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  1. “Thanks for the compliment about my new look! But, seriously, no, I’m not Kelly Oubre.” We’ve got a half-hearted team coached up to give half-behinded effort with half-hurt stars playing a half-hour early, as our Atlanta Hawks host the Chicago Bulls (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago) on the uphill climb toward .500 basketball. Trae Young (questionable, sprained ankle) will try to give it a go, likely joined by Lou Williams (upgraded to probable, hip discomfort) and, if Nate McMillan elects, second-round rookie Sharife Cooper to undergird the Hawks’ backcourt offense. Conversely, John Collins (doubtful, strained foot) will probably join Onyeka Okongwu (out, concussion protocol) among sidelined Hawks, putting more stress on Atlanta’s defense to hold up for 48 minutes (hopefully, not one minute more) against Chicago frontcourt stars DeMar DeRozan and Nikola Vucevic. Activity from Gorgui Dieng, Kevin Knox and, if Coach Nate elects, first-round rookie Jalen Johnson will need to be ramped up in Johnny Bap’s and Gwu Tang’s absences. Whoever is feeding Atlanta’s post players will need to ensure Clint Capela (2-for-4 FGs, 1-for-4 FTs @ BOS) gets significantly more paint shots than free throws. Starting ahead of Bogdan Bogdanovic (22.3 PPG, 54.7 FG% and 42.4 3FG% in past four games), Kevin Huerter has to be more consistent (0-for-4 FGs and 5 fouls in second half @ BOS). Sprinkle in however De’Andre Hunter (0-for-4 FGs w/ 1 rebound in 13 minutes @ CHI, 0-for-8 FGs w/ 3 rebounds and 1 assist in 37 minutes @ BOS) chooses to grace everyone with his presence on the floor, and tonight’s outcome might not be half-bad! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. Without Borders, indeed! Rounding the corner into the home stretch of the season are the Atlanta Hawks and the Chicago Bulls, resuming their seasons today at United Center (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago). We’ve got a pair of All-Star-led teams facing off that feel like they are a Prime Player X contributor away from legitimately vying for an NBA championship, sooner rather than later. It would be easy to imagine the Hawks (28-30) pulling up the tent on what has been a disappointing 2021-22 and chasing after Prime Player X at Draft time, or perhaps pursuing capital-H him via trade or free agency. As fans, we’d have to stretch our imaginations to assume Player X is fresh out the box ready to become at least a secondary or tertiary star, and that the coaching staff and the front office would be committed to facilitating that development, in swift order. Depending on from whence capital-H he hails, we’d also have to cross our fingers and hope this prime athlete isn’t drafted somewhere else entirely, conscripted for a couple years of reservist duty. Win Now? Win Soon? At the moment, it sounds a heckuva lot better than talking about some Win Dow, in the Windy City and back here in the ATL. Following a Trade Deadline tease or two, for Atlanta, it appears they’ll hope that Prime Player X is still hiding in plain sight on the roster somewhere. Barring unlikely breakthroughs by Kevin Knox or rookie Jalen Johnson, it is becoming clear the Hawks will lean hard on third-year pro De’Andre Hunter (last 3 games: 14.0 PPG, 41.0 FG%, 3.7 RPG, 1.0 APG in 33.7 MPG; DNP in last 4 meetings vs. CHI going back to last season) to become that jolly good fellow on which somebody can rely, until and maybe even after John Collins (doubtful, strained foot) returns from injury. Re-enlivened over the past month in his own return from injury and illness hiatuses, Bogdan Bogdanovic (last 12 games: 16.2 PPG, 41.6 3FG%, 4.0 APG and 1.3 TOs/game, 1.6 SPG) has been holding the fort in that secondary role. While coming off the bench as a spark, Bogi has helped Atlanta level the table with a 4-5 coast into the All-Star Break following a seven-game win streak, as has Kevin Huerter (7-for-25 3FGs in last four ATL losses, 13-for-26 in past four Hawk wins) when his jumper is on target. But you’ll forgive Bogi and countless others around the Association, like our old friend Alex Len, and Montenegrin globe-trotter and Bulls center Nikola Vucevic, for being a touch distracted by current events across the pond. Some of our American compatriots have to step it up in meaningful ways on the court during these final regular season games, and none are more potentially impactful than De’Andre. For the Hawks to bridge the gap from lethargic to legit, Hunter has to make proper reads on defense in the halfcourt and transition, not overhelping and getting caught in defensive no-man’s-lands, and helping Clint Capela (under 25 minutes in 10 of past 12 games, 6 of first 36 starts) secure rebounds when teammates properly contest, a task elevated tonight with Gorgui Dieng unavailable (personal leave). Further, De’Andre must make more lively decisions when the ball makes its way into his capable hands, and not waste valuable time within the shot clock. Tied with Miami for the East’s top spot, the Bulls (38-21) are in far better shape than the Hawks, to this point of the season, because coach Billy Donovan’s club has handled the business they are supposed to handle. As’s John Schuhmann broke down recently, Chicago is a spiffy 27-6 versus sub-.500 teams like Atlanta, but 11-15 against the 15 teams currently possessing winning records. Even with sustained MVP-quality scoring from DeMar DeRozan (career-high 28.1 PPG; incl. 35.8 PPG this month, 2nd in NBA), the Bulls will have to heal up and steel up if they want to conclude with what rivals Milwaukee as the league’s toughest remaining schedule. They still won’t have Alex Caruso (fractured wrist) to bolster the team defense (20th in team D-Rating) for a while. Although Zach LaVine (knee discomfort, missed 5 of CHI’s last 8 games) plans on returning to action today, Lonzo Ball continues recovering from his meniscus tear. Yet they do have the player selected in 2019’s Draft three picks after Hunter looking ready and willing to be their Prime Player X. Aiding shorthanded Chicago in entering the Break with a five-game winning streak, guard Coby White matched his season-high with 24 points (5-for-6 3FGs) as the Bulls stiff-armed the visiting Spurs. White surpassed that tally with 31 points (13 in the 4th quarter; 6-for-11 3FGs), plus another six assists to just one turnover, in last Wednesday’s victory over Len’s Kings. Sharing time in the starting backcourt with White, second-round rookie and Chicago native Ayo Dosunmu (last 18 starts: 39.7 3FG%, 6.8 APG, 1.3 SPG, 1.8 TOs/game) has been doing to live NBA competition what Atlanta native Sharife Cooper has been doing against G-League Maine. Dosunmu and White will give way to LaVine and Caruso as they return to full speed ahead of the postseason. But with the Bucks and Nets threatening to charge toward the top of the East, the Bulls are wary of allocating heavy minutes to LaVine, Javonte Green and Derrick Jones, and eventually Caruso and Patrick Williams, as they manage their individual nagging injuries and recovery periods. At least Chicago is proceeding from a position of strength. Atlanta remains in the precarious 10th spot in the East, with Washington nipping at the Hawks’ talons from one game back in the standings. Atlanta has a far simpler schedule going forward on paper, but they can only make a surge if they beat the teams in front of them with greater consistency. Specifically, teams like Chicago (15-13 on the road), who stops by Atlanta next Thursday in a stretch of 12 road contests over 15 games. The Hawks (11-17 in road games; 4-9 since rattling off six straight in November-December) must also return to knocking teams off on the road the way a tough postseason underdog would be tasked to do. Making incrementally better decisions closing out along the perimeter (36.1 opponent 3FG%, 6th-highest on road in NBA), and selectively fouling (81.2 opponent FT%, 2nd-highest on road in NBA), can help improve outcomes for the Hawks away from home. Atlanta ace Trae Young understands the urgency of improving his defensive footwork and awareness, but it is going to take Hunter and Huerter, and bench mates Delon Wright, Bogdanovic and Danilo Gallinari, coming out on the positive ends of their matchups for the Hawks to finally start making hay. Until Hunter is personally prepared to take the reins as Prime Player X, the Voltron approach will have to suffice. The Hawks accelerated their slow build with last year’s postseason prominence, inspiring long dormant teams like the Bulls and Cavaliers to swing harder for the fences this year. Even as they upgraded rosters and staffs in the offseason, Win Now didn’t seem like the most realistic goal for these teams entering this season. But with everything from COVID-19 to WW3 to CBA looming, there is frankly not much of an appetite for Win Dow Dressing at the moment. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. That's just the way it bounces, sometimes. ~lw3
  4. “And now… introducing… your CHICAGO BULL!” Rapid at-home testing kits to help detect You Know What will be available for order via “The Gummint” soon. But I’m taking the long view, looking forward to a day, at some indeterminable point in the future, where everyone’s Associate degrees in immunology and virology arrive in the mail. Among the first to receive such bestowals ought to be staff and playing members of the Chicago Bulls basketball club. For two of the next three days, the Bulls will go nose to particle-inhaling nose with the gentlemen wearing Atlanta Hawks costumes, beginning tonight at State Farm Arena (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago, NBATV), and continuing Wednesday in Chi-town. Probably. After variants of the global panini ran roughshod through virtually the entire roster, over the course of the past 50 calendar days, the Bulls are the NBA’s premier Petri dish. Beginning with yesterday’s 113-105 victory over the visiting Pacers, everyone is peering through microscopes, observing whether the promising momentum that reached an 8-3 start to Chicago’s season, until reigning All-Star center Nikola Vucevic missed a couple weeks after testing panini-positive, can be fully regained. Still weeks before the Hawaiian BBQ variant formally become one of concern within our borders, Vooch came down likely with the tried-and-true Extra Crispy variant, entering the NBA’s protocols on November 11. He missed seven games, in which time the Bulls suffered through a couple blowout losses, including a 32-point home loss to those pesky Pacers. But Chicago accorded themselves well, sweeping the Staples Center back-to-back to finish that seven-game stint with four wins in their pockets. We can suspect Vucevic wasn’t stricken with the Hawaiian BBQ flavor. That’s because his malady didn’t spread like wildfire across coach Billy Donovan’s roster, not in the way it would beginning the first week of December. We can’t say for certain whether Coby White was the equivalent of Mrs. O’Leary’s Cow. But the third-year guard’s positive test on December 3 ushered a month-long running of the Bulls, through the protocols entrance, that has directly impacted almost every then-active player. It’s a romp that continued on Sunday, when Lonzo Ball, Tony Bradley, and Alfonzo McKinnie caught the pregame hook, mere hours before last night’s tipoff. Marko Simonovic and Tyler Cook, what are your secrets? Testing panini-plus mere hours after White was forward Javonte Green, who slid into the starting lineup last month once Patrick Williams (wrist) was declared out for the season. A couple days later, it was leading scorer (26.7 PPG, most since 2016-17 w/ TOR) DeMar DeRozan’s turn to head for an isolation chamber. A couple days later, the card turned up for Matt Thomas, a backup guard who was retained in lieu of Stanley Johnson after training camp, but whose contract isn’t yet fully guaranteed. The next day… springy forward Derrick Jones? You’re the next contestant! Losing depth swiftly, Bulls management (GM Marc Eversley and team prez Arturas Karnisovas) raced to bring Johnson back on a ten-day deal. Barely three days into that deal, The Stanimal entered protocols, too, along with rookie guard Ayo Dosunmu. All-Star Zach LaVine and Troy Brown got tossed in the panini pan the next day, the soon-to-be-waived Alize Johnson the day after that. By that time, the Bulls were on the road, getting blown out in Cleveland and Miami. The dizzying array of lineups and rotations, due to all the outages, were adding stress and strain to the bodies of players not directly impacted by ailments. Ranking second in the NBA for per-game steals, Alex Caruso (career-high 28.0 minutes/game, up from 21.0 last season w/ LAL) was already hamstrung by lingering thigh and calf issues, causing him to miss a couple games earlier in the month. In the Bulls’ return from its week-long hiatus, Caruso logged 37 minutes in a win over his former Lakers. But he could only go for six minutes the next evening versus Houston, before suffering a foot sprain that now has him sidelined even longer. The NBA swooped in and postponed Bulls games on December 14 and 16, the schedule change making their next away game tonight’s affair in Atlanta. The beleaguered Bulls also compelled the league and the players’ union to modify rules allowing for more 10-day hardship signings, which will explain why you’ll rub your eyes after spotting Ersan Ilyasova in Chicago warmups today. With the hardships in