“Is that… is that HAIR GEL???”
Back-to-back, jack! The Hawks return from their humbling of the Chucklehead last night in New York to vie for their first home victory of the season. In the first of a home-and-home weekend series, their opponents tonight at the Highlight Factory are the Charlotte Hornets (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast), the NBA’s ultimate trial-and-error team.
Really, when it comes to personnel, they’ll try just about anything and anybody. Ask yourself where Sam Vincent is, or where Mike Dunlap is, right now (Sam’s in Bahrain, while Mike’s at Loyola Marymount). His Errness pulling the strings at draft time? Letting a head coach’s son call the shots at the end of the season? Replacing that head coach with a college assistant? Anything is possible. If you ever plan on doing anything that gives the Hornets (0-1) pause, you’d best not do it.
They tried the whole get-the-worst-record-ever thing in a Dive for Davis, and it netted them Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for all the trouble. Since then, they’ve tried the summertime free-agent splashy thing, in hopes the occasional dash of veteran juice to some organic lottery-player growth will eventually make this franchise, playoff participants just twice in the past 12 years, something like a phenomenon.
2013’s Big Get was Al Jefferson. While the acquisition paid off with a 7th-seed in the 2014 Playoffs, and an All-NBA Third-Team nod for the Hornets center, his unyielding love for Bojangles imperiled the Man with a Million Moves’ ability to maximize his effectiveness in the post. Jefferson vows he has ditched the fried chicken and is conditioned to run a full court for a full season.
2014’s Big Get was Lance Stephenson. But Born Ready’s willingness to adopt coach Steve Clifford’s schemes and play team ball was Still Born from the jump, and his jump-shooting was historically bad. Like many of the Hornets’ grand plans, Stephenson was rolled into town on a teal carpet and, mere months later, run out of town on a rail, with a trade to the Clippers. Then there was Noah Vonleh: this lottery pick will pair with Jefferson for years! Until he doesn’t. Good luck in Portland!
2015’s Big Get is Nicolas Batum, acquired in that trade of Gerald Henderson (another former lotto pick) and Vonleh to the Blazers. Nic Batum is French for “Big Tease,” but his jack-of-all-trades skillset is hoped to be the glue, in between ball-stopping stars Kemba Walker (another former lotto pick) and Jefferson that makes the Hornets’ offense flow. What if Batum doesn’t work out, either? Well, at least they tried: Batum’s contract expires this summer.
Their less-Big-Get, Jeremy Lin, can form a potent dual-small-guard scoring backcourt to rival Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder, when he’s not simply spelling Walker. After stops in New York, Houston, and L.A., Lin (17 bench points at Miami) must enjoy the love of a small-market team that wants him more for what he brings to the floor (scoring, and, yeah, scoring) than the benefits of his presence off of it.
There’s no evidence that “Tank for The Tank” was a mantra last spring in the Carolinas, but the Hornets used their lotto pick this year on Frank Kaminsky, who’s destined to become a stage dancer at Madonna concerts if this whole NBA thing doesn’t work out. Last year’s Hornets were the most wayward three-point shooters in the league (31.8 team 3FG%) and they weren’t much better inside the line, either (45.0 team 2FG%, 29th in NBA). So the remake with Batum, Lin, and Kaminsky is intended to bring floor-stretching players on the floor to benefit Jefferson and Walker.
While the early returns have been promising from long-range (36.1 preseason 3FG%, 6th in NBA), they could only hit six of their 24 three-point attempts in Wednesday’s 104-94 season-opening loss in Miami. Frank the Tank’s purported NBA-readiness was supposed to be the reason Charlotte passed over Justise Winslow, who went next to Miami. While Winslow logged 25 minutes in his debut, Kaminsky managed the fewest of any 2015 lottery selection, the equivalent of a Doug E. Fresh advisory (six minutes) while buried on the depth chart behind Marvin Williams (!) and Cody Zeller (another former lotto pick).
Clifford was another off-the-radar coaching pickup by the experimental Hornets back in 2013. But the longtime former NBA assistant’s trial period expires this summer as well, and having run off one lottery pick and ducking two others behind Marvin (messed around with 10 points, 10 boards, 0-for-5 3FGs vs. Miami) can’t bode well for the prospects of a contract renewal. Significant growth from Zeller and Frank the Tank over the course of the season will be critical for Charlotte’s near-term and long-term outlook, as will figuring out a consistent defensive approach that was, momentarily, the Hornets’ calling card.
Let’s not dwell on the Hornets defense for too long, as it’s rightfully a sore spot. The rim-protecting Bismack Biyombo (another former lotto pick) ran off to Toronto in the offseason, just like DeMarre Carroll. If you think you’re missing your shutdown small forward from last year, just imagine how Charlotte’s feeling after Kidd-Gilchrist went down with a torn labrum in a preseason game.
Now, they’re turning to P.J. Hairston and Walker’s UConn teammate Jeremy Lamb (probable after missing the opener with an ankle injury) to hold serve. Charlotte will slide Batum to the 3-spot when Lin or Troy Daniels (questionable with a hamstring injury) enters for offensive punch, but that leaves the backcourt defense sagging.
Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer knows tonight's game precedes the season's only 5-game calendar-week, beginning Sunday in Charlotte and featuring three division foes. So it’s as good a time as any for Kyle Korver (ankle rehab) to get some rest. Thabo Sefolosha will tag in for Korver on this second night of a back-to-back for the Hawks (1-1), who dusted the upstart Knicks in primetime last night with Korver (3-for-5 3FGs) and several Hawk players finding their groove. Who’s the leading three-point maker from last year on Atlanta’s active roster tonight? It’s Tim Hardaway, Jr., who may finally get some productive floor time tonight.
Al Horford (21 points and 9 rebounds vs. New York) has to put Jefferson’s newly-fleet feet to the test. When Jefferson is taking shots in isolation, he’ll need Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore to box out, allowing Horford to outrace Jefferson down the floor. The Hawks began to open things up in New York when Teague (23 points, 5-for-6 second-half FGs vs. New York) moved assertively toward the rim in transition, and when Hawks were individually beating their man down the floor.
Millsap and Horford should find it easier to strategically crash the glass against a Charlotte team that ranked #1 in defensive rebounding percentage last season, before losing Biyombo and MKG. Acquired in the Stephenson swap, Spencer Hawes is another floor-stretchy big, but defense is far from his forte.
Kemba (4 assists, no turnovers vs. Miami) has never blossomed into the All-Star many fans have longed for when he came out of college, but one thing he has done is keep the turnovers to a minimum. His 6.6 TOs per 100 possessions last season was the best among all NBA starting point guards, tremendous for a player who puts the ball on the floor as much as he does. His and Al Jefferson’s ability (5.9 turnover %, second-best in NBA in 2014-15) to play to their strengths and execute without giving the ball away gives Charlotte a fighting chance on a nightly basis.
If tonight’s contest remains close-to-the-vest late in the game, instead of pounding the clock away, will Walker and Jefferson take more risks with the ball and kick the ball out to their new perimeter shooters, daring the Hawks to spread their defense? The Hornets certainly ought to give it a try. They’ve tried just about everything else.
Let’s Go Hawks!