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  1. “She BLINDED me! With SCIENCE!” They’re playin’ BAD-sket-ball! We loathe that BAD-sket-ball! “Escape From New York” wasn’t even on the cutting room floor the last time the Knicks put up 143 regulation points on a team as hapless as our Atlanta Hawks. They escaped, quite scathed, from New York. But waiting for them at State Farm Arena is another NBA opponent slowly climbing out from its early-season struggles. An “SLC Funk!”, if you will. Quin Snyder’s Utah Jazz (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in SLC) hope to be the next team to use the Hawks as a steppingstone. So you don’t have to look it up, Utah’s regulation scoring record is 151 points, twice in 1982, four seasons before the Jazz scored 153 while still in New Orleans. There’s a clear cleaving of the NBA’s Top 11 squads away from the… Others. If the Commish were to entertain the rest of us with a mid-season Badsketball tourney, the Jazz (16-11) would be the #1 seed and prohibitive favorites. The Hawks would probably need to head to Dayton to reach the second round. GM Dennis Lindsey knows that, just because all your offseason moves aren’t panning out, your team doesn’t have to take a dive. Utah’s biggest acquisition, Mike Conley was supposed to be the defensive backcourt complement to center Rudy Gobert (career-high 13.9 RPG, season-high 19 boards vs. ORL on Tuesday), supplanting Ricky Rubio, and he was supposed to give diminutive off-guard scorer Donovan Mitchell (career-high 25.2 PPG and 4.7 RPG, career-low 2.3 TOs/game) more time playing off-ball. His hamstring, sadly, just will not cooperate. Conley’s out maybe for a few more weeks after his attempt at a return from a weeks-long absence failed, in Tuesday’s 109-102 home loss to Orlando. His struggles to create inside on drives (36.9 2FG%) has a lot to do with replacing a high-post center, namely his former Memphis partner-in-grind Marc Gasol, with a post-plugging pivot in Gobert (67.8 eFG%, above his NBA-high 66.9% from last season). Ed Davis (1.7 PPG) was supposed to help make up for the team dealing away Derrick Favors for future second-round picks. Emmanuel Mudiay was supposed to be the quality guard depth that Dante Exum was not. Jeff Green (38.1 FG%) was supposed to be no worse than the Jeff Green the Wizards got last season. These things aren’t really working out. But one free agent signing is hitting it out the park, and it may be enough to save the Jazz’s season. Bojan Bogdanovic’s interior scoring (44.4 2FG%, down from 53.8% last year w/ IND) is suffering similar to Conley’s due to the Gobert Effect. But that’s not why he was brought here. The former Eurostash has been canning triples (46.1 3FG%, 9th in NBA) to become the Jazz’s other reliable 20-plus-point scoring threat (career-high 21.1 PPG). His 8-for-13 3FGs and 8-for-10 FTs helped Utah stiff-arm the Warriors last Friday. Bojangles then paired up with Mitchell to score 30 apiece (incl. 17 of Utah’s last 19 points in 4.5 minutes) as the Jazz came back late to dust off the Magic. Conley (team-high 4.6 APG) returning to the shelf leaves a lot of the passing duties in Snyder’s offense to Joe Ingles (4.1 APG, 1.8 TOs/game), the 32-year-old swingman who Lindsey signed to a two-year contract extension back in October. His jump-shooting was setting off not Jingle, but alarm bells, well into the start of December (35.8 FG% through first 22 games). But his recent turnaround (55.3FG%, 6.6 APG in last five games; season-high 23 points in a win at Minnesota on Dec. 11, the Jazz’s last road game) has rebuilt Utah’s confidence as the team has won four of its past five. The Jazz really cannot afford to mail it in. Their contributing core is essentially set through at least the trade deadline of next season. The 2020 first-rounder they shipped to Memphis for Conley is protected only 1-7 if they fail to make the playoffs. So it’s 2020 postseason or bust, and while a nice run could entrench them in the back end of the Western Conference, a road slide or two could have them scratching and clawing with as many as seven conference peers for the final three playoff slots. Although they hope to keep up their winning ways going tonight, the Jazz have hit a few sour notes. Over the past three weeks, they’ve suffered losing margins of 19, 20, 9, 25, and 14, mostly to contenders, although their last one came ten days ago at the hands of 6MOY/MIP candidate Dennis Schröder and visiting Northwest Division rival OKC. Minnesota, Phoenix, Golden State and Memphis have been the Jazz’s sole road wins. They’re hoping to build up their record versus Eastern Conference teams with this 3-game swing through the Southeast, after recent losses at Milwaukee, Toronto, Philadelphia and Indiana. The best defensive rebounders in the West (75.6 D-Reb%, 3rd in NBA), and the most accurate three-point-shooting team in the league (38.6 3FG%), Utah has found itself slipping whenever they leave the Beehive State (72.2 D-Reb% and 36.8 road 3FG%; 16.2 road TO%, 5th-worst in NBA). While the bench situation is not as dire as it has been for Atlanta (league-worst -4.1 bench plus/minus), Snyder has struggled to get productive minutes out of his reserves when it comes time to hold leads or keep deficits close (41.3 bench FG%, league-low 1.7 bench SPG; -2.0 bench plus/minus, worst among teams with winning records). The good news for Utah is they have spent about as much consistent time working out in Atlanta (6-whatever) as the Hawks seemingly have. The scheduling run with few breaks has taken its course for Lloyd Pierce’s club, as a string of 4-games-within-5-nights that has been ongoing since the season opener ended, with Tuesday’s loss in New York, a break of sorts that continues through January 3rd. But the lack of confidence-building homestands in the forthcoming schedule remains glaring. A two-game road trip for Atlanta follows tonight’s game. Then, when the Hawks come back from Xmas break to have Giannis and the Bucks waiting for them, a three-game road trek follows that. The first three game homestand of the New Year offers no cupcakes (Indiana, Denver, Houston), while the three-game stretch at State Farm Arena around MLK Day won’t be much easier (Detroit, Toronto, Clippers). To turn things around before the season gets completely away from them, Atlanta is going to have to string together wins, and impressive ones, in front of the home crowd. And the lack of defensive awareness evident in the Big Apple, particularly in transition and on halfcourt screen actions, cannot rear its ugly head again. The Hawks must force turnovers out of a Jazz team that is likely to get Badsketball-sloppy with the rock, with Conley out of the picture. Atlanta must run and convert transition opportunities into points by pressuring the rim, forcing Utah’s bigs into foul trouble, and by finding open shooters in the corners on the fastbreak. Players cannot get stagnant in the halfcourt offense, allowing Ingles and Mitchell to pick away at perfunctory passes. As was the case in New York, it is simply a matter of being mindful and making things easier on themselves to be in position to win by night’s end, especially players not named Trae Young. The Hawks learned in NYC there’s no Snake Plissken swooping in to rescue them from their Badsketball-playing themselves. Beginning tonight with Utah in town, we will see if the Hawks take advantage of their latest wake-up call and straighten up like SLC’s Stevo. If Atlanta’s “supporting” cast, specifically the veterans wasting away on the bench, don’t figure things out, soon, they could go out as sad as Sean the Beggar and Heroin Bob. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. Ujiri ain’t fixin’ this. Live, from New York, it’s Stupor Bowl II! Our defending champion Atlanta Hawks conquered the Rusty State Warriors in SBI just over two weeks ago. Now, a new challenger arises, summoning the Hawks to Madison Square Garden to wage a titanktic clash for the ages. There can be only one loser! Alright, fine, things need not seem so dire. That is, unless these Hawks choose to make it so. Each defeat, to a team as bad as the New York Knicks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG Network) have been, increases the certainty that these teams will be participants in subsequent Stupor Bowls. At least Jay-Z’s got David Hasselhoff locked down for the halftime shows. The Hawks have suffered through one bad-beat in the early schedule after another, and now they don’t even get the freefalling, Fizdale-firing version of the Knickerbockers (6-21) as a reward. The new guy in charge, Mike “Two Shoes” Miller, has his team at least grasping some twigs along their descent to the NBA bottom. On the road, New York escaped San Francisco and Sacramento with close-shave wins, then put a scare into the 17-8 Nuggets, a short Julius Randle jumper putting the Knicks up by two with under six minutes left to play. Nuggets fans can confirm these aren’t quite the Same Old Knicks. Denver Post beat writer Michael Singer sensed the alarm before the fourth quarter of Sunday’s game when a Pepsi Center fan mentioned aloud, “you know who else has six wins? The Atlanta Hawks.” Good point. It’s Miller Time for New York, in a good way, as the interim coach is basically getting the Knicks to play to their strengths, if you will. The Knicks are packing the paint (2nd in O-Reb% last three games; all six wins w/ O-Reb percentages above 25%) with their excess of power forwardly bigs, and relying on the guards, especially Frank Ntilikina (4 steals @ DEN) to pester ballhandlers around the perimeter. That strategy is just good enough to upend lousy-shooting, sloppy teams with weakened interiors, teams like… oh, hey, look who’s here! Sailing sure has been rough for the Hawks (6-21) without John Collins aboard, and the gashing inside at merciless opponents’ hands have been more severe lately (66.7 opp. paint points per-48 in last three games, 9.7 points more than the 2nd-worst). But also, try winning games without 2016’s Mr. New York State Basketball, Shenendehowa’s Kevin Huerter, healthy and on deck. Not many NBA players can say they are their own high school player’s logo, and the Hawks guard returns a few hours downstate from where his high school silhouetted one of his literal-trademark tomahawk dunks. Five of Atlanta’s six wins came with Red Velvet contributing in some capacity, the exception being Golden State. The lack of cream threes icing kept Atlanta from sweetening the final eight minutes of Sunday’s 101-96 home loss to the Lakers. Fortunately for the Hawks, the shoulder he re-injured during that game is merely stiff, and he is probable to play tonight. MIROY-candidates Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter will have a chance to outshine Reddish’s former Duke teammate RJ Barrett, who isn’t much more of a ready-for-primetime player than they are (38.3 FG%, 29.2 3FG%, 54.6 FT%; 22-and-10, though, @ GSW last Wednesday). Burned by Kristaps Porzingis, bummed by Kevin Knox, Knicks fans have been through the lottery ringer enough in the past half-decade to understand that, so long as they’re run by meddling owner Jimmy Dolan, tanking only produces more teenaged hopefuls for the team to grind into ruin. Drafted in 2018, second-round seven-footer Mitchell Robinson (NBA-high 68.5 FG% and 7.9 block%) has been a saving grace. But the Knicks should know that, by now, racing to the bottom for first-dibs at draft time won’t bring a savior to the squad, and shaky organizational leadership won’t bring any via free agency, no matter how big “NEW YORK” is emblazoned on the team jerseys. The man who literally had people singing about concrete jungles made the Nets his first NBA investment. If the league’s top players love being associated with that town so much, they’ll sign for multiple guaranteed years with Brooklyn as free agents, and then go catch “Hamilton” on Broadway. At least, until something significant changes in the office above the front office. It’s mind-boggling what Dolan thinks he can do with his Manhattan moolah. To the extent rumors are true, he is asking Masai Ujiri to stop re-building the reigning-champion Raptors, a division rival, in order to come to NYC. He’s willing to offer “Phil Jackson money” to woo Ujiri away, since Phil and his Triangle thingy worked out oh-so-well. Oh, is that all? In 2020, A.D.? Is a fella named A.D. coming through the door with Masai? Suffice to say, I have my doubts, and I suspect Ujiri does, too. New York’s plodding style doesn’t put up many points on the board, unless the Warriors are somehow involved (112 vs. GSW in regulation before prevailing in OT). The Knicks have exceeded 110 points just twice in 27 games and, discounting G-State, not once since beating Cleveland at MSG nearly a calendar month ago. Atlanta (under 105 points in last three games) looks forward to speeding up the offensive playmaking, and they’ll want to keep centers Damian Jones and Alex Len, and forward Jabari Parker, active in keeping the Knicks’ bigs busy running the full floor. But the Hawks must avoid giveaways, particularly those of the mindless dribbling, three-second camping, and charge-delivering variety, that suck away otherwise valuable possessions. Out-stealing the opponent in just one of their past 11 games, if one again counts Golden State as a game, the Hawks’ guards and wings must be more disruptive of the Knicks’ drives and passes into the paint. When Atlanta forces 20 opposing-player turnovers, as they did in forcing the Lakers into a team-high 22, and doesn’t return favors in kind, they make it easier on themselves to be in position to win ballgames. While all eyes are on Trae Young, it’s going to be Huerter, Hunter and Reddish who can have the biggest impact on Atlanta defending its Stupor Bowl crown. Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, from border to border and coast to coast, and all the ships at sea, for the thousands in attendance and the tens of thousands watching around the world… Let’s get ready to stumble! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. King James was seven when he first heard, “BRRRRRR DOT! Dot. Dot. DOT!” Not trying to be like MJax in “Remember the Time” (Best Twitter thread of the decade! There is no second place!) and disrespect a pharaoh. But sorry, King LeBron, we Atlanta Hawks fans are not looking at you and the Los Angeles Lakers (6 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Spectrum SportsNet) this evening, we’re looking past you. This coming Tuesday, it’s the drunken Grandaddy of them all. Live, from New York, it’s Stupor Bowl II! After That Other Mike Miller got his team to two straight road wins, the Nyuk Nyuk Knicks are now Bowl Eligible! Atlanta and New York now have six wins each (Q: does beating the Dubs count, since they’re FCS?), and somebody’s going to get to seven soon. Entering MSG in a couple days, our Hawks will be a different Basketball Club than the one that waltzed into the Garden during an October preseason game with boundless exuberance and upbeat energy. Trae Young and John Collins were splashy and bouncy. Hitting threes in Kevin Huerter’s absence, Vince Carter looked the part of a reliable sixth-man scorer for his final season. So did Jabari Parker. Rookies Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter were efficient, the latter looking as productive as the Duke teammate taken ahead of him. Alex Len was still sorting through his new role as an opening-day starter. DeAndre’ Bembry was shutting people down. It was only a sloppy four-point win for the visitors, their only preseason victory. But there were enough promising instances in the nationally televised game to bolster optimism for the Hawks season that was soon to begin. On that evening in Manhattan, the future looked bright for the Hawks. It still is. That future is just a lot further down the Lincoln Tunnel than many of us had hoped. The future is now for King LeBron. He had his palace guard, Magic Johnson, dismissed from The LAnd, and left Rob Pelinka in full charge of the Purple and Gold army. Coach Luke Walton gets thumbed down, Frank Vogel gets the thumbs-up. Into the Kingdom comes a full-floor general in Anthony Davis (reigning Western Conference POW; probable, shoulder), and a rings-bearing lieutenant in Danny Green. The court jesters that keep the palace entertained, Kyle Kuzma (questionable, ankle), Alex Caruso, JaVale McGee, Rajon Rondo (questionable, hammy), Avery Bradley (probable, leg), Dwight Howard, Jared Dudley, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, all get to stick around at the King’s behest. Those that made the King’s arms stretch outward in frustration have been summarily dispatched. As was the case back on November 17 at Staples Center (69-41 first-half deficit), and on Friday night versus Indiana (63-48 deficit) here at State Farm Arena, certain things become clear when it comes to the Hawks (6-20). In their current condition, Atlanta must be at their letter-best for four quarters, not just one or two, to beat pretty much anyone. They are rarely playing, or coached up to play, at their optimal best. And the Lakers (NBA-best 23-3, 13-1 on the road) aren’t just anyone. The league’s second-best shot-makers (2nd in NBA for second-chance points per-48, 3rd for Fastbreak and paint points per-48), thanks to the play-making and magnetism of LeBron and AD, the Lakers can rely on their biggest stars to hold up defensively as well (16.2 opp. TO%, 50.1 opp. eFG%, each 5th-best in NBA). Davis’ 2.6 BPG exceeds the fouls he’s called for (2.3 personals/game), while the top-ten-scoring pair combines for 2.8 SPG. Vogel’s ability to plug-and-play a variety of bigs at the 5-spot, while keeping a pair of skilled wings on the court at all times, allows Davis to stay comfortable as a help-defending power forward and James (NBA-high 51.7 assist% and 10.8 APG) to remain in an exploitative point guard role. Questions of postseason sustainability remain to be resolved, but not this early in the season for James and Davis (34.6 MPG each). The one chink in the Lakers’ armor, for now, is free throw shooting. After AD (86.3 FT% on 8.2 attempts/game), Los Angeles’ next six most frequent free throw shooters have shot a collective 65.2 FT%. Davis was quite merciful on offense (14 points, no O-Rebs, 4-for-5 FTs, 0-for-2 3FGs, 4 TOs, but 5 blocks) when the Hawks ventured back into Staples last month. The King? Not so much (33 points, 6-for-10 3FGs, 12 assists). Still, just a single free throw make for the latter allowed the tragedy of playing the Clips and Lakers on back-to-back road nights from becoming a travesty for Atlanta (60-53 in the second half @ LAL). Young (9-for-14 2FGs, 7-for-8 FTs, 7 assists, 8 TOs @ LAL) was the one challenging interloper who stood out for the Hawks. But any designs on a successful palace charge on that night was doomed by his own dancing troupe (1 assist, 1 steal, no blocks among 8 Hawk reserves). Better bench production will be essential to narrow Atlanta’s early deficits, today and in the games to come. Flying here overnight after watching Prince Bronny defeat his old high school team live in Ohio, King James (68.8 FT%; probable despite a People’s Elbow on Jimmy Butler in the win over Miami) probably will elect not to give the minions in Atlanta’s stands the satisfaction of free Fowl Shot chicken (can’t order any today, anyway) during the final quarter. “Let them eat tofu!” Lloyd Pierce’s easily shell-shocked soldiers will want to be careful with who, and more importantly when, they’re commit fouls against. There should be no desperation hacking by the Hawks after getting beaten or outmatched defensively, just getting out in transition after the bucket or the rebound and try to exploit numerical advantages down the floor. The mindless piling up of fouls while the Lakers are in the act of shooting/scoring only risks prolonging the pain. Such "strategery" is purely practice for the game this week, for the Hawks, that actually matters. Even pulling a possum play on the Lakers this evening will be for naught if they’re allowing themselves to get And-1’d to death by the likes of Marcus Morris, Julius Randle, R.J. Barrett, Mitchell Robinson, Kevin Knox, Bobby Portis and Dennis Smith (NYK w/ NBA-low 67.6 team FT%) at The World’s Most Embarrassed Arena on Tuesday. Trae may indeed one day be that “entertainment” that flusters the King with his tricky spins and dancing around guards throughout the pyramid, averts execution, and woos away the Crown, Queen Lizzo and all the King’s merry subjects. But he, and we, have all got a long way to go before we get there. In closing… “Do you remember Spain?” What? SPAIN? Do you know how far Spain is from Egypt? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. “Dropping 30-5-5 on the Hawks soon!” Home, Sour Home! After one disastrous minute, one horrific overtime, and one lousy extra game in the space of 24 hours, our Atlanta Hawks were chomping at the bit to get this show off the road. “We just have to get back to Atlanta,” said Cam Reddish to Fox Sports Southeast after Wednesday’s listless loss in Chicago, “and get back in the gym.” Oh, okay, is that all it takes? When not even a good night’s sleep at a Holiday Inn Express would do, the Hawks insist that a trip back to the lab in Brookhaven will make all the difference. Beginning tonight with the Indiana Pacers in town (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana), we will just have to see if home is where the heart was. I’ve made much about Atlanta’s arduous strength-of-schedule to start the season, in terms of opponent caliber. But there’s also the matter that Our Fine Feathered Friends haven’t strung together many days to incubate in their own nest. Since November 10, the Hawks have had one road swing of five games, and two trips three-games long, a back-to-back embedded within each of those stretches. Sure, Atlanta (6-19) did have an 11-day stretch at the end of October to “enjoy” the comforts of home, before having to fly cross-country to Portland to start that five-game Western trek. But even that period was unduly disrupted by concerns about Trae Young’s injury status and the news of John Collins’ 25-game suspension. Since that time, they’ve had nothing but single-game (one, against the Bucks) or two-game pit stops at State Farm Arena (3-8, incl. 1-6 over last 7 home games). That includes this weekend, where the Pacers, fresh from a day off after surging late to beat Boston at home 122-117 on Wednesday, will be followed by LeBrongeles. The Lakers, too, won’t be coming here without a day off, having spent their week cruising on relatively short flights through the Southeast Division. Atlanta has already been grounded and pounded through three road back-to-backs, losing the back ends by 122-101 (Lakers), 158-111 (Houston), and 136-102 (Chicago). Conversely, only once has a visiting opponent arrived at The Farm after playing the night before on the road, and that opponent was Tarnished State. “We’re just still learning how to compete,” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce acknowledged after the blowout loss in Chicago. They came off a reasonably competitive loss at Milwaukee before Thanksgiving, then nearly upset the Pacers in Indy on Black Friday before succumbing in overtime. Of course, the Hawks had a resting Rockets team at home waiting for them just one night later. Pierce’s nightly crews were shorthanded, and tired, to be sure. But they have also been lugging around the youthful core of a roster that has hardly played meaningful minutes together in seasons past, and supersized-contract veterans that have contributed next-to-nothing of value on the floor. And in a head coach, through questionable substitutions, that is prioritizing committee-style minute shares and metered-out rehab returns over maximal lineups, and things like confidence, competition, and cohesion become a hard sell. Is simply shifting the area code back to 404 going to make that big of a difference, anytime soon? The Pacers are likely to get their franchise star and newly unmasked lounge singer, Victor Oladipo (quad rehab), back at some time over the next few weeks. In the interim, Indiana (16-9, 1.5 games behind 4-seed Boston) seems to revel in being a team without a clear identity. As a team, Indiana doesn’t shoot a lot of threes (2nd-fewest 3FGAs/game), and they don’t get to the line much (30th in free throw rate). While that means they’re high in shares of interior shots, they’re just middle-of-the-pack in 2-point shooting accuracy (51.1 2FG%, 19th in NBA). They haven’t been exceptional passers (18th in assist percentage), they don’t crash the offensive glass (19th in O-Reb%), and don’t drive the tempo of games in either direction (21st in Pace). After being harassed all night by the pernicious Bulls, Young and the Hawks will be relieved to face a Pacers squad that’s smack-dab in the middle for forcing turnovers (15th in opponent TO percentage; 24 Hawk TOs on Nov. 29 were 4 more than any other opponent so far). They literally don’t do much of anything to stand out. And I suspect coach Nate McMillan and his staff like it exactly that way, at the very least until they can get Oladipo back into the fold. No strengths for opponents to deny, no weaknesses to exploit. GM Kevin Pritchard stocked the team in the offseason with efficient supporting cast members (Malcolm Brogdon, T.J Warren, Jeremy Lamb, T.J. McConnell, Justin Holiday, the injured JaKarr Sampson), and contract-extended Domantas Sabonis (13.5 RPG, 4th in NBA) to pair in the frontcourt with Myles Turner (2.4 BPG, 4th in NBA). As such, they can afford to wait until Oladipo can build upon their playoff-worthy foundation. Along the way, they can stash as many Ws in the column as they can, so Victor Victorious won’t have to do so much to seal up a nice playoff seed in the East. Taking sound shots, wherever they are on the floor, and hustling back into stout defensive positions has been enough to stay above the fray. Indy (6-6 in away games) has also benefited, unlike Atlanta, from a friendly early road schedule. After edging the Hawks back on Nov. 29, the Pacers went on a five-game road swing of their own. Except theirs included Morant-less Memphis, OKC, Detroit and fizzling New York. The NBA West hasn’t been the 12-team juggernaut many projected before this season began, but the Pacers have yet to travel into the teeth of that conference. Including just one visit to Houston a month ago, on three days’ rest, in addition to the Grizzlies and Thunder, Indiana (5-2 vs. Western Conference foes) has not had to travel west of the Plains. Before they return to face Atlanta on January 4, the Pacers’ only “Western” road opponent will be New Orleans, a team that likely still won’t have Zion and may be dealing with a new coach. They have played in just one all-road back-to-back (Detroit and the Knicks). Before that last trip, the Pacers hadn’t played in consecutive road games since October 30. They haven’t had a back-to-back of any kind since leaving the last Hawks game to visit Philly, a space of nearly two weeks, and they won’t encounter one for another ten days. Even while enduring injury absences for Turner, Brogdon, and Lamb, the Pacers have had more time to work through adversity under their own confines or, at least, in reasonably close vicinity. While Trae carried the Hawks as best he could, for better or worse, when these teams last met (49 points, 8-for-15 3FGs and 9-for-9 FTs; 9 TOs and 6 assists), Atlanta was able to use bench help from DeAndre’ Bembry (11 D-Rebs and 7-for-9 2FGs), Alex Len and Bruno Fernando to neutralize the contributions from the Pacers’ balanced starting unit. Atlanta will try to use the returning Kevin Huerter (DNP-injury @ IND; 1st home start likely since Oct. 31) and Cam Reddish (1-for-7 FGs in 11.5 minutes @ IND) to greater effect in taking defensive pressure off of Young, whose teammates could muster just 8 assists (15 player TOs) in November’s 105-104 loss at the Fieldhouse. When on the road, the Pacers have effectively stifled their opponents’ fastbreak schemes (NBA-low 7.4 opp. points-per-48; next-nearest team allows 11.2). The Hawks still need to press the pace in transition, but they must be mindful of the need to look for trailers and corner-three opportunities, not piling up deleterious offensive foul calls (3rd-highest TO% on transition plays) while forcing actions that aren’t there. Defensively, the task for the Hawks include denying the obvious subjects, Sabonis, Turner and Warren, post position in the halfcourt that allows for easy putbacks. Absent obvious second-chance opportunities, the Pacers are inclined to just get back on defense. Free money for the Pacers involves getting Brogdon (NBA-high 94.6 FT%, up from NBA-high 92.8% last season) to the charity stripe. Besides his 8 assists and a single turnover, the Atlanta native’s season-best 15-for-15 display on Wednesday (12 fourth-quarter points, incl. 10 FTs in the final 4 minutes) helped the Pacers turn a ten-point deficit versus Boston, to start the fourth, into a five-point victory at regulation’s end. Young and his help defenders will have to be less lackadaisical off handoffs and screens than they were in Chicago, keeping Indiana from getting easy looks at the hoop. But they also must do so in a way that keeps them out of foul trouble and the Pacers’ best marksmen off the free throw line. Hopefully, a day’s worth of video and training at the Brookhaven facility will be all that was needed to drive those points home and keep Atlanta from descending into needless ruts tonight. A more mature, resilient and composed Hawks team will understand that fundamentals are fundamentals, regardless of the venue or the number of intervening days off. We’re quite a ways from seeing that kind of team reveal itself. But maybe, at least for tonight, with a more inspired 48-minute effort from players and staff, having their own fans and being inside their own Factory will be enough to get not just the occasional Highlight, but a rare win over a decent opponent as well. Simply clicking heels and crooning about Home like Dorothy in The Wiz won’t be enough. But a coordinated display of brains, heart and courage can make a huge difference, when the time comes once again to ease on down the road. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. “Ha! Now I’m up 9-3 in this here 3-point contest, 2Chainz. You know my last make was the DAGGER!” Okay, Atlanta Hawks, let’s shout it together. “No More Games Unnecessarily Dragged into OT on the First Night of a Back-to-Back While the Next Opponent Rests at Home” ON THREE. ONE-TWO-THREE!! While the Houston Rockets were on the last night of a three-day respite, just two weeks ago, they kicked back, relaxed, and watched the Hawks engage the Pacers in a knockdown, drag-out. Trae Young’s baskets and dimes (21 fourth-quarter points vs. IND) pushed Atlanta ahead of Indiana three times in what should have been the final nine minutes of the contest. But for a series of blown bunnies in the final minute of the 4th by Jabari Parker, Alex Len and everyone’s favorite crunch-time Hawk, DeAndre’ Bembry, the Hawks could have enjoyed a pleasant late-night charter from Indiana to South Texas. All of that, and an 18-point second-quarter lead that devolved into a 7-point deficit before the final quarter began. Instead, Young (8 OT points, too, out of his 49 in a losing effort) and the Hawks’ team bus and plane had to idle another hour before departure. All that energy would have been nice to have saved up for the next night’s game. Instead, Our Fine Feathered Friends found themselves treated to The James Harden Variety Show (60 points in three quarters) as the Rockets meticulously wrapped the Hawks into a Popeyes Po’boy. Fast forward to the proceedings last night down on South Beach. Sandwiched in-between some insane 23-8 and 24-4 runs by the hosts, the Hawks actually played some decent team-oriented basketball. Then Len did NOT blow a dunk opportunity created by Trae with 59 seconds to spare, putting the Hawks back up by six. That alone should have been worthy of glee, but Young failed to heed my warning (“Do NOT taunt #FloridaMan!”), re-enlivening the hosts for a final curb-stomping that extended all the way into the extra stanza. Hold that plane! Tonight’s opponent, the Chicago Bulls (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago) are quite grateful for the Atlanta Hawks’ pre-flight plight. They can empathize, too. After all, they were on the same floor as the Hawks were, on Sunday night, clinging to a 1-point lead they gained with under a minute to go. But then Zach LaVine missed a layup with seconds to spare. While LaVine made up for that with free throws to force OT, instead of flying home triumphantly to face the Raptors the next evening, the Bulls found themselves circling in a holding pattern until The Tyler Herro Hour was through. That show was sponsored by Chicago’s old friend, Jimmy Butler, who assisted on five of Miami’s final six buckets. Now having dropped three straight, amid growing reports of turmoil around his team, Heisenberg-hunting DEA special-agent Jim Boylen could not have hand-picked a more suitable opponent stumbling into Chi-town (8-17) without a full day of rest. Lambasted in the media, “social” and otherwise, since taking over for the meek Fred Hoiberg a year ago, for military-grade practice tactics and a “Leadership Committee” intended to quell player feedback, Boylen has to balance pleasing his defensively-deficient scoring star with the need to get stops when the outcomes of games hang in the balance (sounds a bit familiar, no?). When Butler’s heat forged a 13-0 lead a few weeks ago to start the game against the Bulls, Boylen shelved LaVine in hopes of a spark. “I felt there were some defensive mistakes that didn’t need to be made,” Coach Boy-ar-dee would say postgame. I thought [LaVine] needed to come over and think about it for a minute.” Or, six. Things didn’t get any better, the Raptors running around undeterred like shoplifters at Sears as Zach E. Fresh sat out the next six minutes. While Chicago’s final charge made the 8-point home loss to Jimmy Buckets and Miami look halfway respectable, all thoughts turned to LaVine and the players’ near-mutinous relationship with the coach. “I guess I was to blame for it,” LaVine (22.2 PPG; career-high 39.6 3FG%, but 44.6 2FG%) stated not all that cryptically about that loss. “I’ve got pulled early before by him. I guess that’s just his thing to do.” Having cycled through five head coaches already, now in his sixth season in the league, I suppose the 24-year-old LaVine’s a bit of an expert on pro coaching styles after all. LaVine (6th-lowest Defensive PIPM among players with 650+ minutes; you already know who’s #1) fanned the flames a bit further in an interview with Yahoo! Sports, when asked if his head coach “trusts” him. “I feel I earned that trust, but I guess he feels differently.” What LaVine may not have figured out by now is, Boylen is doing exactly what he was hired to do. He’s drawing a LOT of the slings and arrows that once flung in the direction of the two-headed management monster known around town as GarPax. Deferring organization-wide criticism away from Jerry Reinsdorf and Garpax, that is Job One. No future draft picks were coming when the Bulls’ “brain” “trust” shipped Jimmy Butler to Minnesota. Bulls fans hoped that Hoiberg would be the guy GarPax insisted could transform the young recipients from that deal, LaVine, Lauri Markkanen and Kris Dunn into Rated-R superstars. Mayor Fred’s already a distant memory. Dunn has been relegated to a Bembry-style defense-ish role off the bench behind free-agent pickup Tomas Satoransky (team-high 27 points and 8 assists in the Bulls’ 113-93 win in Atlanta back on Nov. 6). Marky Markk has been no sweet sensation. He’s a seven-foot forward who can’t shift to the 5-spot, shooting 37.8 percent from the floor, averaging under seven boards and two assists in over 30 minutes per game. If it’s Otto Porter you’re looking for (3-for-4 3FGs @ ATL on Nov. 6), well, he’s been out with a bum foot after dancing on a ceiling. Tank prizes Coby White (hammy) and Wendell Carter (tummy) are soldiering through ailments of their own, as are Daniel Gafford (finger sprain) and Denzel Valentine (ankle). The one fellow who could conceivably push the Bulls over the top on any given night, LaVine, is on a mission to fry his egg-headed taskmaster, not recognizing Boylen is really just the Teflon. Dark waters, indeed. You can see why Trae turned his tongue into a lozenge after given opportunities by postgame media to hurl his own coach under the team bus last night, following a crucial final-minute benching. To be fair, Young may have worried that idling bus might run out of gas before the Hawks (6-18) could finally roll out of town. But the young star’s countenance showed he was as hurt by his coach’s non-substitution as anything The Chairman, Melvin Hunt, might have lobbed in his direction. “I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know,” Young repeated, in his best imitation of A Tribe Called Quest while his fans back home were screaming, “Oh My Gawd, Pierce! Oh My Gawwwwd!”. Trae could hardly Keep That Same Energy on Twitter, his emoji-laced postgame “Welp” comment met with derision by Butler and the heat star’s newfound #FloridaMan friends. Today’s “Another Day, Another Opportunity (100)” as Trae likes to say. But, for what? If Boylen is “You,” then Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce is the warm-seat Lottery Land coach “Your Significant Other Told You Not to Worry About.” Boylen would have pointed the finger at his subjects, then had them running suicides hours before today’s game. Pierce, rightfully, directed the bus wheels to roll right over him. Going “defense-offense” isn’t all that risky a strategy, unless you don’t go all the way through with the plan, and wind up with Bumble-bry trying to save the day with the ball in his hands as Trae watches from afar, “pulling for [his] teammates” from the sideline. “We ended up getting an empty possession on the offensive end (whodathunkit?), and then they come down and hit [Butler], it’s a big 3 to tie it up,” Pierce re-hashed to the AJC and postgame reporters. “And that’s on me… I feel bad. I think I had an opportunity to call a timeout after that first 3. In hindsight, you look back and think of what you could have done.” No bald-faced lies detected there. But as the Hawks approach tonight’s second opportunity to secure a winning road trip, it’s like arriving for a fancy feast with a horrible taste in your mouth that you can’t get rid of. Hawk-itosis! As far as riddance goes, Pierce has very little to worry about. The only media roasting he has to deal with is from us key bangers out in social media, most of us threatening not to fill arena seats we already don’t occupy, as the local sports media apparatus is way more toothless and way less ruthless than anything you’d find in the Second City. (Whoever that is over at Techwood Drive who pulled this game from TNT at the last minute, gracias.) Coming up short of the win in regulation, as his Hawks did last night, might even have earned Pierce some golf claps if we were solidly in the Competitanking™ phase of the season. Like last March, when a Vince-led ragtag group in Miami morphed from defenders into dodgeball competitors in the waning moments and lost by one. “D’oh! (wink, nod)” LP keeps relationships cordial and forthcoming with the beat writers, solid with the few locals that have any pull. Plus, he’s got unwavering support from the boss who picked him in PBO/GM Travis Schlenk, who only half-pretended this summer that his Hawks were immediately on the come-up to placate ownership and season-ticketholders. But the one way Pierce gets got is if his relationship with his star player deteriorates. If Young remains as much of a defensive liability as Pierce let on with his late-game substitution decision, that’s not so much a player issue as a problem for the staff and the guy who’s gained acclaim as a “defensive-minded coach” (hmm, what local team have we heard that from before?) and a “developmental coach.” Absurd runs like the heat, and various and sundry opponents, enjoy against Atlanta, at any time of a game, led by third-tier players whose individual contributions are worthy of induction into Springfield (wait… Duncan Robinson ISN’T the cake-mix guy?), isn’t squarely the fault of the players on the floor, but it can be attributable to the person who puts obviously shaky lineups and combos out there. In Chicago, LaVine doesn’t have the pull he needs to bend his front office’s ear. But the minute Young, bearing the brunt of mounting losses, decides to declare Pierce to be his Paul Westhead, his Doug Collins, LP would be at risk of getting the AX. Pierce must become as responsible with players on the court as he is relatable with them off it, especially his most important one. Atlanta’s first 20-point loss of the season came on the back end of a back-to-back, that November game against Chicago where Trae followed up a virtuoso performance against the Spurs by going 0-for-8 from downtown/burbs. Uncle Vince (3-for-4 3FGs, plus 5 rebounds in 16.5 minutes) was again the X-factor that kept the game remotely interesting for Hawks fans. That defeat came to the Bulls at home, after a satisfying win. What can be expected of this team on the road tonight, after a humbling loss? Hopefully, not another Houston-style game that has LaVine looking like Harden, and a rando like Satoransky looking like vintage Westbrook. Last month, the Hawks didn’t really have reliable contributions yet from De’Andre Hunter (career-high 28 points, 5-for-10 3FGs @ MIA), who needs to be more than an on-ball guardian to be effective defensively (no more than one steal or one block in past 12 games), and fellow rookie Cam Reddish (7 rebounds @ MIA, most since the season-opener). Getting these two, plus the returning Kevin Huerter (7 assists, 1 TO in 26 minutes), lots of looks tonight will be essential for Young to fend off a Bulls defense (NBA-high 9.4 team SPG, led by Dunn’s 1.9 and Sato’s 1.5; NBA-high 17.8 opponent TO%) that basically consists of guards pressuring ballhandlers into submission. Securing the defensive rebounds will be essential against the Bulls, whose 42.5 FG% is ahead of only the Knicks. Another rookie, Bruno Fernando, has been limited to under 10 minutes per game in his last four appearances, and should have a key role in Pierce’s frontcourt rotation to match Carter’s, Thaddeus Young’s and Gafford’s physicality. Yes, we’re still weeks away from John Collins’ return, but relying so heavily on “YPJ” to terminate opponent’s possessions hasn’t been a “PYT”. Good news! Our Hawks won’t have to deal with another back-to-back for 17 days after tonight. Barring an unfortunate trip to Vitamin World by John Collins, we’ll have him back to participate in all the fun and frolic by then. Maybe Huerter won’t be on a short leash by that time, either. The bad news? The first night of the back-to-back is against Giannis and Bud’s Bucks. Then, it’s another cross-country flight to… oh, wonderful, Chicago. Yeah, let’s just consider this here game a practice run, shall we? “Keep Bembry Off the Offensive Floor in a Tight Game” ON THREE. ONE! TWO!! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. “Te’ YOUNG!” ‘Tis a tough time if you’re a Torero. Back before James Borrego hooped at the University of San Diego, a pipeline was already growing. USD alum Bernie Bickerstaff got Mike Brown into the pro ranks as an unpaid video coordinator. After establishing his foothold in the league, Brown would hire Chris Grant, who later worked his way up the Atlanta Hawks’ front office ranks for a decade. At Golden State, former Hawks assistant Eric Musselman reeled up David Fizdale, who was a USD player-turned-assistant while Borrego was playing at the Jenny Craig Pavilion. By the next season, Fizdale was an assistant helping coach Mike Woodson lug the Hawks out of the NBA abyss. Borrego immediately shifted from student-athlete to assistant coach for this otherwise unremarkable West Coast Conference school when the NBA’s Spurs, with a recommendation from departing assistant coach Brown, came calling with an open video coordinator spot. The number of USD alums currently serving as NBA head coaches was sliced in half over the weekend. Fizdale’s firing by the Nyuk Nyuk Knicks leaves Borrego as the last Torero standing. He’ll need to have his up-and-down Charlotte Hornets ready to go in a Sunday matinee at Spectrum Center against their division rival Hawks (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL). Like Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce and, until Friday, like Coach Fiz, Borrego is in his second season clutching the clipboard for a team that’s below the NBA playoff line. The Hawks (5-17) have been undergoing a controlled burn during this time, while the Knicks (4-18) have sustained the look and smell of a dumpster fire. It is hard to assess, at this stage, which organization the Hornets (9-15) better reflects, largely because it’s difficult to sense what even the near-term plan is, for owner Michael Jordan and GM Mitch Kupchak. That has left Borrego as a prisoner of circumstance. The team is no longer obligated to cater to franchise face Kemba Walker, who left this past summer for Beantown. But Charlotte did get Celtics backup Terry Rozier (17.9 PPG, 41.9 3FG% w/ CHA) in return. Borrego and the Hornets staff are charged with appeasing the point guard, and developing him into a star contributor, in hopes things don’t get too scary in the Carolinas. Well, then along comes Raleigh-raised guard Devonte’ Graham. Emerging to become the team’s surprise leading scorer (19.1 PPG, 42.1 3FG%), the second-year second-rounder has been not only a top perimeter threat (88 3FGs, 2nd in NBA) but the team’s superior playmaking passer (7.8 APG, 3.2 TOs/game). Borrego can’t bench the guy who was supposed to be the primary play-setter, Rozier. So, might as well start them together. A shade below Fizdale’s beleaguered Knick, Dennis Smith, Jr., the league’s bottom-dweller in Player-Impact Plus-Minus (as calculated by Bball-Index) has been the Hornets’ Miles Bridges. To this point, “Sky Miles” has also logged over 100 minutes more, in some cases 450 minutes more, than any of the next 17 NBA players ranked ahead of him in PIPM. Having traded down in 2018 to acquire Bridges and a pair of future second-rounders for All-Rookie Second-Teamer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kupchak and the Hornets don’t want it to look as though they’ve followed his predecessors’ footsteps with a draft-day mistake. So, the high-flying, low efficiency forward might as well start, alongside rookie forward PJ Washington. It’s a pairing that would seem redundant but for the latter’s sweet shooting from outside (42.1 3FG%). Mainstay center Cody Zeller (team-high 53.0 FG% and 13.0 O-Reb%) bruised his hip during a five-game losing skid, and along comes Bismack Biyombo (career-high 7.4 PPG), who suddenly played like a man trying to shed that Bust-mack label once and for all. Biyombo has since ebbed, and Zeller’s healthy again. For Borrego, who promised since the preseason he’d shake things up to improve Charlotte’s almost Hawks-bad defense (113.5 D-Rating, 27th in NBA, just ahead of ATL’s 113.9; NBA-worst 60.5 opponent 2FG% within 10 feet of rim; 56.0 opponent eFG%, 29th in NBA), but now seems stuck fielding the Graham-Rozier and Bridges-Washington duos? Might as well keep Biyombo in there, too. Two of the three Hornet lineup duos (as per bball-ref) with positive net-scoring effects each include third-year guard Malik Monk. But the undersized shooting guard’s jumper has been so atrocious lately (32.0 FG%, 17.9 3FG% in last seven games) that he has been drifting out of the rotation. Borrego has been relieved of the obligation to give big minutes to draft and free agency gaffes that preceded him, specifically Nic Batum (team-high $25.5 million salary, $27.1 million player option for 2020-21; career-low 3.5 PPG and 36.4 FG% in 22.5 MPG after returning from a finger injury), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ($13 million salary, two appearances and 18 total minutes played this season), and Monk (drafted two picks ahead of Donovan Mitchell in 2017). But, given the alternate options of unready rookies Cody and Caleb Martin and Jalen McDaniels, or Dwayne Bacon (32.0 FG% on the season)? Borrego might as well let Monk shoot his way out of the funk. The sole free agency veteran pickup that seemed to pan out over time, Marvin Williams (27 points @ ATL last February; probable, knee) can still shoot (career-high 49.6 FG%, 40.0 3FG%) and provide defensive effort, but even his overall in-game production (7.6 PPG, career-low 20.3 minutes/game 4.9 rebounds per-36) seems spotty. Charlotte’s current record appears gaudy compared to Atlanta’s. But before thrashing the Great Value Warriors 106-91 at home last Wednesday, Charlotte had not defeated any team by more than seven points, and even that game was one day before Halloween. They’ve beaten Chicago, Sacramento, Golden State (twice), Detroit (thrice), a Pacers team absent Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, and Fizdale’s Knicks. The win over the scrub-a-Dubs was sandwiched by home losses in the past week to Phoenix and Brooklyn. Seven of the Hornets’ 15 defeats have been by margins of 15 or more points. The quality of Charlotte’s victories wouldn’t get much better today against the Hawks, who arguably are enduring the league’s toughest schedule (NBA-high 56 percent opponent winning percentage, not counting their own contributions to their success, as per playoffstatus.com). In his return home, DeAndre’ Bembry remains in the Hawks’ starting lineup, as De’Andre Hunter (finger) is doubtful to play in what would be a return to the site of his last loss as a collegian, in the 2019 ACC semifinals (Cam Reddish’s Duke squad won the tourney). Early and late, Coach Pierce will want to limit the inefficiencies of Bembry (48.6 FT%, 25.7 3FG%; 1-for-9 FGs vs. BRK on Wednesday) coming to the fore, so one should expect more re-acclimation for Kevin Huerter in his return from shoulder rehab. Having rookie Reddish (25 points, 6-for-10 2FGs, 4-for-7 3FGs, 3 steals), coming off a banner day in Atlanta’s 130-118 loss to the Nets, alongside Huerter (37.8 3FG%), and having both more involved in motion offense, ought to better alleviate Trae Young, the Hawks’ do-it-all-beside-defending-on-ball guard (4th in NBA for Usage%) who could use a wider array of options when he emerges from traps and double-teams. Enhanced wing play should also be enough to add a defense-worthy dimension to an Atlanta offense (53.4 paint points per-48, 2nd in NBA) that gets overly content with dumping the ball inside to the bigs, notably Jabari Parker, Damian Jones and Alex Len, and hoping for the best. The preoccupation with the big-man paint points, particularly via rim-rolling (9.1 roll-man PPG, 2nd-most in NBA; 1.11 PPP, 8th-lowest) and the second-chance rebounding has come at the expense of second-half fatigue that opponents use to bludgeon the Hawks on the defensive end. Defensive transition is lacking (1.14 opponent PPP on transition, tied w/ CHA for 8th-most in NBA) without the frontcourt contributors hustling back, and no team approaches the third-quarter deficiency of Atlanta’s 59.7 D-Reb%, creating deficits too steep for Young (27 of 39 points vs. BRK in second half; 8-for-10 FTs vs. BRK, only two other teammates a combined 5-for-11) to singularly climb out from. Judicious with committing fouls (5th-lowest personal fouls per 48, 2nd-lowest opp. FT%), the Hornets will make it tough on Young or any Hawk to retrieve former NC scholastic hoops star Nique's single-game NBA free-throw perfection record. Still, the Hawks will give themselves an opportunity to steal this game if they return in kind the pressure Young receives on the backcourt scorers of the Hornets, who now turn the ball over more frequently (16.0 TO%, 6th-highest in NBA) than they did in recent seasons with Kemba running the show. Former Hornets coach Steve Clifford has the Magic (four straight wins to reach 11-11) punching above their weight, making the likelihood of Charlotte snagging a 7- or 8-seed less likely with each bad loss. Kupchak and Jordan have expressed confidence in Borrego, not resorting to the Knick-stakes that put Fizdale’s future in early limbo. But without a clear plan as to exactly what they’re building, mounting losses, dotted with unimpressive wins, may cause Charlotteans to question whether the head coach is truly part of the foundation. Borrego himself may begin to question his superiors, as to whether there’s a foundation at all. You stay classy, San Diego alum. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. “As Seen On TV, it’s Coach Lloyd’s SUB-A-SCRUB-O-METER TM! Now available in Volt Green. In Stores Now!” ((HEEL TURN ADVISORY!)) Would you all, please, lift our dear Brother Taurean up, in your thoughts and heartfelt wishes? Some are called. Few are chosen. And Taurean Prince is among The Few. The Proud. The Players the Hawks Deal Away in Hopes of a Tasty Draft Pick. Brother Taurean didn’t ask for this. He was perfectly fine with running it back once more with a rebuilding Atlanta club, enjoying copious feeds from Trae Young along the way. Instead, he returns to State Farm Arena tonight in a Brooklyn Nets uniform (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in The BK). Here, he’s got not one, but two, NBA fanbases pulling for him. Prince himself was the Lottery prize the Hawks received, if not coveted, via Utah in 2016’s NBA Draft, when it was time to recoup some value for the contract-expiring Jeff Teague (I’ll always believe the Magic snatched Domantas Sabonis one pick earlier to keep him away from us, but that’s neither here nor there). Ignoring a brief Tankbuster Taurean phase at the end of 2017-18, he never emerged as a star-worthy talent in Atlanta. But he did enough to establish himself as a versatile mid-tier starter in this league, sufficient for the Hawks to engage in The Netspick Game with Brooklyn for the first time since 2012’s stunning Joe Johnson deal. The Hawks also got a mid-level 2019 first-rounder, used by Travis Schlenk to finagle his way further up the draft boards for De’Andre Hunter, and the remains of Allen Crabbe. But the juiciness of a Lottery-protected first-round pick hangs in the balance, carrying over up through the next two seasons if it doesn’t convey to Atlanta in 2020. Oh, but about those upcoming seasons. Kevin Durant’s Achilles ought to be back to about 90-ish percent by the time the curtain opens on 2020-21, his planned pairing with fellow grumpy All-Star Kyrie Irving making the likelihood of a worse record than the Nets (10-10; 7th in NBA East) will have at this season’s end to be low. It’s the main reason why, from the Hawks’ perspective, charting the progress of Brooklyn’s Prince is all about F.U.N.! (That is, the Fierce Urgency of Now!) Back in July, things were setting up nicely for Taurean to assume the departing DeMarre Carroll’s solid support role with former Hawks assistant Kenny Atkinson’s club. Kyrie this year, KD next year. Rotation players Caris LeVert, Spencer Dinwiddie and Joe Harris remained in the fold. Veterans Wilson Chandler, Garrett Temple and DeAndre Jordan were on the way. But it seems as if Prince’s signing of Brooklyn’s two-year, $29 million contract extension offer (one of just six 2016 Lottery picks and, along with LeVert, nine Draft classmates to earn an extension) came with a catch or two. Chandler was supposed to get beaucoup minutes at power forward, as a KD stopgap, but he was slapped with a 25-game suspension for violating the league’s Anti-Drug policy (the nerve of that guy!). None of Rodi Kurucs, Henry Ellenson, or rookie Nic Claxton, in Atkinson’s estimation, are prepared to log major floor time. All that has left Coach Kenny to turn to Prince (career-high 6.0 RPG, 3rd on his team behind center Jarrett Allen and his backup, Jordan), early and often, to be the team’s starting power forward, as he resorts to essentially a three-guard top line featuring Dinwiddie, Temple and Harris. When Sean Marks had an opportunity to add a player in the aftermath of LeVert’s mid-November thumb injury, the Nets exec chose to add yet another swingman in Iman Shumpert, underlining that to Brooklyn, Prince is their huckleberry at the 4-slot. Oh, and a busy stretch-four, Br’er Taurean, if you don’t mind. On a team that has last season’s three-point percentage leader in Harris (44.2 3FG%) and a guard in Dinwiddie (career-high 20.7 PPG; 32.5 3FG%) that’s eager to supplant Irving’s offense since he can’t supplement it, the Nets have Prince hoisting more three-point attempts (7.1 3FGAs per game, 15th among active NBA players) than either of them. On the somewhat good side, he is making threes (39.6 3FG%, down from a career-best 44.1 3FG% last season with ATL) nearly as well as he’s hitting his other field goals (career-low 40.4 2FG%). The erratic nature of his shooting (including a career-worst 70.4 FT%, on barely over one FTA per game) used to be an item left for discussion on random online game threads. But now in NYC’s media powerhouse, Brother Taurean’s up-and-down shooting grabs headliner attention. “Taurean Prince’s inconsistent 3-point shooting problematic for the Nets,” wrote Brooklyn’s USA Today watchdog outfit NetsWire a couple weeks ago, off a five-game spell where he shot just 32.3 3FG%. Then, late last week from NetsWire, “Hot or cold, Nets encouraging Taurean Prince to let shots fly at all times.” That came after a 5-1 stretch for Brooklyn where Taurean shot 42.6 3FG%, before Sunday’s 109-106 home loss to Miami where he went 2-for-9 from… deep (does Brooklyn have its own “Downtown,” one not named Manhattan? I’m just asking). “Everybody knows their role,” said Harris (only other Net beside B.T. to start in every game so far) when asked by NetsWire about Prince’s shot selection, or lack thereof on occasion. “And everybody’s on him consistently just to let it go, regardless of make or miss. He could miss his first ten, we all have confidence in him that he’ll make the next ten.” In Atlanta, we had the LTMFF brigade, too (usually led by Brother Kent), but Brooklyn (42 percent of FGAs are for threes, 2nd-most in NBA East) is quite serious. Irving (shoulder rehab) remains a question mark for the balance of the season himself. Kyrie (28.5 PPG, 7.2 APG) will miss Brooklyn’s next two games and has appeared in just 11 of 20 contests to date. On the plus side, Atkinson has guided the Nets to a 6-3 record without Uncle Drew around to save them. Says here that, tonight ((HEEL TURN ALERT!)), I would not mind if the positive trend continues. I’m just happy that they’re not putting “secondary play-setter” on Brother Taurean’s already full plate (1.9 APG, 2.2 TOs/game). The Nets would be wise to send more lobs and post touches in the direction of Allen (NBA-high 66.7 FG%), as the Texas Fro-nado can draw lots of fouls despite his struggles converting them into points (58.0 FT%). But without Irving and LeVert around, the ball tends to get stuck in the halfcourt offense, particularly outside the paint. Brooklyn’s leading active dime-dropper after Dinwiddie (5.9 APG) is Theo Pinson (2.6 APG) and, well, yeah. The Hawks (5-16) won’t hold Brooklyn to 79 points, as they did in Monday’s win over Tarnished State. But if they can produce turnovers like they did on Monday (23 opp. TOs, most since Oct. 29), convert the goofs of the live-ball variety into buckets, and keep Brooklyn off the free throw line (season-low 12 personals and 12 opp. FTAs vs. GSW), Atlanta would have a decent chance of maybe starting a little win streak. Which is fine, although I’d much rather kickstart that during the 3-game road swing next week. For Atlanta’s revolving door of active players, DeAndre’ Hunter (out, finger discloation) will tag out with his good hand, as Kevin Huerter (activated, shoulder) uses his good arm to sub in. While Hunter’s on-ball defensive skill will be momentarily missed, it’s hopeful that Huerter can give a boost to Atlanta’s league-worst perimeter shooting proficiency (38.6 3FG%). The team ran circles around G-State despite making just 27.6 percent of their triple shots (ATL below 33.3 3FG% in past five games), so if Huerter can help clear a very low bar, Atlanta’s odds for victory will rise. Playoffs-wise, the East is really a Big Six, as Indiana will soon have Victor Oladipo back to join Miami and the obvious suspects further up the standings. Brooklyn sits at #7 for now. But they are closer to 9-seed Detroit (2.5 games ahead) than they are to the 6-seed Pacers (3.0 games behind). Their pick being more like Minnesota’s (bless you, Adreian Payne) than the unprotected pick swap-option we got from dealing Joe to Brooklyn, having a productive Prince to keep Brooklyn over the hump helps everybody out in the long run. Irving may or may not be dampening the team chemistry from within, as the usual rumors persist. But whenever he returns, I’d rather the Nets have as many Ws as they can get already in the stead, not trying to stop a potential three-or-more-game losing skid (the Nets visit Charlotte on Friday, a couple days before a rested Hawks team swoops in). The early 2020 Draft boards are very top-heavy with backcourt talents. If you’re of the mindset that Huerter is not a long-term sixth-man, then where the market is best saturated with bigs, ones that could have more immediate impacts than whatever the Hawks (last in D-Reb%) are throwing out there right now, would come in the back end of the Draft. It sure would be mighty nice to have first dibs on that particular crop. The Hawks will visit Brooklyn twice over the next 40 days, so there may be more Must Lose opportunities ahead. But I’d much rather see our ex-Hawk lead the way to victory for the Nets, now, to facilitate a mid-tier draft spot come April, so we won’t have to depend as heavily upon Irving and whatever mood he’s in later. Twisting an old 80s shampoo commercial to drive home the point: If Brother Taurean looks good, we all look good. Lift our dear Brother up on high, Hawks fans, so he can lift us up (at Draft time) in turn! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. “Giving up Rookie donut-fetching duties, talk about how tough that was for you!” Live, from Atlanta, it’s Stupor Bowl I! We’ve come a long way from that one banner evening, in February 2015 at The Highlight Factory, when our Atlanta Hawks outclassed coach Steve Kerr’s future first-time champion Golden State Warriors. With their record raised to a league-best 42-9, it sure felt like the home team Hawks could do no wrong. Dare we say, NBA Finals Preview? Not a single player from that day will be dressed when these two clubs meet tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Bay Area) on the same floor. It’s better to say that not one of those players will be in uniform, given Draymond Green (sore heel, read that however you wish, out for tonight) won’t exactly show up in a barrel, while Klay Thompson (probably out for the season, ACL rehab) and Stephen Curry are doing their best Andre Aldridge and Kent Bazemore impressions on the sideline. Not even five years later, many around the league are wondering -- if not outright worrying -- whether tonight will be an NBA Lottery Preview. Back in the Squawk’s Schedule thread before the season began, I suggested that the Hawks were likely to stumble out of the gate, given their need for the young talent to acclimate, the inherent lack of defensive aptitude and, most importantly, a cruel November schedule. I had them at 6-14 coming into December, so being a couple games off the mark isn’t all that bad, considering the injuries, a significant suspension, and pitiful veteran depth. (Glad no one will ever know I picked all four of their actual wins wrong). Yet I also marked today’s game as a key turning point in Atlanta’s melodious march to mediocrity, a hallmark victory that would propel the team to 40-or-so wins and a shot at putting a nice scare into a 1- or-2-seed come playoff time. What I could not have predicted was that John Collins would not be coming through that door for a few more weeks, or that Kevin Huerter (shoulder strain) would be trying to return to form for a second time. I also errantly assumed that the Dubs would at least have Curry carrying them with Trae Young-style nightly figures, and Green holding things down until he gets thrown out of games. Without those headliners, or KD consolation prize D’Angelo Russell, or virtually anyone with championship mettle checking in, not even Kerr, who cut his hand after breaking a clipboard in frustration last week, can summon up enough fire or magic to get his team competitive for 48 minutes. The exception on the championship mettle front is kinda sorta Kevon Looney (7-8 FGs and career-high 5 assists, in GSW’s win here about a year ago), who was thrust to the fore in the 2019 Finals due to the perpetual absences of KD and Boogie. Bothered by hip and nerve issues, he has been greenlighted to play in his first game since the season-opener tonight. The rest of the crew looks like names the players’ union might be worried about crossing a picket line during a strike. Is that Clifford Franklin and the Jackson Brothers I see out there? You thought your favorite NBA team had issues with key starters and supporting cast members missing time. For G-State, throw in second-year guard and 2018 first-rounder Jacob Evans (strained adductor), who has played in just 3 games so far, or former Hawk and two-way Warriors guard Damion Lee (fractured hand) for good measure. This was the kind of pivotal Hawks-Warriors game I had in mind back when the schedule came out, but not with Golden State (NBA-worst 4-17) looking like this. This is as much of a Must Win for the Hawks (4-16, 10 straight Ls, 1-13 in last 14 games), in their current state of flux, as one will find in their schedule. They’ve got the Warriors right where they want them. That is, the people wearing Warriors jerseys on the floor today, only slightly more recognizable than the fans wearing Warriors jerseys in the State Farm Arena stands. Aye, but there’s the rub. It’s one thing to be challenged by names you know well, like James Harden (how bad was he, from Monday through Friday, to NOT win Player of the Week? Cool story for Melo, though) and Russell Westbrook. It’s another thing altogether when you’re engaged in dogfights, on your home floor, with folks you barely know, where no one is remotely an NBA star. With all due respect to Boogie replacement Willie Cauley-Stein, Looney, former Hawks Killer and Iguodala replacement Glenn Robinson III (team-high 32.0 minutes/game), Klay fill-in Alec Burks, the career-salvaged Marquese Chriss… who do you gameplan for? “Get Out” director (I think) Jordan Poole? And, why? The Villanova star turned steady interior scorer for the replacement Warriors has not been 2018 Hawks first-rounder Omari Spellman, but Golden State’s 2019 mid-second-round pick, Eric Paschall (17.0 PPG, 19.9 per game as a starter). Kerr has offered Spellman encouraging compliments of late – “He’s really explosive athletically,” the coach said following Omari’s double-double in a suddenly rare win last week versus Chicago. But it’s Paschall who’s getting the top-line minutes, and the rookie has rewarded them with boundless energy. Together, the body-double Dubs have some nice-enough size, but the offense (104.7 O-Rating, 25th in NBA) gets stilted when Kerr has too many of them out there at once. That’s especially true when Draymond isn’t in the mix. They also don’t rebound well enough as a team (71.1 D-Reb%, 26th in NBA) for players who often have size, or at least girth, advantages on paper. This is the rare game where Atlanta *should* be capable of asserting itself at both ends, treating Hawks fans in the crowd to their first home win in nearly a month. It’s the rare game where the biggest star on the floor is a Hawk with a chance to shine. But someone who is not a SLAM magazine cover model has to produce consistently from outside the 3-point arc. Zach LaVine’s Bulls thought they had a lifeline when they traipsed into Chase Center last Wednesday in search of a rare win. LaVine lit up the Nets with 36 points, but his team as a whole shot 38.2 percent from the field, and they found themselves at the mercies of Paschall, Spellman (2 steals and 3 blocks off the bench, in addition to his double-doub), and point-guard-by-default Burks. Aside from slinging the ball around, Draymond (8 assists) barely had to lift a finger. The offensively woeful Orlando Magic shot 42.5 FG% as a team, but they had to hang on last night for a 100-96 win at home against a Warriors unit, with Green (7 of GSW’s 21 assists) that will shoot much better than 39.6 percent from the floor in Atlanta. One or two players (like Evan Fournier last night) are allowed to go off, but the Warriors are showing they can thrive against unbalanced opposing offenses. So far, the only semi-reliable option not named Trae for Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has been rookie De’Andre Hunter, whose 3-for-9 shooting from downtown helped road-weary Atlanta escape Houston on Saturday without a 50-burger loss in the pit of their stomachs. Relieved from the travails of defending in Harden’s grand shadow, Hunter may be in for a banner day tonight if he can just figure out which Warriors to lock onto and exploit. It is a grand test for the Hawks coaching staff to make sure the players understand and adhere to their defensive roles versus Kerr’s nebulous Warrior lineups. If they comprehend who they’re supposed to guard, and how to get open for convertible shots, tonight, they won’t be worrying over where the fifth win on the schedule will come from, tomorrow. The Warriors have reason to use tonight as a springboard as well. The next games after this are in Charlotte and Chicago, then back home to face Memphis (probably without Ja Morant) and the Knicks. Atlanta is just 4.5 games out of the 8th spot in the East. But even in the rough-and-tumble NBA West, Golden State sits 5.5 games behind the setting 8th-seeded Suns. A nice little run here or there, and maybe the Splash Brothers might not need to sit out the whole regular season, after all. Such a prospect might scare a first-round opponent or two, but not the rest of the league. Travis Schlenk and company collecting upper-tier first-round talents like Monopoly Game pieces is one thing. But his former employer getting a top pick with healthy stars returning for 2020-21 runs chills up people’s spines as they look on at Tankathon in dismay. No one ever wants to know that a Wiseman once said, “Man, was I lucky to wind up with the Warriors!” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  9. "It's why I always clean my plates, Daryl. Haven't you heard, there are children starving in Africa?" Still trippin' on the tryptophan today, so I'm gonna give Daryl Morey and his MIT Sloan Analytics peer-inspired empathetic activism a break today. Our Atlanta Hawks (4-something or other) will try to gin up enough energy, following last night's overtime close call in Indy, to keep up with James Harden, Russell Westbrook and the Houston Rockets (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in HTX). "Don't Foul Harden, and Box Out" remains the prime objectives as D'Antoniball is still in effect (NBA-highs of 45.4 3FGAs and 29.6 FTAs per game, NBA-low 44.7 2FGAs per game). Yet I do wonder whether D'Antoni and the Rockets (105.6 Pace, 2nd in NBA) are trying to pull a fast one on opponents in more ways than one. While foes are preoccupied with the downhill drives of Harden (everyone's favorite Hawk at the moment, DeAndre' Bembry lives for this matchup, but he will get to watch rookie De'Andre Hunter face off with Harden more today) and Westbrook, and all the volume perimeter shooting. But they're making barely a third of their three-point attempts (33.4 3FG%, 26th in NBA), producing more field goal offense by pummeling the interior (55.7 2FG%, 2nd in NBA) and drawing favorable whistles. With their most accurate shooter in the rotation, Danuel House (illness), doubtful to play, the Hawks can afford to treat Harden's stepback threes and Westbrook's open takes as a white flag of sorts. The Hawks' on-ball defenders just cannot allow them to go around, or through them. Clint Capela (illness) is also unlikely to participate tonight, and Nene (abductor) remains out of commission. So you can imagine Westbrook and Harden will be doing the most to compensate offensively with paint drives and dishes. The Hawks' swingmen will want to keep Westbrook and Harden from enjoying straight-line trips into the paint, keeping the ballhandler in front or alongside them, and they may be rewarded with one of those mid-range shots D'Antoni despises. When alleviated from guarding Westbrook, point guards Trae Young, Tyrone Wallace and Evan Turner will need to help secure rebounds and spark fastbreak chances for Atlanta (note to Bembry: when going 1-on-3, consider passing every once in a blue moon). Houston allows the league's second-most fastbreak points (16.7) per-48. Young and Jabari Parker will have to trade off roles of help-rebounding and sticking with P.J. Tucker (52.6 corner 3FG%) in the corners. Keeping the short-staffed front line of Houston (12-6, beat Miami on Wednesday at Toyota Center to stop a three-game slide) on their toes -- Tyson Chandler starts... more minutes for Thabo Sefolosha at the 4-spot? -- and potentially in foul trouble will require the triple-double-hunting Rockets stars to be more than mere rebounders on defense. That's all I got! Time to go reheat some mac 'n cheese. Let's Go Hawks! ~lw3
  10. “I beg your Pardon???” Happy Georgia Granite Gray Friday! But for a few shoppers cutting each other off in traffic while fighting to get to that last 60-percent-off smart 4K HD toaster oven at the outlet mall, I’d have already been back at the lab crafting up a gamethread for tonight’s Atlanta Hawks game in Indiana against the Pacers (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Indiana). Alas, here we are! My large, adult son of what should have been my large, adult father, Domantas Sabonis (18.9 PPG and 13.3 RPG) has gotten over his preseason contract squabbles and is playing really good basketball, y’all. Coach Nate McMillan’s club has made things work quite well (11-6, 6th in NBA East, winners of 4 straight and 11-3 in last 14 games) despite missing key components for much of the season, including Team USA seat-warmer Myles Turner (back from an ankle sprain), Hawks 30-win-stopper Edmond Sumner (out, fractured hand) and newcomer guards Malcolm Brogdon and Jeremy Lamb (both back in action; Brogdon’s 96.0 FT% is 1st in NBA). When Victor Oladipo gets back up to speed, watch out! Hopefully, that won’t be until after December 13, when these teams meet up at State Farm Arena and the Hawks (4-whatever) will (knock on wood) have Kevin Huerter in tow by then. In the meantime, some more of that middle-quarters magic from Wednesday’s Milwaukee loss, spread out earlier and later in this contest, could help Atlanta enjoy a much more favorable conclusion before hitting the skies for Houston tonight. At least DeAndre’ Bembry can’t foul Sumner this time around. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  11. “Popeyes says there are only 50 Cajun Turkeys left!” Y’all know Bud and the Bucks well by now. (I hear Khris Middleton may be back already, too? Smarvelous.) On travel today, so chime in throughout the day with game notes and thoughts as you wish. Our Hawks, of course, will kickstart a 3-game road swing in Milwaukee (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Wisconsin), and they'll try to make it out of the rest of this week with their feathers un-plucked. Pardon us, Giannis and Harden! Please stay safe out there on the highways and byways, and enjoy all the Stuffing (some, I hear, like to call it Dressing) as your heart desires tomorrow. Bucks Game Notes (PDF): https://www.nba.com/gamenotes/bucks.pdf Hawks Game Notes (PDF): https://www.nba.com/gamenotes/hawks.pdf Happy Thanksgiving to you and yours. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  12. “Not quite fishes ‘n loaves, but maybe I can feed the masses with slices!” Ryan Cameron was saving the best for last. The Hawks’ hype-man announcer cycled through all the usual names at the player intros for the Atlanta Hawks’ Tip-Off 2011 fan event – Marvin Williams, Zaza Pachuuuuuliaaaaa, J-Smoove, J-J-J-J-Joe Johnson. Some familiar faces in new places – Tracy McGrady, Jerry Stackhouse. The odd ones, too – Vladimir Radmanovic, Magnum Rolle, Ivan Johnson, Donald Sloan. Fans clapped politely, but Cameron knew, they were saving their energies. Due to the Lockout, fans had waited seven months to celebrate their newest savior. “Hawks fans, here he is,” Cameron piped up, as fans stood up on their feet without any need for prompting, “your breakout star from the 2011 Playoffs… JEFF TEAGUE!” Josh Smith’s three-point block to end the Hawks’ first-round hex, back in April of that year, had Atlanta’s playoff crowd in a frenzy, and Joe certainly had his moments of tricky-dribble, big-shot grandeur. But the Pop level inside Philips Arena, even at half-capacity, hadn’t been this loud for anyone in years, not since a young Zaza and Al were running the bloviating Celtics out of town on a rail. Certainly, not at the outset of a new season. “Jeff Teague will do.” That was the lukewarm sentiment for the 21-year-old rookie a decade ago, whenever Mike Woodson needed to spell a well-worn Mike Bibby during one-sided affairs. Also, from fans who really wanted a Jrue Holiday or a Ty Lawson to fall to the Hawks in 2009’s Draft, or for the team to boldly trade up for international teen dream Ricky Rubio, or Brandon Jennings, that Curry kid, or a real sure-shot, like Tyreke Evans. Teague’s no Jonny Flynn, many draftniks thought. But he’ll do. Mike Bibby got traded away so Kirk Hinrich could guide Larry Drew’s Hawks into the postseason. It worked, in the first round upset of the Magic. But then, Hinrich got hurt, so… I suppose, we’ll just make-do with Jeff Teague. No one, least of all the top-seeded Bulls, was ready for the stretches where Teague was going bucket-for-bucket with the league’s MVP, Derrick Rose. Jeff never led the Hawks in scoring, but it was his fearlessness on the court that grabbed all the attention during the six-game series. His valiance earned him the praise of critics and fans alike, as well as a permanent starting spot on a playoff-caliber roster that seemed unfathomable months before. We don’t tank enough to get our hands on the D-Roses of the world, so pulling for Jeff will have to do. It would be several years, and several seasons of first-round exits, before Teague would draw audible adulation at the scale he received on that wintry 2011 day. At the height of the very, merry month of January 2015, he stripped an emerging MVP candidate point guard, Russell Westbrook, at mid-court and raced to the cup to seal the win during a rare nationally televised game at Philips Arena. His latest Hawks coach, Mike Budenholzer, and the staff had Teague’s bug eyes lighting up like Ember Moon’s, and the guard’s stewardship during Atlanta’s legendary, month-long undefeated campaign made his credentials, and those of three teammates, impossible for All-Star-voting coaches to ignore. Alas, it would not be much longer before Hawks fans would say, “Jeff Teague will have to do, until Dennis Schröder is ready to take over.” Teague never could elevate his performance, or his team, to coast above the landmines laid by LeBron over the years. But he was good enough to get his teams into postseasons. For teams like the Indiana Pacers, who were doing all they could to cling to superstar Paul George, and for the Minnesota Timberwolves, who needed a veteran presence on a palatable deal to caddy for their young upstarts, Playoff Teague would do, just fine. “He’s no Rubio,” Wolves fans would mutter upon his arrival in the Twin Cities. “But he’ll do.” In the nine NBA seasons, and eight years of postseason appearances, that began with him Wally Pipp’ing Captain Kirk in the 2009 Playoffs, Jeff has started in all but six games. The only player on the Timberwolves that was born before that franchise’s first-ever NBA game, Teague graces his old court tonight, facing his old fans and his old team (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports North in MSP), with the clear knowledge that this is his final season as a full-time starter in the league. New Wolves exec Gersson Rosas understands that, to his fanbase, Jeff Teague in the starting lineup for 2020-21 won’t do, not any longer. Teague will be a free agent, anyhow, as the flat three-year, $19 million annual deal he signed with his hometown Pacers in 2017 is set to expire this summer. But going forward, Teague will enter 2020’s free agent market as a 32-year-old whose best value is as a handsomely-paid reserve and emergency valve. Teams that would consider wheeling and dealing with Rosas, beginning in mid-December as the trade market expands, wouldn’t plan on acquiring Teague, as a starter, to eke them into the postseason. Particularly, given the downturn in Jeff’s production and reliability over the past season plus. Injuries beleaguered Teague into missing half of last season with Minnesota (36-46, 11th in the West), while his 52.8 TS% and .085 WS/48, 12.1 PPG and 1.0 SPG were the lowest values since his second year biding his time on Atlanta’s bench. Still, whenever Ryan Saunders could have turned to Rose, Jeff’s fateful teammate last season, as a starter at the 1-spot, Minnesota’s head coach decided that Teague, when healthy, would do just fine. And Teague remains a steady source for assists, as exhibited by his 7.7 APG this season (t-8th in NBA). His 35.4 assists per 100 possessions currently ranks 5th among PGs, a shade behind Rubio’s 35.7. He still has his moments of prominence, like the season-high 21-point, 11-assist effort last Monday to help Minnesota top their division rivals in Utah. A trio of his dimes for three-point buckets, two to Wolves All-Star center Karl-Anthony Towns (career-highs of 26.4 PPG, 12.4 RPG, 1.2 SPG, 59.0 2FG%, 44.9 3FG%), plus six points of his own in the closing seven minutes, helped the Wolves pull away in the clutch. But the “Teague-over” flashes are fewer and farther apart, the victory in SLC being the sole win for Minnesota (8-8, 8th in NBA West) in their past five games. Ignoring his middle name of Demarco, frustrated T-Wolf fans have taken to initializing their starting ballhandler as “JFT”, and the F doesn’t stand for “Flash.” They’d love for Jeff to go to town(s) feeding Karl-Anthony even more, especially inside (9.8 paint points per-48 for Towns, less than Trae Young’s 10.0 and Damian Jones’ 10.2; 20.0 Roll-Man possession percentage, lowest among bigs with at least 4 such possessions per game). In fairness to them both, it’s tough to get Minnesota’s offense flowing (105.7 O-Rating, 24th in NBA, one spot ahead of Atlanta’s 105.4) when they’ve got Andrew wiggin’ out. There have been few high-usage, low-efficiency, low-production players more notorious than Andrew Wiggins, but the good news is that last season’s play (career-lows of 49.3 TS% and 12.4 PER), so far, looks like the nadir. Wiggins’ current 28.6 usage% is insanely high, but he is pouring in a career-high 25.2 PPG (14th in NBA), taking jumpers closer to the basket (19% of shots being 2FGAs beyond 10 feet, down from 30% last year and 39% in 2016-17), while threatening to exceed a 2-to-1 assist-turnover ratio. Saunders has encouraged Wiggins to take better shots and make wiser decisions with the basketball in his hands. But the trade-off has been Teague (2-for-9 FGs and 6 assists in the Jazz-Wolves rematch at Target Center just two days later, an 8-point loss) resorting to reticence, and the 6-foot-11 Towns (9.1 3FGAs/game, 8.4 2FGAs/game) parking at the 3-point arc. Injuries have sapped Minnesota’s depth lately, although they will be glad to have Robert Covington (missed Saturday’s 100-98 home loss to Phoenix due to bereavement) back in the starting lineup. Forward Jake Layman has been out with a toe injury, and guard Shabazz Napier (hammy) is doubtful to return to action tonight, while Josh Okogie (knee) and Treveon Graham (forearm) are listed as questionable. You’d be forgiven if you saw the shooting splits of 36.7/28.1/34.5 (yes, the latter is free throws) and concluded that Cam Reddish’s offense was already a lost cause. Those are the present numbers for a highly hyped lottery pick from last year’s Draft. Only those belong not to Reddish, but to Jarrett Culver, the shooting guard taken four picks earlier by Phoenix to send to Minnesota in a Draft-night trade deal. Hawks fans already know it would be premature for anyone to look at Cameron Johnson’s early sweet-shooting exploits with the Suns and brand the Culver deal as some huge, franchise-defining draft mistake. Not that anyone would resort to such things. In a rematch of sorts from the National Championship game, Culver will get to see, from the Hawks’ De’Andre Hunter (last 3 games: 23.7 PPG, 55.6 3FG%), that it won’t take much to turn a corner. He can also look to Reddish himself. Much maligned for being lost on the offensive end of the floor, Reddish has scored in double digits in his past three games (14.0 PPG, a less-scary 39.5 FG%), and went 3-for-3 on triples against the Bucks. Probable to play after a sprained wrist caused him to miss a couple games, Cam, like Culver, stays on the floor because of his defensive utility. Rosas bid adieu to the likes of Rose and Dario Saric, then acquired Napier and Culver to join a returning Covington and Josh Okogie, in hopes of strengthening the defense around Towns and Wiggins (career-high 1.2 BPG). The results are increasingly promising as the Wolves held the Jazz and Suns below 105 points and 41 percent shooting (a season-low 34.4 FG% for Phoenix, who won anyway) in each of the past three games. With Covington back in the fold, it may just be a matter of somebody properly commandeering the offense. Jeffrey? The New Breed of floor leaders that teams prefer running the show are either zippy and splashy, a la Trae (4-for-11 3FGs in his triple-double vs. MIL, after a 7-for-33 run the prior 5 games), strong and aggressive, crafty and creative, or, in many cases, hardly a traditionally trained guard at all. Jeff doesn’t fall neatly into any of those boxes. But what he can be, either next year or by this winter’s Trade Deadline, is an upgrade over the league’s current class of backup veteran ballhandlers. Teague’s current salary is a bit too steep for a backup PG, but that would also be the case for Atlanta’s current stopgap, Evan Turner, an opponent Teague delightfully toyed with in the 2015 Playoff series with the Pacers, who presently gets paid under a million dollars less while doing nearly a million things less. Young has been, and will continue to be, fantastic on many occasions in Atlanta. But for the Hawks (4-12) to eventually get out from under the NBA’s doormat, in the years to come, they’ll need a veteran backup for Trae who is not a defensive sieve, and/or for whom risk aversion is a positive asset. If Jeff Teague saves his next contract for his last one, you know what? He just might do. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  13. Gonna tell my kids this was Drew Carey. Can you say, “Schedule Loss?” The reigning NBA champions have spent the end of this week in Atlanta, watching the Hawks saunter out and in of Hartsfield-Jackson after getting smashed like a Cybertruck window in Detroit. Maybe the one thing that could slow down Nick Nurse’s Toronto Raptors, tonight, would be the dreaded ATL Flu. Either that, or, the sin of looking a bit too far ahead. Don’t mind all the Raptors fans helping to pack State Farm Arena if they seem a bit preoccupied, but the big game isn’t tonight’s affair (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, TSN Up Nawf), it’s two days from now. The Philadelphia 76ers will be at Scotiabank Arena, and even in November, it’s hard not to hype that game up as a preview for a huge NBA Playoffs rematch. Having made mincemeat of the Magic (113-97) and the Hornets (132-96) in recent days, Toronto (10-4) would love to take advantage of an extra day’s rest against a Hawks team that just played in Michigan less than 24 hours ago. Undefeated at home, the Raptors have had to soldier on in recent weeks without heart-and-soul point guard Kyle Lowry (thumb fracture). Lowry’s prime backup, due to Nurse’s dual-PG starting unit featuring Fred Van Vleet, Patrick McCaw had knee surgery as is out until at least December. Up front, Serge Ibaka is doubtful to play due to an ankle injury, along with lightly used rookie Dewan Hernandez (thumb) and free agent acquisition Stanley Johnson (groin). Unlike the reigning champs on the Western Conference side of the league, there remains enough championship competency on the floor for the Raps to compete every night. That includes Van Vleet (17.6 PPG, 7.6 APG, 39.4 FG%), the Finals hero who will be the next NBA player to try his hand at getting AND1 sneakers out of WalMart bins. There’s OG Anunoby, a clear front-runner to seize Pascal Siakam’s Most Improved Player trophy (12.2 PPG, 62.1 2FG%, 52.0 3FG%, 5.4 RPG, 1.1 BPG). Norman Powell has improved his production since sliding into the starting five, as has backup swingman Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, previously dog-housed by Nurse, along with Johnson, due to a lack of defensive intensity. Center Marc Gasol is having the worst statistical run of his career, which absolutely no one cares about (6.4 PPG, 27.7 2FG%, 41.5 3FG%, 3.1 APG) thanks to the NBA and FIBA gold he picked up over the summer. Get a rocking chair out there at the top of the 3-point arc for Big Spain, he’s earned it. In the middle of it all, there’s Siakam (25.1 PPG, 8.8 RPG, 4.1 APG), who has comfortably elevated into Honorable Mention MVP territory, since Toronto had a Leonard who changed his spot. To keep the floor spread for Siakam, Nurse has been able to plug-and-play Anunoby and human bucket rookies Terence Davis (48.5 3FG%) and Matt Thomas (56.5 3FG%). All the proficient outside shooting options has Toronto leading the league with a 40.1 team 3FG%. This isn’t just a stand-still offense, either. Keyed by VanVleet, Toronto puts pressure on opposing rims with a league-best 20.2 fastbreak points per-48. Allowing just 11.1 per-48 the other way, the +9.1 net on fastbreak possessions blows away the entire league (the Budball Bucks’ +5.0 is the only team remotely close). The Raps’ success scoring from deep coaxes opponents into trying to keep up (NBA-high 38.6 opp. 3FGAs), taking unwise, rushed and well-contested jumpers to deleterious effect (33.0 opp. 3FG%, 7th-lowest in NBA) while making Gasol and Siakam’s jobs simple (NBA-high 38.2 D-Rebs per game). The bouncy Chris Boucher has pitched in well lately, too, with rebounding double-doubles in Toronto’s past two wins. Toronto’s foes are getting their share of extra-chance possessions (TOR’s 70.7 D-Reb% 28th in NBA, just ahead of Atlanta’s poor 70.0%), but they have been woefully unable to convert all those chances into points (13.4 opp. points per-48, barely above league average). Not everyone is healthy, not every key player is putting up All-Star boxscore numbers nightly, not every shot is going in, especially in the paint. But the way Toronto is structured and trained, not everything has to be going their way to win basketball games. Quite simply, a well-coached and experienced team like the Raptors pushes the ball up the court with a “Plan A” that’s comprehended by everyone on the floor, and they get back on defense like a team that has studied and knows their assignments well. They’ll play the Hawks (seven straight losses against TOR), who are, at this point, a team. “It isn’t just fighting,” Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce finally told the AJC and media members who camped out for an hour after the Hawks’ lackluster 128-103 defeat dropped the team to 4-11 on the season. Competition at this level, LP shared, is “talking, it’s getting back (defensively), it’s the effort, it’s ball reversal, it’s execution, it’s attacking downhill, and creating shots for one another.” Basically, it’s what the Raptors have been doing, with or without Lowry and others available, to be worthy of staying among the NBA East’s Big 5. Fullcourt communication, with players trying to sort things out and do too much individually, is always an issue on younger teams, which is why Pierce grins-and-bears more of Vince Carter (1-for-6 FGs, 4 TOs, minus-29 in 9.5 minutes) on the floor than he would normally stomach. Relying on Allen Crabbe (29.4 3FG%, 1 assist in his first 88 minutes back on the floor), Alex Len, Damian Jones, and/or Chandler Parsons (a not-bad 3 steals and 8 points in 16 garbage minutes @ DET) for veteran stability, particularly on matters of offensive play and defensive execution, has had exactly the effect one would come to expect. Allowing the Raptors legend and 21-year veteran, Carter, to retire with some dignity at season’s end will require more effective direction from the young contributors, and not only the ones with experience from past seasons, like Trae Young and DeAndre’ Bembry (career-highs of 22 points and 4 steals, 4-for-5 3FGs, 6 assists @ DET). Accompanying any lottery rookie blessed with 25+ minutes of gametime per night is the understanding that he will acclimate, to the speed and demands of the pro game, and assert himself as a collaborative leader swiftly. De’Andre Hunter (career-high 4 assists, but 2 rebounds in 35 minutes @ DET) and Cam Reddish (DNP’d on Friday, questionable today with a left wrist sprain) have offered hints that they will not just wait their turn to make positive impressions on the game. Going forward, for Atlanta to get out of the quicksand of their own making, this is no time for Hunter (1 block and 1 steal in past four games) or Reddish to stand to the side and watch as flawed veterans pull them in. Toronto’s offensive efficiency away from home (104.4 road O-Rating, 10th-lowest in NBA) hasn’t been much better than Atlanta’s (104.3, including last night’s fiasco, 9th-lowest in NBA). The Raptors don’t attack the offensive glass as much (NBA-low 20.9 road O-Reb%), trusting the reliability of their perimeter shots to carry the day, and their turnover rate goes up to 16.7% (t-7th-highest in NBA), compared to 14.0% at home (7th-lowest in NBA). At the end of their last five-game road trip, this time last week, the Raptors lost in Lukaville, 110-102 (57-45 in the second half). Young Master Doncic helped himself to the charity stripe (15-for-19 FTs), to the ball (15 rebounds, 7 assists), and just about anything else he wanted. Basically, Doncic was like a guest in his own home against the Raps, and one can only hope Trae (45.2 home FG% and 9.0 APG; 41.4% and 8.3 on the road) will enjoy similar treatment. Some clearer-eyed refs whistling on Young’s behalf (6.0 home FTAs, 8.6 on road) wouldn’t hurt. While Hunter, Bembry and hopefully Reddish will have a role in slowing the Raptors’ from outside, and Bruno Fernando helps to encourage the high-posting Gasol to put the ball on the floor, teammates will need to be disruptive in the paint and with cross-court passes, creating an edge in the turnover battle. Young (1.6 SPG, t-11th in NBA with Bembry) and the rooks will need to make sure their veteran mates aren’t just sitting back in hopes of an easy defensive rebound. Atlanta will give themselves a shot in this contest if they’re not just starting possessions by retrieving the opponent’s ball from the net. Having been around town for a couple days, Nurse’s Raptors want to waltz into State Farm Arena (four straight wins here) and perform like a team that has made itself at home, undressing Atlanta (minus-16.7 1st Qtr Net Rating, 2nd-worst in NBA), enough in the opening half to make a dress rehearsal, for the Sixers, out of the second half. It’s up to the Hawks to remind Toronto, everyone else and, most importantly, themselves, whose house it is, anyway. Whether it’s from their experiences here in recent days, or the next game on their schedule back home, an abstracted Raptors team can be tripped up. But which Hawks are willing to pull the Welcome Mat out from under these visitors remains to be seen. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  14. OK, Boomer. Leave. Doc. Rivers. Alone! Everything’s all lined up for the LA Clippers’ jack-in-the-box kazillionaire owner Steve Ballmer. The reigning Finals MVP and the biggest prize from the 2018 free agent class, Kawhi Leonard, now suits up for him. Third in last year’s MVP voting, Paul George engineered a move to come play with Kawhi, too. PG’s shoulder is now healthy enough that he can play in his Staples Center premiere as a Clipper, tonight against the Atlanta Hawks (10:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Prime Ticket). Pat Beverley, with these two SoCal superstars, can form as sound a defensive trio as you’ll find anywhere in The Association. Throw in perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, six-foot-seven sugar cube Montrezl Harrell and a slew of contributors that know their roles well. Ballmer has the Clip Joint poised in perfect position to face off with his cross-arena rivals, the Los Angeles LeBronkers, for supremacy in the Western Conference, if not the entire league, over the next two seasons. For Ballmer, the cash will be rolling in like never before. I’m not all that sure, frankly, if Doc Rivers is gonna be able to see this thing through. Sorry, but I just want longevity, fortune and happiness for all our ex-Hawk greats, particularly after the players “retire.” And I’ve never worried so much about poor Glenn running himself into the ground. Now in his third decade of head-coaching in the NBA, Doc has over 1,500 games running the sidelines under his belt, not counting nearly 900 games he logged, spread out over 13 seasons, as a pro player. These days, he gets the pleasure of coaching his Clippers team against players like his son, Austin, and his new son-in-law, Seth Curry. This man has survived getting traded by his Hawks to the LAughingstock Clippers way back in 1991, an appetizer for skeptical Hawks fans a few years before Nique was served up as the main course. He survived watching Charles Smith wall-ball away his last big shot at a title, as a starter, with the Knicks against the ’93 Bulls. Before hanging up his jersey at age 34, he survived Rainbow Brite Rodman on the Spurs. As a first-year head coach, he survived a roster stacked with unknowns Ben Wallace, John Amaechi and Michael Doleac, earning Coach of the Year honors after breaking even with 41 wins in post-Shaq Orlando. He survived spurning would-be Magic star Tim Duncan’s request for family members to fly in the team’s plane, because Rules, and should-be star Grant Hill’s brittle body breaking down before his eyes. He survived three declining years as a coach in Boston and was rewarded with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen along the way to 2008’s NBA title. He survived Allen seeking out greener pastures in Miami, and the perpetual strain of keeping Ref-Bumper Rondo in check. He survived Danny Ainge effectively shopping him to LA, a team that needed his coaching magic to rub off on Chris Paul and Blake Griffin. He survived the Sterlings. The Sterlings! He survived the added duty of being basketball-ops president for three seasons, chasing free agents in the summer, trying to keep the Clippers’ contention afloat. He survived DeAndre’ Jordan nearly bailing for Dallas in the middle of it all. He survived the side-eyes gained from signing and playing Austin for years. He survived Ballmer, through executive Lawrence Frank, blowing the whole thing up, beginning in the summer of 2017 with the CP3 trade. He survived every NBA lockout period. Before all of this, heck, he survived growing up in Chicagoland. Look at the man. Does that look like a guy that has yet to see age 60? Father Time is unkind to us all, but geez. Is that Doc, or Dikembe? Ignore the carefully scrawled “hair” line. I mean this out of pure, nostalgic Hawksfan love: Doc is looking rough, folks. That’s a walking antacids billboard, right there, no cap. I’d rather Rivers be sitting outside, in his yard, yelling at a cloud, not inside, at Tony Brothers, a few dozen nights per year. I’d much prefer Doc giving his money away at the roulette tables, not doling it out by the tens of thousands to Kiki Vandeweghe nearly every time he’s asked for his opinion. Coach Kenny knows what I’m talking about. “You want me to go Doc Rivers on ya?”, Atkinson quipped just this past weekend, the Nets coach pressed by media for his unmitigated “opinion,” about the new greenlight coaches’ challenge rule. “I don’t love it, because I don’t want to be focusing on the referees when I coach.” That, and Kenny’s securing his bag. I mean, c’mon, that man has a family to feed! As does Rivers, as his kids marry Curries and add even more doe-eyed crumb-snatchers to Grampaw Doc’s stable. One minute, you’re smitten with love and unbridled passion. The next minute, you’ve got one kid throwing her arms around this whippersnapper who buries threes on your team’s heads, and another kid egging on the refs, and the crowd, to get you tossed from his arena. “You’re not the boss of us, Paw!” “The refs screwed up,” Doc Don’t Lie told reporters after his Clippers succumbed to James Harden and company in Houston’s 102-93 win on Wednesday. Minutes before, late in the fourth quarter, he challenged an out-of-bounds call. You were right, the refs assured him, but you were a split-second too slow to hit the Greenlight thingamajig, so the errant call stands. However, Doc, good news! We saved money on our car insurance, and you get to keep the timeout you would have forfeited, had your challenge failed. With two timeouts in his pocket and the game hanging in the balance, he calls for one with 90 seconds remaining, only to have Brothers advise him he’s now fresh out of them. “No,” Doc recalls Terrible Tony telling him, “when you called that timeout, you lost it.” No, Tony, Doc will now show you what “losing it” really looks like. What is this, The New Ref Math? Rivers was left looking like the red homie on “Inside Out.” The Rockets’ Austin, probably last chastised by his pops for breaking some expensive vase after being warned not to play ball in the house, could not contain his glee as it was unfolding. You hate to love to see it. In the heat of the moment, I’m just happy Doc didn’t have a helmet to hurl at Tony B. and the Boyz. Fined tens of thousands for ripping the refs… in 2009. In 2013. In 2014. In 2016. In 2018, as Doc’s googol-aire boss watches on in sympathetic solidarity. He’ll get fined, yet again, for his consistent statements on how awful Brothers and his notoriously ratchet brethren are at their jerbs, especially when their egos can’t allow them to own up to blatant mistakes. Doc gets fined for the “inconsistent” statements, too, like earlier this month, about how the injury-managed Leonard (DNP’d on the back-to-back Thursday in New Orleans) is feeling nowadays. “Good morning, how are you today, Klaw?” “Oh, never been better! I’m literally feeling… fine!” Fifty thousand dollars fine, to be exact. “Tell me, Doc, you played against MJ in your day, how does free agent Kawhi compare to His Airness?” He doesn’t even get a penny for his thoughts, but Doc is always expected to give up a dollar when he shares them. Now, what about Pop, you might ask? Gregg’s a different case. First, he’s made it all the way through his 60s, and the man’s got it made. After all, he’s got RINGZ. Plural. He’ll probably get a nice medal in Tokyo next year, too, just for occasionally glaring and pouting and pointing and smart-azz-ing sideline reporters while The Real Dream Team steamrolls Angola or somebody (sorry, Bruno). You think failing to win another NBA title while putting LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay on Front Street is going to tarnish Pop’s legacy, or threaten his job-for-life-if-he-chooses status one iota? You think he stresses over that, either way? Nah, Coach Pop is more of a tenured dean, while Doc is merely an accomplished professor who catches flak from the regents for occasionally going nutty. I think the coaches’ association and the AARP ought to swing a special deal for folks like Pop and Doc. If you’ve reached a certain age, maybe 55, and you can claim at least one NBA ring as a head coach, you get a 75% discount on all fines levied by the league for your ref-rants. Or, for just about anything about which you can’t hold your tongue. So long as you’re not, like, imperiling players and staff overseas with the threat of extrajudicial imprisonment or flogging or bonesaws by offering your views, have at it. Spo, Nurse, Steve, hang on for just a couple more years. Bud, you’ve still got work to do. Rivers does have a near All-Star array of reliable assistant coaches at his side: former Hawks guards Armond Hill and Tyronn Lue, and Sam Cassell most notably. Already having contemplated retirement back in 2011 with Boston before deciding to stick around, I would prefer Doc nominate a successor for future seasons, after NBA win number 1,000 arrives, and get the baton-passing process underway, sooner rather than later. In the meantime, having a healthy PG and Kawhi balling out for him, maybe even together at times, will help the Clippers’ anxiety-burdened coach get through the next 70-plus games a little better. George fell just short of the scoring marks held by Cassell (35), Phil Smith and (don’t remind us) Nique (34 each), by scoring 33 in his Clipper debut on Thursday, a 132-127 loss to the Pels that dropped LA to 7-5 on the season. The argument I made about the Clips’ stout defensive potential is not so much “on paper” as it is on damp, no-frills bathroom tissue. LA has won just one contest in which they’ve allowed more than 102 points to the opposition, and that was to Golden State back on October 24. When Kawhi (26.8 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.1 SPG) plays, the Clipper D has tended to hold firm. In the three games he hasn’t, and Doc has to turn to Harrell or LouWill as a lead scorer, the results (0-3, 123.7 opp. PPG, 43.7 opp. 3FG%) haven’t been pretty. Even when Kawhi has contributed, if the Clippers get sloppy defending perimeter shooters as they did in October 26’s 130-122 loss at Phoenix (17-for-43 on 3FGs), they can get burned. George was on hand as they gave up a season-worst 52.9 3FG% on 34 Pelican shots. Surely, with PG and Kawhi (3rd and 4th among active NBA players for SPG) as an on-floor duo, the Clips (98.7 D-Rating in wins, 114.4 in losses) will get better at defensive consistency. We just have yet to see it unfold. Lloyd Pierce knows all about the Suns’ newfound mastery of the long ball. He also knows when his team is getting screwjobbed, one whistle at a time. “10 of the same offensive fouls,” Pierce noted after Atlanta (4-7) was left to sulk through the end of their 128-112 loss in Phoenix on Thursday night. “When our bigs are rolling, and you (random Suns cactus) step underneath our bigs, it’s tough.” Still pretty new to the game as a head coach, Pierce is trying to tip-toe through the media minefield to avoid fine-leveling criticism, much like his bigs and rookies look on their graceless drives into the paint. Cam Reddish may look like Gene Kelly without an umbrella on his forays to the basket, but maybe he’s onto something. He drew two flagrant rookie-call fouls while Bowling for Big Men, and he got to join DeAndre’ Bembry in hitting the showers early. The already short-handed Hawks were about done at that juncture. “Not a fun game,” said LP to postgame reporters, “That’s all I got.” Smart man, Lloyd. Secure the bag. Pierce, like Rivers, is not going to skirt around his team’s on-court failings (13 missed at-rim 2FGs after the 1st quarter; letting folks like Oubre, Saric and Kaminsky go awf) just to center blame on the greyshirts for losses. Against the Clipshow, with two stars likely on the floor together for the first time, Pierce is going to need his longest-tenured Hawk, Bembry, on his best behavior. Assertive, but not prone to wasting his aggressions out on the Ricky Rubios and Pat Beverleys of the world. Bembry ought to leave it to Trae Young to get under these vets’ skin, or through their legs, as the case may be. One of the early signs we had that Trae was starting to grab a toehold on the league came at an exasperated Beverley’s expense, here at Staples, back in January. On the way to a 123-118 victory, Young treated us with a fine offensive performance (26 points, 8-for-11 2FGs, 8 assists, 1 TO), the rookie leaving Bev and just about anyone assigned to him befuddled. Even Alex Len got in on the act, outperforming 6MOY candidate Harrell off the bench with 19 points, 9 boards and a trio of assists in just under 21 minutes. Len’s recent play in his return to a bench role, at Denver and Phoenix, offers tantalizing hope for the Hawks’ future rotations, once starters John Collins and Kevin Huerter and some vet reserves get back up to speed. The Hawks (29.5 O-Reb%, 3rd in NBA) are one of the few teams currently out-doing the Clippers (29.4 O-Reb%, 3rd in NBA) on the offensive glass. Beverley will need help from George and Leonard to force turnovers, keeping Young from getting shots off and cleanly passing to open teammates. But the pressure will be on Ivica Zubac, Harrell and the Clipper bigs to box out and terminate Atlanta possessions with sound rebounds and outlets. Drawing fouls (24.9 personals/game) more than any team other than the Suns (26.0) this season, the Clippers have been treated to more free throw tries than any team without a Giannis or a Harden on the roster, and they just got George (5th in league for FTAs last season) back in the fray. If they can slow the game down and wear down the Hawks early with whistles to open up a sizable lead, Atlanta will be tempted to save its energies for tomorrow in this same venue, when (maybe) LeBron and (maybe) Anthony Davis will be waiting. Doc Rivers’ stellar NBA playing career, including an All-Star appearance in 1988 as a Hawk (we saving his number’s retirement ceremony for Alex Len, or…?), doesn’t pass muster for a spot in Springfield. But his coaching career does pass the smell test. I ask, do you want Austin mumbling through a posthumous induction speech on his dad’s behalf? Of course not. You’ll want to enjoy unvarnished, fine-me-later-if-you-still-can tales and commentary, straight from Doc’s mouth. That’s why, as appreciative Hawks fans, we need to keep Doc’s wellness and his wallet, as he sails the next two championship campaigns amid the rough, unforgiving seas of LA and the national media, in our thoughts and prayers. Yikes, that’s not a good look, Glenn. Is there a small-d doc in the house? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  15. “Wet, Like I’m Book!” You ever dance to Mambo No. 8? Me neither. It’s Season No. 5 for Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker. When it comes to breaking through, as an All-Star, as a playoff-caliber standout, Booker hopes his Season No. 5 will be a huge, international hit. And rightfully so. NBA fans get in our feelings whenever our highly touted draft picks aren’t ready-made stars, or at least reliable contributors, fresh out of the box after five games, five weeks, five months. Our teams popped the champagne over the summer that whatever woes they’ve suffered over the past few years are firmly behind us, because The Commish shook your hand and handed you some (other) team’s baseball cap. No matter whether you’ve reached legal drinking age, the hangover effect for us fans arrives quickly. I like to pretend I’m more of a teetotaling, sober, patient fan. But I’m also of the strident opinion that by Season No. 5, if you, hyped Lottery pick, haven’t emerged as a legitimate NBA star and a franchise face (for good reasons) for your team, if you are not playing in lockstep with a stable management and coaching regime by then, well, I’m sorry, that plan’s just not going to work out for you. A career of journeyman travels across the states and provinces of North America, hardball negotiations for trade-bait contracts, and fans annually heralding some future draftee as your replacement awaits. The 13th pick from the 2015 Draft, Booker (25.3 PPG; 51.0 3FG%, 10th in NBA, say NOTHING to him about Evansville) has poured in the second-most points of his Draft class, and the second-most assists. He ought to be a rockstar in 28 NBA cities and several nations by now. Instead, he’s been more of a very good, one-note local lounge singer. Partially, that’s because of being cursed with competing in the wrong Conference for upstart young stars. More significant, it’s due to having already cycled through four coaching headmasters (Jeff Hornacek, Earl Watson, Jay Triano, Igor Kokoskov) during his first half-decade in the pros. Plus, a pair of 30-ish executives who didn’t quite know what they were doing. (“Hold the phone. Are we getting Dillon, MarShon, or Mel Brooks?”) Fortunately, the book hasn’t closed shut on D-Book yet, because his second Suns GM, James Jones, has begun to get the gist of his duties. Beginning with the offseason ouster of Igor, his prior’s hire, and subsequent offer to Monty Williams to become head honcho. “I said to (Devin) that, ‘I want to help you become a household name. Right now, you aren’t because of all the organizational stuff,” said Williams, who offers his Full Monty critique tastefully but without sugarcoating. “But you have the talent.” Williams knows a thing or two about coaching talent. At post-Katrina New Orleans, Coach Monty bridged Chris Paul’s search for the exits and the arrival of #1 pick Anthony Davis. His Season No. 5 as head coach of the Hornicans began with a caveat by a desperate, aging owner. Make the postseason, or else. Mission accomplished – 45 wins in 2014-15, despite Davis and a slew of starters missing between a dozen and 40 games, despite plugging Omer Asik at center to appease AD’s wish not to shoulder the burdens of a starting five – and a competitive sweep at the hands of the 67-win eventual NBA champs. Job secured. Or, so he thought. The retired nine-year NBA vet, having gained extra recognition around the league as a player’s coach after he and his wife went above-and-beyond to counsel a grieving Ryan Anderson, was on the outs, as New Orleans chased after the eventual champs’ lead assistant to take over. Fate dealt a more severe blow to Williams mere months after taking an associate head coach job with Russ-and-KD’s Thunder, when his wife was killed in OKC, and several kids injured, by a lane-crossing driver causing a head-on accident. Monty took time off, then accepted a front-office gig with the Spurs. But he knew his late wife would want him to continue pursuing his passion to be an NBA head coach again. After one season lead-assisting coach Brett Brown and Ben-and-Joel’s Sixers, he accepted the open gig in Phoenix. It was offered to him by Jones, who played in Portland when Williams was an assistant there. Having had to endure the CP3-to-LA saga(s), the knowledge that Booker has been devoted to see things through in Arizona has made it easier for Williams to accept auto-sigged checks from beleaguered owner Robert Sarver. Toward him and his teammates, Devin feels the devotion in return. “The culture around, you can feel it. You can feel it in the air. It started with Monty,” Booker told The Undefeated about his newest head coach. “His voice travels. I’ve been in situations where things coaches say is kind of discussed amongst players. But with Monty, it’s not like that. We all believe in him. He believes in us all the same. It’s really contagious.” Jones’ predecessor, Ryan McDonough, gambled when he sought out Jazz assistant Kokoskov, way-too-coincidentally, Lu Know Who’s Slovenian national coach, to take the reins a mere month before the 2018 Draft. But to the extent that it’s possible to get cold feet in the PHX, the Suns weren’t convinced that Doncic’s threats to stay at Real Madrid if he didn’t wind up with a team to his liking was mere bluffing. They instead went big with Deandre Ayton, who was thrilled just to get people’s minds off whatever cash Arizona’s Sean Miller was offering him under the table, at #1. McDon’tneedapointguard’s failings to secure a reliable ballhandler in the 2018 Draft, or via free agency, made Sarver’s urge to replace the GM with his handpicked successor in Jones, right as last season was to begin, a justifiable one. The Suns having drafted anyone other than Luka in the Lottery sealed Igor’s fate before it could really get started. Igor’s communication challenges with players, to say nothing of the media, made the quest to finish anything better than 19-63 a tall order. The upgrade to Williams has Phoenix (6-4) well on their way to leaving last season’s win total in the dust. Here at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Tuesday, Monty’s young guns stayed neck-and-neck with the vaunted Lakers until the closing minutes, when a trio of consecutive three-bombs by LeBron and Kyle Kuzma blotted out the Suns. They started the season with a bang, a 29-point home blowout of Sacramento, leaving many to wonder what had gotten into Ayton (18-and-11 plus 4 blocks). Ayton figured people would wonder, too, but his gamble to obscure whatever that was with a diuretic blew up on him (don’t laugh, John Collins; you got suspended for 25 games, too). Fortunately for Deandre, Jones and the Suns planned ahead. A top-7-protected first rounder from Phoenix pried former Al Horford backup Aron Baynes, plus developmental guard Ty Jerome (out, sprained ankle), from the Celtics during the summer. Eager to show he picked up a few tricks from his time with Boston (21-for-61 on threes last year with the Cs), Baynes has already passed his 3FG volume from last season, sinking half of his 44 attempts in just ten games. Aron has gone 10-for-18 from downtown during the first four contests in Phoenix’s six-game homestand, which continues tonight against the Atlanta Hawks (9 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona), and concludes next Monday with Boston in town. This past Sunday, the host Suns sunk a barrage of triples (19-for-42 3FGs) to beat the brakes off Brooklyn, 138-112. A team that finished last season (32.9 3FG% in 2018-19), and the 21-61 season before that (33.4 3FG% in 2017-18), dead-last in the league in three-point accuracy is flipping the script under Williams’ direction (38.8 team 3FG%, 3rd in NBA). 