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Hawks commit more earnestly to rebuild, but enough?

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hawks were pretty good without a clear path forward.

Now, they’re pretty bad without a clear path forward.

Luckily for them – and despite their best efforts – they might be bad enough.

Atlanta continued its descent from its 60-win peak two years ago by losing its two best players. The Hawks let Paul Millsap leave for the Nuggets and traded Dwight Howard to the Hornets in what could be described as a salary rearrangement more than a salary dump.

After multiple half-measures toward rebuilding – refusing to offer Al Horford the max, trading Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver for first-round picks – Atlanta finally committed.

Kind of.

The Hawks hedged against full-on tanking by signing Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova. Those two big men – Dedmon in his prime, Ilyasova close enough to it – supply enough hustle and basketball intelligence to sabotage a proper tank. Coach Mike Budenholzer, whose teams tend to exceed the sum of their parts, won’t help Atlanta bottom out.

I can see breaking up a team with a playoff chance to torpedo high into the lottery. The Hawks aren’t doing that – not purposefully, at least. It appears they’re trying to remain credibly competitive, which could only undermine their rebuild.

Atlanta is rebuilding around Dennis Schroder, John Collins, Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry. The Hawks also have all their own first-rounders plus protected first-rounders from the Rockets, Timberwolves, and Cavaliers. But the Houston pick is the only one of those extras that can ever land in the top 10, and that’s just top-three protected this season, a season in which the Rockets project to pick in the low 20s.

Simply, this is not an encouraging asset pool to begin a rebuild with. Atlanta would benefit greatly from a high 2018 pick.

The Hawks just don’t seem interested enough in securing one.

They also lost Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha in free agency. Like the 32-year-old Millsap, the 33-year-old Sefolosha had no place on a team mostly rebuilding. The 25-year-old Hardaway could have fit into the next era or even as a trade chip, but not on the four-year, $71 million offer sheet the Knicks signed him to. Though Atlanta wisely passed on matching, it’s a shame to lose an asset for nothing.

That’s really the story of the Hawks’ descent. Millsap, Horford, Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll all walked in free agency. Atlanta was always reluctant to trade those players for value while it could.

I’m trying to grade only this offseason, not prior decisions. General manager Travis Schlenk took over this offseason, and he has the runway for a patient rebuild.

The Hawks wisely got a first-rounder for taking and buying out Jamal Crawford. Could they have found similar deals rather than signing Dedmon and Ilyasova? Could they have signed younger players instead?

The Hawks might hope they can trade Dedmon (two years, $12.3 million) and Ilyasova (one-year, $6 million) for even greater value, but that comes with complications. Dedmon has a $6.3 million player option for next season, so if his deal goes south, Atlanta is on the hook for another year. (If it goes well, Dedmon will become an unrestricted free agent and – fitting the theme – could just leave.) As a returning player on a one-year contract, Ilyasova can veto any trade.

If the Hawks had re-signed Millsap (and maybe Sefolosha, too), they could have made a decent case to return to the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Atlanta has the NBA’s second-longest active playoff streak, 10 seasons. That isn’t nothing, and continuing it would have been fine.

If the Hawks tried to return to the playoffs and failed, they would have ended up in a similar position to where they are now – somewhere in the lottery, but not necessarily high in it. They could have even traded Millsap – whose Denver deal guarantees him just $61 million over two years – for value.

If the future is murky either way, I’d rather be better in the interim.

Perhaps, Atlanta just tired of losing in the first or second round (though ownership and management has recently changed). That would have been the team’s likely ceiling if it re-signed Millsap.

But I just don’t see winning about 30 games as more pleasurable than reaching the playoffs, even with an early-round exit. A 30-win season doesn’t bring enough value in the draft to offset the difference.

Here’s the good news: The Hawks’ hedging probably didn’t go far enough. They might be downright terrible, anyway – positioning them to draft the elite young talent they badly need to galvanize their rebuild.

This was a D+ effort that stumbled into a slightly more favorable position – i.e., a team that struggles more than it expects.

