• Hawksquawk.net

    Atlanta Hawks community, for the fans, by the fans

    Let’s sing it, James! “Don’t Be Tardy for The Party… oh-oh-oh-ohhh-oh-oh…”
    You won’t get much zippy commentary on here about the “Real” “House” “wives” “of” “Atlanta”, as the divas grace the Atlanta Hawks and the visiting Houston Rockets (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet Southwest in HOU) with their presence at Philips Arena today. I zoned out on that show for keeps years ago, back when the recently-ousted Phaedra, Kenya, and frenemies couldn’t figure out for themselves how much of a creep Apollo was. Or maybe before that, when Porsha intimated that the Underground Railroad had to have room for tracks.
    While RHOA is here to promote this weekend’s kickoff of Season 10 of the franchise, Hawks fans understand as well as anybody when a near-decade run of something grows a little stale. But so long as they don’t stage a(nother) one of their catfights, having to get separated by Harry and leaving behind weave remnants to get swept up off the floor, I’m cool with it.
    What I will delve into is how short-sighted I have been about Mike D’Antoni.
    Remember how we all cackled when his Phoenix Suns went all-in with their zany but successful Seven Seconds or Less offense? Well, guess who his boss was back then? Steve Kerr. It takes two to tango on the floor, and these days, Kerr, D’Antoni and Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer are advocates for an overall pace of play that, today, leaves even that Steve Nash-led team in the dust.
    As noted recently by Kevin Arnovitz, the 2004-05 Phoenix team that won 62 games, led the Western Conference and reached the conference finals before succumbing to Coach Bud’s and Coach Pop’s Spurs in five games, led the NBA with a 95.9 pace. With more teams going smaller and pushing the rock, the ’05 Suns’ tempo (opponents included) would rank 26th in the league as of today.
    D'Antoniball would be panned by many, including yours truly, over the later years, but it was not designed to accommodate wholesale dysfunction, as was the case with the Melo-Amar’e Knicks and the Kobe-Dwight Lakers. But most NBA coaches and players have since bought in. Thanks to gung-ho GM Daryl Morey, D’Antoni’s Rockets (6-3) are balancing that need-for-speed with former halfcourt heavyweights James Harden, Eric Gordon and Chris Paul (the latter out for another week or so with a bruised knee) directing traffic.
    D’Antoni has implemented a style that compels opposing defenses to pick between two evils and think fast. “Everything that [opponents] preach defensively,” the Rockets coach told Basketball Insiders, “we try to do opposite, or try and get to a spot they don’t want to be in.”
    Pringles isn’t wasting time running plays, and he’s certainly not wasting time with what he perceives to be inefficient shots. Houston has taken just 5.0 mid-range two-point shot attempts per game, and the next-lowest team, Memphis, has been hoisting nearly twice as many (9.5). As with Kerr’s Warriors, if you, as a shooter, are going to settle at this range, you had better make it, and Houston leads the way with a 48.9 FG% in this zone.
    The gameplan is the same for many Atlanta opponents. Build up a lead by drowning the Hawks in three-point buckets in the first half (17.4 first-half opponent 3FGAs per game, 3rd in NBA), shift inside and let the Hawks wear themselves out trying to claw back in front, then put them away with daggers in the second-half, once the wing defenders are too tired to keep up and overcompensating for the shorthanded presence in the middle. D’Antoni’s Rockets (NBA-high 54.1 three-point attempt rate) seem to be built to do just that.
    While it’s not a problem tonight, the design of an offense that turns a good chunk of the floor into a vacuum could pose challenges for the Rockets’ most significant off-season acquisition. Paul’s mid-range runners and spot-ups were a bread-and-butter of his offense for years, but he began to fully expand his range in earnest during his final season with the Clippers, taking 5.0 three-point shots per game and hitting a career-best 41.1 3FG%.
    Harden (26.6 PPG, 6th in NBA; 9.2 APG, 3rd in NBA) of course dominates the playmaking (35.0 usage%, 2nd in NBA), at least until CP3 returns to the fold, and how effortlessly the pair share the ball when on-court together remains to be seen. But either of them will need castmates that can hit more successfully from long-range.
    Reigning Sixth Man of the Year Award winner Eric Gordon’s career-high 23.9 PPG sounds nice, until one recognizes he has lofted 11.8 attempts per game from three-point territory alone (31.9 3FG%). Despite the added three-point shot volumes, forwards Ryan Anderson (37.3 3FG%) and P.J. Tucker (35.0 3FG%) and swingman Trevor Ariza (25.0 3FG%) are all shooting at-or-below their career averages.
    If wings Taurean Prince and Kent Bazemore are doing their letter-best, switching onto Harden and canvassing the three-point line, then Dennis Schröder (probable, despite his sprained ankle; career-low 6.5 D-Reb%) and the Hawks’ remnant guards would do well to help their foul-prone bigs secure the rebounds produced by the many clunkers veering from the rim. Any Hawks player trying to D-up a Rocket standing around the mid-range two-point area, or even in the paint outside the restricted area, risks wasting precious time and falling into D’Antoni’s traps.
    The Hawks (1-7) could turn the tables anytime Houston turns a blind-eye toward the perimeter. The Rockets have allowed first-quarter opponents to hit an NBA-high 50.8 3FG% in the opening frame, the sole team to have allowed foes to sink over half of those shots.
    The Rockets do have defenders, like Trevor Ariza, Luc Richard Mbah a Moute, Tucker, and Clint Capela (NBA-high 37.8 D-Reb% and 70.7 FG%). But those players would rather be occupied trying to stem forays by Schröder (one of 11 NBA players with 45/35/90 shooting split, min. 100 minutes played) into the lane, access that should be more unfettered without CP3 around.
    Atlanta will need Marco Belinelli (48.9 3FG%), Luke Babbitt (season-high 16 points @ PHI on Wednesday, 2-for-4 3FGs), and Prince (48.1 3FG%) to get early perimeter touches, allowing the Hawks to play their opponent even or in front, rather than scrambling from behind later. If everyone does their tasks for the Hawks well tonight, from the outset, the only “Atlantans” scratching and clawing on the court could be the ones aiming for a boost in tweets and TV ratings.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “FLY, SIXERS, FLY! So, fellas, do I have to actually, like, draw up plays anymore, or…?”
    It’s Finally Sunny in Philadelphia! The Atlanta Hawks arrive in the City of Brotherly Shove, facing a 76ers team (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Philadelphia) that, thanks to some of their Processed Meat, is at long last turning a corner... maybe?
    Sure, the Sixers (3-4) are just trying to get to a .500 record right now. But coach Brett Brown’s crew has won three of their last four contests, all three wins on the road at places like upstart Detroit and Houston, while the sole defeat in that run was a buzzer-beating loss at the hands of the Rockets’ Eric Gordon.
    Similar to the Hawks (1-6), with ex-Sixer Ersan Ilyasova (knee) and former St. Joe’s star DeAndre’ Bembry (wrist) rocking suits, the Sixers are shorthanded coming into this matchup. But if you’ve been following Philadelphia during their tanktastic stretch, they’re kind of used to that by now.
    2017 first-overall pick Markelle Fultz tried to soldier on through shoulder discomfort, taking free throw shots along the way that would make Chuck Hayes wince, but now the guard has been shelved for a couple weeks. Their biggest free agent pickup, veteran gunner J.J. Redick, missed the past two games with back tightness, although he is probable to play today. Backup big Richaun Holmes was out all of last month with a wrist fracture although he’s expected to return soon.
    But it’s all good, because there are at least two neophytes bringing the fight for Philly. Much like center Joel Embiid, 6-foot-10 rookie point guard – yes, point guard – Ben Simmons is confirming to Sixer fans that he was indeed worth the wait. He’s nearly averaging a triple-double through seven games, ranking fifth in the NBA with 7.7 APG while posting means of 18.4 PPG and 9.1 RPG.
    Sure, the 2016 first-overall pick’s range and free throw accuracy are less-than-desirable coming out of the gate. But dare we mention, again, this dude is 6-foot-10? The ability for Simmons to play on-ball and not on the low blocks grants his 7-foot teammate Embiid (20.8 PPG, 10.0 RPG, 3.0 APG, 4.5 TOs/game) plenty of room to play in, and around, the paint. The social-media-savvy big man has deft touch in the post and will surprise defenders with his two-point jumpshot (57.7 mid-range FG%). While he isn’t turning opposing back shots as much as he’d like, Embiid ranks second in the league with a 34.3 D-Reb%.
    While thrilled with Embiid’s play, Brown has strained to keep him under wraps with a limited-minutes restriction, plugging 2017 Rookie of the Year runner-up Dario Saric and free agent vet Amir Johnson in the 5-spot behind him in Holmes’ absence. If only there was someone Jahlil else that the Sixers could have been grooming all this time for Okafor this backup role.
    Looking back over the past decade-plus of 76er drafts, Philadelphia tends to draft well. But they either fail to adequately develop their youngsters and maximize their utility, or they fail to recoup an adequate return whenever they eventually decide to deal them. Most of their picks reach the zenith of their NBA success with somebody else. The second lottery-pick keeper from the 76ers’ four-year-long tanking Process, Okafor is certainly hoping the trend will hold.
    After failing to find a trade partner, the Sixers formally declined his fourth-year option yesterday, and Brown has unceremoniously buried him on the depth chart, keeping him from catching an injury before the Sixers could move him. While the defensively-deficient Okafor remains shaped up, he announced today he’s begging to be shipped out.
    “Honestly, I didn’t want them to pick up my option,” he told NBC Sports Philadelphia today, adding, “I’ve been going through a lot since I’ve been here.” A buyout negotiation will suit him fine if no decent offers come across GM Bryan Colangelo’s desk.
    It has been more like Foul-adelphia thus far. Eager as the team is to get the ball back in Simmons and Embiid’s hands, the Sixers are committing the most hacks in the league (NBA-high 25.6 personal fouls per-48), allotting their foes an NBA-high 35.3 free throw attempts per 100 possessions. Atlanta (outscored an NBA-worst 6.7 paint points-per-48) isn’t doing many things right at this stage of the season, but they are making free throws (NBA-high 85.8 FT%). Doubling their win total tonight will require the Hawks (1-6) to be the best team below-the-rim.
    Despite the losing record, Atlanta is averaging more steals and fewer turnovers than their opponents, Kent Bazemore (1.7 SPG) one of four active Hawks (not counting Bembry or Ilyasova) averaging over one theft per contest. Hawks defenders must pounce whenever the ball is brought below the shoulders of the Sixers’ big-men ballhandlers, creating deflections and loose balls that can get Philadelphia into the penalty early in each half of play.
    Professor Dennis Schröder (22.2 PPG, 6.8 APG, 2.0 TOs/game, 1.8 SPG, 90.0 FT%) can teach the Sixers’ reachers and create imbalances in Philly’s halfcourt defense, ideally forcing Brown’s hand in playing the Hawks with more of a small-ball lineup.
