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    Atlanta Hawks community, for the fans, by the fans

    CAPTION: Hawks fan reacts to Dewayne Dedmon news.
    LeBron James brings his resurgent Cleveland Cavaliers into town to take on your Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio in CLE), and The King wants answers, y’all.
    “I need some answers,” James tweeted three days ago. “Feels like my man was a fall guy.” LeBron’s “man” was former Hawks and heat assistant and recently-deposed Memphis head coach David Fizdale. The Grizzlies used an eight-game slide and a rift with the hometown-raised NBA star to give Coach Fiz the heave-ho, just 107 games after prying him from the coastal comforts of South Beach. I can only hope LeBron has insurance coverage for the Irony Hammer that fell upon him.
    There was another once head coach, some dude named… David… that not only won 143 NBA games, but also notched a pair of NBA Finals wins during his maiden NBA season. All of that, before “David” was handed his walking papers and shipped back overseas, in large part for the unforgivable, abominable crime of getting blown out at home to the reigning NBA champs in January. Whose mans with that, LeBron? You can find the answers you seek in that mirror over there.
    What’s the commonality? In the NBA, the Goliaths fell the Davids. The Association is not some “prison” a few NFL owners are deluded into thinking they run. It’s as open a society as one will find in professional sports. Yet, it’s also the place where players bickering with staff can abruptly lead to J.B. Bickerstaff. Players run this modern NBA, and star players, the big money-earning, bigger money-making ones, yield unprecedented influence over the rank-and-file, in some cases, all the way along the bench.
    Play a scenario forward, where the Hawks of Summer 2017 re-sign their aging free agent vets, and elect to simply ride out their long-term plans to refashion Dwight Howard into a team-first player. Go ahead and double their current win total (4-16), but assume a handful of those losses are of the 112-78 variety, like the one recently suffered to the Raptors (just like last season’s 128-84 drubbing). Assume Dwight, Atlanta’s homegrown star, begins moping publicly about playing time, touches (much like last season), and personal development.
    Here’s the question. Is Mike Budenholzer still here? Maybe, maybe not. But the reality that there’d be a good chance he’s no longer around reflects the NBA climate in the LeBronze Age. One where, if you have not won your franchise Larry O’Brien trophies within your first couple years on the job, even the mildest player-coach dissension can keep your seat Carolina Reaper-hot.
    Our youthful Hawks are looking for more legitimate answers, now that it appears they’ll probably have to lug through their December schedule without their starting center. The absence of Dewayne Dedmon (tibia stress reaction) for 3-to-6 weeks, plus the continued shelving of Mike Muscala (sprained hoof), will lead to some considerable scrambling along the Atlanta front line.
    John Collins will get to start at center in place of Dedmon, and as usual, restraining himself from unnecessary whistles will be key to getting a full game out of him. He’ll be paired with Luke Babbitt, who returns after missing several games with a lower back injury. Tyler Cavanaugh is likely get an uptick in play, but might Coach Bud pull out a Plum instead? Miles Plumlee (quad) insists he’s as ready to contribute as ever before, although this might not be the ideal contest for him to make his season debut.
    The Hawks will get some reprieve as Cleveland is doing without Tristan Thompson, thanks to a calf strain that’s had him sidelined for most of this month. But the Cavs (14-7) are riding a nine-game winning streak and are 10-1 since the Hawks pulled off the November Surprise, a 117-115 nailbiting win at the Q on the 5th of this month. Measurably better all-around play out of Kevin Love (1-for-6 FGs, 4 rebounds in 18 minutes vs. ATL) appears to be a big part of the turnaround.
    Being Cleveland’s only real starting option at center, Love’s 38-point effort during Tuesday’s home win over Miami reflected an acknowledgement that his team needs “Minnesota Kevin” in the offense, compensating for the departure of Kyrie Irving and the continued unavailability of Isaiah Thomas. Love is shooting career-highs of 52.7 2FG% inside the 3-point arc and 89.3% at the free throw line.
    During their nine-game win streak, Cleveland is committing fouls more selectively and strategically (opponent 69.6 FT%, to the Cavs’ 80.7 FT%). In the November 5 win the Hawks were granted 34 free throws, a tally surpassed only by Houston (36 FTAs) in the Cavs’ last defeat back on November 9.
    Dennis Schröder (28 points @ CLE, 8-for-8 FTs), Collins (7 O-Rebs @ CLE, 6-for-8 FTs), and Kent Bazemore (9 rebounds @ CLE, 4-for-8 FTs) will need to continue creating havoc for their opponents, punishing the defensively deficient members of the Cavs’ rotation and drawing contact in the paint. The Hawks should get some more backcourt support as Isaiah Taylor (14 points in bench-high 26 minutes @ CLE) returns to the lineup from an eye injury.
    As was not the case in last weekend’s blowout loss to the Raps (6-for-27 3FGs), Atlanta shot the ball well (11-for-25 team 3FGs) from the perimeter in their November 5 upset victory over the Cavs, just well enough to make Kyle Korver’s heroics (5-for-11 3FGs) too-little-too-late. Schröder, Babbitt and Taurean Prince combined to hit nine of their 17 attempts, and they could use some more reinforcement off the bench from Marco Belinelli (3rd among NBA never-starters with 12.1 PPG) and Cavanaugh to stay with or ahead of the Cavs for significant stretches.
    The Cavaliers do have their confidence back, but this recent winning run has been fairly weak in terms of strength-of-schedule, and it won’t take much, like a second loss to the Hawks, to send the Cavs back into what would be, for them, a tailspin. No matter what ups or downs this season brings, the Cavs’ Tyronn Lue knows better than to rub his team’s real PF/PG/HC/GM/PBO the wrong way. Otherwise, he won’t be LeBron’s “man” much longer.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “This how they do ‘THE U!’ in Australia.”
    Not quite Dead from Downtown! The Atlanta Hawks brought what Bob Rathbun calls ‘moxie’ into the second half last night to dispatch the Knicks, and they’ll need more of that today to notch just their third home victory this season, versus the Toronto Raptors (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN in T-Dot).
    Up North, fan fatigue is beginning to set in with fifth-year GM Masai Ujiri, seventh-year coach Dwane Casey, and the Jurassic Fifteen. Yes, the Raptors (11-7, 5-6 on the road) are on pace for their third consecutive 50-plus-win season. But the newness of their regular season success has been wearing on the fanbase. Consumer confidence remains weak that this outfit might match the advancement achieved by the 2015-16 unit that reached the Eastern Conference Finals. It’s just November, but there is a lingering sense that we already know how this season’s campaign will conclude.
    Ujiri spent this summer shifting the deck chairs on Toronto’s Titanic. Just a couple years removed from shouting “Buck Frooklyn!” at a public playoff rally, Masai found it necessary to deal with the Frooklynites in order to save some payroll bucks. He sweetened the departure of former Hawk DeMarre Carroll with next year’s first-round pick, plus a second-rounder, in exchange for the immediately disposable Justin Hamilton. Toronto native Cory Joseph was sent off to Indiana for just one eternally stashable 30-year-old Euro-dude.
    After swinging for the fences before the 2017 trading deadline with a deal for Serge Ibaka (11.9 PPG, 5.5 RPG), who was brought back along with Kyle Lowry on a free agent deal, the Raptors’ biggest summer splash was with former Pacer C.J. Miles (out for today’s game while caring for a newborn).
    Sharing an Atlantic Division where all the hype is directed toward the budding stars on the Celtics, the Sixers, and the Knicks, fans are struggling to find a reason to cling their hopes on players like longtime center Jonas Valanciunas (career-low 20.1 minutes/game), who is only 25 years of age but seems to already be bumping his head on his ceiling.
    Ten players on the Raps’ 15-man roster are 25 years old or younger. But who among them is about to make a star turn? Swingman Norman Powell, starting rookie OG Anunoby, rim-plugger Bebe Noguiera, second-year space-eater Jakob Poeltl, or the injured backup point guard Delon Wright? Who have the Raptors been developing that will be ready this spring to help Toronto stay competitive with the East’s top tier?