tow, the Bulls might have been able to host Toronto at United Center last Wednesday. But by then, this wasn’t just a pressing issue for the Bulls. Literally every team, including the Raptors, have been swamped over the past couple weeks by this tsunami of Hawaiian BBQ, so that game was postponed, too. But then, the next day brought encouraging news. Two days before Christmas, and there were no Bulls in protocols! Even two-way player Devon Dotson, who entered protocols last Monday, was exiting them a couple days later. Everyone otherwise healthy was back at practice and at Donovan’s disposal on Thursday morning. “Today was productive,” the Bulls coach shared with NBC Sports Chicago and media after practice. “We need to make [Christmas Eve practice] productive.” Including Vucevic, Billy D emphasized the importance of getting the impacted players “back into a rhythm, and a continuity, and a chemistry, and we need some playing.” While the rest of the league’s teams were just waging through the wraths of the panini, perhaps, Donovan and the Bulls must have thought, the worst was over for Chicago. Then one foggy Christmas Eve, Donovan was advised to stay. Home, that is. The Bulls’ coach became the fourth head coach to get curbed. Then came Sunday. On Lonzo, on McKinnie, on Bradley getting stricken. McKinnie himself became the first NBA hardship signee to get brought in full-time, and now he sits, too. Still, interim coach Chris Fleming had 11 regulars (two-ways included) available last night. LaVine (32 points in 33 minutes), DeRozan (24 points in 36 minutes), and Vucevic (15 rebounds and 16 points in 33 minutes) were bullish enough to sprint to a 54-36 second-quarter lead on Indiana, who only recently got their own head coach back from protocols. But what we’ve watched, at an individual player level, are top-tier players returning to action, playing like gangbusters on the first game back, then like just busters in the subsequent matches, as stamina and conditioning becomes an issue. A layup and a mid-ranger from LaVine were the only Chicago field goals in the final five minutes last night, as the Pacers narrowed the final deficit to a single-digit value. It was the third straight win for the Bulls (20-10), five off-days interceding between the prior week’s games, wins over the Lakers and Rockets, and Sunday. The victories over L.A. and Houston were back-to-back, which was encouraging for Chicago ahead of today’s SEGABABA. However, consider that the Lakers were just beginning their own phase of cycling through replacements (you’ll be missed, Isaiah Thomas) to help a recovering and increasingly overtaxed LeBron. The Rockets, when not playing in Atlanta, have their own sets of issues hampering their nightly competitiveness. And, again, there were eight days off for Chicago prior to those two games, permitting time for DeRozan, Green and White to return to action. On one end, the Availa-Bulls ought to be rested, and have sneaked in enough practice time to avoid being too rusty. On the other end, there is no more time for Chicago to ramp up conditioning ahead of forthcoming games, including the presently unscheduled make-ups. Not unless other teams’ ongoing injury and illness issues – looking precariously at you, Atlanta – cause even more games to get postponed. It took a Maverick to one-up Nate McMillan. In the second-round of 2016’s ACC tourney, Anthony “Cat” Barber was wrapping up what he knew could be his final game as a collegian. Barber whipped a pass out to teammate Maverick Roman, who splashed a three-pointer to give NC State a fleeting one-point lead over the dreaded Dookies. That was assist #403 for Cat, the conference’s leading scorer, who would forgo his senior season to try his hand in the NBA draft waters. He finished ninth all-time in Wolfpack history for assists after three seasons in Raleigh. Relegated to tenth on NC State’s assists list, with 402 dimes over two seasons, was an exceptional Eighties-era guard, McMillan. Coach Nate will need an assist of a different feather from Cat, now fully under McMillan’s employ as a G-League call-up from Collipark. Barber in the starting lineup became a necessity today, as Delon Wright (20 points on Saturday, matching John Collins’ team-high in Atlanta’s Christmas-crushing loss at NYK) joins Collins and rookie Jalen Johnson, plus eight other Hawks, in the panini-protocols gulag. As Wright filled in on Christmas Day in Trae Young’s slot, the Hawks did not commit a turnover in the opening quarter against the Knicks. But he got little help from Collins, Cam Reddish, or a pair of recent returnees in Bogi Bogdanovic and Clint Capela. That starting quartet kicked off the festivities by going 3-for-17 from the field. Dashing to a 23-8 lead, 13 of New York’s first points were transition scores, all coming within ten seconds of missed Hawk shots. Atlanta now allows an NBA-worst 64.2 eFG% on transition plays, while opponents turn over the rock on an NBA-low 9.4 percent of those possessions. Who is the NBA’s second-most efficient transition team on offense, you ask? If there is indeed a game to be played tonight, you’ll be looking at them (NBA-best 66.8 transition eFG%) across the floor. Barber’s interior scoring and dime-dropping will be welcomed. But even better for Atlanta (15-17) would be if Cat, fellow Skyhawk Skylar Mays, Cam and Bogi can communicate effectively in anticipation of the need to thwart opponent runouts. The Bulls can turn it over in transition, too (14.1 transition TO%, 3rd-highest in NBA). But it takes a team approach to anticipate where to apply defensive pressure and rotate on the fly (LaVine’s 5.5 transition PPG rank 5th in NBA, on 73.3 eFG%). Hawks fans began the month sensing plenty of opportunities for this team to surge in the standings. There were more rest days ahead, and more home games. Moreover, there were opponents on the December slate that were relatively shorthanded, in many cases by sudden protocol-related absences, and/or featuring players just coming back into form. Aside from a road streak that came to a crashing halt on Saturday, Atlanta repeatedly failed to capitalize in areas where they held at least inherent advantages. Now our Hawks, winless at home all month, are among the severely short-staffed teams, playing the final home game of 2021 before embarking on a six-game road swing. Players will be flown out from Hartsfield-Jackson to parts unknown in the coming weeks. Unlike Kevin Huerter, hopefully fewer will have to make a return drive back home. Whatever conditions the returnees are in, including Young (awaiting a second negative test result to see if he’ll be cleared for tonight) the results won’t improve if the underlying schemes and philosophies for competitive play remain faulty. Here, in and around Atlanta, we Hawks fans are all just hanging around town, watching up close and from afar, waiting for a breakthrough. The good kind of breakthrough, naturally. I wonder how well I’d do on an MCAT right now? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. “Erm, methinks you misspelled, OMICRON.” Had a whole thing about how the Doughboys of Detroit’s Pershing High have been a cradle of NBA stars including Atlanta Hawks greats, from Kevin Willis to Steve Smith, and now to Justin Tillman. But I’d rather not jinx the Collipark Skyhawk, or anyone else suiting up for today’s scheduled rematch with the Bulls in Chicago (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago), by mentioning him much further. So, nah. Just hoping someone, anyone, who’s active can get back on D and closeout at the three-point lines as Atlanta (15-18) kicks off this trip of a six-game road trip. We won’t have Ersan Ilyasova to kick us around today. Turkish Thunder caught The Case and joins Lonzo Ball, Tony Bradley and Alfonzo McKinnie in Protocols. Alex Caruso remains sidelined with a foot sprain, while Derrick Jones’ strained hammy leaves him questionable. Zach LaVine, DeMar DeRozan, and Nik Vucevic will have to muddle through, somehow. We’re told, from C-Viv, that Chris Jent is assistant #3 in Proto-hell for the Hawks. Who’s healthy, or at worst available, among the players for coach Nate McMillan’s side, as of this particular moment: Trae Young, Cat Barber Chaundee Brown, Skylar Mays, Chris Clemons Cam Reddish, Born Ready, Wes Iwundu (the latter exited Protocols today) Malcom Hill, Cameron Oliver Clint Capela, Tillman You don’t need me to tell you, that pregame roster is Subject to Change. Hopefully, for the better. Let’s Go “Hawks”! ~lw3
  6. “Ohhh! See, when you said you heard we just got Justin Fields, I thought you meant…” Saturday Tidbits! The last time the Chicago Bulls stopped by State Farm Arena, one day after playing in Tampa, All-Star Zach LaVine dropped a career-best 50 points, including 39 in the first half… and his team lost. What happens tonight, when the red-eyed Bulls arrive to face the Atlanta Hawks (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago) less than 24 hours after playing the Bucks in Chicago, and LaVine is nowhere to be found? LaVine has been away from the team since April 15 and remains out due to Health ‘n Safety. A backup at the wing, Wizards acquisition Troy Brown has been out while healing a sprained ankle for the past two weeks. Forward Lauri Markkanen and emergency big Cristiano Felicio (non-COVID illness) were late scratches yesterday, and the former is listed as questionable to play today. LaVine’s splurge in A-Town didn’t set SportsCenter’s A-Block aflame, back on April 9, largely because Ice Trae was très cool. Getting in the paint and scoring at-will, Trae Young had 22 paint ponts and made 11 of 14 free throws as part of his 42-point contribution to the Hawks’ 120-108 victory. Similarly, in Young’s return to action in Philadelphia last night, any struggles he had scoring from outside were compensated by ample floaters and a perfect 10-for-10 on trips to the free throw line. His team would soon be revving up the plane for Hartsfield-Jackson just as the Bulls were still coming out from their halftime break. As Jayson Tatum and, eventually, Jaylen Brown can now attest, no lead is safe in The Association. Chicago watched their 66-53 halftime lead evaporate within less than a quarter back on April 9. The Bulls were constrained to 42 second-half points, a few of those in the garbage-time period as LaVine scrambled to get his 50. Last night, they nearly erased a 19-point first half deficit before Giannis-less Milwaukee regained control of the game. Chicago’s last loss here precipitated a five-game skid, featuring losses to Minnesota and Nikola Vucevic’s prior employer, Orlando, that made the subsequent climb without LaVine much steeper. They remain competitive, with helpful wins over Boston and Charlotte while splitting a series in Miami over the past two weeks. But much like the Hawks on Friday night, the Bulls are hoping today they can avoid being held under 100 points for the third-consecutive contest. The Hawks turned sleepy once Philly woke up yesterday, particularly John Collins (11 points and 4 rebounds over 26 minutes @ PHI) and the bench brigade of Lou Williams (0-for-7 FGs) and Danilo Gallinari (4-for-6 3FGs but minus-29 plus/minus). Still, with Tony Snell and Solomon Hill keeping seats warm for Bogdan Bogdanovic and De’Andre Hunter, respectively, Atlanta offered the Sixers a taste of what might await them if the Hawks (34-30) have to emerge from a Play-In game for a first-round series. Atlanta held Philly to just six points in the opening 6.5 minutes of play, racing to a 21-8 lead until Ben Simmons took matters into his own hands. In his own return after missing a game due to heel pain, Clint Capela was solid in short stints (11-and-15 double-double over just 17 minutes) versus a balanced but hostile Philly front. This is the dawning of The Age of… Coby White? Well, he is an Aquarius, so, we’ll go with that! Bulls coach Billy Donovan is turning to White, who got his starting spot back after a month on the bench once LaVine hit the shelf, as more of a primary offensive creator. The second-year guard and 2020 All-Rookie Second-Teamer is coming through with more efficient numbers of late (last 9 starts: 18.6 PPG, 6.6 APG, 39.1 3FG%). He’s already become less tentative as an interior finisher than he was in his rookie year, but there have been signs his consistency as an outside shooter is coming around, too. He sunk 4 of 8 triples yesterday to aid his team-high 21 points versus Milwaukee. The Raptors game preceding the latest LaVine-Young Classic occurred only because it was one of four games, due to COVID-related postponements, the Bulls had to cram into their post-All-Star-Break schedule. They still have two more squeezed into their final May run, at Charlotte and versus Boston on back-to-back dates toward the end of next week. Today’s game is one of three SEGABABAs left that Donovan’s Bulls have to manage, and the coach has to balance the desire to preserve bodies with the growing sense the race for a final Play-In spot is about over for Chicago (26-37, 3.0 games behind 10-seed Washington). Bear in mind, barring some Lottery luck, the Bulls’ next first-rounder went out the door with Wendell Carter, so they’re tempted to keep fighting until they’re mathematically eliminated. But including the last loss here in Atlanta, the Bulls are 1-4 on road back-to-backs, the sole victory coming against Vucevic in Orlando back in the first week of February. Vucevic played last night (6-for-18 2FGs, 1-for-9 3FGs vs. MIL, five