    Schröder leads the league with 22.6 drives per game, averaging an NBA-high 13.2 PPG (his 52.9 FG% currently better than stalwarts surnamed Wall and Conley), while committing just a 3.5 TO% on those plays. Among 19 NBA players averaging at least 6.0 PPG on drives, only Simmons (3.1 TO%) and LeBron (3.1 TO%) have turned over the rock less frequently. Hawks fans are hopeful that we’ll begin to see more of Isaiah Taylor (4.8 assists, 1.4 steals, and 1.4 TOs per-36, 55.6 FG%) in place of Malcolm Delaney as Schröder’s prime backup, particularly as Taylor soaks up more of coach Mike Budenholzer’s playbook.
    Schröder (74.2 passes per game, ahead of Simmons’ 74.1 for 2nd in NBA) will need someone aside from Marco Belinelli (55.0 3FG%) and Taurean Prince (50.0 3FG%) to shed their individual perimeter shooting slumps. Bazemore (36.6 FG%, 31.8 3FG%) and Luke Babbitt (25.0 3FG%) will face little defensive pressure tonight, particularly when Robert Covington strays to help,  and will have to get on track with catch-and-shoot jumpers.
    Dennis will also need his team’s second-leading per-minute scorer, rookie John Collins (20.4 points and 6.1 fouls per-36), and Dewayne Dedmon to avoid getting cowed by Embiid (81.3 FT%) and Simmons into foul problems that hasten their own premature exits. Having either in the game for significant minutes will help the Hawks narrow the paint-points deficit and improve on their woeful defensive rebounding as a team (74.5 D-reb%, 26th in NBA).
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “I understand, you’re probably more of a Tamar kid. But back in the day? Toni, mannnnn…”
    Following a two-day respite, the Milwaukee Bucks come into town looking to move up in the standings at the expense of our Atlanta Hawks (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, Fox Sports Wisconsin) on a Sunday matinee.
    Coming off a modest 42-40 season and a first-round exit, here is the balance of all the Bucks’ off-season transactions: Sent cash to Philly for the Sixers’ second-round draft selection, Sterling “Don’t Call Me K.” Brown Re-signed Tony Snell Stretched-and-waived Spencer Hawes Re-signed Jason Terry Claimed DeAndre Liggins off waivers from the heat Annnnnnnd, that’s about it.
    Amid all the smoke and stink left over from the Milwaukee owners’ general manager search, Jon Horst apparently did not want to rock the boat too much. Former GM John Hammond was rewarded after drafting Giannis Antetokounmpo by accepting the Magic GM gig. Assistant GM Justin Zanik, previously brought in to be the GM-in-waiting, eventually became the sole finalist under consideration. But one co-owner, Wes Edens, wasn’t sold on Zanik. The job got handed to the un-interviewed basketball operations director instead, and Zanik packed his bags for Utah.
    In most circumstances, a middling team coming off an unimpressive playoff ending, reeling from front office turmoil, and not adding significant contributors to the roster, would not be foreseen as a legit Conference Finals contender.
    But those other teams never had a Greek freaking android as a headliner.
    Last season’s Most Improved Player and an All-NBA 2nd-Teamer, Antetokounmpo presently leads The Association with 35.0 PPG, and there’s no telling how much higher his scoring average will go once his three-point shooting accuracy (33.3 3FG%) surges past his rookie-year career-high (34.7 3FG%).
    His long arms are now stronger, allowing him to average daily double-doubles (10.6 RPG; 9.2 defensive) while picking off passes with greater regularity (2.4 SPG, 5th in NBA). His height-induced court-vision also helps him the lead the team as a passer (5.6 APG).
    Now in his fifth NBA season, Giannis (NBA-highs of 37.3 player efficiency rating, 1.4 Win Shares, and 14.2 Box Plus/Minus) has surpassed the stage where he can be measured solely in terms of height, “linth,” and vertical leap. The new dimensions revolve around how far this 23-year-old can carry the Bucks (3-2) with his elevated production. He’s leaning on coach Jason Kidd to make the difference.
    With Cleveland’s sail listing and Boston re-calibrating, eyes are turning to teams like Milwaukee to see if they are primed to take advantage. Giannis isn’t getting much help so far from Khris Middleton (15.8 3FG%, 3.0 TOs/game), who is making Snell (50.0 3FG%) look like Marc Price early on. There’s not much utility thus far coming from sixth-man Greg Monroe (career-lows 6.8 PPG, 15.8 minutes/game), who joined Hawes in surprising everyone by picking up his player option ($17.9 million, in his case), and short-circuiting any plans to target other free agents this past summer.
    At least until after the All-Star Break, Antetokounmpo and the Bucks won’t get any help from Jabari Parker, still recovering from a second ACL tear from last February. The limited maneuverability has led Milwaukee, brushing just $17,000 below the luxury tax line, to settle for a bench brigade that, beyond Monroe, includes Matthew Dellavedova, Liggins, Mirza Teletovic, John Henson, Rashad Vaughn, and rookie D.J. Wilson.
    On top of those struggles, a lottery-pick from 2016, second-year starting center Thon Maker (30.0 2FG%, 30.8 3FG%) has had trouble expanding his range, or making impacts in other areas. Taken together, Giannis is lugging this squad on his back at both ends, because he literally must.
    The one notable exception stepping up for the Bucks is Atlanta native and reigning surprise Rookie of the Year Malcolm Brogdon. While Brogdon’s duties as a ballhandler and passer have been relegated somewhat in Kidd’s offense, the guard has shown signs of becoming an even better perimeter shooter (50.0 3FG%), raising his scoring average to 15.8 PPG.
    Kidd is spreading the floor, not so much to open up shooters at the exterior, but to allow Alpha-Bits to find ample driving room inside, forcing defenses to collapse in the paint. The results are usually a Giannis lay-up/dunk, a trip to the charity stripe, or a kickout, the latter option allowing the ball to go around the horn in search of a hot hand.
    Thanks to Giannis’ improved skillset, the Bucks are hitting shots (53.0 eFG%, 3rd in NBA; 57.3 TS%, 4th in NBA). But due to a stilted pace and subpar bench play, they’re still stuck in the middle at this moment (minus-0.2 net rating).
    Due to Ersan Ilyasova’s pesky knee strain issue, the Hawks will not have the former Buck around to draw charges, thereby creating turnovers and placing Giannis in early foul trouble. Dennis Schröder has a vital role today in forcing Giannis, Maker and Monroe to make plays around the rim. Dewayne Dedmon and John Collins have to set sound screens for the guards and avoid foul trouble themselves, especially when Monroe is throwing his weight around. Screen-roll actions that set up better shots for teammates, starters and reserves alike, can help Atlanta (1-5) unshackle itself from its long-held shooting woes (41.8 team FG%, 29th in NBA) and, maybe, get over the hump today.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Alright, stop… collaborate, and LISTEN!”
    This is YOUR time! Yes, you Atlanta Hawks fans hiding over there, I’m talking to y’all.
    You have been among the most skeptical, critical, naysaying fans out there in the Atlanta sports universe. Technically, you are fans, just from afar. You have been waiting, over the course of nearly a decade, to be proven wrong. That wait is over.
    I know you’re all out there. I see you all around town. You are right there, in line outside Fat Matt’s, stewing in bumper-to-bumper traffic, standing on the MARTA platform, on the treadmills at LA Fitness. And the rolling of your eyes upon mere sight of any diehard Hawks supporter is a dead-giveaway, a telltale sign. Bravos, Falcons, UGA/Tech, United fans don’t engender that auto-reaction in their own town. Only the presence of openly, outwardly supportive Hawks fans has that effect on you.
    You don’t even have to be pressed to offer up that you haven’t gone all-in on these Hawks since Mike Woodson’s fruitless playoff era began in earnest. Why would anyone, you asked, pin their NBA title hopes on a team headlined by time-sucking Joe Johnson?
    Why, you’d question, are we waiting around for young Josh Smith to morph into Muscly Shawn Kemp, when we can all see he’s hell-bound for a Fat Shawn Kemp career? Do we really think past-his-prime Kyle Korver burrowing through a baker’s dozen screens just to get halfway open is The Move? Giving Jeff Teague the keys to the offense is supposed to work out any better? Have you seen his layups? It is 2013: why is John Co… oop, sorry, that was a flash-forward… why is Al Horford still wasting your time and mine, hopelessly out of position at center?
    Maybe you hung around the arena just long enough to watch the Hawks try to make a Finals MVP out of Brandon Jennings, or to see this team shatter a playoff blown-out record, vow, “Never Again!”, only to break their own record in humiliating fashion just one season later. You, long before many others, tired of witnessing opponents just waltzing into Atlanta arenas, like some Amazon Key courier, and having their way with the hosts come playoff-time. You pulled a Seinfeld, rose up out your seat, grabbed your Playbill, bounced, and haven’t darkened the arena doors since.
    You weren’t all that perturbed when the hotshot GM tried his hand at Dice Clay stand-up on a hot mic, when his owners then broke out in a “Nobody Speak”-style brawl (Killer Mike 'n El-P, that plug's for you) with one another, and nearly speared their own fans in the process. Your season tickets were never at risk… they hadn’t been purchased in ages, anyway.
    No, you weren’t satisfied with killing your hard-earned free time being humored by wayward live-bird mascots, fat-guy trampoline dunkers, broke-legged A-Town dancers, broke-legged Skyhawks, and even more reliably broken shot clocks. You ride MARTA, so you already get to see Harry the Hawk’s antics, no costumes required, every commute day. The prospect of merrily singing along to “No Hands” and “My Neck, My Back,” somehow set to organ, doesn’t move your meter.
    Unlike the latter-day Hawks executives, no, you are not gonna be out here blowing your duckets on “perpetual mediocrity,” a concept that shares its initials with Paul Millsap. Replacing Horford with Great Value Dwight Howard isn’t drawing you downtown, either.
    Skeptical Hawks Fans, I say to you… Trust The Recess!
    You, Skeptical Hawks Fan, are a Championship or Bust Gal/Guy. After years of collective dithering, your Atlanta Hawks (1-4) are finally entering in the Bust phase of the Recess, and they need you. All of you. In the arena, s’il vous plait. There are more than enough of you to fill up this leaner, meaner Philips Arena every single night, especially home openers on Friday nights, like today’s affair versus the Denver Nuggets (7:30 PM Eastern, you know where it is on TV, but put down the dadgum remote and get on down here).
    Millsap is now a Nugget, Dwight’s a Hornet, Thabo’s a Jazz-hand just like Joe, Ivan’s on an off-ramp in Manila somewhere, Pero’s jab-stepping in Jabstepistan, Kyle’s a Cav, Smoove’s a Pelican, Al is a… who cares what Al is, really? The vestiges of postseason heads-up-our-own-buttsiness are almost all in distant lands now. There are no super-duper-stars blazing a path to The Finals around here, and that’s okay, because we didn’t lose any.
