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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.

Hawks show even more commitment to rebuilding their way

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NBC Sports’ Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Hawks put two players on All-Rookie teams then had two top-10 picks in the following draft.

What a way to get a rebuild rolling.

But like last year, Atlanta’s high-draft maneuvering leaves plenty of room for second-guessing.

Last year, the Hawks traded No. 3 pick Luka Doncic to the Mavericks for No. 5 pick Trae Young and a future first-rounder. That deal and another losing season gave Atlanta the Nos. 8 and 10 picks in this year’s draft.

The Hawks wanted De'Andre Hunter, who probably wasn’t falling that far. So, they paid a premium to get him. Atlanta traded the Nos. 8, 17 and 35 picks and a potential future first-rounder and took Solomon Hill‘s burdensome contract for the No. 4 pick (Hunter) and a late second-rounder or two.

That’s generally too much to trade up from No. 8 to No. 4. Hunter doesn’t impress me enough for that to be an exception. That said, his defense and complementary offense should fit well between reigning All-Rookie teamers Young and Kevin Huerter and 2018 All-Rookie second-teamer John Collins.

At No. 10, the Hawks took Cameron Reddish. That’s fine value there, and he’s another wing who should fit well if he develops.

The only other team in the modern-draft era (since 1966) with two All-Rookie selections and two top-10 picks in the same year was the 2000 Bulls. They had Rookie of the Year Elton Brand and All-Rookie second-teamer Ron Artest (now Metta World Peace). Then, Chicago got No. 4 pick Marcus Fizer and No. 8 pick Jamal Crawford in the draft.

But the Bulls languished for several more years. There are no guarantees in rebuilds.

Part of Chicago’s problem: The 2000 draft was historically weak. Fizer was a bust, and Crawford has had a fine sub-star career. But there were no great options available.

Atlanta might face the same issue. This draft looks poor after the first couple picks. It might have been the wrong year to have two high selections. However, we’re often terrible at assessing overall draft quality in the present. Time will tell on this draft.

Another Bulls problem: They lacked direction. Just a year later, they traded Brand for an even younger Tyson Chandler, the No. 2 pick in the 2001 draft out of high school. Later that season, they traded Artest in a package for veteran Jalen Rose.

It seems the Hawks won’t have that problem. They appear fully committed to their vision.

General manager Travis Schlenk took over in 2017. Atlanta was coming off 10 straight postseason appearances, only one year removed from a playoff-series victory and just two years removed from a 60-win season.

Now, only DeAndre’ Bembry remains from the roster Schlenk inherited just two years ago. The last two players to go, Taurean Prince and Kent Bazemore, got moved this summer.

The Hawks traded Prince and took Allen Crabbe‘s undesirable $18.5 million expiring contract to get the Nets’ No. 17 pick and a lottery-protected future first-rounder. That’s solid value for Atlanta. The Hawks clearly didn’t want to make a decision on Prince, whom Schlenk never selected and who’s up for a rookie-scale contract extension.

In a more curious decision, Atlanta traded Bazemore to the Trail Blazers for Evan Turner. Bazemore is better than Turner. Both players are similarly aged and paid on expiring contracts. The Hawks will seemingly use Turner as their backup point guard, a position he can handle better than Bazemore. But there were real backup point guards available in free agency. Unless this was just a favor to get Bazemore to a better team, I don’t get it.

At least the trade probably won’t affect Atlanta long-term.

Ditto the Hawks dealing Solomon Hill’s and Miles Plumlee‘s expiring contracts for Chandler Parsons‘ expiring contract. Parsons’ knees seem shot.

Signing Vince Carter to a minimum deal also probably won’t matter.

Getting Jabari Parker on a two-year, $13 million deal with a player option might mean a little more. But I’m not convinced it’ll mean much. Parker just hasn’t found traction since two ACL tears. He has shown flashes and is just 24. There’s at least a small chance this works out.