    The task of producing answers falls upon Casey, who already has the thankless challenge of managing playing time for his two backcourt All-Stars. DeMar DeRozan (reigning Eastern Conference Player of the Week; 24.1 PPG, career-high 4.4 APG) and Lowry remain strong offensive talents that get unfortunately lax on the other end, and they struggle to get it going for their team simultaneously in games.
    After averaging a career-high 22.4 PPG in 2016-17, Lowry failed to crack 20 points in scoring until his 14th game this season. He’s shaken off the barnacles during his last five games (20.6 PPG, 45.2 3FG%, 7.6 APG), but his running mate, DeRozan, is often off when he’s on. Such was the case in last night’s 107-104 road loss to the Pacers, where DeMar managed just 13 points on 6-for-16 shooting with four turnovers in 39 minutes, an inadequate balance for Lowry (24 points, 5-for-9 3FGs, 10 boards, 8 assists).
    Even with DeRozan in tow, Toronto shoots a high proportion of threes (38.0% of shots from 3-point range, 4th-highest in NBA), but isn’t particularly good at either making them (34.6 team 3FG%, 23rd in NBA), or at producing second-chances (20.7 O-Reb%, 23rd in NBA; 10.2 second-chance points per-48, 25th in NBA).
    The Hawks’ ability to turn the tide on Friday came when the Kanter-less Knicks’ jump-shooting cooled off. Keeping New York off the offensive glass and gaining decisive advantages in the turnover department (9 player TOs, fewest all season; one Knicks steal, fewest by a Hawks opponent since 2/25/2015) granted Atlanta 20 additional field goal opportunities, a season-high 99 in total.
    The Hawks need another strong defensive rebounding effort from Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Ersan Ilyasova to alleviate their starting bigs, and they’ll need to stay disciplined enough not to bail out DeRozan (8.0 FTAs per-36, 6th in NBA) and Lowry (91.1 FT%, 10th in NBA) with trips to the free throw line.
    Mike Budenholzer’s club hopes for a similar result on consecutive nights, but may have to pull away earlier in the second half to enhance their chances for their first two-game win streak of the season. The Raps are 11-0 in games where they led or were tied through the first three quarters, but 0-7 otherwise.
    Atlanta (seven players in double figures vs. NYK, not counting Tyler Cavanuagh’s 8 points in 12 minutes) will again rely on a balanced attack but will also turn to Dennis Schröder (26 points, 8 assists vs. NYK), who buried the Raptors in these teams’ previous meeting last March with 13 fourth-quarter points in a 105-99 victory, to salt the game away.
    There’s usually no reason to fret about the prospect of a small losing string, but few executives are as compulsive about their team losing, and growing stale, as Ujiri. A third-straight defeat for the Raptors, who just lost to the Knicks at MSG on Wednesday, might allow us to see just how easily triggered Toronto’s GM can get.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “No worries, Pop. That Collins kid will be back down in a second or two.”
    Vader and Skywalker clash once more! Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs, looks to resume his homecourt mastery over the visiting Atlanta Hawks (8:30 PM Eastern. Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in SA), in the process reminding his self-described former “co-coach” that the student has not yet become the teacher.
    To which every team in The Association can surely attest by now, double-digit leads are nothingburgers these days, specifically those leads in the teens and twenties. In Atlanta, the Celtics eroded a 16-point first-quarter deficit and eventually found itself cruising to a 110-99 victory with whirling dervish Kyrie Irving at the wheel on Saturday.
    The day before that, OKC was up 23 points at the AT&T Center early in the second quarter before the Spurs stormed back, taking over on a Manu Ginobili three-pointer at the start of the fourth quarter and hanging on for the 104-101 win. The key to the turnaround, as only Popovich can describe it, was “an attitude change, from ‘poor me,’ to ‘screw you’!”
    While the Hawks-Spurs series has long been one-sided, particularly here in San Antonio (last Hawks win here in February 1997, 0-19 since), Atlanta has been like a bad penny, hard to shake loose. Four of the past five matchups with the Hawks here in Alamo City resulted in just single-digit winning margins for the Spurs, three of them within five points.
    A 15-point third-quarter lead by the home team last March was nearly erased, when super-sub Junior Hardaway heated up and a bucket by San An native Taurean Prince shrunk the Spurs’ lead to 86-85 with eight minutes to spare. Even going into the final minute up by 11, San Antonio had to endure threes by Hardaway and Prince and rely on 5-for-5 free throw shooting from Kawhi Leonard to keep the pesky Hawks at arm’s length.
    Leonard remains a no-go, he and guard Tony Parker missing the start of this season with quad injuries. Even with The KLaw on the floor, without the pesky Parker (DNP) around in March’s 107-99 Spurs win, Hawks guard Dennis Schröder (22 points 10-for-18 FGs, 10 assists, 2 TOs) proved to be a tough cover. With the help of Danny Green (4 steals vs. OKC on Friday, also 5-for-13 3FGs), Coach Pop will design a defensive scheme in hopes of similar fortunes as they had on Friday with reigning MVP Russell Westbrook (5-for-22 FGs, 9 assists and 2 TOs).
    While it never rose to the scale of “I Dont wanna be here,” LaMarcus Aldridge held an airing of grievances with Popovich prior to the start of training camp. Roundly criticized for his performance in the Spurs’ first postseason without Tim Duncan around, Aldridge felt that a higher volume of early post touches was the cure for his woes.
    “It was an afterthought [to feed Aldridge the ball early]. But it was both [probably his fault and the team’s] because I didn’t feel like I would get it,” Aldridge divulged to ESPN last month. “So, I probably didn’t run the floor as hard, or I didn’t seal as good. Then, they didn’t look for me. Then, when we [he and the ballhandler] both thought about it, it was too late.”
    Fortunately for LMA, he’s not in Phoenix but working for a stable franchise with a championship pedigree and a head coach that values input from his senior players. Popovich listened, and LaMarcus agreed to run the full floor. The early returns are promising, as Aldridge has posted a career-high in scoring efficiency (24.4 points per-36) at age 32, with upticks from last season in field goal shooting, three-point attempts, rebounding and assists. But how well the good vibes hold up remains to be seen, at least until usage-leader Leonard and Parker return to the fold.
    Running the floor is essential for Aldridge (8.4 RPG) and frontcourt mate Pau Gasol (8.2 RPG, team-high 3.8 APG) tonight, as it appears the Hawks (3-13) will have as full a complement of bigs at their disposal as they have had all season. Dewayne Dedmon made things difficult from the jump for Al Horford in Saturday’s return to his old stomping grounds, and there’s no telling how close the final outcome could have been had Coach Bud stuck with John Collins (18 points; 7 rebounds, 3 offensive vs. BOS) a little longer in the final frame against the Celtics. Sixth-man forward Rudy Gay (11.8 PPG) ranks second on the balanced Spurs in scoring, but has yet to fully imbibe his new team’s well-regarded defensive Kool-Aid.
    Mike Muscala (ankle) and Miles Plumlee (quad) may not get activated, but will be available to play, in Milester P’s case for the first time all season. Coach Bud has stated a preference to go just four-deep at the PF/C spots, and for Luke Babbitt (probable, back) to play more at the 4-spot. So, with former starter Ersan Ilyasova (DNP vs. BOS Saturday) getting back up to speed there may be limited room at the inn, which is a great problem to have.
    From the field, opponents have been outshooting the Spurs (45.9 to 45.1 FG%) on the season, and perhaps the key saving grace for Kawhi-less San Antonio (10-6) has been the iron being unkind to their foes at the charity stripe (NBA-low 70.8 opponent FT%). Atlanta has shot well away from home (78.9 road FT%, 10th in NBA) and must continue to take advantage on the rare occasions the Spurs (17.1 personal fouls/game, 2nd-fewest in NBA) send the Hawks to the line.
