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  1. This is the time to remember. ‘Cause it will not last forever… March Madness is here! Have you caught the fever yet? If so, you may want to self-quarantine and watch some NBA action to kill the time, if not a few germs, during tonight’s lull in NCAA conference tournament play. This time last year, it was about to be a nice little run for the New York Knicks’ RJ Barrett, cementing himself as a certified PTP’er alongside Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson as Duke would win the ACC conference tourney championship. Indeed, those were the days to hold on to. Williamson would wind up entering the NBA with some experienced, if not accomplished, veteran talent around him. Barrett was granted high expectations, just by being picked shortly after Zion by New York, but not a commensurately high amount of usage. RJ ceded center stage to another former high NBA draft pick, in Julius Randle, trying to prove he can be a headliner, and a now-departed Morris Twin who was trying to grab the attention of his next NBA employer. But some fans and media are already dour over the prospect that Barrett (42.6 2FG%, 31.8 3FG%, 60.5 FT%) may not become the franchise-defining superstar for whom they have longed. Did I mention, he only turns 20 in June? Barrett returns with his Knicks to visit Reddish’s Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), and I can imagine the #3 pick from last year’s draft is a bit envious of his former Dookie teammate’s situation. “Simply put,” Sopan Deb of the New York Times wrote in generality on Saturday, “being a rookie for the Knicks, a franchise seemingly addicted to chaos in the country’s biggest city, is different from being on any other team.” Deb noted that RJ’s career-high of 27 points in what should have been a rousing home win over Houston was overshadowed by the antics of his team’s owner and his squabble with its biggest superfan. “It can be jarring for young men entering adulthood, and even more so for Barrett – who fans hope will be the centerpiece of a long-desired championship team.” Maple Mamba has a few supporters above the border who have been tracking his path to the pros for some time, and there’s hope he can become a consistent go-to star for the Knicks, sooner rather than later. By the time he does break through, he will likely be under the guidance of his second team executive, the incoming ex-agent Leon Rose, and at least his third head coach. There’s a reason that surveyed first-timers, during a preseason poll predicted Reddish, above all others, would finish with the best NBA career. I suppose a lot if it is how well he has blended in as a talented teammate at all stages of his development, sharing the spotlight with Mo Bamba in high school, with Zion and RJ in Durham, and now with Trae Young, John Collins and a host of up-and-comers in The ATL. Cam isn’t under the urgency to be the signature star, or even to start, in Atlanta. Away from the pressure of lugging a mismanaged major-market titan back into viability for the first time in deceades, the optimism is higher than the expectations for Reddish (42.6 2FG%, 33.5 3FG%, 80.2 FT%), and neither is overblown. Spirits have lifted a bit, at least on the court, since coach David Fizdale got his ouster following a 4-18 start. Yet the wins have come in drips and drabs for “Mikey Two Shoes” Miller and the Knicks lately. Yes, they have won three of their last six, including that 123-112 win over the slip-sliding Rockets. But a regression could also be viewed in the context of the six-game losing skid that preceded the 3-3 run, a slide that began on February 9 with a double-OT loss (stop me if you’ve heard that before) to the Hawks at State Farm Arena. That 140-135 loss in Atlanta, like today’s game, was the back end of a road back-to-backs. New York (20-45) returns here today at 1-8 on the season in SEGABABAs, the sole victory, Miller’s first, by two points at Golden State three months ago. With the Knicks coming off a 122-115 loss in Washington last night, the indicators point to the Hawks (20-46) coasting past the Knicks in the right-side-up standings like two ships passing in the night. Alas, like the last game between these two, and like the double-OT win over the Hornets, we’re likely setting ourselves up for something akin to the Merrimack versus the Monitor. Miller must be somewhat miffed to see coaching colleague JB Bickerstaff turn a 5-5 start, in taking over the Cavaliers since the All-Star Break, into a multi-year extension. Well before that time, the Knicks’ interim coach has had his job status come up out of the blue by a new employee on First Take, and he has had to watch his owner prioritize the situation with celebrity entrance choices at MSG. On the court, however, Miller’s biggest issue has been his penchant for getting the upper hand, then giving it away with his rotations. His Knicks built up a sizable 31-20 lead on the Hawks here on February 9, thanks to Randle’s 12-and-8 in the opening quarter, only to watch it dissipate by halftime and dissolve completely by the end of the third (John Collins’ 14 second-quarter points propelled Atlanta), necessitating some late-game scrambling to force the OT periods. Last night, New York bounced back from a slow start to pour on 70 first-half points on the defensively woeful Wizards. But the Knicks could only muster 45 points the rest of the way as Washington turned the tables. Unlike the last Hawks game, the reserves carried the day in the first half, particularly Frank Ntilikina, the former lottery hopeful now in his third year who enjoyed his first 20-and-10 performance, and bug-eyed big Bobby Portis. But by the time Miller put the subs back into the game, it was too late to stop the Wizards’ second-half blitz. The Knicks do come into the game healthy. Starters like Elfrid Payton, Queens native and ex-Clipper Moe Harkless, and Taj Gibson, along with rotation players Mitchell Robinson, Wayne Ellington and Kevin Knox were used sparingly in D.C., so it’s imagined that Miller will ride with a lot of them to support Barrett and Randle, the latter of whom fouled out last night with four minutes to spare. New York will also hope, while challenged with defending Young for much of this evening, that Ntilikina’s offensive output on Tuesday was no mere mirage. Atlanta exploited Charlotte’s interior early and often, and more of the same will be needed from Lloyd Pierce’s young charges this evening. Randle will post up and hog the ball on occasion, and when transition opportunities come from his shots that Hawks need to turn those into points at every opportunity. Majestic offensive displays from Young and Reddish can come later in the contest. But early on, we’ll need to see the guards looking for Collins (28-and-11 vs. CHA), Bruno Fernando and Dewayne Dedmon (+20 plus-minus vs. CHA) running the floor against New York’s travel-weathered legs. Tonight ought to be a rookie showcase between former college teammates Barrett, the Knick who is challenged with becoming a more efficient scorer, and Reddish, who has been a defensive salve for the Hawks but could stand to become a more consistent rebounder and playmaker. So far, they’ve given us the best of them. And now, we need the rest of them. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. “Guys! I think we’ve finally just turned a corner!” Just when you thought it was safe to go back into mediocrity! Remember all my claptrap about an “easier” schedule for our Hawks by March? Well, the trick is, Atlanta still must learn to make things easier on themselves. As the Hawks spin their wheels in mud, it turns out, several teams in the sad-sack Lottery East aren’t just sitting around waiting to be lapped. For example, the Cavaliers leapfrogged the Hawks in the right-side-up standings with a pair of home wins over Denver and San Antonio. The Knicks aren’t winning in the customer relations department these days, but at least they know how to beat the Pistons at MSG, along with the fizzling Rockets and Bulls during their recent eight-day homestand. The Wizards may not have enough to sneak into the playoff picture, but they’ve done enough to stiff-arm the Warriors and the Hawks in recent days. Even out West, the Pelicans and Warriors don’t project to be the same squads we saw earlier in the season, with the respective re-introductions of Zion and Steph to their rosters. The Hawks will get to play those teams on three occasions in the back half of what was supposed to be the very merry month of March, but only after a three-game, week-long homestand that begins tonight. Speaking of which, there are coach James Borrego’s Charlotte Hornets, who buzz their way into State Farm Arena this evening (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL and CLT, 92.9 FM). Sunday’s home win over the Rockets has made them victors in six of their last 11 games, and any stretch remotely above .500 is good enough to surge Lottery teams up the standings. Sure, Charlotte (22-41, Tragic Number 13) had recently lost three straight. But those defeats were sandwiched between wins at Toronto and versus Houston. All three losses, to Milwaukee, Sam Antonio and Denver amid a seven-day homestand, were by single-digit margins. They’ve held the Raptors to 96 points, the Bucks to 93, and the Rockets to 99. Good things happen when they control the pace (NBA-low 96.4 possessions per 48 minutes) and put the clamps on opponents defensively. Many of the league’s tougher opponents await on the remainder of the Hornets’ schedule, but many of those contests will be at home, and none of them include the three games the Hawks (19-46) and Hornets have yet to play. So there remains a glimmer of hope among Charlotteans, so long as they can avoid being inundated by Trae Young like they were in December. Young had 30 points and 9 assists, making all 8 free throws in a rare early road win for the Hawks, a 122-107 sprint to the checkered flag in Charlotte. Trae is reportedly over the flu bug, now passed on to Jeff Teague (available for tonight anyway), and should be chomping at the bit to make up for the waxing he endured yet again at the Grizzlies’ hands this past week (1-for-14 3FGs, 6 total assists and 12 TOs over 2 games vs. MEM). Against his division rivals, Young will want to shake a perimeter funk that extends back a half-dozen games (17.6 3FG% in his past six appearances). Even if the struggle continues, Atlanta (19-46, hasn’t lost 4 in a row since Jan. 12) can still give themselves a puncher’s chance at victory. The NBA’s two worst defensive rebounding squads take the court tonight at The Highlight Farm. The worst of the two by default, visiting Charlotte nonetheless nabbed a season-high 47 in a balanced effort to topple the Raptors during the Hornets’ last road trek. They will need more of the same tonight, but the Hawks hope those guys will be spending more time retrieving the ball from the inner bottom of the net. This contest could hinge on which team creates more havoc on the offensive glass, earns productive trips to the foul line and extends possessions. Charlotte will lean on Cody Zeller, Bismack Biyombo (DNP vs. HOU on Saturday) and Willy Hernangomez to sneak in and create extra opportunities for Terry Rozier, PJ Washington and Devonte’ Graham (combined 13-for-23 on threes vs. HOU). Lloyd Pierce’s club will wish to counter with John Collins (probable, thigh bruise), who was suspended and unavailable for the December win in Charlotte, Bruno Fernando (team-high 8.6 O-Reb%) and Dewayne Dedmon, who would do well to match the five O-Rebs Alex Len contributed during 19 minutes off the bench in that game. Hopefully all the putbacks and second-chances won’t be necessary, if Atlanta’s backcourt executes well on the first tries. Against a Hornets squad that allows the most assisted baskets in the league (NBA-high 26.5 opponent APG), the Hawks can gain the upper hand if Young, Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish (12 minutes vs. MEM before leaving with leg cramps, available vs. CHA) make sound passes and take advantage of open looks. Getting back in proper defensive assignments ought to be simpler against Charlotte, who doesn’t get out and run much anyway (1.04 transition PPP, 29th in NBA, ahead of only New York’s 1.03). For a team that has been presented lately as a Playoff Team of the Near Future, it would be good for Atlanta to see better all-around performances versus Non-Playoff Teams of the Present. With a homestand that includes New York and Cleveland stopping through later in the week, a rare three-game winning streak would be nice for a team that aims to win four-out-of-seven games a little over 13 months from now. In these waters, the Hawks don't have to be Jaws yet. They just have to know how to quit playing like a Baby Shark. That is to say, like Doo-Doo-do-Doo-do-Doo. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. “You called that a foul, ref? Man… you’re a TRIP!” You all are familiar with the Memphis Grizzlies by now. Hopefully, our Atlanta Hawks know them a bit better, too. At least well enough to stay neck-and-neck with them as this week’s two-game series shifts to FedEx Forum (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL and MEM; FWIW, Five Stripes’ home opener will be on 94.1 FM and Fox Sports South). Monday’s 127-88 drubbing of the Hawks was the largest road win in Memphis’ franchise history, with a team-high nine Blue Bears ringing up double-figure scores. That 25-year franchise record for road victory margin was matched a mere two nights later in Brooklyn. The Grizzlies cut down the Nets on Wednesday, 118-79, likely the game that caused Kenny Atkinson and Sean Marks to decide they should maybe stop seeing each other. Including the 105-88 win over LeBrongeles in Memphis, making them the first conference opponent this season to beat the Lakers outside of L.A., coach Taylor Jenkins’ club became the first NBA team to hold three consecutive foes below 90 points since yet another Budtree disciple, Quin Snyder, and his Utah Jazz did the deed back in March 2018. It was an impressive feat considering the Grizzlies are still roaming without Jaren Jackson, Brandon Clarke, Justise Winslow and Grayson “Dindu Nuffin” Allen. That party came to an end last night in Lukaville, but was it just an interruption? As the Hawks (19-45) headed to Graceland after Friday’s too-little, almost-not-too-late loss to the Wizards in D.C., the Grizzlies (31-32) slipped back below .500 with a 121-96 road defeat at the hands of a Mavericks team whose owner took quite an L of his own. Dallas rang up 30 assists while turning over the ball about half as much as Memphis (19 TOs, led by Ja Morant’s six). Was Jenkins’ crew simply conserving their energies? If the emerging Cam Reddish shows up and shows out, they’ll be glad they did. Reddish wasn’t available to plug the cracking dam for coach Lloyd Pierce’s club on Monday. But with Trae Young out due to illness last night, Reddish took it upon himself to become a faucet the Wizards would struggle to cut off. 6-for-10 inside the 3-point arc, 5-for-7 beyond it. Coming off the bench, Reddish built his career scoring high with only one free throw attempt (I don’t have a half-million to spare, but c’mon refs), and despite 7 TOs. The next big step for Cam (probable, back pain) is to outdo himself on the back end of back-to-backs. Last weekend at The Farm, he followed up an efficient 26-point performance (6-for-9 3FGs) in the win over Coach Kenny’s Nets with just 8 points in 24 minutes against the Blazers the next evening. In mid-January, 22 points to expunge the Spurs Hex on a Friday, 7 points on 3-for-10 shooting back home on a Saturday, as the Hawks lost at home to Detroit by 33. The back-end game before that one, in late December, Reddish tallied two points on one made bucket on five attempts, as the Hawks fell in Chicago by 35. He was a net minus-21 on that day, an improvement over the minus-23 in yet another 30-plus-point back-end loss in Chi-town just 17 days before. Granted, it shouldn’t all be about The Cam Reddish Show every night, certainly not at this early stage. The Hawks need a multitude of positive contributors at both ends of the floor, more seasoned folks like Kevin Huerter (career-high 11 assists vs. WAS yesterday) and John Collins (26-and-10 plus a pair of blocks vs. WAS; 16 fourth-quarter points), in particular. But the competitive progress Coach Pierce and his staff seeks of his Hawks will reveal itself when arguably(?) their most valuable two-way performer can be counted upon to recover quickly and string very good games together. Cam wasn’t the singular difference between victory and a 40-point tail-whooping. Yet, the Hawks needed Reddish on Monday the way Mississippi State games need more cowbell. The rookie is one critical defensive body that Pierce can use to help Young (still questionable w/ flu-like symptoms) and/or Jeff Teague thwart the Grizzlies’ ballhandlers, and to switch onto Memphis’ best perimeter-shooting forwards and swingmen. Reddish, his fellow rookie De’Andre Hunter (team-high 8 D-Rebs vs. WAS) will also be vital in keeping Jonas Valanciunas (7 O-Rebs @ ATL, none last night @ DAL) from getting easy catches on rolls to the rim and from feasting on the offensive boards. Their interior defensive activity, neutralizing the rebounding edge Valanciunas and Gorgui Dieng seek to establish in the halfcourt, will make it tougher for the Grizzlies to scamper away during Atlanta’s predictable offensive lulls. The Hawks went from a Hunter three-pointer, putting the visitors up 52-48 last night, with five minutes to go before halftime, to a Reddish triple with two minutes left before the end of the third quarter to end a 35-13 Wizards run. No Hawk shots, aside from an 8-foot jumper from Brandon Goodwin were sunk beyond three feet of the rim in that time. Forcing Valanciunas and the Grizzlie bigs to do more than dig in their heels waiting for caroms will require a more diversified attack, exploiting driving lanes, moving the rock inside, outside and back in, and getting Collins, Bruno Fernando and Dewayne Dedmon more post-up opportunities. All eyes were on Morant on Monday, but Memphis’ offensive balance came largely from Tyus Jones (9 assists, 1 TO @ ATL, 6-and-0 @ BRK, 7-and-1 @ DAL), now the NBA’s active leader in assist/turnover ratio (5.3 ratio, actually down from 7.0 last season w/ MIN). It is that level of confidence with one’s own personnel, exhibited by Jones in his first season in Memphis, that Atlanta, with or without Trae, will be challenged to match. Jones’ former protégé with the Timberwolves, Teague made two assists in the opening six minutes of last night’s game, and he wouldn’t make another until Atlanta found themselves down double digits with ten minutes remaining. Young would help minimize those droughts with his passing wizardry and ability to get to the free throw line. But if he remains out tonight, the more balanced offensive approach should begin and end in the hands of Teague and Goodwin. “I ain’t THAT sick y’all… Relax lol”, tweeted Young prior to last night’s game, certainly a relief for fans to hear these days. Feeling better is Priority One for him, but Atlanta can still do plenty of things to aid what ails them on the court, particularly during back-to-backs and on the road. Trae isn’t THAT sick, but after a spirited comeback attempt in D.C., can Cam and the Hawks play THAT well, throughout tonight’s game? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. “OnlyFans, but with you and Beal guarding people. OléFans!” “It’s a masterstroke of heartache, brutality, and redemption.” “YOU DIDN’T READ THE BOOK, DID YOU?” I let out a hearty snorkle (snark and chortle? snort and chuckle?) every time that car ad comes on. We all know that guy, the one who comes to class, the book club, or the big meeting, and does his best attempt at Winging It, in hopes of not making it obvious he showed up wholly unprepared? Few creatures do a better job at Winging It than hawks. But under the unrelenting scrutiny of the National Basketball Association, Atlanta’s young Hawks have a hard time getting away with it, not without getting exposed on the regular. Such was the case on Monday night at The Funny Farm, as brave onlookers endured the Hawks shooting 32 percent from the field on the same nets they used over the weekend, while a visiting Grizzlies club had randos walking into the arena and piling up double-digit scores with ease. John Konchar, professional basketball player or State Farm Agent? Josh Jackson, redemptive lottery pick or lost member of New Edition? (text your uncles, if you don’t know who they were.) Tyus Jones, steady NBA backup or one-armed blues legend? Think fast, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, Brandon Goodwin. Y’all didn’t read the playbook, did you? After a promising weekend, our Hawks took off from their homestand finale with a bad taste in their beaks. The palate cleanser as they hit the road? None other than our good friend Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington). I trust that Trae Young knows Brad’s lady friend’s name without prompting. Can we say the same about Shabazz Napier? Recent Wizard arrival, or the late Malcolm X’s pet cat? If you need to call a friend, Trae, check with former T’Wolf Jeff Teague. That sure might’ve helped the Hawks on Monday with Anthony Tolliver, who didn’t even have a jersey for Memphis’ shootaround that morning. “You can’t teach effort,” was about all a terse Lloyd Pierce would share with postgame reporters who, I can only assume, stayed awake for the entirety of Monday’s 127-88 flop. I can kind of disagree with the Hawks’ head honcho. NBA coaching and development staffs are charged with having their players adequately prepared to compete. How players prepare, as much as how they perform, is a reflection on the gentlemen in suit-and-tie on the sideline. They’ve got uber-talented kids who are inured to being up the night before playing Mario Go-Kart or whatever, then throwing on jerseys the next day to face some St. Ignatius Prep team that’s petrified of being on these guys’ Overtime and Ballislife highlight videos. If you’re not instilling into 22-year olds’ noggins the adequate level of discipline and preparedness for the highest level of this sport, then what are you instructing? I can’t forget that Lloyd Pierce is a newbie head coach as well, liable to be outwitted, hoodwinked, bamboozled (come on home, Spike) by even other neophytes on occasion. He’s learning what works and doesn’t work with his charges, even 145 NBA games into his tenure. He’s also fairly secure with his position for the next 145 games or so. It’s the rank and file below LL Cool P who should approach every game as if they’re walking with a panther. I’ve long been fond of Chairman Mel. While Melvin Hunt could use less bodily threatening tactics to snap Hawks players to attention, I can understand the desperation with which he resorts to a Bad Cop role. It’s not Pierce’s job that’s on the line in 2020 when the Hawks play poorly. It’s Hunt’s, Greg Foster’s, Matt Hill’s, Chris Jent’s, Marlon Garnett’s. Somebody within that quintet has to prove themselves capable of providing Pierce the feedback that keeps a 12-point deficit from careening to, say, 41. For example, what did Sidney Lowe, Chad Iske, and Maz Trakh once have in common? They were all assistants for Scotty Brooks on his 49-33 Wizards, the ones who paid back the Hawks in the 2017 playoffs’ first round before falling in seven games to the Celtics. That season’s run was the high-water mark of the Wizards’ history over the past four decades. Things have fallen apart a good deal for Washington (22-39, 2-6 since the All-Star Break, 9th-by-default in NBA East) since then, but Brooks is still standing strong, with the unwavering support of owner Ted Leonsis, as is lead assistant Tony Brown. A slide in the standings can be blamed on injuries and scheduling and stuff. But on teams that find it tough to woo top-notch talent in free agency, if people can’t point to players developing to become steady standouts, a recession in on-court performance can be Iske business. John Wall returning next season to hopefully recreate an offensively potent backcourt with Beal (NBA-high 38.0 post-Break PPG) is enticing. But Wizards fans have the right to wonder, with the emergence of division-rival bigs like Collins and Bam Adebayo, is it reasonable to expect a meaningful growth spurt from Thomas Bryant (last 3 games: 80.0 FG%, but 2.7 RPG)? Is Rui Hachimura (1st game vs. ATL) a core starter going forward, or will his lack of stretchiness (28.6 3FG%) and defensive chops hinder his development? A similar question can be asked regarding second-year pro Troy Brown (last 15 games: 1.4 SPG, but 41.7 FG% and 64.7 FT%), who has seen a subsidence in playing time from Brooks over the past month-plus. Taken a few spots before Atlanta selected Kevin Huerter, is Brown part of Washington’s starting core by this time next year, at the very least a valuable sixth-man waiting in the wings behind the backcourt stars? Speaking of underutilized mid-tier first-rounders, will the formerly stashed Clipper guard Jerome Robinson (5-for-7 3FGs vs. ATL on Nov. 16), starting in place of the injured Ish Smith, become the future answer behind Wall? Davis Bertans has provided some great offensive patchwork in Wall’s absence. Assuming he departs in free agency, who will pick up all those great perimeter looks in Bertans’ place? I said *great* looks, so surely, it’s not Wall. Will it be the mystery 2020 lottery pick? Is it someone the Wizards, who traded vets Isaiah Thomas and Jordan McRae away, are cultivating to be that guy? If so, is he hiding out on the Capital City Go-Go somewhere? The Hawks have at least enough viable young options, going forward, to start printing up Beatles-style T-shirts. If we look up at next year’s Wizards roster and see “John, Brad and ???”, the wannabe All-Star returnees will be screaming, “Help!”, at anyone who’ll listen. Even in the meantime, the Wiz cannot afford to be serving up one-fifty-burgers to opponents like the Hawks, who can hardly be bothered to know whether Moe Wagner is Wizards’ starting center tonight or the King of Pops guy in the State Farm Arena stands. When they visited Atlanta back on January 26, Beal scored 40 points (1-for-5 3FGs), only to be outdone by Trae’s cherry-picking 45 (6-for-11 3FGs), while a balanced home squad played more like a team that bothered to do its homework in Atlanta’s 152-133 win. Pierce will have Dewayne Dedmon (elbow) and Cam Reddish (probable, back pain) returning to the fold for the season’s penultimate road back-to-back series, which concludes tomorrow evening in the Grizzlies’ den. Trae is questionable with “just a flu”-like symptoms, as is DeAndre’ Bembry (abs pain). But if Young can tough it out, he can help Atlanta shake off the rust exhibited earlier in the week. One thing aiding Atlanta (19-44), heading toward the close of the season, is that they sauntered out of the loss to the Grizzlies with anywhere from 1 to 4 games in hand on their lottery-level competitors in the East. That was erased somewhat in the days that followed. But, as the Wizards return from a 125-104 loss, in Portland on Wednesday, to face their third opponent in four nights for the second-straight time, Atlanta had several days to go literally back to the drawing board in Brookhaven, even taking time out for a spades tournament in between (Kevin’s still on the hunt for the elusive Draw Four card). Atlanta is 3-2 when they’ve managed to have three or more preceding off-days, road losses at Milwaukee and Boston as Collins worked his way back into the swing of things being the setbacks. It’s in these interims where staff should be quick to remind the players that they have to gameplan for every possible opposing team, every opposing player. Atlanta would likely be 2-0 against the Wizards this season, entering today, if they had bothered to find out who McRae was (29-8-and-6 vs. ATL on Jan. 10) before he skipped town. Transition defense (7th-worst in NBA, based on points per possession; 2nd-most PPG allowed), exposed most recently in media reviews of plays ensuing Trae’s long-distance trey attempts, has to be an item of heightened focus for the Hawks. Young doing a better job hindering direct pathways to the rim is one challenge, but so it is for Young’s courtmates getting back, not only to help inside but to seal off the corners from dangerous-shooting personnel. Only James Harden’s Rockets and the Cavs are more subject to transition (17.5 percent of all opponent plays), successful or otherwise, by their foes. Washington, still somewhat new to this heightened pace of play under Brooks’ watch, is just about as bad (1.13 transition PPP allowed, to the Hawks’ 1.14), but they at least manage to stub runouts by forcing turnovers more effectively (14.1 opponent TO% on transition, 4th-most in NBA). A sloppy game that features the Hawks compounding unfortunate shooting with miscues, poor finishes, and lazy recoveries works well in Washington’s favor. After January’s embarrassing loss in Atlanta, the Wizards’ assistants will be eager to show what they’ve been working on in the intervening month. Rest assured, Brooks’ job won’t be on the line anytime soon, but their slots could be up-for-grabs, unless someone among the younger supporting cast steps it up soon. Similarly, the Hawks must begin demonstrating the more consistent composure and maturity that their coaching staff harps upon them, especially away from Atlanta, the city that hosted eight of their last nine victories. Coming off Monday’s loss, after nearly a full week of tutelage, the Hawks’ assistants are in no mood this weekend to field a team that looks like a dog ate their homework. The fans are right there with them. We want less heartache and brutality, and more redemption! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. “So you’re saying I just take the handoff, split the double-team HERE, then hurdle the seven-footer THERE. Got it!” The Race for the 8-Seed is underway! Well, not so much for our dear Atlanta Hawks, who would do well to ignore crazy talk about Tragic Numbers and whatnot. As Atlanta hopes to roar in like a lion in this new month of March, though, their outcomes versus several opponents will have a big role in determining who wins some dates out West with LeBron and LeBrow in the month that follows. Teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, who the Hawks will visit at the end of this week, just days after playing them here at State Farm Arena tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in both MEM and ATL). Not having had Lottery worries since 1997, fans of the San Antonio Spurs may rue the day their team finally let the Hawks off the hook back in November. Like New Orleans and Sacramento, the Spurs are just 3.0 games back of the last team currently in the Western Conference playoffs, the Grizzlies (29-31), and they’d love to have their two losses to Atlanta back. The Lillard-less Trail Blazers (3.5 games back of MEM) squandered their chance at a season-sweep of the Hawks, with Saturday’s 129-117 defeat at The Highlight Farm, as did the Suns (4.5 games behind MEM) back in January. The Kings, finally seeming to get out of their own way, hope to avoid a similar fate later this month. Ending a five-game losing streak that included a pair of defeats at the hands of Kent Bazemore’s Sacramento, Ja Morant and the Grizzlies upstaged the mighty Lakers with a resounding 105-88 win two nights ago at the Grindhouse. Yet, somehow, the first-round matchup for Los Angeles that America wants to see is with a team situated a little further down the Mississippi. The Pelicans, surprise winners of the 2019 Draft Lottery, had bouncy bowling ball Zion Williamson giving poor Kyle Kuzma fits last night in primetime, and now seemingly everyone is setting their dials 90 days early in hopes New Orleans can make a serious run at a series with the Lakers. Like the Grizzlies, before the Pels can dream of a run at The King (not you, Elvis), they must take care of business in a pair of games this month against Trae Young and the Hawks. Morant can be rightfully miffed that the Grizzlies are not the consensus Cinderella darlings in the NBA West. But after a long-needed shakeup and a stroke of good fortune that brought the Murray State product to town, Memphis has a lot of good things going for it right now. Lottery twins De’Andre Hunter (6-for-9 3FGs vs. POR) and Cam Reddish (team-high +16 plus/minus vs. POR, ahead of Hunter’s +12) have given Atlanta Hawks fans reason for optimism with their recent play. However, from the jump, the rookie duo that has taken the league by storm this season is not Hunter and Reddish, but Memphis’ Ja Morant, a three-time Rookie of the Month winner, and Brandon Clarke. Zach Kleiman took over the executive reins for the Grizzlies (when in doubt, get you a Duke Law School guy), and couldn’t believe his luck when the 33-49 club he inherited, like the Pelicans, leaped over several thirsty NBA clubs, including the Hawks, to nab the top two 2019 Draft selections. Memphis happily “settled” for Morant, and Kleiman sweetened the pot. Taking a mid-first-rounder he inherited from Utah for Mike Conley (imagine the former point guard star playing like he is now, only still in Memphis), Kleiman’s Grizzlies traded up two spots with Oklahoma City, giving the Thunder prospect player Darius Bazley in exchange for a more finished product in collegian Brandon Clarke. Morant (17.7 PPG, second now only to Zion; rookie-high 7.0 APG, not far behind 2018-19 rookie Young’s 8.1) has remained the highlight reel he was in the Ohio Valley Conference. Meanwhile, Clarke has been a smooth two-way contributor off the bench, shooting 65.5 2FG% (5th in NBA) while offering per-36 values of 20.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks. I can’t say what I expected to see out of a team coached by Taylor Jenkins, the longtime Hawks assistant and Budenholzer disciple. But I didn’t expect a shift from grit-and-grind to grease-and-grace to work out so smoothly in the early going. An uptick in tempo for Memphis (103.4 pace, slightly behind 6th-place ATL) was a long time in coming. But I doubt that, even with 2019’s NCAA assist leader in tow, the entire NBA expected to be looking up at Memphis with a league-high 27.1 assists per game. Jenkins has capable ballhandlers in Tyus Jones and De’Anthony Melton at his disposal, and he uses them liberally to free up Morant. Dillon “the Good” Brooks (37.2 3FG%), armed with a new three-year contract extension, and Jaren Jackson, Jr. have helped spread the floor so Morant doesn’t have to kick the ball out to himself. Several of the Hawks’ recent foes had been struggling in their runs out of the All-Star Break. It’s not terribly surprising that, until Saturday’s win, the Grizzlies seemed to have stubbed their bear claws, too. Jackson has been out of action, the 3-and-PF forward bowing out midway through Memphis’ Western road swing with a sprained knee. Clarke (out, quad strain) followed suit one game later. Getting Andre Iguodala out of contract purgatory before the Trade Deadline also required parting ways with the team’s second-leading minutes-logger, Jae Crowder, and the surprisingly serviceable Solomon Hill. The return haul from Deadline Day maneuvers included Gorgui Dieng from Minnesota, Justise Winslow from Miami and Jordan Bell from Minny via Houston. But J-Win’s slow to return, mostly out since early December while working through back issues, and it will take time for Jenkins to get Dieng and Bell up to speed in the rotation with Jonas Valanciunas (27.6 D-Reb%, 9th in NBA; 20+ rebounds in back-to-back games) while Jackson rehabs. Returning home, however, proved vital for showcasing some of Memphis’ developmental talents. Midway through Saturday’s game, Jenkins trotted out a unit that featured Jones, Dieng, the resurrecting Josh Jackson, and two-way players Jon Konchar and Yuta Watanabe. That crew proved shockingly effective in stymieing a Lakers squad that came into town on an 8-game winning roll. Morant and his pass-happy Grizzlies set up tantalizing matchups this week with Young and the Hawks (19-43, 11-11 over past 22 games), whose 34 assists versus Portland (led by Trae’s 15 dimes, with just 2 TOs on his part) was a season-high. John Collins (4 assists, 2 blocks vs. POR) is threatening to join Karl-Anthony Towns (last three seasons) and Kevin Love (way back in 2010-11) as the only modern-era NBA players to shoot 40 percent on threes while averaging 20 points and 10 boards per game, and he’s showing a willingness to fill out other components of the boxscore as well. With Kevin Huerter (3-for-7 3FGs, 4-for-4 FTs, 8 assists, 3 steals vs. POR) showing signs that he can get it going, Atlanta offered a glimpse of balanced fullcourt effort nearing its peak, one that won’t always need a stellar perimeter outing from Trae (1-for-8 3FGs vs. POR) to thrive. Drawing Valanciunas out of the paint is a tall order, but the Hawks will look to woo the Memphis big man with plenty of open looks for Collins. Whether shooting or driving, Atlanta will want Hunter to catch-and-react quickly against Kyle “Slo-Mo” Anderson. A stout defensive effort to keep Morant from feasting inside and Brooks, who has been shaking out of a shooting slump (last 3 games 26.0 PPG, 35.7 3FG%), cool from outside will be crucial, particularly if Reddish (doubtful w/ back pain) cannot make it on the court tonight. Coach Lloyd Pierce’s crew will want to benefit from standout bench performances, as he did on Saturday from Treveon Graham and Bruno Fernando (combined 10-for-10 FGs vs. POR). If Jeff Teague and Brandon Goodwin can match the Grizzlie subs’ energy and production at the point, then the Hawks’ first three-game winning streak of the season will be within reach. The potential for a strong confidence-building March is here for the Hawks to seize. How many of their foes fare against them this month will become a major subplot in the story of How the 8-Seed in the West was Won. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. “Terry, we need to talk about your flair.” Well, they say the sky’s the limit. And, to me, that’s really true. But, my friend, you have seen nothin’. Just wait ‘til Trae gets through. It’s well established that statistically, and as per the eye test, Trae Young has been the worst defensive point guard in this national association of professional basketball. Unlike many subpar defenders, Young’s blistering offense makes him a net positive on an Atlanta Hawks squad that would struggle for 48 entire minutes without him. But ranking #493 out of 494 NBA players (thank you, Brad Beal) by defensive metrics draws out the deTraectors like nothing else. The good news is that an NBA star, in his second pro season, someone as reviled for his defense as he had been revered for his offense is far from unprecedented. If Kyrie Irving was in town yesterday with the Nets, and if Damian Lillard was here tonight with his Portland Trail Blazers (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 103.3 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Northwest in PTL), they would concur wholeheartedly. “Damian Lillard’s defense has been a topic for the wrong reasons since joining the Portland Trail Blazers,” scribed Bryant Knox for some Bleacher Report content. “Coming from a small school, people recognized his defensive deficiencies would be his Achilles heel in the NBA.” Ah, so that’s the issue. Small school. Darn you, Weber State! Knox continued in his blog post, “In 2014-15, it’s still a problem.” Oh, well come on, Mr. Dame Time! Isn’t this, like, the start of your third NBA season, already? Do I have to resort to tapping the wrist where my watch is supposed to be? You’re already 24, for Nique’s sake! Get out there and guard somebody, you “guard,” you! Time’s a wastin’! In the half-decade since, at our disposal we have been granted a plethora of statistical defensive metrics to help confirm, or challenge, what we as fans and pundits witness on the hardwood. Those developments have only served to make us even more impatient, more damning, of the teenaged and newly drinking-aged set of NBA upstarts. Being a perpetual minus on the court can be managed in the grander context of team hoops. But these days, us fans can identify the most minus-y minuses out there. When it’s somebody we’re not wild about, we can keep actual figures in our bag when it’s time to dig at his fans. “How can the worst defensive players in the history of the NBA be All-Stars?” You can be a big loser, or a weak link, in some respects. Just don’t be The Biggest, or The Weakest, lest you find dismissive critics who are more than happy to bid you, “Goodbye!” In that half-decade, James Harden has gone from YouTube laughingstock for his defensive nonchalance to an ex-MVP whose most critiqued defensiveness is directed at other All-Stars making fun of him not passing the ball. Once you get the teammates around you that accommodate your shortcomings, and you’re given the room to leave indelible offensive moments in our collective consciousness at playoff time, poof! Your defensive Debbie Downers have disappeared, as if it took the snap of Thanos’ fingers. Kyrie had LeBron come home, and he hit The Shot that secured Cleveland its first pro championship since, like, the Eisenhower administration. From that point on, has anyone questioned aloud whether he can guard a chair? Big Game Dame waved bye-bye to Harden, Dwight and the Rockets in 2014, and when his buzzer-beater dispatched Russ, PG and the Thunder in 2019, his defensive pot-shot artists seemed to hit the exits with them. Young needs not to go worst-to-first anytime soon. He just has to work towards getting his name off Page 13. Unlucky Page 13 on ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus/Minus (DRPM) ratings site is where you find Beal and, one spot above Young, Anfernee Simons, the prep-school-faced bench guard who is getting a splurge in playing time for the Blazers (26-34) with the injury to Lillard (groin, probably out through Monday’s end to their road trip in Orlando) and the alleviating deadline trade of Kent Bazemore to Sacramento. Page 11 is where you’ll find Kyrie. These days, Damian’s hiding out as a Page 10 guy. If PIPM’s your thing, and you sort from bottom-to-top on D-PIPM, there are the usual suspects (Trae, Brad, Half-Penny) right at the “top”. But you’ve got to take the effort to scroll down in order to find Lillard (18th-worst D-PIPM). Kyrie and Dame are still net-negatives, defensively. But absolutely nobody cares, not anymore. Accomplishments on big stages with the world’s eyes upon you help a ton. Teammates that have the sensibilities to know how to provide you adequate cover on that end of the floor are a big deal. Competent coaching, developmental, and managerial staffs that don’t give up on you go a long way. But the first big step for going from The Worst to Not Quite That Bad begins with you, the player, and your will to get better. “We’ve gotta get stops!” has been a mantra Trae has used at every opportunity in front of a mic since the Hawks returned from the All-Star Break. He’s not merely trying to speak French by saying, “we.” His awareness of how to avoid getting caught in space, or woefully out of position on pick-and-rolls, is improving. He stands out when he’s actively fighting for strips around the rim, or hounding ballhandlers as the shot clock nears expiration. As @Cwell commented yesterday, “Trae with the CLAMPS!! Lol”. Hawks fans are as vociferous and joyful in noting Trae’s defensive hustle, especially when it leads to a “stop,” as they are when he cans a logo-distance jumper. Much like Lillard (NBA-high 37.0 MPG, career-high 7.9 APG and 29.5 PPG) in his early seasons, one sign of Trae’s commitment to improve in many aspects is coming at the free throw line (91.7 FT% on 10.9 FTAs/game in February; 82.9 FT% on 5.1 attempts last season). Just a modicum of measurable improvement and consistency on the defensive end (119.5 D-Rating in losses this season, 108.1 in wins) gives his Hawks chances to win, and his slovenly slanderers a spray of Haters-B-Gone. Young understands he doesn’t necessarily have to get all the steals, blocks and boards that sweeten up the boxscores. But the stat at the end of his boxscore line will look better when he’s thinking of his duties on the defensive side of the ball, not the myriad #SCTop10 opportunities that await his team on the other end. Atlanta (18-43) has gone 3-2 since the Break, and coincidentally, Young has been zero-or-better on the plus-minus figure in four of the Hawks’ past five games. His +14 showing as the Hawks turned up the defensive heat in the final quarter last night and flamed the Nets, 141-118, was his best in over a month, despite offensive output that was subpar for his typical mastery (6-for-18 FGs). Also once hassled as a young Hawks starter for his struggles defending pick-and-rolls, Jeff Teague remembers his All-Star run, where he drew praise not merely for his uptick in scoring but for dogged defensive plays that led to highlight transition buckets. He provided a glimpse of the not-all-distant past with his cherry-on-top dunk off a mid-court theft in the closing minutes of Friday’s win over Brooklyn. When Jeff was a positive plus-minus, the Hawks were successful on the scoreboard. Similarly, Atlanta is 11-0 this season when Young turns in a +8 or better in a game. Anything +1 or worse, his Hawks are a diametric 0-34. Being an offensive supernova, but The Worst of the worst defensively, leaves you perceived as an NBA novelty act, categorized with the D’Angelo Russells and Lou Williamses of the world. The league’s Top 20 players for RPM generally co-align with MVP and MIP finalists (hello there, Dennis). While there are plenty of great two-way players in that mix, there are stars – Luka, Russ, Damian, throw in Curry and Kyrie if they were healthier – who are just slight negatives in the DRPM column. In the years to come, as Trae transforms from The Worst to just Bad, like his more accomplished peers, he’s going to find himself with a dedicated rung on the MVP Ladder. Trae doesn’t have to aim for DPOY glories. Halfway decent isn’t even required. When it comes to defense, our Hawks simply need him to be Bad. Come on, you know. Once he makes the Leap from The Worst to Bad, the whole world will have to answer, right then. Just to tell you, once again. Happy Leap Day! Happy HBCU Night! Go United! And Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. “See? I tried to tell ya... Should’ve jumped over the Sears Tower!” It’s Wednesday night, and two underwhelming NBA teams with losing records and no championship probabilities on the horizon face off in downtown Atlanta. The hosts, our Hawks, return to State Farm Arena after stumbling in Philadelphia a couple days ago. The visitors, the Orlando Magic, have no Shaq, no Penny, no Dwight, no dunk contest champs (gulp), no adversarial superstars that furrow the eyebrows of the random local sports fan. Will the house be packed anyway? The above factors were enough, over the prior quarter century or so, to produce the chirping sounds of crickets in Atlanta’s home nest. That we may see upwards of 15,000 in attendance for an unremarkable mid-week game like this (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida in MCO) speaks to the compelling power of The Trae Young Experience. You can’t spell PARTY without T.Y., and Young (at home: 31.9 PPG, 39.1 3FG%, 9.5 APG) has brought that kind of atmosphere to a factory that could use his highlight offensive plays. Atlanta needs Trae producing (37.0 PPG, 47.3 3FG%, 10.6 APG in Hawks wins), early and often, to have a chance to win games, and he brings that when egged on with the encouragement of Ryan Cameron and fans screeching in support from every tier of these comfier confines. But coach Lloyd Pierce’s small-y young club can struggle mightily to find the proper chemistry, with or without Trae on the floor, at home or away, to string together consistent runs of competitive play. The Hawks will remain underdogs when stacked against most of the NBA, even at home (6-1 in their last 7 home games), and even against mediocre squads like Orlando, until Pierce and the coaching staff sort the ideal rotations out. Monday’s half-baked effort against the 76ers dropped Atlanta to 6-25 versus teams with a .500 or better record. Among the few teams doing worse in that department is the Magic (25-32), whose spiffy 21-7 mark against sub-.500 teams like the Hawks belies their 4-25 record against the cream of the NBA crop. That includes Cream City, and while it may not matter much come April, the Magic likely wishes to dodge the top-seeded Bucks, who swept all four regular-season contests by an average of 16.5 points, as an opening-round foe. They’re 0-9 versus Milwaukee, Toronto and Boston, but they won’t play the latter teams until April. Despite two losses already this season to the Hawks, Orlando relies on teams as poor as Atlanta (17-42) for subsistence. They’ve won three games out of their past four, beginning with the 135-126 victory in Orlando on February 10. They followed up by squeaking past whatever’s left of Detroit, at home before the All-Star Break. Bouncing back from last Friday’s home loss to Dallas, the Magic prevailed in the Somebody’s Gotta Make the Playoffs Bowl, coming back from 19 down midway through the third period to cut down the Nets, 115-113 in Brooklyn, on Monday night. While the 7-seed Nets may have trouble in the coming months, the schedule ahead for coach Steve Clifford’s 8-seeded crew (4.5 games ahead of Chicago) may allow them to stiff-arm the lottery competition and lock down a playoff spot sooner, rather than much later. Remaining teams have a 45.8 percent winning record, the 4th-easiest schedule in the league and just a few shavings tougher than Atlanta’s “easiest” 44.2 percent. All the Magic need to do is defeat the bad teams on the docket, as they’ve done for most of this season. Minnesota comes to O-Town, and then the Magic visits the Rodeo-weary Spurs to close out this month. The games at Amway Center to follow include the Lillard-less Blazers, Bulls, Hornets, Cavs and Kings, before a return to Brooklyn in mid-March. Bad-loss slip-ups, like the 101-93 home loss to the Hawks back in December, could leave the Magic susceptible to a needless scramble for the final postseason spots. Taking care of business early, alternatively, will allow Clifford to load-manage his key veterans during the final weeks. Clifford’s gameplan for Young is to allow the Hawks’ point god room to roam on the inside of the Magic defense, disallowing all but the most miraculous, contested three-point shots. On his young career, Trae’s 50.5 FG% versus Orlando is his best against any Eastern Conference club, 2nd-best against any NBA opponent. But within that is a subpar 29.7 3FG%, 3rd-lowest among NBA East foes. Young (47.2 3FG% in wins, 32.0% in losses) lofted 11 three-point attempts in Orlando on February 6 and sunk just a trio of them (1-for-7 through the first three quarters). He was 4-for-8 inside the arcs, also swishing 12 of 13 free throws while dishing nine assists. But his hero-distance shots were insufficient during a familiar fourth-quarter defensive collapse, the Magic’s 42-30 advantage in that frame wiping out a 96-93 Hawks lead. It was a similar scene Monday, after Trae’s last-second splash closed the third quarter in Philly with a 92-91 lead, his Hawks crawling out of a 20-point first-half hole. Young was just 1-for-11 on his other 3-point shots, and Atlanta found it was too easy to get pushed back in the hole (38-20 Sixer edge in the 4th). Against Orlando, neutralized teammates like John Collins (22 points and 8 rebounds, but minus-32 for the game) were unable to earn trips to the free throw line (1 fourth-quarter FTA for the whole team; 4 non-Trae FTAs the whole game), a hallmark of Cliffordian defense. Cam Reddish’s pair of shots in the final quarter of Monday’s game doubled that paltry total, and his entire team’s inability to hit from outside (0-for-11 4th-quarter 3FGs) made Collins and company easy pickings for Joel Embiid (22-and-8 in the closing quarter alone). Teams hitting jumpshots with unconventional proficiency is nothing new for opponents of the Hawks, and Orlando (47.4 3FG% on Feb. 6; 33.5 3FG% on the season, 28th in NBA, through yesterday) was no exception when they last faced Atlanta. Again overwhelming a Hawks’ frontline, one that included the recently re-arriving Dewayne Dedmon (14-and-9 plus 2 blocks off the bench @ ORL; probable, elbow pain), the Magic were aided further by a 14-4 edge on offensive rebounds (45-31 overall), second chances created by Aaron Gordon (season-high 6 O-Rebs), Nikola Vucevic and newcomer James Ennis, the latter of whom now starts in place of Wes Iwundu. The Magic thrived for many seasons behind Dwight, but is it possible that it’s Atlanta’s turn to benefit from a D12 of its own? De’Andre Hunter’s activity in his hometown debut (4-for-5 FGs, 7-for-7 FTs in the third quarter @ PHI) sparked Monday’s third-quarter turnaround. Hitting 15 of 33 threes for the month, his well-panned offensive efficiency is coming around, and his 6.1 RPG and NBA rookie-high 1.6 SPG averages through seven games puts him squarely in also-ran status for Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month with two February home games remaining. Going forward, better interior scoring and passing from De’Andre (upgraded to available, ankle sprain) could have him among the first drafted players to nab the Eastern Rookie of the Month hardware, a development few could have seen coming given his season-opening struggles (Chicago’s Coby White is the clubhouse leader for February, although his Bulls are just 1-7 when he has played). For Hunter and Reddish, if they also continue making strides with perimeter defense and help rebounding, the next two months could feature a productive potato-sack race for the final ROM trophies. As for Orlando and PBO Jeff Weltman, there’s no need to hope for (more) lottery luck, as future growth needs to come from within. Aside from the need to deflect the occasional shot in the lane, Mo Bamba (1.5 BPG) has yet to truly get off the ground. Jonathan Isaac returns from season-ending injury next year, as will 2019 first-round selection Chuma Okeke. And clearly, the best is yet to come for Markelle Fultz (career-high 50.9 2FG% and 74.6 FT%; 12.0 PPG and 5.2 APG as a starter), who will revel in fostering a fierce intra-division rivalry with Young. A rebuild that more sincerely features those young Magicians will commence next season. In the interim, Weltman has his focus on this offseason, challenged with massaging $96 million in already-guaranteed salaries for a clear non-contender. Beyond another pair of home playoff dates to appease a once-starved Magic fanbase, Weltman is relying on Clifford to maximize the value of the veterans, particularly the contract-extended Vucevic (24-9-and-9, 4-for-6 3FGs vs. ATL on Feb. 6) and Gordon, Terrence Ross (5-for-10 3FGs vs. ATL), and Evan Fournier if the latter kicks the can down one year by opting in this summer. A strong close for each improves the quality of the trade offers Weltman can create and receive. To get anything close to the free agency impact that in-state, income-tax-free rival Miami enjoyed in 2018 with Jimmy Butler’s arrival, Orlando will need salary cap space. But they sure could use a captivating draw like Young, for prospective free agents, corporate sponsors and ticket buyers alike. Competitively, as a growing team taking their lumps, the Hawks are still struggling to find their heart. But Trae has established himself in Atlanta as The Show, and a happy, growing crowd of onlookers at The Farm are making it clear – finding the heart would be great, but for now, home is where The Show is. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  8. No worries, Harry’s bringing rebounding reinforcements! The marathon continues! Well, not just the figurative one. Here’s a travel advisory for our local fans tomorrow. If you’re seeing way too many people kicking around in shorty-shorts over the next couple days, no, The Bazemore Family Reunion is not in town. This is America’s Marathon Weekend, and already there are mini-Mebs scampering all throughout the Georgia World Congress Center and Centennial Olympic Park areas. Roughly 12 hours after the Atlanta Hawks and Brooklyn Nets do their thing at State Farm Arena (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in The BK) tonight, Team USA will hold the Olympic Trials (broadcast live on NBC) to select the players going for the Gold in the men’s and women’s 26.2-mile races, assuming there will actually be some this summer (cough, wheeze) at the Tokyo Games. Around 750 of America’s best qualifying competitors, and thousands of cheering fans will run these streets, in downtown, Midtown, down by the Olympic Cauldron (which will finally be lit) near GSU Stadium, and the Eastside. All of that is to suggest, with most major intown streets closing, travel on and off the highways is going to be the true test of endurance, from about 11 AM Saturday through mid-afternoon. Hopefully, the roads will clear up before the back end of the Hawks’ back-to-back home-game test, the Portland Trail Blazers, tips off tomorrow evening. The biggest issue Atlanta the Basketball Club (17-43) will face with lane congestion in the coming days involves John Collins (team-high 38.3 3FG%; 25.1 PPG, 10.2 RPG, 62.7 FG% this month) defending and scoring amidst the trees. Without Trae Young available due to a hammy strain, the Hawks managed just 86 points up in Brooklyn on January 12. Young wasn’t likely to do much, anyway, to narrow Atlanta’s awful 62-33 rebounding deficit. They entered the game with John Collins (2-for-6 2FGs, 0-for-5 3FGs, 8 points and 5 rebounds in a dud performance), De’Andre Hunter, Damian Jones and Alex Len to staff the frontline, and Len (5-for-5 2FGs, 4 rebounds in 16 minutes off the bench) came away as Atlanta’s best option largely by default. Frontline help was and is coming in the forms of Dewayne Dedmon (acquired for Len, in part), Skal Labissiere and Clint Capela, but not anytime over the next week or so. Dedmon is on the shelf after a non-surgical procedure to alleviate elbow pain, while Labissiere (knee) lacks a timetable and Capela is wisely taking a slower approach to heal his heel issues. Holding up along the interior is a routinely foreboding challenge that’s proving hard for Lloyd Pierce and the Hawks staff to sprint away from. “I’ve got to play some other guys a little bit more,” Pierce shared with reporters following Wednesday’s 130-120 defensive collapse against the Magic, wasting what was shaping up to be a nice Flu Game from Trae (37 points, incl. 26 in the first-half, 11 assists, and one crazy block of Mo Bamba) before he found himself running on empty (1-for-9 FGs in the final quarter). “The energy was low tonight.” Who those “other guys” are remain to be seen, but one is safe to assume we will see more of our favorite Half-Man/Half-Power-Forward in the interim. 