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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.

New Orleans Pelicans fire head coach Alvin Gentry

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No team entered the NBA restart bubble in Orlando with the buzz of the New Orleans Pelicans: Zion Williamson was back, they had an All-Star in Brandon Ingram and solid veterans such as J.J. Redick and Jrue Holiday around them. With all that, no team was as disappointing in the bubble as the Pelicans, who went 2-6. They looked like they were going through the motions, and all season long were less than the sum of their parts.

Saturday New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry paid the price for that and was fired, the team announced. The story was broken by Adrian Wojnarowski and Andrew Lopez of ESPN and soon after confirmed by the organization.

It was not a surprise. Gentry was considered on shaky ground before teams flew to Florida and the disappointing play of his team while there led to team VP of basketball operations David Griffin making the change. (A sitting coach is always on shaky ground when the management above him changes, as happened with Gentry.) While Zion was not in the bubble the entire time, this is still a talented roster, one that came out like it was just going through the motions, with Lonzo Ball reportedly having checked out. No one seemed focused on the opportunity to make the postseason. That attitude is why the Pelicans fired their coach.

“I want to thank Alvin for his contributions to the Pelicans and the New Orleans community,” Pelicans Owner Gayle Benson said in a statement. “We believe that making a head coaching change is necessary at this time. I truly appreciate Alvin’s leadership, dedication and perseverance through some challenging circumstances over the past five seasons. He will always be a part of our Pelicans family, and we wish him and his family all the best in the future. Our intention moving forward is to find the right head coach that will guide this Pelicans team to compete for championships. That is what our fans deserve.”

Clippers lead assistant Tyronn Lue and Lakers lead assistant Jason Kidd — two veteran coaches who are considered player-friendly — were mentioned as potential replacements by ESPN and Marc Stein of the New York Times. Lue and Kidd have both been mentioned in connection with the open Brooklyn Nets coaching job. Both also are in the Orlando bubble with their respective teams as the playoffs are about to begin (and both likely will be there for a while). Another name to watch is current Rockets’ coach Mike D’Antoni, who is not expected to be brought back with the Rockets and favors the kind of up-tempo system that would suit Zion. n

The challenge with big-name replacements in New Orleans is money — this is the smallest market in the NBA and ownership has been hit hard by the economic slowdown in the wake of the coronavirus. Lue, Kidd, and D’Antoni will be expensive and demand five-year contracts. The Pelicans could look at seasoned assistant coaches who have not yet held a top spot — Sam Cassell, Ime Udoka, and there are many others — who could do the job and come at a price more within their budget.

The key for whoever gets the head coaching job is to form a strong bond with Zion, the future of the franchise, and figure out how to get the most out of him.

 

 

 

Portland, Memphis where they want to be as play-in series tips-off

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LAKE BUENA VISTA, Fla. — Heroics were needed to get Portland and Memphis on the doorstep of the playoffs.

For the Trail Blazers, Damian Lillard averaged more than 50 points — with a shot from a step inside midcourt in there as one of his many highlights — to lead the way in three consecutive down-to-the-wire, season-on-the-line victories.

For the Grizzlies, Ja Morant and Jonas Valanciunas became the first teammates in Memphis history to post triple-doubles in what turned out to be a must-win game as well.

And now, the mission isn’t done yet for either club. Portland and Memphis meet Saturday at 2:30 p.m. (Eastern) in Game 1 of the Western Conference play-in series. The Trail Blazers have the upper hand by finishing the seeding-game portion of the NBA’s restart ahead of the Grizzlies. Portland needs one win, Memphis needs two to advance to a first-round matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers.

“We’re where we want to be,” Portland coach Terry Stotts said. “And so, I don’t think anybody’s over the moon right now. We know that we’ve got a tough opponent in Memphis, so there was no time to really celebrate.”

Had the Blazers lost any of their last three games, they could be home already. Lillard has scored 51, 61 and 42 points, respectively, in those three games — and had to sweat out a last-second shot by Brooklyn in a one-point Portland win on Thursday night that determined their play-in fate.

