Three questions the Atlanta Hawks must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last Season: 43-39 and made the playoffs for the 10th straight year, but had the point difference of a 39-43 team and lost in the first round

I know what you did last summer: Atlanta completed the breakup of the starting lineup that won 60 games a couple years ago, letting Paul Millsap leave in free agency (after trading Kyle Korver at the deadline last season). The Hawks also traded Dwight Howard in a salary dump rearrangement. New general manager Travis Schlenk is clearly rebuilding, adding No. 19 pick John Collins and an extra future first-rounder (acquired for renting cap space to pay a bought-out Jamal Crawford). But Atlanta isn’t jumping full speed into tanking. The Hawks also signed competitive veterans Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova.

THREE QUESTIONS THE HAWKS MUST ANSWER:

1) Will Atlanta compete or tank? The Hawks look far closer to being the NBA’s worst team than a playoff qualifier. It’s hard to see a Mike Budenholzer-coached team starting the season tanking. But if Atlanta can’t surpass outside expectations, the strategy could change. When – or even if – that happens could play a large part in how this season looks.

In a weak Eastern Conference, it’s at least plausible the Hawks remain in the playoff race for a while. Veterans like Kent Bazemore, Dewayne Dedmon, Ersan Ilyasova and Marco Belinelli can play.

But if Atlanta drops in the standings, their playing time could get turned over to rawer young players, who’d likely sink the Hawks even further.

2) Is Dennis Schroder – or anyone – a long-term piece? There isn’t a single player on this team to feel confident will still be in Atlanta when the Hawks next win a playoff series, or even just make the playoffs. The Hawks slid into this rebuild after a long postseason streak, which means they haven’t had a top-10 pick in a decade.

Schroder is the closest thing to a blue-chip prospect on this roster, and he’s the only one earning big money (starting a four-year, $62 million extension this season). So, there’s a little more attention on him.

But John Collins, Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry are all indefinite keepers, too.

If Atlanta isn’t going to make the playoffs, success could be identifying which players to build around long-term.

3) Will Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova establish trade value? Dedmon and Ilyasova are hedges against rebuilding and the early favorites to start at power forward and center. These are proud veterans who will help the team right now – and work against the Hawks securing a high draft pick.

So, why sign those two?

Because Atlanta is surely holding out hope to be good. Teams rarely start the season tanking without first taking a shot at defying expectations.

But also maybe because Dedmon and Ilyasova will have positive trade value. If the Hawks fall out of the playoff race, they might look to deal Dedmon (two years, $12.3 million with a player option) and Ilyasova (one year, $6 million) to winners for younger players and picks. Ilyasova can block any trade, but if Atlanta sinks far enough, why wouldn’t he approve a trade to a better team, the only type of team that’d be interested in him?

Five things to watch in Heat vs. Nuggets NBA Finals (with betting tips)

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Nobody had this Finals matchup on their bingo card (well, except ESPN’s Israel Gutierrez, who called this matchup before the season).

The Denver Nuggets were the best team in the West all season and kept improving as Jamal Murray got healthier and gained more confidence in his surgically repaired knee. Still, they entered the playoff facing doubts because we hadn’t seen them play at this level in the postseason since the bubble. The Nuggets answered all the questions.

Miami barely made the playoffs at all, having to come from behind in the fourth quarter of the last play-in game to beat the Bulls. But otherworldly play from Jimmy Butler, players like Caleb Martin stepping up, and a relentlessness no team in the East could match, sees them in the Finals after coming one shot short of this mark last season.

Who will hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy?

Here are four things worth watching, plus some betting advice from Vaughn Dalzell of NBC Sports Edge.

1) What is Miami’s defensive plan against Nikola Jokić?

Nobody has a good answer for stopping — or often even slowing — Nikola Jokić.

It’s been the case for three years now, but especially in these playoffs. The Los Angeles Lakers had the best defense in the NBA after the All-Star break and the best defense through the first two rounds of the playoffs, all anchored by an elite defender in Anthony Davis. Jokić averaged a triple-double of 27.8 points, 14.5 rebounds and 11.8 assists a game against them and the Nuggets torched them.

The challenge in guarding Jokić is nobody can do it all that well one-on-one, but the second the help comes — if it comes from where he can see it in particular — he carves a team apart with his elite passing skills.