    There are Nets fans still waiting to cash in on their “I was there for 12-70!” buttons. Dubs fans were packing dusty old Oracle Arena for Donyell Marshall, Corey Maggette and Andris Biedrins, long before some tykes from Davidson College and Washington State were coming down the pike to turn their fortunes around. Just to have a chance at a high school kid from Akron, Cleveland suffered through drafting the likes of Trajan Langdon, DeSagana Diop, Brendan Haywood, and Dajuan Wagner. They cycled through a Danny Ferry era (as a player) that was way worse than ours.
    You are going to be those fans, the ground-floor fans that can say you were there, in person, through the suckier stages of 82-game seasons. You’re not going to be That Gal/Guy showing up all late, in facepaint and feathers, only after we finally get a legitimate contender in the building. Get in there now, get in line early for the Topgolf and the courtside Mai Tais, before it gets all trendy.
    We are fully in the Recess phase, and GM Travis Schlenk and coach Mike Budenholzer are setting sail. Dennis Schröder is your commodore leading the way out on these treacherous seas, and for now, he’s got Kent Bazemore, Mike Muscala, and Ersan Ilyasova all pulling oars in varying directions. Don’t you want to humblebrag, someday, that you were there for Luke Babbitt and Malcolm Delaney?
    But here’s the thing. To a man, the players sure shouldn’t strive to see Schlenk’s ship sink (say that five times, fast), and you shouldn’t either. The bedrock for the Hawks’ bounceback was built in Brookhaven and opened this past week. Player Development is what’s hot in these streets. While some teams are constantly hunting for finished-product talents, the Hawks are working with raw materials. The new brass is convinced that they can Build-A-Bear their way to championship basketball, and they need you, Skeptical Fans, to be sold on that premise of a promise.
    When Schröder, John Collins, and Taurean Prince peer up into the stands, they need to see that all the time spent getting chewed out in practice by Coach Bud, having every pick-and-roll and Eurostep through the lane nitpicked by P3 geeks, getting poked and prodded by people in white Emory labcoats, is all worth the trouble.
    They don’t need to see Johnny Come Lately Fan or some godforsaken Wisconsin transplant rocking a Greek Freak jersey, now that it’s all trendy. They don’t need to see a foldout seat, with an unwanted rally towel draped over it, where your keyster is supposed to reside. You fans are the difference between players fueling their desire to develop themselves, with a mindset aimed at achieving greatness right here, and players merely seat-warming, in anticipation of draft choices hopefully not named, Acie, Shelden, Chills, and Marvin, someday arriving to supplant them.
    Millsap is the latest to join other NBA teams duped into the idea that Poach-a-Hawk-and-Stir is a surefire way to insta-compete for NBA titles. While it is a bit premature, the perception that Sap, in place of Danilo Gallinari, could convert an outfit featuring Nikola Jokic and Gary Harris into a defensively competent unit may not have been fully thought through. Like the mountain range, it has been a Rocky start.
    Millsap (team-high 15.5 PPG; zero steals through his first four games) is still getting acclimated, and starters like Jokic and forward Wilson Chandler (33.3 FG%) have yet to figure out how to mesh with their All-Star teammate. Of the Nuggets’ eight two-man lineups (min. 75 minutes played together) Harris+Jokic is the only tandem with a positive net rating, and even that is a tenuous +0.1. (Jokic+Millsap minus-7.8; Harris+Sap minus-11.3; Chandler+Sap minus-12.8).
    For Denver (1-3), their sole win thus far involved holding the woeful Kings under 80 points. Otherwise, Jokic and the Nuggets have suffered through getting rim-runned at turns by Rudy Gobert, Marcin Gortat, and Howard (combined 17-for-23 FGs).
    Despite committing seven turnovers, Dwight had 15-and-19 as his host Hornets pulled away from the Nuggs early on Wednesday night, Charlotte prevailing 110-93. It was a performance for Dwight eerily similar to his Hornets’ other victory, registering 20-and-15 despite 6 TOs along the way to last week’s 109-91 win over the visiting Hawks.
    Tonight should be an ideal game to get Dewayne Dedmon (career-low 43.3 FG%) back on track in the Atlanta offense. Jokic (13.5 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 5.0 APG, 4 consecutive made 3FGs) can high-post-pass his way into a triple-double in his sleep. But his inability to keep up with even inertial centers in transition, or to stop low-post players from doing to him what he does to them, gets the Denver defense discombobulated easily. Get down the court, keep the ball high, and get Dedmon to the rim on these Nuggets (NBA-low 2.0 blocks per-48; 65.5 opponent restricted-area FG%), who thrive when their opponents settle for dueling halfcourt sets.
    His last name begins with an ‘M’. His last name ends in ‘y.’ The second letter is a ‘u’. Those were the clues Nuggets coach Mike Malone offered up to reporters throughout the preseason, about which of his young point guards would be named the starter. The dust finally settled, and the winner, Jamal Murray, has rewarded his coach by starting out shooting 29.8 FG% (incl. 10.5 3FG%, on nearly five attempts per game). Murray’s clunkers have left the runner-up, trade-target Emmanuel Mudiay, looking like Jamal Crawford out there (33.3 FG%, incl. 30.8 2FG%).
    Malone may have to give Will Barton (3.5 APG, 1.0 TOs/game, 36.4 3FG%) a fresh look in the starting lineup. In the meantime, either Schröder (11.1 3FG%, 20.0 2FG attempts/game; questionable to play, sprained ankle) and Delaney can get well/better at the expense of Denver’s defensively unsound backcourt, or vice versa. Schröder (early career-low 8.6 TO%) and Atlanta’s point guards have done a decent job to this point in suppressing turnovers of their own making, particularly given the high volume of Hawks offensive possessions that don’t amount to much else.
    The dreaded Sense of Urgency is already mile-high for the Nuggets, still in the middle of a four-game East Coast road swing. “It’s a must-win for us,” Millsap advised reporters ahead of tonight’s clash. “Our team is struggling, and we have to get back on the right page.” This is supposed to be the Nuggets’ Ascension phase, where their five-season playoff drought will draw to a close.
    Comparatively, during the Hawks’ Recession era, it is so nice not having to couch random early-season contests in the frame of “must-wins,” in order to keep some playoff-appearance streak alive. But a recession can easily slip into a depression without the proper supports around. And that is where you, Skeptical Hawks Fans, come in. For just a little while, Atlanta needs you to become Pragmatic Hawks Ticket-Buyers.
    This is YOUR time. After so many years of standing on the sidelines, the next 41 home games have you in mind. With you, and friends, cheering on the developing young talents no matter the score, tonight’s scrub may someday become an integral part of tomorrow’s title-contending rotation. You can still sit on your hands the entire season, if you want. Just do a lot of that sitting in these arena seats.
    Ladies and gents, there are avocado-topped barbeque cricket tacos at The Highlight Factory with your names on them, hot and ready. No, filet mignon is not on the menu yet. Stop all the questioning, get in your seats, and get to chompin’!
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    Will the only person alive capable of stopping John Collins, please, raise your hand?
    It is possible that the Chicago Bulls are the worst team in the NBA. It’s also possible that they could notch their first victory of the season, at the United Center tonight, while hosting the occasionally up, often down Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, WGN in CHI). Both things can be true.
    We’re now in the ninth year of the Gar Forman-John Paxson axis in the Second City, the fifteenth year of the once-proud big-city club under Paxson’s thumb, the twentieth since MJ pushed off on Bryon Russell and left the team in the hands of Tim Floyd and Toni Kukoc. The passing of time has led Bulls fans to wonder, how awful would owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s club still be, if the 2007-08 team didn’t luck out in the lottery and land a healthy, bouncy Chicago native named Derrick Rose?
    Reinsdorf has stuck with “Garpax” through thin and thinner. Now that the year-plus-long spigot holding back NBA coach-cannings has finally been turned on, there’s nothing to suggest that Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg won’t catch the blame, and the axe, over Garpax’s ever-accumulating management and player-development failures.
    Former Bulls lead-scorer and passive-aggressive team captain Jimmy Butler got dealt on draft night to Minnesota, and the returning haul gave the Bulls two young guards that have yet to appear due to injuries (Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn), plus a lottery pick, Lauri Markkanen, that was likely to be stashed after a rough summer league stint.
    Aside from Butler and Rose, the Bulls have had a decades’ worth of draft picks that have failed to pan out in Chicago, including first-rounders Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine, still on the roster at least for now. Several picks in that span that have panned out did so, or are doing so, with other teams (Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic, James Johnson… to say nothing of 2006’s LaMarcus Aldridge). That list seems to now include 2017 second-rounder Jordan Bell, a flourishing rookie sub who Garpax shipped to Golden State for cash to line Reinsdorf’s pockets.
    The Butler deal was probably not the worst of 2017 for Chicago. That would go to the trade-deadline deal of Doug McDermott (a 2014 lottery pick acquired for Harris and Nurkic) and team heart-and-soul forward Taj Gibson. Garpax exchanged them plus a second-rounder for three guys (Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne, Anthony Morrow) who hardly registered a blip, and only the injured Payne remains. Of Chicago’s draft-day selections and acquisitions over the past five years, only Paul Zipser (doubtful for tonight, bruised knee in practice) and Markannen are starting on Hoiberg’s roster, and even these situations are merely out of dire necessity.
    One year before the Butler deal, the Rose trade with New York included guard Justin Holiday. Holiday (18.3 PPG, 35.3 FG%) is back on a free-agent deal, joining momentary ex-Hawks Jerian Grant (7.3 APG) and Kay Felder to further muddle the backcourt picture in advance of LaVine’s and Payne’s eventual returns.
    I’m as big of a Lover-Not-A-Fighter pacifist as you’ll find. But a good practice scrap every now and then can turn out pretty good for a professional hoops team struggling to bond. Exhibit A: that time Zaza Pachulia and Solomon Jones swung for the fences at each other, during an April pregame shootaround at MSG, and emerged with nary a splinter back in 2008.
    The Hawks won the ensuing game over the Knicks, moonwalked by that one game into the playoffs over the Pacers, got rewarded with Paul Pierce and the Celtics, and haven’t missed a postseason party since (okay, fine… they haven’t missed one yet).
    Key to that pivotal altercation, though, is Solo never smashed Zaza’s grill, which I just assume is unsmashable to this point of his career, as retaliation for the backup center getting all up in his. No Zaza, no fateful date with KG’s mug, maybe no inspirational final playoff dash to begin with. There’s no telling how big the dream-deferred would have been for playoff-starved Hawks fans, had Atlanta been simply observing Boston’s march toward destiny from home.
    The stakes weren’t remotely as high for the Bulls (0-3) on the day before the season-opener, when Portis chose to find out just what happens When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong. Portis had lost a preseason battle to stick in the rotation at power forward, and he took exception when would-be starter Nikola Mirotic started feelin’ froggy around him during a skirmish in practice.