    Shots failed to fall for former Spur Marco Belinelli (2-for-6 2FGs, 0-for-4 3FGs) on Saturday, and the bench bomber should not hesitate to turn that around tonight. Literally, with the need to push the tempo on the Spurs (NBA-low 97.3 pace) and speed up possessions, shots by the Killer B’s (Belly, Kent Bazemore and Babbitt) have to be more of the catch-and-shoot, rather than the pump-faking, jab-stepping or spot-up, variety.
    Atlanta’s catch-and-shoot percentage of 41.6 3FG% ranks behind only Golden State’s 42.3 3FG%. On spot-ups, they’re also shooting NBA-highs of 43.7 FG% and 58.1 eFG%, but this can work against them versus a Spurs defense that prefers opposing shooters to be static in the halfcourt. San Antonio wants to shoo the Hawks shooters off the perimeter and put the ball on the floor, in hopes of producing turnovers and wayward shots.
    Poor me, or screw you? Will a Hawks team, one that isn’t yet playing like it knows either its record or its franchise’s decades-long futility in Alamo City, put the screws to an experienced yet incomplete Spurs squad? And can they do it long enough for Coach Bud to finally feel the proverbial force versus his longtime mentor?
    Let’s Go (not you Sea) Hawks!
    “…and starring Kent Bazemore as Neo, in…”
    We’ve got a rematch of top versus bottom tonight, as the Boston Celtics return to The Highlight Factory (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston) riding a 14-game win streak, putting up with your Atlanta Hawks once more.
    Despite some valiant efforts versus decent competition recently, plus a franchise-record 46-point trouncing of the Kings at home this past week, the Hawks (3-12) are holding up the opposite end of the Eastern Conference from Boston (14-2). Still, there’s an understated yet obvious reason why Atlanta will want to pull up their big-boy short-shorts for this specific contest.
    You remember when Al Horford made himself one of four Players of the Month, the Hawks quartet plus DeMarre and Thabo, and Pero and Dennis, banding together to go 17-0 back in January 2015, briefly turning the entire NBA world on its ear? That shouldn’t be like some GEICO ad, where it’s so easy even Aron Baynes can do it. Yet Al Jefe is about to pull off a similar feat, this time with Kyrie Irving and the “Ohh! Jays” (Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum) at his side, and tonight is #10 on the Celtics’ 16-game November schedule.
    Boston can become the seventh NBA club, since the implementation of the 82-game schedule back in the late 1960s, to go at least 16-0 on an undefeated calendar month (In addition to January 2015, Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer had a hand as an assistant/video coordinator in two other unbeaten campaigns, the March 1996 and March 2014 Spurs). Wouldn’t it make a cool story for your bros if it was the present-day Hawks that finally tripped these Celtics up?
    But for Kyrie (35 points, 12 in the 4th quarter, 7 assists) revving up The Highlight Factory machine back on November 6, Tatum’s 21-and-8, and Horford bothering to rebound to near a triple-double (15-10-9 with one turnover), there would be no talk of the prospects for an unbeaten month. Boston led that game for just 50 seconds more than Atlanta, who was ahead by two at the two-minute mark before Irving and Tatum’s heroics.
    The slim, 3-point winning margin for Boston had as much to do with superb play by Hawks reserve gunner Marco Belinelli (19 points, 3 steals) and starting pivot Dewayne Dedmon (19 points, 12 boards), supplementing Dennis Schröder’s 23 points, as anything the Celtics did.
    As grand as Brad Stevens’ club has been in this surge to the top of the standings, as a team, they are shooting 42.7 percent from the field on the season, and their opponents are shooting 42.8 percent. Their 47.1 2FG% ranks 26th in the league, and their 34.6 3FG% ranks 24th.
    Night after night, the Celts are getting it done by getting opponent out of their offensive comfort zones (NBA-best 42.8 opponent FG%), without excessive fouling (20.3 opponent FT attempts/game, 10th-fewest in NBA), securing defensive rebounds (81.6 D-Reb%, 2nd in NBA, yes; this is with Al), keeping the giveaways down (13.2 TO%, 4th-lowest in NBA), and adding a dash of that tried-and-true leprechaun magic (73.5 opponent FT%, 3rd-lowest in NBA).
    Despite all the superheated scoring this league has offered of late, here are Boston opponents’ point tallies during this 14 game streak: 92, 89, 89, 90, 94, 86, 94, 88, 107, 96, 87, 94, 102, 88. Atlanta’s 110-107 loss on November 6 was the clear anomaly; Kyrie’s game looked gargantuan because it had to be. But Hawks fans should anticipate a gritty, low-scoring affair tonight. Atlanta may go into this game without Luke Babbitt (questionable due to back spasms), but they will have more defensive reinforcements and frontcourt depth than they had 12 days ago.
    Despite leading a balanced attack with 21 points, Schröder was not particularly a standout during Wednesday’s washout of the Kings, also committing five turnovers. But he was able to feast on Sacramento’s lax defensive effort, something he won’t be afforded versus Boston (NBA-best 95.4 D-Rating) tonight.
    Dennis will again enjoy being defensively switched off Irving, but he must produce defensive stops against the alternative guards on the floor, be they Terry Rozier (31.9 3FG%) or Marcus Smart (16.5 TO%, highest among Celtic guards; 26.2 3FG%). Big minutes will be needed from Atlanta’s floor leader, as Isaiah Taylor (eye bruise from practice on Friday) is unavailable, while Malcolm Delaney has looked infinitely more comfortable at the 2-spot.
    Irving will be assigned to a murder of Hawks, including not only Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince, at turns, but also possibly DeAndre’ Bembry, the second-year wing who has missed time with a wrist injury. Because winning, Kyrie is being touted as an MVP candidate despite shooting a career-low 42.9 FG%, including 31.9 3FG%.
    Jaylen Brown (team-high 22 points on Thursday vs. GSW) returns to town with a heavy heart. He will continue playing inspired ball following the passing of his longtime best friend from Marietta’s Wheeler High just days ago.
    Brown and the Boston starters need a stronger effort from their bench brigade than they received in Thursday’s 92-88 win over Golden State. Not counting garbage minutes from Daniel Theis, four Celtic reserves shot 2-for-19 from the field, which wasn’t of much help for the hounded Irving (4-for-16 FGs). Smart, Rozier, rookie Semi Ojeleye and Baynes need to be more than mere defensive stoppers if the Celtics intend to keep their distance from the Hawks tonight.
    Another big game could earn Dedmon (20 points, 14 rebounds, 5 asssits, 2 steals, 2 blocks) some nice also-ran votes for Player of the Week. To offset Horford and the Celtics’ frontline, Dedmon, the surprising Tyler Cavanaugh and gravity-defying John Collins will benefit from a deeper frontcourt rotation, as Ersan Ilyasova and the man-bunless Mike Muscala are back in tow.
    Coming off a titanic win at The Gahden over the defending NBA champs, the Celtics return to Atlanta as sky-high as they’ve felt in a long time. Wouldn’t it be a little bit funny if it was the Hawks that popped their balloon?
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    Issa Must Win! There will be plenty of days ahead to strategitank for our Atlanta Hawks, but not today! Back home at the Highlight Factory, they’ll look to raise their season win total by 50 percent tonight versus the Sacramento Kings (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, NBC Sports California).
    The Kings (3-10), like the Hawks, arrive with just one road win under their belt, at Dallas last month. Sactown has the league’s worst road Net Rating of -15.8. They conclude their brief East Coast swing licking their wounds after consecutive blowout road losses, at MSG and at Washington. The stars are aligned for the Hawks, if they so choose, to get off the schneid, if only for a brief moment, and collect their first win in front of a sparse but head-nodding Philips Arena crowd.
    Similar to the road-wearier Hawks (50.6 road 2FG%, 7th-lowest in NBA; 38.4 road 3FG%), the Kings are hitting three-pointers decently, but the interior offense has been a struggle (NBA-low 46.6 road 2FG%, but 38.6 road 3FG%). That they take as high a share of two-point field goals as anybody yet connect at the lowest percentage, hasn’t done much for offensive efficiency. They are leaving plenty of points on the table at the free throw line (70.4 road FT%, 28th in NBA), even though they haven’t been getting there terribly often.
