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!