Offseason grade: C-

Lakers loving LeBron’s leadership in first practice together

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EL SEGUNDO, Calif. (AP) Although the Lakers’ first official practice of the LeBron James era was focused on defense and learning new terminology, they ended it with a good old-fashioned 3-point shooting contest.

The Lakers’ new superstar was just another teammate during the spirited back-and-forth competition Tuesday. When James wasn’t draining his own 3s, he marveled along with everybody else at the surprising perimeter prowess shown by JaVale McGee, the 7-foot veteran with exactly one 3-pointer during a game in his 10-year NBA career.

The Lakers have many weeks of work ahead to become a cohesive team assembled around James, but he can already sense they’re heading down the right path. They’re planning to have plenty of fun along the way, too.

“I’m not a very patient guy, but I understand that I have to be patient right now,” James said. “I’ve got to be patient with myself, too, because this is a new start for me. It’s my first year in a new system. I know how to play the game of basketball, but this is all new to me, too. So I have to be patient with myself, not only with my teammates.”

James was both upbeat and businesslike after his first workout under coach Luke Walton, who entered the NBA in the same draft class as James in 2003. The Lakers will hold double practices and a scrimmage on the first two days of camp leading toward their preseason debut in San Diego on Sunday night.

James intends to enjoy the process in his new city.

“We’re here for one reason and one reason only, and that’s to someday hoist the trophy,” James said. “Obviously that’s the end of the road, but you have to have those types of championship habits every day, not only on the floor, but off the floor as well. … Everyone is excited to get back to work. That’s a good thing. No one is coming in today and wishing it was still summer. It’s the best time of the year. Basketball season is back up, baseball season is on its way to the playoffs, and the NFL is in Week 4. So what could you ask for as a sports fan?”

James naturally becomes the center of attention on any team, and he quickly assumed a leadership role for the Lakers. He’s also eager to see his veteran teammates assert themselves to help the Lakers’ young returning core, whether it’s Rajon Rondo instructing his fellow guards on assignments, or Lance Stephenson vocally calling out defensive instructions in half-court work.

“He’s LeBron. He’s one name,” Rondo said. “It speaks for itself. He’s been a leader and a mentor in this league for a long time, on and off the court. He has a blueprint off the court as well. So he embraces his role. He embraces all the pressure that he’s ever dealt with in his career, and he’s always risen above the occasion.”

Although Walton and James are just getting to know each other, the coach is grateful that his new star is leading by example from the opening practice.

The Lakers have lacked this level of respected on-court leadership in the two seasons since Kobe Bryant’s retirement, but LeBron and his fellow new veterans have strong ideas about how an NBA team must approach its work to be a winner.

“I could see it yesterday,” Walton said. “The way he’s approaching (practice) has changed from the pickup we were playing in the summer. It definitely set the tone. We’re on a journey that started today, and we’re very serious about the business that we got done today.”

More AP NBA: http://www.apnews.com/tag/NBA and http://www.twitter.com/AP-Sports

Dion Waiters looks a little out of shape as training camp starts (PHOTO)

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Each summer in the NBA we have to sit around and watch as players seemingly add pounds of muscle to their body. Over the course of the season, this added muscle typically melts away as players spend less time in the weight room and start running more than ever.

#MuscleWatch is a hilarious and staid part of the summer. But its cousin, Weight Watch, is a bit different.

On the flip side, some players show up in worse shape than they ended the season prior. Boris Diaw used to be the king of the early fall extra poundage. Now it appears that Miami Heat wing Dion Waiters is carrying a little bit of baggage with him as he starts training camp.

When Waiters’ headshot was published this week, Twitter had a bit of a field day with it.

Via Twitter:

This is not to body shame Waiters in anyway of course. As an athlete, his body is up for intense scrutiny with regard to his readiness for the season. And, how Waiters looks heading into training camp is markedly different than how he looked last summer.

No doubt when training camp starts, Waiters will get himself into shape and he will be ready to play by the time games start in October. Still, it’s always shocking to see a professional athlete add some lbs.