straight double-doubles) but was listed pre-game versus the Bucks as probable, working his way through a tight adductor muscle. It was the All-Star’s fourth straight-game logging 35+ minutes, tying the longest run he’s had this season and the most since arriving from Orlando at the Trade Deadline. Now listed as questionable today, Vooch appeared in four back-to-backs last month and appears to be a candidate to at least be reduced to limited minutes today, if any. The anticipated restraint of 2021’s All-Star Skills Challenge winner provides the opportunity for Collins (last 6 games: 5.3 RPG, 2.5 FTAs/game), who missed the prior Bulls game due to injury, to enjoy a bounceback game, and for Capela (22-and-10 and a pair of blocks vs. CHI on April 9) to positively impact the game for longer stretches. Donovan will try to counter Atlanta’s frontline with struggling Lotto rookie Patrick Williams (6.1 PPG in last 13 games), veteran Thaddeus Young, Gwinnettian Al-Farouq Aminu, and former Celtic Daniel Theis (16 points, 10 rebounds vs. MIL). The bigs will all strive to stay out of each other’s way while crafting driving lanes for White and Thaddeus’ fellow 80’s baby on the Bulls, guard Garrett Temple. As was the case in Philly, someone other than Gallo (4-for-8 3FGs vs. CHI on April 9, rest of team 3-for-19) will have to hit open perimeter shots to keep the Bulls stuck in the stable. If Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter (both questionable) are no-goes and Young (24.3 3FG% in past seven games) remains in a deep-freeze, hopefully Lou Will can provide some home cooking similar to his last breakout game at The Farm (4-for-4 fourth-quarter 3FGs vs. MIL) that helped Trae-less Atlanta beat the Bucks. The Bulls’ first-half stampede in Atlanta last month was attributed to the play of LaVine and Vucevic, but Tomas Satoransky (8 of 10 assists in first half @ ATL on April 9), played a crucial role despite going 0-for-6 from the field on the evening. Coach Nate McMillan’s adjustments helped slow Satoransky’s facilitations, and the addition of Sato’s former teammate, Kris Dunn, should keep the Bulls guard stuck in neutral on offense as he tires of chasing Trae’s taillights to the other end of the floor. It’s a formality at this point, as the Raptors prepare to face the Jazz in Utah and these Bulls are unlikely to run the table, that the Hawks (Magic Number vs. TOR and CHI: 1) can turn their full attention to avoiding the Play-In series (Top-6 Magic Number: 8, tied to BOS and/or MIA, who face off twice over next ten days). But with the NBA postseason in view, this game can serve as practice for eliminating teams that find themselves on the ropes. Against a team that won all 3 games (as a 22-43 team) versus Atlanta last year, one that, despite their struggles, has taken at least one game head-to-head over the Hawks in every season since 2016-17, this contest is also a good opportunity to practice pursuing a series sweep. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. “Myyyyy kind of big, CAPELA is…” According to the tale told by the United States Golf Association, a former manager at New York City’s prestigious Waldorf Astoria hotel and part-owner at the Biltmore, was playing a round at a golf course where he was a member, the Country Club of Montreal. The native Canadian, David Mulligan lined up, swung from his shoe-tops at the tee, and was way, way off. Looks like no Masters for you, Davey Boy! His foursome buddies found it all the more hilarious that, instead of heading for the forest to play that ball, he reached for another one, and simply teed off again. He called it his “correction shot.” His bon amis found it more apt to name the ploy after him. Returning to America, in the NYC suburbs at the legendary Winged Foot Golf Club, Mulligan carried the name to the game that would bring his surname fame. About a century later, the “Mulligan” is granted in the oft-casual play of many of sport. As a more professional example of its application, the Atlanta Hawks earned themselves a Mulligan from fans, for their defensive breakdown this past Wednesday against a similarly short-handed and at least equally-tired Memphis Grizzlies team. The “Mulligan” is a fine example of how immigrants influence the nomenclature, the etymology behind so much of our American sports lingo, if not the sports themselves – word to James Naismith. German immigrants in Chicago, after all, are considered to be the fathers of “Cracker Jack,” the snack product that makes peanuts feel a bit redundant at the ballpark. It begs the question: should a Swiss-born center and Trade Deadline acquisition that’s capable of turning around an NBA lottery-level team’s fortunes be called a “Capela”? Or, rather, a “Vucevic”? The recent and, one hopes, thoroughly uneventful retirement of former Chicago Bulls rookie and Hawks glue-guy Thabo Sefolosha leaves the NBA with three Schweiz natives. Aside from Portland’s Swiss-Turkish expatriate Eric Kanter, there’s our old friend Nikola Vucevic, the two-time All-Star newly of the Bulls, and the Hawks’ First Team All-Defense finalist Clint Capela. The latter two, born on opposing shores of Lake Geneva, could tip things off tonight (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago) in Atlanta’s first game versus an Eastern Conference foe in 26 days. That is, if Capela can be cleared after sitting out the Memphis game with a sore Achilles. He may originate from Geneva, but Clint’s defensive prowess and impact on the Hawks (27-25), since being activated this season, has been far from conventional. By modern NBA standards, he was quite the ironman throughout Atlanta’s West Coast road trip and the extension of the Hawks’ winning streak during the first two games back home. He averaged 15.7 points and 13.7 boards while blocking 2.3 shots in 30.4 minutes per contest. Further, Swiss Bank had been money at decent percentages, for him, around the rim (57.7 FG%) and at the free throw line (73.8 FT%). Capela definitely earned at least a couple days to heal up nagging heel and hand pains. Chicago’s newest tag team of executives, Arturas Karnisovas and Marc Eversley (“Karsley”?) want that kind of Army-knife impact for themselves. It’s why they went out at the Trade Deadline and nabbed not just one quality Euro import in Vooch (22.6 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 3.9 APG in 7 Bulls contests), but a second one, the German ex-Celtic Daniel Theis. While Capela was acquired by Atlanta in 2020 for what I believe was a croque monsieur with Emmental cheese, Chicago was willing to part ways with this years’ (top-4 protected) and 2023’s first-round picks for the chance to double-up on their All-Star roster count while making a sincere run at a Top-6 playoff spot. The last two times Capela was shelved, for mid-March contests against Cleveland and Houston, Hawks coach Nate McMillan made do by elevating Italian stallion Danilo Gallinari to Atlanta’s starting five, alongside dunkin’ Deacon John Collins. Neither was available this past Hump Day, and rookie Onyeka Okongwu (13 points, two blocks, 11 boards vs. MEM, his first of many career double-doubles) and public relations director Solomon Hill proved to be valiant but, to the surprise of few, inadequate substitutes against Jonas Valanciunas and friends. Atlanta guards, caught overcompensating for the absence of Capela and Collins to help out in the paint, found themselves susceptible to all manner of open gunners and transition runs from their Grizzlie counterparts. Kyle Anderson, shooting 54.5 percent on the night, was the sole Memphis starter making field goals below a 55 percent clip. Despite Trae Young being neutralized along the perimeter and at the charity stripe (0-for-4 3FGs, 2-for2 FTs), the Hawks’ overall offense was fine on Wednesday, but due to the slumped effort at the other end, it was like fighting fire with a Bic lighter. New Bulls coach Billy Donovan can only hope for similar generosity from the Hawks’ defenders today. After an adjustment period that stretched a losing skid to six games, Chicago (22-28, 10th in NBA East) has begun hitting their stride. They’re looking to win their fourth consecutive contest after escaping the sidewalk-slamming Raptors in Tampa last night to expand their lead for the final Play-In seed. Lead scorer Zach LaVine’s shot has been wayward lately (40.4 FG%, 24.4 3FG%, 72.7 FT% in his past six games). Still, Chicago hopes the Hawks’ struggles to thwart runouts after turnovers and misses will convert one end of the State Farm Arena floor into a runway at O’Hare for LaVine. (Whenever you’re ready, Mr. Dunn, jump right on into the fray). The Bulls have been giving their top-10 first-rounder, season-long starter Patrick Williams, trial by fire ever since the season-opener, a 124-104 win by the Hawks in the Second City on December 23, pairing him lately with veteran forward Thaddeus Young. The replacement of Wendell Carter and Otto Porter with Vucevic and Al-Farouq Aminu, plus, frankly, the departure of bench detritus in the multi-team deal that brought in Theis and swingman Troy Brown, affords Billy D the opportunity to re-fashion Finnish big Lauri Markkanen (18 points, 8-for-10 FGs, team-best +23 plus-minus @ TOR yesterday) as a luxury reserve. The transformation of the Bulls into a club that can go comfortably two-deep across all positions gives their postseason prospects new life. If Gallo (questionable, sore ankle) and Capela are no-goes yet again today (like Collins, De’Andre Hunter will remain out for several more games, too), Nate Mac may want to grant Nathan Knight, the two-way big who has the size and athleticism to at least track Vucevic inside and out, and the offensively-challenged but functional rebounder Bruno Fernando more minutes at the five-spot, allowing Okongwu to instead split duties with Hill against the Bulls’ healthy and deeper frontline. The goose and gander proverb applies today to LaVine, who had three steals last night but also committed five turnovers, and the Bulls on a SEGABABA. On the season, Chicago allows 18.4 points per-48 off turnovers (3rd-worst in NBA), and their team turnover percentage of 15.4 is equally ranked. Donovan’s club ought to be getting a tad road-weary as well, as they’ve played just once at home in their past six games, and won’t see United Center for another three, when Vucevic’s former team from Orlando pays them a visit next week. The Hawks are demure when it comes to forcing turnovers (12.6 opponent TO%, tied-3rd worst in NBA) and, because Hawks, Cam Reddish isn’t available to help in that department, either. But the increasingly limited security around the rim should compel a change in defensive calculus for Atlanta. The team’s active leader in thefts, Kevin Huerter, has registered a goose-egg in steals in seven of his last nine games, and the Hawks would do well to have him take a gander when the Bulls’ ballhandlers are caught overdribbling. Getting LaVine, Vucevic and Coby White to put the ball on the floor, getting strips, loose balls and outlet passes, and outracing the Bulls to the other end, should help Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic (last six games: 21.8 PPG, 5.0 APG, 1.7 SPG, 56.5 3FG%) create for themselves and other Hawks. LaVine’s latest starting backcourt mate and defensive stopgap, Tomas Satoransky, had 19 points, 11 assists and a pair of steals on Sunday to help Vucevic and LaVine beat the KD-less and Harden-less Nets in Chicago on Sunday. But if Atlanta takes off repeatedly in transition, the Czech guard can’t conceivably check both Hawks guards by his lonesome. Home games today, and on May 1, represent the buns Atlanta will consume on a 13-game Dagwood sandwich of Eastern Conference opponents, a crucial stretch that could accelerate the path toward a coveted Top-6 playoff spot. The Hawks have spent most of the past 30 days watching these teams from afar, rooting on those teams’ opponents to victory while aiding them in the standings. But now Atlanta is tasked with taking care of business, directly, to sew up the postseason themselves. If the Hawks (Play-In Magic Number: 14, Top-6 Magic Number: 19) can come away with at least seven wins over that 13-game stanza, then, indeed, that would be a tasty burger. It sure would taste better, though, with plenty of Swiss chard and Swiss cheese. And pile that cheese high, please, because as we know, too many holes is known as a “Kanter.” RIP, DMX! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. “Nice. But what does THAT have to do with anything?” The Parliament of Great Britain was obsessed with tea, and not only in the late afternoons. Desperate to save the floundering British East India Company and its stockpiles of leafy product, the Brits sought to apply a duty to tea supplies illicitly smuggled overseas into its North American colonies by the Dutch. This was in the year 1773. Taxation without representation, it turns out, was not a compelling sell for dear old John Bull. While fumbling away the Americas, England’s brand of manifest Western imperialism stretched in the opposite direction, beyond India and toward the Pacific Ocean. European aggressions and incursions during the First and Second Opium Wars led to the seizure of Beijing and pried open Chinese ports to Western trade. The insatiable demand for Far Eastern-world tea made the cost for procuring Chinese tea of considerable importance among nobility. This was a matter tracked and noted routinely by aristocrats in powdered wigs during proceedings at the British House of Commons throughout the mid-1800s. Were it not for these developments, an English-borne idiom from those bygone days would never have crossed the seas, over the centuries, and landed squarely within the lexicon of a dear co-worker situated across from my glorified cubicle: “Sure, and what does THAT have to do with the price of tea in China???” Pre-Zoom, I would hear that query being uttered at least a couple occasions per month. First harked in an age before Wikipedia, this, I assumed, must be some whimsical quip she crafted entirely out of thin air. “You know, our accounts’ quarterly reports are due in 45 minutes,” her supervisor warns. “I can’t locate the Palm Bay portfolio file; I think maybe it got deleted by accident?” advises her subordinate assistant. “Sigh… we’re fresh out of K-Cups again!”, frets one lazy colleague. You know what’s coming. Tea. China. Not even Atlanta native Boldy James around to make it make sense. Matters that feel urgent to some are not so pressing to others. It is incumbent upon you, the urged, to explain in swift but certain terms why your urgency should rise to a level where she has to put down whatever she’s planning to do, while trudging through the planned tedium of her life and workday, to instead address your immediate needs. And don’t you dare lob a non sequitur in her direction. “Say, there’s new research that says people with exposed tattoos are significantly less likely to earn a raise. You might consider wearing more turtlenecks!” “Yeah, so what?” is not the most professional of retorts. The conceptual intrusion of valued plant product from half a world away is, I suppose, a far more novel approach to questioning relevancy. “…the price of tea in China?” is so off-putting, though, our co-workers never know how to craft a proper response, so they usually just saunter off to pester someone else. It’s the part about the tea that gets me. Here is another one you would hear in first-world Western dialogue. “I wouldn’t trade Trae Young away, not for all the tea in China.” It is truly hyperbolic, but “all the tea” represents something highly valuable, as in, “not for all the money in the world.” Up through the 1800s, global wars for geographic supremacy were often waged over the trade of innocuous yet regionally precious items like tea. Silk. Opium. That is all to say nothing of treating whole living, breathing, laborious people as cost-effective and controlled commodities. What I came away with, by my colleague’s routine rhetorical barb, is that the most impactful instances in our lives often hinge on decisions and events that we would give not as much as a moment’s thought. In modern times, the value of a barrel of crude oil in a land seemingly far away may have our local economic worlds plunging, or perhaps soaring. It may be the quality of life for a bear near a polar ice shelf, or some school of fish, essential for human sustenance, left to wrangle with some voracious invasive species that once served as a traveler’s fun baby aquatic souvenir pet. A half-degree Celsius rise in global temperatures, inducing perennial coastal flood problems at trendy hi-rise condo parking decks in Miami, or for impoverished neighborhoods of sea-level dwellings in Luanda. A tyrannical, insular leader in a far-flung country that somehow was granted access to intercontinental missiles and bioweaponry. Residential growth encroaching a volcano, or a fault line, that is way past due for a cataclysm. Whenever calamitous major events happen in our lifetimes, they never impact people the same way universally. You can have the benefit of wealth, knowledge, geography, connections and/or health working in your favor over that of your neighbors and your fellow citizens yet, at the wrong time on the wrong day, be the one unduly impacted by Life’s Lottery. But the one thing about a global crisis -- when it is genuinely global in nature, and when one considers the indirect effects, no one individual is truly immune. Everyone is connected, and everyone, in some varying measure, is impacted. Did you wish to enjoy watching the Atlanta Hawks close out their season at the freshly refurbished State Farm Arena this past April? Fresh off March Madness, and a Final Four tournament flushed with collegiate prospects in the fancy new stadium around the corner? Were you looking forward to the start of the pro baseball and WNBA seasons, football practices, and futbol games, for our dear Boys and Girls of Summer? The NBA playoffs, the draft, Vegas Summer League, and a free agency period where our Hawks might flex their considerable cap space? The Olympic trials, and The Games themselves? Me too. Never mind sporting events packed with fans… how about the summer blockbusters at the movies? The social clustering at festivals in the parks and parades in the streets that commence every year, just as soon as the temperatures warm and the cherry blossoms bloom? What, pray tell, does any of that have to do with some wintertime outbreak of mysterious illness in mainland China? In the dumbest of all dumb luck, a guy from France, working for a professional sports team based in Salt Lake City, tries to assuage American reporters that a malady spreading from China and surging with oft-fatal consequences through Iran, Italy (as Danilo Gallinari’s friends and family could attest at the time), and the Pacific Northwest was not all that big of a deal. For no good reason, one must add, aside from him trying to lighten the mood at increasingly distant press conferences. Frenchie acquires said illness in short order, along with a teammate or two. In even shorter order, the Atlanta Hawks’ 2019-20 season, and future Hall of Famer Vince Carter’s sun-setting career, abruptly ends, just as things for the team looked to be getting zany and fun. Of course, many of us have been impacted in ways far beyond the inconvenience of watching our favorite team ball outta control during the long slog back to NBA relevancy. If you are reading this far, and that’s amazing unto itself, I do hope for the best of health and prosperity for you, your colleagues, and especially your loved ones. Frankly, though, the next time I must hear someone on TV murmur, “IN THESE DIFFICULT TIMES…”, is one difficult time too many. I am so tired and sick of 2020, y’all! A winter of uncertainty, a springtime of destabilization and despair, a summer of chokeholds, bullets, flames, tear gas, shattered glass and shuttered businesses, an autumn of polarization, destructive floods and fires, and “SARS-Cov-2: Pandemic Boogaloo,” with our medical and unsung professional heroes forced to take up recurring star roles. I talked so much trash about 2019, and The Teens in general, only for 2020 to do us all like this? Allow me to share a prior December time, when a new year was on the horizon, and things weren’t so sweet. After failing through years of balancing grad studies, a part-time internship, and second-shift jerbs here in Atlanta, I was completing my first full year of full-time 9-to-5 (8-to-6, really), a modest-paying Federal Gummint gig. The boss comes along and presents an offer she hopes I can’t refuse. “Would you like to ring in the new year alone, in this office, reporting to my superiors?” Ummm… tell me more? This wasn’t just any rando new year approaching. These days, you must sit down post-millennials and explain to them, as you might a small child, why pro wrestling star Chris Jericho ran around for years proclaiming himself, “Y2J.” (“Le Champiòn!” makes even less sense but, as usual, I digress.) “Y2K” was a Big Friggin’ Deal. Rest his purple soul, Prince tried his best to warn us all about Two Thousand Zero Zero, because the mood sure wasn’t feeling like a party to literally end all parties. Anxieties were high. We had just trudged through a year of deadly terrorist acts and terrorist trials, protests of police killings, downright absurd tornadoes, sudden and tragic fatalities of notables. The dot-com bubble that was touted to propel our global economy into the brave new millennium was leaking air. And here in the US of A, our immature and impeached commander-in-chief was on the outs, stressing everyone out along the way. Not in the least because, with all the shenanigans going on in the world, he wouldn’t resist his depraved urge to summon someone less than half his age into his ovular office so he could just grab her by so, yeahhh… Y2K! The onset of a year that everyone could see coming except, in all their infinite wisdom, the smarty pants that constructed the digital electronic foundation of modern society. We were told many of these innovative and inventive whiz-kids, over the decades, were not thinking forward enough to envision the first digit of a calendar year maybe one day needing to dial all the way up to 2. Your solar-powered calculator might no longer function on January 1, 2000. Will your wristwatch? Will the whiz-bang gadgetry in your new car? Will the banks? Might the ATMs stop spitting out money? Might they involuntarily start, and would that be a good or a bad thing? Will the air traffic control tower go kaput, and will planes drop from the sky like autumn leaves? Will we spend the ensuing months rediscovering candles, firewood, books, bicycles and manual typewriters, because the electric grid collapsed to a state beyond repair? None of this was my boss’ most pressing concern. Here in Atlanta, her intention was to pass the buck so while she was home stuffing her mattress with twenties or whatever, some lackey was overseeing her office, assuming the phones still worked, to report to her superiors on whether or not the Earth began melting as the clock struck one second past midnight. “Oh, and for your heroic effort on behalf of our agency and our nation, Lethal, how about… time-and-a-half for overtime?” I flew home to Philadelphia for the holiday break and, no, I would not return for the balance of that month. I hoped to spend New Year’s Eve nestled at home, quietly, with my dear parents. But Mommaweapon3 had other designs for my presence, too. Back in the days before The ‘Net and twerking, there was networking. The biggest Black business networking group in town announced the biggest Y2K bash in town would be on the penthouse floor of one of Philly’s tallest buildings. Champagne will flow! Hors d’Oeuvres will be devoured! Slides will be Electric! Business cards will float through the air like confetti! Lethal might find an acceptable date, and he might be compelled to finally come home! (Momma’s exclamation, not mine.) Two hundred dollars a head, already paid in full before I could head to Hartsfield. This was not up for debate. “Bring your BEST suit!”, MW3 demanded, her way of inferring polka-dots would be tragically out of vogue in the coming year/decade/century/millennium. With the hours ticking away before the clock struck midnight, my parents and I arrived at the Center City skyrise, in our Sunday Best on a Friday night, to find all the doors bolted shut. A glum security guard who probably was not offered time-and-a-half sauntered over from the lobby to share the predictable news. The fly-by-night Y2K Bougie Bash organizer, fearing what might happen to his bank account – because… Y2K – grabbed the loot out of his ATM and literally flew-by-night out of town. The networking group was too embarrassed to call people on their home landlines until it was way too late. My folks had reserved a hotel across the street, intending for us to have a comfy room to sober up and sleep after the final champagne toasts were clanged. Suddenly, they were scrambling back there to test whether Domino’s Delivers at the penultimate hour of the final night of the 20th Century. I had no designs on waiting around to find out. I ditched the tie, grabbed my change of clothes – “polka-dot silk shirt, CHECK…” – and hoofed it to Penn’s Landing. Just across the Delaware River, Sisterweapon3 made it to her “party like it’s 1999”, what was billed as a grand shindig inviting thousands to pack into the region’s big new riverfront aquarium. Only, she would find, there was no valet, no coat checks for all the goose down and fake fur, the “bottomless champagne” turned out to be insufficient to fill half of anyone’s plastic flutes, the lobster never made it out of the tanks, and the only hors d’oeuvres that made it inside were cool, stale “soft” pretzels. One per attendee, not that you could wash the pretzel down with anything. This was upsetting, to her and her homegirls, that the belugas were better fed at the 11th hour of her Night To Remember. My possibly final close-out meal consisted of Tastykakes, procured from a convenience store just before they closed for the evening, and a Snapple Iced Tea (thanks, China.) But I paid $2.50, not $250, so Advantage, Me. Awaiting the fireworks above the Ben Franklin Bridge, my mind raced over a dizzying number of matters, and not simply due to the sugar rush. “TEN!” “Will I still have a job after spurning my boss’ pleas down in Atlanta and skipping town? Just in case, how much rent have I got saved up? How much longer can I hold out before diving back into grad school? Did… I… just accidentally meet my future soulmate a couple months ago at the library? I’m really gonna have to pursue that when I make it back to Georgia next week. I WILL be able to get back, right? Right?” “NINE!” Those of us huddled around the riversides were putting on a good face, but the barometric pressure of what was, or was not, about to