    Former Grizzlies head coach Dave Joerger guides his team as they play with a Memphis-style tempo (95.7 pace, lowest in NBA). To help disrupt the opposing Kings offense and produce extra quality possessions for his own team, Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore (4.5 deflections per-36 and career-high 2.1 SPG, both 2nd in NBA) while be joined at times by Ersan Ilyasova, who will be brought along slowly after missing weeks with a bone bruise in his knee. With a shored-up frontline, the Hawks defense could use one more key contributor tonight.
    Real Plus/Minus data has never been terribly kind to Hawks point guard Dennis Schröder. He comes into today’s action ranked 420th among 421 NBA players in Defensive RPM, as per ESPN data. The good news for The Menace, tonight, is who checks in at #421.
    Rookie De’Aaron Fox has been granted ample playing time, perhaps more than was anticipated at the outset while free agent pickup George Hill (38.6 2FG%) worked through his struggles. Fox’s Lonzoian shooting splits (39.6/19.0/71.1) have been less than desirable. But both have been sound passers, neither averaging more than 2.0 TOs/game while splitting duties, keeping the Kings on solid ground in the area of transition defense (14.8 opponent points-per-48 off TOs, 4th-best in NBA).
    Young Dennis, why you trappin’ so hard? Atlanta (2-12) will need Schröder and the wing defenders to harass the primary ballhandlers and force the ball early in shot-clocks into the hands of teammates like former Grizzly great and leading scorer (!!!) Zach Randolph (12.7 PPG, 8-for-18 3FGs), or shooters like Buddy Hield (39.3 3FG%) or Garrett Temple (42.3 3FG%) who don’t fare as well when they must put the ball on the floor.
    Willie Cauley-Stein says, of guarding Kristaps Porzingis after the 118-91 loss to the Knicks, “I have the same body size, the same skill-level.” I may have the same crooked big toe as The Unicorn, but sadly that similarity doesn’t, in and of itself, translate into NBA superstar competency. “I think I gotta get more selfish,” says Cauley-Stein (2.1 APG, tops among the Kings’ non-point guards), which is probably not the best tack to take.
    Perhaps struggling with some early Stromile Swift Syndrome, the 2015 lottery pick has struggled to stand out in a log-jam by design. Joerger assigns ten Kings between 19 and 27 minutes each, shuffling veteran plodders like Z-Bo and Kosta Koufos with lighter fare, like second-year pro Skal Labissiere.
    After wrangling with the likes of Andre Drummond, DeMarcus Cousins and Marcin Gortat in recent days, Dewayne Dedmon (13 minutes in the Hawks’ 106-105 loss @ NOP, 5-for-5 FGs) and rookie John Collins (16.5 O-Reb%, 4th in NBA) should be able to find amenable matchups that keep them on the court for longer, more positively impactful tenures. Sacramento 15.2 opponent second-chance points per-48 is the highest in the league, while their 73.7 D-Reb% ranks next-to-last.
    There should be enough options available for Schröder to make connections all across the floor, and not be satisfied with being funneled into fruitless straight-line drives, as was too often the case in recent losses (last 2 games: 7-for-34 FGs, 5.0 APG, 4.0 TOs/game). Schröder has to show that between he and Fox, when matched up, Dennis is the superior defensive player, and not just by default. As most Californians would agree, 420 > 421, always.
    Some fans, dreaming of future tie-breaker possibilities, want the Hawks to drop early games to similarly downtrodden competition like the Kings. But with 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8 M’s in their respective bank accounts, this is one game where Hawks players should want to be stuntin’ and flexin’ their muscles, and reppin’ the ATL well. As the Hawks have been the most accurate three-point-shooting squad (41.4 3FG%, better than Golden State’s 41.2%) over the past ten games, how many Atlanta jump shooters will be at the ready to gun these Kings down?
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “This me guarding Bazemore’s jumper. Ayyyy!”
    Dealing with the bigs won’t be easy in The Big Easy, as our Atlanta Hawks wrangle with All-Star talents Anthony Davis and DeMarcus Cousins of the New Orleans Pelicans (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports New Orleans).
    Former Pelican Luke Babbitt and fellow Hawks starter Dewayne Dedmon are sure to have their hands full as Boogie and The Brow take turns pounding away in the paint and lofting open perimeter jumpers. Barring an off-shooting night, there’s no conceivable way these Hawks can keep New Orleans’ dynamic duo from filling up the box score with ungodly pinball-game numbers. The key for Atlanta’s big men to hang in there tonight is, when those titans tug and pull, to simply let go of the rope.
    The Pelicans’ injury report isn’t exactly brief. Rajon Rondo remains out after dealing all season with a sports hernia, and he’ll be joined by fellow backup guard Tony Allen (knee inflammation) and rookie Frank Jackson (foot fracture) as no-goes. Up front, the Pellies (7-6) have been making-do without Solomon Hill (torn hammy), Omer Asik (Crohn’s disease), and Alexis Ajinca (knee tendinitis). All that medical leave has coach Alvin Gentry fielding rosters 8-to-9 deep on most nights.
    Cousins (28.7 PPG, 13.8 RPG, 5.7 APG, 1.8 BPG, 1.5 SPG) is downright otherworldly. But Boogie will grant opponents chances to get back in games with a high number of turnovers (5.2 per game; 8 during Saturday’s 111-103 home win over the Clippers), hacks (3.9 personal fouls per game), ill-advised three-point shots (5.2 missed 3FGs per game), and distracted pleas to the refs when a call isn’t going his way. Recently-departed Pelican Josh Smith hopefully imparted some wisdom on the efficacy of those antics on his way out the door.
    Davis is every bit as much a marvel (27.3 PPG, 59.2 2FG%, 39.4 3FG%, 12.1 RPG, 2.1 BPG, 1.3 SPG, 2.1 TOs/game), particularly for as long as he can be paired with Cousins (2-man lineup: +8.1 points per 100 possessions). But the occasional dive to the floor by Unibrow leaves everyone at Smoothie King Center and fantasy owners holding their breaths. When either exits for the rare breather, the depth chart for N’Awlins leaves Gentry to turn solely to Cheick Diallo, who Atlanta’s John Collins will surely recall from Summer League had he bothered to look down on his way to the rim.
    The backcourt injuries have Jrue Holiday (37.2 MPG, most since 2012-13), E’Twaun Moore (31.3 MPG, up from a career-high 24.9 last season), and especially Jameer Nelson (27.5 MPG, most since his Orlando days) playing crazy minutes. To bounce back from a horrid performance in Washington, Dennis Schröder (2-for-16 FGs, 5 assists, 4 TOs on Saturday) must wear down the Pellies by coming off screens instead of going for straight-line drives. Dennis should be prepared to loft some floaters when the big Bayou Birds are packing the paint, rather than force the issue in hopes of some fortuitous whistles. And, as always, the Hawks (2-11) tend to be at their competitive zenith when Schröder is active and engaged defensively.
    The wear-and-tear on the Pelicans’ starters will lead to copious errors (16.2 TO%, 23rd in NBA). It is up to the Hawks to swoop in and take advantage of every possible opportunity to convert those errors into scores, especially live-ball turnovers that could have Davis and Cousins chasing Schröder and the Hawk guards from the rear. When those bigs do manage to get back in transition, Schröder and Isaiah Taylor need to find their own wings (including another ex-Pelican, Marco Belinelli) waiting in the proverbial wings. For all its offensive woes, Atlanta remains hot shooting above-the-break on 3s (39.6 3FG%, a shave off from 2nd in the NBA) and from the right corner (48.8 3FG%, tied-6th in NBA).