43-year-old Vince Carter hasn’t been logging minutes in the double digits lately, but the Hawks have been more effective when he has used his short stints to help out on the glass. Carter’s two highest D-Reb% values in games came during close wins for Atlanta this month, versus the heat and Knicks, although that was just a trio of boards in the space of just under seven minutes of play. Vince did collect a season-high of seven D-Rebs (and 9 total) in 24 minutes three weeks ago, as the Hawks stayed close to the Celtics’ vest for a full half in Boston. The week before that, Half-Man’s half-dozen D-Rebs were all Atlanta needed to help Collins fend off Joel Embiid and the visiting Sixers. It’s not ideal, but this is a back-to-back weekend with De’Andre Jordan (season-highs of 20 points and 6 assists vs. ATL on Dec. 21), Jarrett Allen (25 rebounds in last two games vs. ATL) and Hassan Whiteside (NBA-high 3.1 BPG and career-high 14.2 RPG w/ POR) storming through the State Farm Arena turnstiles, and there will be only so much in the way of running gels for Collins, Bruno Fernando (back-to-back double-figure scoring with 10 points and 9 rebounds as a replacement starter vs. ORL) and Jones around to consume. (JC, check with somebody before you consume anything, okay?) Fernando’s playing time has ramped back up in recent games and could stand a further uptick, for the final February contests, on behalf of a Hawks team whose 70.6 D-Reb% is virtually tied for dead-last in the NBA with the Hornets. “2021 Eastern Conference Playoffs! Party of Two!” Whether that’s a reservation assured for Collins and Young remain to be seen, but in Brooklyn’s case, next year’s postseason has long been anticipated as a certainty, assuming Kyrie Irving (shoulder) and Kevin Durant (Achilles) return to 100-ish percent health next fall. Attendance in this year’s postseason party is somehow even less certain, which is why the Nets (26-31. 0.5 games ahead of Orlando, 6.5 ahead of 9-seed Chicago), like the Magic and various and sundry foes before them, will try to use the Hawks to once again break their slide while firming up their prospects. January’s home win in Brooklyn was a brief respite during the Nets’ 2-12 downturn. After absorbing the loss of Irving due to arthroscopic surgery, the Nets redoubled their efforts to win six of eight games prior to the All-Star Break. But since then, they’ve lost three of their past four, coming up short at home to Orlando and in Washington this week. As noted by Yahoo! Sports’ Mike Mazzeo, Kenny Atkinson is already the Big Apple’s longest-tenured major pro sports coach. He previously spent four seasons as a trusty assistant on Atlanta’s bench, and the Nets coach isn’t planning on doing that again anytime soon. To ensure he is indeed around to guide The Kyrie and KD Show in 2020-21, his Nets need to sweep floundering teams like the Hawks. Atkinson and his assistant, ex-Hawk Jacque Vaughn, are challenged with getting Brooklyn to play better perimeter defense. Brooklyn is 8-19 when they allow more than 12 made threes, and they’ll be hoping Kevin Huerter’s recent sophomore slump (31.1 3FG% in last 8 games) extends long enough that he cannot help Young get the Hawks over the hump tonight. Philly went just 4-for-22 from deep against the Nets back on February 20, but Brooklyn (3-10 when allowing 28 or more FTAs) watched the Sixers go 32-for-35 from the charity stripe (18-for-19 by Embiid) along the way to an overtime loss. Collins can create his greatest havoc by attacking the rim early and drawing Taurean Prince and the Nets’ bigs into early foul trouble. Softening up and contracting Brooklyn’s interior with shots around the rim, post passes and and-ones during the first half could grant him ample looks from outside in the second, when Young can make more forays inside and keep his torrid run going from the free throw line. Spencer Dinwiddie, Joe Harris, Prince and sixth-man Garrett Temple (combined 5-for-23 3FGs @ WAS on Wednesday) will try to atone for rough outings against the defensively anemic Wizards, failing to be of much assistance for Caris LeVert (team-highs of 30 points and 5 assists @ WAS). But the Hawks need to be more mindful of keeping toes in the paint, limiting second chances for Brooklyn (34.2 team 3FG%, 25th in NBA) and cutting off driving angles for Dinwiddie, who can pile up offensive fouls when forcing the action amid clogged lanes. For Pierce’s Hawks, finding the proper balance among the players sharing the floor with Young and Collins, placing extra emphasis on securing defensive boards as a team while giving the bigs ample help, can produce a more satisfying result than they’ve had all season long against Brooklyn, or any team that clogs the paint hoping Atlanta will miss lots of shots and come defensively unglued. Nobody said this journey for our young Hawks would be smoothly paved, or that the path to competency would be swift. Yet, as Chris Webber loves to say about life, you gotta just Run Through the Tape, baby! Say, does anyone know if C-Webb is, like, retired retired? We need rebounders of any age! 46 is the new 43! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  9. “I… think… I… Cam… I think… I Cam… I think I Cam I think I Cam I…” Ah, frenemies. Dallas Mavericks, Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in DFW). Luka, Trae. We all know what this is. Even with no Luka, and no Kristaps on the floor again (rest and whatnot). We all know how it’s gonna go. Someone’s team, by rule, is going to conclude the evening with a higher score than the other’s. That someone’s fans will then point to the results as confirmation of where they stand on Who Won/Lost The Trade. The other’s fans will dig in their heels, maybe point to boxscores, plus/minus data, standings, accomplishments by age, playoff statuses. Both will squabble over whether Cam Reddish, who exited the last meeting between these teams with a concussion, makes that much of a difference. But beyond all that kerfuffle, there’s a rivalry. One created by circumstance, ginned up by fans and skeptics of individual players and/or teams, puffed up by media outlets featuring writers and commentators with a prejudicial bent in one direction or another. At the core of this rivalry… two uniquely talented and whip-smart young professionals, with the weight of franchises’ future hopes foisted squarely upon them. Two young pros, who also happen to be rather fond of one another. Many of us are old enough to recall the days when players who were not teammates were not really allowed to openly appreciate each other’s game. Particularly, players of the same age cohort that are expected to enter and exit the league around the same time. Wilt and Russell, Bird and Magic, Chuck and Mailman, Hakeem and Ewing, Shaq and Admiral. But on the Olympic stage, guys like Arvydas Sabonis had no peer. The Soviets and Yugos paid to whoop up on American amateurs twice their age, squashing all hope of a Miracle on Hardwood in the 1980s, forged a transformation of the way we staff our Olympians. Team USA needed long embittered NBA foes, some who had been at each other’s neck since grade school, to bond together for a golden, common cause. The results elevated the global game and fattened these NBA stars’ wallets. Connections through super agents, the player’s union, social media, All-Star Weekend team events, offseason workout linkups, promotional basketball camps, and sneaker companies have further transformed the NBA’s competitive landscape. Luka Doncic and Trae Young are among the spawn of our brave new banana boat world. Merciless, dog-eat-dog competition, from the moment the ref lobs the opening tip airborne until the final horn blows. The endless days in between? Mutual praise and likes on Twitter and the ‘Gram when one or the other has a standout performance, the occasional friendly barbs, daps and bro-hugs during breaks in the All-Star Weekend action. “Back In My Day” Facebook hates to see it. But it’s the new normal. And a prosperous normal it could well become, in the specific case of these two emerging stars. Think of the "rivalry" as Annie Oakley “versus” Frank Butler. Artfully, but assertively pushing each other to higher career heights than they might have ever attained without their 2018 draft-day linkage. Two guys, built different, raised different, developed different, but effectively in a situation where they are now each other’s spotter. “No, you can’t!” “Yes, I can!” The first quote is more of a mockery of those who wanted to be so right about what they wouldn’t accomplish once they set foot in the league. He’ll be a bust, because Ricky Rubio and Dario Saric were oversold and under-delivered, and we all remember Darko. He’ll be a bust, because ESPN overhyped a guy who could barely carry a college team through the Big XII and into the First Four of the Big Dance. “No, they can’t!” It’s sort of a “Him, Too!” movement for Doncic and Young, the latter named January’s Community Assist Award winner for NBA Cares. Both want to succeed in this league – championship contention, championship rings, Hall of Fame inductions – and their personal achievements will shine brighter if neither one fails. NBA fans recognize this potential for decades of tethered excellence, which is a big reason why both were voted into the All-Star Game, as starters for their respective conferences, after just one-and-a-half seasons. Author of the most triple-doubles by an NBA player before age 21, Doncic dabbled with adding one more to his tally of 20 last night in Orlando (33 points, 10 rebounds, 8 assists). Dallas’ 122-106 victory over the Magic has the team already with more wins than they had in the prior three seasons of Dirk Nowitzki’s twilight. Following their recent dip, owner Mark Cuban’s team is back above .500 as a franchise in their 40th season. Dallas has been first-or-second in NBA attendance percentage throughout the 2010s, and that’s unlikely to change anytime soon, now with the keys handed over smoothly from Dirk to Luka. Coach Rick Carlisle’s club is on pace for 50 wins, likely back in the playoffs for the first time since 2016, first-round homecourt still within sight. Everything is awesome. I do have questions, though. While we wrangle here in the ATL with valid questions of “team-building” and “Core 5” contributors, I do wonder, was Cuban’s grand plan to get his “Core 2”, in Doncic and former Knick Porzingis (both DNP vs. ATL on Feb. 1, a 123-100 Mavs win; both DNPs tonight, also on the back end of a back-to-back) together, and then just have exec Donn Nelson figure the rest out as the team goes along? Are Dwight Powell (out for season, Achilles surgery), Delon Wright, Maxi Kleber, Seth Curry, and Dorian Finney-Smith, true members of this “core”, too? The Mavs are locked down with them all, contracts guaranteed through 2021-22. Curry, Kleber, Powell and Wright will all cross over the age-30 plateau by then, Finney-Smith pushing 29. If not “core” members, are these fellows adequate bait to acquire another “core” talent – one not surnamed Wiggins – via trade? Already, the Mavs are hovering close to luxury tax level, thanks largely to Porzingis’ deal. Massaging cap room to woo other stars, or another star, to play with The Don and The Unicorn will be a tall order in the near-term. There will be no salary cap maneuverability this offseason if Tim Hardaway, Jr. decides he’s better off being a booby-prize free agent in 2021 and opts in for next season. Cuban won’t be shy about luxury or even more punitive tax payments. But will he be willing to do so for a team that projects as first-round fodder that can be saved only by Luka’s brilliance? Jalen Brunson (team-highs of 27 points, 8 assists vs. ATL on Feb. 1) is going to be nice. But are he and Wright going to be stuck with Jeff Teague and Brandon Goodwin-style minute-shares, watching Doncic (37.4 usage%, 2nd in NBA behind only Giannis; Trae’s 35.1% ranks 4th) dominate the ballhandling? Porzingis (41.8 FG%) is finally steadying his on-court production (last 7 games: 27.9 PPG, 10.4 RPG, 1.9 BPG, 51.7/40.4/87.7 shooting splits) to one worthy of a 7-foot-3 stretch, after mighty struggles to recover from 2018 ACL surgery. But he has already missed a baker’s dozen worth of games, and will sit tonight, to address soreness in his other knee. Having the hyphenated Finney-Smith, Willie Cauley-Stein (out tonight, personal reasons) and now Michael Kidd-Gilchrist on board will help the Mavs’ frontcourt compensate somewhat for the loss of Powell (63.8 FG%, rest of team 45.4 FG%), and Boban Marjanovic is always entertaining for short spells. But can Porzinigs get sufficient rest, during this end-of-season chase, to be in fighting shape for this postseason? With the burly Doncic (29.0 PPG and 8.6 APG, just behind Young’s 30.1 and 9.2; 9.6 RPG) committed to creating backcourt mismatches, and Powell likely slow to return next season, is there a viable plan to beef up the “core” beyond 2020? Carlisle has withstood the early Ben Wallace Pistons, the Malice at The Palace Pacers, and the peak-Dirk Mavericks already in his impressive head coaching tenure. He’s under a contract that has been extended through 2022-23. But are the Mavs certain he is willing to see this push for Western Conference contention through? If he extends the first-round bounces that Dallas experienced four times between the 2012 and 2016 playoffs, will Cuban grant him that choice? We won’t see answers to these burning questions for a while. For them and the Hawks, there is just the game tonight, and some magic numbers to keep in mind. 105. When Dallas allows opponents to score less than that number, they’re a gaudy 15-0 (some garbage-time buckets by the Magic kept that mark from stretching to 16 last night). That includes their win at the start of this month back home, when the Luka-less Mavs hassled Young into a 4-for-13 shooting night (1-for-6 3FGs) while keeping him off the free throw line (3-for-4 on FTs) and incapable of finding teammates to bail him out (1 assist, 4 TOs in 26 short-circuited minutes). Conversely for the Mavs, there’s 115. Things get frosty as a Slurpee when Dallas (7-11) gives up that many points. As grand as the offense is (NBA-best 116.5 O-Rating, on pace for an NBA record; HOU’s 2nd at 113.6), thanks to Doncic and an array of reliable shooters, team defense remains terribly inconsistent. In the last 10 games, Dallas allowed 106, 111, 100, 103, and 100 in victories, the opponents aside from backsliding Indiana all around lottery level. In the losses they’ve allowed 123, 119, 121, 128 and 133, including defeats at home against Phoenix and in Washington. Opponents who push and control the tempo, don’t settle for engaging the Mavericks in a futile outside jump-shooting contest (9-2 when opponents take more than 40 3FGAs), and compel someone aside from Porzingis to make interior defensive plays (NBA-worst 10.7 opponent TO%; Wright’s 1.1 SPG is a team-high; 21-3 when opponents shoot less than 20 FTAs) get the upper hand. Kevin Huerter sunk 6 of 10 treys in Dallas earlier this month, but limited activity in other areas helped the Hawks play right into the shorthanded Mavericks’ hands. De’Andre Hunter will be out for personal reasons, but his fellow Hawks rookie Reddish, dragged unwittingly into this eternal Who Won debate, will be eager to keep the answer elusive and filled with nuance. Atlanta seeks to go 9-9 with a second-consecutive win tonight, following a topsy-turvy 8-32 start to the season. The surging confidence exhibited by Reddish (last 12 appearances, incl. the brief stint @ DAL: 44.4 FG%, 42.4 3FG%, 82.1 FT%, 1.1 SPG) during this stretch has been a key to the brightening view at the end of Atlanta’s season-long tunnel. A physical post-oriented game from John Collins (26 points, 5 O-Rebs, 6 D-Rebs @ DAL on Feb. 1; 1 foul in 33 minutes) will result in a statline tonight worthy of his considerable fullcourt energy. His Hawks’ cause will be aided if he (3.7 personals per game), Dewayne Dedmon (4.3 personals per game w/ ATL) and Bruno Fernando can stay vertical while defending, force opponents to shoot over height, and secure rebounds without piling up fouls that give the Mavs’ sweeter-shooting supporting cast members restful trips to the free throw line. From there, Young and Atlanta ballhandlers Jeff Teague and Brandon Goodwin (combined 13 bench assists and 2 TOs vs. DAL) can attack on the break (DAL opponents’ 16.4 fastbreak points per-48 are an NBA-high), getting and creating quality looks in the paint early and often. The Hawks are 4th in the league with 49.8 paint points per-48, and they’ll need to exceed that volume tonight to make the most of their relative rest advantage and build momentum from Thursday’s thriller at State Farm Arena against Miami. For Young, tonight is about continuing to learn how best to lead a team stacked with growing, meshing contributors, and not getting egged into trying to impress his frenemy watching from the sideline. Everything Trae already does, and does well, he can do better. Whether Luka can do anything better than Trae is a matter only Luka’s fans and Trae’s detractors need to worry about, not the players themselves. No, he can’t? Yes, he can! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  10. “DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES???” What day does, like, winter get here? My seasonal-snowbird family members and I are getting fewer and fewer calls asking, jealously, how the weather is down here in the Balmy South. In my case, it’s been hard to tell the difference. My hometown has gotten this deep into the so-called winter season without having to scrape off more than half and inch of snow, total. Zero-point-three inches, to be precise, the fewest flakes since 1972-73 (do not remind Philadelphia 76ers fans about 1972-73). By comparison, Raleigh has had eight times as much of the legal white stuff. Scientists are being pressed for answers, but I’ve got my couch-based theories. Perhaps it’s because, in Philly, the 76ers have been blazing hot at home. Or, perhaps, they’ve been holding out all this time for an Ice Trae storm to blow through. The humans on the Atlanta Hawks arrive in Philly today (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Philadelphia) hoping to induce just a little more climate change. Philadelphia’s sterling 26-2 mark at The Center (still fussing with Wells Fargo over naming rights?) is the NBA’s best. The overall record (35-22) is decidedly not. Blowing road games, like the 127-117 flop against a 12-36 team in Atlanta back on January 30, has the Sixers wrangling with fourth-seeded Miami just to claim first-round homecourt in the Eastern Conference. Being almost Hawks-bad on the road (NBA-high 24 away-game losses for ATL, entering today’s action), Philly has their home crowds in an ornery mood, and that’s saying something. Atlanta’s second-year coach Lloyd Pierce, who has his rightful share of skeptics, learned the tricks of the NBA media-relations trade as an understudy for a variety of head coaches. None more effective, I’d argue, than Brett Brown, who has outlasted the entirety of The Process by mastering the mannerisms of the manager you’d like to speak to. Brown followed up a 19-63 season with a 18-64 campaign in his second go-round, back in 2014-15 when he added Pierce to his sideline as an assistant. The Sixers plunged even further to 10-72 the next season, but Brown was able to play victim-of-circumstance well enough to salvage his and his assistants’ jobs. A 28-54 run in 2016-17, with rookie Joel Embiid offering a 31-game glimpse of his boundless potential, was comforting enough to keep Brown and his staff around for the 52-30, playoff-bound breakthrough that followed. With that as a backdrop, you can forgive Pierce if he’s not sweating the follow-up of 29-53, in his maiden voyage rebuilding the Hawks, with a 17-41 setback-filled season that, suddenly, doesn’t have 30 wins beyond the realm of possibility. Unlike Brown’s tenure with Bryan Colangelo, Pierce works with a patient GM that isn’t undercutting the emerging young stars behind his back. Unlike Brown’s run under Sam Hinkie, Pierce knows his GM doesn’t need to write theses to keep ownership from getting too hasty. Superheating “The Process” runs the risk of a disquieting recess. Philadelphia is facing not only a slide in regular-season results for the second-straight year, but an early playoff exit after narrowly missing the Eastern Conference Finals in 2019. Yes, they’ve won 12 straight at home. But, can a team that’s 9-20 in road games, one that hasn’t beaten an opponent that’s above .500 in their building since December 12, turn it up and advance in the NBA Playoffs as a 5- or 6-seed (as bad as Indiana has been, they’re still just two games behind Philly)? Even if we don’t have doubts, Philly fans sure do. If you feel bad for certain fans who shelled out the big bucks for a titanic “Trae versus Luka” deathmatch over the weekend at State Farm Arena, and are now screeching over the local airwaves about the unfairness of it all, imagine how poor Al Horford must have felt last month when nobody showed up to see him. Two days after playing at home against Pepperidge Farm Goldfish State, Brown decided he could afford to load-manage Al, saving him up for a nationally televised Saturday night game in Boston. Not only did his Sixers drop both games, but nobody in his old stomping grounds stomped and stammered afterwards about his absence from the floor at the Hawks game. There were plenty of Sixers fans at The Farm that evening, yes, but fans occasionally come to see teams win, not just individual players. And, sorry Al, but you’re no Luka. You’re no Trae, either. Things were not supposed to be this way for our dear friend Al. He wanted to be on a respected championship contender. He wanted fans who would appreciate his unique skillset as a big man. He wanted teams to show appreciation with not just vocal praise, but as much of The Bag as they could possibly dish out ($26.5 million-plus over four years isn’t Tobias Harris money, but it’ll do fine). Most importantly, most endearingly, he wanted to stop being penciled in as a fulltime center. I don’t wish to question any of Al’s moves up and down the Eastern seaboard. But Horford Hindsight seems to be filled with miscalculations, second-guesses and regrets. He left Mike Budenholzer for Brad Stevens, and now he has latched back onto a Coach Pop disciple in Brown. Fearing a future with Dennis Schröder, he thought Isaiah Thomas was going to be a sure shot. With I.T. and then Kyrie on the move, he decided to keep it moving himself, tying his point guard hopes to Ben Simmons (31 points on 10-for-15 2FGs @ ATL in January; out today with back pain), the near 6-foot-10, 240-pound All-Star whose shot beyond 3 feet (36.7 FG% on jumpers) is anything other than sure. Now featuring another All-Star in Kemba, Boston (4.5 games ahead of Philly) seems to be doing fine without Al. But the most attractive rationale for the 13-year veteran, by bailing Boston in favor of their longtime Atlantic Division rival, was finally being able to man the power forward spot full-time, wedged between Harris (upgraded to questionable, knee bruise) and All-Star Embiid, while playing his GM Elton Brand’s former role as a trusty backup, in very limited minutes, at the five-spot. Solving the Sixers’ spacing issues was supposed to involve Horford’s pick-and-pop. Instead, it’s been pick-and-ick. Al is shooting 32.0 percent on threes, the worst since he started shooting them in earnest under Coach Bud’s watch, on a career-high 4.4 attempts per game. The 51.5 2FG% is threatening to be the worst since his rookie season with the Hawks. Throw in 1.1 free throw attempts per game, and Horford’s 13.8 points per-36 is the lowest scoring rate since his second NBA season. You won’t be surprised to find that Al’s defensive rebounding remains at a low simmer, and his shot-blocking instincts have regressed. So have his assist-making exploits, although a lack of healthy three-point shooting recipients for his passes plays a big role. The five-time All-Star, the second-highest-paid Sixer, Horford is now coming off Brown’s bench, as a backup center, behind Embiid. It’s his first time not starting in an NBA game since filling in for Zaza as a Hawks rookie in November 2007. And, yes, since you’re wondering, the fans that have watched their Sixers win 12 straight at home have resorted to booing him, as he futilely jab-steps in the name of brotherly love. Nobody in top-seeded Milwaukee was jeering Al Jefe on Saturday night, when he entered as a reserve. He took seven shots, six of them from three-point range, and made just one for his game total of three points in 24 minutes as the Sixers lost by 21. In his last road start, also in Milwaukee, Al went 5-for-12 on threes but 0-for-5 inside as Philly fell by 11, concluding a road trip with all four losses by double digits. The first two games of Philadelphia’s four-game, two-week homestand bifurcated by the All-Star Break, Horford shot 4-for-10 and 0-for-6 in 60 combined minutes before Brown gave him his new backup Bawse role. In the home finale against Brooklyn, six points, three boards in 18.5 minutes. He watched most of the fourth quarter and overtime from a chair. Brand has cut loose the developmental Jonah Bolden, while doghoused veteran Kyle O’Quinn has been politicking for a buyout. Norvel Pelle was upgraded from his two-way contract to a full-time deal, but Brown has been left with limited choices upfront when giving Embiid (23.2 PPG, 12.0 RPG) a breather. Playing together, the Horford-Embiid duo’s O-Rating (98.9 as per stats; 10th-worst in NBA among 506 duos w/ as many as their 499 minutes on-floor together) has been O-MFG, so Al is left with no choice but to return to his least favorite position, and not as a starter. As one might expect, Brown is babbling as best he can to put a positive spin on the downturn of his team’s 2019 free agent prize. “He’s a prideful man,” Brown told local reporters after a team film session this past weekend. “He has been rewarded with the contract that he has, and (I am) just keeping (coaching critique) very straight, very clean, very quick… I want to help him help us. Somewhere in the middle of that, I am aware of it all. He knows that I am aware of it all. And I believe that things will settle.” It’s okay, I’m not sure what I just read, either. Brown softened the shoe further. “We have seen the history of Al Horford, and all of us would be very naïve to think some of his signing wasn’t driven to where we want to be in April, May and, we hope, June.” It is wise of Brown to keep everyone forward-thinking. But with the $69 million of cash guaranteed in the seasons to follow for the 33-year-old frontcourt player seemingly in decline, Sixer fans may not want to peer much beyond the forthcoming postseason. In this modern age of blurring frontcourt lines, it is nice to have a young player who isn’t grousing about his ideal or desired position on the floor. Similar in height to Horford, John Collins knows his limitations as a small-ball center, but he takes pride in learning to how to excel while playing and guarding multiple positions on the floor. With a load-managed Kristaps Porzingis watching from the sideline, Collins did exactly what he was supposed to do against Dallas and then some, adding 17 rebounds and a pair of blocks to go with his career-high-matching 35 points in Saturday’s 111-107 comeback win down on The Farm. While Atlanta’s former star big man, Horford, watched from the pine back in January, Collins wasn’t just putting up with the imposing Embiid (21 points, 3-for-6 3FGs, 14 rebounds). The Baptist rang up 20 rebounds to go along with 17 points (8-for-10 2FGs), helping Atlanta ace Trae Young (39 points, 18-for-20 FTs, 18 assists) to flatten Philly. The Hawks’ starting frontline was aided on that day by a productive Damian Jones (6-for-8 FGs, 2 blocks in 26 minutes), and Jones’ upgrades have since arrived in the form of momentary ex-Sixer Dewayne Dedmon (12 rebounds, 4-for-6 FGs vs. DAL) and the injured Clint Capela. But Collins (NBA-high six 20-and-10 point-rebound games this month) is in no mood to wait on the returns of Capela (heel) or Skal Labissiere (knee) before figuring out how to get his Hawks up off the mat. With the return of De’Andre Hunter (out for personal reasons vs. DAL; no one demanded their money back) to the starting lineup, Atlanta may have a legitimate advantage in the depth department tonight, if nothing else. Assuming both of Philadelphia’s top-two minute-loggers, Simmons and Harris, are no-goes today, Brown will need to rely heavily upon his whack-a-mole crew of reserves. More than one backup 76er must pop up so that Josh Richardson (DNP @ ATL in January; 16 points on 22 shots in past two games) and Embiid don’t have to carry an unfair burden tonight. In January, the supporting-role star was Shake Milton, who had 27 points (5-for-9 3FGs, 8-for-10 FTs) and 6 assists in 35 minutes as a replacement starter while trying to keep up with Young, his fellow Oklahoma state prep-school standout. Milton was hardly heard from again until Saturday, when he sank 5 of 7 triple-shots in the losing effort against the Bucks, and Brown would love to see another good game Sooner rather than later. Mike Scott (39.6 FG%) has been sporadic, scoring no more than three points in his past five appearances as his playing time has cratered. If the Sixers could put the occasionally hot perimeter shooting of Furkan Korkmaz (17 points, 3-for-4 3FGs vs. MIL) and the intermittent defensive wizardry of Matisse Thybulle (1.4 SPG, but just 7 thefts in his last ten appearances, incl. 2 @ ATL) together, they’d have quite a MyPlayer on their hands. Depth and chemistry remain challenges for the 76ers (4th-lowest bench points, 3rd-lowest bench boards, 3rd-lowest bench dimes per-48 in NBA), who added a pair of ex-Warriors in Alec Burks and Glenn Robinson at the Trade Deadline for the stretch run while jettisoning Trey Burke and James Ennis. It is another reason why demoting Horford in hopes of a spark doesn’t sound like such a horrible idea. Philly has two more lottery squads (at Cleveland, vs. the Knicks) to contend with before putting their revamped rotation to a truer test. A three-day visit to STAPLES Center will kick off a four-game road swing at the beginning of March. The Hawks are gaining familiarity and late-game confidence amidst a home-friendly schedule that extends well into next month. If Atlanta can find ways to take that more competitive show on the road, too, opponents may continue load-managing stars at their own risk, but they’d need more than Zamboni drivers as subs if they expect to comfortably win the games. You all remember Zamboni machines and snowplows, don’t you, Philly? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  11. “Yo, Jimmy, how long you stuck down there in Miami?” Alright, Atlanta Hawks fans. The Recalibration STARTS NOW! Well, not NOW now, but soon. Real, real soon! First off, congratulations to Messrs. Tony Ressler and Steve Koonin. You guys did it! Y’all did the dang thing! State Farm Arena: NUMBER ONE in the NBA for overall in-game experience among season-ticket holders, according to a survey the NBA itself conducted. We’re not merely striving to be some measly 8-seed with a first-round exit. Among the league’s local fanbases plunking down serious coin, our Hawks’ nest holds homecourt advantage throughout. Mind you, for the second-straight year! This is shaping up to be a true fan-experience dynasty, right here in The A! STAPLES what? Mercedes-Benz who? Everybody knows we’ve long had the best ushers on the face of the planet, the best announcers, the best mascot, and the best DJ. Throw in all the whiz-bang technology, the improved viewing angles, the upgraded grub ‘n booze, kid-friendly accommodations, the way-better retail options at the Hawks Shop, the Top Golf, the Barber Shop. Then, at every tier of the building, we’ve got whole sections of smart Hawks fans who know how to get raucous without getting flat-out rambunctious. From choking through stale popcorn while bellowing to stop J-Smoove from heaving threes in the general vicinity of the rim, Hawks fans, we have already come a long way. State Farm Arena is not just certified-LEED anymore, it’s a certified SHOW. And we’ve got ourselves a certified showman at center court. If you’re not paying rapt attention, you just might miss him swishing a jumper from that very spot. Second, shouts out to The Real MVP of All-Star Weekend: Jalaiah! Girlfriend was nearly just the next ATL-area kid to find her skills brutally appropriated by lesser talents, But now here she is, once toiling in Tik Tok obscurity, now featured in the New York Times, center stage at All-Star Weekend. Do that Renegade, youngblood, and get that Bag! Shoot, I’m still stuck over here trying to Wobble Baby Wobble. If you were just casually peeking at the festivities this weekend, you’d have thought the All-Star Game was being hosted right here in the 404. Jalaiah, 2Chainz, Luda, Quavo ‘n Offset, Chris Tucker, Wondaland’s Jidenna. Claim ATL-native Kanye, if you dare, or ATL-resident Ricky Rozay (sir, keep your local mansion’s valuables off the ‘Gram, please). Even Spike Lee, noted long-suffering Knicks fan, showed up rocking his Morehouse sweatshirt. We’ve got the show-stopping mega-stars repping The ATL, whenever or wherever it’s time for stars to shine. Having endured years of incessant ownership tumult, we’ve now got happy fans begging the Hawks to shut up and take their money. We’ve got a young All-Star who other All-Stars, current and future, are taking great pleasure right now in beating. That is, if they cannot join him. Behold, the unbridled joy by players smothering Team Giannis’ Trae Young after he canned the buzzer-beater, paying homage if not paying back his Rising Star draft-buddy Luka, who wouldn’t even pretend to D Trae up after missing his own 3-point attempt right before halftime. Young’s bomb closed the second-quarter proceedings at 51-30 in Team Giannis’ favor, a defensive clampdown that turned the tide and granted his East-heavy squad a cozy 92-83 lead. Young only got a shade under 16 minutes of action in the midseason showcase, benched by Nick Nurse ostensibly for defensive reasons (heh heh) so he could entrust his real-life point god Kyle Lowry to take charge(s) and seal the deal. Still, Trae snuck in ten very strategic assists to teammates during those brief stints. With his team needing just 24 points to win the contest, I’m sure Trae was chilling on the bench, poking teammate Jimmy Butler and bragging, “Hey, guess what? This game is OVER!” “this man @thetraeyoung was a teller of the future,” trolled Jimmy Buckets after his heat saved themselves from near-certain defeat against the Hawks back in December, coming back from 117-111 down with a minute to spare to force overtime and prevail, 135-121. “game WAS over!” Young was doing some trolling of his own after his tasty dish to Alex Len (remember him?) for a not-blown dunk put Atlanta up six, giving Miami’s bench his best Vince Carter Dunk Contest impression. It’s OVER! Imagine, a team that was 6-17, waltzing out of Miami while flexing. A sad 1-for-10 from the field in the fourth up until that point, the miffed Butler was left with no choice but to get these Young whippersnappers off his lawn. Although, Jimmy needed a little help from a kid named Duncan Robinson, inexplicably born before the Spurs even got their act together, dishing and crushing threes (five 3FGs plus 4 assists, for 24 of the heat’s final 34 points from the mid-4th quarter on) to help him save the heat’s bacon. Thanks in part to Trae’s late-game antics, this heat-Hawks rivalry finally has some sizzle. With the heat in town at The Farm tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Sun in MIA), it’s now up to Atlanta to bring not just sizzle, but steak, to the party. Speaking of parties… foolish me, but back in the spring of 2009, I thought D-Wade was just about D-one. Not just down in Miami, where the heat had just lost an unsightly seven-game, first-round series to Josh Smith’s Hawks. But in general, as an NBA headliner. There he was, about to turn 28, still unable to stretch the floor, dependent on the likes of a withering Jermaine O’Neal, Udonis Haslem and Michael Beasley to get the once-proud heat back into championship contention. Despite a league-best 30.2 scoring average to end 2009’s regular season, Wade was looking more and more like a Flash in the pan, playing through injuries, logging ridiculous minutes. A 4-1 pasting of his team the following season at the hands of the mighty Celtics made Wade’s farewell from Florida all the more likely. Erik Spoelstra’s, too. Then, in Wade’s critical 2010 season of free agency, Pat Riley rolled up his sleeves. Now, the Weekend of Wade ahead is a three-day party down in South Beach to honor #3 and retire his jersey. Wade is rightfully feted for not only getting Miami quickly out of the lottery morass when he was drafted 5th overall back in 2003, but for becoming the co-star that sizable Hall of Fame-caliber superstars would cling to on an annual quest for rings, from Shaq and Zo, to Bron and Bosh. Wade could have casually name-dropped L.A., or his hometown of Chicago, along the way. But he trusted Riley, stayed True to Wade County, and has three NBA titles and five Finals appearances to show for his troubles. It’s a lesson in persistence, and wherewithal, and making one’s NBA city a veritable star destination, that I’m sure a kid drafted 5th overall fifteen years after Wade is sure to take heed. Even with Wade finally hanging it up last season, Miami (35-19, 4th in NBA East) remains clearly the class of the NBA’s Dirty South Division. Team exec-extraordinaire Riley has uncongested the books of salary-cap calamities, making ample room to accommodate Butler and the once-exiled Andre Iguodala with multi-year deals. Spoelstra’s staff has solved longstanding depth problems with former unknowns like Robinson (43.8 3FG%) and Kendrick Nunn (Eastern Conference Rookie of the Month for every month so far, despite going undrafted). Butler (20.6 PPG; career-highs of 6.8 RPG and 6.1 APG) is successfully swinging his persona from star malcontent to star magnet. Adebayo (10.4 RPG, 10th in NBA; 4th in NBA for Defensive BPM; 4.9 APG) has emerged as the supplementary All-Star that many heat fans hoped Justise Winslow would someday become. Even with so much having gone right thus far for the heat, one could reasonably envision the Hawks being the team coming into tonight’s game seeking the head-to-head season sweep. The Hawks, then an upbeat 2-1 after losing by just two points to Finals-hopeful Philly, were going toe-to-toe with host Miami back in October when Young turned an ankle early in the first quarter. Returning to Atlanta a couple days later, the heat did the best they could to skate away with a blowout win, but Young’s sudden replacement, Tyrone Wallace, and Jabari Parker (remember them?) were giving them a hard time in the fourth quarter. Then there was the December game when the Hawks, with Young (but not John Collins) back on the floor, had Miami backed into a corner, a three-wins-in four games stretch clearly in sight. Failing to stick the landing, the next 10-game losing spiral commenced for coach Lloyd Pierce’s club. Pierce’s Hawks (15-41) have squandered opportunities all season to seize prosperity by the horns. You can include the most recent flops at reeling Orlando and Cleveland before the Break, when an inefficient-shooting Young (5-for-18 while settling at times for 3FGs in last two games) played like a guy with Chicago on his mind, and his fellow Hawks (42 4th-quarter points allowed @ ORL; 19 1st-quarter points @ CLE) played like a bunch of slugs. Besides Trae’s singular All-Star exploits on behalf of the Hawks, heat players had themselves a fairly eventful weekend, too. Showing off the Scrabble-colored unis, Derrick Jones got some home cooking from Dwayne Wade and his Dunk Contest judging panel that clearly flunked at both collusion and addition. Adebayo reinforced the notion that indeed, Big Men got skills in the 2020s. Trae was a dud in the Three-Point contest, but it was Robinson who was the betting favorite and didn’t do that much better. At least Duncan was present, something few would have predicted coming off a two-way contract season where he shot just 28.6 3FG% in spot duty. By the way, did you see who was among the first to embrace Buddy Hield as the Sooner sealed the win? We see you out here, Trae. Much like Young, Bam got The Nick Nurse Treatment after leading Team Giannis in first-quarter scoring on Sunday night. He found himself subbed out and watching the next quarter from the sideline in favor of Nurse’s frontcourt star, Pascal Siakam. Adebayo wound up playing under 12 minutes, second-lowest among any All-Star who appeared, and not much more than Butler’s 13 minutes as a Team Giannis reserve. The good news for Coach Spo is that Bam and Jimmy each return from the Break not the worse for wear. Meanwhile, Jones will try to parlay his Dunk Contest infamy (bless you, Aaron Gordon) and new Puma shoe deal into a splash of free agency cash with a strong close to the season. After slaughtering the Sixers at home on February 3, the heat went into the Break with a five-game road trip, and had just one win, at lowly Golden State, to show for their troubles. Iguodala, who arrived before the Trade Deadline with momentary Hawk Solomon Hill and rabble-rousing Jae Crowder, will help Butler and Goran Dragic apply the defensive screws for Miami, which have been caught slipping away from home (106.0 D-Rating in home games, 111.0 on road). But the revival of a floundering offense (106.6 O-Rating in past 5 games, 27th in NBA) is what the heat must put on display, beginning tonight. The 137-point bonanza against Philly being the exception, Miami hasn’t exceeded 115 points in the past nine games, nor 120 points in their past 15 contests. The gritty-grindy pace that Spoelstra prefers has much to do with it, but so does his team failing to exceed 45 percent from the floor while failing to create second-chances. In Salt Lake back on the 12th, the heat chilled to just 43.2 percent, sinking just a third of their three-point shots, while getting thoroughly out-boarded 53-37 along the way to a 116-101 loss to the Jazz. Playing without Butler in Portland a few days before, Miami was worse inside the 3-point arc (19-for-49 2FGs, season-high 20-for-49 3FGs) than outside, while Adebayo found himself overwhelmed by Whiteside as the heat fell short, 115-109. A few days before that, no one aside Robinson could even hit threes, mustering just 21 fourth-quarter points in a 105-97 loss at Sacramento, the Kings’ benched guard Hield matching Adebayo with a game-high seven rebounds. Atlanta already knows Clint Capela, who’s healing his heel through at least the start of next month, won’t be around to save the day defensively. If Collins and Dewayne Dedmon can be just a bit more imposing on the boards than they were in Cleveland and avoid succumbing to early foul trouble, that’s half the battle won. Next year’s All-Star festivities are in Indiana, and several Hawks ought to have some goals to be right in the thick of it all. Three-point threat Kevin Huerter (probable, allergic reaction probably to Angel’s Food cake) on Saturday, Collins with Young on Sunday. Collins has lots of work cut out for him, competing with the likes of Adebayo and Siakam for frontcourt reserve attention once KD returns to form. But becoming a better passer and plus-defender, and a more consistent double-double machine (12 combined rebounds in losses at ORL and CLE) while helping Atlanta become a winning collective will help turn enough heads his way. On Friday of that weekend, beside whoever Atlanta takes with their 2020 lottery pick, we’d better see De’Andre Hunter (questionable, ankle sprain) and Cam Reddish earning unassailable selections to the Rising Stars’ USA Team. Offensive enhancements are important for the rooks going forward. Perhaps most importantly, becoming active and productive passers such that Trae, Brandon Goodwin, Jeff Teague or whoever’s running point can become omnipresent quick-strike threats off the ball. For a team that ranks last in the league with a 33.6 catch-and-shoot 3FG% (only team in NBA with a sub-50 percent eFG% on these plays), having Hunter, Collins and Reddish capable of drawing in overeager defenders and setting up the guards to score off the catch is an element of the offense that is yet to be unlocked. The Hawks are more reliant upon pull-up threes (6th most pull-up 3FGAs in NBA) than most teams in the league, but their 31.7 3FG% on those shots are less than desirable. Teams that catch-and-shoot proficiently, like Miami (57.8 C&S eFG%, 2nd in NBA; 39.1 C&S 3FG%, 3rd in NBA), tend to make things easier on themselves. Going forward, neither the postseason-hopeful heat, nor the hopefully upwardly mobile Hawks can afford long stretches of anemic offense without strategic game-plan shifts. The team that plays quarters as if there’s some 24-point Elam Ending to aim for will come away disappointed with the final score this evening. After just a few years of rebuilding in this town, the lights, the cameras, and the camera-ready star are already among the NBA’s best and brightest. All that Atlanta’s fans patiently await is some darn good action, the kind that puts Ws in the column. With six of the next seven games at home, starting today would be great! But if not, no worries! Just make it soon, very soon. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  12. “Workin’ on a Cleveland weekend vacation guide. You mind helpin’ me out?” Our Atlanta Hawks helped the Orlando Magic slow their descent, if only for a moment, before the All-Star Break. Tonight’s host, the Cleveland Cavaliers (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio), hope the Hawks will do them a similar favor. Sorry, Cavs. But my Hawks are on a very important, single-minded mission this evening. It’s time to firm up those sipping words! “Trae Young is here in Chicago this weekend, despite the Hawks having ONE OF the worst records in the Eastern Conference.” Sip, everybody, sip! “Ernie, ah’m tellin ya, there shouldn’t be anybody here on All-Star Weekend representin their conference when their team has the worst record!” “Chuck, the Hawks (15-40) only have ONE OF the worst records. The Cavs (13-40) are worst.” Sip! “All ah’m sayin, is we can’t have players on bad teams getting into All-Star Weekend.” “Chuck, your Sixers were next-to-last in the Atlantic Division with a losing record when you went to the ’88 All-Stars.” “Shaddup, Kenny. That’s ONE OF the worst ties you’ve got on that ah’ve ever seen.” Sip! “Weren’t y’all near last place before 1992’s All-Stars, when you were barking your way out of Philly, too?” “Aren’t you in need of a pedicure, Shaq? Listen, lemme say this. We were ONE OF the worst teams,” Sip!, “but ah had to put up with Kenny Payne and Charles Shackleford. And, one other thing… Collin Sexton is a Rising Star in this league, he’s a great rookie.” “He’s… he’s not a…” “ONE OF the best rookies in his class.” Sip! “Oh, Andre Drummond is ONE OF the best big men in basketball,” Sip!, “and he deserves to be here.” “We’re going to go to a commercial break before Chuck starts advocating for Kevin Love, too.” “That’s ONE OF the best ideas I’ve heard in this segment, Ernie.” Sip! Forgive Chuckles and the stream of unconsciousness we and his TV partners must endure this weekend. Yes, the Cavs would remain percentage points behind Atlanta with the first win at Quicken Loans Arena in their last 13 tries. But we know Auburn Mathematics in the 80’s didn’t get much beyond the first decimal. Seeing both clubs tied in the “games behind” column of the standings would only further embolden Charles’ point, which is technically a line but for 80’s-era Auburn Geometry. All-Star Break ’88 spelled doom for Barkley’s coach, Matty Guokas, and this season’s intermission could similarly be the end of the ‘lein. Cavaliers first-year coach John Beilein signed a five-year deal back in May of 2019. But we know by now that owner Dan Gilbert doesn’t mind paying coaches to get lost. Beilein’s departure would make the next clipboard clutcher the seventh in Cleveland’s last seven-and-a-half seasons. Coming off the worst home loss in 50 years of franchise history (which IS saying something for those of us who recall the Richfield years), a 133-92 thumping at the hands of a Clippers team on a SEGABABA that sat Kawhi Leonard and Pat Beverley, the Cavs and Beilein need a momentum-shifting victory tonight in the worst way. Andre Drummond (19 points, 2-fo-3 3FGs, 14 rebounds incl. 7 O-Rebs vs. LAC in his Cavs debut) won’t address the Cavs’ interior defensive woes the way Clint Capela is expected to eventually do for Atlanta. But the man can rebound, and as Kevin Love (questionable, sore Achilles) and Tristan Thompson zone out for the remainder of the season, Cleveland hopes Drummond (NBA-high 15.8 RPG, only player besides Love to lead league with 15+ RPG since 2003) should be able to hone in on his strongest attribute. Cavalier opponents have had little trouble getting desirable shots up (NBA-worst 49.3 opponent FG%, incl. 56.2 opponent 2FG%; NBA-low 3.2 team BPG). But on the occasions where foes have lousy shooting nights, Drummond (1st in NBA for both O-Reb% and D-Reb%, as per bball-ref) can help clean up the glass for Cleveland and give his team a puncher’s chance. The early returns on the backcourt pairing of Sexton with Darius Garland (minus-12.0 points per 100 possessions, per bball-ref) continue to show little promise. Garland leads all rooks with 32 games hitting at least two threes, but he has been driving the struggle bus lately (31.3 3FG% in past 15 games). His lack of defensive production and inability to draw trips to the free throw line has him hitting the rookie wall like the Kool-Aid Man. The Young Bull from Cobb County, Sexton has been carrying the Cavs on his back (22.8 PPG, 47.9 3FG%, 94.0 FT% in last 15 games), exemplified back on December 23 when his team-high 25 points (12-for-19 2FGs) helped the Cavs eclipse the Hawks in John Collins’ return to NBA action. The rookie that has best supported Sexton of late has been not lottery-pick Garland, but the final pick of 2019’s first round. Kevin Porter nearly outscored Atlanta’s bench with 17 points (to the Hawks’ 15; incl. 9 in the final frame on Dec. 23), adding on 9 rebounds and teaming up with Love and Garland for a furious fourth-quarter opening rally to fend off the Hawks early. Porter was also one of the few bright spots against the Clippers (17 points in 27 bench minutes) and may be angling for Garland’s starting gig after the Break. The lack of any significant defensive presence on the floor has harmed Cleveland’s chances of staying competitive (NBA-worst minus-9.4 Net Rating), perpetually at the mercy of opponents that aren’t having poor shooting nights, finish close and/or open shots, and hustle back defensively in transition. Atlanta hasn’t often been that kind of team, especially late (42-30 4th-quarter deficit in the 135-126 loss to the Magic, whose 4th-quarter offense was their season-best). But recent losses in Boston and Orlando suggest they’re beginning to sort things out. Despite the struggles to thwart the East’s worst field-goal shooters as Monday’s outcome hung in the balance, a healthier set of Atlanta swingmen inclusive of Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter (available, played in ORL despite an ankle sprain) and DeAndre’ Bembry (probable, neuritis) ought to make it tougher to have Cedi Osman (38.9 3FG%) and, if he plays, Love, bailing Sexton and Garland out of tough spots. Wing players not patrolling the perimeter must be in position to disrupt passes in the paint and recover tip-outs and rebounds off wild shots that Thompson, Love and/or Drummond will be hunting for. It’s fairly safe for bettors to take the Over no matter the line, as Young’s Hawks and Sexton’s Cavs (125+ regulation points at home vs. GSW, NYK, and LAC this month) give up buckets quite easily. But if the Hawks push the tempo and limit their own turnovers on offense, they should find themselves spending much of the evening playing with the higher of the two scores. Cleveland’s coach may need Love to help Drummond play keep-away against Atlanta’s frontline of Collins (one of five players now averaging 20+ PPG and 10+ RPG; 56.7 FG% highest among the quintet) and Dewayne Dedmon. After all, Beilein doesn’t want news of his ouster to become a byline anytime soon. Speaking of Love, I don’t even need three special words to make my weekend ONE OF the best ever. Two will do just fine. Sip! Happy Valentine’s Day! Enjoy the All-Star Break. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  13. “When you wish upon a Star… Makes a difference who you are…” I can’t speak for you, but I am kind of glad, no longer having to care at all about the fate of the Netspick. In a secondary way, Atlanta Hawks fans no longer have to be concerned about tonight’s opponent, the slip-sliding Orlando Magic (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Florida), or any other lotto-quality Eastern Conference foe holding down one of the final two available playoff spots. For a minute there, mere weeks ago, it was looking like the 7-seed was no longer in play. Despite losing defensive glue Jonathan Isaac (severe knee sprain suffered on New Year’s Day) for the balance of January, the Magic responded by going 5-2, highlighted by a win at STAPLES Center, without Evan Fournier, over a Laker team that thought it was safe to rest Anthony Davis. Unfortunately for coach Steve Clifford’s crew, Orlando’s depth began absorbing too many hits. Knee surgery last month for the already-injured Al-Farouq Aminu, arguably the team’s biggest free agent addition over the summer, effectively concluded his season before it could really get going. Orlando was granted a Disabled Player Exception for Aminu, but not for Isaac, the latter application an indication that he won’t be rushed back by the team any time soon. In and out for much of the season already, Michael Carter-Williams was missing time due to injury, and by the time he returned to action in mid-January, he tagged out D.J. Augustin, whose patella irritation (still out tonight) has had the lead bench guard unavailable ever since. Orlando had already weathered the storm of losing recent All-Star pivot Nikola Vucevic for a month. But for a squad that relied on defensive fortitude from Isaac, a discrete set of offensive options around wayward-shooting ballhandler Markelle Fultz, and snail’s-pace ball-control keyed by Augustin and Carter-Williams off the bench as pillars to victory, Clifford’s Magic seem to be just about out of tricks. One night after upsetting LeBron’s Lakers to get within a game of .500 basketball, Orlando had to endure the dreaded STAPLES back-to-back and got clapped by the Clippers. They’ve been in an O-Town Funk ever since. Two wins, both on the road at charcoaled Charlotte, are all the team can claim from their past twelve contests. Their last victory here at Amway Center, over a month ago, came at the expense of a Wizards team that didn’t even have All-Star wannabe Bradley Beal. The Magic (22-31) began a three-game homestand getting toyed with by Giannis and top-seeded Milwaukee, a preview of what might be a sad but swift playoff opening round, should no other Eastern lottery teams step it up in the coming months. With just two home games left before the All-Star Break (Detroit arrives on Wednesday), the Magic hopes they can face a squad that tired itself out last night in Atlanta. The Hawks (15-39) needed four quarters and a pair of overtimes to outlast a Knicks team that itself was playing a back-to-back. Remember that the Magic had already been awaiting several young players to get healthy and emerge as stars for the future. They spent a mid-first-rounder on Atlanta native Chuma Okeke, who tore his ACL while starring for Auburn during last year’s March Madness campaign, with the intention of rehabbing and bringing him along slowly as Aminu and Amile Jefferson played behind Gordon this season. They’ve been pleased that Fultz and center Mo Bamba have been healthy, steady members of the rotation. But they have been forced to rely more on the lotto-pick pair at critical junctures of this season than they likely anticipated. The same goes for third-year bench players Wes Iwundu and Khem Birch. Having already tripled his volume of starts in Philly before the Sixers discarded him, Markelle passes and shoots inside the arc reasonably well (4.8 APG; 50.1 2FG%). He’d be all the more dangerous with dribble penetration if he had reliable perimeter shooters at the ready. Atlanta ranks 30th in three-point accuracy (32.6 3FG%, 34.3% since Jan. 1), but the Magic (33.4 3FG%, 33.5 since Jan. 1) are coming on strong for that dead-last spot. 2019 Sixth Man of the Year candidate Terrence Ross’ jumper has plummeted back to Earth this year (32.2 3FG%, 3-for-19 FGs vs. ATL this season). Vucevic and Gordon combined to shoot 0-for-13, and Ross 1-for-4, from deep against the Bucks in Saturday’s 111-95 loss, making Fultz (3-for-7 3FG vs. MIL, a season-high in makes; 26.9 3FG% on the season) look quite the marksman. At least the Hawks have a point guard in Trae Young (39 points, incl. 13 in 4th quarter; 5-for-10 3FGs, incl. the game-clincher, vs. ORL on Oct. 26) who can call his own number on occasion. Perhaps, two, at least until Jeff Teague (37.1 2FG%, probable for tonight despite sore shoulder) gets out of his shooting rut. Without Young, Brandon Goodwin saved the day for the Hawks in Orlando back on December 30, sinking big shots inside and out (team-high 21 points, 3-for-4 3FGs), generally catching the Magic off-guard in a 101-93 win. The former UCF and Florida Gulf Coast star guard isn’t as effective in spot duty. But when Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce has turned to the two-way player and Midseason All-G-Leaguer for major minutes, Goodwin (just 4 minutes last night vs. NYK) has shown he’s up to the task (42.9 FG%, 100 FT%, 24 assists and 12 TOs in games w/ 20+ minutes). The sole major move by Magic exec Jeff Weltman to bolster team depth was the acquisition of James Ennis, the reserve forward who generally struggled with Philadelphia this season (37.0 FG% since Dec. 31) before waiving his no-trade clause to come to Orlando. Ennis is expected to premiere tonight for the Magic, who waived Jefferson at the Trade Deadline to accommodate Ennis and make 10-day contractor Gary Clark a full-time member. It is hoped that Ennis’ addition will give Gordon (41.9 FG%, 15.4 points and 3.4 assists per-36, down from 44.9%, 17.0 and 4.0 last season) more latitude to play full-time at the power forward spot, where he is perceived to be more effective. Orlando is 9-4 when AG snares 8 or more defensive rebounds, 3-13 when he grabs fewer than five. The Magic frontline has struggled to this point when plugging in either Iwundu or Ross in place of the sidelined Isaac, so they hope Ennis will be a difference maker defensively. Along the way to a 42-40 record in 2018-19, their first winning season since 2011-12, Clifford’s Magic were among three opponents to sweep the 29-53 Hawks in four games, and the only one to win them all by double-digit margins. With a chance to improve to 3-0 versus Orlando this season, it is reasonable to wonder whether Pierce and the Hawks finally have the Magic’s number. Clifford’s 36-46 Hornets similarly swept the 2017-18 Hawks by double-digits in four games. Matt Hill, a longtime Magic video analyst who was the sole assistant initially retained by Clifford when he took over for Frank Vogel in 2018, left shortly thereafter to join Pierce’s staff, and his intimate knowledge may be proving valuable in Atlanta’s competitive turnaround against mainstays Vucevic, Fournier and Gordon (DNP vs. ATL on Dec. 30). The trio was a combined 5-for-28 on threes and has been generally ineffective in second halves versus Atlanta through the first two matchups. Orlando may catch an extra break keeping up offensively if Atlanta’s De’Andre Hunter (38.3 corner 3FG% on team-high 1.6 attempts per game; team-high 35 minutes, 3-for-6 3FGs @ ORL in December; 48 minutes, 3-for-7 3FGs vs. NYK; questionable, ankle sprain) gets some rest today. Without several wing defenders available for the Hawks, Fournier and Ross must each be on-target today. Catching up with Orlando and attaining a playoff spot is a bit too much of an ask at this stage for a Hawks team that struggled to put the Knicks to bed last night, and they won’t have a core with a chance to gel until Clint Capela (out, heel bone) and Cam Reddish (questionable, concussion) make their likely returns after the All-Star Break. But it is possible for the Hawks to surge soon past at least one division rival. A win tonight would raise Atlanta to 5-4 within the Southeast Division (0-3 versus banner leader Miami), an above-.500 mark that neither Charlotte (1-6; 2.0 games ahead of ATL) nor Washington (4-8; 4.5 games ahead of ATL) is likely to claim. By comparison, yesterday’s win over New York vaulted Atlanta to just 4-22 versus the rest of the conference. Building competitive edges against the rest of the Southeast can bode well for Atlanta, both going into the Break and looking forward to next season. Will they have the legs and the wherewithal to keep building against the struggling Magic tonight? Orlando certainly hopes the answer is no. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  14. “Him! Section 120, Row G! He called me something that rhymes with Rich!” How bad have things gotten for you as an NBA owner when your team’s fans can hardly celebrate a five-game win streak? If the New York Knicks return home from today’s game with the Atlanta Hawks victorious (6 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, MSG in NYC), we may soon see just how bad. With Mike Miller coaching to his players’ individual strengths, New York (17-36) has bounced back from a 3-12 January swoon by rattling off four straight wins, three of them away from The World’s Most Fickle Arena, including one in Indiana. This is a rare “schedule win” opportunity for the Hawks, who watched the Knicks (1-6 on back ends of back-to-backs) avert overtime last night in Detroit by exploiting the spots where Andre Drummond once stood (8 of NYK’s last 9 made field goals within 9 feet of the hoop). Watching the fan sentiments, you’d think it was the Hawks (14-39) with the better record and the winning streak, coming into tonight’s action. Knicks owner James Dolan lopped off one half of the two-headed managerial monster in Steve Mills, leaving Scott Perry as the lone Smithers to pull the strings. One Perry pull at the Trade Deadline mailed mega-male Marcus Morris and his XY chromosomes out to LA, bringing Queens native Moe Harkless home along with future picks and a Euro-prospect in Issuf Sannon. Just as he thinks sitting in the stands or running a dive-bar band makes him look like a man of the people, Dolan probably believes these moves plus the winning turn will win him over some fans. (Newsflash: it will not.) What *might* help is bringing in a manager who is better attuned the players, current and future, on the roster, and Knicks fans were offered a glimpse of that with the team’s reported courtship of super-agent Leon Rose. If things turn the way they did for other teams under ex-agents Bob Myers and Rob Pelinka, the decision will be applauded. If events pan out the way they did for Lon Babby, who selected Alex Len in the Giannis draft overall among many missteps, even a sweeter-smelling Rose as the team’s face won’t mask the stench. Dolan was widely panned this week for couching his intransigence about selling the team in an unnecessary press release about his search for a new team head honcho. The Hawks are the ones feeling upbeat, even despite another late-game, close-shave loss in Boston on Friday. Fans have a better sense as to how Travis Schlenk is rebuilding the roster in Atlanta, and winning ways can wait until the core of the team can get healthy and gel together. The post-Deadline roster is coming together just in time for a close to the season where the Hawks’ schedule-strength is by far the league’s weakest (NBA-low 44.5 opponent winning percentage for remaining games), which is saying something considering Atlanta cannot play themselves. The rest of the 29-game docket includes the Pistons, the Kings, the Warriors (please rest, Steph), the Cavaliers and Hornets thrice, the Wizards, these Knicks and the stumbling Magic twice. Surpassing last season’s record with a 16-13 finish is not unreasonable at this stage for coach Lloyd Pierce and his Hawks, if they can get Trae Young (questionable, ankle), Clint Capela (out, something called a calcaneous contusion and plantar fasciitis), Cam Reddish (doubtful, concussion), and Skal Labissiere (out, something called a knee chondral injury) up to speed coming out of the All-Star Break. The Knicks shoot 33.6 3FG% on the season (27th in NBA), and just moved Morris (43.9 3FG%), the sole Knick who shot above 36 percent (Damyean Dotson, right at 36.0%, the only Knick shooting above 35 percent). At the other end, the perimeter defense has been less than desirable (NBA-worst 38.7 opp. 3FG%). John Collins has been on a tear both inside and outside this month (last 4 games: 26.3 PPG, 46.2 3FG%; season-best 9-for-10 FTs @ BOS). He and Kevin Huerter (42.9 February 3FG% despite 4-for-14 in past two games; 19.8 PPG, 3.5 APG, 0.8 TOs/game so far this month) can light up New York today if they are set-up well by the point guards. Even if Trae sits another day, a more assertive effort by Jeff Teague to mimic the hungry Brandon Goodwin could be enough to do the trick. A listless team-wide defensive effort spoiled Young’s 42-point outing in Manhattan, a 143-120 washout back on December 17. It was one of the last games without the then-suspended Collins available for the Hawks, but Atlanta will have Collins, Bruno Fernando (probable, calf strain) and the newly reacquired Dewayne Dedmon back to help seal off the interior from the Knicks. From there, it will be up to De’Andre Hunter (questionable, sprained ankle), DeAndre’ Bembry (questionable, hand neuritis) and Huerter to keep RJ Barrett (1-for-8 @ DET in just 21 minutes last night, 27 points on 10-for-13 FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 17), Damyean Doston and Harkless (Knicks debut) cool from beyond the 3-point arc, and to run on Julius Randle, Mitchell Robinson (9 of NYK’s 13 O-Rebs vs. ATL in December) and New York’s board-crashing bigs in transition off defensive rebounds. The Knicks have been stingy inside when games are halfcourt affairs (42.8 opponent paint points per-48, 3rd-best in NBA), so strong boxouts and wise outlet passes are the way to go for the Hawks. New York allows 1.16 points per transition possession (4th-most in NBA), a value that Miller can only hope replacing Morris with Harkless can fix. It has to suck to own not just the team, but the TV network that airs the team, and find yourself subject to jeers and “Sell The Team!” chants by locals whenever you appear on the screens and the Jumbotron. Us lowly 98 percenters can’t tell folks like Dolan what to do. But instead of tossing ham-and-eggers out of the not-so-cheap seats at MSG, having his camera operators steer away from him would be a wise order. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  15. “Wait a minute… how did I wind up HERE?” Forget what you heard about Punxsutawney Phil. Danny Ainge isn’t wild about seeing his own shadow in February, either. While the Atlanta Hawks are in Boston feeling a little better about their roster construction than they were earlier in the week while playing against the Celtics, fans of their hosts tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Boston) aren’t sure what all the fuss over the NBA Trade Deadline was about. What many realize is that while Trader Dan is known for his Mamba Mentality in poaching stars and draft picks, the Celtics’ longtime lead executive generally prefers to forage and frolic in the summertime. Midseason blockbusters can uproot players’ whole career paths, and Ainge knows this about as well as anyone. In February of 1988, the seventh-year guard was named to his 1st-ever All-Star Game as a member of the hallowed Celtics franchise. Elder statesmen and Boston teammates Larry Bird and Kevin McHale struggled to have much of an impact. But Danny came off the bench to hit three of four three-point shots (only four were made by both teams) to help Michael Jordan and Dominique Wilkins and the East team edge the West, during the last All-Star Game convened in MJ’s town of Chicago. An established starter on a team that had won NBA Championships #15 and #16 during his tenure, the soon-to-be 29-year-old Ainge was looking forward to his turn at aging gracefully. Larry Bird was still going strong, as were his fellow near-20-PPG scorers in Kevin McHale and Robert Parish, and their point guard Dennis Johnson, all in their 30s, all still together since 1983, all averaging over 30 minutes per contest. As Bird looked to the sunset of his great career, he had a young star in Reggie Lewis already learning the ropes. Ainge, who hit a three in a record 23 consecutive NBA games that season while edging Bird with a 41.5 3FG%, knew he had a niche that was hard to replace. Then, like Marky Mark’s bunch, things started getting a little funky. After nearly getting toppled by Nique’s Hawks in the Eastern semis, the Celtics were tripped up in the conference finals by upstart Detroit, in six games. Ainge’s jumpshot had a hard time falling as the C’s failed to reach the NBA Finals for the first time in a half-decade. Even as the top seed entering those 1988 playoffs, the 57 wins were already perceived as a decline from prior seasons hauling in 59, 67, 63 and 62. In a surprise, legendary coach KC Jones retired shortly thereafter, handing the reins to assistant Jimmy Rodgers as he moved upstairs to the front office. Bone spurs and Achilles’ tendinitis short-circuited the 1988-89 season as Bird would appear in just the first six games before getting shut down. Ainge had knee issues and missed time, too. And while Boston stumbled out of the gate without them, Rodgers and fans were growing enamored with their low-first-round pick from the summer before. Earning just $75,000 in salary, rookie Brian Shaw seemed to fit right in, and suddenly it wasn’t only Lewis who the Celtics saw as a future star. Ainge returned but by December was groveling about his playing time getting cut short. He would get his playing time back. Just not in a place anyone expected. In February of 1989, weeks before turning 30, Ainge found himself suiting up in California Wine Country, with Kenny Smith, Wayman Tisdale, and a Kings franchise that hadn’t been around Sacramento for very long itself. Geographically, functionally, aesthetically, this was a long way’s away from Boston. On a club that checked out that season at 27-55, Ainge made the most of his new humble abode. There, he averaged over 20 PPG for the first time in his career, and he went through the next season as a Kings starter, after which the Western Conference contenders in Portland came calling for his services. Already a West Coast guy growing up, Ainge would continue his career coming off the bench until hanging it up at age 35 in Phoenix. Still, it was obvious that the abrupt departure from what he thought would be a lifelong career in Beantown left him with lingering indigestion. What of Shaw, and the team Ainge left behind? Well, Boston would again lose to the Pistons in the playoffs, only this time in the first round. Also, in the absence of rookie-scale deals, the Celtics failed to guarantee Shaw beyond his first season, and by the summertime of 1989 a new threat was on the horizon. From across the sea. Megabucks Italian side Il Messaggero, which weeks before had lured Duke’s Danny Ferry from wrecking his NBA career as a rookie with the sad-sack LA Clippers, offered a couple million dollars, with an option to repeat the following season, that was too good for Shaw to pass up. Having exchanged Ainge (for the Kings’ frontcourt players Joe Kleine and Easy Ed Pinckney) in order to make room for Shaw, Boston went into the 1989-90 season with neither. The Celtics’ brass flew to Rome to entice Shaw back with a new NBA deal, then spent a year wrangling with his lawyers when Brian reneged on the plan to return to The States. Shaw did return and got his starting gig back in 1990, but even that lasted for just a year-and-a-half. After seeing rookie Dee Brown’s playing time Pump’d up at Shaw’s expense, the new regime shipped the oft-injured, confidence-sagging guard in midseason to Miami for The General, Sherman Douglas. We know things didn’t work out well for Boston going forward. Larry Legend and McHale followed DJ into retirement, Lewis passed away unexpectedly, The Chief had gone on to finish his career elsewhere. During that same period of the early 1990s, Ainge had reached The Finals twice, once each with Portland and Phoenix. There remains a sense of what might have been for the graying Celtics had management found some way to put up with the cranky Ainge and allow him to go off into the sunset with the other stars in Boston. Particularly at a time when three-point marksmanship was becoming more than a mere value for specialists, perhaps Ainge could have helped pass the baton onto youngsters for a new era of clover-green fortune. The Celtics would not make another trip to The Finals after trading Ainge away. By the time they did, it was Ainge pulling the strings in the front office. Now going on 17 years, Ainge continues to live in the afterglow of Championship #17 back in 2008. But when you look back at the totality of Boston’s maneuvers in that time, the Celtics’ signature player transactions tended to occur not at Trade Deadline time, or even really in midseason. The trading away of heart-and-soul guard Isaiah Thomas for tortured-soul Kyrie was in August of 2017. Replacing Kyrie and Terry Rozier with a less-scary All-Star in Charlotte’s free agent Kemba Walker (returning to action tonight) was in July of last year. In 2019, Ainge only lifted a finger high enough to launch the sketchy Jabari Bird into Atlanta’s caproom ether. Before that, you’d have to go back to 2014-15 for a legitimate deadline deal, when the C’s sent out Marcus Thornton, Tayshaun Prince and a future draft pick that became Skal Labissiere, in a three-team deal that was nearly as lauded for the arrival of Detroit’s Jonas Jerebko as it was for the Suns’ Thomas. That was only enough to help second-year head coach Brad Stevens to eke Boston into the playoffs as a 7-seed and enjoy his first playoff venture, a four-game sweep at the hands of LeBron’s Cavaliers. Trading the prior coach, to the Clippers for a future first-rounder, happened only at the end of the 2013 season, rather than allowing the ring-bearing Doc Rivers to quit or be fired amid a down-turning .500 season. Ainge would move the deck chairs in the years before only slightly, getting Jeff Green during 2011’s deadline and another first-rounder for Kendrick Perkins and Nate Robinson, a move, particularly of Perkins, that soured Rivers and the vets remaining on the roster. Nate had just arrived at the deadline one calendar year before. Summertime is not Ainge’s time to sit back and unwind. The Ray Allen and Kevin Garnett deals from that season of 2007 re-oriented the franchise back to one that expects winning and title contention. Before Ainge arrived, the team had already flubbed the drafting of Joe Johnson, and squandered a draft pick to Phoenix in that deal. In a few years, he would get a pick from the Suns back, in the form of a 2006 draft-day trade for incoming rookie Rajon Rondo. Sending away Antoine Walker in the start of the 2003-04 season was a big deal among the Celtic faithful. Getting Employee #8 back in 2005 at the Trade Deadline for effectively Googs, that future Rondo pick, and Yogi Stewart (Gary Payton would get bought out by Atlanta, just to return to Boston anyway). That’s a ton of Celtic lore, but not a bunch of deadline-day wheeling-and-dealing by Ainge, at least no strategic acquisitions that would make his team championship-competitive with the postseason mere months away. As a matter of course, Ainge will pick up the phone when called, and maybe stash away some intel for the purpose of a bigger scheme in the summer. Yet it’s why there really should not have been much surprise this week when Trader Dan asserted his contentment that the team did the important things to have Boston (35-15, 3rd in NBA East, 1.5 games behind Toronto) in position for a meaningful run back before this season began. “I think our #1 need is health,” said Ainge on Monday to NBC Sports Boston and reporters, before his Celtics outlasted the Hawks, 123-115 in Atlanta. “I think we’re going to look to see if there’s ways to strengthen the end of our bench. We like all of our guys. We do have probably too many really young guys.” Any inkling by Ainge to trade young players or draft assets in a win-now move was probably dashed on Monday night. That was after second-year guard Brad Wanamaker (2-for-3 3FGs, team-highs of 4 FTs and 4 steals, plus 5 assists) and rookie forward Grant Williams (6-for-9 FGs, incl. a game-sealing blow-by layup past the Hawks’ John Collins and a just-passing-through Evan Turner) stepped up at critical junctures, in Walker’s absence, to stop the Hawks from pecking away at Boston’s lead. Further confirmation for Ainge to stand pat came when Wanamaker and Williams (5-for-6 combined 3FGs vs. ORL) made big shots off the bench on Wednesday. Along with rookie Romeo Langford, who took Javonte Green’s momentary place in the starting lineup, the Celtics pulled away from Orlando here at TD Garden, 116-100, marking Boston’s fifth-straight home win and eighth victory in its past nine games. The youthful bench support has been beneficial for Stevens to keep the Holy Cow Trinity of wings, Jaylen Brown (questionable, ankle), Gordon Hayward (questionable, foot) and Jayson Tatum (28 points and 7 rebounds @ ATL, 33 points and 5 assists vs. ORL) from being overtaxed. All three logged 35-38 minutes against the Magic. With a short road trip out West and a return home to face the Clippers prior to the All-Star Break, one can envision Stevens being deferential to his less experienced charges tonight against Atlanta. Not having rookie Cam Reddish (concussion) back on the floor is a detriment for the Hawks to keep up with the Celtics’ swingmen and start the post-Deadline charge on the right foot. A further predictable setback was the unavailability of Clint Capela, Dewayne Dedmon and Labissiere, who have pending trade machinery and/or nagging short-term injuries of their own to get through. Trying to fend off the Timberwolves’ madcap fourth-quarter dash, Trae Young tweaked his ankle late in Wednesday’s 127-120 win in Minneapolis, but he is probable to give it a go along with Jeff Teague (knee). Now just a shade under 40.0 3FG% for the season, Kevin Huerter seems to be working well past his adductor pain. For the Hawks to stay competitive against Walker and the Celts tonight, one other contributor has to be a strong net positive. The Hindenburg. The Dust Bowl. De’Andre Hunter meandering while taking more than two dribbles. There are plenty of disasters in North American history to point to, but the rookie (4 TOs @ MIN, 3 in the second half) should not be attempting to rival them with any on-ball plays other than catch-and-shoot, or catch-and-pass. Wednesday’s win was the first in seven games for Atlanta (14-38) in which Hunter (available, despite an ankle sprain) committed four or more turnovers (incl. 4 second-half TOs during a 12-point loss to Minnesota back in November, if Karl-Anthony can remember back that far), and odd-ball plays on his part helped make the final quarter a bit too close for comfort. Trae (9.0 APG) produces enough wondrous offense to obscure at least some of his 4.9 TOs/game. But Hunter forcing actions toward the rim, for plays that just aren’t there, is glaring, when one isn’t tempted to cover their eyes. Atlanta’s third-leading scorer for just a little longer, Hunter (third-lowest pace on the team, aside from bench players Bruno Fernando, doubtful for tonight with a calf strain, and the recently-arrived Treveon Graham) gets too cerebral with the ball in his hands, or in his general vicinity, and makes things easy for defenders clamp down. As per stats, Hunter has a 9.5 TO% on spot-up possessions, second only to Russell Westbrook among players getting four or more such possessions per game (he gets a team-high 4.5). 7.9 percent of De’Andre’s passes turn into assists, a Bembryan value that could stand to climb into the double digits like Huerter (11.2 percent pass-to-assist ratio). Keeping clear of the Celtics’ eager arms and charge-drawing bodies (18.1 points per-48 off opp. TOs, 4th in NBA) will help Hunter keep the Hawks in contention for stealing a road win despite being short-handed themselves. With everybody back for Boston after the deadline, the Celtics will eventually have a roster glut at season’s end. If Hayward and the happy Enes Kanter take their player options, and the team elects to keep Daniel Theis and Semi Ojeleye on board, then Boston is projected to return 13 players when the curtain opens on 2020-21. Brown’s big contract extension kicks in, just as the Celts are expected to negotiate Tatum’s, lifting the salary bloat over $95 million even without the conditionals. Oh, and then there’s as many as three low-first-rounder rookie-scale deals on the docket, thanks in part to picks Ainge pried from Memphis and Milwaukee. But none of those matters are of pressing concern to the Celtics’ front office. All of it can wait until the summer when he really gets busy. In the wintertime, as Tree Rollins would likely say, Danny Ainge is, “once bitten, twice shy”. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  16. “S GON’ GIVE IT TO YA! HE GON’ GIVE IT TO YA!” Jeff Teague returns to Minnesota as his Atlanta Hawks face the Minnesota Timberwolves (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports North in MSP) in what will be a pivotal oh who am I kidding it’s time for TRADER TRAV’S DEADLINE KARAOKE! HIT THE MUSIC! Why teams bait? Once it’s time, they make me wait? Whoo! I rep The ATL best, turns out, we’re 100 percent cap-rich. Even when we’re playing crazy. Yeah, my Hawks got problems, that’s the human in them. Swing deals, then we solve them, what ya gonna do then? Y’all could escape cap hell, at least a little. Just gimme more than a bag o’ Skittles. We might even trade down, but your draft return’s whack. So now you’ve found out I’m not cuttin’ no slack. Why teams bait? Once it’s time, they make me wait? Junk offers, salaries won’t aggregate. LL Cool P sat me on the bar stool. Said, “you’d better get me useful vets, fool. Pull a heist on those loopy Chi-ca-go Bulls, More steals from the Minnesota Blunderwolves. Truth Hurts: we need players I don’t need to pull like DEANDRE’ ANDRE’ BEM BEM BRYYYYY.” You thought you’d make me part with J-Bap? That ain’t smart. You got a truckload full of picks? No? Then don’t even start. Hey, I’m glad you’re still a 6-seed, Relying on Joel Embiid, But Ben will never, ever, ever, ever, ever learn to shoot threes. Trae puts the ‘si-i-ing’ in passing, Ain’t worried ‘bout no place in the standings. So you can tell Ben, “Play Fortnite!” when you see him. It’s okay. He already in KAT’s DMs. Why teams bait? Once it’s time, they make me wait? Capela, since y’all need a tax break. Steve Koonin pulled me in the corner there. Said, “go find folks that can guard a chair. Mo Bamba? Or how ‘bout Robert Covington? The latter is LL Cool P’s favorite son. Truth Hurts: dump them busters that’s expiring and DEANDRE’ ANDRE’ BEM BEM BRYYYYY.” I’d trade Alex Len in a minute, If his health status was definite. But Evan Turner’s spry. Plus, he can shoot – I lied. Now that he got ghost, we’re like, Bye-Bye, Bye! I’d ditch Jabari in a second. ‘Cause Collins in the middle isn’t fecund. We start Damian Jones. That’s why I work these phones. I don’t make no bones, we need Fi-yi-yives! Why teams bait? Once it’s time, they make me wait? Poison pill contracts? Don’t appreciate. T-Ressler got me sittin’ in the hot seat. Said, “better get players that can compete! Work a four-way with the L.A. Lakers, Hang up if you’re offered Dion Waiters. Truth Hurts: we want talent more exciting than DEANDRE’ ANDRE’ BEM BEM BRYYYYY.” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  17. “I’ll be re-evaluated in 4-to-6 weeks. Just glad it’s not my wand-waving hand!” The Guru of… Go-Go? For assistant coach Corey Gaines, watching his Washington Wizards on pace to become the first NBA team to allow 120 points per contest for a season since 1990-91 must feel familiar. Perhaps, it’s because he had a cup of tea on the last NBA team to allow more than 130. Gaines was a disciple of legendary coach Paul Westhead, who once called the point guard, as reported by the LA Times, “one of the fastest, quickest players,” he had seen. Westhead oversaw a lot of quick, and Gaines was the quickest. The California kid was also a quick study of “The System,” and soon quarterbacked Bo Kimble and the late Hank Gathers into stardom at once-unknown Loyola Marymount University, following Westhead’s principles of super-soaking, run-and-gun offense, at all costs to everything else. In the ensuing years, and decades, wherever Westhead popped up, Gaines would not be far behind. After a couple NBA stops, Gaines came to Denver as a free agent preseason pickup twice. He was cut one day before the 1989 season opener by their soon-departing GM Pete Babcock. He returned in 1990, just days after Westhead was hired in hopes of supercharging the low-altitude offense made famous by Doug Moe. Playing under his college coach, Corey was sure he would finally stick on an NBA roster, until a November game when Kevin Johnson’s Phoenix Suns scored 107 points on the Nuggets. In the first half! Yes, that’s still a record. The 173-143 loss that dropped Denver to 0-6 should not have been laid at Gaines’ feet; he wasn’t a starter, and you rely on ex-Hawk Blair Rasmussen and Todd Lichti to hold it down in the paint and see what that does for you. But Corey, averaging over nine assists per game, was the fall guy. Westhead’s run as an NBA head coach wouldn’t last much longer, either. After being waived, Gaines weaved in brief NBA stints with CBA, European and Asian leagues, ABA2000, and summer pro-am action until he retired. Westhead was about to coach Gaines (and Dennis Rodman and a young Matt Barnes) in 2003 with the latter-day ABA’s Long Beach Jam until the NBA Magic called him looking for an assistant. He and Gaines would re-connect in 2006, when Westhead got the lead job with the WNBA’s Phoenix Mercury and asked Gaines, who took over for Tiny Archibald midway through the 2004 ABA season at Long Beach, to become his assistant there. The move paid off for Gaines as Westhead guided the Merc, running and gunning “Paul Ball” and leading the league in scoring behind Diana Taurasi, to the 2007 WNBA title. Westhead left for to be an assistant with the NBA Sonics, and Gaines took over. Two seasons later, another WNBA title, and Gaines would get promoted to GM two years after that. Jumping over to the men’s side of the pros for the first time, Gaines would work as a player development/assistant coach in ensuing seasons, with the Suns and the Knicks. He was a Pistons coaching consultant when the Wizards came calling. Ted Leonsis likes to tinker, but not in conventional ways. Loyal to a fault, the Wizards owner hung on to GM Ernie Grunfeld way too long, and continues to defy fan sentiment to cut loose head coach Scott Brooks. After star point guard John Wall was lost for the rest of the 2018-19 season and the Wizards missed the playoffs, Leonsis replaced Grunfeld with Tommy Sheppard. While he kept Brooks and promoted Tony Brown to a lead assistant role, Leonsis and Sheppard overhauled some of the assistant gigs. Longtime assistant Mike Longabardi joined the club, as did analytics guru Dean Oliver and Capital City Go-Go coach Jarell Christian, who nurtured Troy Brown and Thomas Bryant on development league assignments and helped Jordan McRae earn a spot on the 1st-Team All-G-League team. But the most impactful strategic addition to the bench is probably Gaines. A 103.5 pace (4th in NBA) and 110.8 O-Rating (8th in NBA) aren’t groundbreaking figures, not in this new-age league. But the offensive tempo resembles nothing Brooks has put out while coaching the star-studded Thunder or Wizards before, or anything this franchise has seen since the winning Washington/Baltimore Bullets clubs of the 1970s. Defense? Bah, Who cares about that right now? Worry about defensive personnel when it’s time to really win something. The Wiz haven’t won 50 games in any season since the 1979 NBA Finalists, and it’s a safe bet that they won’t this season (12-25), a well-established assumption with Wall (Achilles, out for season) and, lately, fellow All-Star Bradley Beal (27.8 PPG; questionable for tonight, lower leg soreness) on the mend. But fans at Capital One Arena, where the Wizards and Atlanta Hawks play tonight (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington), haven’t been this excited about the future in a while. Long recognized as the fastest end-to-end player in the