris Paul — with Oklahoma City picking up two first-round picks and two pick swaps — is now official.

In announcing the trade, the Thunder praised the greatest player in their franchise history on his way out the door.

“Russell Westbrook is the most important player in the brief history of the Oklahoma City Thunder. He has left an indelible mark on this team, city and state,” Presti said in a statement. “None of us could have anticipated the player he has become, and we are all deeply proud of what he has contributed to the success of the franchise and to our community. Russell and his wife Nina, their three children, his brother and his parents will always remain part of the Thunder family. We wish them nothing but happiness and success in the future.”

“I have a great deal of respect for Russell and there is no way to adequately describe our appreciation for what he has meant to Oklahomans,” said Thunder Chairman Clayton I. Bennett. “His legacy here is immense, and he will be honored by the team for all he has done. We wish he and Nina and their family all the best. While this era of Thunder basketball now comes to an end, I’m confident our talented team of people will once again position the Thunder for success in the future.”

While Presti and the OKC front office are still working on a CP3 trade, they are entering a rebuilding phase.

The Rockets are banking on Westbrook and James Harden being able to work out any fit issues — and finding a way to defend with both of them on the court — to keep them as title contenders.

Anthony Davis dances around question about re-signing with Lakers

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After the drama around his push to get to Los Angeles, league executives and other sources around the NBA expect Anthony Davis to re-sign with the Lakers on a max contract next summer.

However, Davis has paired up with LeBron James, and rule one of the LeBron contract playbook (and agent Rich Paul’s, too) is to keep the pressure on a franchise. Make the team improve and keep itself in title contention.

So it’s not a surprise that when ESPN’s Rachel Nichols asked Davis about re-signing with the Lakers, he didn’t answer the question directly.

Nichols: You’re only signed through this season. Do you think you will be a pillar of the Lakers for years and years to come?

Davis: Honestly, Rachel, I’m just focused on this season. I don’t know what’s going to happen. I have one year here, so I’m going make the best of this year. And when that time comes around in the summer or, you know, whenever the season’s over — hopefully, around, you know, mid-June, after we just had a parade, and I need a couple days to think — then we can talk about that. But until then, I’m trying to do whatever I can to help this team win this year.”

That a well-handled scripted answer hitting all the talking points.

After the NBA summer we have just gone through (and continue to see with Chris Paul), nobody sane will say Davis would never leave the Lakers after one season. Cut to Kevin Garnett screaming “Anything Is Possible.”

However, he came to the Lakers to win rings (now and in the future), to take over as the face of the franchise when LeBron steps away in a few years, to get the kind of recognition and endorsements he felt were not coming his way in New Orleans, and ultimately to have his jersey up in the rafters with Wilt and Kareem and Shaq. That’s the plan. Which means AD will re-sign with the Lakers next summer.

He’s just not going to say that right now.

Kendrick Perkins: ‘Pelicans better lock Zion in the House’ because of great New Orleans food

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Zion Williamson‘s weight became a discussion point during Summer League.

The general consensus going into the draft was that Williamson would ultimately want to play a little lighter in the NBA than he did in college (but without losing his strength). Since then Duke coach Mike Krzyzewski came out and said the No. 1 pick was not in Summer League shape and should not have played. Some broadcast analysts said he looked heavy. In the hallways and behind-the-basket defacto meeting space of Summer League there was a lot of talk among league watchers about the Pelicans needing to get Zion with their trainers and dietitians to prepare him for the 82 game grind.

Kendrick Perkins warns that’s not going to be all that easy in the Big Easy.

As a wannabe foodie, let me just say that Perkins is spot on about the food in New Orleans. It may be my favorite food city in America, it is home to the ultimate comfort foods, and the portions are not small. From muffulettas to gumbo to po’ boys to fried every-kind-of-protein-you-can-name, New Orleans cuisine is both undeniably delicious and not the foundation of a healthy diet.

It’s going to take some discipline from Williamson, who also can afford his own chef now to keep the meals at home healthy and tasty. Then gumbo can be a splurge-day treat.

Rockets coach Mike D’Antoni: ‘If the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work’

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James Harden and Chris Paul worked reasonably well together on the court, but they played through a lot of tension.

Now, the Rockets are going to a new star backcourt that invites even more questions.

How will Harden and Russell Westbrook fit?

Houston coach Mike D’Antoni on The Woj Pod:

If the superstars want to play together, then they will make it work.

To be able to win a title now, you have to get superstars together – and whether it’s two or three or how many else you can get. And then it becomes a chemistry. Because everybody’s ball-dominant. When you’re a superstar, you’ve been the main guy for sure. Now, you’ve got to make it work. And sometimes personalities, it doesn’t work. Sometimes, it works for a while. Sometimes, it’s hard to manage, sometimes. Again, if they’re not on the same page totally 100 percent, I think the organization has to look and see what’s best for the organization.

D’Antoni was asked about Harden and Westbrook. (Best I can tell, D’Antoni never named Westbrook on the podcast, which should allow the coach to avoid a fine.) But D’Antoni could have easily been describing Harden and Paul.

It seems Harden and Paul no longer wanted to make it work. Those two played better together than most people realized. The Rockets were one of the NBA’s best teams each of the last two years, and they had an elite offense. But Harden and Paul clearly grated each other.

Now, Harden and Westbrook will get a fresh start together. They sound eager to re-join forces after beginning their careers together with the Thunder.

D’Antoni is correct: Harden’s and Westbrook’s desire to make this work will go a long way.

But Harden and Paul were once enthusiastic about pairing, and that went south. An initial commitment to teaming up is important. It can also wane quickly.

It also can’t overcome every fit issue. Sometimes, stars just don’t match, no matter their intentions.

D’Antoni is also right about super teams generally require ball-dominant stars to sacrifice for the greater good. There are always diminishing returns on grouping stars.

But other situations have included stars with more complementary skills. So much of what Harden and Westbrook provide involves having the ball in their hands. The diminishment of returns will likely be greater in Houston.

Harden’s and Westbrook’s talent give the Rockets a huge leg up. Those two wanting to play together will push each to do his best to make it work.

It’s still far more complicated than that.