“Où sont toutes les femmes chaudes?”
The future of your Atlanta Hawks rests in the capable hands of… Tony Parker? And Nicolas Batum, too? Okay, it’s not that serious. Still, the Hawks may want to be extra nice to the Frenchmen when they pay the Charlotte Hornets a visit (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL).
Travis Schlenk’s draft-and-stashee, the final selection from the 2017 NBA Draft, forward/center Alpha Kaba is currently having his paycheques signed by Parker. The longtime NBA point guard and one-time Finals MVP doubles as the team president for ASVEL Basket, the French LNB Pro A outfit in suburban Villeurbanne. Last year, Parker took Batum (club president of basketball ops) under his employ.
Kaba shined for the SummerHawks back in July, putting together an impressive double-double in Atlanta’s Summer League finale. Yet he injured his elbow a month later while training with ASVEL, who have nonetheless raced to the top spot in Pro A action with a 7-1 record.
“You can tell he found the weight room in France,” Schlenk told the AJC, clearly impressed by the work he had put in the prior season with Parker’s club. Albeit from afar, Schlenk and Batum are carefully monitoring Alpha’s rehab, as the 22-year-old is expected to be back in action later this month, in time to help his team wrap up Eurocup group play.
While he looks awfully weird in teal after so many seasons rocking the black-and-silver, Parker landing in Charlotte as a result of this past summer’s free agency period made sense. For starters, Tony now gets his own checks signed by an accomplished NBA champ.
After giving the ineffective Rich Cho the heave-ho, Hornets owner Michael Jordan sought out more folks with a winning pedigree to bring under his wing, starting with Original Redeem Team gold medalist, multiple-time NBA champion, and ex-KobeLakers GM Mitch Kupchak to run the show. To fill the coaching spot vacated by Steve Clifford, Kupchak hired a Spursguy in James Borrego, an assistant on Gregg Popovich’s bench during ten of Parker’s seasons in San Antonio.
Beyond the bond with Borrego, Parker saw the opportunity to coordinate directly with Batum on foreign affairs as a positive. Then there’s his most essential role, as a steady backup and reliable stopgap behind Kemba Walker, the two-time All-Star who has all the look of an All-NBA candidate in the early going (career-highs of 28.0 PPG, 52.5 2FG%, 40.4 3FG%, 86.2 FT%; fewest MPG since his 2011-12 rookie year).
Having cycled through D.J. Augustin, Mo Williams, Jeremy Lin, Ramon Sessions and Michael Carter-Williams as Kemba backups, the Hornets’ fanbase, Parker knew, wasn’t about to have outsized expectations of the 36-year-old’s current skillset. It’s early, but it appears Parker (5.0 APG, 1.4 TO/game in 18.1 MPG) is clearing a reasonably low bar as a reserve ballhandler.
With either Walker or Parker paired with Batum, Borrego fields Hornet lineups that are better equipped to move the ball, even though it occasionally winds up in the hands teammates that are often accuracy-averse. Charlotte ranks 6th in the league with 18.0 assists per 100 possessions (the top three teams in this department are a combined 26-3). Last season’s edition of the Hornets ranked 27th. Maintaining the predecessor coach Clifford’s emphasis on ball control, their 1.99 assist-turnover ratio is just behind pass-happy Golden State, at 3rd in the league. Last season, Charlotte was bottom-ten in threes attempted; this season, they rank 7th.
Replacing Dwight Howard in the offseason, effectively, with Bismack Biyombo and a horde of future second-rounders (recouping the picks sent to acquire Willy Hernangomez from New York) hasn’t harmed the Bugs’ defensive efficiency (it helps that they have a healthy Cody Zeller this season to help man the middle, too). As a result, the Hornets’ 7.5 Net Rating (5th in NBA) currently belies their otherwise benign 5-5 record.
Aside from Kemba’s brilliance, Charlotte hasn’t opened many eyes around the league yet, not in ways fellow small-market Sacramento has done so far. That’s in part due to a feeble strength-of-victory -- wins have come against Orlando, Miami twice, Chicago, and Cleveland. Also factoring into the muted reactions to the Hornets’ play are the stale remnants of the roster left in Cho’s wake.
Shots by Kupchak’s fellow Tar Heel alum, 13-year NBA yeoman Marvin Williams, have landed like dead ducks by the time they approach the rim (37.1 FG%, 20.5 3FG%, 62.5 FT%). Acquired in a draft swap with the LA Clippers for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, rookie Miles Bridges (39.1 3FG%, team-high 75.0 2FG%) has been gently nudging his way toward Williams’ spot in the starting lineup.
Another former second-overall draftee, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist remains the WYSIWYG of the NBA, a defensive pest for forwards and wings, but incapable of extending his range beyond the paint. The dead-and-buried lottery bust Frank Kaminsky has become the spirit animal representing Hornet draftees’ unfulfilled promise, and the cover model for Deadspin’s latest list of “Butt” NBA youngsters.
Batum, Williams, and Zeller aren’t going anywhere, not with their eight-figure salaries guaranteed through at least next season. It’s unlikely that Biyombo or MKG, slated to again make $30 million combined as opt-ins next season, will be dipping, either. The crux of the issue for the Hornets is that Walker and Jeremy Lamb very well might this summer. Returning the backcourt starters at their respective market value will only further bloat a core payroll that no one foresees as championship or even contender quality.
For Charlotte to become more than they are, Kupchak’s cupboard must be emptied, somehow, of the treadmill veterans he inherited. And his coaching staff has to find a way to get 20-year-olds Bridges and Malik Monk playing consistently ahead of their development curves.
For the Hawks (3-6), Taurean Prince’s ankle sprain, suffered late during Saturday’s 123-118 win over Miami, will produce even more next-man-up action out of Lloyd Pierce’s reserves. Kevin Huerter may become the third rookie inserted into the starting lineup, in place of Prince. Chapel Hill legend Vince Carter may make a return to the top line as well. But another strong option could be former Charlotte Nets AAU star DeAndre’ Bembry.
Despite a recent swoon, DeAndre’ has been pure Pierre from the perimeter (42.9 3FG%), a vast improvement from injury-riddled seasons past. He and/or Huerter could help draw Batum, the Hornets’ top defensive rebounder (6.5 RPG), out of the paint. But he’ll have to be a stronger finisher on his forays inside (39.2 FG%; 2nd-most missed FTs on the team) to balance out his offensive threat.
Bembry and Kent Bazemore will be switching intermittently to relieve Young of the defensive pressure of containing Walker. Trae, in turn, must be ready to help with intercepting dishes out to Batum (40.0 3FG%, 4.1 APG) and Monk (13.4 PPG, 2nd on the team in scoring).
Omari Spellman (team-high 1.8 O-Rebs per game), Dewayne Dedmon, ex-Hornet Miles Plumlee and The Alexes (Len and Poythress) need to crash the glass as a platoon, keeping Zeller, MKG, and Hernangomez occupied and unable to maximize second-chances for the Hornets. Keeping Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin, and the Charlotte bigs from helping Walker and Parker would allow Young and the Hawks to execute plays and, in combination with Prince’s absence, keep the turnover margin with the stingy Hornets close.
Charlotte’s offense relies heavily on the point guards driving inside and drawing trips to the charity stripe. Keeping a wing defender in front of Parker and/or Walker and getting them to pick up their dribble before they get into the paint, without fouling, will lower the Hornets’ offensive efficiency and keep the Hawks in the contest late.
No matter the outcome tonight, Atlanta had better stay on Parker and Batum’s good sides. That is, unless we want Alpha Kaba to become the next Alain Digbeu.
Let’s Go Hawks!