Miami’s best option to defend Jokić — and what they did in the team’s regular season matchups — is to put Bam Adebayo on him and not send much help. Adebayo is not stopping Jokić one-on-one, but he’s strong and agile enough to make him work for it. Plus, if Jokić is primarily a scorer the Nuggets’ offense is less dangerous — if he scores 35+ points but with five assists the Heat can win; if he has 25 points but 12 assists the Nuggets win handily.

That strategy comes with risks, primarily foul trouble for Adebayo, but also it removes him as a roaming help defender (one of his strengths). The Lakers started with Davis on Jokić but had relative success with others taking the primary job — Rui Hachimura, LeBron James — which allowed Davis to double and help on others. Who on the Heat can take on that assignment? Caleb Martin or Jimmy Butler? Too small. Maybe Cody Zeller or Haywood Highsmith off the bench, but the Heat hurt their offense with those two out there, and neither is exactly an elite defender.

Expect heavy doses of Adebayo, with the Heat strategy being to front the post and make passes into the Joker difficult, and then live with him as a scorer but try not to let him get rolling as a passer. When Jokić is in pick-and-roll actions with Jamal Murray or on the move, expect a team defense to collapse on him.

That all sounds good, but Jokić figures defenses out, which brings us to how the Heat flummoxed the Celtics.

2) Can Denver solve Miami’s Zone?

Miami ran more zone than any team in the NBA this season (in fact, more zone than any team in more than a decade). It works for them because it’s not a conventional zone, they have active defenders out top who push out high, then they have an elite defensive decision-maker and rim protector in the back with Adebayo. More than anything, the Heat play zone with the intensity of man-to-man (something few teams do at any level).

Denver had an impressive 121 offensive rating against zone defenses this season, according to the NBA tracking data at Second Spectrum (for comparison, the Kings had the best offense in the NBA this season at 119.4). The Nuggets have had the best offense against a zone defense in the regular season and playoffs.

One key way to beat a zone is to get the ball to a good passer in the soft middle of the zone, around the free throw line — the Nuggets have Jokić. Denver is also loaded with shooters who can and will knock down shots over the top of the zone (don’t expect a Celtics-like regression in shooting).

Miami will run some zone as a change-up, but it won’t work as a steady diet as it did against Boston.

3) Aaron Gordon on Jimmy Butler

Jimmy Butler is a tough cover because he is too strong for guards to stop from getting to his spots but too quick for most forwards to stay in front of.

Denver will bet Aaron Gordon is quick enough to at least give Butler trouble (he’s done well these playoffs against Kevin Durant and LeBron this postseason). Gordon has the advantage that Butler is not a natural 3-point shooter, so he doesn’t have to play up incredibly high on him, and Gordon is strong enough to handle Butler’s physicality.

Butler is going to get his, but if Gordon can make him work for it, be physical, and start to take his legs out from under him a little, it’s a huge advantage for Denver.

4) Vaughn Dalzell’s betting recommendations

Game 1 Over Trend: Game 1’s are usually strong bets for the Over. All four Game 1’s of the second round went Over the opening total and both of the Conference Finals went Over the total in this postseason, so Game 1’s are on a 6-0 run to the Over. In the NBA Finals, four of the last five Game 1’s went for 227 or more points. Denver averages 122.0 points per game in three Game 1’s during the postseason and Miami averages 120.0 points per game in three Game 1’s. The total opened at 218.5 and is up to 219.5, so the Over looks like a solid bet.

Game 1 Favorites of -5.5 or More: Since the start of the 2013 postseason, NBA Finals favorites of -5.5 or more points have gone 14-3 on the ML and 12-4-1 ATS. Denver opens as a -8.5 point favorite. Home teams are on a 5-0 ML streak and 4-1 ATS in Game 1’s with an average margin of 14.0 points per victory. The Nuggets’ spread has a lot of value historically, despite -8.5 being such a large number.

(Check out more from Dalzell and the team at NBC Sports Edge.)

5) Wild card role players: Martin and Vincent, or is it Michael Porter Jr.

Role players always make a difference in the Finals.

Miami needs that to happen to have a chance. Caleb Martin was almost the Eastern Conference Finals MVP averaging more than 17 points a game and will have to play at that level again. How much Gabe Vincent meant to this team was obvious in Game 5 against the Celtics when he was out. Max Strus and Duncan Robinson also will be critical — and need to defend well enough to stay on the court — if the Heat are going to make a run.

For the Nuggets, Michael Porter Jr. is a walking matchup nightmare at 6’10” and with the ability to get red hot from 3. Teams tend to put a guard on him — and Miami likes to play small — and Porter Jr. just knocks down shots over the top of them. He could win Denver a game this series just with his shot.

