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Are the Atlanta Hawks, Chicago Bulls the future of the Eastern Conference?

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This story is part of our NBCSports.com’s 2019-20 NBA season preview coverage. Every day between now and when the season opens Oct. 22 we will have at least one story focused on the upcoming season and the biggest questions heading into it. In addition, there will be podcasts, video and more. Come back every day and get ready for a wide-open NBA season.

This season, the Eastern Conference shapes up to be a showdown between Milwaukee and Philadelphia. Giannis Antetokounmpo vs. Joel Embiid. Two long and athletic teams that know how to defend. Both have questions — how will the losses of Jimmy Butler for the Sixers and Malcolm Brogdon for the Bucks impact them? — and there are teams like Boston and Indiana hanging on the fringes trying to get in the conversation, but the East is shaping up as a two-team race at the top.

The other question in the East: Who’s got next?

The Bucks and the Sixers are relatively young, they should be at the top for years, but what young teams are on the rise in the East and look like they could be coming for the Bucks and Sixers in a few years?

Atlanta and Chicago.

There’s a long road still to travel still, and plenty that can derail these teams, but the Hawks and Bulls have the potential to make that elite status. Let’s look at them.

ATLANTA HAWKS

Talent wins in the Association, and for Atlanta it all starts with the potential of Trae Young and John Collins. In our summer rankings series of “The 50 Best Players in Five Years” series, we ranked Collins 24th in the NBA and Young 10th in the summer of 2024. NBC Sports’ Tom Haberstroh put it this way:

“I made the declaration earlier this summer that Collins and Young ould be this generation’s Amar’e Stoudemire and Steve Nash. I stand by that. Collins may not be as strong and polished offensively as Stoudemire, but they play with the same force around the basket. Every time Collins dunks, you wonder what the basket ever did to him to deserve that assault.”

Young plays with a flash and style you just can’t take your eyes off of. He has shooting range out to the parking lot, impressive and improving handles, and the kind of court vision that cannot be taught. He must become a better defender, he’s got to score more efficiently around the rim, and the calls for him to be an All-Star in his second NBA season, at age 21, may be jumping the gun, but Young is poised to be one of the faces of the league.

The chemistry with Young and Collins can be everything for this team, and the foundation of a contender.

Around them they have Kevin Huerter as a potential long-term backcourt mate with Young, they added a solid young center who suddenly could hit threes last season in Alex Len, and on the wing they drafted a couple of guys with potential in DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish, hoping at least one of them develops into the No. 3 guy next to Collins and Young. (A lot of teams were not as high on Hunter as the Hawks heading into the draft, but Reddish could be a steal at No. 10.)

Those young players have landed in one of the best player development systems in the NBA — that’s why Lloyd Pierce was brought in as coach last season, and he delivered. He has found a great balance of letting guys learn and accountability, the kind of tough-but-fair teacher everyone respected in school. The Hawks are building something that feels real and lasting.

Is this the year they make the leap? Last year they had 29 wins, and the usual trajectory would have the Hawks mid-30s this season, which in the East likely keeps them on the fringes of the playoff chase most of the season. But a leap is coming, one up above .500. Maybe this season, more likely the following season, but it’s coming. The potential trajectory for this team looks like a rocket to the moon.

CHICAGO BULLS

Let’s be upfront here: I have less faith the Bulls eventually can reach the upper echelons of the NBA than I am the Hawks, and the primary reason is I don’t trust fully GarPax in the front office. Yes, they have built an impressive young team with potential, but if I told you in four years the front office had screwed up the chances, would anyone really be shocked?

But make no mistake, this team has potential.

That starts along the frontline — Lauri Markkanen is very good at basketball. He averaged 18.9 points a game and nine rebounds a game, shooting 36.1 percent from three, all at age 21. He’s entering his third NBA season and we could see a leap in his game. Next to him is second-year man Wendell Carter, who averaged 10.3 points and seven rebounds a game, and more importantly, was the kind of rim protector any good team needs in the modern NBA. Together, that’s a very good frontcourt of the future, one that fits the modern game.

