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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.

Three moments that might have broken Kobe Bryant but instead defined his legacy

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The moments that could have broken him instead ended up defining him.

It always seemed to be that way with Kobe Bryant.

Three different times in his career something that could have crushed his spirit or taken him down instead became a defining moment that re-shaped Kobe’s legacy and how we think of him today.

The first of those moments was May 12, 1997, when the Lakers were in a back-and-forth Game 5 of a second-round playoff series against the Jazz. Already down 3-1 in the series, it was win-or-go-home for the Lakers and things were stacked against them: Byron Scott was out with a sprained wrist, Robert Horry had been ejected for letting Jeff Hornacek get under his skin, and Shaquille O’Neal had fouled out. Kobe, primarily a bench player that rookie season, was pressed into action — and in the most Kobe of ways tried to take over.

Kobe attempted a game-winning pull-up elbow jumper as time expired in regulation — it was an airball.

So was his next jump shot. And the one after that. And the one after that.

Four airballs in a row in the clutch minutes of a playoff game on national television — it was humbling and potentially devastating. Kobe had grown up picturing himself draining exactly those kinds of game-winners, and he had airballed them all while his team lost. It led to rivers of newspaper ink and plenty of fan talk in bars — Lakers fans were angry the precocious rookie didn’t know his place. Laker coach Del Harris was shredded for leaving Kobe in the game.

Kobe’s response? When the Laker flight home after that loss landed in Los Angeles, he went directly to the Pacific Palisades High School gym and worked on his shot all night long, literally until the sun came up. Kobe refused to let the failure in Utah define him, or even slow him down. He worked like a maniac on his game and shot all summer long.

By the following February, Kobe was starting in the All-Star Game at age 19.

It was that will and that work ethic that won over fans — and earned deep respect from his adversaries — over a 20-year career that was polarizing yet made Bryant an icon of the game.

Kobe’s life — and the life of his 13-year-old daughter Gianna, as well as seven others — was tragically cut short Sunday morning when the helicopter they were riding in crashed into a hillside in Calabassas, California. There were no survivors.

“For 20 seasons, Kobe showed us what is possible when remarkable talent blends with an absolute devotion to winning,” NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said. “He was one of the most extraordinary players in the history of our game with accomplishments that are legendary: five NBA championships, an NBA MVP award, 18 NBA All-Star selections, and two Olympic gold medals. But he will be remembered most for inspiring people around the world to pick up a basketball and compete to the very best of their ability. He was generous with the wisdom he acquired and saw it as his mission to share it with future generations of players, taking special delight in passing down his love of the game to Gianna.”

Kobe’s early years, rise to the NBA

Kobe Bean Bryant was born on August 23, 1978, in Philadelphia. The son of former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant, Kobe was named after an expensive style of Japanese beef.

In the 1983-84 season, Joe Bryant had fallen out of the NBA and took his family to Italy, where he continued to play professionally. It is there Kobe’s lifelong love of soccer started — he would credit the sport for his good footwork — while he continued to work on his basketball skills playing for the youth team of Pallacanestro Reggiana (his father’s club for a couple of years). Kobe lived in Italy for seven years and throughout his life spoke fondly of those times — and could do so in fluent Italian.

Kobe returned to high school in the Philadelphia area and rose to stardom leading Lower Merion High School to the 1996 Pennsylvania state championship.

Following in the footsteps of Kevin Garnett and others, Kobe decided to forgo college and went straight into the NBA Draft. Laker legend and then GM Jerry West worked out Kobe and greatness recognizes greatness — West wanted Bryant. What happened next was Laker legend: West talked the Nets John Calipari out of drafting Kobe, then set up a trade with Charlotte, which drafted Kobe at No. 13 and traded him to the Lakers for Vlade Divac.

It was that rookie year that Kobe airballed four-straight shots against Utah — and he vowed never to let that happen again.

The turbulent, championship Shaq/Kobe years

For a few seasons, as Kobe matured and the Lakers worked to find the right mix around them, Kobe and Shaq battled to control the locker room (Shaq won that battle) while the team never reached its potential on the court. For the 1999-2000 season, the Lakers brought in Phil Jackson and his triangle offense to try and maximize their talented roster. He did — although what Jackson really did that first season was get the Lakers to play much-improved defense and that was enough (the offense came along in later seasons).

Kobe and Shaq continued feuding but they won three straight NBA titles. On the court they were the perfect inside/outside combination for the era, but the always driven Kobe seethed at Shaq’s work ethic (like not showing up to camp in shape) and Shaq enjoyed needing the serious Kobe. The combination of winning, plus Jackson’s mediation and mind games, kept the balance of power… until he couldn’t.

After the 2004 season and a loss in the Finals to Detroit, Kobe was a free agent and the Lakers had to chose which superstar to build around. They wisely chose Kobe and traded Shaq to Miami.

The second defining moment: The sexual assault charge in Colorado

This was the second time in Kobe’s career where his actions could have destroyed him, but instead how he came out of it defined the second half of his career. Even if it left him with an asterisk.

In July 2003 Bryant was charged with the sexual assault of a 19-year-old employee of a hotel in Edwards, Colorado. Bryant admitted to adultery — which led to very public challenges with his wife, Vanessa, and the purchase of a reportedly $4 million diamond ring — but said he had not raped the woman, that everything was consensual.

