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.

Shaq donates a year’s rent to a paralyzed Atlanta boy

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ATLANTA (AP) — Basketball Hall of Famer Shaquille O’Neal has donated a year’s rent in a new home to an Atlanta woman whose 12-year-old son was paralyzed in a shooting at a football game.

O’Neal tells WXIA-TV  that Isaiah Payton’s family had been living in a one-bedroom apartment that wasn’t accessible for people with disabilities.

“It’s just sad. It could have been any one of us,” Shaq told the Atlanta station. “It could have been my son. It could’ve been your cousin. She was living in a one-bedroom apartment with her two boys, so we found her a house in a nice area.”

Now they have a home in a good neighborhood. He says he’s helping furnish the home and will pay its rent for the next year.

Isaiah was shot through the spine in August after a football scrimmage between two high schools. Sixteen-year-old Damean Spear also was wounded and treated for minor injuries. Isaiah’s mother, Allison Woods, has said relearning how to care for Isaiah meant she had to leave her job, adding financial stress to her emotional turmoil.

Jazz reportedly extend contract of coach Quin Snyder, locking him down well into future

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Quin Snyder has evolved into one of the best coaches in the NBA (and my pick to win Coach of the Year this season). He’s built a development program and system in Utah that has turned Rudy Gobert into a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, Donovan Mitchell into the face of a franchise, and Joe Ingles into a guy other teams covet. His players like and respect Snyder, and he has worked well with the front office of Dennis Lindsey and Justin Zanik.

So the Jazz are locking him up with a contract extension beyond the two seasons remaining on his deal. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN broke the news.

Utah Jazz coach Quin Snyder has agreed to a long-term contract extension, league sources tell ESPN. Snyder had two years left on his deal, and a new contract extends multiple years beyond that term, sources said.

After upgrading the team’s talent base over the summer, locking Snyder into an extension had been a top organizational priority.

Jazz fans should be ecstatic about this.

Snyder has built a system team in Utah, one that moves the ball beautifully on offense, and that has been tough to defend in the regular season, with the Jazz winning 50 games last season. Utah has made it to the second round of the playoffs the past two seasons, but when the level of play made that leap a lot of the system gets taken away by good defenses, and the Utah offense became Donovan Mitchell against the world. It didn’t work, Mitchell (still just 22) wasn’t fully ready and there was not enough shooting around him.

This past summer, the Jazz added Mike Conley at point guard and Bojan Bogdanovic on the wing, two excellent shooters who also can create off the dribble. Expectations are high in Utah.

Whatever happens, Snyder is their coach now for a long time.

Giannis Antetokounmpo says he learned from Kawhi Leonard: “He was calm”

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Milwaukee was up 2-0 in last season’s Eastern Conference Finals on Toronto, having won those games by an average of 15 points. Giannis Antetokounmpo had scored 54 points, pulled down 31 rebounds, dished out 11 assists, and was looking every bit the MVP.

Then the games shifted to Toronto, Kawhi Leonard took over — including guarding Antetokounmpo more — and the Raptors rattled off four straight wins to take the series on their way to the NBA title. The Greek Freak still averaged 20.4 points a night in those final four games, but the buckets were much harder to come by.

Milwaukee returns this season as the Eastern Conference favorites and legit title contenders, in part because of what they learned from that loss. Antetokounmpo told Vincent Goodwill of Yahoo Sports he learned a lot directly from Leonard in that series.

“I learned a lot from him,” Antetokounmpo said. “He knocked down free throws. He was calm. When double-teams came, he was swinging the ball but getting it right back. He was aggressive. He was calm but he was on a mission.”

Leonard is the living embodiment of the old John Wooden axiom “be quick, don’t hurry.” He’s not rushed, he’s rarely forced into shots he doesn’t want to take or plays he doesn’t want to make.  That’s true of all champions on some level. LeBron James, Kobe Bryant, Tim Duncan all bring an inner calm.

If Antetokounmpo brings that to his game, the Bucks are one big step closer to a title.

Domantas Sabonis on trade rumors: ‘I know exactly how the Pacers feel about me now’

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The Indiana Pacers have started to explore the trade market for Domantas Sabonis. There are logical reasons for this: Sabonis is good (he was second in Sixth Man of the Year voting last season), yet he and the Pacers are nowhere near agreement on a contract extension, and the Pacers already paid big money for Myles Turner to be their center, how much do they want to pay Sabonis, too?

That’s sound logic if you’re in the Pacers’ front office.

If you’re Sabonis, it can feel like a slap in the face to a guy who put in a lot of sweat and passion for the franchise. That’s what Sabonis sounded like in this quote, via Scott Agnes of The Athletic.

The Pacers are not talking about the report, which started with the well connected and reliable Sam Amick at The Athletic.

Pacers’ brass needs to talk about this with Sabonis (and likely already have, behind closed doors). If the Pacers trade him, it’s likely not until after Dec. 15 at the earliest (when most players signed this summer can be included in a deal) and probably closer to the February trade deadline. That’s a lot of season to play out, and Sabonis remains a vital part of the Indiana rotation.

There is likely to be a lot of interest in Sabonis on the market. However, because he’s a center (a position teams are careful not to overspend on in today’s market) and in the last year of his rookie deal — meaning he becomes a restricted free agent next summer and gets more expensive — teams are not going to overpay for him. Right now the Pacers are asking for too much and interested teams are lowballing their offers. The sides will meet in the middle.

That middle could shift if Sabonis has a rough start to the season. Both sides need him to play well and feel comfortable, whatever is going on with the business side of his contract.