    Mirotic caught a two-piece, a biscuit, and a pepper from Portis. The whole malicious meal resulted in maxillary fractures that will surely have him looking like a stunt double from a horror film when he finally returns to an NBA floor in mid-November. The game-suspended Portis’ status with the team remains on shaky ground, and likely depends on whether he and Mirotic can break bread while they’re both on hiatus.
    The good news for Bulls fans is the fateful fracas eliminated two excuses Coach Fred could’ve hid behind in stashing “The Finnisher”, the rookie Markkanen. The lottery pick out of Arizona has been hitting a trio of threes per game (45.5 3FG%) while also leading the Bulls with eight defensive boards per game, allowing center Robin Lopez to focus almost exclusively on cleanup putbacks and help-blocks. His career-high 19 points (5-for-8 3FGs) during the Bulls’ 119-112 loss in Cleveland on Wednesday, after he and Holiday (4-for-9 3FGs) guided their team to an early 38-28 lead in the first quarter, earned him postgame praise from Cavs default point guard LeBron James.
    Until LaVine returns, Markkanen is the only guy capable of playing from the Jimmy Buckets trade, and the Bulls’ fans are pleased to see him get and take advantage of the opportunity. But the Bulls come into today’s contest ranking next-to-last in offensive efficiency, just a shave in front of Dallas for 28th on the defensive end.
    Chicago’s 12.8 opponent TO% is next-to-lowest, and their opponents’ 26.3 assists per-48 are next-to-highest. Who knew that the best guard option for the Bulls in the clutch, given some quality developmental seasoning, would-be Spencer Dinwiddie, discarded prior to the 2016-17 season, now a hero with the Nyets?  Hoiberg has been dealt a lousy hand, and will either earn end-of-season honors for coaching this team into Eastern Conference parity, or a pink slip. He would love to be in the cartwheel-flipping Mike Budenholzer’s shoes right now.
    Inspired by the on-goings in Chicago with Markkanen, many Hawks fans would quite enjoy the imagery of Ersan Ilyasova (team-low 30.6 eFG%, min. nine minutes played), Luke Babbitt (5.1 Rebound%, lowest among Atlanta’s non-guards), and Mike Muscala (team-low 88.7 O-Rating, min. three minutes played) wrangling with one another atop a combine harvester. However messy the outcome, it would leave no choice for Coach Bud to play in the NBA’s rookie leader in player efficiency rating.
    John Collins also ranks second among rooks in per-48 Win Shares, behind Bell (sorry, Chicago), and third in the NBA’s Player Impact Estimate (min. 10 mins/game), behind the lauded Ben Simmons and De’Aaron Fox. Yet we can only speak in terms of efficiencies with Collins (13th in minutes-played among 2017 draftees), because Budenholzer sits the budding big-man at inopportune times for the Hawks (1-3).
    It is true that Coach Bud wants to be careful in over-relying upon his rookies, as evidenced in prior seasons with Dennis Schröder and Taurean Prince (20 points but 7 TOs @ MIA on Monday). It is also correct to assume that Collins has to work on his strength and defensive awareness versus post players, as was demonstrated when he allowed his fellow Deacon alum, Johnson, to plunk down one basket after another in the third quarter of Atlanta’s 104-93 loss in Miami.
    Yet Collins (14-and-11 in 18.5 minutes @ MIA; second-straight double-double) was instrumental in that quarter in dwindling Miami’s double-digit lead down to four points, his layup off a dime from Kent Bazemore drawing the Hawks to a 77-73 deficit after entering the second half down 62-44. If strength is such a concern, why is Muscala in the game in the clutch, allowing Justise Winslow to snatch the ball from him like candy from a baby? If defensive awareness is such a big deal, how did the heat go from 15 third-quarter points to 27 in the fourth, while Collins sat?
    Moose’s third and final turnover of the second half led to a fastbreak layup that essentially put the game on ice for the heat, and he was promptly replaced not by Collins but another Budfave, Malcolm Delaney, as the heat lead continued to swell.
    The Bulls’ defensively futile guard-play will allow another opportunity to see just how deep the abyss gets for Delaney (3-for-9 FGs @ MIA, raising his shooting to 29.2 FG%; 1 assist, 3 TOs in 33 minutes on Monday), who starts while Schröder is back home resting his sprained ankle in advance of tomorrow’s home-opener versus Denver. Budenholzer hinted he might give Isaiah Taylor and Josh Magette more minutes tonight. But that will largely be a function of how much of a hole Delaney digs, especially when getting lost on the defensive end and bricking open jumpers.
    Whosoever is handling the rock (including Baze) has to distribute it better in the directions of Dewayne Dedmon, the starting center who was a ghost on offense on Monday (0-for-3 2FGs, 0-for-2 3FGS, no O-Rebs), and former Bull Marco Belinelli (47.4 3FG%).
    Keeping that duo productive, cutting back on shot-clock usage for Muscala and Prince, and players other than Collins and Dedmon getting stops, would help Atlanta outpace Chicago, who might be just nine-deep, this evening. Let the Bulls get off the schneid at someone else’s expense.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    That Moment When you realize Hassan Whiteside outweighs you by 75 pounds.
    Back to back, Jack! There is no time to dwell too hard on yesterday’s disappointing loss in Brooklyn for the Atlanta Hawks, who have flown down the Atlantic and will take on a Miami heat team (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports SUN in MIA) that, like the Hawks, will be playing without their leading scorer.
    Hawks players and pregame thread writers alike must steel themselves for a lot of these quick turnarounds. The NBA tried to stretch out the schedule to add a couple weeks’ worth of rest time, but the Hawks might be benefitting as little as anyone in the league from the revision.
    This is the back end for the first of 15 back-to-back contests Atlanta will play in this season. Only Memphis, Sacramento, and Utah will have to suffer through such series more often (16 times each). The Eastern clubs with the fewest (13)? Cleveland, and Miami. Nice work, schedule-makers.
    Including overlaps, tonight will be the first among 16 occasions this season that the Hawks are participating in their third game in four calendar days. Tonight also initiates first of 17 times this season that they’ll have played in their fourth game over the course of six nights.
    One silver lining is that of the Hawks’ back-to-backs, just seven of those pairs will be exclusively on the road (only Charlotte, with six, has less). And Atlanta (1-2) can scratch one of that septet off the list today in South Beach.
    As exemplified by the old, notorious Hotel Mutiny off Biscayne Bay, by the 1980s rise of big-time college football in nearby Coral Gables, and by the flashy but shady characters regularly seen on “Miami Vice”, Miamians with money know very well how to stash their cash. The same seems true on the hardwood, where team president Pat Riley spends owner Micky Arison’s dough like it’s going out of style, much unlike Riley’s impeccable fashion sense.
    With the dead-money owed to Chris Bosh included, Miami’s $126 million total team payout is among the top of the league. And there’s not much relief in sight over the next two seasons for a franchise that just ducked the punitive repeater tax by the skin of their teeth back in 2016.
    Hassan Whiteside leads the way, currently kicking off year two of a 4/98 max contract that, for this year and next, sits just below what the team still must dole out to Bosh. The year before locking down Whiteside, they made-good with Goran Dragic on a 5/90 near-max deal. This offseason, they brought back James Johnson on a 4/60 tip, and Dion Waiters with a 4/52. They re-signed eternal heat big-man Udonis Haslem, who is free to re-up with this club for as long as he’s willing and able, and backup guard Wayne Ellington, of whom Riley noted to the Sun-Sentinel, “It would have killed me to let him go.”
    Former Celtic Kelly Olynyk got himself a 4/50 deal, too. Josh Richardson was rewarded with a 4/42 contract extension that kicks in next season. The poison pill Miami agreed to swallow to keep 2016 restricted free agent Tyler Johnson from bolting to Brooklyn? That won’t kick in until next year, either, tripling his current salary to over $19 million per year. The slowly developing Justise Winslow’s third-year option got picked up. Excepting the killer-threat Ellington and Haslem, all of the aforementioned are on guaranteed salaries in 2018-19.
    One wonders, to what end? Erik Spoelstra is a fine, proven NBA head coach, and there is ample talent and depth on this roster to reach the playoffs in the Eastern Conference. But this is a lot of spending, now and in the foreseeable future, for a team that’s a nice ragtag bunch, but from whom hardly anyone projects big things.
    In this season alone, 22 of 23 ESPN prognosticators (the esteemed Amin Elhassan being the exception), are rolling with Washington as the head of the class in the Southeast Division, with Miami situated closer to Charlotte than the Wizards in most minds. If this remains the case going into 2019, without a healthy and MVP-caliber Whiteside by then, it is easy to envision the heat’s spending scheme toppling fast.
    Tonight, Miami will soldier on without Whiteside, who beasted in a losing effort during the season-opener at Orlando (26 points, 22 rebounds), but suffered a bone bruise in his left knee in the third quarter. It’s the same spot, he noted, where he hurt himself colliding with Taurean Prince, during the heat’s preseason-opener versus Atlanta.
    The good news for the heat (1-1) is they showed they can play well, at least offensively, without him in the lineup. Despite the Pacers’ Victor Oladipo finding himself unfettered for much of Saturday night, plus Al Jefferson finding a fountain-of-youth, the heat were able to avoid squandering a 21-point lead to Indiana and held on for the 112-108 win.
    The originator of “I Dont wanna be here,” Goran Dragic (7-for-11 2FGs, 2-for-2 3FGs vs. IND) had his inside-outside game working as well as ever, while Josh Richardson (8 rebounds, 7 defensive) and James Johnson did a lot of the dirty work (8 assists, 5 blocks) so replacement center Jordan Mickey wouldn’t have to.
    Dennis Schröder will have his share of rough patches during this season, especially when his fellow Hawks fail to adequately move, get open, and hit jumpshots (teammates 7-for-23 3FGs @ BKN). But Hawks fans will get hopefully just a taste of how arduous an evening without their lead guard in tow could be.
    Schröder (5-for-18 2FGs, 0-for-4 3FGs on Sunday) sprained an ankle in yesterday’s 116-104 loss to Brooklyn, shortly after the Hawks made a final charge to tie the game at 99 apiece in the fourth quarter. Despite a harrowing day shooting the rock, Dennis did manage to reach 8 assists (2 TOs) and sink all seven of his free throw attempts to help keep Atlanta in the running.
    He was also a defensive sieve (minus-12 +/- in 31 minutes) versus the Nets’ D’Angelo Russell. Yet it remains to be seen how much Malcolm Delaney (minus-9 in 22 minutes, 1-for-5 FGs, 4 assists, 1 TO) can improve upon that defensive effort tonight. Whether the assignment falls more heavily upon Delaney or Kent Bazemore, the Hawks will have their hands full staying in front of Dragic. The heat guard’s 11.9 drives per game last season (52.8 FG%) were surpassed only by Schröder (12.3) and Thomas.
    Not far behind Dragic in driving to the hoop last season was Waiters (11.0 drives per game, 6th-most in NBA), whose 12.6 assist percentage even eclipsed Dragic’s 11.0, although he shot poorly when calling his own number (42.8 FG%). Hawks wing players Bazemore, Prince, and Marco Belinelli need to use active hands to limit and deflect the drive-and-kickouts by heat guards and wings.