    Even without three PF/C’s at their own disposal, the Hawks close out their three-game road swing finally against a team that is as shallow in the frontcourt as they are. With minutes carefully distributed by coach Mike Budenholzer, a steady rotation of Hawk guards that understand their roles and execute properly could offset any frontcourt advantage by New Orleans and make for a compelling, four-quarter contest. As demonstrated six times already this season, Davis and Cousins going bananas in the box score does not, in and of itself, translate into victory on the scoreboard.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Gahhh… not this Dennis kid, again!”
    The second of five road back-to-backs for the Atlanta Hawks concludes today as they visit the Washington Wizards (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, NBC Sports Washington) at the newly renamed Capital One Arena. So let’s take a glance, and see what’s in owner Ted Leonsis’ wallet.
    After reaching the Conference Semifinals for the third time in four seasons last season, courtesy of a Hawks team that wasn’t entirely up to the task, Washington entered 2017-18 with the league’s fifth-largest salary load. As it stands, Wizard contracts rack up as the fifth-highest in the NBA for next season, third-largest in 2019-20, highest in 2020-21, and second-most in 2021-22.
    They’re led by John Wall (listed as probable, despite an illness), a white shark in a point guard’s body who is still seeking his just due as one of the league’s upper-echelon great players. Wall’s $18 million salary more than doubles two seasons from now, allowing him to surpass fellow starters Bradley Beal ($24 million) and Otto Porter ($25 million), who each received new deals over the past two summers.
    By then, Washington can get out from under Marcin Gortat’s $13 million take-home pay, but probably not that of Gortat’s backup, Ian Mahinmi, who virtually pulls in Kent Bazemore money ($16 million) through 2019-20 while playing just over 12 minutes per game. The team also bolstered their long-woeful bench with former Hawk Mike Scott (18.3 minutes/game, most since 2013-14; career-high 46.7 3FG%) and guards Jodie Meeks and Tim Frazier.
    Leonsis opined in the Washington Post just yesterday about the need for “The DMV” to become America’s next great “supercity”, and Ted is putting supercity money where his mouth is when it comes to his Capitals, his Mystics, and certainly his NBA team. Wall and the Wizards know they’re in this together for the long-haul, one of the only starting-five units carried over from last season. But the time is now, not later, to establish themselves as a stalwart in the Eastern Conference.
    While most prognosticators pegged Cleveland and Boston as Washington’s superiors, the sense of urgency around The District heightened further as the Celtics’ injuries stack up and the Cavaliers continue to flounder. The coast is clear to seize the day and surge to the top of the NBA East.
    The Wizards, therefore, have no business losing games to Lonzo “can’t throw it in the Potomac” Ball and the Lakers, as was the case last month. They can’t be blowing 18-point leads in the space of 12 minutes, even at Golden State. They cannot afford to give up 122 points and lose home games to teams in turmoil that halfway don’t wanna be here, like Phoenix. They can’t let LeBron waltz into Capital One and discredit them with 57 points before a national audience.
    Washington (6-5) did bounce back last weekend with a road win at Toronto (where have you gone, Kyle Lowry?) without a shoulder-sprained Wall. But then their star returned to the floor, on Tuesday, just in time to watch Dallas stroll out of D.C. with a 113-99 victory. They got a measure of revenge by coasting to a win against the Lakers on Thursday night. But wins like that, and the one they desperately want today, are supposed to be the norm, not just a hope.
    The fun part of following the Atlanta Hawks (2-10) this season is the knowledge that every game is an absolute-must-win for their opponents. Knowing their role, Atlanta is either establishing the depths of their floor, or breaking their slide. Whether you’re Lauri Markkanen or Nikola Jokic, Reggie Jackson or Kyrie Irving, the Hawks are allowing the ball to fall into your hands and daring you to beat them with big-time shots when it counts.
    It may come down to another big play in the final frame, but coach Scott Brooks is going to need greater perimeter volume and better accuracy out of guards Wall (1.0 3FGs/game, 27.0 3FG%) and Beal (2.0 3FGs/game, 36.7 3FG%). Brooks also needs his All-Stars, and his handsomely-paid big men, to take duties on the defensive side of the floor seriously if the Wizards (104.6 D-Rating, 19th in NBA) are to be taken seriously as an NBA Finals contender.
    In the six games where Washington has been “in the clutch” (as per NBA.com stats, within five points of the lead with under five minutes to play in regulation/overtime), they’ve allowed 12.3 PPG, second-most in the league (Atlanta’s 10.0 opponent PPG in 7 games ranks 6th-highest) behind only Oklahoma City.
    Only Dallas’ foes have had fewer problems getting restricted-area shots (67.6 opponent 2FG%, 2nd-highest in NBA) to fall softly into the net. Gortat and Markieff Morris (probable, with a gimpy ankle) like to fashion themselves as intimidators. Wall and Beal occasionally wish to remind you what poses and jibber-jabber they’ve learned from their respective hardscrabble upbringings, while sub forward Kelly Oubre (career-high 11.0 PPG; 38.3 2FG%, 44.4 3FG%) has the whole ready-punch-aim gameplan down to a science. But none of that wannabe-toughness has been demonstrated around the defensive rim (36.1 opponent paint points per-48, 6th-most in NBA; 75.5 D-Reb%, 24th in NBA).
    Washington wants to play bully-ball themselves in and around the paint (66.4 restricted-area FG%, 6th in NBA). But that often comes at the expense of failing to get back in transition, and a John Wall-led team should not be getting outscored on the regular (12.5-10.6 PPG) when it comes to fastbreak offense. Dennis Schröder, Taurean Prince and Kent Bazemore (combined 6 of Atlanta’s 11 steals on Friday) should continue not only getting stops but pushing the ball in transition, forcing Wall and Beal to make a greater share of plays on the defensive end.
    In last night’s 111-104 loss to Detroit that was a surprising toss-up until the final minute of action, Mike Budenholzer did a sound job of preserving John Collins (16 points and 8 rebounds in 27 minutes; 20.4 player efficiency rating, 1st among rookies w/ 10+ minutes/game) for the second half, where he could wreck shop around the rim and beat his man consistently down the floor. Proper tag-teaming of Collins, the only legit Hawk big-man coming off the bench, with Dewayne Dedmon and Luke Babbitt can keep the Atlanta offense diversified and confound the Wizards’ frontline.
    Atlanta holding serve up front for three-and-a-half quarters will require Wall (if available), Beal, and Porter (career-highs of 17.9 PPG, 51.1 3FG%) to make the Wizards the best single-digit conqueror of the Hawks that $125 million in team salary can buy.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    After pushing the past two Eastern Conference finalists to the wall in consecutive days, and a well-deserved three-day respite, the scene shifts for our Atlanta Hawks to Little Caesars Arena. It’s the new, palatial, 20,000-plus-seat intown home of the Detroit Pistons (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Detroit), the second-best team currently in the Eastern Conference.
    They’ve got a lively, well-known, coach-exec in Stan Van Gundy guiding the ship. They’ve broken out the blocks with a nice 8-3 record, including three in a row during this five-game homestand to stretch their home mark to 5-1. Fans are treated to cushier seats, clearer sightlines, a WiFi network modeled after Cobb County’s SunTrust Park, three Pizza! Pizza! Booths, a bar featuring a PB&J burger, and a Kid Rock-themed eatery.
    There’s franchise-face Andre Drummond, still just 24 years of age, leading the NBA with a career-high 15.2 RPG. And SVG’s biggest heist, 25-year-old forward Tobias Harris (acquired in 2016 for the low-low price of Brandon Jennings and Atlanta’s Ersan Ilyasova), is playing like an All-Star reserve candidate (career-highs of 20.0 PPG, 3.0 3FGs/game, 47.1 3FG%, 88.2 FT%).
    All of this fresh and successful news about the team leads to one, burning, smoldering question. Where the heck is everybody?
    Only Atlanta (tickets sold at 76.8% of capacity) has had less success thus far in filling up their NBA stadium (77.2%). And everybody already knows the deal with the Hawks (2-9), who are simply happy for now to give it The Old College Try every time they’re on the floor. The Pistons express a desire to win, not just compete, and pretty much are doing that. With all the hype rightfully directed toward LeBron and the Greek Freak, Detroit is looking down on both their teams in the Central Division. Yet, everyone is taking potshots at the rows of empty seats in the new arena. So, what gives?