transpire in Y2K hovered over every half-cognizant adult’s head. Due to some combination of bumbling stupidity, woeful short-sightedness, and mindless avarice on the part of the grown-ups we entrusted to oversee our First World nations, there was no 95 percent confidence level about the world around us making it into 2000 unscathed. We can’t even get the boozy 1999 parties to go right… are the nuclear warheads secure at this hour? “EIGHT!” We had been conditioned for generations that 2001 was supposed to be a Space Odyssey, decades of dreams directed beyond the celestial heavens, boldly venturing where no mere mortal had gone before. Surely, as 2001 neared, we would be sipping mimosas at Sunday brunches on Mars. But no. With one year and mere seconds to go, here we were, gravity-bound mortals, on the same shores the colonial fellas rocking deerskin breeches in 1773 stood. Huddled masses, yearning to find an all-night diner or something. O, how far we have come! “SEVEN!” We got to “ZERO!” The fireworks didn’t misfire and take us out. Nobody died, not in unconventional ways. From all accounts, the globe seemed to be spinning okay. A passerby in a Flyers sweater who reeked of Jägermeister and Cheez Wiz jumped forward to give Yours Truly a celebratory smooch on the cheek, a fleeting reminder that, at least for the moment, Philly was still Philly. The mood, as I strolled through the South Street bar scene and around downtown until sunrise, was oddly comforting. Through all the missteps and disappointments, we did it. We crazy kids did it! No, we won’t be walking on the moon any time soon. But we did manage to moonwalk straight into the new millennium, so that oughta count for something. My spirits were lifted by yet another thought. Sooner or later, I will get to see if my lifelong favorite NBA team was finally getting up off the mat to become a true championship contender again. “HEY! SIXERS!”, bellowed a drunken fellow from the Fat Tuesday bar, pointing out my “76” ballcap with an assuring thumbs up (it’s Philly, but I’m reasonably sure that was a thumb). The 76ers spent most of the prior 15 years degenerating from a title contender, to a likely also-ran, to a nightly ran-out-the-building laughingstock in The Association. But over the years leading up to 2000, slow but encouraging progress was being made. Four years before, the owner that ran the team into smithereens sold the club to the NHL Flyers owner. He, in turn, turned to a physical therapist previously contracted to make something, anything out of Shawn Bradley, handing the PT the keys to the whole basketball operation. The new brass wanted to win, but they understood a competitive standard would take some time to build. They grabbed a Duke guy and made him the GM. They eventually brought in a defensive-minded mercenary with strong player connections to be the head coach. This rebuild would take several seasons, to be sure, with draft and trade missteps along the way. But Philadelphia fans like myself were more than willing to be patient. That is because the team drafted somebody, #1 overall in 1996, that was clearly worth the wait. That somebody was diminutive, barely 170 pounds soaking wet. But, he assembled a sturdy body made of copper wire, a golden handle, and a heart made of magnetic, titanium steel. His drives and dishes were daring feats defying physics and logic alike, and his clutch-shot capabilities had fans on their feet before the plays could even unfold. On-ball defense? Who cares? Turnovers? Served best with ice cream. Allen Iverson was a marvel, and he and his fans were willing to wait for the rest of his squad to catch up. Coming off a strike-shortened season where he became the first scoring champ not named MJ or Hakeem the Dream since 1985, A.I.’s Sixers upset Doc Rivers’ Magic in the 1999 Playoffs, their first playoff appearance in eight years. Not even a second-round sweep versus the experienced Pacers could dampen the spirit of usually dour Philly fans. “Wait ‘Til Next Year!” Can a cat this size, in his fourth pro season and certainly first as an All-Star, carry an NBA team on his back all the way to The Finals? To championships? As giddy fans, we just needed to stay positive and have the fortune to see this brave run through to its logical end. Y2K, please stay out of our way. Years later, my bandwagon-jumping landed me with both feet in my current NBA home. Armored up with ownership and management regimes we can believe in, Atlanta Hawks fans bear a consensual giddiness about our team’s assemblage for the race to the 2021 Playoffs. Not the least of which is because there is an emerging All-Star, in Trae Young (Top-4 NBA averages of 29.6 PPG, 9.3 APG), to craft a competitive unit around. But much remains to be assessed, with burning questions that will not likely be quenched at the start, or even the end, of this second pandemic-shortened season. The biggest one… Arrested Development, or Rested Development? It is possible that lottery teams like the Hawks and their hosts this evening, the Chicago Bulls (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Chicago) could benefit from having sustained their playing core through the disruption of last season, players distance-learning their way through the past nine months by focusing on personal conditioning, and by watching gobs of game tape together. Indeed, there is the prevailing argument that having twice to thrice the time off the NBA floor could grant clubs like the Hawks and Bulls a (hopefully) once-in-a-lifetime competitive rest advantage. The perspective is particularly sound if the league stays true to its edict limiting the “load management” of weary veterans on more established teams. Layer onto this the usual injuries and illnesses that unfold, and it is conceivable we will witness vets on shallow, exceedingly star-reliant playoff teams feeling overtaxed against rested upstarts. There is also the countering view, that nothing that forges a strong team better than trial by fire. The optimistic view toward the Phoenix Suns, a club stuck outside the postseason for over a decade, is steeped in the ability for everyone to observe their winning maturation during the summertime Bubble bonanza that concluded the 2019-20 regular season. Atlanta and Chicago (22-43) were not afforded this opportunity. Accordingly, it is the Suns (26-39 pre-Bubble) who get ESPN’s first spotlight of the season this evening, versus Luka and the Mavs. The curtain closed on the Hawks (20-47) in March as they dropped the fourth of their final five games in an overtime home loss to the lowly New York Knicks. That earned Atlanta another Top-10 lottery pick to add to the silo in the form of defensively versatile big-man Onyeka Okongwu, who will need time to catch up once he returns from his minor injury. There are a host of new veterans in the mix, including Gallinari, Rajon Rondo, former Bull Kris Dunn (a #5 draft pick just two years before Trae), Solomon Hill, and big-fish free agent pickup Bogdan Bogdanovic. But with the ability to measure non-Bubble teams’ on-court practices in weeks, rather than months, with the inability by Atlanta to cut their teeth versus live, playoff-caliber competition all this time, are teams like the Knicks that far off in the rear-view mirror? The pace of this season’s pandemic-truncated 72-game schedule is unforgiving for all NBA teams, not merely those on the come-up. Based on the first 37 games revealed, there will be significantly more instances where the Hawks appear for their third game in four nights (13 games so far; 20 scheduled last season), or fourth game in six nights (15 scheduled so far; 19 scheduled in 2019-20). In addition to seven pairs of contests on back-to-back nights, and counting, Atlanta’s first-half schedule includes three consecutive-game road opponents, all of whom are favored foes in the Eastern Conference (Brooklyn next week, Boston in February, Miami as the calendar turns to March). The only four-game homestand currently scheduled at State Farm Arena (Lakers, Mavericks, Jazz, Raptors), likely before a mere smattering of NBA fans, will be far from a cakewalk. Forecasting also involves the rosy assumption that the NBA’s protocols and arena-site regulations will keep players and staffs COVID-free while allowing games to tip off as scheduled. Football and baseball teams that went gung-ho on their seasons beyond bubbly environs withered through shortened rosters, postponements, cancellations, and other sudden scheduling shifts. In basketball, there is no 53-man roster, nor are there any “offensive line” or “pitching staff” specialists to isolate when the pervasive threat of an outbreak looms. The Hawks must rely on not only each other, but their opponents, to keep rosters healthy and capable of competition, thereby keeping an already crammed first-half schedule from becoming a mad-dash scramble on the other end of March’s All-Star Break. The teams that emerge from this season smelling like a rose will not only be those with top-flight talent staying upright, but those who have stocked their rosters with resiliency in mind. Each of Atlanta’s strategic newcomers is, arguably at worst, a substantial upgrade from an outgoing contributor during 2019’s season opener. Without naming names of the duly departed, the additions also include 2020 trade-deadline acquisition Clint Capela, whose defense and rebounding around the rim should spark a sea change in Atlanta’s ability to thwart opposing scoops to the hoop. The offseason work put in by basketball-ops executive Travis Schlenk and the administrative crew gives third-year head coach Lloyd Pierce and his own upgraded staff more options to compete and succeed from the outset. If the Hawks’ starters are performing well, there is less trepidation toward giving them a breather. When they are struggling, there is less concern about making a bad situation even more dire. Such are the benefits of possessing quality roster depth. But the pressure is on LP to assess, in real time, the optimal lineups and rotations in pursuit of victory. Hawk players’ hearts, guts, and brains will certainly be tested along the quest to attain playoff-worthy competency. Yet unlike the fraudulent fictional Wizard frantically pulling levers in the Land of Oz, there will be no curtain for Pierce to hide behind when the results of his gameday decisions disappoint. Resiliency will be measured by Atlanta’s ability to build positive runs in games, deploying multiple lineups, while swiftly stemming the runs by their opponents. It will be measured by their ability to cobble together winning streaks, and to keep the errors in one loss from bleeding into the next. Resiliency will be measured by opponents dreading what is coming but, aside from Trae and John Collins (21.6 PPG, 10.1 RPG, 1.6 BPG), not knowing where it will be coming from. For a club that hopes to be more than just a worthy Play-in candidate, weeks-long losing skids are henceforth impermissible. Young going for forty, Collins hunting for 20-10s in his contract year, while their Hawks are down twenty, must become Yesterday’s News. While the early schedule is high-paced, the first nine games of Atlanta’s slate feature just one opponent that appeared in the 2020 NBA Playoffs, although the healthier, star-infused Nets and the Hawk-trouncing Grizzlies are noteworthy in this list. The Bulls made no significant moves to upgrade their roster, unless one counts lottery prize Patrick Williams and veteran guard Garrett Temple, the latter recently recovering from multiple symptoms of COVID-19. However, Chicago did make long-awaited moves that are hoped to infuse new life into a mostly young but dormant core. The Garpax regime is no more, as Arturas Karnisovas arrived last spring from the Nuggets to help clean house. Karnisovas previously helped turn Denver’s fortunes around after he wooed free agent Paul Millsap from Atlanta in 2017. After teasing the Bulls’ fanbase with the idea of retaining Jim Boylen, AK aimed his sights toward longtime Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan. The Thunder were supposed to be cellar-dwellers in 2020 after parting ways with several of Donovan’s biggest stars. But with the aid of a de facto player-coach in Chris Paul sticking around, OKC was instead a first-round playoff threat, a status that Chicago, whose last two playoff wins came with Rondo starting at the point in 2017, would graciously accept. But with all due respect to Thaddeus Young, Donovan no longer has an influential veteran presence the likes of CP3, or even Steven Adams, at his disposal. It is notable that Donovan would choose to break up with Sam Presti and his growing treasure trove of future picks to latch onto this rebuild in the Second City. Perhaps it is because Billy D trusts he can make more than Boylen could out of versatile super-scorer Zach LaVine (career-highs of 25.5 PPG, 4.8 RPG, 4.2 APG, 1.5 SPG) and the surface-scratching young trio of Coby White, Wendell Carter, and Lauri Markkanen. Kirkland Signature oenophile Otto Porter, who returned from season-long injury just in time for last season to end, is only 27 years of age, and still has a chance to make his production match his Richie-rich contract in this contract year. Garpax, though, left behind precious little wiggle room in the salary cap for Karnisovas to flex in his first year, and little useful support along the back lines for Donovan to give his fledgling corps a boost. Chicago’s fortunes improved only slightly when Dunn replaced