    Tonight’s game will also grant Hawks fans a chance to see what it looks like to pull the plug on the stop gap at the 4… although it’s arguable how much gap-stopping Ersan Ilyasova (27.8 FG%) has done to opponents, when he’s not laying out for drawn charges. Ilyasova strained his left knee and will be on the shelf along with Schröder tonight.
    Ersan’s absence means that we will (should? Pretty please, Coach Bud?) see more pairing of rookie forward John Collins with center Dewayne Dedmon in this game. Collins collected the first of hopefully many double-doubles in his career on Sunday (14 points, 13 boards in just 21 bench minutes). But he and Dedmon have struggled to stay out of foul trouble, so Mike Muscala and former heat player Luke Babbitt (41.4 3FG% for MIA in 2016-17) will have significant roles as well in the rotation today.
    Luke got a quick hook after failing to contain the Nets’ Trevor Booker n Sunday, and it may not be wise to attach him to James Johnson today. But Babbs has a jumper that must not go unnoticed (by his own teammates, anyway) whenever he’s in this game.
    Dedmon appears increasingly comfortable joining Babbitt and Moose as perimeter options, so Delaney and Baze would do well not to over-dribble and over-think things as ballhandlers, instead finding halfcourt opportunities to drive and turn the heat defense inside-out.
    Miami opponents have turned the ball over on just 12.4 percent of possessions (2nd-lowest in NBA). Especially without Whiteside around to help heat defenders, the on-ball pressure might only be in the heads of those in charge of directing the Atlanta offense. With Dedmon and Collins leading the way for the team, the Hawks’ 5.3 screen assists per game rank second in the league, behind only Quin Snyder’s Jazz (5.7) at this early stage.
    “Lots of good things from the first 3 games,” the sunny-side-up Baze offered, in truly non-Bledsoe fashion, on Twitter in the aftermath of Sunday’s loss, “Have to learn how to do it for 48!” For an under-experienced bunch playing at least 48 minutes at a high tempo, and given limited chances for rest in between, Hawks players indeed must figure things out in real time, taking advantage of winning opportunities as they arise, rather than squandering them. If the Hawks do manage to figure it out, some of them might even find Pat Riley chilling behind a palm tree next summer, with their next paycheck in hand.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    The NBA: Where, Holy Crap, Is This Happening?
    In America’s biggest media market, Mikhail Prokhorov once spent gobs of gazillions of dollars on guys like Gerald Wallace, Andrei Kirilenko, and Deron Williams.
    With his newly-purchased team, the Nets, setting up shop in Brooklyn, he thought he was in an arms race to attract viewers and allegiances away from the flagship team across town. So he spent, and spent some more, a lot more, letting his management give out draft picks like Swedish Fish in hopes of Win-Now results. Now, seven years after buying the team, with just a single playoff-round victory to show for his trouble, he wants a return on his investments, not from the fans, but from yet another team buyer.
    Who knew that all this time, all Prokhy had to do was to sit back and just let the Knicks be the Knicks?
    This afternoon (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, YES Network in NYC), Brooklyn hosts an Atlanta Hawks team still licking their wounds after getting boat-raced in the second half against Charlotte on Friday night. But you’ll forgive Kenny Atkinson’s squad for shifting their focus off the herringbone floor and toward the stands, not believing their luck.
    It used to be MSG that drew star-studded NBA fans to the front rows without much coaxing. Now, Floyd Mayweather is parking his tush in a Barclays Center foldout chair, watching the Nets roll the Knicks in a preseason game. Now, Michael Rapaport, the Knicks fans’ Knicks fan, has seemingly ditched the blue-and-orange.
    Prior to the Nets’ 126-121 home-opening win over Orlando, Rapaport sauntered up to the gates fully clad in Brooklyn black-and-white, fashioning himself a D’Angelo Russell acolyte. “I’m a basketball fan,” he dodged when pressed about his newfound attire. “Glad to see Brooklyn doing good… I like Russell, too.”
    Prokhorov’s Nets are no longer throwing worse money after bad money just to try staying relevant in the Big Apple.  They’ve let go of that rope, and are satisfied watching James Dolan’s Knicks stumble backwards. Early returns suggest they are recouping the benefits, too. New Yawkers miffed over the squandering of Carmelo Anthony’s prime career, Dolan playing the blues on a hill while his pal Phil Jackson scorched the village, allowing his brutes in business suits to give Charles Oakley the All Fans Matter treatment, a whole lot of them are begrudgingly crossing the East River for their NBA basketball.
    The challenge for the Nets (1-1) is to give those defecting fans a reason to stick around for a while. So, the big sell is “Potential,” and it’s all wrapped up around exiled ex-Laker point guard D’Angelo Russell. There’s nary a whiff of the smell left behind in Tinseltown by Snapchat-gate, allowing the 21-year-old Russell (23.5 PPG and 52.6 FG% through 2 games) to begin rewriting his NBA story.
    Russell has a few vets to lean on, helping make this transition to deferred stardom a reality. Jeremy Lin is now out for the season after injuring his ankle in the opener, but remains a trusty vet who isn’t coming for D’Angelo’s starting spot, no matter the struggles. DeMarre Carroll, dispatched by Toronto after never quite living up to the promise he held as a Hawk, hopes to reestablish the value of his Atlanta-borne nickname in a borough with plenty of junkyards.
    Timofey Mozgov seems to have found a home, not having to do much besides start and look imposing in the paint. Then there is Trevor Booker and Quincy Acy, who have been around the NBA block quite a bit. For youngsters like Russell, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Caris LeVert, Isaiah Whitehead, rookie big Jarrett Allen, former Blazer Allen Crabbe, and replacement second-string guard Spencer Dinwiddie, there is just enough experienced leadership around to teach them what “not” to do. And that takes pressure off of Atkinson, the second-year head coach who needs only to improve on last season’s 20-62 mark.
    Like Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks, Atkinson’s Nets want to push the tempo (2nd in pace so far), but don’t quite know how to keep a handle of the momentum they gain by pushing the ball. For the Hawks in Friday night’s 109-91 defeat, overzealous starters Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova found their seats early, and backup big Mike Muscala was perplexed on defense throughout. That granted rookie John Collins a full-ride to Howard University, fouling out himself instead of enjoying more favorable matchups versus the Hornets’ power forwards.
    There was once a highly-prized rookie who formally introduced himself to the pro basketball world, making himself Hollywood hullabaloo, at the expense of Mr. Mozgov. Collins would relish a similar opportunity this afternoon, but he cannot have a chance without his more experienced teammates playing their roles better, and longer, than they did in Carolina.
    Atlanta failed to take advantage of the depleted Hornets depth at the wings, shooting a measly 7-for-30 on three-pointers (what could have been 8-for-31 had Dedmon pulled a toenail back from one long jumper). Wasted-shot possessions like those from bench contributors Belinelli (0-for-7 2FGs) and Malcolm Delaney (1-for-4 2FGs) made Atlanta’s second-half lead wilt faster than necessary. Finding superior long-range shot options within the flow of the offense works to the benefit of Dennis Schröder (26.5 PPG, 6.0 APG, 2.5 TOs/game), Collins and those who could use less-clogged paths to the rim.
    The Hawks also sat back and stopped forcing turnovers in the second half, which always works to Charlotte’s advantage. To achieve victory today, it is essential for defensive pressure to produce turnovers from Russell (5.0 TOs/game, t-3rd in NBA; 5.5 APG) and Brooklyn’s under-experienced ball-handlers, and punish their slower vets for not getting back after stops. The Nets allowed 17.0 points-per-48 on the fastbreak in their first two games against the Pacers and Magic, ranking them second-worst in the East behind those not-so-lovable Knicks (19.5).
    Nets fans, new and old, would enjoy a winning-record to start the year (don’t bother tanking; LeBron’s Cavs now hold Brooklyn’s first-rounder). Regardless, they just want to root for a club whose decision-making on and off the floor isn’t rotten to the core. If Coach Kenny and the Nets pick up a little steam, though… could Spike be next?
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “ARRRGH! LET’S GET THIS, ATL! Oh, hold up, I meant, Houston? LA? Kemba, help… which town are we in???”
    Two “garbage” teams suit up to face one another today at the Spectrum Center, the Atlanta Hawks visiting the Charlotte Hornets (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, Fox Sports Carolinas in CLT). “Garbage,” that is, to Hornets hear team owner Michael Jordan tell it.
    Lamenting, without so much as a whiff of irony, the rush for NBA players to band together and form “super teams,” Jordan explained to SI, “You’re going to have one or two teams that are going to be great, and another 28 teams that are going to be garbage.” I see you over there counting, and no, this wasn’t pulled from some UNC football player’s math-class paper.
    As disconcerting as this unintended shade might seem to the rank-and-file receiving paychecks signed by His Airness, such an opinion must soothe the ears of General Manager Rich Cho. Despite the Hornets (36-46 in 2016-17) failing to reach the postseason for the fourth time in his six years at the helm, at season’s end last spring, Cho received his option to stick around the Queen City for one more season.
    It’s his job to make sure that his “garbage” floats toward the top of the Eastern Conference playoff receptacle. And the first rule of middle management is, if you don’t quite know what you’re doing, at least try to look busy.
    So, you can kinda-sorta see why Dwight Howard is rocking teal-and-purple now. Howard gets to reunite with coach Steve Clifford, who recalls as well as anybody what a dominant force Dwight was back in the day, when he served as an assistant to Stan Van Gundy in Orlando. Howard feels a kinship with his new coach, although stop me if you’ve heard that one before, and feels as inclined to get back to full-time Dwightball as he has in years.
    Now, I’m not going to entertain the thought that Hawks players broke out in a Soul Train Line Dance upon catching wind of the news, back in June, that their Player’s Choice Award-winner for Teammate of the Year was already heading up I-85. I won’t even amuse myself with the suspicion that the votes were made with some collective dose of half-hearted sarcasm (a la, ex-Laker Metta World Peace), or that perhaps Dwight himself was designated with the choice to pick on behalf of the whole team. But it should go without saying (though it won’t) that the quest to re-engineer Howard into a component oriented for space-and-pace was turning out abysmal for Atlanta.
    But it’s all good up in Uptown, because here, there is precious little design for space, and precious little demand for pace. All-Star guard Kemba Walker (career-high 23.2 PPG and 39.9 3FG% in 2016-17; 24 points and 6 rebounds vs. DET on Wednesday) is only beginning to explore the outer limits of his shot range, and the team’s second-best gunner from last season, Marco Belinelli (20 points off-bench and 3 steals @ DAL on Wednesday), now rocks Georgia Granite Gray, by way of the Dwight trade. Charlotte was a below-average 19th in pace in 2016-17, and there are no signs they’ll be any less-plodding with Howard in tow.