    While it did go through some rough times, this stretch of Woodward Way never quite achieved the outright dystopia that RoboCop filmmakers depicted thirty years ago. While not nearly as spread-out as the team’s former expanses in Pontiac and Auburn Hills, the new digs in Midtown Detroit come with ample parking. Plus, there are streetcar and people-mover options for those who like the idea of their car windows remaining intact. So, access and safety are not big problems, even for suburbanite hoop fans that must now shift their gameday commuting patterns in ways they haven’t consistently done since the Pistons bailed from Cobo Arena in 1978.
    The Red Wings of hockey fame claim they’re selling out every game, although the new whiz-bang attractions around the concourse have made it tough to keep fans in their arena-bowl seats. Here, the Hawks’ would-be ticket-buyers gripe about the lack of a championship legacy, yet here’s a franchise that won two NBA titles before MJ, and one more afterward, that can’t lean on that history to sell out games (To that point, Chicago remains #1 in NBA attendance… yes, those Bulls).
    Lady Gaga and Kid Rock have packed the place to the rafters as recently as this past Tuesday. So maybe it is simply that Detroit, unlike Chicago, but maybe like Atlanta, is holding out for somebody in basketball that’s worthy of top-billing. And they’re not convinced that That Guy is already here.
    Detroit is hoping to reach the NBA Playoffs for just the second time in eight seasons. They’ve dipped into the mid-to-low-level lottery barrel in six of the past eight drafts, and have plucked a single All-Star-quality apple (Andre Drummond) and one other starter (Stanley Johnson: career-best 40.3 FG%, not probable to play with a hip flexor strain) in the small-p process. The young remnant first-rounders have yet to show that they’re Hot-n-Ready, as second-year forward Henry Ellenson joins his fellow Wonder Bread Twin, rookie wing Luke Kennard, along the third string of the roster.
    Detroit let Aron Baynes bolt for Beantown, and the Celtics also grabbed Marcus Morris in exchange for defensive stalwart Avery Bradley. They let Kentavious Caldwell-Pope walk to Tinseltown, making more room for Bradley while backing him up with more offensive-mided wings in Langston Galloway, Kennard, and Reggie Bullock, the latter filling in on the top line while Johnson heals.
    All told, the Pistons replaced two starters, but are relying on organic player development and a severely diluted NBA East to improve on a 37-45 record and a 10th-place conference finish (4 games behind the 8-seed) last season. That promise begins with their star center.
    Already in his sixth NBA season, Drummond has heretofore struggled to adopt new wrinkles to his game that could benefit his team. Yet Dre had been drawing raves in recent weeks not for his long-held rebounding prowess, but for his newfound ability to sink free throws.
    A career 38.1 FT% shooter coming in, Drummond sunk 28 of his first 36 one-pointers, including an unprecedented 14-for-16 effort last Friday to help his team top visiting Milwaukee. He has cooled off in recent days, including a bagel-for-7 outing on Wednesday night (the Pistons won anyway, 114-97, over Indiana). But Drummond’s improving marksmanship means more for Detroit than a mere extra point or two per game.
    Opponents, like coach Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks, cannot rely as much on the Bang The Drummond Slowly approach to stifle the Pistons’ offensive flow. SVG can keep his big man in the game for more possessions, not only producing more stops through his defensive board work and steals (1.9 SPG), but also contributing on the offensive end with second-chance opportunities and, now, assists (career-high 2.8 APG; 4+ dimes in four of his last five games).
    Rather than needing to be an integral Plan B element to Van Gundy’s gameplans, under-experienced backups Eric Moreland and Boban Marjanovic can be used sparingly. Bradley and Johnson can spend more time sinking their teeth into opposing perimeter-oriented offenses (like the Warriors, who shot just 10-for-27 on threes in a home loss to the Pistons on Oct. 29), and less having to help their dominant rebounder box out inside.
    Drummond’s more effective two-way presence is integral to Detroit being the only team other than Golden State among the NBA’s top-ten for both offensive and defensive efficiency ratings (9th in each category; Atlanta is bottom-ten in both areas).
    How well the Pistons can sustain their success this year hinges a lot on the comfort level of their star-crossed point guard. Reggie Jackson was withheld from major preseason participation as he recuperated from knee tendinitis and a groin strain. Then, he got caught up in the league’s early-season tradewinds, prompting assurances from Van Gundy that he shall not be moved -- not, at least, for Eric Bledsoe, Jackson’s newest division rival.
    Reggie is rewarding his team so far with a career-best 7.9 assists per-36. He is showing better decision-making within the perimeter as well, shooting much better than his troublesome 44.2 2FG% from last season, while producing his lowest turnover rate (13.3 TO%) as a starting ballhandler. But if a downturn in his production coincides with a plummet down the standings for Detroit, the spectre of persistent trade rumors won’t help alleviate the pressure on him. Jackson is capably backed by Ish Smith (4.0 APG off the bench, 1.5 TOs/game), and the conclusion to last season gave many fans the sense that Smith could succeed with a heavier workload.
    Bradley has been widely praised as one of the best on-ball defenders in the land, and one can bet he won’t be spending much time zeroed-in on Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore (35.6 FG%). Bradley will instead be hounding Dennis Schröder, who leads the league with 68.2 eFG% in isolation (min. 1.5 iso-possessions per game).
    In what would serve as a disappointment to Gordie Howe, the Hawks have produced a mere 2.2 “hockey assists” per game (tie-8th-fewest in NBA) despite dishing out the fourth-most passes (324.1 per game) per contest. Dennis can help his Hawks boost their secondary-assist production by kicking the ball out on drives to teammates who can swing the ball around the horn, particularly to spots Bradley cannot reach.
    Atlanta wants the majority of Bradley’s activities directed in the paint, crowded around Harris and Drummond defensively to help the Hawks in transition, and lofting interior shots (44.8 2FG%) where he has been less effective than at the three-point line (career-high 42.0 3FG%). Avery leads the NBA with 4.5 dribble hand-off plays, and 3.4 DHO shots, per game, but has shot just 37.8 FG% on those possessions. Cutting from swingmen Taurean Prince, Bazemore, and/or Marco Belinelli can help Atlanta keep Bradley occupied with running from pillar-to-post.
    When Jackson isn’t calling his own number, the Pistons will turn to leading-scorer Harris for end-of-clock shots. Similar to Bradley’s DHOs, Tobias takes a league-high 6.4 attempts per game on spot-ups, but shoots a modest 44.3 FG% on them.
    Poor player-personnel decisions from the recent past, plus a cadre of fans left weary after years of second-fiddle play in the LeBronference, are perception issues that the Pistons have been unable to leave behind in the ‘burbs. Detroit has been winning lately, but to inspire its long-reticent fanbase to take the leap and make more trips downtown, they must continue to do win, and avoid slip-ups on nights like tonight. Like Jay-Z to Mob Deep, the prevailing sentiment around Motown is, “We don’t believe you. You need more people!”
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “C’mon, Al! Rebound it with your chest!”
    Stealing away a win in Cleveland yesterday evening, the Atlanta Hawks will be feeling pretty good about themselves in front of a capacity crowd at Philips Arena. But they’ll have to be careful as tonight’s visitors, Al Horford and the Boston Celtics (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston), and quite a few of the fans in the stands, are wearing crocodile green.
    When he’s not getting posterized in his backyard by his kids, GM Danny Ainge is a busy man in the summertime. Coming off a top-seed and trip to the Eastern Conference Finals in 2016-17, he and the Celtics spent the offseason selecting yet another plum draft pick, beefing up their front line, wooing Gordon Hayward from away from Salt Lake, and turning Isaiah Thomas, some assets, and Jae Crowder into NBA Finals dagger-specialist Kyrie Irving.
