Three questions the Hawks must answer to build on last season’s success


The Atlanta Hawks are a paradox this season:

Their run to the Eastern Conference Finals last season was no fluke.

Yet they very well may take a step back this season.

Under Nate McMillan the second half of last season, the Hawks played at a 52-win pace (over a traditional regular season) — maintaining that pace and making another deep playoff run to the Eastern Conference Finals in what will be a deeper and better East is a big ask.

“It’s tough, the Eastern Conference is improved…” Hawks co-owner Grant Hill told NBC Sports. “That experience last year I thought was magical for us. It all came together, we learned to play for one another. Such an incredible spirit and energy in that locker room — it was fun to watch. It was fun to be there in the playoffs. It was fun to see the State Farm Arena rocking and rolling — it was a party in there.

“That experience, it bonds you. Young guys were able to learn, and I think that’s going to serve us well this year. But the Eastern Conference is tough.”

What questions do the Hawks have to answer to match last season and maybe even take a step forward? Here are three things that must happen for the Hawks to have the success they want.

Are DeAndre Hunter and Cam Reddish ready for a breakout season?

Both Hunter and Reddish followed a similar pattern their first two years in the league: Unimpressive rookie seasons followed by injury-riddled second seasons that limited their development — but they showed flashes. The brightest flash was Reddish when he returned in the playoffs and dropped 21 points in Game 6 against the Bucks.

There are not many question marks on this well-constructed Hawks roster: Trae Young is a budding superstar at the point, Bojan Bogdanovic is solid as a shooter and secondary shot creator, John Collins just got paid for his athleticism and world of potential at the four, and Clint Capela is a darkhorse Defensive Player of the Year candidate at center.

Wing is the question mark. Hunter and Reddish bring the kind of two-way potential and depth at that position that is rare in the league — and for years has been a key part of playoff success. Hunter will start, he averaged 15 points a game last season, and if he improves his 32.6% shooting from 3 last season he will be the kind of 3&D wing so many teams around the league are searching for. Reddish has that same potential, although Hunter appears to have the higher ceiling now.

If the Hawks get more out of their wing players this year, they become that much more dangerous.

Is Trae Young ready to step into superstar status every night?

Trae Young doesn’t fear the moment. He savors the spotlight. We saw that in the playoffs last season when he averaged 28.8 points and 9.5 assists a game. We saw that when he embraced the villian role in Madison Square Garden against the Knicks — even returning to the venue for a WWE reprise this offseason. It all made giving Young a max contract extension this offseason that much easier for the Hawks.

Young also shot 31.3% on the 3-pointers in the playoffs, and 34.3% in the regular season — good numbers, but not great. Not up to his potential and reputation. Young’s shot selection needs to be a little smarter.

Another question: How does Young adjust to the changes in officiating? He is one of the great foul hunters in the league on the drive, but will he adjust to not getting some calls on fouls where he initiated the contact, calls he got last season?

Finally, is Young ready to become a less terrible defender.

The good news is the Hawks finally got a quality backup point guard in Delon Wright, taking a little weight off Young’s shoulders. He doesn’t have to carry everything. But he needs to be playing at an All-NBA level for the Hawks to take a step forward, and while he seems ready for that step he needs to prove it all season

Can Nate McMillan continue his magic with this roster?

The Hawks were and 14-20 under Lloyd Pierce when they fired him as coach midway through last season (although had point differential of a .500 team, Pierce’s Hawks were unlucky). Then in comes McMillan and the Hawks go 27-11 the rest of the way, making the playoffs — and a deep run once they got there.

McMillan’s coaching improved the defense a little (they were 1.5 points per 100 possessions better under him last regular season), but more importantly he brought ball and player movement to the offense, which jumped 3.4 points per 100. The result was the Hawks had the third best net rating in the NBA after March 1.

Is that really sustainable? In a deeper East? The offense should continue to thrive, but can the Hawks’ defense be good enough to lift them up the standings? Do the Hawks have the depth to handle a few injuries this season (and can they avoid the big ones)?

Atlanta is one of the teams on the rise in the East, but progress is rarely liniar — things don’t just ramp up, there are setbacks. Improvement is gradual, with ups and downs. It’s not easy to repeat a strong season in the NBA.

And the Hawks may be about to learn that.

Report: ‘Strong optimism’ Anthony Edwards could return to Timberwolves Sunday

Houston Rockets v Minnesota Timberwolves
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What looked so bad when it happened may only cost Anthony Edwards three games.

Edwards rolled his ankle last week but could be back Sunday when the Timberwolves travel to Golden State, reports Chris Haynes at Yahoo Sports.

Edwards is averaging 24.7 points and 5.9 rebounds a game this season, and he has stepped up to become the team’s primary shot-creator with Karl-Anthony Towns out for much of the season. The Timberwolves have been outscored by 3.4 points per 100 possessions when Edwards is off the court this season.

Towns returned to action a couple of games ago, and with Edwards on Sunday it will be the first time since November the Timberwolves will have their entire core on the court — now with Mike Conley at the point. With the Timberwolves tied for the No.7 seed in an incredibly tight West (they are 1.5 games out of sixth but also one game out of missing the postseason entirely) it couldn’t come at a better time. It’s also not much time to develop of fit and chemistry the team will need in the play-in, and maybe the playoffs.

Nets announce Ben Simmons diagnosed with nerve impingement in back, out indefinitely

NBA: FEB 24 Nets at Bulls
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Ben Simmons — who has been in and out of the Nets’ lineup all season and often struggled when on the court — is out indefinitely due to a nerve impingement in his back, the team announced Friday.

A nerve impingement — sometimes called a pinched nerve — is when a bone or other tissue compresses a nerve. Simmons has a history of back issues going back to his time in Philadelphia, and he had a microdiscectomy about a year ago, after he was traded to Brooklyn.