Prediction: Nuggets in 5. This is not a knock on an impressive Miami team and run to the Finals, they earned their way here. Denver is just this good. LeBron said this was the best team he has played against since coming to Los Angeles, and that should tell you all you need to know. The Finals will be a coronation for Jokić.

Supermax for Brown? Bring back Mazzulla? Expect patience from Celtics this summer

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This was supposed to be the season these Celtics took one final step forward and hang banner 18. Last June, Boston reached the NBA Finals, only to fall to a more disciplined and relentless team. In the wake of that loss, all the right words came out of the Boston locker room about lessons learned.

This season, the Celtics lost in the Eastern Conference Finals to a more disciplined and relentless team.

Boston’s Game 7 elimination on their home court is the kind of loss that makes a franchise re-evaluate itself. It’s also a loss that summed up much of the Celtics’ season: Inconsistent play, struggles when their 3-point shots didn’t fall, and a defense that was strong in the regular season but struggled in the playoffs.

Now the Celtics head into the offseason with big questions about what is required to take that finals step.

The answers will be likely to essentially run it back. For now.

Those questions start with Jaylen Brown, who was second-team All-NBA during the regular season but against the Heat, to use his own words, “We failed. I failed.” Because of his All-NBA status, Brown is eligible for a five-year, $295 million supermax contract. Some of his public comments this season could be read as him telling the Celtics he expects that max.

Expect the Celtics to pay it.

While the book may still be out on the ceiling for the Brown and Jayson Tatum pairing, the fact remains the Celtics have the kind of elite wing duo around which a championship roster can be built. Or so it would seem. Some of the concerns about this team’s inconsistency have to fall to its stars, but having those stars entering their prime gives this team a chance for growth.

There have been calls from corners of the fan base to trade Brown, and his name did come up in trade rumors — for Kevin Durant. If the Celtics can land an all-time great still playing at a high level they have to consider the trade, but if it’s not KD or someone of that stature, who is Boston getting back in a trade that is better than Brown?

The smart move by Boston is to re-sign Brown, try to win, and if in a couple of years it doesn’t work consider their options.

This leads to the next big question: Is Joe Mazzulla the coach who can lead this team to a title?

Expect the Celtics to be patient and give him time to prove he can.

That said, also expect changes in his staff, something now reported out of Boston. Mazzulla was thrown into this hot seat after the unexpected suspension (and later release) of Ime Udoka days before the start of the season, there was no time to remake his staff. It makes sense to put an experienced head coach by his side to help smooth some rough edges. The Celtics are a patient organization, one more likely to support a young coach and help him grow rather than cut him off too young. That’s how you end up with Erik Spoelstra one day.

Also, expect changes in the role players on the roster. Some of that is financial — with 12 people on the roster next season (assuming Danilo Gallinari picks up his $6.8 million option), the Celtics are already more than $4 million into the luxury tax (that is this season, with the extension for Brown kicking in next season and a future max extension for Tatum looming). The repeater tax and the second “lead apron” in the new CBA could hit this team hard in the coming seasons without some spending reduction.

Expect one of the team’s three rotation guards to be traded: Marcus Smart, Derrick White or Malcolm Brogdon. While the Celtics might want to move on from Brogdon and his $22.5 million next season, finding another team willing to take that on without a pick as a sweetener would be difficult.

Can Boston afford to re-sign restricted free agent Grant Williams? That may depend on what happens with the guards above, but if a guard is traded the Celtics could free up enough money to offer Williams something in the $10-12 million a year range. The risk is that another team that sees him as a good fit — San Antonio next to Victor Wembanyama? — might come in with a higher offer.

Boston is looking for size in a backup center who can give them solid minutes and take on a larger role when needed to keep Robert Williams III healthy. They may want a more traditional, play-making point guard to help unlock Tatum and Brown. But these are role players, Boston can’t afford a third star.

The Celtics are largely going to run it back.

Whether they can take that final step forward next season will depend more on internal growth — can Tatum and Brown finally find that consistency this team needs — than tweaks around the edges of the roster.

USA Basketball to host to Puerto Rico in World Cup tuneup in Las Vegas

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USA Basketball has finalized its schedule of exhibition games leading into this summer’s FIBA World Cup, announcing Tuesday that it will open the five-game slate against Puerto Rico in Las Vegas on Aug. 7.