Damian Lillard says he started breaking Twitter news to put the ‘shoe on the other foot’

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Damian Lillard surprised us all this summer when he shockingly started tweeting out new destinations for media members as they changed jobs. It was a twist on the typical script, which would normally see journalists break news about athletes.

It was a fun moment on social media, and most people sort of shrugged it off as Lillard reporting information fed to him by members of the media who could be considered his friends.

Left unsaid was the place Lillard’s newsbreaking had with regard to the natural opposition some NBA players feel toward the media. No doubt Lillard getting to break some news instead of having news broken about him gave him some kind of satisfaction. While speaking to The Athletic’s Sam Amick this week, Lillard said as much.

Via The Athletic:

It was just a case of putting the shoe on the other foot. I think there’s a lot of stuff that we go through as players, or a story might come out that might have a little bit of truth, but somebody adds (to it) or put their own spin on it or whatever. We don’t have a chance to say, ‘No, I don’t want that to get out. Yeah, it happened, or yeah that’s accurate but I don’t really want that story to be told at the moment. I don’t want to have to deal with that right now. Our situation is just not considered a lot of times.

I’m just basically showing you how it feels to be vulnerable, I guess, or to be at somebody else’s mercy about something that you might not want out.

… It’s almost like anybody can report anything now. I’m not a journalist, I’ve never done this before, but all of a sudden I can report something and it’s fair game, you know what I’m saying? Why is that even respected? Now if it was CJ, that’s one thing, he went to school for journalism, and he does that. He does podcasts, and he writes articles and things like that. I don’t, so that was part of it. Anybody can drop this information.

Lillard isn’t exactly wrong here. Modern journalism is so skewed from what it once was, it’s hard for those in the industry to even keep track of who is reliable and who is not. The availability of social media and mobile audio and visual capture means that just about every citizen can relay first-hand information quickly. And while it’s a bit of a stretch for Lillard to say that his teammate CJ McCollum is more journalistically reliable than he is, the Blazers star seemingly becoming frustrated with the idea of journalism-as-horsetrading strikes home.

As professional sports across the world have grown in value, and truly become multibillion-dollar businesses, so too has the public relations aspect of professional sports. Beat reporters no longer fly on team planes, and everyone from the athletes to the teams and the agents want to try to control the message. That has driven a wedge between sports journalists and athletes in today’s coverage.

Even Lillard’s description of his reason for dropping his information came, in part, from a stated desire for better public relations management. That is, that stories often are not narrowed to information the athlete wants available, and may come at inconventient time for athletes.

Of course, “I don’t really want that story to be told at the moment” isn’t a good reason not to publish something. That’s what delineates journalists from public relations. But in an era where high-powered media entities wield power with information that is, altruistically, perhaps more trivial than necessary, it seems possible that the pillar on which journalistic ethics once stood has slowly begun to erode. If that’s the case, it’s reasonable to think there are times which you can’t blame players on being upset with writers.

Who knows if Lillard will continue to dip his toes in the news breaking pool? The season is not far away, and he’s probably too busy working out.

Report: Cavaliers, Larry Nance Jr. talking contract extension

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When the Cavaliers made the trade deadline deal with the Lakers last February, they got Larry Nance Jr. (the son of a Cavs legend) and Jordan Clarkson (surrendering Channing Frye, Isaiah Thomas and a 2018 1st round draft pick that became Moritz Wagner).

Nance is the one the Cavaliers seem intent on keeping, and they may extend him, reports Tom Withers of the Associated Press.

This seems like a good fit for both sides, if they can find a number that works. The Cavaliers are committed to not bottoming out right now — which is why Kevin Love got a new massive contract — and Nance fits with that.

This is not going to be a max contract, but Nance has made it clear he likes playing in Cleveland and wants to stay. After he came over last season he averaged 8.9 points on 55 percent shooting, 7 rebounds, 1.4 assists, and 1.4 steals a game. Those numbers could go up with LeBron James no longer in the picture.