Tomas Satoransky in the starting lineup last year; the emerging White will assume that point guard spot this season. After Satoransky, Cristiano Felicio, Ryan Arcidiacono, Denzel Valentine, Chandler Hutchison, and Luke Kornet seem to be hanging around the United Center only long enough for their guaranteed contracts to expire. Amid this rough economy, with only a handful of NBA head coaching positions out there, long-term job security is likely of paramount importance to Donovan. He is likely assured of the opportunity to see a rebuild through if the playoff-push with this year’s crop falters early, and Chicago still has all its future first-rounders available if they need to start from scratch yet again. Whereas in Atlanta the heat will be on the coaching staff, in Chi-town the onus is on LaVine and the playable players to learn from Donovan and grow in meaningful ways together, lest they transition from aspirants to assets before the NBA’s trade deadline arrives. Atlanta Hawks fandom, at its height, is a perpetual state of cautious optimism. Beginning with ownership on down to the final spots on the roster, the feeling around town is that there is as much to look forward to as at any time in the past several seasons, if not decades. Whenever this collective, in its current shape, makes its big breakthrough, outshines its expectations, and achieves its greatest triumphs, I want more than anything for all Squawkers to be around to savor it, to have the ability to be together, in the arena, the forums and the streets, and rejoice in it. Whether times are looking up, or looking bleak, I want every Hawks fan, young and old, to be able to see this through. To do so, we must do what it takes to help ourselves, our loved ones, and our neighbors to persevere. Our willingness to do so acknowledges an understanding that we are all connected in ways large and small, and that our ability to unwittingly spew infinitesimal droplets of harmful viral load should not be the only way we affect one another’s lives. Our incremental decisions and risks we take can have consequences impacting others, not necessarily immediate, nor detrimental, nor obvious to the naked eye. But the wise decisions we make individually may help us all see things through. Get your teapot ready; a couple stories come to mind. A Polish prisoner during the Holocaust and his German captors, along a “death march” to a concentration camp during the final years of World War II, were under siege from Allied aircraft. Taking a wise but daring risk, the 16-year-old and other prisoners broke away from the doomed Nazi troops and proceeded to take cover in the Bavarian woods. When a tank neared him, the escapee recognized the US star and took the calculated risk to run toward it. An African-American GI appeared from the tank, and the escapee dropped to his knees and declared the only three English words his mother taught him: “God Bless America!” Assessing the emaciated kid as a non-enemy, the soldier pulled him into the tank. Liberated, the young man was eventually rescued by an aunt in Paris, winding his way from France to Australia to the United States, earning his J.D. from Harvard. What does this have to do with anything? The lawyer and future White House adviser’s harrowing tale of survival would serve as a source of inspiration for a stepson from his second marriage. In just a few weeks, that stepson will be overseeing America’s foreign affairs as our newest U.S. Secretary of State. The horrific atrocities committed by Nazis and fascists across Europe during the period through World War II compelled one Serbian sculptor. Dozens of his works memorializing victims and resistors from that period are peppered throughout what was then Yugoslavia, including the “Stone Flower” monument (1966) seen above. The sculptor became a respected university architecture professor and, later, mayor in Belgrade, Yugoslavia’s capital city. Yet he continued to speak unabashedly afoul of Slobodan Milosevic and his “Make Yugoslavia Not Too Shabby Again for the First Time in a While” nationalist tactics. As a dissident of the president, he suffered through threats of death and violent attacks by Milosevic’s henchmen, along with seizures of his university work and a spiteful disinformation campaign by the state-run media. Exiling to Paris and eventually Vienna, the renowned sculptor outlived the breakup of Yugoslavia, Milosevic’s autocratic regime in Serbia and, eventually, the accused war criminal Milosevic himself. What does that have to do with anything? During the height of the geopolitical breakup of Yugoslavia, Montenegrin Serbs Dragan and Koviljka Bogdanovic dared to come together and bring a child into the world. They knew, precisely, which honorary was honorable enough to be worthy of their son’s name. Sorry, Slobodan. Bogdan and the new cast members cast the Hawks’ near-term potential in a different light. Even with Capela (doubtful, Achilles), Rondo (quarantine restrictions), Dunn (knee cartilage), Snell (foot bone inflammation) and Okongwu (same inflammation, different foot) unavailable for the opening games, the Hawks have a depth advantage over the Bulls and other NBA clubs that have been shelved for months, along with a coaching-continuity edge. What remains to be seen is if this team has figured out how to exploit these gains. There is no reason for Atlanta’s feeling-out process to be accompanied by listless losses, no reason to wait for growth and camaraderie to take hold before the winning streaks start, and no reason for “moral victories” to become the moral of this season’s story. Defeat wayward teams like the Hornets now, consistently, while they are on the schedule. That way, if 2021 becomes The Year of the Murder Hornets that 2020 was supposed to be, and we all get chased back into bubbly settings, Atlanta will have compiled enough Ws to keep from being left on the outs and getting stung again. In this season and in those to come, may our Atlanta Hawks be as prosperous on the hardwood as they look promising on paper. More importantly, through these years, may all Hawks fans around the world be healthy and stable enough to enjoy their team’s ride toward prominence. Preferably together, as the holiday song goes, if the fates allow. Because -- just between you and I -- ultimately, all our fates are intertwined. That’s the tea! Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you and yours. And… Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  9. General-ly speaking, he and Shaq can go do some ads together now. ~lw3
  10. “Go to The General and save some time!” Sorry, Chicago Bulls. Looks like you won’t have Trae Young to kick around this time! While our Atlanta Hawks head back up to Chicago to wrangle with those wascally Bulls (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Chicago), kicking off yet another multi-game road trek, Trae the Tank Engine is going to stay behind for now. In the process of trying to keep the Hawks relevant during what was shaping up to be a washout home loss to Giannis-less Milwaukee last night, Young turned his ankle, and a red-eye flight to The Land of Lincoln was certain not to help matters. The last two times the Hawks had to deal with Jim Boylen’s club, the Hawks were coming off a back-to-back. The Bulls flew to Atlanta back in early November and dusted, by 20 points, a Hawks team that had beaten the Spurs one night before, but was still reeling with John Collins unavailable and Kevin Huerter minutes-restricted. That was their biggest margin of victory this season. Until this month, when the Hawks, coming off a squandered overtime game in Miami, flew north and within 24 hours watched their dreadful defense head south. In what was becoming a theme for Atlanta (6-twentysomething) this season, the opposition scored their most regulation points, in a 136-102 blowout, since the time when Illinois’ Senator Obama was prepping for the Pennsylvania primaries. With those last meetings in mind, one wonders, without Trae in tow for the Hawks, how much of a breeze this game will be for the Bulls will be in the Windy City. Laser-focused on keeping Young restless since getting torched throughout last season, the Bulls have held Atlanta’s young star to 12.0 PPG (26.9 FG%, 7.1 3FG%) and a season-low 78 O-Rating. Might their gameplan be thrown off more than Atlanta’s? Kevin Chouinard noted postgame last night, when Lloyd Pierce was asked about his team’s table-setters in Trae’s absence, Atlanta’s head coach rattled off several inexperienced options: two-way contractor Brandon Goodwin, Kevin Huerter (team-high 3 assists in 27 minutes vs. MIL on Friday), Cam Reddish, even De’Andre Hunter. Perhaps, when it comes to keeping his true designs under wraps, LL Cool P is doin’ it and doin’ it and doin’ it well. But don’t nobody share the Hawks coach’s response with E.T., The Extra Tradebait. Chicago-adjacent native Evan Turner (last player off ATL’s bench yesterday, 2 assists in 10 minutes) was conspicuous by Pierce’s omission. Well into the midst of trade season, this is as good a time as any for Pierce, with a little prodding by PBO/GM Travis Schlenk, to allow vets to showcase their wares. Atlanta should allow Turner (5.6 assists per-36, 2nd-highest on team), Chandler Parsons, Allen Crabbe (20 points, 4-for-7 3FGs, 3 steals vs. MIL) to offer flashes of what they could provide, if not the Hawks, then some other NBA team in the back end of this season, beyond their huge expiring contracts. But for whatever reasons, opportunities for Turner (probable, hammy strain from sitting on benches so long) to impress LL Cool P have been crushed like pink cookies in a plastic bag. Three turnovers in under 13 garbage-time minutes here back on December 11 didn’t help Evan’s cause. A daunting schedule awaits the Bulls (1-11 versus teams currently above-.500) after today, with Bud’s Bucks in town on Monday and games versus Utah and Boston and at Dallas to uncork the new year. At least in the local media’s machinations, Boylen is still on a hot seat, and his team cannot afford to stumble tonight after some questionably inconsistent performances. Of note, there was the 83-73 home loss to Charlotte two days after pasting Atlanta; a late-game collapse at Dennis Schröder’s OKC; a 1-point win at the whittled-down Wizards; 14 fourth-quarter points in a 103-95 loss at Orlando pre-Xmas break. Coming into tonight’s action, Lauri Markkanen (tummy flu) remains questionable to play. Leading scorer Zach LaVine (shoulder strain) and top rebounder Wendell Carter (abdominal) are listed as probable, while Otto Porter’s return (foot fracture) has been delayed until probably February. As much as Boylen would prefer to rest them all and allow Tomas Satoransky, Coby White (7-for-11 2FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 11) and Thaddeus Young (9 rebounds and team-high 6 assists off-bench vs. ATL on Dec. 11) run roughshod tonight, he knows his Bulls will need as many points as they can get to keep shorthanded Atlanta at bay. On a planet that includes the Hawks (103.6 O-Rating), Chicago (12-20) has somehow managed to be the league’s least-efficient offense (103.5 O-Rating). They’re not very good rebounders (bottom-ten in both O-Reb% and D-Reb%), they’re not great at protecting the rock (9th-worst TO%), and they’re not all that big on rim protection (4.4 blocks per-48, 25th in NBA). Imagine those ratings if they hadn't already played Atlanta twice. But much like George Gervin’s famous finger roll, Boylen’s Bulls can do one thing, really well. As Young can attest, they are masters at dispossessing opponents of the ball. With a little bit of a playoff push, Kris Dunn (NBA-high 4.2 steal%) would become a worthy All-Defensive Team candidate for the Bulls (2.5 GB 8-seed Orlando; 101.4 December D-Rating, second in NBA only to Milwaukee), the league’s leaders in thefts (9.7 steals per-48, no other team with 9 or more) and the NBA East’s standard bearer for deflections (17.1 per game). Much maligned in the past for his lack of defensive effort, LaVine (career-high 1.3 SPG) and the Bulls (+3.1 December Net Rating, 3rd in NBA East) are modeling for Atlanta how beneficial an aggressive defense can be for a struggling offensive team. The Hawks won’t have Young (11 TOs in 2 games vs. CHI) tricky-dribbling into the teeth of Chicago’s defensive coverages tonight. But with some well-designed DHO actions and strong-side post feeds featuring Collins (ATL season-high 16 boards last night), they could limit Chicago’s ability to pile on the points off Atlanta’s turnovers, staving off the Bulls’ desire to grab this game by the horns early. Still, steady low-risk ballhandling will be key, and it’s up to Pierce to identify the players on his roster who could provide that. After two Bulls’ bashes this season, might a Turner bout be fair play? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  11. “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
  12. 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