    The challenge for the Hornets involves keeping Howard placated all-season long, with copious minutes and post touches, even though Clifford has already advised that he would prefer to turn to Cody Zeller in the clutch. Hawks fans who recall the Hawks’ visit to Charlotte last November, particularly the second-half, when Dwight punked himself right out of the game, probably understand Clifford’s inclination.
    Lamb. Bacon. Duck. That should represent a scrumptious night out at the charcuterie. What that probably should not signify is the middle trio of anybody’s opening-night NBA starting lineup. Alas, that’s what head Coach Cliff had to trot out before dozens of interested onlookers at Detroit’s new Little Caesars Arena on Wednesday night.
    He has little choice at the wing spots, because Michael Kidd-Gilchrist remains out for undisclosed personal reasons, and Nicolas Batum’s preseason injury to his elbow ligament has him on the shelf until at least mid-November. The pair would be helping Charlotte play solid defense, keeping Marvin Williams and Howard from having to overcompensate in the halfcourt. Williams found himself spread too thinly on Wednesday trying to defend the forward spots, as Tobias Harris and second-year pro Henry Ellenson had field days in the Pistons’ 102-90 victory.
    Rarely is a situation so dire that a team needs to turn to a second-round rookie to open the season. But the Hornets can thank Atlanta for including a second-round swap in the Dwight trade. Charlotte moved up to take point guard Frank Jackson, then traded back down to acquire Florida State swingman Dwayne Bacon from the Pelicans, taken one pick before Atlanta used Charlotte’s pick for Tyler Dorsey.
    Jeremy Lamb acquitted himself well offensively against Detroit, and can be a factor for the Hornets when he’s cutting along the baseline or catch-and-shooting when he’s open. The Hornets have elected to side with Bacon because Malik Monk was less prepared to sizzle as a starting wing. But their inability to slow the Pistons’ roll was evident, as Detroit outscored the Bugs 12-0 on fastbreak points. Dwight and Marvin can do only so much to get back in transition, and Frank Kaminsky can do even less than that.
    The Hornets are not all that hyphy that another hyphenated player is unavailable. Michael Carter-Williams was acquired over the summer to serve as Kemba’s backup, but his nagging knees are betraying him. Add Zeller (bone bruise) to the mix, and you have a sparse skeleton crew for the home opener. Guard Julyan Stone and center Johnny O’Bryant will have to come up from the third-string to play significant bench minutes. Clifford may switch up at small forward and start second-year pro Treveon Graham in place of Bacon.
    Coming off a satisfying win in Dallas, the Hawks must bring their A-game again tonight. Dwight will do all he can to get under Dewayne Dedmon’s skin, but the Hawks center must avoid getting into early foul trouble. Keeping up the carnivorous spirit against Charlotte’s depleted wings, both Taurean Prince (10 points and rebounds @ DAL) and rookie John Collins (14 bench points in his rookie debut) should smell barbeque chicken and attack the paint vigorously.
    Those things should alleviate Dennis Schröder, Kent Bazemore, and super-sub Belinelli from having to carry the freight. Kemba and Dwight will get plenty of touches and shot opportunities, but they are not sufficient as a duo to carry this team by themselves -- specifically, to produce enough offense to keep up on most nights. Pushing the pace and converting turnovers into points would help the Hawks (35 fourth-quarter points in the 117-111 win over the Mavs) play from in front for most of this contest.
    As for Jordan, he has committed himself to being credited as The Guy that finally resurrected Dwight’s Hall-of-Fame-bound career (the people who don’t think he’s headed to Springfield can cut that out, both of ya). If there’s anyone who can get centers blazing a trail to greatness, it’s Michael. Ain’t that right, Kwame Brown? Kwame?
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    When you’re genuinely aiming for the gold, nothing bronze can stay.
    Ah, the C&S Bank Tower. My first glimpse at this majestic structure, on the cover of a late-1980’s engineering magazine, grabbed my attention and made me ponder, “hmmm… Atlanta, huh?” for the first time.
    Glistening, circular, 20 stories designed in a style reminiscent of Frank Lloyd Wright’s classics. Accompanied by a twisty parking structure that looked more like a drill bit. This baby looked like some place where Buck Rogers might kickstart his second career.
    Built-out in 1968, this monumental testament to the Space Age stood boldly in the open sky, not even in the more muddled downtown district, but in the slowly emerging Midtown community to the north. Atlanta was a town, this Yank surmised solely from that late-80’s mag picture, with its eyes set upon the future!
    A quick fast-forward, to 1994. Upon taking my first steps on Atlanta soil, I exited North Avenue Station and immediately set out in search of this illuminating, postcard-worthy sight. It was nowhere to be found. Neither, for that matter, was Google, yet, or any locals willing to help alleviate my bewilderment. So, it would take some time for me to grasp where the heck this skyscraper went. “Where did it go? It was just here!”
    See, what had happened was… from the time I took my eye off that magazine, C&S merged twice, the second go-round with North Carolina National Bank, and re-fashioned themselves NationsBank. Even before the second merger, bank leaders decided this not-even-25-year-old tower wasn’t big enough. Down it would go. And by 1992, up went NationsBank Tower right beside it. No matter if it's the C&S Bank Tower, or 2Chainz's fanatical Pink Trap House, the stuff that would be iconic in most cities, becomes mythical in the ATL.
    A successive 90’s bank merger gives the new joint its current moniker: Bank of America Plaza. 55 stories tall, it’s more than just Georgia’s tallest office building. For the next 25 years, until Los Angeles’ Wilshire Plaza came online this year, Atlanta’s Art Deco-inspired Bank of America tower was the tallest American building never constructed in New York City or Chicago. Outside of NYC and LA, no American buildings have been built any taller since.
    Topped by a pyramid spire of golden girders, BoA Plaza aided in promoting the extension of Atlanta’s signature skyline way beyond its downtown boundaries. When Big Cass of WWE got his first major ring intro, the Queens wrestler displayed not a single New York skyscraper to convey his imposing stature, he used this one.
    For carpetbaggers like myself, among the first things you learn when you come to make the Peach City your home is that the term, “y’all”, is in the local lexicon, but the word “preservation”, is not. Plan out a day in search of remnants of the many places whose events helped make Atlanta “Atlanta!” – Gone with the Wind, Hank’s #715, the Centennial Olympic Games – or, the quirkier stuff that drew future Atlantans here to stay – the International Pop Festival, infamous go-go, dance, and gentlemen’s clubs, roller skating rinks, Freaknik (go ask your crazy uncles) – and you’ll probably be left wanting. There is but one god in the ATL, and it is symbolized by the Wrecking Ball.
    Scoffing at do-gooders trying to save every “hunk of junk” (his words) in town for the sake of preserving some sense of local character, 80’s Mayor Andrew Young derisively quipped, “This city has no character… we’re building the city’s character now.” In the shadow of BoA Plaza alone, there are blocks of evidence of Atlanta’s perpetual battle wounds over preserving structures, versus demolishing them for something shiny and of-the-moment.
    Southern Bell’s voracious appetite for a parking deck on Peachtree, next to its planned 47-story skyscraper, nearly leveled a Moorish 1920’s auditorium in the 1970’s. The Fox Theater, today Atlanta’s go-to spot for Broadway shows, proms and concerts, survived, but only after tremendous outcry. Two blocks north, the expanding BellSouth did buy and clear out the picturesque First Baptist Church in the 1990’s, to make its corporate world HQ state-of-the-art. But by the time they could finish pouring concrete, the Baby Bell got swallowed up by AT&T, whose bigwigs decided to stay in Texas.
    Mighty, mammoth IBM wants a 50-story Tower in Midtown, too? Buh-bye, old dusty hippie hangouts and apartments. Big Blue got its gold-tipped IBM Tower in 1987. Three decades later, the tower stands, but the company that demanded it is as fading a memory as its mainframes and blinking green cursors.
    Down on the outskirts of downtown, whole neighborhoods were leveled so Atlanta could showcase itself to America as a no-seriously-we’re-Big-League sports city. Suiting the arriving Falcons and Bravos, Atlanta Stadium construction in the 1960’s turned Summerhill into an afterthought, even more so when the Olympics announced its pending mid-1990’s arrival and the baseball club wanted a new home just like the Prime-Timers got.
    With Atlanta Stadium in its wake, the happening thing would be built right next door. Turner Field would soon become the place to root, root, root for the home team for generations of fans to come. Or not.
    My first tourist visit was of the field and locker rooms at the still-minty-fresh Georgia Dome, which was promised to revitalize downtrodden Vine City, or at least the parts of that neighborhood the colossal Scrabble-colored arena hadn’t already wiped out. This, it was touted, would be the rooting venue for generations of football fans to come. We got, maybe, one full generation out of that thing.
    Today, as the Dome nears its implosion, the happening thing is right next door. Mercedes-Benz Stadium, with its sphincteral-spheroid roof, will support legions of football, and futbol, faithful for generations (wink, nod, wink) to come, and will also revitalize Vine City, or at least the parts that, well, you know the drill.
    Atlanta Hawks owner Tony Ressler has arrived in Atlanta with a divergent mindset. The private equity exec is big into real estate investments and opportunities, especially downtown. But he’s not into tearing down just for the sake of tearing down and building anew.
    When it comes to Philips Arena, the basketball and concert venue now pushing toward a mature 20 years of age, Ressler figures a revitalizing transformation can happen from within. Come for the pro hoops, stay for the shave-and-fade, the courtside mimosas, the live country music and gourmet Southern feasts.
    Ressler and the Hawks brass insist what’s going on with the arena is more than “just a renovation.” They are hell-bent on taking something fairly decent, satisfyingly above-average, and making it over into something otherworldly. That thought process extends to the Basketball Club, too.
    The Hawks embark on Season Number 50 as Atlanta’s NBA outfit tonight, in Dallas against the Mavericks (never thought I’d get to it, did ya? 8:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports South in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in DFW). And Ressler prefers not to look at his team’s sudden evolution as a mere “rebuilding”, or the more canTankerous T-word. No, Ressler sees this as a reset, a makeover, in the interest of “getting younger.”
    That means no more ties to the Hawks’ recent past, with Joe Johnson, Josh Smith, Al Horford, and later, Jeff Teague, Kyle Korver, Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard holding the fort for one oft-thrilling, oft-nauseating playoff voyage after another. For the time being, the Hawks’ headliner is a punchy, zippy, 6-foot-1, just-barely 24-year-old, who fancies himself a lover of hookah bars, hood fashion, and skateboards.
    Dennis Schröder is not an NBA great point guard, at least, not yet. But like his ballhandling predecessor Teague, he has demonstrated a willingness to go toe-to-toe with many of them. In a six-game playoff series against the hyped John Wall’s Wizards, the first playoff starts of his budding career, Schröder averaged 24.7 PPG and 7.7 APG (just 1.7 TOs/game), shot over 45 percent from the field and nearly 43 percent from three-point land. Not shabby at all.