    The momentum carrying Boston ever-closer to the NBA Finals seemed to take a cruel turn. Many a tear was shed on opening night in Cleveland, when Hayward tore up his lower leg trying to finish a questionable lob. With Hayward’s season cut short before it could really start, the Celtics would go on to lose to Kyrie’s old team, then dropped the next game one night later at home, succumbing to the Greek Freak. Just when the NBA world was beginning to sympathize with their plight, Boston used their crocodile tears as fuel to go on a tear.
    The Celts (8-2) are gunning for their ninth consecutive victory tonight, after dusting off the Magic 104-88 last night to climb to 2-0 on their three-game road swing. Over the past two weeks alone, coach Brad Stevens’ club got revenge in Milwaukee, handled their business at home against the Kawhi-less Spurs, and stormed ahead in the fourth quarter in OKC to steal Paul George’s and Westbrook’s Thunder.
    So far, the C’s are not yet moving the ball at a tempo amenable to Stevens’ liking (26th in NBA for pace), and they’re not shooting the rock exceedingly well (23rd in NBA for 2FG%, 21st in FT%). But what they have done exceptionally is neutering opposing offenses, their 94.7 D-Rating blowing away the field. Boston has been throttling foes at the perimeter (NBA-best 30.8 opponent 3FG%) and keeping them off the free throw line (19.0 opponent FTAs-per-48, 3rd-fewest in NBA). It’s unlikely that you’ll believe who is leading the defensive charge.
    Kyrie looks longingly at the dust accumulating in his NBA trophy case. The 2012 Rookie of the Year is indeed grateful LeBron James returned to Cleveland and put him in position to excel on the brightest stage for the past few seasons. Alas, there are just two individual end-of-season honors on the shelf alongside Irving’s rookie award, and one was from winning the All-Star Game MVP in 2014, the season before LeBron returned to Ohio.
    He was an All-NBA 3rd-Teamer in 2014-15, winning player of the week twice that season. And that was it, as far as season-ending accolades go. Irving’s craving as an NBA star to truly stand out, beyond James’ imposing shadow, without having to resort to flat-Earth tactics, was what prompted his appeal to have him moved, allowing him to help another team contend for the championship. And it has become apparent that one way he intends on being conspicuous, with Stevens’ help, is by changing the way he is viewed as a defensive player.
    Kyrie enters today’s contest ranked #1 in the NBA with 2.4 steals per game. His 0.8 defensive win shares places him second league-wide, while his 93.8 D-Rating has him ranked 3rd in the league (min. 30 minutes/game, 5 games played), behind former ATLien Al-Farouq Aminu of Portland and one other Celtic with whom Hawks fans are, or should be, quite familiar.
    About one week before NBA training camps opened, at a local-source burger joint in Atlanta’s Virginia-Highland neighborhood, an athletic 6-foot-10 man in a jumpsuit stood outside in the parking lot, probing through his phone while anxiously awaiting his to-go order. A five-foot-three lady approaches, but casually walks a full 270 degrees around him toward the front door. She and others chomping away at the busy eatery with the patio view had nary a notion that the gentleman was not simply some genetically-blessed guy who might play some roundball in his spare time.
    The ability to enter the NBA as a rookie, even as a NBA lottery pick, and become a catalyst for a playoff run is an amazing rarity. To play a vital, occasionally heroic role in a near-decade’s worth of playoff appearances, for a franchise that had previously gone nearly a decade without appearing in any, likely deserves more merit than being treated like a random light pole in one’s former NBA home.
    Change Al Horford’s body to that of Durant, LeBron, or Melo, or even Giannis, in their current or former places of employ, and cars would screech to a halt, casual on-lookers would be gawking and magnetized, scrambling for camera phones, prayerful for a selfie. But such is life for the unassuming Horford, who stood far from the comfort and security of his gleaming white Range Rover, having spent 20 minutes in and outside the Atlanta restaurant before a single acknowledger approached him for respectful small talk and a good-luck wish.
    Building his reputation as a model of efficiency is what got Horford to where he was standing, the 11th-highest-paid NBA player that hardly anyone seems to know, or care to know. Atlanta sports fans succumb easily to the harsh outside criticisms of its star players – noodle arm, poor pocket footwork, can’t box out, can’t hit for average, horrid BBIQ, not a take-charge guy – and apply those critiques to render those players irredeemable.
    Al never averaged more than 18 PPG over a full season in his nine years as a Hawk, and drew increasing heaps of scorn as his teams wilted in one demoralizing playoff exit after another. Not helping matters, the center’s defensive rebounding, or lack thereof, dwindled in each of his final four seasons here. When Atlanta couldn’t turn to the box scores to belie what we saw with The Eye Test, we deemed Horford irredeemable, unworthy of a full-max contract.
    Now that he has taken his talents to Beantown, Everybody Loves Al. SB Nation Celtics writer Alex Kungu remarked yesterday on Twitter, in response to an observation that Horford is finally living up to his four-year, $113 million deal, “Al Horford always deserved his contract, he’s just now putting up counting stats that casual fans understand.” Indeed, the urge to look beyond “counting stats” was something Hawks-fan advocates from Buddy Grizzard to Kris Willis have urged for years. But that was to little avail, as Horford wasn’t yet playing in a sports town with decades of experience turning imperfect people into legends of lore.
    Horford is flourishing into the player Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer hoped he would become under his watch. With Stevens and the Celtics staff overseeing his development, Al is shooting threes (career-high 33.0 3FGA rate), and hitting them (51.5 3FG%), as frequently as ever before. Just as significant, the dovetailing defensive rebounding effort has made a U-Turn. 8.7 D-Rebs per-36 would be blow away his career-best, back when he was a bicep-kissing 22-year-old in 2008-09.
    That’s producing those “counting stats” that fantasy-infused onlookers love, like his third double-double of the season last night in O-Town. The on-ball defense, screening, and passing remain as sharp as ever, too. And he gets to play his long-desired position at the 4-spot for extended minutes, when free agent pickup Aron Baynes subs in.
    The Celts’ most utilized 5-man lineup of Irving, the “Ohh! Jays” (ATLien Jaylen Brown, rookie Jayson Tatum), Horf, and Baynes is netting a positive +16.9 points per 100 possessions. Brown (15.8 PPG, 42.6 3FG%, 56.5 FT%) is coming into his own offensively, while Tatum’s old-man offensive game (13.6 PPG, 51.7 3FG%) is drawing raves. Recently returning forward Marcus Morris seems to be fitting into rotations like a glove, as well. Dennis Schröder’s Eurobasket co-star Daniel Theis leads a cast of additional rookies (Guerschon Yabusele, Semi Olejeye, Abdel Nader) who can shine in short stints of playing time.
    Most players need to drop 50-plus points, dunk over unicorns, or shatter dusty league records, just to keep their teams in the running for victory every night. They might all look up, at All-NBA voting time, and find Al standing right alongside them. If his efficiency and proficiency hold through the season and well into the postseason, while getting promoted to the hilt in a ravenous sports market, Horford won’t be able to hide in plain sight much longer.
    Luke Babbitt just flew into town and, boy, are his arms tired. Nearly 42 minutes of floortime, sinking four three-pointers and contributing across the board (17 points, one of seven Hawks in double figures, plus a steal and a block) as a starter from Babbs was everything the Hawks needed just to escape with a 117-115 win in Cleveland yesterday afternoon.
    More yeoman’s work from Babbitt will be needed to keep the Hawks in the running with the deeper visiting club tonight. Expecting him to keep pace with Al borders on being unfair, so look for lots of pick-your-poison switches with Dewayne Dedmon, John Collins, and even small forward Taurean Prince guarding Horford, in hopes of enticing the seconds-siphoning jab-fakes that keep the ball out of play-finishers’ hands.
    Irving (team-high 21.0 PPG) remains the league’s premier under-the-rim ballhandler and playmaker. But even with his newfound defensive exploits, he’ll have his hands full with Atlanta’s Schröder (28 points on 9-for-13 FGs at CLE on Sunday, 8-for-8 FTs, 9 assists, 6 TOs), the Demolition Man who bedeviled the excuse for defense presented by Kyrie’s former team.