“I think mentally I’ll be fine,” Lillard said. “I think physically, it’ll obviously be some fatigue here. But I think it won’t be as hard as you might think because there’s a lot riding on these games. Every game that we’ve been playing, our last three or four games, has been like our season is on the line.”

The Grizzlies came into the restart at Walt Disney World in control of the play-in race, then sputtered before winning the game they needed to on Thursday against Milwaukee to clinch a spot.

Morant said he remembers when the Grizzlies were ranked 27th coming into the season in a 30-team league. He’s used that slight as fuel ever since.

“Now look at us,” Morant said. “Being that underdog doesn’t matter to us at all. We love being the underdog. It’s just extra motivation, fuel to the fire. It just makes our success even better, coming in and being the underdog.”

Game 2, if necessary, will be Sunday. The series for the play-in winner against the Lakers begins Tuesday.

Clippers’ Montrezl Harrell expected to play Monday against Dallas

Montrezl Harrell play
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When the Clippers take the court Monday for their first playoff game in the bubble, going against Luka Doncic and a dangerous Mavericks’ team, Montrezl Harrell will be suited up and ready to play.

The Clippers’ Sixth Man of the Year candidate, who excused from the bubble due to the death of his grandmother and missed all eight seeding games, will be out of quarantine and cleared to play, report Adrian Wojnarowski and Ohm Youngmisuk of ESPN.

Doc Rivers said he plans to play Harrell against an active Dallas front line.

“I’m just going to throw him in there, he’s earned that right,” Rivers said. “The challenge will be just how ready he is. I don’t know if I have ever had a guy that hasn’t played in eight games or whatever and hasn’t had any practice and we’re just going to throw him out on the floor in a playoff game. We’re hoping that at this point.”

Harrell came off the bench to average 18.6 points and 7.1 rebounds a game for the Clippers this season. Harrell was often part of the Clippers closing lineup this season because of his improved defense, but he always brought relentless energy off the bench that lifted the Clippers nightly. The Harrell/Lou Williams pick-and-roll remains one of the smoothest and most dangerous in the league.

Harrell also gives Doc Rivers a lot of versatility and options on how to close games — the Clippers can go big, go small, and do either well. They will need that against a Dallas team that rolls out a front line of Kristaps Porzingis, Maxi Kleber, and former Clipper Boban Marjanovic.

Not having Harrell for eight games in the bubble added to that versatility, Rivers said.

“We got to play JaMychal [Green] at the five far more than we ever thought we would. We needed to work on that because he’s such a floor spacer,” Rivers said. “We got way more work on that than we thought, but we actually liked it.”

Expect to see more of that — and some Harrell — against Dallas starting Monday.

Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin denies ex-wife’s abuse accusations

Raptors assistant coach Adrian Griffin
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Raptors assistant Adrian Griffin – filling in for Nick Nurse – served as Toronto’s acting head coach for a win over the 76ers on Wednesday. “For one night, I felt like Cinderella,” Griffin said afterward.

Griffin’s moment in the spotlight drew attention to abuse claims his ex-wife, Audrey Griffin, had been making online for months.

Audrey Griffin:

Raptors release:

The Toronto Raptors and lead assistant coach Adrian Griffin have issued a joint statement addressing accusations of domestic abuse shared in social media posts by Griffin’s ex-wife on Thursday, Aug. 14.

Statement from Adrian Griffin:

“This morning, accusations were made against me on social media by my former wife that I vehemently deny. We are involved in a longstanding legal dispute over alimony and child support arrangements. I am disappointed to have to address false accusations in this way, and I apologize for any distraction this has potentially caused for our team at this important time.”

Statement from the Toronto Raptors:

“When we saw these allegations this morning, we were dismayed – Adrian is a valuable member of our team. Our leadership immediately spoke with him, and he flatly denied the allegations in the posts. We will support the process as he and his former partner settle these matters.”

Griffin was also reportedly a candidate for the Bulls head-coaching job, which opened today.

Hopefully, the truth will emerge and justice will be served.