    Dennis would have had half a chance to stage a coup of Wall’s Wizards, if only his elder vets showed up consistently to fight alongside him. Wall had to virtually etch his name in Springfield brass just to fend his Menacing opponent off and end the series early. It’s that type of fearless scrappiness that the Hawks hope will carry into this season, and beyond.
    Schröder has to face-off on many nights against world-class point guard competition, especially in his own Southeast Division. There’s Wall, who sees an avenue to finally establish himself and his team as a worthy Finals contender. There’s Kemba Walker, finally an All-Star, with a six-year head start on Schröder when it comes to serving as a franchise-face. There’s Goran Dragic, a former All-NBA Third Teamer his tenth-season, out to build on the momentum gained by winning the Eurobasket title and MVP award last month. There is even Elfrid Payton, a former lottery pick, unlike Schröder, with his own questionable hairstyle, who flashed vast improvement in the latter half of last season.
    That doesn’t even scratch the surface, not with the Westbrooks and Kyries, Currys, Conleys, Isaiahs, Lowrys, Lillards and CP3s (oh my!) waiting in the wings to be countered. These days, suiting up at the point might even mean defending, and getting around, a behemoth like Giannis or Ben Simmons.
    Even tonight, Schröder must take on a rookie who is aiming to make himself the premier point guard named Dennis in The Association. Fans and critics alike are already raving about the speed, hops, and abundant potential of Dennis Smith, Jr., the reigning ACC Rookie of the Year from N.C. State. Coming off strong Summer League and preseason, many predict Dallas’ Smith will convert his ACC hardware into the NBA version.
    Still, it appears as if Dennis Schröder is in the perfect spot to tilt at NBA windmills. After all, he has the steady hand of head coach Mike Budenholzer to help him lead the more youthful charge. The middling men who Coach Bud and staff molded into coach’s-pet All-Stars and highly-coveted Cash Money Millionaires are gone from Atlanta. The last of them, Millsap, took his versatile game to the Rocky Mountains this summer. But if Budenholzer can do enough to place Schröder’s name deservedly on the lips of All-Star voters, it might be his greatest accomplishment yet.
    There’s a chance that Dennis could also become Coach Bud’s downfall as well, and perhaps that’s the thrilling aspect of the season that’s soon to unfold. Dennis has been unwavering in his support for Budenholzer and his pace-heavy schemes, Bud having ramped up trust and duties for him over the years. Compiling modest but mostly winning records one season after the next has helped to underscore the reasons for such bonding, reinforced when the head coach joined his German wunderkind overseas shortly after the season’s end.
    Everything feels good and seems promising when the records are 0-0. There is no foretelling how losing stretches over the course of this season will affect this relationship. Dennis, like most 24-year-olds with a little spending cash, has already had his share of trouble keeping eyes on the proverbial prize off the court. His brash demeanor can get him in trouble on-court, too, whenever crafty veterans figure out how to goad him.
    There will be no Dwight, with his crap-eating grin, no glib Kyle, no stone-faced Sap, no cool-minded Thabo, around to redirect the mics and spotlights and cameras this year when things aren’t going well, as was often the case during last season’s sluggish 43-39 campaign. Those vets were masters at, if nothing else, avoiding the urge to finger-point in public. The forthcoming seasons will test the tenuousness of the Schrodenholzer bond by how well the coach steels his lead guard into becoming a true day-long, year-round NBA professional.
    More importantly, the Hawks are doing what they can to help Dennis chart a successful course on the court as well. Last year, Atlanta finished last in Pick-and-Roll plays for the Roll Man, averaging 0.91 points per possession, while shooting just 47.3 eFG%, to say nothing of when those schemes led Howard painfully to the charity stripe.
    Dwight was more of a park-in-the-low-post guy, and his demands for the rock around the rim not only strayed from Coach Bud’s offensive expectations, it often clogged the lane for the drive-heavy Schröder (NBA-high 3.4 FGs/game and 6.8 attempts/game on drives in 2016-17) and his would-be-cutting teammates.
    In lieu of Howard, the Hawks brought in Spurs U. graduate Dewayne Dedmon to fill the gap in the pivot. Dewayne was low-usage but high-impact in his sole season in San Antonio, averaging 7.6 RPG in 37 starts while shooting 64.0 percent from the field. When utilized as a Roll Man, he averaged 1.15 points per possession (7th among 19 NBA bigs w/ min. 25% play frequency and 50 games played), connecting on 62.9% of his FGAs (4th among that subset).
    Dwight had similar efficiencies, but was utilized as a Roll Man on just 10.1% of his plays, as opposed to Dewayne’s 26.7% as a Spur. By the way, the league’s most frequent Roll Man receiver? Another Dwight, Dallas’ Dwight Powell (38.5% of plays), so watch out for that guy off the bench today.
    Don’t expect much Hack-a-Ded, not for a guy who shot a modest 69.9 FT% in his most significant season to date. Dedmon (opponent 44.5 FG% on defended shots, 6th-best in NBA) did nothing to pull the Spurs away from their reputation of fielding top-notch defensive units, either. The 28-year-old former D-League stalwart is looking for a come-up in his fourth NBA season, and seems to have discovered the right fit under Coach Bud’s tutelage in Atlanta.
    A longer-term target for the Hawks’ future is hoped to grow by leaps and bounds during the season. But rookie John Collins has already wowed onlookers with literal leaps and bounds over opposing defenders in the Summer League. Lead-assistant coach Darvin Ham transitions his athletic-big-man coaching chops from Millsap, Horford, and Howard, to Dedmon and the under-the-hill Collins.
    Preseason games showed “John the Baptist” is still wet-behind-the-ears, like most first-year players, but he will be granted ample opportunity to make waves, and highlight reels, in his rookie season. While they won’t start together initially, the potential is there for Schröder and the pair of Dedmon and Collins to wreak havoc on pick-and-roll defenses.
    When active, the two bigs can clean up some of their guard’s misses while still possessing the agility to transition back to defense. Charge-sponge Ersan Ilyasova is The Human Seat Warmer, and will hold the fort ably as a stretch-four option in the starting lineup, until the training wheels can be taken off for Collins.
    Schröder will also have hope for steadier options along the perimeter. Korver was largely a disappointment for the Hawks at the outset of last season, before finding himself wide-open in LeBronland. As part of the deal for Howard to the Hornets, the Hawks acquired Marco Belinelli. 2014’s Three-Point Contest winner at All-Star Weekend made a name for himself at Spurs U. as well, helping win the 2014 NBA Finals. But he spent much of last season in Charlotte (36.0 3FG%) trying to wash off the stink from the prior ill-fated season as a free agent pickup in Sacramento.
    Like Dedmon, who has a player option for next season, Babbitt and Ilyasova, Belinelli is playing for his next contract, and is eager to show what he can do when given another fresh start. Coach Bud hopes to deploy a cavalcade of hot-and-ready shooters, like Belinelli, to help Schröder’s kickouts pay off.
    In addition to Ersan and rookie Tyler Dorsey (42.4 3FG% as a sophomore at Oregon), Marco and a pair of his fellow Killer B’s, forward Luke Babbitt (40.6 career 3FG%, 9th among active players) and ex-Mav forward Nicolas Brussino (52.0 3FG% during 18 Dallas wins last year) will strive to pollinate the Atlanta offense in ways that the Hawks could not (team 34.1 3FG%, 23rd in NBA) in 2016-17.
    One cannot forget about last season’s most accurate three-point shooter among returning Hawks players, albeit almost by default -- backup center Mike Muscala (41.8 3FG%), who averaged a career-high 6.2 PPG in his fourth season. Moose is back on a short-term deal with a player option, too. His new contract is the product of Ressler’s handpicked successor to a “Team President Bud”, a coach who became the former general manager’s manager at a time of crisis for the franchise, a mess sparked, ironically, after the team tried to turn an icon named Nique into a myth.
    The latest GM and head of Basketball Ops, Travis Schlenk is trying to infuse some Dubs Magic into the Spurs East manner of thinking over on Marietta Street. The former Warriors exec is staying true to Ressler’s demand not to commit to a complete overhaul, coaching staff included. But Schlenk is quickly demonstrating his unwillingness to hang the albatrosses of decisions past around his neck, or to create whole new albatrosses out of incumbent players on the roster.
    The club’s cold-shoulder to Millsap at the outset of free agency, despite Ressler’s end-of-season vow to negotiate directly with his star forward, reflected that sentiment. Tim Hardaway, Jr.’s offer from the Knicks was too rich for most everybody’s blood. Through the Howard trade, Schlenk also revealed that he is not, in the near-term, interested in ballasting the franchise down with new bad contracts borne of PR desperation, unless it involves the prospect of ditching a more burdensome contract (looking at you, Miles Plumlee). This is instructive for the highest-salaried player presently on Atlanta’s roster.
    “If I can’t get by guys, or stay in front of them on defense, it’s frustrating.” Indeed, Kent Bazemore, indeed. Baze is the team’s ultimate True To Atlanta ambassador in the local community, pursuing one philanthropic endeavor after another around town. Akin to the effect Tony Allen had on Memphis, no one wants to plant their flag in Atlanta, as a gritty, grinding basketball player, as much as Bazemore.
    Yet, as he shared with the AJC last month, his right knee ailed him all last season, and the pressure on the rangy swingman to compensate, and somehow live up to his generous new free-agency deal, contributed to more problems with his hips and back. Those nagging injuries led to nagging amongst the Hawks fanbase, about his severe decline in performance at both ends of the court.
    After a summer of collaboration with the training staff, Baze insists he is feeling as good and confident as ever, and while the final preseason game was promising, everyone is in wait-and-see mode as to whether he can simply reclaim his 2015-16 form, or at least, elevate his trade value for Schlenk, enough that Kent might grace another NBA town with his charitable benevolence.
    Not many second-year pros can tout being inked as an opening-day NBA starter, but one other bellwether for the Hawks’ prospects this season involves whether this will be a bump, or a slump, for the sophomore Prince. Mike Schmitz of ESPN is certainly among the “bump” faction, noting that Taurean, as a rookie, was among just ten players averaging at least one steal, one block, one three-point basket, and two steals per-40. His second season is an opportunity for Prince, with improving mechanics, to step into the lauded 3-and-D role once played to perfection by DeMarre Carroll.
    For as long as he’s here, Bazemore can collaborate on the wings with second-year pros Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry to stifle opponents on the perimeter. Discouraged by the omnipresence of Howard and Millsap inside, Hawk opponents swung the ball around the horn to hoist 30.2 three-point attempts per-48 last season (2nd-most in NBA, ahead of Charlotte’s 31.2). Foes shot only around the league average (35.7 opponent 3FG%; Dallas’ 38.0% was second-worst), but Atlanta’s woeful outside shooting often made it hard to keep up. Improvement in this area can create better parity, if not advantages, from game-to-game.
