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.

NBA makes it official, moves up free agency six hours to 6 p.m. June 30 (Eastern)

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I’d like to think this means we’ll all be able to go to bed at a reasonable hour on June 30. I also know better.

There is a frenzy of activity right as free agency opens (Tampering? There is no tampering in the NBA…), which traditionally has been as the clock turns to July 1 in New York, right at midnight. Things got so active that a lot of agents and players made sure they were in Los Angeles, even if they didn’t live there in the offseason, just so things started at the more reasonable hour of 9 p.m.

Now the NBA has made the rumors official: Free agency will begin at 6 p.m. Eastern on June 30. Six hours earlier than before.

This was done as an agreement between the NBA and the National Basketball Players Association.

This is going to be a wild July with a lot of big-name free agents — Kevin Durant, Kyrie Irving, Klay Thompson, Jimmy Butler — and maybe a third of the players in the league on the market, plus there are a lot more teams with cap space to spend this season. It’s going to be a frenzy.

Now we know what time the wild times start.

Why does Kevin Durant respond on social media? “I’m qualified to talk about basketball”

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Every NBA player gets ripped on social media, even the guys who are not on social media. Most of the time players just ignore it, the way they ignore fans yelling stuff courtside or distant family asking them for money.

Kevin Durant, however, gets into it sometimes, even with national media members (and even had a burner account). Which always becomes a thing.

Why? Why not just ignore it? From Durant himself at practice Friday, via NBC Sports Bay Area.

“Because I have social media,” Durant said Friday… “I mean, I’m a human being with a social media account. I could see if I ventured off into like politics, culinary arts or music and gave my input, but I’m sticking to something that I know. You know what I’m saying? This is all I know. I’m actually talking about stuff that I know. I’m qualified to talk about basketball.

“So when I respond to something, especially if it’s about me personally, of course I’m going to tell you if you wrong about it. When I’m on the training table getting treatment on my calf and I see a tweet that come by and I disagree — I don’t talk to people because I’m worried about what they say, it’s just that I’m interested. So if you talking about in-game or the NBA Finals, they’re the same to me, you know what I’m saying?”

Durant seems to have more time on hands to get into these spats while he is out injured. Which likely will last into the start of the NBA Finals.

Does this mean the Drake/Durant beef is inevitable?

LeBron likes Instagram of Kyrie Irving in Lakers jersey, Internet goes berserk

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The Lakers landing Kyrie Irving in free agency this summer might be their best realistic option. It’s far, far from a lock — the Knicks, and yes Celtics, will make their pitch, too — but reuniting the pair that won a title in Cleveland is on the Lakers’ radar. (Insert your own, “you know who should coach this team” Tyronn Lue joke here.)

Fueling the speculation, LeBron James and Irving were seen hanging out together at a club in Los Angeles recently. Then Friday, this happened: Cuffthelegend posted this on Instagram and LeBron liked it.

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I like how this feels

A post shared by Savage Season 365 (@cuffsthelegend) on

(For the record, Cuffthelegend gets some stuff right, he’s not a guy who posts stuff out of nowhere.)

Of course, NBA Twitter and the web responded to this in its usual measured, thoughtful way. Some Lakers fans think the deal is done, others mock the idea altogether.

Two thoughts on Irving and the Lakers:

• Multiple reports say Irving is open to it. Irving also has a strong relationship with Kevin Durant, and Boston still plans to trade for Anthony Davis and then try to re-sign Irving (even if Boston fans are done with Kyrie). The only person who knows which way Irving is leaning right now is Irving, and there’s a good chance he changes his mind in the next five weeks anyway.

• If the Lakers are going to land a star free agent this summer, it will be because LeBron was an active recruiter. These elite players have options, and the Laker front office is not inspiring confidence of late, it will be on LeBron to win guys over.

 

Jeremy Lin: Milwaukee security guard asked for my pass to Raptors team bus

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Jeremy Lin has discussed people not believing he plays in the NBA.

It apparently still happens.

Lin, whose Raptors are playing the Bucks in the Eastern Conference finals, via Bill Michaels Sports Talk Network:

After Game 2 in Milwaukee, I was trying to get to the team bus and one of the dudes in the Milwaukee arena just screams at me. He’s like, “Where do you think you’re going?!” And I’m like, “Uh, I’m trying to get to the team bus.” He’s like, “What?! Where’s your pass?” I was like, “I don’t have a pass. I don’t know what you’re talking about. I don’t have a pass.”

This happens in a lot of arenas, so I just kind of go with the flow.

It’s a fine line. Lin shouldn’t be profiled as a non-athlete because he’s Asian-American. Arena staffers should keep everyone safe by stopping unauthorized people.