Scoring on the wing comes in bunches from Zach LaVine, who showed he more than a dunk contest guy. He took more than five threes a game and shot 37.4 percent, he is a good passer who keeps the ball moving, and is at least trying on defense. Next to him is a quality wing in Otto Porter, who averaged 13.9 points per game last season, shot 40 percent from three, and could become a free agent next summer (although don’t bet on him opting out of $28.5 million).

The point of the future will be Coby White, who has a world of potential but it’s going to take a few years of work to get there.

This summer the Bulls made two pickups that — in my mind — will vault them into the playoffs this season. One is point guard Tomas Satoransky, who Washington let walk (one of their confusing moves) and will be the guy that knows how to start plays, hit threes, defend, and just go get a bucket now and again when they need it. He played well for stretches with the Wizards when John Wall was out. The other quality pickup is Thaddeus Young, who was critical to the Pacers’ defense last season, plus he just is a glue guy on the offensive end who can be a backup four and give them quality minutes (don’t be shocked if he closes games for Jim Boylen at times).

The Bulls have a young but reasonably well-rounded roster, and while they won 22 games last season they could be in the high 30s this season and pushing for a playoff spot in the East. It’s a big leap.

Bulls fans hope just one of many.

Phoenix Suns perfect 4-0 in bubble, growing, thinking playoffs

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. (AP) — The last time Devin Booker walked off the court as a winner in four consecutive games, these were the opponents: Hampton, Cincinnati, West Virginia and Notre Dame.

That is, until now.

Booker and the Phoenix Suns – the team that came to the NBA restart at Walt Disney World with the worst record in the Western Conference and the second-worst record of the 22 teams in the field – are perhaps the best story of the bubble.

They’re 4-0 at Disney, breathing real life into playoff hopes that basically were nonexistent when the season was suspended because of the coronavirus pandemic on March 11. It’s the team’s first four-game winning streak since December 2018; Booker missed one of those games, so it’s his first run of four wins in a row since helping Kentucky make its Final Four run in 2015.

“It definitely feels like a tournament, a big AAU tournament, the March Madness tournament,” Phoenix’s Cameron Payne said Friday. “That’s something I never even got a chance to be in, but hey, I’ll take this.”

The Suns started their bubble run with a win over Washington and followed that with victories against three playoff-bound teams – first Dallas, then the Los Angeles Clippers (both of those games being 117-115 finals, the win over the Clippers sealed by a Booker buzzer-beater) and next a 114-99 victory Thursday over Indiana.

A team that had a stretch of four wins in 20 games during November and December, then a run of four wins in 15 games during January and February, got to the bubble and are now 4-for-4.

The Suns are riding a 10-year playoff drought, the second-longest current one in the NBA, but now they’re thinking big and for good reason.

“Well, you know, this is in the fledgling stages, for sure,” Suns coach Monty Williams said. “We’ve got a lot more work to do. And there’s a process that we’ve kind of gotten ourselves involved in and we’re going to stick to that. So, fun? I don’t have time to have fun right now. It’s always good to win, but I’m working right now. And I want guys to understand, it’s fun when you win – but then you’ve got to turn the page and get right back to work.”

Williams understands the reality for the Suns right now. They entered Friday 1-1/2 games out of ninth place and the play-in series that will decide the last postseason berth in the West. And while the 4-0 start has been noteworthy, even an 8-0 mark in the seeding games wouldn’t guarantee the Suns a trip to that play-in round.

The Suns play Miami on Saturday, then finish the regular season against Oklahoma City, Philadelphia and Dallas.

“I’ve been in five years now and haven’t had that much success,” Booker said. “But, you know, I’m working hard every day to turn that narrative and change that narrative. We have a good bunch in here to do it. A lot of young players mixed with some veteran presence and it’s a good look for us. So, we’re going to keep our head down, keep working.

“I don’t think anybody here is worried about 4-0. We still have plans and goals for this team to reach and 4-0 wasn’t it.”

Booker is averaging 28 points in the four games. Deandre Ayton, another big piece of the young Suns’ core, is averaging 18.3 points and 9.3 rebounds. There are six players averaging double figures in all, including Payne, who is shooting 53% from 3-point range in his first four games with the Suns.