The case and Kobe’s marriage is the kind of juicy celebrity story that sells tabloids and his case got wall-to-wall coverage across the nation. Graphic details of blood and positions became front-page news. Bryant lost endorsements, and had to fly from court dates in Colorado to Staples Center for games, at points barely making it on time.

Kobe’s legal defense team used the kind of victim shaming tactics that keep women who are raped from coming forward, but it worked — the victim refused to testify and the criminal case was dismissed. The woman filed a civil suit, which was settled out of court.

Rather than be destroyed by all this, Kobe came out of the Colorado incident with a new attitude — or more accurately, he publicly embraced the polarizing nature of his personality and game. It’s what came to define the second half of his career — love him or hate him, he didn’t care, but you had to respect his game. His “hate me” ad for Nike perfectly summed up this new attitude.

For the next few seasons after the Shaq trade, Kobe put up monster individual numbers — he averaged 35.4 points per game in the 2005-06 season — but with a thin roster the team did not succeed.

That was until just before the trade deadline in February 2008 when the Lakers traded for All-Star big man Pau Gasol out of Memphis. That year Kobe won the MVP — the only time in his career — and the Lakers reached the NBA Finals, where they fell to the Kevin Garnett/Paul Pierce/Ray Allen Celtics.

The next year, the Lakers would beat Dwight Howard‘s Orlando Magic in the NBA Finals. The following year, Kobe and company would get their revenge on the Boston Celtics, giving Kobe his fifth NBA ring (and second-straight Finals MVP).

Also in there, in 2008 and 2012, Kobe would play a critical role for Team USA as it won two Olympic gold medals. On a team loaded with talent, Kobe went to coach Mike Krzyzewski and asked for the toughest defensive assignments — he was going to lead by example on that end of the court. It worked.

The third defining moment: Kobe tears his Achilles, makes one more comeback

In 2013, as people started to wonder how many more years Kobe would play, he got on a hot streak and was putting up numbers — and then he tore his Achilles.

It happened in a game against Golden State, and Kobe legendarily hobbled to the free throw line and still took his free throws (which would have allowed him to re-enter the game, something that was never going to happen).

This became the third time Kobe could have been broken and instead used it to define himself again. It drove him to play a few more seasons and leave the game on his own terms.

Kobe was 34 when he tore his Achilles, he had five rings and a resume full of accolades, and he knew his career was winding down. He could have just walked away and nobody would have questioned it.

That’s not Kobe — he was going to leave on his own terms. No injury would dictate the terms of the end of his career.

Kobe rehabbed almost the entire next season, playing just six games, and then the following season injuries to his other leg kept Kobe at just 35 games. Again, his will and drive refused to let that be how he would leave the game.

Kobe returned for the 2015-16 season and won more fans over around the league during a farewell tour. Kobe played hard that season and as much as he could, and in his final game dropped 60 points in an unforgettable performance.

That drive, that passion — something first evidenced in a high school gym in 1997 after an ugly loss — is what drew so many fans to him. It was something in Kobe that people wanted to see in themselves and took inspiration from. It led to a wild, entertaining, amazing ride.

A ride that ended far too early.

Mark Cuban says no Mavericks player will wear No. 24 again in honor of Kobe

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Kobe Bryant never suited up for the Dallas Mavericks, but his impact on the NBA and Mark Cuban is undeniable.

As a tribute to Kobe — who died in a helicopter crash Sunday along with his 13-year-old daughter Gianna and seven others — the Mavericks’ owner announced that no player will wear No. 24 for the Mavericks again.

Kobe was a nemesis of the Mavericks — back in 2005 he scored 62 points on them in three quarters, outscoring the entire Mavericks’ team’s 61 points — but had earned the respect of their players. And owner. Cuban was part of a league-wide outpouring of both shock and love for Bryant upon the news of his untimely death.

Five Mavericks players have worn No. 24 before: Mark Aguirre (1982-1989), Jim Jackson (1993-1997), Hubert Davis (1998-2001), Pavel Podkolzin (2005-2006), and most recently Richard Jefferson (2015).

He will be the last.

Shaquille O’Neal says he’s ‘SICK’ over losing his brother, Kobe Bryant

Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O'Neal
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Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal will always be linked – as champions, as enemies and eventually as friends.

The historically great combination led the Lakers to a threepeat from 2000-2002. Their egos were too large for one team and, eventually, they broke up. But later in life, their bond – built through shared experiences – prevailed over distant grievances.

In the wake of Bryant’s tragic death, O’Neal shared his sorrow:

These photos span 17 years. Bryant and O’Neal went through so much together.

They were just settling into the next phase of their relationship – poking at each other while knowing an underlying affection existed. Disagreements had become more fun than biting.

It’s such a shame their ever-evolving relationship gets undercut so soon.

Michael Jordan: ‘Words can’t describe the pain I’m feeling. I loved Kobe’

Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan
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Kobe Bryant grew up idolizing Michael Jordan. Bryant styled his game after Jordan. Bryant even wanted to sign with Jordan’s Wizards. Though they never became teammates, Bryant still developed a brotherly relationship with Jordan.

In the wake of Bryant’s tragic death, Jordan shared a heartfelt message.

Bryant once said he wanted Jordan or Phil Jackson to present him at the Basketball Hall of Fame. It’s unbelievably sad Bryant’s impending induction will come posthumously. But Jordan would be such a fitting speaker about his brother.