    Killer B’s Babbitt, Belinelli, and Brussino have been the opposite of sound defenders in their careers, but at least have the height to properly contest long-range jumpshots before they go up. The other Killer B’s, Baze and Bembry, along with Prince, will have a critical role in sustaining transition defense for Atlanta, one of Coach Bud’s continuing emphasis areas. Despite Baze’s ebbing penchant for chasedown blocks, the Hawks allowed just 1.04 points per possession on transition plays, opponents scoring on just 47.4 percent of those occasions (each 3rd-best in NBA) last season.
    Still, opponents created 17.2 points per-48 off Atlanta turnovers, and outscored the Hawks on the fastbreak. Negative turnover margins, on paper, will get even harder to close with the absence of strip- and deflection-happy forwards Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha around.
    Key to turning this around is if Schröder, resembling more of his playoff form, and backup guards Malcolm Delaney and Isaiah Taylor, can finish better at the rim while suppressing ballhandling and shot-forcing mistakes that lead to opportunities for easier buckets on the wrong end of the floor. Their abilities to read defenses, particularly coming off screens, and making swift, sound decisions with the ball in their hands, should only improve as the season wears on.
    In addition to the big-man tandem of Collins and Dedmon, the trio of Bazemore, Prince, and Bembry should allow Atlanta to confound opponents with a plethora of well-timed cuts to the hoop. The wings are not yet reliable three-point shooters, and improvements in this area will be needed to make them a threat to draw semi-serious closeout defenders and beat them off the dribble. In the interim, catching interior defenders napping when Schröder and the guards draw their attention will have to do. As with the small guards, gathering and finishing strong in the paint will be paramount for the Hawks to have any success on a routine basis.
    Beyond turnover-mitigation and poise, a most telling sign of Schröder’s maturity and fitness to lead this team will be tied to his commitment to anticipate screens and properly fight through them. Among 17 NBA guards facing at least five pick-and-roll ballhandler plays per game, opponents shot 48.0 eFG% (5th-highest) while opposing teams scored on 39.8% of those plays (8th-highest).
    Dennis’ figures were better than what his predecessor, Teague, turned in last-season, and they proved superior to the offense-minded Irving. But improving reaction-time and decision-making in this area is one subtle yet significant way his fullcourt game will stand out.
    Team pick-and-roll coverage proved problematic for the Hawks in their final dress rehearsal, a 108-94 loss to players not even on the Mavericks’ opening-day roster. Crafty head coach Rick Carlisle directed Powell (3-for-6 3FGs) and his third-string and G-League-bound upstarts to loft 48 three-point shots, his team burying 19 of them, and the wayward-shooting Hawks in the process.
    Budenholzer suggested opponents will find those shots significantly less-open in the regular season, and Carlisle will put that assertion to the test today. The Hawks will catch a break as guard Seth Curry (team-high 42.5 3FG%) heals a lower-leg injury, and Josh McBob is out as well. But they’ll find Dallas (33-49 in 2016-17; 14-16 versus the NBA East) unrelenting in their opener, even without them.
    In the umpteenth edition of the Dirk Nowitzki Farewell Tour, Carlisle will place him at center, daring Dedmon and Muscala to meet him at his jump-kicking spots outside the paint. Leading scorer Harrison Barnes (19.2 PPG, 35.1 3FG% in 2016-17) will try his wares when unabated, as he strives to expand beyond his mid-range mastery.
    Even without That Other Curry, Dallas (5th in three-point-attempt rate last year) has a conga-line of driving, pass-minded guards behind and beside Smith (J.J. Barea, Yogi Ferrell, Devin Harris), eager to draw the Hawks inward enough to free up Wesley Matthews (team-high 2.4 3FGs per game) and the Mavs capable-shooting bigs. How well Carlisle infuses bet-on-himself center Nerlens Noel into this floor-spreading mix is anyone’s guess, but they’ll try to get him involved with lobs and putbacks when the Hawks fail to rotate and box-out.
    Accommodating the ongoing renovations at the Highlight Factory, the NBA’s season-opening schedule allows the Hawks to bond away from home with five, not terribly imposing, but densely packed, road contests, concluding with a visit to the Imploda-Bulls eight days from today. Gaining a victory in the first match will require Schröder demonstrating that he has a more effective bag-of-tricks at his disposal than anyone guarding him, including the rookie Smith. It will also require every Hawk to know and execute their defensive roles, as Dallas strives to be more effective at picking opponents apart from outside.
    Were he in charge today, Mayor Young might assert that these Hawks are “building the team’s character now.” But as The Wolf once wisely offered, just because you are a character doesn’t mean you have character.
    Hawks fans have been wooed on “characters” before, from “Pistol Pete” to “Atlanta’s Own”. Atlanta execs have long gone all-in to try reigniting the fanbase on the basis of “characters,” from Reggie Theus to Danny Manning, from Dikembe to J.R. Rider to Big Dog, often to help obscure a major roster overhaul. But it’s the character you discover and possess that draws Hawks fans to Philips Arena in droves. The 2014-15 outfit’s appeal bubbled over once fans discovered that Bud’s Bunch had character, not just another pleasant winning streak.
    Dwight certainly brought “character” to Atlanta last season, but not the kind necessary for lasting success in this modern era of the league. The Hawks were sobered into the reality that older does not, in and of itself, translate into wiser on the hardwood. That’s why the eight-eldest players that suited up for the Hawks last season were not brought back, leaving Bazemore, Muscala and Schröder to be fashioned, from a Budball perspective, as this team’s “elder” statesmen.
    These are the “characters” presented, for now, as part of the Hawks’ foundation for a more prosperous NBA future. But future fans, and free agents, will to need something more substantive than the occasional Moose Goggles, or postgame Gazes, before they consider affixing themselves to this outfit. It will be Budenholzer, unshackled from management duties, and the slightly-tweaked coaching staff’s job to design and articulate that character-building substance. It’s the players’ task to reflect their understanding of that substance on the court every night, regardless of the score, the opponent, or the results.
    Where “getting younger” and “getting wiser” converge, can these particular Hawks hit that sweet-spot? The closer they come to hitting the mark, the more likely they’ll be around once it’s time to transition from bronzed to golden. In any event, they will not be allowed to rust, not under this new regime’s watch. If players stray too far from the new management’s objectives, they risk being dispatched and unceremoniously forgotten. But not before Atlantans look up, scratch their heads, and wonder, “Wait, where did they all go? They were just here!”
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “If we HURRY… we can still make it to Fyre Festival after the game!”
    Up a game in an Eastern Conference Playoff series against the Atlanta Hawks? The Washington Wizards’ John Wall, ahead of Game 6 at the Highlight Factory (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN Mid-Atlantic in D.C., NBATV or ESPNU elsewhere), knows this is no time to get complacent. Or, at least, he should know.
    Same deal for Bradley Beal, Otto Porter and Marcin Gortat. All three (with Kris Humphries in tow) recall winning the conference semifinals opener in Atlanta back in 2015, then winning Game 3 in D.C. despite Wall sitting out with an injured wrist. Up 2-1, with Game 4 in their house, Paul Pierce trolling to perfection and Wall returning by Game 5… game, set, match. Conference Finals, here we come!
    Well, don’t call “series” just quite yet, Zards. The Hawks eked past the Wizards in three straight games, including twice at the Verizon Center, to steal Wall and the Wizards’ joy right out from under them.
    Bojan Bogdanovic doesn’t need to hear about any of that. His Nets had tied up the prior series against the Hawks in Brooklyn, and had all the momentum (and media spotlight) swinging their way. Unfortunately for BoBo and company, Paul Millsap and Dennis Schröder (coming off the bench in his second NBA season) had other plans.
    Don’t trouble Brandon Jennings with current events. He had the Hawks dead-to-rights in 2010, after his Bucks took three straight games, granting the emerging star an opportunity to clinch his first-ever playoff series in front of a raucous Game 6 Milwaukee crowd. The Bucks never got to 75 points the rest of the way, and Jennings never won another playoff game until last week.
    The lesson? The moment you’re sure you have a playoff game, or series, in hand, the Hawks have you right where they want you. The question as Game 6 approaches is, have these Wizards learned this lesson?
    Hopefully, the only decent shots fired anywhere around downtown Atlanta this busy weekend come off the hands of Tim Hardaway, Jr. (34.4 FG%) and Ersan Ilyasova (34.8 FG%). Along with Kent Bazemore (36.2 FG%), their collective struggles to find the bottom interior of the net have caused Atlanta to fail to take advantage of a wayward outside shooting by Beal (24.0 3FG%), Porter (35.7 3FG%), Bogdanovic (29.4 3FG%) and Markieff Morris (25.0 3FG%, playoff-high 24 personal fouls).
    Beal even found time to stray away from Hawk shooters to defend Millsap, as was the case in crunch time of Washington’s 103-99 Game 5 victory. The Wiz were merely shooting 29.2 percent on threes in their home gym, so it would have made an immense difference had the Hawks shot better than 29.0 percent themselves.
    Millsap (23.0 PPG, 9.2 RPG this series) found himself doing too much of a J-Smoovian impression before the Game 5 refs, forcing shots in anticipation of whistles and then griping when the tweets didn’t come. Sap finished off Game 4 falling away like a Mad Men silhouette while making buckets, and Atlanta will need that same intensity and focus around the paint from him to force a Game 7 on Sunday.
    More important than the potential suppression of their free agent values, another disappointing display by the Hawks perimeter shooters also risks spoiling a pleasantly surprising performance from Hawks point guard Dennis Schröder (24.4 PPG). No one would have guessed that Schröder would lead NBA playoff starters (min. 3 starts) in assist-turnover ratio (7.2 APG, 1.6 TOs/game; 7.1 TO%, 4th lowest in Playoffs), especially with Wall hovering around. Few would have expected Atlanta to have to rely on Dennis’ three-point shooting, either (43.8 3FG%), to stay in games. Yet, here we are.
    Free throw makes were, and are, another factor that can swing the outcome in one team’s favor, and that’s not to put Dwight Howard, who himself knows a thing or two about bouncing back after being down in a series, on Front Street. More post touches for Howard today can help Atlanta thin out a Wizards frontline that may be even thinner without Jason Smith (knee sprain, game time decision) available.
    Howard was 1-for-4 from the line on Wednesday evening, but his teammates also missed four freebies versus a Washington team that wasn’t going to miss many, not with Game 5 being a potential home finale. Especially for as long as the Hawks are cold from outside, they cannot afford to leave points from undefended shots on the table.
    Atlanta has a chance to do today what neither Milwaukee nor Memphis could do last night: win an elimination game on its home floor. Motion and ball movement remains an offensive priority for the Hawks. But if there is a lull in the outside shooting, Schröder’s teammates need to cut to the rim and help re-establish the paint-points advantage that was lost to the Wizards (40-36) in Game 5, rather than leaving it Schröder and Millsap to play iso-hero-ball with Wall and Beal.
    This playoff series will go not to a team that is satisfied with resting on their laurels, but to one that is instead intent on crafting new ones. Which team that is depends on whether Game 6 or Game 7 in the final contest in this series.
    Let’s Go Hawks!