2018’s Draft saw the Suns trade back up into the Lottery to grab Mikal Bridges, a scrappy defensive wing who didn’t add much to the equation from the perimeter. This season, Jones and the Suns traded out of the Lottery altogether, passing up the opportunity to draft one Cameron to take the less-heralded, sweeter-shooting Cameron Johnson (3-for-8 3FGs vs. LAL on Tuesday; 40.0 3FG%) instead, getting Dario Saric (37.5 3FG%) from Minnesota as a throw-in. Aside from Ayton, who can’t do so yet, everybody’s gotten into the floor-spreading craze. Ricky Rubio (8.8 APG, highest average by any Sun since Steve Nash in 2011-12; 21-and-10 vs. LAL) was brought in by Jones to alleviate Booker and the Suns’ longstanding play-setting and defensive issues, not as much for his outside shooting prowess. But even his 1.3 triples per game, at a 40 percent clip, are currently career highs. Of the eight most active Suns in Williams’ rotations, all but Bridges are lofting three 3FG attempts per game, and all beside Bridges and Frank Kaminsky are hitting at a 35 percent clip or better. The availability of shooting threats across the floor at all times, and the reduced need to dribble the ball into oblivion, allows Booker to diversify his offensive approach. The reliability of perimeter shooters allows the Suns’ frontcourt to get back in defensive sets (PHX 6th in D-Reb%; 27th in O-Reb%) instead of crashing the offensive glass and risking exposure in transition (1.07 opp. points per transition possession, 9th-best in NBA; 24th last season). Stifling would-be shooters around the three-point arc, or at least knowing which personnel to leave open (quit hacking people, Nik the Slick), has been one of the fortes on the young season for Atlanta (4-6). Only foes of Miami (NBA-best 28.9 opp. 3FG%) and the Hawks (32.8 opp. 3FG%, 7th-best in NBA) have made less than a third of their long-distance attempts while taking 35 or more of them per game. The Nuggets were 11-for-41 on Tuesday night, and any defensive performance approaching this one while minimizing second-chance opportunities would allow Atlanta a chance to steal a second-straight road game. The iron is unkind to almost anyone on the Hawks not named Trae Young (8-for-13 3FGs @ DEN) or Kevin Huerter (3-for-3 3FGs, out for at least today with a shoulder injury). It’s a lot easier fighting for first-time backcourt All-Star fan votes when your surname begins with, say, a ‘B’, as opposed to a ‘Y’. Up-and-coming stars like Young have to make discerning fans want to scroll all the way down to check the box next to their names, and that means branding brains with a string of virtuoso performances like he had a couple days ago (42 points, 8-for-13 3FGs, 8-for-11 FTs, 11 assists @ DEN). But Young’s and Huerter’s Hawkmates could connect on just 4 of 18 attempts (half of those by rookie De’Andre Hunter) during Tuesday’s rousing 125-121 win in the Rocky Mountain air. The Suns know of Trae’s teammates’ desire to get open inside to compensate, particularly the rim-stapling Jabari Parker (67.7 2FG%, 2nd in NBA; 20 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists @ DEN), a guy who never got to see Season No. 5 in Milwaukee, or even No. 2 in Chicago. Lacking a shotblocker with Ayton waitin’, Phoenix will scrap and claw for steals but commit a lot of fouls (24.8 personals per-48, second-most in NBA). So Atlanta (22-for-34 FTs @ DEN) will have to avoid giving certain Squawkers heartburn troubles tonight by sinking the free throws they’re handed. I’ll skip the chimichangas, thanks. It’s notable that the second-leading free throw shooter (4-for-8 FTs) during the Hawks’ win over Denver is faintly familiar around Phoenix. “I wish I would have left after that third year,” with the Suns, said Alex Len, Pick No. 5 in 2013’s Draft, to Amico Hoops this past summer. By Season No. 5 of forlorn under-development with the club that made him their highest pick since 1987’s Armen Gilliam, Len was already perceived around Phoenix and the league as a lost cause. Deserted in the desert, the 2018 free agent approached this season, as an incumbent starter in Atlanta, as “The happiest I’ve been in a while.” Len suffered under the same instability that Booker had to deal with in Phoenix. But, at least for the time being, Len has benefited from a stable combo of coaching, conditioning and management that won’t be so easy to give up on him. Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce pointed at himself, not Len, for the latter’s brutal offensive struggles with the starting unit, finding him better suited as a reserve. Len rewarded LP and the Hawks with 17 vital points (6-for-8 FGs), 7 rebounds and a +18 plus-minus in 22 bench minutes on Tuesday. Bench scoring comes at a premium with Parker starting, in place of Collins, and several veterans under load oops did I say that aloud I mean injury management. But for four missed freebies, Alex would have been Atlanta’s third 20-point scorer on that night. Sarver’s old Suns regime could not have foreseen a performance like that from him, not in the NBA, and certainly not beyond Season No. 5. A couple years behind the Hawks’ organization, due to citywide skepticism, Sarver eventually finagled a $230 million arena renovation deal out of the city of Phoenix. Yesterday, he, Williams and Jones were on hand to break ground on a $45 million intown training complex for the team. Sarver hopes that, with the Jones-Williams pairing and Booker, armed with the max contract extension he signed in 2018, locked in, his Suns can get Ayton back soon and, with the improved supporting cast, surprise many with a charge toward the Suns’ first Western Conference playoff appearance in a decade. As for Devin, this is a make-or-break season to confirm his long-term worth in The Association. Phoenix’s prime All-Star prospect and All-NBA hopeful, Booker can make his owner, the GM, the new coach, the facility deals, and everyone around them smell much better to his team’s faithful fanbase. Time, for Booker, is of the essence. Why? Ever heard of Chanel No. 6? Exactly. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Season No. 5! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  16. “What? Where?? Wait, when was this???” – Alex Len Holy hot sauce, we’ve got some Louisiana lads squaring off tonight! I shall spare everyone my 21st annual, “Why Hasn’t Louisiana Tech Retired Paul Millsap’s Jersey Number?” fuss, for now. We’ve got bigger catfish to fry tonight. This time last year, Damian Jones was holding the fort as a starting center for the defending NBA champs, as was the plan, until Boogie Cousins could get upright and healthy. A year later, the pride of Baton Rouge is back with a top line and will be front-and-center at tip off when his Atlanta Hawks face another Bayou State baller, Uncle Paulie, and his red-hot Nuggets in Denver (9 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude TV if you can get it). This time, Jones will be holding the fort until… well, we will have to wait and see, won’t we? Nobody can convince me that climate change isn’t real, because I am the last soul here on Alex Len Fan Club Island, up high on the last standing tree, clinging precariously to a coconut. The NBA’s worst offensive big man and worst offensive starter so far this season (89.3 O-Rating, 5th-lowest among all NBA’ers w/ 15+ MPG and 5+ GP; 6.0 O-Reb%, 39.2 TS%), Len will get to come sit by coach Lloyd Pierce and Cam Reddish, as the Hawks try to not waste Trae Young’s considerable energy (sole NBA player in Top-10 for PPG, APG and SPG). Jones won’t be the last player to catch flak from his new team’s fans based on his previous place of employment. Many hoped he could bring some of that Dub Magic with him, pixie-dusting it onto his new mates. Instead, his Derp Tragic play during the Hawks’ preseason rendered him gravely disappointing and downright unplayable, in the minds of many, as the regular season commenced. Still, others have noted that the fourth-year center out of Vanderbilt has less than a full season of play, just 57 regular-season and 12 playoff appearances, under his belt, a great number of them unworthy of being categorized as much more than, “appearances”. The 24-year-old is as much a developmental player as anyone on Atlanta’s roster, although the pair of championship rings he carries can obscure that fact. Jones has put up binary boxscore lines throughout his early tenure in the pros. But, to his credit, he has shown a propensity for putting the Popeyes biscuit in the basket (68.2 2FG%, 77.8% at-rim; they do still have biscuits, I am told). And during Portland’s Baze-tastic 124-113 overtime win there were times, early on, where the race to be the best Damian on the court was surprisingly close. Jones’ seven boards were a career-high, and he came dangerously close to the fifth double-digit scoring effort of his career. Atlanta (3-6) has regressed in many measures during their current three-game skid, mostly due to the absence of John The Pharmacist, but the one area where they have maintained a decided advantage is in the paint points department. Thanks largely to a more seasoned and scrutinized 24-year-old, Renaissance Man Jabari Parker (27 points, 4 blocks and 11 rebounds, 12-for-17 2FGs @ POR), Atlanta’s 52.3 per-48 paint points rank third in the NBA, their +9.9 net edge in that area behind only one of Parker’s former clubs, Giannis’ Milwaukee (+11.3). That advantageous interior gap could be as wide as Lake Pontchartrain by now, one can imagine, if Len didn’t bring the arms and hands of a Turkish wrestler to the floor with him. Jones has gone six consecutive appearances where his personal plus-minus exceeded his team’s final margin, and so coach Pierce has decided that while Jones isn’t Mister Right, he is Mister Right Now. Until the Hawks can improve on their atrocious perimeter shooting (29.0 team 3FG%, somehow not dead-last in NBA), and horrendous free throw shooting (70.2 team FT%, somehow not dead-last in NBA), finishing interior plays is the way to go. The Nuggets’ offensive efficiency (103.7 O-Rating, 23rd in NBA) has been almost as bad as Atlanta’s (102.3, 27th in NBA), but for different reasons. Their 46.7 team 2FG% is somehow not dead-last, either, despite the third-highest two-point shot frequency (68.2% of all FGAs). Coach Mike Malone’s club has been living and dying by clutch threes, winning three of their past four games by four points or less. If the Hawks’ perimeter defenders show up at critical junctures, they could be the second Atlanta team with a losing record this week to catch a happy-go-lucky, seven-win opponent off-guard. On that note... Does the Louisiana native, Millsap, even like the Aints? All indications are that Paul has been as True to Atlanta as any former Hawks star. This past summer alone, you could catch him balling at the AEBL summer league, working with his brothers to keep their Core 4 Atlanta training facility running up in Chamblee. This month, he’s been named the regional development director for southside ATL’s longtime popular local eatery, “This Is It! Southern Kitchen and BBQ.” Heck, he’s one Dimitroff call away from becoming the Falcons’ fifth punter. Sap has been very, very good for Atlanta, but he has been indispensable for Denver (7-2, tied with the Lakers for 1st in the West). Almost every SportsCenter highlight has Millsap (12.1 PPG, 96.8 FT%, 47.8 3FG%) in the background doing his quiet superhuman routine. Fending off multiple defenders for a loose ball then kicking it out to Nikola: “Jokic with the BIG 3!” Flexing old-man hops to dunk on unsuspecting bigs in the post: “What a smart inbound pass by Jamal Murray (18.8 PPG, 4.2 APG, 2.9 TOs/game), spotting the mismatch.” Stripping a ball, or blocking a shot in the restricted zone, leading to the play that gets TV announcers’ attention on the Nuggets’ transition at the other end. Millsap’s opponents have suffered a minus-11.2 FG% differential within six feet of the hoop, third-best among Western bigs defending at least five such shots per game. The Nuggets will need Millsap, in tandem with guard Gary Harris and forward Jerami Grant, to be as disruptive as possible, to allow 24 Hour Fitness at Happy Hour model Jokic (16.7 PPG, 6.0 APG, 9.3 RPG) to shine when the game matters most. Replacing Len with Jones isn’t quite as controversial a switcheroo as bait-and-switching Frank Ocean with Drake at Camp Flog Gnaw, so the reaction among the Hawks fans for this latest starter switch will be supportive but tepid. But if Jones’ incremental improvement enlivens Atlanta’s offense around Young and the awakening Kevin Huerter, and improves the league’s worst defensive rebounding unit in away games (NBA-low 66.3 D-Reb%), starts during the Hawks’ current road trip might become more of a carnival atmosphere and less of a sideshow. Throw us somethin’, Mister Jones! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  17. KEEP PORTLAND WEIRD! Anybody crazy enough to do a deep dive into the annals of the Squawk’s dusty “NBA Trade Ideas” forum will find a LOT of Kent Bazemore mentions. Yes, they were often posted immediately after one of his infamous Headless Chicken plays while in uniform for the Atlanta Hawks. But the threads would also reflect our understanding that Baze, thorns and all, possessed significant NBA value. We didn’t stop posting ideas for Bazetrades over his five seasons in town, even after Kent wisely inked that four-year, $70 million deal in Atlanta’s pivotal (not so much because of him) 2016 summer of free agency. It was a deal that, at one time, would once render a moderate NBA talent immovable. Yet, Baze would not hesitate to catch-and-shoot an open jumper. Baze, to the extent it would be possible in his case, would hike up his shorts and get into a defensive stance, determined to force an offensive threat into an ill-advised pass, a deflection, a well-contested shot, or an offensive foul. Baze would do what he could to keep spirits up along the bench. Those elements, unlike the BazeGaze, were of grand worth to many NBA clubs, and astute Hawks fans suspected as much. A starting fifth-man, or a high-end reserve, hauling in 18 or 19 million smackeroos per year as he prepares to reach 30 years of age? That would be a no for most dawgs. But some might bite if their teams have a highly price-tagged player to dump, or if a swap could get themselves out of salary cap Hades in a year or two. I’m sure there were many Bazetrade ideas, because I posted more than my share of them. But I had another strategic carrot to dangle. It was essential, in my role as armchair GM, to woo Baze to teams in NBA markets that had the most eccentric denizens. My last failed attempt, “Laissez Lin Baze Temps Roulet?”, tried to get Kent and Jeremy to Aintsville in 2018, an idea gained probably after catching one of Dr. John’s records playing on alt-radio. The more flair that fans accept as part of everyday life, the more that Bazemore’s peculiarities would serve as a sweetener in a trade deal. And the only thing better than the late Dr. John’s vibe, in my mind, would be the late Dr. Jack’s pizzazz. I can find few better marriages of player and fans, respectively, than Kent Bazemore and the frolicking followers of the Portland Trail Blazers. The Hawks kick off their 8-day, 5-game West Coast road trip (9 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Northwest) in the town that was meant to have a Baze Craze. The people who know me, know well, that I know weird when I see it. At least from the first time Bill Walton stepped a giant foot in this town, Blazers fans have grown to accept that there will be times when their first major pro franchise would be competitive, and times where it would be run-of-the-mill. But they will accept no time in which the players they root for would be dull or, worse, normal. Kent just got there a few months ago, and already there he is, at the Blazers’ annual Fan Fest, holding up a trophy. He is not a guy that is going to win league-wide honors for player of the year, or month, or week, or hour. What the pride of Bertie, NC (10.4 career PPG, 3.8 career RPG in ATL) will do is collect a closetful of honoraria for his civic engagement and local philanthropy, when he is not on an NBA court giving it everything he thinks he’s got. He just left this town with the 2017 Phoenix Award, the City of Atlanta’s highest civilian honor, and a 2019 Jason Collier Memorial Trophy from the Hawks for his community service. He’s good people, through and through. And he’s weird, and comfortable in his weirdness. In this Oregon town, that’s perfect. On and off the floor. I defy you to come up with a better fit for misfits than the one Baze was traded to, acknowledging that Evan Turner was goofball enough. Hassan Whiteside? Professional podcaster CJ McCollum? Mario Hezonja? That’s just for starters (not kidding, those are starters, in Whiteside’s case until Jusuf Nurkic returns from his 2018 leg injury). Zach Collins (shoulder surgery, out for four months)? Rodney Hood (questionable, back injury)? Anthony Tolliver? Skal Labissiere (questionable, sprained ankle)? There’s no need to map it out for you. They’re just weird birds, man! Enough oddballs to set up a billiards tournament. You know there that there is no mold that could reasonably reproduce any of these cats on an NBA roster. Maybe the most on-the-mark typecast of a player the Blazers have in their rotation is the guy who does all he can to save their bacon on most nights, then hits the mixtape studio on the other nights. Damian Lillard (36 points vs. ATL on Mar. 29; 33.3 PPG, 2nd in NBA) dropped a career-high 60 big ones on Brooklyn here at the Moda Center. He and his mates also went home with an L. Hopefully his teammates brought him some Voodoo Doughnuts for the effort he put in during the 119-115 Netspick-pleasing defeat. I can’t find the stat I saw after Friday’s game, but 9 games into Portland’s season, and not one Blazer has assisted on a Lillard bucket more than twice all year. The beauty of the play by the star point guards tonight, Lillard and Atlanta’s Trae Young, is they will hurl a cross-court, behind-the-back, between-the-legs pinpoint pass on the money to the likes of Damian Jones, and not care a whit that the person on the receiving end is, with all due respect, just Damian Jones. Or, Jabari Parker just after blowing a layup on the last SCTop10-worthy pass. Or, the second biggest Ukrainian scandal going, somehow-still-starter Alex Len. Young (8.1 APG), and Lillard (6.9 APG), will dutifully find their teammates the rock, and will not expect much generosity in return. Portland is last in the league with 17.0 measly APG (41.2 assist%), and it would help if the goofs would at least pass the ball to each other some more. Bazemore (1.6 APG, 1.6 TOs/game) is third among active Blazers in assists after McCollum, who could stand to pass more until his jumper returns (3.1, 32.6 3FG%, 38.0 FG%). Kent could be more of a secondary passer on the team once coach Terry Stotts figures out why he’s there. They may one day have a secondary dime-dropper in the up-and-coming Anfernee Simons (1.0 APG), but the youngster isn’t ready yet. The Hawks have gotten next-to-zilch from Turner, due to a persistent Achilles injury, and have suffered similarly (22,9 team APG, 22nd in NBA) despite Young's occasional brilliance. Kevin Huerter (4-for-7 3FGs, 4 assists in Friday's loss vs. SAC) showed he may be coming out of his shell, and hopefully his improved shooting and passing will be in time for Atlanta (3-5) to hang tough with its Western foes this week. Bazemore is a free agent this summer, and he’ll do all he can to show Portland and the Blazers why he ought to be a keeper, although it would really help if the team improves enough that he can show off his indispensable play in the postseason. Don’t nobody tell him yet about the World Naked Bike Ride. He might never want to leave. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  18. “And, Harry’s Wild About Meeeeee…” Protect ya neck! The Sacramento Kings are always deeply fond of the folks under their employ. Until, they’re not. It’s predicting when the Sacrificial Sacramento Sword comes for these players, these coaches, that has long been the mystery. Do you love our lambs, too, Kings fans? Cool. Sure hope you like shank. Rick Adelman knew something was up when Geoff Petrie started playing coy about his and his staff’s contracts. The Kings hadn’t been anything of consequence since moving to Norcal from Kansas City, and some would go at least as far back as Cincinnati. Adelman was at the helm of the greatest eight-year run in the franchise’s lackluster history, including Sacramento’s first Conference Finals, and four consecutive seasons of 55-plus wins and trips to the West’s Final Four. But when it came time to talk turkey, Adelman found himself on the serving table. The writing was on the wall, even if middle-man GM Petrie couldn’t read it aloud. The Magoof Brothers were just waiting for him to recede. Recede they did, in the form of two first-round exits after Chris Webber’s career-crippling injury found him traded to Philly. Even though the last playoff departure came after a valiant effort against the Spurs, The Sword was unsheathed for Adelman. Butt-hurt by Shaq’s “Queens” assertions, the Magoofs long felt they could do better than second- and third-fiddle to the Lakers, and in their minds, better was the new-school Eric Musselman. Coach Muss rewarded them by pulling a Coach Bud, and not in a good way, with a DUI before the regular season could even arrive. Muss’ team slid to 33-49, a big step down from 44-38 in 2005-06, Adelman’s final campaign. The Kings would not win 40 games, or play a playoff game, since the Magoofs handed Adelman his walking papers. Reggie Theus was put in charge of the resuscitation, and he got the team to 38 wins in his first season there. But then Kevin Martin was plagued with injuries to start the next season, and the Magoofs found the 6-18 run out of the blocks unpalatable. Coach Theus lasted longer on TNBC’s “Hang Time.” Kenny Natt was left to lug the Kings the rest of the way (11-47), and he never coached a pro outfit in the States again. Paul Westphal took over the tank after two seasons, and few batted an eye when he pushed Martin out of town. But when he essentially declared, “it’s either him (Boogie Cousins) or me!”, after banishing his young star, he wasn’t going to be happy with the answer. Keith Smart goes 28-54? Not good enough. Grand opening, grand closing. Mike Malone goes 28-54 the very next season? Sashay, you stay. That is, until Malone started the next season at 11-13. The new Kings regime said they simply “expected more,” as they handed the Smart-Natt Memorial Just Holding the Fort Award to Ty Corbin. A 7-21 run later, and now it was curmudgeonly worst-selling author George Karl being handed the keys to the Kings’ tainted coaching throne. Around Sactown as the PBO since 1994, Petrie seemed like a nice-enough fellow. But years of meddlesome decisions by the Magoofs on coaching and draft-day decisions had him in a bristling mood. Petrie and the executive staff were relieved that when Vivek Ranadive arrived, offering a slimmer of hope they not only would they get to stay in town, they could stick around, keep their jobs, and allow some autonomy in doing those jobs effectively. That didn’t last long. With smarmy Mayor Kevin and a city having Vivek’s back, Petrie knew he didn’t have a leg to stand on when Vivek announced Malone as the new coach, without much input from him. The Sword was still in town, this time swinging at lame ducks. Petrie was later incensed when Ranadive, explaining away the Kings’ inability to improve on the court, tried to suggest there wasn’t so much as a light bulb on at Kings Inc. when he took ownership. No, Petrie and Smart would note, you walked in and shot all the lights out. Pete D’Alessandro used his work under Masai in Denver to snag Petrie’s job. But his penchant to leak poison pills to the media about players like Boogie and save-the-Kings-from-Seattle PR spokesman Isaiah Thomas, and coach Malone, wasn’t the wisest way to clean house. Ranadive realized in hindsight that hiring Malone before Pete D (“from Day One… they hated each other’s guts") wasn’t the wisest way to rebuild an NBA franchise. How does one go about peeving off Shareef Abdur-Rahim, of all people, exactly? You have to be an absolute master of your craft to pull off a feat like that. The assistant GM, once happy to stay in Sactown after retirement, had to sue the Kings in civil court, citing a “hostile work environment,” just to get the salary they owed him after he would no longer be caught in the middle of D’Alessandro’s and Malone’s power plays. The sense most of us outsiders often get, or are often told, is that Sacramento is some undesirable NBA outpost. But the theme that continues to shine through is the NBA talent there, however they wind up there, would be more than just fine sticking around in perpetuity, being around for the Kings’ eventual resurgence in the league, if only the crap from all the squabbling would quit flowing downhill. These aren’t wildfires that the Kings have had to put out. For the better part of 15 years, these have been wild immolations. Sneaky Pete wasn’t wild about Vivek bringing in Kings glory-days legend Vlade Divac as a power-usurping “advisor.” D’Alessandro concerns came to life as Ranadive pushed both him and Chris Mullin out to make Divac the top dog in 2015. The Sword that swung for C-Webb and Kev-Mart and I.T. and Tyreke continues to swing for players under Divac’s watch, notably Cousins, who was sent in a deal that had Reke attached to Pelicans rookie Buddy Hield. It still swings sharply for the coaches, too. The Kings went 39-43 last season, their best finish since Adelman’s ouster eons ago, and a 9-seed in the rough-and-tumble NBA West. That was good enough this past spring for Vlade to earn a contract extension. Not so much for third-year coach Dave Joerger. Vivek and Vlade thought they could do better. And better, in his eyes, was Luke Walton, Vlade’s old Laker teammate and the coach who could not be entrusted with a rebuilding program centered around LeBron James. Magic fired himself trying to fire Luke, and yet Luke is the one charged with improving upon Joerger’s record. Last season was good enough for the Kings to extend near-obligatory contract options for up-and-coming stars (hopefully, for them) Marvin Bagley and De’Aaron Fox. After a period of contention that had Hield mapping routes out of town, the young sharpshooter and the Kings locked up a four-year deal just in time for this season to start. Hield handed his travel guides to Bogdan Bogdanovic, the Serbian swingman who knows he could earn more than Sacramento could offer this summer. That is, if Walton would just give Bogdanovic functional minutes with the starters. If you went back in time, and told Kings fans in the summer of 2017 that a guy named Harry would be leading the team in minutes, they’d be thrilled. Just don’t tell them that you’re referring to Harrison Barnes. Harry Giles was left out in the cold at option time, the would-be second-year center joined by ex-Hawk Dewayne Dedmon as questionable for tonight’s game against the Kings (TAKE MARTA IF YOU VALUE YOUR SANITY; 7:30 pm Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports California) with a knee injury. Divac drafted Zach Collins at #10 in 2017, traded him that night for Portland’s #20 pick, Giles, then basked in the glow of the punditry who looked right past a whole other Collins in declaring that Sacramento got the steal of the Draft. Known for problematic knee injury issues since he was a prized recruit in high school, Giles was medically redshirted by the Kings in 2017-18. He was essentially a two-way player in the opening months of 2018-19 and was shut down in the closing games of the season, after 58 appearances, for continued rehabilitation. All the while, the Kings were eager to tout and offer glimpses of Giles’ boundless potential. Much of his highlight reel tape comes from his career high 20 points (10-for-12 FGs) in a satisfying 135-113 win over the visiting Hawks last January. Now, it appears Giles will bear the brunt of the organization’s blame, not their medical and conditioning staff, for his inability to put up Willie Cauley-Stein numbers, if not at least Zach Collins figures, by the end of this season. The Kings were out of options, contract-wise. But Giles, like Bogdanovic, knows he could have plenty of options this summer as a free agent, if he makes the most of the floor time Walton grants him. Checking into tonight’s contest at 2-6, Walton and the Kings are eager to, as 92.9 The Game’s Randy McMichael likes to say, “put them foots into” the Hawks, much as the desperate Bulls hooved the home team just two nights prior, much as Joerger’s team did to coach Lloyd Pierce’s crew twice last season. The Hawks (3-4) took several chair-shots, some more literal than others, during the 113-93 blowout loss to Chicago. As they prepare for a five-game, eight-day road excursion through the Western Conference, they’re unlikely to take another beating from State Farm Arena’s visitors sitting down. Not just because there may not be any chairs standing upright if they waste the time of fans who made it through horrendous motorcade-impacted downtown traffic. Pierce, unlike Walton, is secure in his team’s mediocrity, and can afford to keep hammering away at lotto-rookies Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, and guys playing like rookies (Kevin Huerter and Alex Len, neither on the injury list any more), until they figure things out. There’s no need to wait until Trae Young (0-for-8 3FGs vs. CHI) cans a shot from Druid Hills before the young Hawks decide to start playing with a competitive spirit, especially when the ball’s in transition in either direction. What does the Giles situation say to Bagley, who returns in a few weeks after fracturing a thumb in the season opener, or even Fox (6.8 APG, 4.0 TOs/game) and Hield (40.8 3FG%, but 41.1 2FG%), while trying to right the ship under an unsteady Walton’s direction? You’re our rocks, our mainstays, Vivek and Vlade will assure each of them. That is true. Until, they’re not. Watch your step, kids! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  19. Mecca. And, the Soul Brother. “It IS the Windy City,” for a reason, NBA legend Isiah Thomas recently remarked on NBATV. So you’re not going to see playground hoopers pulling up and firing away from long range. Chicago basketball is more of a ground game. It’s gritty, interior-oriented, with emphases placed on driving hard to the rim, fighting for loose balls, and generally creating havoc. “It’s basketball in any condition,” NBA star Anthony Davis noted of his fellow Chicago-raised hoopsters this past summer to the Tribune. “You find a way to play. Their love for the game is tremendous. No matter if it’s hot or freezing cold in the gym, or outside it’s raining, whatever, any basketball player from Chicago, it means a lot more to us because we are a basketball city.” It’s where Davis returns in the summertime, or whenever he can during the NBA season. Anthony Davis as a Kentucky Wildcat, as a #1 overall NBA pick, was and remains a nice point of local pride. In that town, Davis as a New Orleans Pelican was a mild curiosity. AD as a Los Angeles Laker, with none other than LeBron James as his sidekick, is a brow-raising supernova. At the United Center last night, Davis crammed every seat as his newest team, the Lakers, zoomed past the host Chicago Bulls. The latter club hopped on a plane at O’Hare to visit the Hawks in Atlanta tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago), on a back-to-back for both. While in town for his next-to-last NBA visit this season (the All-Star Game is there in February), Davis was asked to double-down on a pair of comments he made during the offseason, while visiting a Nike summer camp that has never been so packed with young hopefuls and even more hopeful parents. The first comment regarded a softball laid gently over the plate for the First Takes of the world: whether 2020’s top free agent had any interest whatsoever in leaving the Lake Show to sign with the NBA club closest to his dear Lake Michigan. The second comment was what piqued my interest, a closing statement he made while praising the gym rats and blacktop hustlers in and around The Second City. “And we are The Mecca of Basketball,” Davis said this summer. “You can quote me on that.” Definitive quotes are never enough for the rabid media, as ESPN’s Eric Woodyard was there after a Monday shootaround for AD’s re-iteration, and elaboration. “We’ve got the best basketball players ever. You look at the history with all the guys we’ve got that made the league, and even the guys that didn’t make the league.” “They say New York. But it’s not even close.” Oh, now you’ve gone and done it, AD. You’ve awakened The Giant That Never Sleeps. Might as well have started another useless fuss over what is and isn’t pizza. Not only were Gotham’s gabsters all over Davis’ slap at their hallowed metropolis – what else would they call Madison Square Garden? – but folks back in L.A. were taking umbrage, too, forcing Clippers head coach and Chicago native Doc Rivers to take a side. Understandably sparing of Tinseltown, he didn’t blink when the opportunity presented itself to lob some shade NYC’s way. “It’s not even a question,” Doc responded to ClutchPoints. “New York gets all the rub, which I don’t get. But Chicago is (Da Mecca). It’s not even close.” Clipper pest Pat Beverley was right there in lockstep with his coach. “Over the years, due to the violence, basketball has taken a step down. It has come back up,” P-Bev noted, citing Jabari Parker, Kendrick Nunn and Davis as more recent examples. America’s Big Dino-Cities continue to squabble over who is the, definitive, “Mecca” of basketball, tossing old names like Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce, Starbury and D-Rose, Brooklyn-born but not really-bred MJ, Brooklyn-born but not readily-claimed Melo, back and forth at each other. Meanwhile, down here in Atlanta we have been, not so quietly, cranking out a growing legion of coveted college, pro, and soon-to-be pro basketball stars. The NBA’s tub is full of legends from the parks of NYC, Chicago, and LA (don’t even let Philly get a wedge in on this argument). But it’s The ATL these days with its hand on the faucet, and folks from those haughty old haunts can’t seem to turn it off. In the shadow of Georgia Power’s Vader-looking headquarters on the edge of downtown, my first immersion into the local hoop scene was unfolding on a random mid-90s summer weekend. Presumably a vestige of the slum clearance in the Buttermilk Bottom neighborhood Georgia Power replaced, a corner park’s raggedy single court was packed with hustling players and ringers, the fresh new street trees doing little to shade anyone from the 100-plus degree heat. The streets were lined with cars bumping bass, the sidewalks teeming with teenage wannabe-players, middle-age wannabe-coaches and wannabe-scouts, and ladies in sumptuous summer attire, keeping score on various fronts. They all peeked through the wrought-iron gates like on-lookers at a cage match. The on-court play, if one could simplify it by calling it “play,” was as roughneck and cutthroat as any scene you’d see portrayed on “Above the Rim” or “White Men Can’t Jump.” At times, amid the constant jostling and barking, it was hard to discern between teammates and opponents. The Saturday scene was the same up the street at Midtown’s newer Central Park courts, and at countless, less reputable parks across Atlanta. The summer leagues were fueled and ran by the town’s biggest dope kingpins. So the stakes were always high, drawing crowds that, in the Nique-got-traded era of Atlanta, would put The Omni to shame. On this stage, players like Anthony Carter, a high school dropout, thrived. This was one surefire way kids from the streets could make bank without resorting to illegalities, even if the cash sources probably were from ill-gotten gains. The big collegiate programs weren’t sticking their necks out in search of downtrodden kids like him. But scouts and connects from junior colleges knew they had an angle to offer streetball standouts like Carter a way up, and out. For this current G-League and former Sacramento Kings assistant coach, Anthony Carter’s path to a 13-year NBA playing career started here on humble blacktop, sidewinding through Saddleback Community College and on to the University of Hawai’i. A contemporary of his from that age of Atlanta streetball (no known relation) didn’t make it to the big league, or even the NCAA. But through Pearl River Community College, then Delta State University in Mississippi, Wendell Carter, Sr. was not about to go pro in something other than sports. Wendell Senior went off to hoop in the Dominican Republic for three seasons. It was back in the 80s, while in a summer-league dunk contest here in Atlanta, that an acquaintance from his humble apartment had a local hoop-star sister she wanted him to meet. Later, as he shared with The Undefeated, Kylia was asked by Wendell to hang on to his dunk contest trophy, and it wasn’t the last shiny object he would hand her. She went on to star at Ole Miss while Wendell was her Around The Way guy, at the smaller Mississippi schools. As the housing projects were tearing down, and as America’s War on Certain Drugs was ramping up, Atlanta’s kingpin-funded summer leagues were fading into obscurity. The prodigal basketball talent was shifting decisively to more responsible AAU outlets, where players could sharpen and showcase their skills well beyond the wards where they slept. As intown ‘hoods gentrified, you would begin finding the best basketball games at the fringes of Atlanta’s sprawling region. A prep star from Gwinnett or Cobb County high schools, or the once-segregationist private academies, making a big national splash would have once been unheard of. These days, the ATL burbs, inner and outer ring, are a veritable pipeline, and those local schools know exactly how and where to scour for competitive talent. Kylia and Wendell, Sr. put in a lot of hard work, sticking together through three decades of marriage plus courtship. They were able to impress upon young Wendell, Jr., the value of academics while maturing as a basketball player. That made the 6-foot-10 Fairburn native an ideal pupil when he was able to move from a small East Point prep school to Pace Academy, a local academic powerhouse near the Governor’s Mansion in a leafy, posh corner of Atlanta’s Buckhead. You would come to know Pace prominently by all the kids lining State Farm Arena’s Gucci Row while wearing their blue sweatshirts during the Coach Bud-and-Kyle era. But it is Carter, now a second-year standout with the Bulls, who has been putting Pace firmly on the larger sports map. In 2017, while selecting Duke over his parents’ wish for him to attend Harvard, the senior with the 3.8 GPA was named the Morgan Wooten National Player of the Year. The honor takes into account activities in the community and the classroom, in addition to the on-court accomplishments. Carter, Jr. followed in the footsteps of Wooten winners Dwight Howard (2004), Maya Moore (2007), and Derrick Favors (2009). Throw in, for good measure, Lou Williams, a Clipper no one bothered to approach with the Mecca query, as 2005’s Naismith Prep Player of the Year, one season after Dwight. No other metro area can claim more National POY winners in that 15-year span. LA had Kevin Love, Brandon Jennings, Kaleena Mosqueda-Lewis, Katie Lou Samuleson and Lonzo Ball. Chi-town had Candace Parker, the Hawks’ Parker and Jahlil Okafor. Tina Charles has been The Big Apple’s only bite. Speaking of New York, the man who entrenched NYC streetball as a national phenomenon, Hall of Famer Julius Erving knew where to eventually settle down and raise kids, and it wasn’t NYC or even Philly. If the unfortunate soul in Wendell, Jr.’s Pace High poster pic above looks familiar, that was Jules Erving from suburban Sandy Springs’ Holy Innocents’ Episcopal. Aptly nicknamed, “Pre-Med”, the younger Erving is now a junior player at Cal. It’s not just The Doctor who diagnosed what’s been going on in the hoops world. You must be a McDonald’s All-American to even qualify for the Wooten hardware. And even the Chicago-based burger behemoth has a sense that basketball’s “Mecca” has moved south. After Trae Young and Carter, Jr. faced off at the United Center in 2017, Mickie D’s moved their Boys and Girls High School All-American Games out of Chicago, their host city since 2011, and into Atlanta’s Highlight Factory, seemingly to stay. The older metros have their share of Hall of Famers and NBA stars, past and present, to quibble over. But you don’t have to look hard to find an A-T-Lum on a current NBA roster. Some of the most respected and revered veterans in The Association right now – LouWill, Jae Crowder, Al-Farouq Aminu, Favors – cut their teeth on Atlanta-area rims. Dwight, too. Look, if you will, at the active, emerging players whom teams are investing their future. Marietta High’s Jaylen Brown. Recent Rookie of the Year winner, Greater Atlanta Christian’s Malcolm Brogdon. Alpharetta’s Malik Beasley. Mableton’s Collin Sexton. Alpharetta’s Kobi Simmons. Westlake’s Chuma Okeke. And the bumper crop keeps on growing. Your fingers don’t have to walk too far down the annual NBA Draft Boards before you point out an ATL-area product. The next big name, Anthony Edwards of Therell High and Holy Spirit Prep, dropped 24 in his collegiate debut last night in Athens. The UGA freshman is near-certain to be Top 5 in the 2020 Draft. UK-bound Brandon “BJ” Boston, a Norcross kid, is a top-5 NBA prospect for 2021. Five-star, seven-foot center Walker Kessler, of southside Atlanta’s Woodward Academy, just passed up on Carter’s Duke to accept an offer from UNC. Chances are good that Kessler won’t be around Chapel Hill for long. The brightest of the bright spots among the young ATLien NBA set has been Carter, who has already introduced himself to Bruno Fernando and the Hawks in preseason action. Losers of five of their last six, the Bulls (2-6) have had a frustrating start to the season. But Carter (14.1 PPG) has been the last person Bulls fans have been pointing to for blame. Averaging a team-best 9.6 RPG while hitting 64.2 percent of his two-point attempts, and as the sole Bull blocking a shot per game, Wendell has been Chicago’s Steady Eddy, no slight to Mr. Curry. The struggle has been real for backups Luke Kornet and Fernando contemporary Daniel Gafford, so it’s imperative for the Bulls to have Carter on the floor and staying out of foul trouble. He’s producing the mayhem around the offensive boards that Robin Lopez provided in recent years, useful for a team that has been bottom-ten in shooting from two-point range, three-point range, and at the free throw line (42.7 team FG%, 28th in NBA; 71.5 team FT%, 25th in NBA). Lead scorer Zach LaVine’s vow to become a more impactful defender has yet to bear much fruit (116.4 opponent O-Rating and 56.6 opponent eFG% on-court, as per bball-ref; 97.8 and 47.3% off-court). LaVine (21.8 PPG, 26-7-7 vs. LAL last night) and Lauri Markkanen’s defensive lapses often leave Carter and Otto Porter (4-for-7 3FGs vs. LAL) as Chicago’s last line of halfcourt defense. Further, only the Zion-less Pelicans have a worse defensive rebounding percentage than the Bulls (68.9 D-Reb%). Chicago often turns to up-and-down rookie Coby White to relieve Tomas Satoransky and pick up the tempo, and on Kris Dunn (1.9 SPG) and Thaddeus Young (1.4 SPG) to get crucial stops. But the Bulls’ backups have yet to find the cohesion, when playing with LaVine, Carter and/or Markkanen, that would consistently string 48 victorious minutes together. After The General Car Insurance mascot lookalike Jim Boylen left his reserves, incapable of thwarting Kyle Kuzma and the Lakers’ comeback from 19 points down (47-70 second-half deficit), in the contest late in the second half of last night’s 118-112 defeat, Carter expressed his frustrations in postgame commentary. But the second-year big man took pains not to directly implicate his coach. “I know I’m p*ssed. Not to talk about my past,” said Carter as he hinted at his brief stay in Durham, if not his scholastic laurels, “but me coming from a winning culture, and then last year (22-60, Carter lost by mid-January due to injury) wasn’t so good for us, and then this year, (losing) bothers me.” His Bulls being on track, in the early going, to duplicate last season’s result isn’t helping matters. As the only NBA team getting their shots stuffed more frequently than Atlanta (7.9 BPG, to the Hawks’ 7.7), there’s a good chance the Hawks will be treated to a block party at The Farm. Starting pivot Alex Len has been wretched offensively, but he is The Greatest Wall of Atlanta (1.2 BPG) in John Collins’ extended absence. Blocks by the offensively struggling Kevin Huerter helped the Hawks (3-3) turn the tide on the Spurs in the first and third stanzas, the latter block and some maddening ref non-calls thereafter setting the stage for The Traekover in the fourth quarter of last night’s 108-100 thriller. If Huerter, Cam Reddish and The DeAns of Defense (Bembry and Hunter) can keep that same energy tonight, and if the centers protect the rim and rebound to dominate the paint points battle, Atlanta could awaken to find themselves not only as a surprising top-ten defensive squad (102.5 D-Rating), but also a team with an early winning record. Celebrating anything desirable as a “Mecca” comes with the risk of being problematic, given the real town’s holy exclusivity. But there are similarities. Both Atlanta (long known as a “Black Mecca,” which sure as heck got my attention) and the Saudi pilgrimage are major draws for people arriving in waves from around the globe, albeit for quite differing reasons. Both places have been quick to tear down their history in the name of “progress” and making room for newcomers, preferably those with cash. Ultimately, it’s the phrase, “The Mecca of whatever”, that gets people in a hot-and-bothered tizzy across the sea. There can be only one hoops “Mecca” at a time. In this modern age, folks from all around Chicagoland will be watching their beloved Bulls, tonight, playing in it, their future star's old stomping grounds. The rest of your favorite metros can fight over which one is basketball’s Jeddah. “Mecca Adjacent,” if you prefer. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  20. “Dressed up as John Collins today… Sike! I’m just Joshin’, tryna put a scare in y’all. Happy Halloween, Hawks fans!” “Hello, Tankathon, my old friend... I’ve come to check you out again…” I really promised that website, last spring, I wouldn’t be a Stranger. Thing is, that was one of my favorite haunts over the past few down-seasons. For all they do for us fans of non-playoff teams, Tankathon deserves some clicks once the NBA season is over and the Draft concludes. But it can be like a hot date you have no intention of marrying for life. Or, so I’ve been told. I start feeling all brand new, once I get a satisfying offseason or two, or a promising start to the next regular season. “New phone, who dis?” Yet it was almost midway through Tuesday night’s loss, after Trae Young Teagued-up his ankle and my Atlanta Hawks gently slid into the Miami morass, that I caught myself wanting to text the ‘Thon. “U up?” The comparable merits of Theo Maledon, Amir Sylla and Deni Avdija suddenly became matters of great intrigue. I was feeling extra miserable from a fantasy perspective, too. I had been rocking and rolling on ESPN Fantasy hoops, after Week 1, with Trae leading the charge for my faux squad. Now, he’s gone ghost for an indeterminate period, although the prognosis for recovery is much brighter now (1-2 weeks on the shelf) than it was in the moments following the injury. Oh well, at least I have you around, Joel Embi—Hello? Jojo? Hey, Myles Turner, what’s the deal with Joel – Myles? Say, Steph, you have any idea where those guys – uh, Steph?? Okay, I’d better get out of here, something’s up. Should I go hide behind all the chainsaws in Jim Spanfeller’s garage, or hop in the running convertible? Decisions, decisions. Fortunately for us Hawks fans, John Collins wasn’t tricked into playing Embiid’s reindeer games on Monday night, the way Karl-Anthony fell for Mr. Candy Corn’s scare tactics in Philly yesterday. Thanks to that, we got to enjoy one of the league’s most versatile big men pull off a Creepshow (30 points, 5-for-8 3FGs, 5-for-6 FTs, 5-for-9 2FGs, 4 assists, 1 steal, 1 swat, 1 TO) one evening later, versus the heat. We’ll need Collins to do the Monster Mash once more, with the heat in our house before a national audience tonight (7:00 PM Eastern, TNT schedule-makers can’t catch a break, 92.9 FM in ATL). But much like John Carpenter’s The Thing, Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce will need to see more of what Collins brings to the floor shape-shifting inside a few of his teammates. We did not spend a calendar year hyping up the whole Red Velvet thing only to watch Miami’s Tyler Herro be paraded as the sweet-shooting treat that can’t be beat. In both preseason and regular season, Herro (29 points, 12-for-16 FTs, 3-for-4 3FGs on Tuesday vs. ATL; 4-for-15 3FGs and 2 FTAs vs. three prior foes) has made himself an early draft darling, largely on the backs of his hack-happy Atlanta defenders. Tonight, it’s time for Kevin Huerter (4-for-14 3FGs; 3 assists, 3 TOs @ MIA) to be the big-play maker and big-shot taker that Cam Reddish (0-for-14 3FGs; 6 assists, 6 TOs, 2-for-10 FGs @ MIA) is still trying to become. An on-time and on-target Huerter, pulling Jimmy Butler and Justise Winslow (questionable, stiff back) toward the defensive perimeter, should open up Miami’s interior for Collins, Alex Len and Bruno Fernando, as well as a slashing DeAndre’ Bembry, who has had a nice moment or two on a TNT broadcast before. Better offensive balance by the Hawks (44-34 advantage in the paint in Tuesday’s 112-97 loss) could overwhelm Bam Adebayo and Meyers Leonard (16 combined D-Rebs vs. ATL), who were generally left alone to cherry-pick for boards generated by Atlanta’s wayward long-range shots (6-for-14 3FGs pre-Young’s injury, 5-for-25 3FGs after). For more rebounding reinforcement, coach Erik Spoelstra will activate James Johnson tonight. Bembry (5 assists, 0 TOs vs. MIA) and newcomer Tyrone Wallace showed an ability to take care of the ball and find scoring opportunities for others. Either could alleviate Reddish from putting too much on his own plate while trying to compensate for Young’s absence (“I hope we get to elevate Cam,” Pierce told the AJC’s Sarah Spencer today, “and see Cam grow up tonight.”) Wallace was also useful in drawing fouls during his unexpected garbage-time stint. If more glass needs to be broken in case of emergency, LP will have two-way guard Brandon Goodwin at his disposal. It shouldn’t be left to the fans in the State Farm Arena stands to frighten Miami’s scorers off the free throw line. 45 FTAs by Miami (3-1) on Tuesday, including 41 attempts by Herro, Butler and Adebayo alone, were the most a Coach Spo-led team has enjoyed since November 2015, against a Jahlil Okafor-led Sixers team that fell to 0-14. Yet that volume was also in line with the heat’s modus operandi during two other victories (39 versus Memphis, 31 at Milwaukee), as Spoelstra urges his players to attack baskets quickly and trick opponents into defending out of desperation. Comparatively, Karl-Anthony’s Wolves permitted just 15 FTAs during Miami’s sole loss this past Sunday. Players should at least don some hockey masks if we’re going to hack people so much today. Better defensive discipline by De’Andre Hunter, Jabari Parker and the Hawks, and more assertive rebounding by Collins’ cobwebbed mates in the middle, will go a long way toward stifling the heat and keeping Atlanta (2-2) in this game tonight. If things get a bit too eerie, you can find me checking out draft prospect measurables, and refreshing the Tankathon draft power rankings for updates. Hey, Brooklyn, what are you still doing on that webpage? Get Out! Let’s Ghoul Hawks! ~lw3