Another likely low-consequence move: Trading Omari Spellman to the Warriors for Damian Jones and a future second-rounder. Teams rarely give up on a first-rounder as quickly as the Hawks did Spellman, the No. 30 pick last year. Jones is entering the final year of his rookie-scale contract and hasn’t gotten healthy yet in his career. The distant second-rounder is probably the prize. I somewhat trust the team that had a chance to evaluate Spellman’s approach first-hand all of season. Atlanta also got a replacement developmental center in No. 34 pick Bruno Fernando.

Fernando might even play behind Alex Len and John Collins, who will get minutes at power forward. Center is thin after the Hawks lost Dewayne Dedmon to the Kings.

It’s too soon for the Hawks to concern themselves with that, though. They’re still assembling a young core. It’s OK if every piece is not yet placed.

Meandering around the edges was fine and forgettable. Reddish and Hunter were the important pickups. The big bet this summer was on Hunter, and I just found the cost too steep.

Offseason grade: C-

Trae Young scores 49 but it’s not enough, Zach LaVine’s 47 lifts Bulls past Hawks in 4 OTs

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ATLANTA (AP) — The Chicago Bulls are playing their best basketball of the season at a time many might have thought the focus would be shifting to the NBA draft lottery.

The wins are making Lauri Markkanen hungry for more.

Markkanen made three free throws to give Chicago the lead for good, Zach LaVine scored a career-high 47 points and the Bulls overcame Trae Young‘s career-high 49 points to beat the Atlanta Hawks 168-161 in four overtimes Friday night.

Each team set franchise records for points in a game.

Markkanen finished with 31 points and 17 rebounds. He snapped a 159-all tie by making the three free throws after he was fouled by Alex Len.

“It was great fun,” Markkanen said. “It should make us feel more hungry. We can do it.”

The Bulls (18-45) have won five of six but still rank only 13th of 15 Eastern Conference teams – one spot behind Atlanta (21-42).

LaVine said the game was exhausting.

“I’ve never been part of a game that long,” LaVine said. “… I airballed one because I was so damn tired.”

LaVine was impressed with Young, the rookie who had his third straight game of setting or matching his career scoring high after back-to-back games with 36 points.

“Trae Young is an incredible talent,” LaVine said. “You can already see. He has the `it’ factor.”

Young’s tiebreaking, step-back 3-pointer with 2.2 seconds remaining in regulation forced the first overtime. The rookie’s last-second layup tied it at 140 to force the second overtime.

Young had 16 assists, eight rebounds and nine turnovers. Otherwise, his line was very similar to LaVine’s.

Young made 17 of 33 shots including six 3-points. LaVine made 17 of 35 shots with six 3s. Each played almost 56 minutes.

“That was a fun game to play, probably one of the most fun games I’ve played in my career,” Young said. ” … I’m proud of the way we fought. We came up short but I love the way we fought.”

Young and DeAndre Bembry had turnovers in the final 30 seconds of the third overtime, preventing the Hawks from an opportunity to snap a 155-all tie.

Ryan Arcidiacono‘s 3-pointer forced the third overtime.

James Harden scores 28 against Hawks, 30-point streak ends

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HOUSTON (AP) — James Harden isn’t exactly lamenting the end of his impressive scoring run.

Harden had 28 points, snapping his 32-game streak with at least 30 while the Houston Rockets beat the Atlanta Hawks 119-111 on Monday night.

He’s glad it’s over, too – especially since he had no expectation of matching Wilt Chamberlain’s 65-game streak, the longest in NBA history. Harden’s stretch with 30 or more points ranks second.

“Yeah I am. It was cool but I knew I wasn’t going to get to No. 1,” Harden said before walking away chuckling.

Houston overcame a scoring outburst from Hawks rookie Trae Young, who set career highs with eight 3-pointers and 36 points.

Harden returned after missing Saturday’s win over Golden State with a neck injury and missed all 10 3-pointers he attempted.

“This was the first time I was able to move it since a few days,” he said. “So it kind of felt good to go out there and just move it and run around. I hadn’t really done any movement or working out. I’ve been in bed really.”