  13. “SPIN MOR CHIKN!” There’s a first time for everything, I reckon. Yet I’m going to try getting through this game preview of the Atlanta Hawks and the visiting Chicago Bulls (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL) without tearing to shreds one of my favorite NBA management punching bags. That’s right, Garpax… you can call it a “rip-prieve”! The bad news for fans of the Bulls and the Minnesota Timberwolves is, when the ever-scrutinized managers of those clubs trade with each other, somebody has to come out on top with a “win”. Ask any bitter ex-NBA commissioner -- it’s rarely easy to glean a fair return when your young All-Star talent wants out. Especially, in this case, one who had already worn out his welcome in the locker room, just two seasons into what would certainly wind up as a four-year, $72.5 million extension deal. But the monster known as John Paxson and Gar Forman, attached at the hip, put their two heads together. They realized their old friend Tom Thibodeau was willing to make a devilish deal to scooch his unaccomplished roster into perennial playoff contention. Out went superstar sourpuss Jimmy Butler, on Draft Night 2017. In came beleaguered young lotto-pick guards Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, plus a seven-foot lotto-pick forward in Lauri Markkanen, the latter swapped for a rookie center with lingering foot problems that can’t seem to get onto an NBA floor. Butler’s addition helped Minnesota earn a pair of postseason home games, their first since 2004, after barely squeaking into the playoff on their final night of the 2017-18 season. They also got a massive headache, with a discontent Butler, a pair of butt-hurt first-overall draftees, and a tone-deaf Thibodeau leaving the Wolves hustling backwards into this new season. As for Chicago, the ACL tear LaVine suffered with Minnesota already had last season as a dream deferred. While LaVine rehabbed for a return after the All-Star Break last season, Dunn emerged as a solid defensive guard and ballhandler. Markkanen strung together enough threes, rebounds, and dunks to earn himself an All-Rookie First Team honor. Despite all the losing, the chemistry problems began to sort themselves out under the watchful eye of Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. After punching his way up the depth chart, third-year pro Bobby Portis proved to be a serviceable big man around the glass. Portis’ growth, the Markkanen acquisition, and a pair of seemingly smart first-rounders from this year’s draft (the pride of Pace Academy, Wendell Carter, and Chandler Hutchison) are giving Bulls fans hope that there is, indeed, somebody competent at the wheel in the Windy City. Now, if only Hoiberg could get all his Bulls in the pen together. Coach Fred announced during training camp that Garpax’s big offseason get, Milwaukee restricted free agent and Chi-town native Jabari Parker, would be coming off the bench in hopes of an offensive spark. The bad juju seemed to follow that decision. Markkanen suffered a severe elbow sprain, in camp, that will likely continue to keep him shelved well into next month. After missing the first pair of games for personal reasons, Dunn returned just in time to suffer an MCL sprain that has him out of action for a similar span. Not to be outdone, Portis suffered a similar sprain during the first win of the season for the Bulls (1-4), a 112-110 home thriller against the Hornets, and he will likely be sitting for some time as well. 2016’s low-lottery pick, swingman Denzel Valentine, has been out all season with an ankle sprain. I’d be tempted to note that the Bulls could have upgraded their depth during the offseason by doing something with the contracts of Robin Lopez, the grungy mascot bully relegated to third-string behind Cristiano Felicio, and Omer Asik, the apparition whose contract got waived just this past week. But, again, this is a “rip-prieve”! RoLo’s deal, signed with the nyuk-nyuk-Knicks back in the summer of 2015, mercifully expires after this season, but his play thus far makes it hard to see a contending team willing to take the $14.5 million contract off Chicago’s hooves before the trade deadline (Milwaukee says they have enough Lopezes, thank you). Adding Parker to a club that already hoped to rely upon LaVine and Markkanen for major minutes, this was bound to be an uphill climb for the Bulls’ defense. That was even before Dunn and now Portis bowed out with injuries. Bulls opponents are already lofting nearly 40 three-point attempts per game, a league-high. Only the Hawks’ most-recent vanquished foes, the Cavs and Mavs, have seen more of those threes go through the hoop than Chicago (13.8 opponent 3FGs per game). Now, on the second night of a back-to-back, after watching Kemba Walker (5-for-10 3FGs, 30 points in Charlotte’s 135-106 payback win) have another field day, the Bulls (120.5 D-Rating, 2nd-worst in NBA) face a team whose head coach thinks 40 perimeter shots per game is miniscule. Thus far, only Coach Bud’s Bucks are sinking more threes per contest (16.0 3FGs/game) than his former team. Of the top-20 NBA teams in three-point attempts, only Lloyd Pierce’s Hawks (37.8 3FGAs/game) have been hitting above a 40 percent clip. LL Cool P, demanding a breakneck tempo (NBA-high 109.0 pace), wants Atlanta’s attempts to get closer to 50 than 40. He’ll be leaning on Trae Young (NBA rookie-high 21.5 PPG & 7.5 APG) and his vet backup Jeremy Lin to push the pace, wear down the Bulls early, and set up quality perimeter chances for all their teammates. Healthy for the first time all season, Daniel Hamilton (shoulder) may have a role in the second half if he is activated. Lin (12.8 MPG, lowest among the Hawks’ active non-two-way players), whose early struggles compelled Pierce to rely on his wings to key the monumental comeback against the Mavs on Wednesday, will try to mimic the vintage night the Hornets’ Tony Parker enjoyed versus the bare-bones Bulls (7-for-11 FGs, 8 assists, one TO in 19 bench minutes) last night. The vastly-improved Cam Payne, pressed into starter’s minutes, and ex-Hawk Justin Holiday will try to fill in the offensive gaps alongside LaVine (29.8 PPG, 5th in NBA; 3rd in NBA Usage%), the off-guard is high-scoring but may want to trade off some of his high-flying paint plays for more perimeter chances (42.4 3FG%). Parker (19 points @CHA) still dutifully comes off the bench, although Hoiberg may be tempted to change that soon if the losing continues. Try all they might, there are simply not enough high-percentage, high-scoring opportunities for LaVine, Parker, and the Bulls to overcome their many defensive lapses. Even if they do force errors from Atlanta (16.1 TO%, 5th-highest in NBA) into quick points at the other end, it feels as though that just plays into Pierce and the Hawks’ hands by leaving Atlanta ample time on the game clock. Chicago will need to produce transition points from their wings in the three-point corners, much like the treys Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince (combined 8-for-20 3FGs, 5 corner threes) used to feast on Dallas during the Hawks’ 111-104 comeback victory. The question, with Payne, Parker and LaVine focused on scoring, is whether their bigs can haul it down the court and effectively dish the rock, too. “We are live from Allstate Arena!” Ugghh. ESPN’s Mark Jones got Wednesday’s remodeled arena unveiling off to a bad start for the Hawks (2-2), but the team and their fans eventually made themselves feel right at home, at just the right time. Coming into this game with a rest advantage and momentum, there is no reason Atlanta can’t get off on the good talon against the Bulls. Chicago’s managers get a reprieve today. But that doesn’t mean the Bulls on the court should. Rip and Run! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. When it comes to quality tankjobs, it's not about how you start, it's about how you... Finnish? ~lw3
  15. Don’t choke, Robin! At least, not today! Kinda busy downtown today, eh? I’m way too immersed in March Madness (Go Georgia State!) and Atlanta United’s home debut to get too deep into this afternoon’s other contest, the Tank War between our Atlanta Hawks and the visiting Chicago Bulls (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, WGN in CHI). So, let’s stick to tidbits! No more Holidays for Justin! The Commish isn’t big-letter Stern anymore but he issued a small-letter stern warning to Chicago for ostensibly “resting” otherwise healthy guys like Justin Holiday (DNP’d for 4 consecutive games) and Robin Lopez for days on end. So expect to see the former Hawk in the starting lineup. Despite elevated usage the 28-year-old swingman may never see again in his NBA career, Holiday has been a wayward shooter all season long (37.9 FG%). But he did feast on Memphis cooking (5-for-5 FGs) in a Tank War win over the Grizzlies earlier this week. The Bulls (22-43) have won their last three versus the Hawks, including both games so far this season. They won handily in their last visit to Atlanta, a 113-97 edge led by Lopez’s 20 points (9-for-13 FGs). In just his first week of NBA action this season, Zach LaVine struggled from the floor but still managed to grab a team-high nine defensive rebounds. In that January game, Holiday, Jerian Grant, Ryan Arcidiacono, Denzel Valentine and Bobby Portis shot a combined 12-for-19 on threes, freeing up Lopez and rookie star Lauri Markkanen to do their damage on the interior (17-for-29 2FGs). Contributions off the bench from the soon-departing Nikola Mirotic weren’t really needed. Chicago’s starters combined for just 5 TOs between them, usually a recipe for disaster for the Hawks (20-46). Coach Fred Hoiberg’s crew enjoyed a season-high 62 rebounds (incl. 18 O-Rebs) against the Hawks in Chicago way back on October 26, yet still found themselves clinging to a 91-86 victory, thanks to Marco Belinelli finding a fourth-quarter hot-hand. Dewayne Dedmon (10.5 RPG vs. CHI this season) and John Collins together in the starting lineup should make it tougher for Lopez (18.0 PPG vs. ATL this season) and Lauri (16.5 PPG, 8.0 RPG vs. ATL) to get easy buckets and putbacks today. The Bulls’ only legit injury was to glue-guy Paul Zipser (foot), who is listed as doubtful for this contest. The Bulls have been lousy on the road (7-25), but most of those beatdowns have been out West (1-12). On that note, their next Tank War comes later this week in Memphis. Go Bulls Go! We can expect to see plenty more of rookie second-rounder Tyler Dorsey, among the few bright spots for the Hawks during Friday night’s 112-87 loss in Indiana (3-for-8 3FGs). There’s no need to pull a Bulls and DNP leaders like Kent Bazemore, or Dennis Schröder (18.0 PPG and 2.0 SPG vs. CHI this season) all week long, when Coach Bud can simply ramp up the minutes and flatten the learning curve for Dorsey and Isaiah Taylor. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  16. “Now DIFF iff a contfeth I can ffink my FEEFTH intfoo!” The Atlanta Hawks continue their thrilling homestand by facing off with the Chicago Bulls (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, WGN in The Chi) in a 2020 Eastern Conference Finals preview. We might as well go ahead and speak it into existence. Once LeBron is bawling outta control with the Clippers, Giannis gives hints he won’t be around America’s Dairyland much longer, Porzingis retires his tired body early, and Kyrie finally starts resembling Uncle Drew, by 2020, it could come down to which of the two teams on the Philips Arena court today add the right pieces and gel the quickest. If only Garpax can get out of its own way. No more absurd deals from the two-headed management monster, like the four-year, $32 million one handed out to backup pivot Cristiano Felicio, who is spending the day with Paul Zipser in G-League Wisconsin. No more buyouts of well-worn ex-All-Stars brought in to impart veteran “wisdom.” No more dumping Taj Gibson and Doug McDermott for a run at Cameron Payne. Just find a way to keep 2018 restricted free agent Zach LaVine from getting Hardawayed out of town, continue to develop talent like lotto rookie Lauri Markkanen, give coach Fred Hoiberg room to instill his offensive schemes, bada boom, bada bing, conference finals, here we come. After the seeming success of drafting Lauri Legend (17.7 PPG, 47.2 3FG% and 8.2 RPG in last ten games) last summer, there are fans who would enjoy the Bulls (17-28; 14-8 since bottoming out at 3-20) taking another dip in the lottery tank. But losing skids are on hold in Chi-town until Nikola Mirotic finds himself in a new NBA home. Since returning from a preseason-practice face-bashing courtesy of teammate Bobby Portis, Mirotic (team-high 17.7 PPG, 45.7 3FG%. 