  21. “I plan on being here for life, too, if y’all will have me!” WELCOME BACK TO THE ATL, AL HORFORD! ALL IS FORGIVEN! Oh, I really shouldn’t be speaking on behalf of everybody in Hawks Nation. Just lil’ ol’ me, a childhood Sixers diehard, turned crotchety Hawks dieharder. Fans of the Atlanta Hawks, and of the visiting Philadelphia 76ers (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Philly) don’t usually see eye-to-eye. But one thing is always sure to clench our arms and unite our spirits, and that is any occasion we get to stick it to the Boston Celtics. Especially Danny Ainge. And especially one other guy. “WHAT A GREAT PLAY BY MARCUS!” There goes Tommy Heinsohn, ruining yet another play call. A Celtic scrambled toward the sideline on Friday night after a halfcourt steal, saved the ball, and flung it behind his back to set up a nifty driving layup by Jayson Tatum against the Raptors. It was, indeed, a fantastic play. If only the aging wonder of a colorless commentator, Heinsohn, could discern between guard Marcus Smart, who was not on the floor, and center Robert Williams, the one who made the play, the one who subbed in for Smart barely a minute earlier. It’s the kind of astute insight we will come to expect around here, from Dominique Wilkins, in 2045. Tommy wasn’t always off his game, back in those days when the game lacked a three-point line. The grainy instructional videos from the Sixties and Seventies show us this ten-time NBA champion, as a player and a coach, was a guy who was once sharp as a tack. Nowadays, he’s just crazy like a fox. “As much as you think he’s a great player, he’s not a great player!” That was Bitter-Beer-Face Tommy’s assessment of a four-time All-Star, the Atlanta Hawks’ Al Horford, in April 2016. Too busy to notice, Al was having a grand time making mincemeat out of Heinsohn’s main men – checks notes – Jared Sullinger and Amir Johnson, as Atlanta cruised to a satisfying six-game series win over Evan Turner and the C’s. Like Ainge, Isaiah Thomas knew Al was a “great player.” Great enough, anyway, that he volunteered his services as the All-Star consigliere for Danny to pry Horford away from the Hawks’ sketchy management crew. I.T. AND Horford together in Boston? Whatcha gunna do NOW, King LeBron? On the upside for Boston, Al held up his end of the deal, a four-year contract worth $113 million that featured a final-year $30 million opt-in. He was able to steal four more conference-final games against LeBron’s Cavs than he could as a Hawk, although sadly not all in the same series. He was top-ten in 3FG% and All-Defensive 2nd Team in 2017-18, the season that Boston (64.4 winning% with Al in regular-season; 59.5% in the playoffs before Milwaukee ran the table) fell one win short of a trip to The Finals. But to the Celtics, fans were sold on Horford, upon arrival being not just a rental but a lifer, akin to Robert Parish, who gave Boston all of his 30s before graying out and moving on. El Jefe was supposed to be The New Chief, his Gator-armed defensive rebounding, free throw carom flinching, jab-stepping eccentricities easy to disregard. Horford was the great-enough player that, along with a trove of lottery draftees Ainge stole over the years, would be used to woo greater players to Beantown, helping the franchise elevate their championship tally into the twenties. When fans and media start calling you, “The Godfather,” kissing a ring you don’t yet have, you’re not supposed to skip town on them. Once you’re in, You’re In. Changing Al’s perception as more than some mid, mired in mediocrity in a mid-tier NBA market, was of high importance to the Horford clan, as was relocating to a familiar town, the place where Al and his wife met. The Celtics did all they could to upgrade the team, including making Thomas scream, “et tu, Brute?” as he soon found himself getting belittled in Cleveland so Kyrie Irving could take his place. But things didn’t quite go as originally advertised by Ainge and the Celtics brass, to Horford or anyone else. Free agent stars weren’t arriving in great supply, unless you count Gerald Green, Shane Larkin and/or Aron Baynes while high on PCP. Boston’s greatest masterstroke of a free agent gamble, snaring Gordon Hayward from Utah, crumpled five minutes into the 2017-18 season. The rest of the roster additions, like Kyrie and Marcus Morris, came via trade or mid-season free agent pickups, and either got wishy-washy about sticking around or weren’t asked back. The prospect of having to go from I.T. to Kyrie to, maybe, Kemba as his setup man in the space of four seasons wasn’t helping matters, either. But there was one thing that Al valued, above all else, that Ainge could not deliver on, and just about anyone in Atlanta could have warned Danny about it. I don’t know which of you Squawkers used to go by the handle, “Aliznotacenter,” or something like that. But I wouldn’t be surprised if you peeled back the mask and revealed Alfredo himself, or at least Tito, or Br’er Jon, or Sister Anna. All Horford needed to stick with the Green Goblins was, simply, a pivot he could play with that was at least a clear step up from prime Zaza Pachulia, allowing him to ply his wares more fully as a power forward. Wrestling for 50/50 balls with the Zydrunas Ilgauskases and Roy Hibberts of the world was cute in his twenties, but those pecs aren’t getting any younger. The Baynes Train was about the best they could do, and even that guy was heading out the station. Instead of just opting in and dragging out the inevitable letdown next summer, Horford spotted an opportunity and pounced on it. It just so happens that the opportunity availed itself with Boston’s most despised historic intra-division rival (sorry, Knicks). Boston opened their 2019-20 campaign watching their former bedrock ringing the Liberty Bell Thingy at Wells Fargo Center, his new team pulverizing the Celtics into 36.7 FG% shooting in a 107-93 Sixer victory. You (Might) Hate to See It. Now, Al has his former Hawks backup center, Elton Brand, pulling the player-personnel strings instead of upriver-seller Ainge. Now, Horford gets to dance with Joel Embiid, when the All-Star center is healthy (probable for tonight, ankle sprain and lacerated lip), rather than going toe-to-toe with him several times a year. He gets Ben Simmons to play the 1-spot, and Al doesn’t have to park himself on the low block as his point guard tricky-dribbles the ball to death. Further, Horford gets the bane of Banks County Sheriff’s Office, Mike Scott, backing him up, instead of the frontcourt duo trying to man somebody’s defensive fort. With J.J. Redick gone, one can argue that Philadelphia’s biggest threat to bury threes comes from the forward positions. If Scott (5-for-9 3FGs this season) isn’t giddying-up from downtown, or if he’s too busy giving Eagles fans the smoke, then there’s Tobias Harris (6-for-11 3FGs) and Horford (3-for-13 3FGs so far in 2 games). Their teammates have combined to shoot 6-for-20 in the early going and, of course, that doesn’t include Simmons. Philly (2-0, like the Hawks) has the inside track to stick it not only to Heinsohn and Ainge in Boston in the Eastern Conference, but to Al’s former coach, Mike Budenholzer, another Hawks ship-jumper, who gets the Greek Freak to do much of the dirty work in Milwaukee these days. While Horford would have been expected to face-up with Giannis for a majority of minutes in Boston, he’ll have more length and defensive help in Philly to alleviate the pressure. I can be mad at Al for the wacky Summer of ’16. But I can’t stay mad. Al was one of many players and staff who found themselves, at different times, constrained under the Punch-and-Judy, “Don’t Shake His Hand, Billy!”, ownership regime of the so-called Atlanta so-called Spirit so-called Group. As a Hawks fan, I do find some measure of glee watching unsatisfied ex-Hawks chasing their destinies elsewhere, be it in Greece or Detroit or Boston, whether they’re wildly successful or disastrously not. Particularly after enduring the ASG years, it was understandably worth a shot. I spent most the past week glued to my free trial of NBA League Pass, fixated upon Baze and Taurean, Marvin and Jeff, Timmy and Dennis, Al and Mike, all trying their darnedest to make things pan out better elsewhere. Invariably, there’s play-by-play and color commentary along the lines of, “Player X has been really helpful to Team Y, after Z years playing in Atlanta,” maybe nobody more frequently than Al. If League Pass had a “follow your favorite team’s former players and coaches, exclusively, for $19.99 a year!” option, they’d have a born sucker right here. Thankfully, I’ll get to just buy a ticket to watch Horford, Scott, and the Sixers try keeping up with the NBA’s hottest scorer tonight at State Farm Arena. Trae Young (38.5 PPG, 9.0 APG, 55.0 3FG%, 1.5 SPG, 7.0 RPG, Who Cares TOs/game) has been “great enough” to make Al and other ex-Hawks wish they had stuck around town just a bit longer. This season's first Eastern Conference Player of the Week, Young has propelled Atlanta, so far, to the league’s second-best shooting percentages (57.1 eFG%, 59.2 TS%). As the Hawks plan on ramping up the tempo following grind-fests with Detroit and Orlando, it’s safe to note the Sixers (NBA-low 22.5 opponent 3FGAs/game) haven’t faced an offensive dynamo quite as relentless as Young yet. They can ask the #1-overall pick they discarded last year, Orlando’s Markelle Fultz, if they have any uncertainty about that. Trae’s longer-limbed wing teammates have helped stifle perimeter shooters (NBA-best 22.1 opponent 3FG%). If that theme continues versus Philly, then Embiid, Simmons, Horford and the Sixers will have to pile up points in the paint (Atlanta’s 60.0 Paint Points per-48 currently leads the NBA, ahead of Philly 54.0), and from the charity stripe (as the Magic tried, in vain, to do) to at least keep up with Atlanta (3-1 last season vs. PHI) for 48 or more minutes. John Collins (4 blocks and 10 D-Rebs vs. ORL, in Saturday’s thrilling 103-99 win; only one game with 3+ blocks and 10+ total boards last season) and the Hawks’ bigs will do all they can to slow the Sixers’ rolls to the hoop, but Collins will need more interior help than he has received thus far (ATL NBA-high 16.5 opponent 2nd-chance points per-48) from Alex Len, Damian Jones and Bruno Fernando. If Young, who has been more active as a roving defender, can switch off effectively onto Josh Richardson or defensive rookie hound Matisse Thybulle, rookie wings Cam Reddish and DeAndre’ Hunter can help make it a tough night for Simmons. Back on offense, Jabari Parker (14.0 PPG) and the awakening Kevin Huerter may be fun to watch against Scott and the otherwise talent-thin Sixers’ second-line. Even though it’s with another Eastern Conference competitor, I do wish Al Horford second-best in his quest to one day reach the NBA Finals, and to be able to do something of substance once he gets there. He’s made the playoffs in every NBA season he could finish healthy, and was instrumental in the Hawks ending its eight-season playoff drought and extending runs into the playoffs for nine consecutive years. Having ushered in Rebuild ver. 7.0 for Ainge and the Celtics should cement his personal banner-raising legacy in Atlanta when the 2030s get here. I wish him good health and fair fortune for him and the Horford clan in the years to come. Except for Tito. That guy can stick it where the sun doesn’t shine. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  22. “I Know I’ve Been Changed.” He poured his heart and soul into this theatrical production. His life savings, too, such as it was. The conceptual vision of this 22-year-old aspiring playwright, a recent arrival to Atlanta who escaped an abusive home life in New Orleans, was a story of spirit overcoming unspeakable adversities and outlasting one’s own depravities. That story was finally coming to fruition, live, on a stage, at a community theater not far from his meager downtown studio apartment off Peachtree Street. The play opened to an audience of 30 people, the premiere being the maximum draw, and to lackluster local reviews. Out of all 12,000 dollars he arrived with from Louisiana, the aspiring playwright was soon penniless and kicked out into the streets of Atlanta. Again. And not for the last time. He could have stopped there, in the mid-1990s, as a construction worker and used car salesperson who once tried his hand at producing inspirational stage entertainment. It would have made for a nice story to share at a watering hole someday. But Tyler Perry was not through. Instead, he spent the next six years re-writing and re-engineering his opus. The breakthrough came with what Perry perceived as his final big gamble, presenting the play at the House of Blues, a church-repurposed venue at the seedy edge of downtown that was itself trying to establish a foothold. Through better word-of-mouth marketing and more compelling weaves of dramatic and comedic scenes, Perry and the House of Blues had a huge local hit, drawing lines around the corner to buy tickets. He could have stopped there, that guy who had a boffo play downtown that one time. He was not through. As the show moved onto the Chitlin’ Circuit across the country, Perry kept right on writing, armed with a formula as welcomed by his loyal consumers as anything Coca Cola ever concocted. Audiences soon knew, if the production’s title began with “Tyler Perry’s…”, they were in for a rip-roaring, tissue-tearing, get-up-on-your-feet treat. No matter the critical reviews, audiences came in droves. Newer plays, bigger venues. New stars created by him, A-List stars who craved to associate with him. People from all walks of life -- the churches, the comedy clubs, comeback actors and award winners, single moms and great grandmoms -- wanted to grab a hold of this Tyler Perry fella. He wasn’t done. He slapped on a grandmotherly wig and muumuu getup that was provocatively popular in his plays, and he soon ventured into filmmaking. And later, onto television, helping Oprah’s fledgling cable network rise up off the viewership mat with one salacious TV series after another. Most of this box-office-busting, ratings-bonanza hit-making, carried on while Hollywood and Broadway stood on the outside, stunned by the singular boldness of Perry’s independent spirit. In short order, the stuffed shirts at the big production studios had made it clear -- they didn’t much want Tyler Perry around. Conversely, Tyler Perry made it clear -- he didn’t much need Hollywood around him. He was a self-made success, at multiple forms of entertainment, pretty much despite them. This past month, he earned his Walk of Fame star anyway. “For anyone whose dreams may be on life support,” Perry addressed the crowd, I want you to walk past this star, in particular, and know that I’ve been there.” As he clutched his Ultimate Icon trophy at this year’s BET Awards ceremony, Perry offered up words of wisdom for persons of color striving for better representation in American media. “While you’re fighting for a seat at the table,” Perry told them, “I’ll be down in Atlanta building my own.” Where, precisely? At a huge swath of what was previously Fort MacPherson, a closed US Army base that, at the time of the Civil War, sited Confederate soldiers, “plotting and planning,” he said, “on how to keep 3.9 million Negroes enslaved.” “Now,” the once broke and homeless Atlanta resident noted, to thunderous applause, “that land is owned… by one Negro.” At 330 acres, Tyler Perry Studios is bigger, in land area, than Hollywood’s Warner Bros., Walt Disney Studios, and Paramount Pictures. Combined. Will his film studio one day become bigger in other respects, too? Don’t count him out. The new state highway sign, directing drivers to Tyler Perry Studios, is adjacent to the longstanding sign for Sylvan Road, an Atlanta street that was the site of one of the apartments that evicted him just over two decades ago. Headed down the wrong road, Tyler’s life could have gone one way. Instead, he figured out how to make his own lane. Today, he’s making a way for many others. Another local who once made a brief living selling cars? How about RuPaul Andre Charles? Kicked out of high school in San Diego, ostensibly, for being truant, Charles moved east with his sister and brother-in-law, working for six years in the family auto sales business. He didn’t graduate here in Atlanta, either, but it was at the local high school’s performing arts program where he found his calling. “You can call me, ‘he’. You can call me, ‘she’. You can call me Regis and Kathie Lee,” one of RuPaul’s now-famous lines go, “I don’t care! Just as long as you call ME.” Ru’s willful embrace of gender-bending for purposes of entertainment was not entirely a transcendent thing in NYC, or LA. But he found a way to make himself stand out even amongst those in the burgeoning drag scene of Midtown Atlanta. It is this city’s glitzy gumbo pot of condo and office towers now. But it was the drag performers of the 1980s, and RuPaul notably, that helped rambunctious Midtown claim its counter-cultural ascendancy. “RuPaul is RED HOT” was the sign repeatedly plastered on dumpsters behind the neighborhood’s withered apartment dwellings. Ru would know, because she’s the one who put them there, after moving into a sublet apartment blocks away from the wild all-night dance clubs and stages that lined this once-abandoned stretch of Peachtree Street. She also promoted herself through a weekly video show on public-access TV, and through his own filmmaking, “these trashy little movies on VHS,” Ru explained. “Atlanta gave me the freedom to produce that kind of stuff.” While most envision Ru these days with glamourous wigs and glittery attire, in the 1980s, he was this town’s androgynous punk-drag performer. The frontperson for a local punk-rock band called Wee Wee Pole, Ru stood in tall contrast to the expected “norms”, if you will, of Southern-style drag presentation as The Genteel Women of Tara. He could have stopped there, that guy who once headlined standing-room-only, late-night shows in a now gentrified part of town, back in the 1980s. She could have stopped after moving to New York City and emerging quickly as the Queen of Manhattan. He could have stopped at being that partying guy in the crowd with the Afro-wig who carried the day for Athens band The B-52’s iconic “Love Shack” music video. Or, as the Supermodel who had just one thing to say – “You better WORK!” – in the chart-busting dance hit of her own in the early 1990s. As the first male to hold a modeling contract for a major cosmetics line. As TV’s first openly gay national talk show host. But, no. RuPaul wasn’t through. America’s Biggest Drag Superstar made it her mission to find America’s Next Drag Superstar. Putting the campy drama of hard-working drag queens front-and-center on the small screen while merging America’s Next Top Model with Project Runway, RuPaul’s Drag Race was born in 2009. A decade later, the Emmy-winning reality competition show continues to soar annually in ratings and Twitter reactions as it anchors its Viacom cable channels. Its internationally inspirational host has vaulted, meanwhile, from a counter-cultural icon to a cross-cultural one. Around the corner from her modest old apartment, RuPaul returns to Midtown, the neighborhood she put on the global map, in a few weeks, this time bringing her Drag Race World Tour to Atlanta Symphony Hall. “I never set out to be a role model,” Ru admitted to Vogue UK. “I may have set out to be a Super model, but not a role model. But I accept the responsibility and it’s an honor.” Who quits Georgia Tech in their senior year to go to work? You might, if your dad had some pull as a local executive at computing giant IBM in the 1980s. But who, a few years later, quits IBM in the 1980s… IBM!... to pursue a career in… comedy tours??? You might be Jeff Foxworthy, a kid who grew up in the little ol’ town of Hapeville in the shadow of Atlanta’s big ol’ airport. Jeff’s co-workers prodded the jovial mainframe repair technician to enter the Great Southeastern Laugh-Off competition, at a comedy club behind a diner north of Buckhead. He entered, and he “won”… second place. He was inspired enough, by this victorious-ish reception, to leave those green blinking cursors and heavy plastic boxes behind, for good. But, here’s the rub. The “professional” comedy world, such as it was, didn’t look fondly upon those who endeavored below the Mason-Dixon line. Intellectualism and wit were not seen as likely strong suits for Southerners who ventured into standup. Even if you were a clever young man who did just fine at Georgia Tech and IBM, to the rest of the world, there was always that drawl that had people seeing you as a country bumpkin and selling you short. “I think it was 1987,” Jeff recalled to MLive a couple years ago. “They were kidding me because I had this Southern accent.” Foxworthy’s ventures had him joining other comedians at standup venues outside Detroit, this time behind a bowling emporium. “I was wearing blue jeans and cowboy boots and drove a pickup truck. They were kidding me about being a redneck.” Little did these jokester upstarts know what they were about to unearth. “I said, ‘Come, look out the window. If you don’t think you have rednecks in Michigan, look. People are valet parking… in the bowling alley!’” He made his point, with his uniquely humorous style. But from that moment on, he was done with pulling his punchlines. “I went back to the hotel that night and said, ‘I know what I am but, apparently, a lot of people don’t.’ And I wrote, ’10 Ways to Tell How You Might Be a Redneck,’ never thinking it was going to be a book.” “From that first night, not only did people laugh, they were pointing at each other.” The best comedians offer up plenty of self-effacing humor, but offer audiences opportunities to laugh about themselves, and discover the silly commonalities they share with strangers. His “You Might Be a Redneck, If…” one-liners were not merely comedy gold. His first two “Redneck” comedy albums went certified Platinum. That success spawned an eponymous TV sitcom, “The Jeff Foxworthy Show,” that was promptly cancelled by network execs who felt his routines were “too Southern,” he was told, for a national audience. (“Has ANYONE heard me TALK?”, he later quipped to his standup audiences). He could have stopped there, that guy who made people cackle with an unending litany of redneck jokes. But Jeff Foxworthy was not done. More Grammy-nominated comedy albums were in the offing. Country music awards host, nationally syndicated radio show host. A voiceover for animated movies. Writing an autobiography, writing a cookbook, writing Redneck Dictionaries. 28 books authored… and counting. Having long demonstrated he was, indeed, Smarter Than A 5th Grader, Jeff became a primetime game-show host, daring contestants and grade-schoolers to flex their brains, too. Need a Bible-quiz game show host? Jeff’s got you covered. “Southern-fried” and “common-man” comedy was now firmly in demand, and through the wildly popular “Blue Collar Comedy Tour,” Foxworthy convened several of his comedian friends who would become icons by their own right. Larry the Cable Guy? Ron White? Bill Engvall? Did you doubt they would all become household names and sought-out celebrities by the mid-2000s? Here’s your sign. The guy whose professional future was once questioned and belittled has become the top-selling comedy recording artist in history. All the while, over the past decade, Foxworthy has toiled as an advocate for the homeless. Working with Atlanta Mission, he arrives with Chick-fil-A biscuits in the mornings, holds Bible study sessions for hundreds of homeless men, and promises support with housing and family assistance for those making progress in recovering from drug and/or alcohol addictions. “I’ve always had a heart for the underdog,” Jeff explained to First Coast News, “because I’m an underdog, where I came from. I just don’t think you can judge somebody, based on the quality of their shirt or their shoes, because you don’t know what beats in their heart underneath.” How about one more underdog? “I would be over sleeping on the floor,” said Montero Lamar Hill, a former resident of the Bankhead Courts projects, and a recent graduate of Lithia Springs High, of his sister’s house in Atlanta. “I didn’t want to come back home, because I knew my parents would be mad at me.” Montero’s story of having struggled to make ends meet, working low-wage gigs at Zaxby’s and Six Flags after dropping out of college (unlike rising Tech senior Foxworthy, Hill left West Georgia U. as a freshman) to become a rapper, isn’t ground-breaking stuff, not in this day and age. Yet this newly 20-year-old’s particular tale was being published by Time magazine, for their cover story, and with good reason. 2019, A.D., IS The Year of Lil Nas X. Like it or not. Without a doubt, many are in the “not” column when it pertains to the out-of-nowhere, self-made artist with a “country-trap” blockbuster hit. But the “nots” have found themselves increasingly too small to matter, their shrills and shrieks drowned out by popular demand. Hill, like legions of teens before and soon-to-follow, craved to become an Internet sensation. Also, like 99.99999% of them, he just couldn’t quite figure out how. Facebook, Vine, Twitter, Soundcloud, making memes, making songs, fashioning himself a foremost Nicki Minaj stan. “At first, I was just bored, like, ‘Hey, Twitter, I made a song,” he told Teen Vogue. “But I’m like, ‘Wait, this is really hard.’” “A lot of it was me trying to be something that people would like, instead of making music I would like.” That revelation was the first crack in the dam. But time was running out with his sis, who was also hosting two other siblings (including a brother fresh out from prison) while raising kids of her own. Her warning to Montero that he would soon be kicked out… Where is he gonna go? What is he gonna do?... spurred, if you will, him to sit on her back porch and listen to a generic country-trap beat that prompted the now famous lyrics to “Old Town Road”. He’ll tell you exactly what he’s gonna do, and you’ll find yourself singing the lyrics, recorded in a modest Atlanta studio in less than one hour for $20, right in tune with him. Many wannabe influencers and artists struggle to navigate the changing tides of the Internet streaming age, but Hill seems to have figured out how to surf the waves without having to rent a board. Listing his song as a country tune on SoundCloud and iTunes, he was able to stand out in ways he would not under the crowded Hip Hop format. When “Old Town Road” caught a high tide of eager young ears on the video-making app TikTok (Yes, we all know where TikTok is from, don’t blame LeBron), the old-school radio industry couldn’t avoid it. Some country stations copped the infectious song off the Internet for casual airplay, before Hill could even find himself a record label to rep him. Listeners slammed radio stations’ phone lines and inboxes, desperate to find the song and the mystery artist. But how Lil Nas X wound up getting Billboard’s attention was no fault of his own. Trying to stay ahead of the game, the music-ranking company recently began tracking much more than radio airplay, applying weights to better account for Internet-streamed songs and albums in its weekly “Hot 100” lists. Thanks largely to those strategic changes, Billboard execs woke one March morning to find an ATL-area kid’s online jam debuting on the Hot 100 (#83), the Hot R&B/Hip Hop chart (#36), and the Hot Country Songs (#19) chart. All at the same time. Someone in Nashville was not thrilled with this particular crossover song, not at all. In their infinite wisdom, Billboard surreptitiously omitted it from the latter list the following week. They thought they had done so neatly and quietly enough. But the unexplained absence was too conspicuous to avoid the firestorm of controversy and “country-splaining” that ensued. It’s not “country” enough, they said. Doesn’t have enough of the right “elements” for the genre, they said, or maybe too much of those “other” elements. Mama, please, don’t let your babies grow up to be music execs. If you ever want something remotely interesting to become insatiably popular, get it labeled, “That Thing That THEY Don’t Want You to See/Hear/Taste!” Hill could have stopped there, as that kid that created a brief spell of buzz with his little ditty on the Interwebs. But Lil Nas X was far from done. He formed an alliance with Billy Ray Cyrus, the famous country singer who knows a thing about one-hit-wonders and offered support, and the resulting “OTR” remix became a bigger banger than the original. Because of Billboard’s rule, lumping remixes in with original songs, “Old Town Road” went stratospheric. More remixes and collabs with a diverse range of artists would soon follow, adding fuel to an unquenchable fire. DJ Diplo. Atlanta rapper Young Thug. The Yodeling Kid, Mason Ramsey. A K-pop rapper from BTS (“Seoul Town Road”). In the space of months, Montero Hill went from a random, struggling young adult stringing out his time in his sister’s backyard to the singular producer of the world’s longest-running song on the Hot 100 (19 weeks at the #1 spot) since Billboard began the chart in 1958. He has been hauling in golden accolades – this year’s MTV Video Music Award for Song of the Year, the Teen Choice Award for best R&B/Hip Hop Song, the BET Hip Hop Award for Single of the Year and Best Collab (with Cyrus). Next month, he’ll be the first out gay man to be a nominee at country music’s CMA awards. All this, from making music he likes, not following some bigwig’s time-tested formulae. “Well, to me, Lil Nas X is my mic drop moment.” So says Ken Burns – yes, That Guy – fresh off of producing his latest major PBS documentary epic, Country Music. “We spend eight episodes and sixteen and a half hours talking about the fact that country music has never been one thing… and here we are, in a new modern age that we’re not touching, with all these classic, binary arguments about Billboard not listing [“Old Town Road”] on the Country chart, and it turns out to be not just the #1 Country hit, but the #1 single, period. And it’s a black, gay rapper!” “It just is proving,” Burns suggests, “that all of those cycles that we have been reporting on across the decades – all of the tensions in country music of race, class, poverty, gender, creativity versus commerce, geography – are still going on.” Only in America, many rightfully exclaim. But an important corollary seems increasingly hard to disavow: Only from Atlanta. It’s here where, as Burns alludes, people of many backgrounds flex their creativity to conquer commerce, transcending societal norms, the “it’s not your turn”-isms, the “you’re not people’s type”-isms, the “there’s only one way to go about it”-isms. Everyday people defying convention, succeeding spectacularly, and steering their own paths, despite the whims of self-styled kingmakers and queenmakers. The mythological Horatio Alger tales that inspired people in the Gilded Age, centuries ago, are happening, in real life, in real time. These “rags to riches” stories come about in a myriad of ways Alger himself could never have dreamed up, happening to individuals those of Alger’s ilk could never have envisioned. Notably, they’re happening in a place – Atlanta – whose own rise, as a modern metropolis that stands quite well on its own merits, could not be grasped by those who attribute, “making it in America,” to the bright lights of old megalopolises like New York, Chicago or L.A. Julia Roberts. Spike Lee. d*ck Van Dyke. Ryan Seacrest. Clyde Frazier. Clark Howard. Chris Tucker. Most recently, Coco Gauff. These are names people across the country, if not around the globe, know quite well, and most don’t know them by their leaner years in the Atlanta area. Some were born in metropolitan Atlanta. Some were transplants. Some had more means than others. But even people who have long lived here don’t recognize how significant the Atlanta region was, as the definitive Proving Ground for the world-renowned celebrities these people would become. Of The ATL, today’s Sinatra would croon, “Before you even try to make it anywhere, figure out how to make it, here.” “We full!” Many folks already in the Atlanta area, including transplants from generations ago, still stand aghast at how many young people flock here to stay, thousands of newbies striking out on their own, others with kids or whole nuclear families in tow. Some are destitute and desperate; some are striving to gain a foothold in America for the first time; some are kids eager to get out from under their well-made families’ thumbs. Folks from the outside looking in generally don’t get it, either. If suns-out, guns-and-buns-out is your scene, there are many more tropical and coastal climes, with hotties in tanks and sundresses, to choose from. There are more established financial centers, bigger entertainment and media hubs, infinitely more affordable places to live. Not only are there no palm trees, or money growing on trees, you can’t even pick peaches off the street trees here. So, what’s the big deal about Coming To ATL? Can't you just go to Disney World if you want to make your dreams come true? The