It will be the only World Cup warmup game in the U.S. for the Americans, a team that will be coached by Golden State’s Steve Kerr. His assistants are Miami’s Erik Spoelstra, the Los Angeles Clippers’ Tyronn Lue and Gonzaga’s Mark Few.

The roster of NBA players is still being assembled.

“Puerto Rico, obviously, we’re familiar with them,” said Grant Hill, managing director of USA Basketball’s men’s national team. “We’ve competed in the World Cup qualifiers, although neither team had their full heavy roster, if you will, its strongest roster. But it’s an opportunity to throw our guys into the fire. The games, the exhibition games, the lead-up, we’re going to get a lot of basketball in us before we play for real. And that’s good.”

After the Puerto Rico game, the U.S. will leave for Malaga, Spain, and games there against Slovenia on Aug. 12 and Spain on Aug. 13. The final two pre-World Cup games for the Americans will be held in Abu Dhabi, against Greece on Aug. 18 and Germany on Aug. 20.

From there, the Americans head to Manila, Philippines, where they will remain for the entirety of the World Cup. Half of the 32-team World Cup field will have group-stage games in Indonesia or Japan; the Americans are among the 16 that will open the tournament in the Philippines, which will also play host to the medal rounds.

The game against Puerto Rico will coincide with the end of the U.S. team’s training camp in Las Vegas.

“Our preparations for the 2023 FIBA Men’s World Cup begin in Las Vegas and we are excited to return to a city that regularly and graciously welcomes USA Basketball,” said Jim Tooley, USA Basketball’s CEO.

The men’s national team played four exhibitions in Las Vegas in 2021 before the Tokyo Olympics, going 2-2 in those games. The Americans opened with losses to Nigeria and Australia before beating Argentina and Spain prior to departing for Tokyo.

“The Nigeria game was important,” Hill said. “It let everybody know that we can’t just show up.”

In Japan, the U.S. won its fourth consecutive Olympic gold medal.

The U.S. opens World Cup play against New Zealand on Aug. 26, followed by group games against Greece on Aug. 28 and Jordan on Aug. 30. The tournament – one of the major qualifiers for the 2024 Paris Olympics – runs through Sept. 10.

Bob Myers stepping down as Warriors president, GM

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The architect of the four-time NBA champion Golden State Warriors, the former agent turned two-time Executive of the Year Bob Myers is stepping away from the franchise.

This had been rumored all season and Myers confirmed it to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN prior to Myers’ formal press conference Tuesday afternoon.

“It’s just time,” Myers told ESPN.

Warriors ownership wanted to keep Myers on board and reportedly made generous contract offers to retain him, but Myers just wanted to back away from the job.

Myers took over a Warriors franchise in 2012 that had already drafted Stephen Curry and Klay Thompson, but was still being led on the court by Monta Ellis and David Lee. Myers drafted Draymond Green (in the second round), eventually traded for Andre Iguodala, built out the roster, fired Mark Jackson and replaced him with Steve Kerr, and generally built a championship team. When that team fell short in 2016 — and boosted by a one-time spike in the salary cap due to a new television deal — Myers brought in Kevin Durant to form one of the best, most dominant teams the NBA had seen, and they won two more titles. After Durant left and due to some brutal injuries, the Warriors stumbled for a few years, but in 2022 found their footing again and won a fourth ring. Myers helped guild all of that.

It is expected Mike Dunleavy Jr. — the No. 2 man in a Warriors front office that values a lot of input from different voices and isn’t classically hierarchical — will take over as the man in charge. Wojnarowski reports that Kirk Lacob, son of owner Joe Lacob, also is expected to have an expanded role.

This changeover comes at a critical time for the Warriors (and adds to the end-of-an-era feeling), heading into an important offseason for the franchise. Green is expected to opt out of his $27.5 million contract for next season and is looking for the security of more years — and this past season showed the Warriors cannot win at a high level without him. However, the Warriors will want him back at a lower figure than that $27.5 million per year. Klay Thompson is set to make $43.2 million next season and is extension eligible, but he is not a max player anymore and the Warriors will want those future years at a much lower price. Then there is Jordan Poole‘s extension kicking in — at $28.7 million — after a down season. The tension following Green punching Poole tainted the entire Warriors’ season, and there is a lot of speculation around the league Poole could be traded.

Myers built strong relationships with the Warriors’ players, and he would have been better positioned to talk to Green and Thompson about sacrifice to keep the team together. That is a tougher sell for Dunleavy.

Don’t expect Myers to jump straight into another NBA job — although offers will come to him fast — he is expected to take a year or more and step back from the game before deciding his next move.