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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-

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim: ‘NBA has never drafted a player for defense’

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Syracuse lost to Baylor in the first round of the NCAA tournament.

So, now Syracuse returns to recruiting. That means convincing prospects with NBA aspirations that Syracuse’s infamous zone defense won’t interfere with their pro path.

Syracuse coach Jim Boeheim, via ASAP Sports:

What I do when I start out, I say the NBA drafts for one reason: Offense. The NBA has never drafted a player for defense. At any position, even at center. Like when they drafted Tim Duncan or David Robinson, or Olajuwon or Shaq, they didn’t get one of those guys because of their defense. They didn’t draft Steph Curry, James Harden, LeBron James, go down the list. They didn’t draft one guy because of defense; they draft because of offense.
We had more first-round picks in the old Big East than any school because they draft guys based on their offense. That’s what we tell recruits and that’s the truth.

There are degrees of truth here. NBA teams generally value offense more than defense and more than they should.

But defense absolutely affects players’ draft position. Some players are drafted primarily for defense.

Maybe Syracuse’s zone helps players look good to NBA teams. But it’s a tough sell the zone actually prepares the players for the next level.

Syracuse’s first-round picks since Carmelo Anthony:

  • Tyler Lydon (No. 24 in 2018)
  • Malachi Richardson (No. 22 in 2017)
  • Chris McCullough (No. 29 in 2016)
  • Tyler Ennis (No. 18 in 2015)
  • Michael Carter-Williams (No. 11 in 2014)
  • Fab Melo (No. 22 in 2013)
  • Dion Waiters (No. 4 in 2013)
  • Wesley Johnson (No. 4 in 2011)
  • Jonny Flynn (No. 6 in 2010)
  • Donte Greene (No. 28 in 2009)
  • Hakim Warrick (No. 19 in 2006)

We can’t know how those players would have turned out if they played elsewhere in college, but that’s an extremely uninspiring list. I would not advise a recruit on track to make the NBA to pick Syracuse.

Obviously, Boeheim is strongly incentivized to spin it the other way. He has made millions of dollars by convincing good players to help him win games.

There’s something to his sentiment here. But he goes way too far, to the point he’s wrong – as per usual.

Court reverses nearly $1.5M oil-spill award to David West

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NEW ORLEANS — A federal appeals court says former NBA star David West is not entitled to a nearly $1.5 million award stemming from BP’s 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil spill.

Court records show West submitted a claim under the terms of a settlement BP entered after the spill to avoid prolonged litigation with those claiming spill-related losses. The claim was based on his compensation as a member of the NBA’s New Orleans franchise having dropped after the spill.

BP challenged the award, saying West earned what he was expected to earn under a “front-loaded” contract he signed years before the spill. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed Wednesday that there was no loss. West’s attorneys did not immediately respond to emailed requests for comment.

James Harden: I want to play in 2019 World Cup

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James Harden skipped the 2016 Olympics.

But he sounds ready to rejoin Team USA for the 2019 World Cup.

Harden, via Jonathan Feigen of the Houston Chronicle:

“Of course I want to play,” Harden said. “It’s an opportunity to represent your country, go out there and play basketball. It’s something I love doing. If that opportunity presents itself, I’ll be in. Not everyone gets that opportunity. As a basketball player, that’s one of the highest points you can get for basketball.

Harden is among 35 players listed as in consideration for a roster spot, but the MVP candidate is likely a lock if he wants to play. He won gold at the 2012 Olympics and led Team USA to another gold medal in the 2014 World Cup.

With the World Cup being held in China, where there are lucrative marketing opportunities, expect many other stars to participate. The competition for Team USA roster spots could be intense.

But Harden is good enough and has proven his commitment to USA Basketball. He’s probably safely in.

Celtics’ Kyrie Irving says he’ll rest before playoffs: ‘Makes no sense’ to emphasize regular-season games

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Remember when Kyrie Irving asked whether a November 2014 Cavaliers-Bulls game felt like a playoff game?

He has come a long way since.

Before LeBron James returned to Cleveland, Irving hadn’t made the playoffs. Three NBA Finals and a trade to the Celtics later, Irving is focused on the postseason.

Irving, via Chris Forsberg of NBC Sports Boston:

“I’m definitely taking some games off before the playoffs,” Irving said at Boston’s morning shootaround at the Wells Fargo Center on Wednesday. “Makes no sense, the emphasis on these regular games, when you’re gearing up for some battles coming in the playoffs.”

Irving will probably be more effective in the playoffs with additional rest.

But will the Celtics be more effective in the playoffs if Irving rests now?

Boston is fifth in the East. If that holds, that’d mean not having home-court advantage in any Eastern Conference playoff series and likely facing the Bucks – who’ve been the NBA’s best team throughout the regular season – in the second round.

That might not daunt Irving. After all, when asked why he’s so confident about the Celtics’ postseason chances, he said, “Because I’m here.”*
*That sounded a lot like LeBron.

But his teammates might benefit significantly from a better seed. Without Irving, Boston went 10-1 at home 1-7 on the road in last year’s playoffs – a historic split.

Catching the 76ers for the No. 3 seed is probably farfetched. But the Celtics are only a half game behind the Pacers for the No. 4 seed and home-court advantage in the first round.

Boston’s closing schedule is easier than Indiana’s. The teams even face each other twice. So, there’s an opportunity for the Celtics to clinch the No. 4 seed and rest Irving.

But little has gone to plan this season in Boston. If the Celtics’ seed is still up for grabs late in the regular season, will they rest Irving or keep pushing for a better record?