skeptics are unable to see the mysticism that these young hopefuls do, what brings the storylines of some of America’s most successful self-made people to fruition. Not everyone, or even most citizens, achieve their dreams here. But there are those who have the best combination of unique talent, drive, and fortitude. For that subset, it is the ATL, and the synergy amongst its residents, that bears better fruit than anywhere else they could conceivably go. Move Fast and Break Things is not just a well-worn mantra in Silicon Valley. It’s part of the common thread for how ATLiens ascend out of seemingly nowhere. They take huge personal risks. They often fail, learn from their failures, re-assess, and persist in pecking away until the breakthrough happens. Crucially, these ATLiens do not stop at just the first hint of success. They’re quick to show gratitude to those who offered them support, no matter how small, along the way. They connect with, and assist, people who struggle in similar ways as they once did. And they work around, over, and past, those who are too quick to pigeon-hole and castigate them based on who they are, how they appear, or where they came from. Taking big chances often involves making the most out of what limited means one has at his or her disposal. “At the time, I was young and I didn't have no job,” said Mississippian-turned-Atlantan Justin Scott to Pitchfork magazine, back in 2010, in a now-familiar refrain around here. “It wasn't like I could really afford to pay for beats. At the same time, there was this program that came out for PlayStation, MTV Music Generator, where you could make your own beats. So I started making my own beats right around that time because I just couldn't afford to pay for the other ones.” Fast forward nine years, and Scott has released his fourth studio album. As the critically acclaimed rapper Big K.R.I.T., he provides the pump-up gameday Intro this season for the Atlanta Hawks at State Farm Arena. When he exclaims to the local crowd, “I. NEED. YOUR. ENERGY.”, Big K.R.I.T. isn’t goofing around. He, like the Hawks (1-0), thrive on that unique, True To Atlanta spirit that can transform Underdogs into Top Dawgs in a heartbeat. The kind of unbridled energy that morphs a 15-year-old drug arrestee into a 35-year-old Grammy nominee named 2Chainz, and… not stopping there… a 42-year-old minority owner of an NBA G-league team in his birthplace. ATLiens may fall down, even hard, on occasion. But when they figure out how to get up, man alive, do they get UP. After the 2019 All-Star Break, coach Lloyd Pierce’s team pulled off six victories in their final nine games here at State Farm Arena. Often, his Hawks managed to enthrall audiences even in some tank-friendly outcomes where his Hawks fell just short by the final horn. Even with NBA Finals contenders like Milwaukee and Philadelphia passing through, Trae Young, John Collins, Kevin Huerter and the Hawks discovered an increasing number of attendees at The Farm were not simply here to cheer on the opposition. A winning home record is a necessity for a team, even one in the Eastern Conference, seeking a reservation for the NBA Playoffs (23-18 minimum over the past four seasons). Coming off a satisfying season-opening win in Motown, Atlanta’s first meeting with Steve Clifford’s bedeviling Orlando Magic (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida) kicks off a run of six home games over 14 days, interrupted only by a brief trip to Miami next Tuesday. Feasting on the fan energy and picking up a few tough Ws in this early stretch could go a very long way in achieving goals by this season’s end. Especially against teams like the reigning Southeast Division champion Magic (4-0 versus ATL last season; finished 3 games ahead of 9-seed Charlotte in the division). Orlando is stocked with veterans that have already built up a solid rapport, especially on the defensive end (1st in D-Rating after a 94-85 home win over Cleveland), while phasing in a few young hopefuls, like former top-pick Markelle Fultz, and former Cam Reddish high-school teammate Mo Bamba. For a team that’s committed to learn on the fly faster than anyone in this league, this fever-paced Hawks team is Moving Fast and Breaking Things, lathering up the kind of local support that could soon propel them past teams like Orlando and right on over the perpetual Lottery hump. You’d best believe, these Hawks don’t intend to stop there. With fan support behind them, they’re gonna ride, until they can’t no more. Whenever this core of upstarts emerges from the NBA crucible as championship contenders, they’ll know… thanks to Atlanta, They’ve Been Changed. All around town, we’ll sense it, too. Along with Atlanta United, this group of Hawks could help change the trajectory of Atlanta sports history, forever. And it won’t be terribly long thereafter before the rest of the world wonders, “Whoa… where did all these great guys come from?” Let’s Go Atlanta! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  23. Yes, Billy earned himself a statue, too. Sorry, Danny. Good evening, Friends! I am not just addressing all of you out there in Atlanta Hawks Nation, eagerly awaiting today’s season opener versus the Detroit Pistons (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and V-103 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit) at Little Caesars Arena. By “Friends,” I also refer to individuals among us of the Quaker faith. If you’re not one, and you come across one, hug one. (WARNING: the following may contain perspectives gained from the Cracker Jack Box School of Theology. Viewer discretion is advised.) Around for over 350 years since its founding in England, the Quakers’ central tenet involves a belief that there exists a spiritual “light within”, a light which each human can internally access through experientialism, as opposed to relying on external, sacramental sources. Formally the “Religious Society of Friends,” Quakers got their name when their mid-17th-century founder, a dissenting English preacher testifying amid accusations of religious blasphemy, cited a magistrate judge who mockingly claimed he “bade them tremble” at what the founder asserted was “the word of the Lord”. The basis for “Friends” is a biblical reference in the Book of John, where The Notorious J.H.C. distinguishes his “friends” from mere servants. Associated with the Quakers’ signature wide-brim hats was the founder’s refusal to remove hats in court, or to comply with orders to be subservient or subjugate to laws that implied some divinely driven hierarchy among humans. It is why many Quakers grew to be acknowledged among the foremost abolitionists and opponents to slavery. It is also why they became one of the Protestant sects most rooted in pacifism. After World War II, the Quakers, many of whom were conscientious objectors, would become the first religious organization to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. The treatment of Quakers as heretics worthy of persecution was frequent in both the Old and the New World, where a Quaker convert turned colonial by the name of William Penn set up shop in the 1680s. The recipient of land as repayment of debts the King of England owed to his father, Penn granted 1,000 acres in his new Province of Pennsylvania to the Quakers’ founder, vowing to establish a colony where inhabitants were free from religious persecution and unjust imprisonment. He also planned and developed the capital of the future United States, the city of Philadelphia. Penn insisted that Quaker grammar schools be open to all citizens. His William Penn Charter School (1689), the first Quaker school in America and the school that, today, claims a strapping fellow named Matt Ryan as an alum, offered education to all races as early as 1770. Growing schools like Penn Charter began to build campuses outside of Philadelphia’s original city proper. Westtown School (1799) was built for coeds to live in West Chester, a one-day carriage ride away from the secular influences of Philadelphia. Friends Central (1845) moved out of Center City Philly to a sprawling suburban campus in Wynnewood in 1925. Beginning in the 1960s, notably with Power Memorial in NYC, DeMatha in suburban Washington, D.C., Evan Turner’s St. Joseph’s (of Hoop Dreams fame) outside Chicago, and St. Anthony in Newark, Catholic schools began recruiting and enrolling standout African American prep athletes, especially in the desegregating sport of basketball. The idea was to gain positive notoriety, local prestige and, in the process of building renowned athletic programs, perhaps some new adherents as well. The successful religious-based basketball programs became powerhouses on a regional, state, and even national scale. The movement to cast larger nets for basketball talent extended not only to religious schools like Philly’s Roman Catholic High, but the secular suburban ones, too. Wynnewood, in Pennsylvania’s Lower Merion Township, is home to not only Friends Central, but the public Lower Merion High School that Kobe Bryant and his many jersey-rocking stans have made famous. It was probably around the time of young Kobe’s prominence that Friends Central, and other Quaker schools, decided their athletic programs needed to get in on the act. The first future NCAA Final Four hero to walk the halls at Friends Central was a pogo stick out of Philly named Hakim Warrick. The Quaker schools ran independently from the state’s interscholastic hoop tourneys at the time, yet in 2001, Warrick helped snag the school’s first Friends Schools League title since 1974 before going on to become a legend at Syracuse. The next year, they drew future Arizona Wildcat Mustafa Shakur away from a Philly public school named coincidentally after William Penn. By the end of that decade, Friends Central was riding the skills of Philly-kid Amile Jefferson to the first of four straight state independent-school titles, drawing the attention of scouts at Duke University. Jefferson would go on to become a three-time team captain for a Blue Devils squad that won the 2015 NCAA title. No Dookie would ever appear in more games than Jefferson. Coach K and company didn’t return to this particular well at Friends Central, leaving the state’s 2016 Class AA Player of the Year, senior De’Andre Hunter, who was raised in Northeast Philly near his Under Armour circuit-ball teammate (Hawks two-way contractor Charlie Brown) to settle for a less-accomplished ACC program at the University of Virginia. But Duke was not done with Quaker schools from the Quaker State. Sports Illustrated, while producing a full-length documentary in 2018, claimed the Westtown School’s basketball team featured, “perhaps the greatest starting five in HS basketball history,” which is lofty praise, indeed. The towering center Mo Bamba commanded everyone’s attention, but it was the super-shy introverted kid, about five inches smaller, that Westtown’s head coach could not stop raving about. “Cam (Reddish) is the hardest working player I’ve ever had,” said Westtown coach Seth Berger to SI, “it’s not close… You’ll never see him try a move that he hasn’t practiced in the gym by himself… He’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen in high school… unquestionably, the best combination of skill, size, athleticism, and intelligence.” More lofty praise for Reddish, 2018’s Mr. Pennsylvania Basketball, who grew up in gritty Philly-burb Norristown, same as Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce’s wife. Once more, Coach K was sold. Outside of high school hoops, Hunter and Brown trained together under Sean Colson, a former Philly prep star and journeyman pro who had a cup of tea in the NBA back in 2001, with ten-day contracts in Atlanta and Houston. De'Andre took Hakim’s and Amile’s college-championship legacy at Friends Central and turned it into a lineage. He led his UVA Cavaliers on a wild-and-woolly March Madness journey to the 2019 NCAA title while avenging an embarrassing loss when the top-seeded Cavs had to play the 2018 tourney without him. Another accented DeAndre of sorts, the Atlanta Hawks’ DeAndre' Bembry, mentored the college star, Brown, who followed him down the road from Friends Central at St. Joseph’s University. Now they may very well be teammates on an NBA floor. All of these local connections add credence to those who suspect Travis Schlenk, the Hawks’ GM and new Prez of Basketball Ops, must have aced a Chemistry class or two back in his own school days. Even better, Schlenk came away with a bachelor’s in something called Human Ecology, the interdisciplinary study of humans’ relationships with their natural, social, and built environments. But I posit there’s more involved than mere Philly roots when Schlenk and the Hawks maneuvered to pair these particular lottery talents with Atlanta’s growing stable of blue-chip pro-spects. Quaker schools are not into the whole proselytizing business. But both Westtown and Friends Central do require their students to attend a weekly “Meeting for Worship.” It’s akin to a collective for a Protestant church service. Except here, the Meeting of Friends and students involves sitting together, generally in silence, for at least a half-hour. Exceptions may include a Meeting leader who presents a query, or food for thought, as a point of initiation. Occasionally, after many minutes of pondering, an attendee will be moved by their “inner light” to stand and offer thoughts, or poems or songs, they find to be beneficial to the attending community. After that, it’s back to the silent treatment until the Meeting concludes. If you’ve managed to read this far, you’d know I’d be toast at these Meetings. If you’ve heard about Reddish, and Hunter, being a bit reserved for the types of players pro teams tend to gravitate toward, I may suggest that weeks after weeks of mandatory Friends’ Meetings will do that to you. The incoming first-rounders are mistaken by those not in the know as bearing some detrimental sense of passivity, of deference, of timidity that won’t fare well as the spotlight shines even brighter at this level. Schlenk was in the Warriors’ war room back in 2012, when Draymond Green fell into Golden State’s lap at Pick #35. He understands that there is room in this league for the more caustic, extroverted opinion machines like Green, when those teammates commit to improving their own game, conditioning, and leadership skills along the way. Travis was also in the draft room a year prior, when a decision to take the more reserved, withdrawn Klay Thompson at Pick #11 was at hand. Declining to pass up on either player was key to the bonanza of basketball excellence that would soon support the Warriors’ young, nifty-dribbling, sweet-shooting point guard star. Thompson, and the reigning NBA Finals MVP, could be categorized as the “strong, silent types” whose game occasionally makes all the noise anyone needs to hear. That “silent, with an emphasis on strong” characterization could very well be the future cases for both Hunter and Reddish, and perhaps 2018-19 All-Rookie selection Kevin Huerter, too. In Atlanta, for now, they can leave the jersey-tugging and flexing and crowd-rousing to 2019 All-Star candidates Trae Young and John Collins. If Reddish read his press clippings and hogged the ball during his stay in Durham, maybe Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett don’t get enough chances to shine as play-finishers and become Top 3 picks in the 2019 Draft. Maybe the trio of frosh doesn’t outlast Hunter’s eventual Natty winner, UVA, to emerge with the ACC conference title, and advance to within a single point of the Final Four. Cam routinely deferred, stepping forward only when called upon in critical moments, and his team won 32 games anyway. Now, instead of a 6’6”, 270-pound rim-rocking behemoth at center stage obscuring Reddish, the marquee in Atlanta is for a 6’2”, 180-pound sprite who absolutely craves finding creative ways to share the ball with talented guys like him. For the lottery rooks, their common off-court tutelage brings even more to the table for the young Hawks. Quakers are well-renowned for their structured consensus-building and mutual decision-making process. The underlying assumption is the sense of a common humanity, pulling toward “unity” rather than “unanimity” when there’s a need to reach a resolution. The “Quaker-based” consensus model produces team members who are well-versed in the practice of active listening, ensuring that every voice, including those of dissenters, is heard and valued equally in discussion. Adversity looms for all young teams in the pros as they look to make the rugged, slippery climb toward relevance and contention. Rough stretches of quarters, of whole games, of whole weeks, await. Especially eager to face the Hawks, in the early going, are teams loaded with veteran players and highly experienced staff. Teams like the Pistons, a squad that broke even (41-41) under coach Dwane Casey in 2018-19 and secured an 8-seed, one that returns its star talents and most of its starters despite a 4-game first-round bludgeoning at the hands of their division rival Bucks. Fervent in their belief they’ll need vets couched around Blake Griffin (out until November, hammy and sore knee) and Andre Drummond to better compete, Detroit’s biggest offseason additions were Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris, and soon-to-be fellow tricenarian Tim Frazier. On draft day, they acquired Kevin Porter and veteran Tony Snell from the Bucks, then cast off the 19-year-old prospect, Porter, for a trove of Cleveland’s future second-rounders and cash. With eight regular-rotation Pistons having at least five NBA seasons under their belts (almost nine, had they hung on to our old friend Joe), they are a team that can stash youngsters like Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, Svi Mykhailiuk and Khyri Thomas, pinning their development to the team’s long-term hopes rather than their immediate ones. Highly regarded NBA rookies and sophomores in repetitive lottery locales like, say, New York, or Dallas last season, will be looked upon to seize the Singular Superstar mantle, solve challenges mostly on their own, and turn things around in ways their predecessor peers could not. They often must swim upstream against veteran squads like the Pistons despite, not so much with, the residual talents of flawed teammates that put them in this situation in the first place. Conversely, in Atlanta, Hunter and Reddish can demonstrate leadership through listening and collaboration, contributing to an even-keeled locker room. They will have a stern yet relatable taskmaster in Pierce bending their ears, and a host of veterans, including the venerable Vince Carter, to help get them acclimated with all the off-court rigors and on-court tricks of the trade. Barely a couple months younger than the 22-year-old Collins, Hunter enters the league with a maturity and composure one normally would not expect of his newbie cohorts. For Hawks fans in search of something a lot more tangible in the near term, the rookies, including second-round center Bruno Fernando, step onto the court as the team’s best bets to make immediate impacts on the defensive end of the floor, the side where the Hawks found themselves most woefully inadequate in 2018-19 (28th in 2018-19 Defensive Rating, 24th after the All-Star Break, 22nd in final 15 games of the season; NBA-worst 20.9 opponent points-per-48 off TOs). The young veterans like Collins (5th-best in 2018-19 NBA for Roll-Man Defensive points per possession, min. 40 games played), Young and Alex Len will be expected to continue making defensive strides this season. But the first-year performers could be the rising tides that float all the Hawks’ boats. While both will start tonight, as Huerter’s minutes are restrained due to preseason recovery, whichever of Hunter or Reddish does not remain in Atlanta’s precocious starting five could be one of the strongest rookie candidates for Sixth Man of the Year since the days of Ben Gordon. Surrounded by a host of experienced veterans, including Turner, Bembry, Jabari Parker, Chandler Parsons, Allen Crabbe and Damian Jones, the rookie reserve is sure to have a featured play-making role while also charged with inducing stops on the defensive end. There’s no certainty that the Hawks’ plans will bear fruit immediately, or even this season, in the form of a formidable postseason contender. Yet the consumer confidence in this team’s long-term potential, carried over from the promising close of last season, has arguably never been higher entering an NBA season. Fan skepticism around an NBA team coming off a 29-53 campaign, conversely, has never been lower. If the playoff payoff begins to arrive in 2020, at State Farm Arena, there will be a whole lotta quakin’ going on, in the ATL and beyond. In the months and years to come, if Hunter and Reddish have much to do with a sudden basketball breakthrough, with teammates discovering and embracing their “inner light” as they reshape themselves into legitimate contention, Hawks fans will have many a Friend to be thankful for. Just remember, before you hug any Quakers in appreciation for their contributions, they had absolutely nothing to do with oatmeal or motor oil. Let’s Go Hawks! (and you too, Five Stripes!) ~lw3
  24. “Is that… is that HAIR GEL???” Back-to-back, jack! The Hawks return from their humbling of the Chucklehead last night in New York to vie for their first home victory of the season. In the first of a home-and-home weekend series, their opponents tonight at the Highlight Factory are the Charlotte Hornets (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast), the NBA’s ultimate trial-and-error team. Really, when it comes to personnel, they’ll try just about anything and anybody. Ask yourself where Sam Vincent is, or where Mike Dunlap is, right now (Sam’s in Bahrain, while Mike’s at Loyola Marymount). His Errness pulling the strings at draft time? Letting a head coach’s son call the shots at the end of the season? Replacing that head coach with a college assistant? Anything is possible. If you ever plan on doing anything that gives the Hornets (0-1) pause, you’d best not do it. They tried the whole get-the-worst-record-ever thing in a Dive for Davis, and it netted them Michael Kidd-Gilchrist for all the trouble. Since then, they’ve tried the summertime free-agent splashy thing, in hopes the occasional dash of veteran juice to some organic lottery-player growth will eventually make this franchise, playoff participants just twice in the past 12 years, something like a phenomenon. 2013’s Big Get was Al Jefferson. While the acquisition paid off with a 7th-seed in the 2014 Playoffs, and an All-NBA Third-Team nod for the Hornets center, his unyielding love for Bojangles imperiled the Man with a Million Moves’ ability to maximize his effectiveness in the post. Jefferson vows he has ditched the fried chicken and is conditioned to run a full court for a full season. 2014’s Big Get was Lance Stephenson. But Born Ready’s willingness to adopt coach Steve Clifford’s schemes and play team ball was Still Born from the jump, and his jump-shooting was historically bad. Like many of the Hornets’ grand plans, Stephenson was rolled into town on a teal carpet and, mere months later, run out of town on a rail, with a trade to the Clippers. Then there was Noah Vonleh: this lottery pick will pair with Jefferson for years! Until he doesn’t. Good luck in Portland! 2015’s Big Get is Nicolas Batum, acquired in that trade of Gerald Henderson (another former lotto pick) and Vonleh to the Blazers. Nic Batum is French for “Big Tease,” but his jack-of-all-trades skillset is hoped to be the glue, in between ball-stopping stars Kemba Walker (another former lotto pick) and Jefferson that makes the Hornets’ offense flow. What if Batum doesn’t work out, either? Well, at least they tried: Batum’s contract expires this summer. Their less-Big-Get, Jeremy Lin, can form a potent dual-small-guard scoring backcourt to rival Jeff Teague and Dennis Schröder, when he’s not simply spelling Walker. After stops in New York, Houston, and L.A., Lin (17 bench points at Miami) must enjoy the love of a small-market team that wants him more for what he brings to the floor (scoring, and, yeah, scoring) than the benefits of his presence off of it. There’s no evidence that “Tank for The Tank” was a mantra last spring in the Carolinas, but the Hornets used their lotto pick this year on Frank Kaminsky, who’s destined to become a stage dancer at Madonna concerts if this whole NBA thing doesn’t work out. Last year’s Hornets were the most wayward three-point shooters in the league (31.8 team 3FG%) and they weren’t much better inside the line, either (45.0 team 2FG%, 29th in NBA). So the remake with Batum, Lin, and Kaminsky is intended to bring floor-stretching players on the floor to benefit Jefferson and Walker. While the early returns have been promising from long-range (36.1 preseason 3FG%, 6th in NBA), they could only hit six of their 24 three-point attempts in Wednesday’s 104-94 season-opening loss in Miami. Frank the Tank’s purported NBA-readiness was supposed to be the reason Charlotte passed over Justise Winslow, who went next to Miami. While Winslow logged 25 minutes in his debut, Kaminsky managed the fewest of any 2015 lottery selection, the equivalent of a Doug E. Fresh advisory (six minutes) while buried on the depth chart behind Marvin Williams (!) and Cody Zeller (another former lotto pick). Clifford was another off-the-radar coaching pickup by the experimental Hornets back in 2013. But the longtime former NBA assistant’s trial period expires this summer as well, and having run off one lottery pick and ducking two others behind Marvin (messed around with 10 points, 10 boards, 0-for-5 3FGs vs. Miami) can’t bode well for the prospects of a contract renewal. Significant growth from Zeller and Frank the Tank over the course of the season will be critical for Charlotte’s near-term and long-term outlook, as will figuring out a consistent defensive approach that was, momentarily, the Hornets’ calling card. Let’s not dwell on the Hornets defense for too long, as it’s rightfully a sore spot. The rim-protecting Bismack Biyombo (another former lotto pick) ran off to Toronto in the offseason, just like DeMarre Carroll. If you think you’re missing your shutdown small forward from last year, just imagine how Charlotte’s feeling after Kidd-Gilchrist went down with a torn labrum in a preseason game. Now, they’re turning to P.J. Hairston and Walker’s UConn teammate Jeremy Lamb (probable after missing the opener with an ankle injury) to hold serve. Charlotte will slide Batum to the 3-spot when Lin or Troy Daniels (questionable with a hamstring injury) enters for offensive punch, but that leaves the backcourt defense sagging. Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer knows tonight's game precedes the season's only 5-game calendar-week, beginning Sunday in Charlotte and featuring three division foes. So it’s as good a time as any for Kyle Korver (ankle rehab) to get some rest. Thabo Sefolosha will tag in for Korver on this second night of a back-to-back for the Hawks (1-1), who dusted the upstart Knicks in primetime last night with Korver (3-for-5 3FGs) and several Hawk players finding their groove. Who’s the leading three-point maker from last year on Atlanta’s active roster tonight? It’s Tim Hardaway, Jr., who may finally get some productive floor time tonight. Al Horford (21 points and 9 rebounds vs. New York) has to put Jefferson’s newly-fleet feet to the test. When Jefferson is taking shots in isolation, he’ll need Paul Millsap and Kent Bazemore to box out, allowing Horford to outrace Jefferson down the floor. The Hawks began to open things up in New York when Teague (23 points, 5-for-6 second-half FGs vs. New York) moved assertively toward the rim in transition, and when Hawks were individually beating their man down the floor. Millsap and Horford should find it easier to strategically crash the glass against a Charlotte team that ranked #1 in defensive rebounding percentage last season, before losing Biyombo and MKG. Acquired in the Stephenson swap, Spencer Hawes is another floor-stretchy big, but defense is far from his forte. Kemba (4 assists, no turnovers vs. Miami) has never blossomed into the All-Star many fans have longed for when he came out of college, but one thing he has done is keep the turnovers to a minimum. His 6.6 TOs per 100 possessions last season was the best among all NBA starting point guards, tremendous for a player who puts the ball on the floor as much as he does. His and Al Jefferson’s ability (5.9 turnover %, second-best in NBA in 2014-15) to play to their strengths and execute without giving the ball away gives Charlotte a fighting chance on a nightly basis. If tonight’s contest remains close-to-the-vest late in the game, instead of pounding the clock away, will Walker and Jefferson take more risks with the ball and kick the ball out to their new perimeter shooters, daring the Hawks to spread their defense? The Hornets certainly ought to give it a try. They’ve tried just about everything else. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record