He got to 28 points with 23.3 seconds left and had the ball on Houston’s last possession but did not attempt a shot from half court with the game in hand. When asked if the injury affected his shot he said: “I don’t care. Made shots, missed shots, we won the game.”

Harden last came up short of 30 points in a Dec. 11 win over Portland, when he had 29. During the streak, he scored 50 or more points four times, including a career-high 61 in a win at the Knicks on Jan. 23.

“Eventually it was going to have to end one of these days,” coach Mike D’Antoni said. “He’s unbelievable. He’ll start another one.”

Chris Paul added 20 points, and Eric Gordon hit four 3-pointers for 16 points.

The Hawks cut the lead to five on a basket by John Collins with about 2 1/2 minutes remaining. Harden missed his 10th 3-pointer seconds after that, but Harden was fouled on a 3-pointer on the next possession and made all of the free throws to make it 115-107.

Atlanta scored the first nine points of the fourth quarter, with five points including a long 3-pointer from Young, to cut the lead to one. P.J. Tucker got the Rockets going again when he made a 3-pointer to make it 98-94 with 8 1/2 minutes remaining.

Young’s hot shooting continued after that when he made his seventh 3 to cut the lead to one again.

Harden made four quick points later in the quarter, but Young was at it again after that, sinking his eighth 3-pointer to cut the lead to 107-102 with about five minutes left.

Young said he couldn’t appreciate his big night since the Hawks came up short.

“For me, I’ve grown up with a dad who raised me that winning is the only thing that matters,” he said. “So for me, of course you want to play well, of course you want to do well in the game and help your team, but at the end of the day I don’t feel good about it.”

Vince Carter got the Hawks within one with a 3-pointer later in the third quarter before Houston scored five quick points, capped by a basket from Harden to make it 82-76 with about four minutes left in the third.

Alex Len added a 3 for Atlanta after that but the Rockets padded the lead to 90-79 with an 8-0 run.

The Hawks got within seven late in the third, but Paul made a shot while being foul and completed the 3-point play to leave Houston up 95-85 entering the fourth.

 

Suns executive James Jones: Focus has shifted to NBA players, not draft

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The Suns are 7-24.

At least they’ll get a prime draft pick to add young talent to grow with Devin Booker and Deandre Ayton. That’s Phoenix best path toward meaningful success.

Or…

Suns front-office chief James Jones, via Arizona Sports 98.7:

“Yeah, we have to worry about what happens in the draft but our primary focus is on this team currently and what we can do,” he told 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station’s Burns & Gambo on Wednesday. “We have a bunch of young players in this draft. We’ve been deep in the draft, we’ve drafted a lot of players over the years and our focus has shifted more to development of these players and looking at NBA players that we possibly can add to this team.”

“We shifted focus,” Jones said. “I think in the past our primary focus — a great amount of our time was spent turning over every stone as it relates to players and college players, but college players don’t win NBA games. NBA players do, so that’s where our focus is now.”

I get why the Suns want to be done with the draft. This will be Phoenix’s ninth straight season outside the playoffs. That should have provided enough lottery picks to stock the roster.

But since 2011, the Suns have gotten Markieff Morris, Kendall Marshall, Alex Len, T.J. Warren, Devin Booker, Dragan Bender, Marquese Chriss, Josh Jackson, Deandre Ayton and Mikal Bridges from the lottery. That’s not good enough.

Phoenix is still multiple steps from winning. Trying to shortcut the process will only push the goal further away. That type of thinking is what led to misguided signings like Trevor Ariza, Tyson Chandler and Jared Dudley. The Suns should be realistic about where they are in team-building.

And maybe they are. Perhaps, Jones is just saying what he thinks should be said. The Suns are trying to sell tickets and secure taxpayer funding for arena upgrades, after all.

But this also might be Phoenix’s actual approach. Suns owner Robert Sarver is notoriously impatient. After Jones’ comments, the Suns traded Ariza to the Wizards without getting a draft pick (netting only Kelly Oubre).

The best thing the Suns can do is nail their upcoming high first-round pick. That should be their primary focus.

Jones saying otherwise ought to terrify Phoenix fans.