NBA, Wall in his peak seasons would fly up the court in transition, hunting for layups, dunks, and foul-shot chances. Failing that, he’d have to wait several more seconds for the likes of Marcin Gortat and Nene to come lumbering into position, and then a couple more to pry Beal open along the perimeter. It was a formula that had grown stale. Now, Leonsis’ big bet is that Washington can implement a system better suited to the skillset of Wall (age 30 and a $40 millionaire for the first time next season, locked down on extension through probably 2022-23), and to the potential of his youthful teammates, including Brown and lotto-rookie Rui Hachimura, once Wall returns next season. In the meantime, they’ve got Isaiah Thomas (41.2 3FG%, best since his heralded Celtics years) and Ish Smith to help demonstrate Gaines’ version of “Paul Ball” while taking their predictable lumps on the defensive end. Nobody snookers the Spurs easily, but Sheppard’s Wizards pulled a fast one by relieving them of Davis Bertans this past summer, as San Antonio tried in vain to make room for Marcus Morris. Bertans (43.4 3FG%, 9th in NBA) has become part of a trio of Killer Bs (Beal and Bryant, with Brown and Isaac Bonga needing more time to join the hive) that makes it easier for Brooks to promote a free-wheeling yet egalitarian offense. Especially when they’re healthy together, which has been rare. Smith and Thomas can bring up the ball, look for a quick shot, then give it to Beal to create for the rest of the shot clock, Bertans, Hachimura (NBA-low 5.8 TO%, as per bball-ref), and Brown hardly have to touch the ball unless it’s time to get a shot off. Everyone is allowed to play to their offensive strengths, such as they are, so long as whatever you do as a Wizard, you do it fast (304.6 passes per game, 6th-most in NBA; 28.8 catch-and-shoot PPG, 8th in NBA). I’d be tempted to promote Brooks for honorable-mention Coach of the Year votes, but for the fact that running Wall (36+ MPG for four seasons, pre-injuries) and Beal (36.5 MPG, 5th in NBA) into the ground is a big part of the reason the Wizards find themselves in this holding-pattern situation. Beal has only been able to appear in one of Washington’s last seven games, while Bertans (quad), returning tonight, missed the past nine. Trade sharks are circling for Bertans, and Brooks will be obliged to keep him on the floor as much as possible to raise the value of the sharpshooter with an expiring contract. Injuries for Hachimura (groin), Bryant (foot), and Moe Wagner (ankle), has had the Wizards going deep in the grab bag of their depth chart, and with the way their offense is going, you never know who’s turn it is to go for 30. The player themselves may not know until they’re doing it. In comes Garrison Mathews, the two-way no-name guard who paired up with McRae off the bench (57 combined bench points vs. MIA) and left Jimmy Butler muttering to himself in a 123-105 win over the heat on December 30, without Bertans, Beal or Bryant. Out goes Mathews a few games later, victim of a bad ankle injury. In comes forward Johnathan Williams on an injury hardship, starting five games after Christmas and averaging 20 MPG through last week, including 12-and-8 in a 128-114 win over the Nuggets. Out goes Williams, on waivers the next day. The Wizards have finally been blowing gaskets offensively, including Wednesday’s 123-89 defeat in Orlando. But that hasn’t come without random contributors popping up like Whack-a-Moles off the bench. While the five default starters could muster only 28 points between them, the bench brigade against the Magic was led by Brown, portly second-rounder Admiral Schofield (18 points apiece) and Anzejs “Scrabble” Pasecniks (16 points). Getting at least one of the Triple Bs suited up will be sure to put the buzz back in Brooks’ new run-and-gun “system”. The Hawks (VIII-XXX) have plenty of their own defensive issues to work through, and it will be tougher tonight to identify and attend to the opposing player likely to take shots, as they tried to do during valiant comebacks against James Harden’s Rockets on Wednesday. But the Wizards hope, in turn, they can be as successful in nullifying Atlanta’s star scorer as they were all last season. As noted by NBC Sports Washington’s Mike DePrisco yesterday, no other team in the Eastern Conference held Trae Young below both 16 PPG and 30 FG% (12.0 PPG, 28.9 FG% in 4 games vs. WAS) during his rookie season. With or without Wall, Brooks deployed either of Tomas Satoransky, Austin Rivers or Chasson Randle to help cover Young while using a guy like Trevor Ariza as a free safety for incoming passes toward the paint. None of those personnel are in D.C. now. Perhaps saving his energies, Beal has the lowest Defensive Real Plus/Minus (-4.70) in the league, with Thomas (-4.11) and Hachimura (-3.85, below Trae’s -3.75) not all that far behind him. Coach Scotty will turn to The Mitten (Gary Payton II) and Brown to help limit Young’s penetration. In any case, Thomas or Smith will likely have to switch onto someone, and hopefully Kevin Huerter will have a big game exploiting that matchup. Having reached double figures in each of his last five games (50.0 FG%, 47.1 FG%, 19.0 PPG, 6.6 RPG and 3.8 APG), all single-margin outcomes for the Hawks, Huerter’s shooting splits are quickly approaching those from his All-Rookie season. Helping him bury notions of a sophomore slump will involve him attacking the paint more and getting to the free throw line, where he can show off his improving shot (85.0% on 1.5 FTAs/game, up from 73.2 and 0.7 last season). Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce wedded himself to two ideas early on in this season. Insisting Alex Len is ideal in every situation coming off the bench, for one, means John Collins is left to start at center for Atlanta, given the personal leave extended to rookie Bruno Fernando and the utility of Damian Jones as an occasional rim protector and foul sponge. The other idea is that De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish (minus -8.5 net points, and minus-3.0 assists per 100 possessions) can be at their best learning how to play together, and starting, rather than staggering the rooks in differing lineups. Collins at center and Jabari Parker (shoulder) remaining sidelined due to injury leaves Pierce little choice but to field De’Andre Hunter at power forward. Collins will find himself busy guarding the frontcourt positions at separate times, but the fast pace expected from tonight’s action may continue to be overwhelming for Hunter, who returns to the NBA outpost nearest to his reigning NCAA champion University of Virginia. De’Andre has been hitting his threes of late (38.7 3FG% in last seven games), but the expectations that he could also contribute as a rebounder, passer, on-ball and roving team defender, seems a bit outsized for his current skill level (last 7 games: 1.3 APG, 0.6 SPG, no blocks, 2.4 RPG). Unlike Cam, who has ample support around his position on the wing, Hunter could benefit from a downsizing of MPG, especially at the power forward spot once Parker and Fernando can return. Fans in The DMV aren’t exactly doin’ Da Butt in celebration of this new wrinkle of Wizards basketball, but they are pleased to discover a clear change in style with an eye toward the future, even with Brooks ostensibly still in charge. There may come for the Wizards a future time when, like the gentrifiers of many D.C. wards, somebody will file a petition for Leonsis to turn all this Go-Go gadgetry off. But that won’t happen until long after Wall and Beal get to run the newfound offense together. Until that time comes, Brooks is willing to listen to his staff, and when it comes to offensive ideas, he’s more than happy to let Corey Gaines clear his throat. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  18. “Didn’t I warn you to stay away from Big Baby’s Superb Owl Seven Layer Dip?” Welp, too much of a football-party coma to do any fancy-schmancy write-up for today’s game at State Farm Arena, with the Boston Celtics in town to deal with the Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBA Sports Boston). Instead, please, just mark the date and time, because it isn’t very often that I get to show my appreciation for a Celtic on the Interwebs. Three cheers for Jaylen Brown! Hip Hip! Hooray! New rule: if you are below the age of 30, you do not get to whine about how The Game Done Changed just because you didn’t get your coveted invite to The Big All-Star Dance. You all Devin know the suspects, so there’s no need to call them out Booker by name. Instead, let’s let the Pride of Wheeler High (one of them, anyway, since there’s Shareef, too), demonstrate how to show some class, Marietta-style. “I think there’s a lot of guys to choose from,” Brown told NESN after he was among the players on the outside looking in at the All-Star reserves. “a lot of guys having a good year. It is what it is. Just start gearing your mind, getting ready for the playoffs and stuff like that, building good habits.” It helps a little that teammates Kemba Walker (out tonight, sore knee, along with center Robert Williams) and Jayson Tatum will be headed to Chi-town. Also, that the Celtics (33-15, 3rd in NBA East) are all but assured of a return to the postseason, so the so-called snub can’t use the news Bradley as de-motivation to suddenly now start caring Beal about his team barging their way in as some sort of revenge. Not thinking of anyone in particular. “I try to look at anything and everything as motivation,” said Jaylen, not biting as the media prodded and poked for just a dash of pettiness. “Keep working and getting ready for the playoffs – that’s the stage you want to be in.” The high-minded Brown would rather let his play do all the smack-talking. He scattered and covered the Warriors after last week’s All-Star reserves announcement, then put up a team-high 32 points (despite 1-for-10 3FGs) and 9 rebounds to help Boston smother the 76ers this past weekend without Kemba available. “I thought that Jaylen handled it great,” said Celtics coach Brad Stevens. “Not being named, came out of the gates playing great.” In addition to Walker and Williams (hip edema), Enes Kanter (hip contusion) missed the Philly game and is questionable, while Marcus may make like John Krasinski and Smaht Pahk after sustaining a quad bruise on Saturday night. Unfortunately, the Hawks (13-37) are too inexperienced and not cohesive enough for it to matter much when opponents are missing key players. Particularly those who have a plethora of shooter options and a multitude of defensive looks they can throw in the direction of Trae Young (upgraded to probable, sprained ankle). That was the case in Dallas, as Jalen Brunson, Seth Curry, Dorian Finna-Score, and Maxi Kleber all had a field day from the field, while the double-teamed Young couldn't get into gear until it was too late. Look for Kevin Huerter (6-for-10 3FGs @ DAL) and two-way player Charlie Brown to try and fill the void on the wing with rookies Cam Reddish (concussion) and De’Andre Hunter (sprained ankle), plus DeAndre’ Bembry (neuritis) all on the shelf. The Celtics are strong enough at those positions that Brown, Gordon Hayward (1-for-11 FGs vs. PHI) and Jayson Tatum (7-for-19 FGs vs. PHI) can have off-shooting nights but still win handily if they get to the free throw line a lot (80.3 team FT%, 5th in NBA) while also making defensive stops (BOS 8th in SPG, 6th in BPG, 4th in opponent FG%). Boston gets away with Hayward as the default starting power forward, so opportunities abound for John Collins (last 10 games: 22.9 PPG, 10.8 RPG, 62.5 FG%, 35.5 3FG%, 85.7 FT%, 1,2 BPG, 4.6 fouls/game) to have another monster night on the boards if he and Damian Jones can avoid foul trouble. As far as being close enough to win the game late, as they nearly did in Boston last month but for Daniel Theis’ heroics, without the rookie swingmen or Bruno Fernando (strained calf), Alex Len (hip flexor) and Jabari Parker (impinged shoulder) available? We’ll just have to see what tricks Atlanta has up its sleeve. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  19. “Arrgh! How are we letting Damian Jones cherry pick us to death?” Alright, here it is, your definitive answer on the “Who Better?” question, so we don’t have to put up with a debate that has dragged on 19 months too long. The debate was settled, long ago. Luka Doncic is better than Trae Young. One person already made the decision, so we wouldn’t have to. He’s the only person on the planet whose opinion matters on the question. And that man is Sir Travis Schlenk. Best player available is best player available. If Trae Young was the better of the two, then on Draft Night 2018, with both players at your disposal at Pick #3, you select the kid rocking the suit shorts, genuflect, and say, “Thank you all, and good night.” But that is not what the Atlanta Hawks GM did. He had the presence of mind to consider the long-term interests of his team, about the value of what having the best player available could mean to your franchise, versus the value of having the right to draft that player as a bargaining chip for something more. Luka Doncic was the best player available. He, by his lonesome, simply wasn’t Travis Schlenk’s guy. With the Memphis Grizzlies having no earthly idea what was going on, he got on the horn and told Dallas Mavericks management, “I’ll secure your kid if he falls to us. You secure my kid, because he WILL fall to you. And give me your first-rounder next year for the trouble.” Done. Every highlight play, every highlight reel, every stat-monster game from Doncic elicits, somewhere out there on the Interwebs or in pundit-world, the same tired reaction: “Oh, Phoenix, Sacramento, Atlanta have all got to be kicking themselves.” Take our name out your mouths, you mindless twits! The Suns ran out and hired a coach before that Draft, by all accounts a person of sound mind and strategy, ɯho nΩ ‘Mµrican pla¥ers ©an understαnd βecause h€ tålks £ike thi∑. You know what language he does speak? He speaks Luka. Fluently. And then they don’t draft the kid! No, they wanted a Tito Horford upgrade with their first dibs, because size. Congratulations, as DJ Khaled would say. The GM from that day is gone, canned before the season could even start, as is the coach. The Kings. That’s about all that ought to be said. But let’s delve further. If there is a human alive who ought to know the value of a well-timed draft move, it’s Vlade Divac. The man should also know his Euro-prospects inside and out, at least a little better than Dave Joerger, his head coach at the time. But Vlade perhaps knew too much about some acrimonious relationship he reportedly had, or felt the need to ward off, with Doncic’s father. Divac has since maneuvered a “phone call” to “Sasa Doncic” to get their radio guy, Grant Napear, to assert the report was unfounded, but I’m not fooled. Imagine if the Lakers had declined to deal Divac away because Jerry West had some old, tired beef with Jellybean. No, Marvin Bagobones was the move. Talented fella, sure. But I may be out 3-to-4 weeks just from typing his name. Like Phoenix, Sacramento was in position to at least draft Doncic and trade him to a lower-drafting team for something of value, and whiffed. The GM from that day should be gone, and the coach, Joerger, is only gone because he wouldn’t quit giving the GM grief all last season over the blunder. Oh, and how does Memphis get to run around scot-free, and not kicking themselves? They cleaned it up nicely with the do-over Draft Lottery luck of 2019. But put this on for size: “The Grizzlies! Home of the 2019 AND 2020 Rookies of the Year.” All they had to do was blow up Atlanta and Dallas’ scheme, and then maybe the Mavs are the ones trying to keep Jaren Jackson, Jr. from fouling out every other night. Jackson, and nothing else, or Doncic? If you weren’t sure “Which Better?”, you certainly are now. The GM that was also a proofreader away from squandering Dillon Brooks, too, is gone, and the coach got the heave-ho, too. Once Vivek Ranadive regains his senses, that’s three out of four teams who picked ahead of the Mavs in 2018’s draft, three out of four whose picks from that class are or will be inherited by a new regime. The opportunity to trade Luka Doncic down for Trae Young, and recoup additional value in the process, should never have been afforded to Atlanta. And yet, with the iron still steaming, an astute Schlenk was prepared to make a calculated strike. What additional value, you ask? Well there’s January Rookie of the Month finalist Cam Reddish (40.3 3FG% and 82.8 FT% in January), whose confidence on the offensive end is growing by leaps and bounds, and whose defensive aptitude at the wing is pretty good fresh out the box for a team that sorely needs it. Cam is with Atlanta and not, say, Dallas, because Luka was just good enough in 2019-20 to keep the Mavs from being among the league five worst NBA teams, a calculated risk that I trust went into negotiations about draft pick protection. Dallas negotiates Top-10 protection, instead of Top-5, and they’d likely have wound up bringing Reddish or Rui Hachimura into the fold. Tack onto that, both teams got a 2019 All-Rookie 1st teamer and 2020 All-Star out of their 2018 lottery picks, but Atlanta keeps about $6 million in would-be rookie-scale cash spread out over the course of four years to spend elsewhere. One other item. Walking out of 2018’s draft with Young as Atlanta’s point guard of the future meant never having to wonder whether the good folks of DeKalb County, Georgia were going to take the Damocles’ Sword of a recommended felony assault charge for Dennis Schröder and shelve it in a drawer, away from harm. By hookah by crook, Schlenk had to get value for The Menace, too. Now, a rebuilding OKC team that squeaks into 2022’s playoffs would bring the Hawks yet another first-rounder to add to a still-youthful core. Yes, Luka Doncic is a better player than Trae Young. Yes, the Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club is doing just fine. Those statements need not be matters of controversy, nor must they be mutually exclusive. Luka is better because he was genetically built, raised, trained and marketed to be better. At age 17, Trae Young led his team to a regional high school championship, his state of Oklahoma naming him the high school sophomore of the year. At age 15, Luka Doncic was in the third year of his developmental contract with Real Madrid. By age 17, Luka was on the top-level club in the world’s second-best basketball league, already having appeared in preseason games against the NBA Celtics and Thunder. Between high school and Big XII collegiate play, Young had his share of scrimmages with and against semi-pro competition. But he would have to join a team that had Vince Carter on it before he could play an official game against players more than five years his senior. Doncic, now 6-foot-7 and pushing 220 pounds, has been playing well above his age weight since age 7. A 5-star recruit, Young traveled for competition across his country. Doncic performed for club and country across his continent, competing in Liga ACB and Euroleague to justify his place among men trying to bring home enough borscht to keep their families fed. It ought to be impressive that both young performers have taken the NBA world by storm, already having left their many “draft bust” critics muttering bitterly to themselves. It ought to be amazing that both have reached the same stages in their short careers, to this point, given their disparate paths to get to the best pro league in the world. But that’s not enough for some. Somebody must be shamed for “losing” a draft deal. If you want legitimate examples of a winner-loser draft trade, dial it back to 1998. Antawn Jamison had a mighty fine career, one that certainly worked out better than two lottery talents selected ahead of him The Kandi Man and Raef LaFrentz. About five years after making the All-Rookie team, he was the league’s Sixth Man of the Year. An efficient offensive player, ‘Tawn even got named to the All-Star Team twice, at ages 28 and 31. Unfortunately for the Golden State Warriors, the veteran accolades came for Jamison after he was traded away, coincidentally, to Dallas. Unfortunately for G-State, Jamison was the second-best player in a two-player draft deal. Moreover, he wasn’t even the best player out of Chapel Hill in the trade. The Raptors took Jamison 4th in the draft, the Dubs took Vince Carter 5th, and then they swapped draft caps. No draft picks changing hands, no other players, just straight cash, homie. Cash not for the Warriors but for the Raptors, to go along with Carter. Vince was the better player, Vince had the greatest impact for his team, Vince had the better career. Advantage, Raptors. But please note -- by the time the Warriors and Raptors finally met in The Finals, neither player, and none of their coaches or GMs, were anywhere around. Jamison can take solace that his NBA fate worked out better than the guy drafted right after him. This season, the Mavericks are, for the first time in a long time if not ever, above the .500 mark as a four-decades-old franchise. While Luka has helped them get over the hump, this would be a much longer time in coming had The Worst NBA Franchise of the 90s not drafted Robert Traylor 6th in that 1998 Draft, then sent him to Milwaukee for their pick at #9. Mark Cuban bought the Mavs from Ross Perot, Jr. in 2000 and inherited the German wunderkind, Dirk Nowitzki, who turned the team’s fortunes around and made a roadmap for European parents to seriously consider orienting their athletic kids toward a pro basketball future in North America. While it wasn’t obvious to most at draft time, Dirk proved to be better than Tractor, had the greatest impact for his team, had the better career. Advantage, Mavericks. And it wasn’t close. Those who craved to see Doncic and Young go tête-à-tête tonight at American Airlines Center (8:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in DFW), seeking out some play that will crystallize their “Who Better” argument one way or another, will be disappointed to find Luka sitting out with an ankle sprain. I encourage them to instead check out last season’s games where the Hawks and Mavs split their series with home wins, the latter back in December 2018 snapping Atlanta’s ten-game head-to-head winning streak. Or, last February’s Rising Stars Game, won by Trae and John Collins’ USA Team. Or, that weekend’s Skills Challenge, where Trae prevailed over Luka to reach the finals. The flaws with the “Who’s Better?” assessments come in the inferences. One might need to see them head-to-head to determine who’s “better” in their own minds. Others might be satisfied by gazing at the standings, where Luka’s team is already a likely first-round pest in the West (29-19; 4-3 on second-night of back-to-backs incl. 133-104 loss vs. PHX on Jan. 28), while Trae’s team has been failing to gain traction for months (13-36; 5-5 in last ten games) in the East. Dallas, too, once took grief for taking a slick-passing point guard from an unassuming major college program Top-3 in the Draft, in the process passing up on a global sensation. People who watched Grant Hill’s brilliance in his time at Durham, his NCAA tournament majesty, could not fathom anyone taking Jason Kidd before him. Purdue’s Glenn Robinson was maybe understandable. But Kidd? Mavs and Pistons fans would come out of their corners swinging for twelve rounds in that 1994-95 season – somebody had to be “better!” And the dismay on both sides was palpable after the votes were tallied and Hill and Kidd wound up splitting the Rookie of the Year baby. Kidd was a superb ballhandler, an All-Star in his second season on a Mavericks club that went 26-56 (hmm.), and even a stout defender. But Ason had no J, as they would say. Having the next mini-Magic was cute and all, but the NBA was on a search for The Next MJ. Hill, a highlight-reel All-Star during his first four seasons in Detroit, a more versatile and athletic talent than Kidd, was fitting that bill. Detroit surged into the playoffs with Hill while Dallas continued to sputter. The consensus by the late 1990s was clear: Grant Hill is “better” than Jason Kidd, who Dallas shipped away midway through his third season, essentially for Steph Marbury. Ergo, Grant Hill WILL be the more impactful player for the team that drafted him. Grant Hill will be winning rings for the Pistons before Jason Kidd wins one with the Mavericks. Advantage, Motown. That’s how the destinies are gonna work out, because Hill is just “better.” Right? Well. The Pistons indeed won a chip. But Hill was eating chips and dip by the time they did. As both Hill and Kristaps Porzingis (also out tonight, knee injury recovery on a back-to-back) know, being a draft “steal”, or a beast instead of a bust, does not prevent injuries, misfortune, and bungling mismanagement from derailing your path to championship prominence. Doncic is a better player than Young, but saying so is not enough. He was plugged into an NBA environment that was better suited for what he could bring to the table. Aside from the pervy guys in the breakroom, Dallas had a stable organization in an NBA market that was well-acclimated to embracing a European star. The coach, Rick Carlisle, that won the 2011 Finals with Nowitzki and, whaddya know, Kidd, is still here to guide Luka. The Mavs’ brass didn’t really consider keeping Young because they thought they had their point god of the future, in Dennis Smith, Jr. As it became apparent that Luka being Luka renders point guard usage meaningless, off went Smith to New York. That allowed the Mavs to take a long-term flier on Porzingis while relieving the Knicks of their error bringing Tim Hardaway, Jr. back from Atlanta and Courtney Lee from wherever. Dallas also sent the Knicks a pair of future Top-10 protected first-rounders that, because Luka, are likely to convey. The owner, Cuban, only believes in tanks that involve sharks. He chased around the summer streets of Houston looking to secure DeAndre Jordan, and finally got him last year, only to send him to the Knicks in that Porzingis deal. Rebuilding, shme-building. Dallas is over the salary cap, hard-capped, and committed to paying Porzingis, a 7-foot-3 unicorn shooting 40.4 FG% while settling for threes, upwards of $131 million over the next four seasons. If he’s not enough of a frontcourt presence, Dallas went out and acquired Boban Marjanovic, and, last month, Willie Cauley-Stein to replace the season-ending-injured Dwight Powell. When Luka needs shooters to take pressure off of him, he’s got Hardaway, Seth Curry, Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, J.J Barea, and Ryan Broekhoff, all shooting between 38 and 48 percent from deep. Hard-capped, potentially in a tighter tax situation next season if Hardaway eats his player option, and having to keep up in a conference that has Harden and Westbrook, Kawhi and PG, and at least for now LeBron and AD. Next year’s Eastern Conference isn’t slouching, either, if Kyrie and KD can make some noise to join Giannis and the other contenders on this side of the country. But at least Atlanta, who has Chandler Parsons turning his wreck into a check while keeping the team above the salary floor, will have the maneuverability to move up and grow into contention around Young, without giving up too much. It’s fine to wish that Schlenk was committed to a hastier roster construction and better coaching expertise to surround his new All-Star than his 2018 Draft trade partners. But anyone concluding that Dallas already “won” the trade by looking at their team’s current places in the NBA standings is willfully as narrow as a country road. Luka Doncic is better than Trae Young. Going any further to suggest that the Mavericks are in a better position than the Hawks to win titles in the near future would be misguided and neglectful of even Mavericks team history. Luka’s better. If all goes well for him, he will likely be better. But to get meaningfully far in the NBA West, for the Mavericks’ sake, Luka had better stay better. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  20. “A$AP Rocky? Why, Rih Rih, why???” It has been said that time heals all wounds. Even if some abrasions come from batteries buried in snowballs. Hell hath no fury like the tortured soul of a Philadelphia sports fan. Legends of devious disdain toward opponents and, often, their own teams, have persisted all throughout the decades. Michael Irvin’s final moment as a Dallas Cowboy -- and, as a football player -- concluded not with boos, but rousing cheers, by the Philly Phaithphul, as the receiver who made a Hall of Fame career out of tormenting his division rival was carried off the cold concrete tundra of Veterans Stadium in a stretcher with a career-ending neck injury. At least it was the turf that injured Irvin. Washington’s human pro football mascot came to town for a game, and he wound up getting his leg broken after getting ambushed. Sitting in the opposing hockey penalty box, as Tie Domi can attest, means always having one’s head on a swivel, on the lookout for literal Broad Street bullies. The illy-willy in Philly extends not just to foes, but to the performers that fans are supposed to be cheering as well. Riley Cooper declared his willingness to fight (certain individuals) in the football stadium, not during a game but at a country music concert. Mike Scott was more than ready, literally throwing dem ‘bows with Eagle fans who wanted some of that R-word smoke. They jeered Ron Jaworski as Lawrence Taylor drove him repeatedly into the astroturf. They booed Donovan McNabb as he walked up the stage on draft day. Ryan Howard went from league MVP and winning a World Series to ducking a beer bottle in his own ballpark. From Richie Allen to Mike Schmidt, the back-and-forth catcalling at the hot corner was always NSFW. The hockey team founder dies, and the team issues commemorative bracelets to fans, only to have staff skate out to clean up the mementos, as bitter fans hurled them onto the ice during a blowout playoff loss. Being a Philadelphia sports professional is rough. Being a sports professional *from* the Philadelphia area affords you no favors, either. Kobe Bean Bryant had to have that confirmed for him, the hard way, during what he thought was to be a triumphant return to the City of Brotherly Shove during 2002’s NBA All-Star Game. The year before, the 76ers’ Allen Iverson held up the ASG MVP trophy in front of adoring fans in Washington, D.C., his team aided by solid performances by Atlanta’s Dikembe Mutombo, Toronto’s Vince Carter, and Milwaukee’s Glenn Robinson as the East waged a monumental comeback to secure the victory over the Bryant-led West. For Philadelphia’s diehard hoop-heads, that season was shaping up to be the culmination of a five-year Process since drafting A.I. (nine years, really, if you include the fallout with Charles Barkley and the lost wilderness of the Shawn Bradley years). If maybe the Sixers could acquire Mutombo, then get past Carter and Robinson in the playoffs, there may be a date with destiny in the NBA Finals ahead. Ultimately for Philly, the acquired Mutombo proved no match for the Lakers’ Shaquille O’Neal, and while Iverson proved he could step over Tyronn Lue, he could not sidestep the brilliance of young Kobe Bryant. A gentlemen’s sweep ended the Sixers’ glorious 2001 season in their own building. The formal NBA championship trophy presentation had to be conducted in the opponents’ locker room. For everyone’s safety. This was largely not just due to Shaq’s trolling of his foil on the hardwood, but Bryant’s threats to the loony locals off of it. Heckled harshly after Los Angeles’ pivotal road victory in Game 3 of the Finals, Kobe was overheard shouting back at the phorlorn Philly fans, “we’re going to cut your hearts out,” the next game. The personal and possessive pronoun usage was particularly telling for Bryant, who was unapologetic to reporters after Game 3 and made good on his promises in Games 4 and 5 of a 2+3+2 title series that would not require the +2. For two decades by this point, Philly sports fans were used to enduring wretched teams, and wretched defeats from their otherwise good teams. What they were unaccustomed to was having their heads handed to them by someone who projected himself, when convenient for him, as one of their own. Folks from the 215 at the time will confirm for you, there was zero acceptance of Kobe Bryant, the Laker, as a Philadelphian. Philadelphia Adjacent, maybe. As far as we Philadelphians were concerned, Kobe Bryant was an Italian, and not even South Philly water ice Italian. He was an alien turned suburbanite, spoon-fed by an NBA-playing daddy who actually grew up in the local ‘hoods. He used the legends of Philadelphia blacktop ballers, including his father’s, to bolster his own rep as a hard-nosed kid. In our minds, it was all a phacade. During the ’01 Finals, Jeff Jacobs of the Hartford Courant put it succinctly. “Philly sees Kobe as smug. Philly sees Kobe as selfish. Philly sees Kobe as trying too hard to Be Like Mike. Worst of all, Philly sees Kobe as being more Hollywood than a tummy tuck and a nose job.” Once Bryant made his grand return in 2002 for the wintertime classic, he was seemingly the only person surprised by the chilly Philly reception. You could see how hard he tried to win the attendees over, subjected to vociferous boos from the minute he entered the arena, to the opening-game announcements, to the many times he even touched the basketball along the way to hoisting the MVP award. “I was pretty… pretty upset. Pretty hurt.” Bryant said while choking up, holding back tears after taking Iverson’s place as the new reigning All-Star MVP, the first of four in what would be a stellar career. “I just wanted to go out there and play… just play hard. But they booed, and, you know, I still like coming home, though. I still enjoy playing in Philly nonetheless.” Even Iverson sympathized with his rival guard’s plight. “…at a happy moment, a happy time like that, you want to enjoy it,” A.I. told reporters. “Then, by booing him, it took a lot away from it because he is from here.” He didn’t know it at the time, but Iverson’s Philly tenure was already at its peak. Years of losing seasons and early-round exits awaited the four-time scoring champion until he was mercifully traded out of town in 2006. Despite the downturn, Iverson managed to enjoy a career shielded from boos and boorishness. It should never have required a conviction and a prison sentence, but A.I. had the street cred that Bryant, shadowing his teammate Shaq with a brutally panned side-career as a wannabe rapper, craved. “D@MN, KOBE! In high school you was THE MAN, KOBE? What the hell happened to you?” Rapper Skillz, likely more aligned to the streets than Bryant and to his fellow Virginian, penned those words in his annual “Rap-Up” of the calendar year 2003, just after Bryant appeared to be getting his high-profile comeuppance in Colorado, awash in major legal trouble due to lascivious conduct. Philadelphians, like The Legendary Roots Crew who would interject Skillz’s lyric during their concert performances, lapped up the “D@mn, Kobe!” line, particularly as a dig at those who saw Hollywood Kobe as a goody-two-shoes. The two-word phrase became a go-to utterance any time Bryant had a downturn in his career, especially the seasons after O’Neal departed and Bryant was derided for his perceived on-court abandonment of passing and, later, defense. It would take a dozen years before Bryant, in the twilight of his NBA career, could get the home-metro adulation he once thirsted for. Three years after getting traded away, Iverson returned home to conclude his career as a 76er, and despite his own off-court troubles, sideline squabbles and his singular inability to carry the Sixers beyond a single Finals game victory, the Philly fan adoration for Allen hardly wavered. In large part, his immunity from Philly boos was because A.I. never started biting the fans’ hand, even when the hand was disinclined to feed him love anymore. If the Sixers got booed, he seemed to understand wholeheartedly, it was because his team deserved the boos for a lack of competitiveness and effort. Playing through obvious injuries endeared him to fans who, if they could not witness success, wanted to see fearlessness out of the athletes that donned their teams’ uniforms. The diminutive Bubba Chuck was closer to an everyman than a player like Bryant could ever be. So long as this hardscrabble All-Star athlete never complained about the phanbase, or blamed them for the team’s misdeeds, the sharpest critiques would be reserved for the coaches, the GMs, the ownership. Iverson’s time in Philadelphia is instructive for the star athletes who have followed him there, including Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid of the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s also a useful lesson for emerging young stars in markets like Atlanta, where Trae Young and the Hawks host the Sixers this evening at State Farm Arena (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Philadelphia). Atlanta’s modern pro sports history is even more torturous than Philadelphia’s. Fans here, like everywhere else, will respond in not-so-kind fashion to Paul Pierce Tebowing at the logo, a pitcher brainlessly beaning our star hitters at home plate, or a Falcon opponent making a mockery of the Dirty Bird in the end zone. But as Joe Johnson, Josh Smith and Mike Vick know by now, even the slightest hint of disrespect toward the scant supporters in the stands can tar your local reputation for a long time. Sixer fans were willing to endure the lean years, seasons of 22-60 and 31-51, once Iverson came aboard as their rising headliner. He recognized he was no less flawed, as an individual, than they were, went to bat for them, and was adored in turn by them through the roller coaster of NBA seasons that followed. Similar to Iverson, Young (29.2 PPG, 3rd in NBA; 9.0 APG, 2nd in NBA; NBA-high 4.8 TOs/game) is carrying the Hawks (12-36) through at least a couple arduous seasons, perhaps aided with fewer veteran talents than even the Sixer star had in his heyday. The likelihood of blowout deficits and losses continue, as was the situation during Atlanta’s 130-114 defeat up in Toronto on Tuesday night, even as Trae treats those watching with occasionally hot-doggy highlight-worthy plays. Composure is key, and a player who took the slings and arrows for an otherwise awful collegiate collective at Oklahoma has shown, to this point, he has that in spades. Fifteen-thousand-plus fans at the Highlight Factory, on a Saturday night game between two teams with bad records and little hope of reaching the postseason, is only happening because the regional fanbase is enthralled with and has entrusted Young to lug the franchise, eventually, out from the doldrums of the league. The All-Star starter votes are representative of not simply how the consensus of NBA fans value his nightly uphill determination, but Atlanta fans in particular. “The NBA fans here,” wrote Forbes’ Ray Glier this week, “are showing up because they have a relatable star in their midst. Young doesn’t throw off an air of majesty. He just plays.” Philadelphia’s next Process had the 76ers cycling through tall rim protectors like Jahlil Okafor and Nerlens Noel, tall shooters like Dario Saric, and tall guards like Michael Carter-Williams, before Embiid (currently playing with a splint on his hand) and Simmons (8.4 APG, NBA-high 2.2 SPG, probable despite respiratory illness) overcame their early injuries and eventually shook out. While more talents of considerable size and length will be needed in the future, here in the ATL, Young’s artful wizardry with a youthful core does just fine for the time being. “The fandom in the arena, most around 6 feet tall, are being won over by a shrimp of a superstar,” Glier wrote. “He’s not a towering presence, but he’s a presence.” Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce, was there for many of Philly’s post A.I. (Iverson and, later, Andre Iguodala) years. Pierce’s Sixers meandered upward from 18-64 while riding with Tony Wroten and Luc Mbah a Moute, down to 10-72 with Ish Smith and Hollis Thompson, and up to 28-54 with Robert Covington and Nik Stauskas, before the Sixers could break through with a 52-win season, with a little help from the departed Jimmy Butler. As Al Horford knows, Philly went from being a league laughingstock to a free agent draw, but it wasn’t easy. Pierce watched nightly as his boss, Brett Brown, aw-shucked his way in a classy manner through embarrassing losses, drawing the arrows to himself as questions about his fitness as an Xs-and-Os guy and a developer of young talent compiled along the way. Many of those critiques remain for Brown, after a 51-31 season concluded with an unfortunate deep-corner dagger from Kawhi Leonard to stave off a Game 7 overtime in 2019’s second-round series with the eventual champion Raptors. Especially as the Sixers (31-17, 6-1 in last 7 despite Embiid’s injury; 2.5 games behind 2nd-place Toronto in the East), now with former Celtics savior Horford (12.5 PPG, 6.7 RPG, 4.0 APG) in tow, can’t seem to secure a first-round homecourt advantage. Despite beating Boston in all three matchups so far, the results have been mixed at best when Philadelphia (11-12 vs. above-.500 teams) encounters equivalent competition. Even the games against subpar competition can get hairy, like back in October, when the host Hawks jumped out to a 40-31 advantage after one quarter, and a weak-jump-shooting Sixer team needed 36-and-15 from Embiid, including two clutch free throws, and a missed three by Vince Carter just to escape town with a 105-103 victory. The best Sixer shooter on that night, Josh Richardson, is out with a strained hammy, and Horford (out, sore knee, saving him up in hopes of a Celtic sweep on Saturday) is momentarily hobbled. The Sixers will need not only stifling defense from wings Shake Milton, a starting two-way player, and Matisse Thybulle, but also solid shooting from Tobias Harris, 2016 first-rounder Furkan Korkmaz, and the former Hawk Scott (limited in action lately, sore knee). Brown has asked fans to take any heat directed at Simmons for his shot (non-)selection, or Embiid on his pregame conditioning, and turn it all towards him. “Evidently, I have failed,” Brown said this month of the 2018 Rookie of the Year’s lack of progress in stretching the floor with deep shots. “You know, I own it. I gotta help him find this.” That tactic has worked for the Sixers coach, and the players as well. He has survived seismic shifts in management along the Process by being self-effacing, and Pierce has certainly taken note of his protégé’s resilience in a phinicky sports town. Even as rumors surfaced that the Sixers were thinking of “going in a different direction” after their last playoff ouster, Pierce openly advocated for Brown, not the latter’s Spurs peer Mike Budenholzer, to win last season’s Coach of the Year award, and not one of the Dwane Casey variety. Pierce sees that even future forays into the postseason, by themselves, won’t secure his long-term job status. But much like the grandeur Buddy Ryan once held as Philly phootball went from dull doormat to a menacing NFL playoff contender, maintaining cordial relations and tight bonds with fans in town can go a long way. That goes for the stars of the team as well. There will be years under the near-decade of his rookie-scale deal and Powerball-dollar extension where fans will get maybe a bit too inured to Trae’s play, especially if the results on the scoreboard don’t change drastically. Unlike Simmons, Trae (“just” 18 points, on 5-for-13 FGs, and 13 assists @ TOR) seems committed to do his part to improve the aspects of his game that rightfully draw the greatest critique. With him, his teammates and his coach, patience is required from fans, yours truly included, that is often in too short of a supply. But even when fans grow skeptical, bored and tired of Young, or Pierce, along this rocky road out of the NBA abyss, they cannot afford to grow skeptical, bored and tired of us. The stronger their embrace of being “True To Atlanta,” even when such fan-love is unrequited, the longer they’ll have a chance at experiencing the height of excellence right here. Should they have any questions, maybe they can just seek out The Answer. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  21. All-Amazing. Fourteen years ago this month, the Toronto Raptors were waging a turnaround for the ages, and Mike James, the Human Stat Sheet, was right in the thick of it. Georgia’s own Sam Mitchell, in his second season as a first-time head coach, had a lot of work cut out for him. Coach Smitch had to work with two top-16 rookies, Charlie Villanueva and Joey Graham, along with a first-timer from Spain named Jose Calderon. He had a lottery pick Rob Babcock drafted from the year before, Rafa Araujo, to build up from the ground floor, and a second-rounder in Matt Bonner that was proving himself worthy of more playing time. There were veterans for Mitchell to turn to, to be sure. But a vestige from a more lauded time, Morris Peterson, and the Net proceeds, Eric Williams and Aaron Williams, from Babcock’s failed trade of franchise star Vince Carter for Alonzo Mourning, were getting a bit too long in the tooth. That’s to say nothing of 33-year-old Jalen Rose. One lottery pick had panned out -- a 21-year-old big, lean Texan out of Georgia Tech, Chris Bosh, that would soon be named an All-Star for the first time (All-Stars from losing teams? Madness!). Unfortunately, the remake of the Raptors around their newest young star had not been going well. Toronto went winless in the first 9 games to start the 2005-06 season, then 1-15 by the end of November. Two days after Christmas, the Raps returned home from a loss in Detroit bearing a 6-22 record, forced to play a back-to-back with Joe Johnson’s similarly awful Hawks in town. That next day, the turnaround campaign began. James, Bosh and Peterson carried the Raptors to victory that day, and again in their first game of the New Year in Atlanta. Those victories sparked a five-game streak that included big home wins over Dwight Howard’s Magic and ex-Raptor Tracy McGrady’s Rockets. The momentum resumed on the road in Seattle, with Rose pouring in 28 points to muffle the Sonics. Two days later, it was halftime at STAPLES Center. Mike James was feeling pretty good about himself, already at 19 points, including makes of all 5 threes, and 9 assists. Up 63-49 on the once-mighty Los Angeles Lakers, this game was shaping up to be remembered as Mike James’ Night, the wayfaring 30-year-old’s overdue breakout on the NBA’s most star-studded stage, the evening his Raptors put their losing trajectory in the rear-view mirror, once and for all. Kobe Bryant had other ideas. Mitchell had few recourses but to contain Bryant with Rose, and the good news was it was working in the first half, since no other Lakers were scoring. The bad news was, Bryant would double his 26 points in the second half. Oh, scratch that, Bryant doubled that total before the end of the third quarter. 27 for Kobe in the third, 28 in the fourth, 81 for the game, as the Raptors, like everyone else watching around the world, seemed to forget there was another side to the floor. For Kobe, coach Phil Jackson and the Laker Nation, this was a watershed moment at a transitional time. Memories of the Three-Peat era had waned, as were recollections of a Finals run with Gary Payton and Karl Malone that fell short of a ring. Shaq set off like a literal hot-air balloon, seeking to win titles with a fresher, more receptive shooting guard companion, Dwyane Wade, and former Laker legend Pat Riley in Miami. Around Tinseltown, the Phil-Shaq-and-Kobe era was looking more and more like the Just Kobe era, even though The Zen Master had returned, one season after getting fired by his girlfriend’s father, to coach a star player he once deemed “uncoachable.” Having STAPLES’ superstar stage to himself without the gravity of Shaq, 81 points and a pair of assists was enough to overwhelm a shell-shocked Raptors club. Certainly, though, Kobe was going to have trouble going forward as a ball-dominant guard against more nuanced defenses than what Mitchell and the Raptors could throw at him. Certainly, Bryant was going to be a hard sell, with his acerbic nature and cutthroat reputation, for the Lakers’ brass to woo other quality talents to play alongside “just” him. It seemed reasonable, by this point, to assess that Kobe’s future involved chasing record books with personal stats, firming up Hall of Fame and jersey-retirement credentials, addressing his lagging off-court reputation after a sordid ordeal in Colorado, satisfying the growing legion of fantasy hoops aficionados, helping Team USA redeem the gold-medal world standing where Vince Carter had left them, and settling down with the knowledge that the birth of his second child was merely months away. But unless he pulled a Shaq and demanded out of L.A., there was certainly no future involving Kobe that involved claiming another NBA championship trophy. Kobe Bryant would have other ideas. In the meantime, Toronto, post-81, was thrown for a loop. Within a week, the reeling Raptors sent Babcock packing, collaring Bryan Colangelo to help turn the franchise’s spiral. By the next week, Rose was on the outs, too, shipped to New York to bring back Antonio Davis for a Raptor rental. The back end of the season for the Raptors, a 7-23 finish, consisted basically of Bosh staying healthy (he could not), and Mitchell enduring the Mike James Stat-Pad Variety Hour. Toronto’s turnaround had to wait for the next season, a franchise-tying 47-win season that brought back, for Raptor fans, hints of competitive days gone by with Vince Carter and coach Lenny Wilkens. Sadly for them, the gross errors of executives past were already being compounded by Colangelo. The salve for the Raptors season that collapsed for good after Kobe’s 81 Game was one big “win,” leapfrogging four teams to win the top prize from the 2006 NBA Lottery. However, in a draft loaded with lottery minefields, Colangelo and the Raptors went with for biggest, well, at least, the tallest one, in Italy’s Andrea Bargnani. That pick had Toronto looking like a Leaning CN Tower. Standing tall in the NBA universe, but an already weathered symbol of monumental missteps. The nation that brought us Naismith had already squandered one NBA franchise, the Raptors’ sibling expansion club Grizzlies relocating in 2001 after just six error-filled seasons in the western outpost of Vancouver. Yet even with the Raptors’ sad-sack reputation that lingered after 2007 and beyond, the sports fans, the citizenry, the governments and the sponsoring business community of Toronto remained all-in. It was largely this way because a Raptor from the bygone era, Vince Carter, left behind a foundation. One could argue that Damon Stoudamire, the first-ever Raptor draft choice that also had a tumultuous exit, had as much to do with establishing Toronto as a legitimate basketball town from its infancy. But beyond Canada, Mighty Mouse was a mere curiosity. Vince was a tour-de-force that every NBA fan saw coming, from his high school years in Central Florida to his time in Chapel Hill, yet still couldn’t believe with their own eyes once he arrived. By 2001, two team’s purple NBA jerseys were in hot demand around the world. One was from a blue-blood franchise in a major American market that had hauled in a dozen NBA titles and was preparing to grab a couple more. The other was from a team that hadn’t existed a decade prior, and occasionally still featured a basketball-dribbling dinosaur. That the latter jersey bore the letters, TORONTO, and gave buyers pride rather than pause, was immensely valuable in locking the Raptors down in town. That jersey #15 belonged to an American-born player who welcomed being known as “Air Canada” proved a boon for the city’s and country’s sports economy. The Raptors’ current leader in scoring average, Vince graces the court formerly known as Air Canada Centre, now Scotiabank Arena, for likely the penultimate time today as a member of the Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, SportsNet One in TOR). He celebrated the early part of his 43rd birthday on Sunday. By afternoon, though, it became obvious that this and ensuing birthdays for Carter would be dates shared with somber remembrances, of the untimely passing of one of his greatest basketball peers. Until the latest news got around, about petitioners trying to replace the NBA’s logo with Kobe’s, I had to think hard to recall what either Kobe’s or Vince’s logo even looked like. As is the case with Trae Young’s initials-merger thingy, I’m sure sneaker company marketers have foisted something upon everybody in the pros by now. Guys like MJ, Shaq, Jerry West can simply point to a single silhouette. Kobe or Vince never needed a silhouette, or a logo for that matter. Explosive, finishing plays were enough to sear Carter and Bryant as symbols in our minds. The best-ever preseason dunk. Best-ever in-game (and Olympic) dunk. Best-ever contest slam, which may or may not involve a rim hang. Best-ever dunk over a future Rookie of the Year, best-ever dunk over a reigning MVP. Best-ever dunk over a probably retiring Hall of Famer. Best-ever lob dunk to clinch a playoff series. Kobe’s iconic persona also became marketable, once he was able to wrap up his NBA career and pursue his many post-retirement endeavors. It’s great to Be Like Mike, but Bryant dared anyone he encountered to strive to Be Better Than Kobe, in some fashion. Bryant felt that competition, in its undistilled form, makes the world go ‘round. Resistance creates sparks. If you weren’t competing with him and his team, if you weren’t competing ON his team, if you were not challenging him in some meaningful way, he wasted little time associating with you. He redirected his aim to become the best basketball competitor, toward becoming the best sports analyst, the best entrepreneurial philosopher, the best filmmaker, the best father. And he only wanted to associate with people who dared to be better, which required commitment to become better than their own selves every day. You have all likely had a conversation, with someone a generation older or younger than yours, or with a colleague of a wholly different background, that goes like this: “Aww, wow, just saw the news that (Mean Gene Okerlund / Nipsey Hussle / Neil Peart / Toni Morrison) just died.” “Darn, rest easy… wait, who was (Mean Gene / Nipsey / Neil / Toni)?” “WHO WAS ((Repeat their full names here))??? Uggh! I can’t even!” Such a convo was not held on Sunday. Not a single soul had to explain to anyone who Kobe Bryant was, what he had accomplished, or why his passing was a gut punch on multiple fronts. Carter made that observation to media yesterday, after Atlanta’s emotional 152-133 victory over Washington, as people around him of every age range had similar heartfelt reactions to the story as it was developing. The death of Bryant, his daughter Gigi, and their associates hit Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce and Hawks #24, Bruno Fernando (doubtful for tonight, calf strain) much the same way. Players who weren’t born when Vince and Kobe were rivals at the AAU level. People who were well grown, if not mature, and tracked both players, even through the summertime scrimmages when both were teens, as debates flared on “the next MJ” within the prep-school pipelines. People who dedicated their athletic lives to becoming “the next Vince,” or “the next Kobe,” charting their ups and downs throughout their careers. People that never so much as dribbled a basketball in their natural lives. All needed at least a minute to gather themselves and consume the tragic news. Kobe saw to it that people felt some kind of way about him, whether he met them or not. He could be one of two things to you. Your undying hero, the embodiment of what unquenchably competitive fire, when applied the right way, could forge. Or, the bane of your existence, the person who takes great pride in thwarting what you hoped would be your, or your favorite team’s, successful destiny. Your inspiration, or your foil, it’s your choice. He could occasionally be both. He would not possibly accept becoming anything else. The bi-coastal, multi-national impact of Kobe’s ascension into our basketball consciousness is evident just with a glimpse into Toronto’s climb from annually going through motions to world championship contention. Vince Carter is the Raptors’ per-game scoring leader, but the current all-time points leader is a young man from Compton, California, and USC, who was not yet 11 when Kobe and Shaq began their three-peat. DeMar DeRozan was told in 2018 by the Raptors’ English-born executive with Nigerian roots, Masai Ujiri, that he envisioned DeRozan could one day become the Raptors’ Kobe. “For (Ujiri and the Raptors) to say I could be in (Kobe’s) position – it was an honor accepting that fully,” he shared with ESPN at the time. The Compton kid embraced Toronto fully, guiding the Raptors into playoffs and conference finals, until Ujiri saw the opportunity for an upgrade. Out went DeRozan that same year. In came someone a couple years younger from Riverside, California, and San Diego State, who closely watched not only all the Laker titles of the 2000s, not only the Finals MVP awards, but Bryant’s 12 All-Defensive Team seasons. Kawhi Leonard returned to L.A. last summer to continue his pro career, but not before he completed his mercenary mission by leading the Raptors to their first NBA championship. The Raptors point guard feeding both DeRozan and Leonard the ball through those seasons? A kid from Philadelphia, born and raised, who idolized and followed Kobe, the local high school hoops legend ten years his senior. Kyle Lowry is 9 dimes away from passing Calderon for the all-time Raptors team record. He just happened to be in San Antonio, where the Raptors ended their own decade-plus drought (12 years) on Sunday night to extend their season-high seven-game winning streak, and had DeRozan coming across the court to share a mournful postgame embrace. DeRozan, Leonard, Lowry. Norman Powell, a San Diegan and UCLA alum who proudly wears #24. All Kobe-inspired. Each of these players’ greatest NBA moments could just as well have occurred while wearing a K.C. Raptors, or a Louisville Raptors jersey. But this team, now with sustained success (NBA-best 21 straight winning months), is anchored, economically, emotionally, in Toronto, Ontario, Canada, a certified NBA city. That’s because Vince Carter (3rd all-time in NBA games played with an appearance today, tying Dirk Nowitzki) came along at the right time. It wasn’t always this way in this city, but you can rest assured Toronto will give Living Legends like Vince their roses while they are here. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  22. The Pause That Refreshes. (2:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL, SportsNet One in TOR) “You all need to decide...” 