With two weeks and nine games left in the season, logic would suggest Simmons is done for the season. Coach Jacque Vaughn said Thursday that Simmons has done some individual workouts but nothing with teammates, however, he would not say Simmons is shut down for the season or would not participate in the postseason with Brooklyn.

Simmons had not played since the All-Star break when he got PRP injections to help deal with ongoing knee soreness. When he has played this season offense has been a struggle, he has been hesitant to shoot outside a few feet from the basket and is averaging 6.9 points a game. Vaughn used him mainly as a backup center.

Simmons has two fully guaranteed years and $78 million remaining on his contract after this season. While Nets fans may want Simmons traded, his injury history and that contract will make it very difficult to do so this summer (Brooklyn would have to add so many sweeteners it wouldn’t be worth it).

The Nets have slid to the No.7 seed in the West — part of the play-in — and have a critical game with the Heat on Saturday night.

Frustration rising within Mavericks, ‘We got to fight hard, play harder’


If the postseason started today, the Dallas Mavericks would miss out — not just the playoffs but also the play-in.

The Mavericks fell to the No.11 seed in the West (tied with the Thunder for 10th) after an ugly loss Friday night to a tanking Hornets team playing without LaMelo Ball and on the second night of a back-to-back. Dallas is 3-7 with both Kyrie Irving and Luka Dončić playing, and with this latest loss fans booed the Mavericks. What was Jason Kidd’s reaction? Via Tim MacMahon of ESPN:

“We probably should have been booed in the first quarter,” Mavericks coach Jason Kidd said…. “The interest level [from players] wasn’t high,” Kidd said. “It was just disappointing.”

That was a little different than Kyrie Irving’s reaction to the boos.

Then there is franchise cornerstone Luka Dončić, who sounded worn down, by the season and the losing in Dallas.

“We got to fight hard, play harder. That’s about it. We got to show we care and it starts with me first. I’ve just got to lead this team, being better, playing harder. It’s on me….

“I think you can see it with me on the court. Sometimes I don’t feel it’s me. I’m just being out there. I used to have really fun, smiling on court, but it’s just been so frustrating for a lot of reasons, not just basketball.”

Dončić would not elaborate on what, outside basketball, has frustrated him.

Look at seeds 5-10 in the West and you see teams that have struggled but have the elite talent and experience to be a postseason threat: The Phoenix Suns (Devin Booker, plus Kevin Durant is expected back next week), the Golden State Warriors (Stephen Curry and the four-time champions), the Los Angeles Lakers (Anthony Davis and maybe before the season ends LeBron James).

Should the Mavericks be in that class? On paper yes, they have clutch playoff performers of the past in Dončić and Irving, but an energy-less loss to Charlotte showed a team lacking the chemistry and fire right now that teams like the Lakers (beating the Thunder) and Warriors (beating the 76ers) showed on the same night.

The Mavericks feel like less of a playoff threat, especially with their defensive concerns. They don’t have long to turn things around — and get into the postseason.

Watch Anthony Davis score 37, spark Lakers to key win against Thunder


LOS ANGELES (AP) — Anthony Davis had 37 points and 14 rebounds, Dennis Schröder added 13 of his 21 points in the fourth quarter and the Los Angeles Lakers got a vital victory for their playoff hopes, 116-111 over the Oklahoma City Thunder on Friday night.

Lonnie Walker scored 20 points in an impressive return to the rotation for the Lakers, who won their third straight to move even with Minnesota in seventh place in the Western Conference standings despite the injury absences of LeBron James and D’Angelo Russell.

“It was a must-win game for us,” said Davis, who made 15 of his 21 shots. “We had to come out and get this game, and we came out offensive and defensively just playing extremely well. … We’ve got to .500, and now it’s time to get on the other side.”

With Davis leading the way on both ends of the court, Los Angeles (37-37) reached .500 for the first time this year. The Lakers started the season 2-10, but they’re 12-6 since the trade deadline with a rapidly cohering roster and the looming return of the NBA’s career scoring leader.

“This team is locked in and connected,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “The vibe and the spirit have been great. Guys are really trying to figure out how we can be better. That’s what you want. … Guys are competing because they know what they’re representing. They know the history of the franchise they’re representing.”

Shai Gilgeous-Alexander and Josh Giddey scored 27 points apiece for Oklahoma City, which lost for only the fourth time in 12 games down the stretch. The Thunder (36-38) dropped into a tie with Dallas for 10th in the West despite holding the Lakers to only 42 points in the second half after LA put up 41 in the first quarter alone.

“That’s a testament to our ability to scrap and hang in there,” Oklahoma City coach Mark Daigneault said. “That’s how you want teams to score against you. All the things they got down the stretch are things we’re willing to live with. It’s hard to slow that down.”

Russell sat out with a sore right hip, joining James on the sideline at an important game for the Lakers’ playoff hopes. Los Angeles still improved to 8-5 during James’ latest injury absence.

Oklahoma City erased all of Los Angeles’ early 17-point lead when Gilgeous-Alexander’s jumper tied it at 102-102 with 5:25 to play. Davis responded with three points, and Walker hit a tiebreaking shot with 3:50 left.

Schröder replaced Russell in the starting lineup and had another standout game, including six points in the final 3:18 while the Lakers hung on. Walker got his most significant playing time since early March in Russell’s absence, and the former starter responded with four 3-pointers.

“I’ve just been in the gym, being positive and focused on what we’re trying to accomplish,” Walker said. “I love these guys, and I’m fortunate to play with them.”

Ham said Russell’s hip injury was “not too serious, but serious enough where we need to manage it.”

Gilgeous-Alexander played despite the Thunder being on the back end of consecutive games. The Thunder have been resting him in the second game of recent back-to-backs.