6.8 RPG) quietly does his bidding, coming in off the bench, getting his buckets and boards, and sitting back down on his hands, the Bulls winning 13 of the 20 games in which he has appeared. He has made it clear he wants to be as far from Portis and his fisticuffs as possible, before the NBA trade deadline arrives, and simply moving Portis won’t satisfy him. Chicago also has LaVine back for the first time this season, although Hoiberg and the staff is limiting their future lead scorer’s playing time to 24 minutes (preserving time for the fourth quarter) as he returns from ACL surgery. Acquiring LaVine, Kris Dunn, and Markkanen in exchange for former star Jimmy Butler and Justin Patton, is shaping up to be a boon going forward for Coach Fred and the Bulls. That’s especially true if LaVine returns this summer, after he and the Bulls failed to hammer out an extension deal last fall. Much like Atlanta with Dennis Schröder, the surge up the standings for Chicago (13.0 opponent TOs/game, last in NBA) in future seasons will coincide with LaVine’s commitment to strengthening his defensive imprint. For the Hawks (13-31), January used to be the time of year when Joe Johnson, Al Horford, and Paul Millsap would elevate their play, each making a final push to be considered by the league’s coaches deliberating over their All-Star reserve choices. Now, I don’t love L.A. quite like Randy Newman did. But even though the Hawks are momentarily languishing in The Gutter of the Eastern Conference, and nobody from around here will be checking in to give LeBron and Giannis a spell, there are a few Hawks I’d like to see dancing their way into All-Star Weekend festivities in La-La Land. They might be wearing different jerseys by the time they arrive, but either of Marco Belinelli (4.7 3FGAs/game, 38.7 3FG%) or Ersan Ilyasova (40.5 3FG%) ought to get consideration for the Somebody’s Bluetooth Headphones Three-Point Shooutout. It would be the third appearance for Belly (2014 champion) and the first for Thrillyasova. After dropping a cool buck-fifty (career-high-tying 15 regulation dimes! TEN in the second half! ZERO turnovers! Nice defense, Rondo!) on the Pelicans Thursday, Schröder (career-high 36.3 assist%, 9th in NBA) seems like a perfect candidate to return to the They Make Taco Shells Outta Eggs These Days Skills Challenge. For all that is holy, Menace, don’t blow the layup! With 17 monstrous Almost Dunks as whoa-inducing as his 72 made ones (as per bball-ref), rookie John Collins ought to get a call for the Can You Hear Me Now Slam Dunk Contest. He’s also a lock to be on the USA roster for the Caffeinated Livewire Sugarbomb in a Skinny Can Rising Stars Game. Although, with the American side lacking girth, it appears Jean Baptiste could get stuck with an unfortunate matchup, should Joel Embiid elect to do double-duty that weekend on behalf of Team World. Skip the Friday night events, Rihanna. With just ten rookie-sophs on each roster, there’s a tight squeeze for a final roster spot on the USA team, and Taurean Prince (12.4 PPG & 5.4 RPG , 8th & 5th among second-year players, respectively) still has a chance to thread the needle. To make Taurean Goes to Hollywood a reality, the Hawks swingman must find a way to shed his recent slump (32.9 FG% and 2.4 TOs/game in last 8 games; two total FTAs in his last 5 games) and outshine a collection of Baby Bulls, notably Kris (“Kwithf!”) Dunn (13.7 PPG) and Denzel Valentine (5.4 RPG), who get the benefit of a bigger-market push. Attacking the rim on cuts and drives more frequently, and disallowing missed shots from affecting his energy in transition, will go a long way for Prince to help himself earn a trip to Cali. Similar to the Pelicans, done in by a Bazebomb in Wednesday evening’s 94-93 thriller at The Highlight Factory, the Bulls come into Atlanta with limited depth, although Chicago won’t be playing off a 3-in-4 night overtime-filled stretch, not like New Orleans. Dunn’s under concussion protocol and getting his fronts fixed after taking a post-dunk spill during Tuesday’s 119-112 home loss to the Draymond-less Warriors. Payne has been out all season after foot surgery, while LaVine is minutes-limited. That leaves the Bulls’ ten-deep, and Hoiberg will lean on a committee that includes ex-Hawks draftee Jerian Grant, ex-Hawk Justin Holiday, Valentine, David Nwaba and LaVine to slow Schröder’s rolls to the hoop. There is minimal rim protection beyond Robin Lopez (0.9 BPG and 4.9 RPG, lowest since 2011-12) for the Bulls (18.8 opponent FGs per game within 5 feet, 6th-most in NBA), something Schröder, Kent Bazemore and Prince should seek to exploit. I can see it now: Dennis Schröder takes the dribble hand-off from Jaren Jackson, Jr. and flies to the hoop for the conference semifinals’ series-clinching layup in Game 7. As he returns triumphantly to the floor, Schröder turns to Orlando’s Luka Doncic and whispers, “Sorry, kiddo. It’s just not your time yet!” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  17. Will the only person alive capable of stopping John Collins, please, raise your hand? It is possible that the Chicago Bulls are the worst team in the NBA. It’s also possible that they could notch their first victory of the season, at the United Center tonight, while hosting the occasionally up, often down Atlanta Hawks (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, WGN in CHI). Both things can be true. We’re now in the ninth year of the Gar Forman-John Paxson axis in the Second City, the fifteenth year of the once-proud big-city club under Paxson’s thumb, the twentieth since MJ pushed off on Bryon Russell and left the team in the hands of Tim Floyd and Toni Kukoc. The passing of time has led Bulls fans to wonder, how awful would owner Jerry Reinsdorf’s club still be, if the 2007-08 team didn’t luck out in the lottery and land a healthy, bouncy Chicago native named Derrick Rose? Reinsdorf has stuck with “Garpax” through thin and thinner. Now that the year-plus-long spigot holding back NBA coach-cannings has finally been turned on, there’s nothing to suggest that Bulls head coach Fred Hoiberg won’t catch the blame, and the axe, over Garpax’s ever-accumulating management and player-development failures. Former Bulls lead-scorer and passive-aggressive team captain Jimmy Butler got dealt on draft night to Minnesota, and the returning haul gave the Bulls two young guards that have yet to appear due to injuries (Zach LaVine and Kris Dunn), plus a lottery pick, Lauri Markkanen, that was likely to be stashed after a rough summer league stint. Aside from Butler and Rose, the Bulls have had a decades’ worth of draft picks that have failed to pan out in Chicago, including first-rounders Bobby Portis and Denzel Valentine, still on the roster at least for now. Several picks in that span that have panned out did so, or are doing so, with other teams (Gary Harris, Jusuf Nurkic, James Johnson… to say nothing of 2006’s LaMarcus Aldridge). That list seems to now include 2017 second-rounder Jordan Bell, a flourishing rookie sub who Garpax shipped to Golden State for cash to line Reinsdorf’s pockets. The Butler deal was probably not the worst of 2017 for Chicago. That would go to the trade-deadline deal of Doug McDermott (a 2014 lottery pick acquired for Harris and Nurkic) and team heart-and-soul forward Taj Gibson. Garpax exchanged them plus a second-rounder for three guys (Cameron Payne, Joffrey Lauvergne, Anthony Morrow) who hardly registered a blip, and only the injured Payne remains. Of Chicago’s draft-day selections and acquisitions over the past five years, only Paul Zipser (doubtful for tonight, bruised knee in practice) and Markannen are starting on Hoiberg’s roster, and even these situations are merely out of dire necessity. One year before the Butler deal, the Rose trade with New York included guard Justin Holiday. Holiday (18.3 PPG, 35.3 FG%) is back on a free-agent deal, joining momentary ex-Hawks Jerian Grant (7.3 APG) and Kay Felder to further muddle the backcourt picture in advance of LaVine’s and Payne’s eventual returns. I’m as big of a Lover-Not-A-Fighter pacifist as you’ll find. But a good practice scrap every now and then can turn out pretty good for a professional hoops team struggling to bond. Exhibit A: that time Zaza Pachulia and Solomon Jones swung for the fences at each other, during an April pregame shootaround at MSG, and emerged with nary a splinter back in 2008. The Hawks won the ensuing game over the Knicks, moonwalked by that one game into the playoffs over the Pacers, got rewarded with Paul Pierce and the Celtics, and haven’t missed a postseason party since (okay, fine… they haven’t missed one yet). Key to that pivotal altercation, though, is Solo never smashed Zaza’s grill, which I just assume is unsmashable to this point of his career, as retaliation for the backup center getting all up in his. No Zaza, no fateful date with KG’s mug, maybe no inspirational final playoff dash to begin with. There’s no telling how big the dream-deferred would have been for playoff-starved Hawks fans, had Atlanta been simply observing Boston’s march toward destiny from home. The stakes weren’t remotely as high for the Bulls (0-3) on the day before the season-opener, when Portis chose to find out just what happens When Keeping It Real Goes Wrong. Portis had lost a preseason battle to stick in the rotation at power forward, and he took exception when would-be starter Nikola Mirotic started feelin’ froggy around him during a skirmish in practice. Mirotic caught a two-piece, a biscuit, and a pepper from Portis. The whole malicious meal resulted in maxillary fractures that will surely have him looking like a stunt double from a horror film when he finally returns to an NBA floor in mid-November. The game-suspended Portis’ status with the team remains on shaky ground, and likely depends on whether he and Mirotic can break bread while they’re both on hiatus. The good news for Bulls fans is the fateful fracas eliminated two excuses Coach Fred could’ve hid behind in stashing “The Finnisher”, the rookie Markkanen. The lottery pick out of Arizona has been hitting a trio of threes per game (45.5 3FG%) while also leading the Bulls with eight defensive boards per game, allowing center Robin Lopez to focus almost exclusively on cleanup putbacks and help-blocks. His career-high 19 points (5-for-8 3FGs) during the Bulls’ 119-112 loss in Cleveland on Wednesday, after he and Holiday (4-for-9 3FGs) guided their team to an early 38-28 lead in the first quarter, earned him postgame praise from Cavs default point guard LeBron James. Until LaVine returns, Markkanen is the only guy capable of playing from the Jimmy Buckets trade, and the Bulls’ fans are pleased to see him get and take advantage of the opportunity. But the Bulls come into today’s contest ranking next-to-last in offensive efficiency, just a shave in front of Dallas for 28th on the defensive end. Chicago’s 12.8 opponent TO% is next-to-lowest, and their opponents’ 26.3 assists per-48 are next-to-highest. Who knew that the best guard option for the Bulls in the clutch, given some quality developmental seasoning, would-be Spencer Dinwiddie, discarded prior to the 2016-17 season, now a hero with the Nyets? Hoiberg has been dealt a lousy hand, and will either earn end-of-season honors for coaching this team into Eastern Conference parity, or a pink slip. He would love to be in the cartwheel-flipping Mike Budenholzer’s shoes right now. Inspired by the on-goings in Chicago with Markkanen, many Hawks fans would quite enjoy the imagery of Ersan Ilyasova (team-low 30.6 eFG%, min. nine minutes played), Luke Babbitt (5.1 Rebound%, lowest among Atlanta’s non-guards), and Mike Muscala (team-low 88.7 O-Rating, min. three minutes played) wrangling with one another atop a combine harvester. However messy the outcome, it would leave no choice for Coach Bud to play in the NBA’s rookie leader in player efficiency rating. John Collins also ranks second among rooks in per-48 Win Shares, behind Bell (sorry, Chicago), and third in the NBA’s Player Impact Estimate (min. 10 mins/game), behind the lauded Ben Simmons and De’Aaron Fox. Yet we can only speak in terms of efficiencies with Collins (13th in minutes-played among 2017 draftees), because Budenholzer sits the budding big-man at inopportune times for the Hawks (1-3). It is true that Coach Bud wants to be careful in over-relying upon his rookies, as evidenced in prior seasons with Dennis Schröder and Taurean Prince (20 points but 7 TOs @ MIA on Monday). It is also correct to assume that Collins has to work on his strength and defensive awareness versus post players, as was demonstrated when he allowed his fellow Deacon alum, Johnson, to plunk down one basket after another in the third quarter of Atlanta’s 104-93 loss in Miami. Yet Collins (14-and-11 in 18.5 minutes @ MIA; second-straight double-double) was instrumental in that quarter in dwindling Miami’s double-digit lead down to four points, his layup off a dime from Kent Bazemore drawing the Hawks to a 77-73 deficit after entering the second half down 62-44. If strength is such a concern, why is Muscala in the game in the clutch, allowing Justise Winslow to snatch the ball from him like candy from a baby? If defensive awareness is such a big deal, how did the heat go from 15 third-quarter points to 27 in the fourth, while Collins sat? Moose’s third and final turnover of the second half led to a fastbreak layup that essentially put the game on ice for the heat, and he was promptly replaced not by Collins but another Budfave, Malcolm Delaney, as the heat lead continued to swell. The Bulls’ defensively futile guard-play will allow another opportunity to see just how deep the abyss gets for Delaney (3-for-9 FGs @ MIA, raising his shooting to 29.2 FG%; 1 assist, 3 TOs in 33 minutes on Monday), who starts while Schröder is back home resting his sprained ankle in advance of tomorrow’s home-opener versus Denver. Budenholzer hinted he might give Isaiah Taylor and Josh Magette more minutes tonight. But that will largely be a function of how much of a hole Delaney digs, especially when getting lost on the defensive end and bricking open jumpers. Whosoever is handling the rock (including Baze) has to distribute it better in the directions of Dewayne Dedmon, the starting center who was a ghost on offense on Monday (0-for-3 2FGs, 0-for-2 3FGS, no O-Rebs), and former Bull Marco Belinelli (47.4 3FG%). Keeping that duo productive, cutting back on shot-clock usage for Muscala and Prince, and players other than Collins and Dedmon getting stops, would help Atlanta outpace Chicago, who might be just nine-deep, this evening. Let the Bulls get off the schneid at someone else’s expense. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record