“We definitely feel good,” Payne said. “We’re not here for no reason.”

 

Rumor: Indiana coach Nate McMillan is on hot seat

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Last season, Indiana’s Nate McMillan finished fourth in Coach of the Year voting, taking a team that lost star Victor Oladipo after just 36 games and still got them into the playoffs. McMillan is going to get COY votes again this year for much the same reason — his teams play good defense and overachieve.

Indiana coach Nate McMillan is also on the hot seat.

It’s surprising, and it’s just a rumor, but ESPN’s Jeff Van Gundy and Zach Lowe had this conversation on a recent episode of The Lowe Post podcast (hat tip PacersTalk.net).

Van Gundy: “I had two people come up to me since I’ve been here [in the NBA restart bubble] and say, ‘Nate McMillan’s in trouble.’”

Lowe: “It’s been the hottest rumor all season… What you’ve heard in Orlando’s been going around all season…

“Let me be clear: It’s just a rumor. I don’t know if it’s true. When you talk to people around the Pacers, they say, ‘It’s not true’ or ‘Where you’d hear that from?’”

Maybe management wants a more modern offense, the Pacers are bottom eight in both three pointers attempted and pace. Overall, Indiana’s offense is middle of the pack (18th in the league), which is not bad considering it was without Oladipo for most of the season (and he was playing his way into shape when he returned and was not at an All-NBA level).

It’s hard to imagine that the Pacers would make a change this offseason, which will be short and give a new coach less time to ramp up a program. Plus, does owner Herb Simon want to pay two coaches? The finances of the league are helping other coaches keep their jobs.

More than all that, McMillan doesn’t deserve to be fired.

Not that “deserved” has had much to do with NBA coaches keeping their jobs in the past.

 

Report: NBA players bypassing ‘snitch’ hotline to call Adam Silver directly

NBA commissioner Adam Silver
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No NBA players have been diagnosed with coronavirus in the bubble. And they want to keep it that way. A championship and a lot of money are on the line.

That means preventing players from having close contact with anyone outside the bubble. And, in case someone contracts coronavirus, wearing masks (intact masks) to prevent a wider outbreak.

The NBA set up a hotline – quickly dubbed the “snitch” hotline – for players to report violations.

Chris Haynes of TNT:

Players have been circumventing that process. Sources informed me that multiple players are personally calling commissioner Adam Silver to issue their complaints with things they’re seeing in the bubble.

Adam Silver is accessible to players – particularly the president of the union.

I’m not sure about tattling straight to the top boss when there are other protocols in place. Are hotline calls not resulting in changed behavior?

Either way, it’s important for the NBA to keep players safe – both for their health and the league’s revenue (about half of which goes to players in salary). So, cut Chris Paul anyone calling Silver a break. They’re at least trying to help. And so far, violations inside the bubble have led to reminders, not harsher discipline.

Zion Williamson sitting out Pelicans-Wizards (rest)

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The Pelicans have been one of the NBA’s most disappointing teams in the bubble. New Orleans has gone 1-3 at Disney World and fallen to 13th in the Western Conference.

Still (barely) hanging in the race to make the play-in, the Pelicans must face the Wizards without Zion Williamson.

Pelicans:

The Pelicans are treating Williamson carefully – and they should. He’s their 20-year-old franchise player with major health concerns.

But New Orleans still has its highest ceiling now with Williamson on the floor. He’s an offensive force. His interior scoring and gravity create efficient looks for himself and teammates.

Williamson has been woeful defensively, and the Pelicans have bigs – Derrick Favors and Jaxson Hayes – to take Williamson’s minutes. New Orleans can go small, too.

The Pelicans should still beat Washington, even without Williamson. Ideally, this will have Williamson ready for a closing stretch against the Spurs, Kings and Magic without sacrificing today’s game.

Yet, this is really just proof New Orleans isn’t as ready to launch as it appears during Williamson’s most exciting moments. His availability remains murky. His team has run hot and cold. I wouldn’t assume a win over the Wizards – though it’s a game the Pelicans need to preserve their fading playoff hopes.