    Isaiah Taylor (14 points, 3 assists in 26 minutes on Sunday) has asserted himself splendidly as Schröder’s backup. But the Celtics will have superior on-ball defenders, in Marcus Smart and Terry Rozier, to compel Taylor to make plays outside the paint. The Hawks’ limited array of big men must execute screens without fouling, springing the point guards free until the Boston help defense contracts around the rim.
    Schröder must make crisp decisions when granted access to the paint, while wings Prince (47.4 3FG%, 43.3 2FG%), Marco Belinelli (0-for-4 FGs, all 2FG attempts yesterday), and Kent Bazemore can’t hesitate to catch-and-shoot when they get the ball with a sliver of space. With both teams playing on the back end of a back-to-back, consistency in offensive execution by Atlanta (2-8) will be key to getting to triple digits on the scoreboard, something Boston has stopped opponents from achieving (no more than 94 points) in all eight of their wins.
    Crocodile tears over Hayward’s injury have allowed Boston to get a jump on their sympathetic opponents and surge to the league’s best record through ten games. Carrying their underwhelming record and deflated expectations into this contest, Atlanta may be able to bottle those tears and use them to turn the tables on an unexpecting opponents and their supportive fans in the Philips Arena stands. Might croc tears be a useful ingredient in a possum pie?
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    “Listen, Woody. If you want, I can just take over the clipboard, and you can go out there…”
    The Tyronn Lue Job Preservation Project continues this afternoon in Cleveland, where his Cavaliers prepare to face the Atlanta Hawks (3:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio).
    Yes, this is a downtrodden opponent for the Cavaliers, checking in at 1-8 and counting. And yes, if they survive games this week versus Milwaukee and at Houston, the Cavs (4-5, 2-3 at home) will have a chance to fully right their ship with road games at Dallas and New York. But a question is hovering over T-Lue as his team strives to climb out from a below-.500 record. Can Cleveland consistently beat decent teams without their star player, now in his 15th season, posting statlines of 57-11-7-3-2 in 42 minutes?
    LeBron James is certainly more than a mere star, and his mastery of the Washington Wizards in a 130-122 road victory last Friday serves as adequate evidence he could be bulldozing fools well into his 50s. While playing and defending upwards of five positions on the floor out of necessity, his blazing 61.0 FG% and 82.6 FT% would blow away his career highs. Further, his 29.1 PPG would be his highest since the fateful 2009-10 season, where he subsequently donned the picnic table cover and declared he would be playing Buddyball down in South Beach.
    Buddyball is essentially what James does, otherwise his old Miami dance partner Dwayne Wade would be anywhere other than in The Buckeye State right now. James doesn’t suffer alongside the Malcolm Delaneys and Mike Muscalas of the NBA universe, preferring instead to roll with a cavalcade of washed ex-stars and past-their-prime All-Stars (J.R. Smith, Kyle Korver, Wade, and the minutes-restricted Derrick Rose), heady vets (Jose Calderon, Channing Frye, Jeff Green) and energetic role players (Tristan Thompson, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert). That chemistry puts a perpetual hit on owner Dan Gilbert’s salary cap situation, but that’s the price one pays for placating a King.
    Gilbert knows he can seat your fifth-grade homeroom teacher in the general manager’s chair, since everyone knows it is LeBron and his off-court team of whisperers who dictate the product on the floor and the presence along the sideline. No matter what gets said about his teams coasting through regular seasons, a LeBron-headlined team has finished first-or-second in the NBA East in each of the past nine seasons. If the up-and-down struggles continue for the three-time defending LeBronference champs, momentarily 10th in the East, James will zone in not on the papier-mâché GM, or his crumbling cast of co-stars, but on the guy who benefitted the last time he zoned in on a head coach in mid-season.
    David Griffin fell into a situation where LeBron added himself, and Kevin Love (41.4 FG%), to one previously led by Kyrie Irving. His Cavs went 53-29 in his first season as an NBA head coach, reaching the NBA Finals, and was 30-11 midway through his second season when James decided that wasn’t excellent enough. Following a shocking deposition, it was instead Griffin’s lead assistant, Lue, who has been in the coaches’ throne through the past two NBA Finals.
    Now, Lue Hefner must soon fix a defense that has been the worst in the league (111.9 D-rating), the Cavalier opponents sinking a league-high 13.7 threes per game at a league-high 42.1 3FG% clip. He’ll have to figure out a scheme with seven players on Cleveland’s roster, including James, past the age of 30, and two others (Love and Rose) not known for their defensive exploits and hitting age 30 next season.
    Isaiah Thomas would be unlikely to be of much help on that end, even once he returns in January after repairing a tear in his hip. Thomas’ absence leaves Crowder as the sole Cav currently on the floor in the wake of the Irving trade. The player most likely to help raise Cleveland’s opponent turnover rate above 12.0 percent (28th in NBA), Shumpert, has been out for over a week with a sore knee. The player best suited to help James and/or Love secure the defensive boards, Thompson, will be out for several weeks due to a calf strain.
    Suffice to say, Lue resolving the Cavs’ defensive woes with the current roster components won’t be easy, even against a Hawks squad that is itself shorthanded and struggles to shoot straight (43.1 team FG%, 26th in NBA). Rose (8-for-16 FGs @ WAS on Friday) and Korver (47.7 3FG%) and James filling up buckets is not a problem. The fact that they absolutely must do so on a nightly basis just to keep the Cavs in front is the problem. If the losses and opponent points continue piling up, Lue should not be surprised to find former Hawks coach Larry Drew, who himself understands what a Game of Thrones the pro coaching business is, sliding over into his chair someday soon.
    Hawks fans who wanted to see how their team might fare competitively without Delaney and/or Muscala on the floor are about to get their chance. Muskie was left behind for the trip to Cleveland to heal a bum ankle. Delaney’s ankle isn’t much better, but while he is with The Basketball Club, his chances of appearing today are unlikely. Moose and/or Malcolm have been part of Atlanta’s eight worst two-man lineups in terms of net points per 100 possessions (min. 80 minutes played), each of those tandems allowing anywhere from 13 to 24 additional points in their opponents’ favor. Their collective absence should amount to a “win” for the Hawks today from an efficiency perspective alone.
    On the downside, missing Muscala along with Ersan Ilyasova and Miles Plumlee will mean Hawks fans will get to endure a lot more of rookie John Collins at the 5-spot, behind Dewayne Dedmon. Or, maybe just a little more of him, if his penchant for hacking-as-defense returns against the bruising James and Love (88.9 FT% so far, also a career-high).
    Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer played Collins more at power forward during the Hawks’ 119-104 home loss on Friday night to the Rockets, and he posted one of his better all-around games (8 points, 12 boards, two steals, four blocks) in 28 minutes of action off the bench. He and Dedmon will need Luke Babbitt, Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince to help keep the Cavs, even without Thompson around, from building up a big rebounding edge.
    Fellow rookie Tyler Dorsey (2-for-4 3FGs) and Isaiah Taylor (5-for-9 FGs, five assists in 24 minutes) also found time to shine, particularly late in the game during Atlanta’s blowout loss on Friday, so the young guards should be able to see more playing time in the first half of action today. Atlanta can keep themselves competitive in this game if they avoid getting bowled over by LeBron’s myriad highlight plays, and if execute the offense without getting scatterBazed everytime they have to dribble-drive or spot-up from three-point land.
    A team led by Delaney, Ilyasova, Calderon, Muscala, Junior Hardaway, and Mike Dunleavy strolled into Quicken Loans Arena last April and stopped the Cavs from clinching the top seed in the LeBronference. So anything can happen today, particularly if Dennis Schröder can contribute a better two-way effort against Rose than he provided at home on Friday. No matter the outcome, strong offensive play by the Hawks could have LeBron redirecting his glower from his opponents to his teammates, and his head coach.
    Let’s Go Hawks!