55 years ago this month, one of Atlanta’s greatest citizens had turned 36 years of age. One month prior, he was in Norway, with the Nobel Prize for Peace being bestowed upon him. What had become, during the 20th century, the world’s most renowned accolade, was granted to this unelected, non-politician, non-official young adult. The 14th American, the second African-American, and the youngest human to that point, ever to be a singular Laureate. “First person in the Western world,” noted the Norwegian Nobel Committee of the soon-to-be 36-year-old minister, writer, orator and activist, “to have shown us that a struggle can be waged without violence.” That’s deep. He was the first Georgian, and the first Atlantan to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. In the ensuing weeks, the prosperous members of his native city’s civic, religious and political community needed to decide how it wanted to collectively honor him. More specifically, Atlanta needed to decide IF it wanted to collectively honor him. Like, at all. Since the resurrection of the city in the aftermath of the Civil War, Atlanta has long prided itself by its civic boosterism, its ability to build business, to sustain business, to excel in business, its prominent leaders in academic, social, political, and religious life geared to promote prosperous local commerce, like no other city in the New South could. Economic competition, above all else, propelled the movers and shakers of Atlanta into fervent daily action. How remarkable it was, then, as 1964 was turning into 1965, that the white-collar movers and shakers of the city that surged from the ashes like a phoenix, found themselves shaken to the point of inertia. By the daunting prospect of hosting and attending the city’s first-ever multiracial formal dinner. You wouldn’t know it, today, by the drab parking deck and Dunkin’ Donuts that sits in its place along Forsyth Street, in the Fairlie-Poplar neighborhood that sits a stone throw away from State Farm Arena. But the center of Atlanta prestige at that time was the Dinkler Plaza Hotel, formerly the Hotel Ansley before a prominent family-run hotel chain took over in the 1950s. Since its opening in 1913, proclaiming itself proudly as open to “every Southerner,” as a “home to all Georgians visiting Atlanta”, the only thing allowed to be black at Hotel Ansley were the tie events. Persons of color were barred from the hotel, including the first African-American to receive the Nobel Prize. He was a diplomat and delegate who helped the United States mediate between Egypt and Israel and form the United Nations in the 1940s. But for Ralph Bunche, seeking a quality room in 1962, Atlanta’s Dinkler Plaza was always too booked to serve him, or anyone remotely looking like him. Less than two years after spurning Bunche, and one year after proudly hosting a White Citizens’ Council meeting featuring segregationist governors George Wallace and Marvin Griffin, the Dinkler was approached by Rabbi Jacob Rothschild, Archbishop of Atlanta Paul Hallinan, and Mayor Ivan Allen to host a gala in their city’s largest banquet hall for Atlanta’s own, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. What to do? What to do? Some of that kind of “decision-making” was suddenly being taken out of businessmen’s hands, here and elsewhere. Just three days after Dr. King’s Nobel Lecture in Oslo, “The Quest for Peace and Justice,” the Supreme Court of the United States issued a ruling against a downtown motor lodge around the corner from Dinkler Plaza. A motel that humorously branded itself the “Heart of Atlanta” needed white men in black robes to confirm for them the Commerce Clause of the Constitution was not overstepped by Congress’ passage of 1964’s landmark Civil Rights Act. Proudly welcoming “every Southerner,” it turns out, means you’re willing to engage in and profit from interstate commerce, so Federal laws apply. Yes, black citizens and visitors could finally stay in Atlanta hotels and motels, in America’s hotels and motels, without reservation, with a mere reservation. That didn’t mean the hotel owners had to like it. Now, this town’s prestigious Dinkler Plaza was being asked to host a celebration for one of the Civil Rights Act’s most noteworthy advocates? And a black citizen, at that? What was happening in this era, forged by King and a growing array of civil and human rights leaders, was the decoupling of “peace” from “order,” establishing through law and spirit a linkage instead between “peace” and “justice.” Maintaining “order” requires instilling a centuries-long culture of fear and violence, a world where cruelty, whips, lynching, rocks, nightsticks, bullets, fire and bombs buttress societal subjugation and dominance. In that culture of fear, all of that is necessary for some to feel “at peace.” It becomes a matter of convenience to love one’s neighbor as one loves oneself, when you are empowered, through “order,” to assess and enforce who your neighbor can and cannot be. Promoting “justice” requires a basis of unconditional love and nonviolence, a world where handshakes, thoughtful words, selflessness, fairness, critical thinking and sincere hearts open infinitely more doors than they close. In that culture of love, a world of just deeds is engendered where the pen is, indeed, mightier than any sword could ever hope to be. For their roles in helping oversee and encourage the successful Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955-56, Rev. King’s and Rev. Ralph David Abernathy’s home were firebombed, along with several black Baptist churches, by the actors of “order.” King took great pains to remind his anguished supporters not to seek retaliation, compelling and inspiring with the application of Biblical scripture. “We must love our white brothers, no matter what they do to us,” Rev. King pleaded. “We must make them know that we love them. Jesus still cries out in words that echo across the centuries, ‘Love your enemies; bless them that curse you; pray for them that despitefully use you.’… We must meet hate with love. Remember, if I am stopped, this movement will not stop, because God is with the movement.” In a culture of fear reinforcing “order”, not looking like intended subjugates is insufficient to shield a supporter of the suppressed. Unnerved by racial injustice in Alabama and elsewhere, Rothschild convened in the 1950s with Christian clergy and prominent black leaders, like Morehouse University president Benjamin Mays, to broker a peaceful path as the city of Atlanta faced the realities of court-compelled desegregation. While the resultant “Ministers’ Manifesto,” calling for peaceful interracial negotiation and obedience to the law, could not be signed by him due to its heavy Christian language, the rabbi published his own endorsement of the ministers’ appeal in the local newspapers and Congressional record. Those words made Rothschild, like King and Abernathy, a target for the actors of “order,” as a series of death threats, and then 50 sticks of dynamite in his Hebrew Benevolent Congregation Temple, would make clear in 1958. Actors in the culture of fear take solace in the thought that, no matter their circumstances in life, someone different than them, by way of how, where, or in what circumstances they were born, is and shall always be beneath them. Many draw their inspiration from those of their past who resorted to organized violence and callousness to seize whatever exclusive graces the bequeathed enjoy in their present day. Sharing any such graces is the relinquishing of what makes such actors feel special, predestined, a cut above. As the projected fear of getting usurped by outside forces binds the actors of “order,” they resort to tools of violence and intimidation. Their targets are the “agitators” of their sense of order, be it a fellow like King, or one like Rothschild. Those actors of ill-intent hoped to incite fear, but the 1958 explosion instead furthered a bond of love that spanned faiths and skin colors. Steeled by his principled stances, members of Rothschild’s congregation at The Temple took local leadership positions easing, for example, the peaceful integration of Atlanta’s public schools, which began in 1961. He would not yet know he would be delivering Dr. King’s eulogy less than four years later, but in late 1964, Rothschild, working with Mays and Hallinan, would be chief organizer and master of ceremony on behalf of the Nobel Prize winner. If only he and Mayor Allen could encourage Atlanta’s movers and shakers to host and attend the proposed event. Facing legal pressure, Dinkler Plaza relented, and the date and time were set. But no one was RSVP’ing, least of all the city’s business leaders. To them, the “agitators” in town were not people sneaking around bombing things, menacing people at public swimming pools, chasing people off luncheonette counters. No, the “troublemakers” were people like Dr. King himself, getting arrested at Rich’s Department Store, picketing alongside striking workers at Scripto Pen Company. They thought: Can’t that man just stick to schools, drinking fountains, and bus terminals? What’s next? Where will it end? When King spoke of “Injustice anywhere…”, he meant it. It was certainly not lost on him about the ongoing struggles for fair labor practices and conditions throughout the country. Including in January 1964, when the fledgling National Basketball Association, minutes away from presenting their All-Star Game on national television for the first time, faced the threat of all 20 players, black and white, striking if the owners did not acquiesce to recognizing the newly formed, pension-fighting players’ union. Whether you were Bill Russell, or Tom Heinsohn, it didn’t matter in Dr. King’s mind, if your injustices were being willfully ignored. Whether you were a high-achieving professional athlete in Boston, a soldier following questionable directives in Vietnam, or a striking sanitation worker in Memphis, chances are good you were inspired by Dr. King. Even if you weren’t, Dr. King, his family and his followers would be inspired by you. His all-encompassing advocacy was roiling the business community, who worried about the effect of bad press – more on that in a minute – on business relations well beyond Atlanta. Whether they were segregationists at heart or not, whether they understood it or not, the culture of fear still enveloped The City Too Busy To Hate. The culture of fear strikes at not only the hearts of subordinates, their advocates, and the perpetrators, but the perpetuators as well. Attendance by prominent white locals at the upcoming banquet was feared as a tacit acquiescence of Dr. King’s activism. No matter the feelings or misgivings about the Court rulings favoring civil rights over the prior ten years, it wasn’t the men in the *black* robes giving them pause. Especially in the aftermath of The Temple bombing, many white business leaders feared what smoldering might await them if they were so much as perceived to align with King. Facing the very culture of fear meant for them to thrive in, the prevailing view was that it was wise to decline any invitation requests, staying silent on the matter if at all possible, in hopes it would all blow over, in hopes of what they believed was “peace,” for the sake of good “order.” As we say in modern parlance, they didn’t want none of that smoke. Among the most prominent civic leaders was Robert Woodruff, who took over The Coca-Cola Company in 1926 and transformed its signature beverage product, its packaging, and the company itself into items of global renown. Writing a letter, banquet organizers hoped Woodruff, Atlanta’s most successful former chief executive, would help spur local leaders to abdicate their reluctant positions. There was no response from his office. Not a peep. Not much until after, “Tribute to Dr. King Disputed in Atlanta,” published shortly before New Year’s Eve by the New York Times. In this nation’s paper of record, the article cited the cool reception for the Nobel Peace Prize winner from so-called progressive business leaders, and it reported on an unnamed bank executive working behind the scenes in hopes of undermining the event. In Atlanta, we love to profess not seeing color. But anytime a bad look from the press threatens to cut off the city’s pipeline of green, this town’s boosters see red. Mayor Allen sought out the Coca-Cola patriarch at his remote Newton, Georgia plantation to plead for his assistance. Woodruff dispatched his new Coke CEO, Paul Austin, to be the heavy on his behalf at a hastily convened meeting at the Piedmont Driving Club, the private common ground for the elite among Atlanta’s white elite. As Andrew Young noted, Austin was a Georgia native, but spending over a decade in South Africa before returning to Coca-Cola made it clear to him how the ways of “order”, in the form of apartheid, were (not) working for them. At the Piedmont meeting, Young recalled that Austin looked Atlanta’s leaders in the eyes and made it plain, in term$ they could understand: “It is embarrassing for Coca-Cola to be located in a city that refuses to honor its Nobel Prize winner. We are an international business. The Coca-Cola Company does not need Atlanta. You all need to decide whether Atlanta needs the Coca-Cola Company.” Within hours of Austin’s reported ultimatum on behalf of Woodruff, the honorary event had its sponsors aligned, and its tickets sold. 55 years ago next week, the gala went off with hardly a hitch. Black and white citizens enjoying a celebratory feast together, in 1965? Peacefully? Who knew such a thing was possible? /s Things go better with Coke. Also around this town, things have gone better with Delta Airlines. That Southern-based company had already moved from Monroe, Louisiana to Atlanta in the 1940s, flying the corporation directly over Public “Safety” commissioner Bull Connor’s Birmingham along the way. But when the time came in the 1950s to establish an international hub to reach South and Central American destinations, Alabama’s largest city, virtually equivalent in size to Atlanta and the “Pittsburgh of the South” due to its dominant iron, steel, and manufacturing industries, and its airport was back in play. Birmingham and its host state could not woo Delta’s hub from Atlanta mayor William Hartsfield’s grasp. Not while Alabama cities were gaining negative reputations outside the state under the grip of Governor Wallace, hardening their segregationist stances in the face of Brown v. Board. Atlanta leaders presented a more welcoming, tolerant face, and being in the same time zone as New York and D.C. didn’t hurt, either. Desegregation in Atlanta was happening, if not happily and swiftly, with less government-sanctioned violent resistance, and that positively impacted reputations, and commerce. By 1963, to accommodate a new black senator and his pages, newly elected Georgia governor Carl Sanders ordered the “White” and “Colored” signs above fountains and restrooms to come down. Sanders did the principled thing without fanfare, simply recalling later that he “went ahead and did what I knew what the law said to do.” Meanwhile, he boasted, “George Wallace was over in Alabama, standing in the schoolhouse door.” If you’re looking to grow your business interests, climate can be a huge deal, and not just the temperature and rainfall. Repercussions of the paths “A City Too Busy To Hate” and the city that became known as “Bombingham” chose with their respective social climates are clearer over fifty years later. That goes far beyond Delta’s decision to help grow the World’s Busiest Airport here, or Coke’s decision to keep its roots here, or United Parcel Service’s decision to move to our sprawling metropolis in the 1990s. When the nation’s largest professional sports leagues decided to expand and relocate into the South in the 1960s and 1970s, Atlanta made itself the obvious choice. When America’s Olympic Committee wanted to pursue a Centennial Games that showcased the growth of the New South, the locale decision was made easy. When we want to fly to Peru, or Peoria, when we want to catch a MLB, NFL, or NBA game, we don’t have to haul it over to Alabama. It’s not just the dominant economic foothold that a landlocked Atlanta metro gained ahead of its Southern peers, with its Top-20 global economy (based on GDP) today hosting 16 Fortune 500 company headquarters (including Coke), 4th-most in the country. It’s the reputation of Atlanta’s enterprises that stands out as well. Last week, the AJC reported a survey finding that among the top-ten most trusted brands, three are right here in the ATL (Chick-fil-A, UPS, and The Home Depot). Our local leaders in business, faith and governance are far from perfect. But when they stub their toes on matters of civil and human rights, be it the police department or CFA or Atlanta Spirit Group, you can bet Atlantans will give them earfuls, in an assertive but nonviolent way, until they decide to evolve. It’s the culture we chose long ago, one that happens to keep us relatively prosperous and economically competitive, a culture prompted by Dr. King and propagated by our civil rights leaders. (photos via Jameelah Johnson, @JameelahJNBA on Twitter) It is not lost on Coach Lloyd Pierce and the Atlanta Hawks organization that we should offer our local legends their roses while they are here. The scars from John Lewis forehead remain visible from a skull fracture he sustained as a 25-year-old in Selma on during the 1965 March to Montgomery, one of many injuries he sustained as a young Freedom Rider and marcher for justice. Co-founder with King of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, the Reverend Joe Lowery was crossing the Edmund Pettus Bridge as well. In Florida, St. Augustine was the scene when Andrew Young was leading demonstrators downtown and to a still-segregated motor lodge swimming pool (the one where the motel owner infamously poured acid into the pool in hopes of scaring off the protestors, and a cop jumped in to arrest the swimmers), when he was attacked by angry, racist mobsters. As was the case in Selma, Young was jailed in St. Augustine, where the police allowed members of the mob to come into the jail to assail the demonstrators further. They protested, suffered, and proceeded, undaunted. When presented the choice to succumb to the wills of the actors of fear, with their livelihoods and those of their loved ones under persistent threat, with much more to personally lose than just Coca-Cola, they flatly declined. These heroes and many others continued to push Dr. King’s ideals of The Beloved Community, both alongside him through the end of King’s life, and beyond, here in Georgia and throughout America and the world. “Our goal is to create a Beloved Community,” Dr. King wrote, “and this will require a qualitative change in our souls as well as a quantitative change in our lives.” Atlanta and the world beyond benefits both qualitatively and quantitatively by the rippling effects of our civil rights leaders’ resolve. “We have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence, or violent co-annihilation,” King would later state as America lurched yet again toward international conflict. “This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.” Every day, in many ways, our local, national, and global society is presented with a similar choice. Atlanta’s prize-winning peace advocate, Dr. King, offered us a means to choose wisely, to choose better, for everyone’s benefit. A culture of love, nonviolence and justice, or a culture of fear, violence and loathing? We all have to decide. Happy MLK Day! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  23. “Y’all would really rather see Tacko Fall, huh?” Once the first All-Star ballot returns rolled in, and it became obvious Trae Young had a great shot of earning a People’s Choice Award, Atlanta Hawks fans went into overdrive, and for good reason. If Young was able to get into the Game on the fan vote, then he wouldn’t be among the many players in the Eastern Conference going for the Oscar, waging an uphill fight this month for one of seven precious reserve spots. Neither the Washington Wizards nor the Atlanta Hawks come into action today (6 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington) in the running for Best Ensemble. But some Best Supporting Actor trophies remain up for grabs. Players like the Wizards’ Bradley Beal intend to spend this week using Young and the restless Hawks (11-35) to bolster their merits. Some help from coaches won’t hurt. “Jimmy Butler should be a starter in the All-Star game,” asserted Erik Spoelstra, Miami’s coach and noted comedy connoisseur, who was also miffed in his Friday commentary that Butler’s candidacy was limited by his ballot classification as a forward. “It’s a joke that he’s not.” Assuming his ire isn’t directed at Kemba Walker or any of the East forwards, Young and the Hawks’ losing ways seem to be Coach Spo’s bone of contention. Even if the Hawks lose the next ten games, dropping to 11-45, Young won’t be the All-Star starter on a team with the worst-ever pre-Break record. As noted by Phil Watson of HoopsHabit, that ignominious honor would remain with Dwyane Wade, a flashy fifth-year pro and fourth-time All-Star whose team was 9-43 at the 2007-08 All-Star Break, 6-25 afterwards. Dang, Erik… who’d he play for? I’m just “joking”, you already know. Coincidentally, Butler was classified as a forward three years ago, on a losing team in Chicago. His Bulls, a team far more talented and experienced than Young has yet enjoyed, had just lost to Dennis Schröder’s Hawks to drop to 21-23. Even the fan vote had him in 5th place, on the outside looking in. But the newly installed “Zaza Rule,” allowing player and media input into the voting results, catapulted Butler over LeBron’s teammate Kevin Love for the East’s final frontcourt starting spot. Jimmy Buckets joined two other sub-.500 starters, Giannis and Anthony Davis, at the time 2017’s All-Star selections were announced. There was precious little consternation, no think pieces complaining about “antiquated” position voting, no homers banging their keyboards. Davis, of the 23-34 Pelicans, scored 52 points in The Big Game, and he was handed an MVP trophy for his troubles. Somehow, the world managed to continue spinning on its axis. No “joke,” Spo! Spoelstra and Butler will have to wait until the first game after the Break to sink their gnashing teeth into Atlanta. Say, didn’t you two have to get through most of the first third of the season without your ascendant frontcourt star, Bam Adebayo? Ah. I must have y’all confused with somebody else. Toronto hosts the Hawks on Tuesday, and Kyle Lowry will be waiting. The defending NBA champs lost their Finals MVP, yet they’re still tied with Miami for 2nd in the NBA East. Bidding for his 6th-straight appearance in the midseason classic, Lowry has bounced back from a broken thumb to log the second-most minutes per game and the third-highest scoring average of his career. If Ben Simmons cared what fans thought, he’d take more open threes, fix his free throw shooting, and dodge the Karkrashian Kurse like the coronavirus. Alas, the 2019 first-time All-Star found himself behind Derrick Rose, Zach LaVine, Lowry and Jaylen Brown in the fan balloting. Simmons does hope coaches will value all the things he does bring to the table, which will be on display when the 76ers visit Atlanta on Thursday, one day before the reserves get announced. NBA players made their minds up that, yes, a defensive liability who stars for a losing team can be worthy of an All-Star starting spot. Only more of those voters felt that star player should be Beal, who finished second to Walker in the internal player-vote tally and just ahead of Young. Even if that star, 11-26 on the floor with Washington (4-3 without him), is only now scrambling to make a season hampered by knee and shoulder ailments (career-high 27.8 PPG, career-low 31.6 3FG%; career-best 6.4 APG, career-worst 3.3 TOs/game), without John Wall (out for season, Achilles) by his side, one of his (offensive) best. Wiz coach Scott Brooks is trying as best he can to untangle himself from contradictions, squaring Beal’s once-lagging quantitative performances with the shooting guard’s qualitative leadership value. “He hasn’t shot the ball well, but he’s not going to end up being a 30-percent shooter. The guy is money,” Brooks sorta-explained to the Washington Post, after Beal’s ninth consecutive game of 35+ points and 5+ assists helped their Wizards overwhelm the Cavs in Cleveland on Thursday. “You’re an All-Star for a reason, and he keeps leading us… None of us expected this season to end up with the situation that we’ve had, but he’s led us and battled for us and puts us in positions to compete every night.” Brooks also backed Beal this month after his star guard frustratingly questioned the progress of the team purportedly “changing (their) culture” to a winning one. “He’s a part of our culture and he’s a big part of it,” Brooks said of Beal. “When you lose, everybody feels bad about it, and that’s a good thing.” The Wiz (15-29) fizzed in three straight games after defeating the Hawks on the 10th of January. They’ve beaten two lottery squads since, and nearly knocked off the heat in Miami before succumbing in overtime on Wednesday. Beal has been money, from the free throw line, where his career-highs of 7.1 FTAs/game and 84.0 FT% have kept his elevated usage from becoming an all-around efficiency disaster. He is the sole NBA player below Trae in Defensive RPM and PIPM rankings, best understood by his need to carry a roster loaded with spare parts and next-to-the-next-men-up on one side of the floor with limited defensive support to cover for him. The next-worst player above age 21 in those plus/minus categories is Beal’s Wizard teammate and former small-wonder All-Star, Isaiah Thomas (2-for-16 FGs vs. ATL on Jan. 10; 41.2 3FG%). I.T.’s persistent threat to hit jumpers from outside keeps him in Brooks’ starting unit as Beal (31.9 usage%, 6th in NBA, two places behind Young) dominates the ballhandling from the wing. There’s at least one other Wizard seeking to make it to Chi-town in a couple weeks. Rookie Rui Hachimura has been out since mid-December with a groin injury, but he has been cleared for basketball activities. The Rising Stars challenge will be an easier bar to clear this year if you’re on the World Team, but the Japanese forward must show he’s healthy and productive enough to make the cut. Rui could be joined by fellow Wizards Moe Wagner (out, ankle) and Anzejs Pasecniks, especially if last-minute injury replacements are needed. Making the USA Team is tougher, but it’s not too late for Atlanta’s Cam Reddish (9 points, 8 rebounds, 3 assists, 2 blocks @ WAS on Jan. 10) to grab an invite. Coming off the bench in the Hawks’ Friday night loss at OKC to score 20 points, Cam (last 7 games: 2.4 3FGs per game on 50.0% shooting, 1.9 SPG) is unearthing to demonstrate not only why he could be more than a one-way player, but also why a plurality of preseason-surveyed rookies felt he could eventually wind up with the best NBA career, Zion Williamson and current Marvin-Williams-warmed-over archetype DeAndre’ Hunter included. Up-and-down Troy Brown (18 points, 10 rebounds in 35 bench minutes vs. ATL on Jan. 10) wouldn’t mind a call, either, especially if he gets the chance to spend his All-Star Saturday Night on Trae and Zion’s USA Team. The eventual returns of Hachimura (out, groin) and Wagner (out, ankle sprain) will bring the high-scoring Wizards to nine players averaging double-digits, including Jordan McRae, who has cooled lately after dropping 29 points on the Hawks (4-for-5 3FGs), plus eight boards and six dimes, in the 111-101 win at Capital One Arena. To the All-Stars go the spoils. For Young, that means being granted a delayed return to Georgia from Oklahoma City, after taking his bows at a Sooners game on Saturday afternoon. He’ll return to action hoping to make amends for one of his worst games of the season in D.C. a couple weeks ago, going bagel-for-7 from downtown while offsetting his 7 assists with 6 turnovers. Hawks backup Brandon Goodwin keyed the near-erasure of a 13-point second-quarter deficit before halftime in Washington, then scored eight points and dished an assist to Reddish to forge a 91-86 lead with just over seven minutes to play. But his fourth-quarter pairing with Young was unable to thwart a series of layups by Ish Smith, followed by point-blank scores from McRae and Ian Mahinmi that put the game away for the Wizards, who were missing both Beal and big-man Thomas Bryant. Atlanta could have used forward Jabari Parker (out, shoulder rehab) to match the Wizards’ late-game firepower. Brooks will likely keep Beal at small forward and maintain a guard-heavy lineup that gave the Hawks fits in OKC, who used penetration and kickouts to bigs Danilo Gallinari and Mike Muscala to surge to a 36-21 fourth-quarter advantage on Friday. To keep yet another “too little, too late” fate from befalling Young and the Hawks, it will help to have Jeff Teague around to cool off Smith, his former Wake Forest teammate. Atlanta has Reddish and Kevin Huerter to spend their energies shielding Beal, but must avoid over-aggressive fouls that make scoring easy for the Wizards star. Hunter needs to be busy latching himself onto Washington’s stretchiest threat, the fully healthy Davis Bertans (42.6 3FG%), leaving John Collins to do the dirty work of showing on screens for guards and getting back in position to beat Wizard bigs to the glass. Amid all of that defensive activity, Young and the Atlanta point guards must be more effective in disrupting and intercepting Washington’s halfcourt passes. Every loss by the Hawks will be portrayed as a referendum on the value of Young’s first All-Star accolade by his de-Trae-ctors. Every victory will induce the converse effect from supporters. Neither Young himself, nor the Hawks, need to be caught up in all of that. The focus needs to be on becoming 48-minute fullcourt competitors, particularly at home versus Lottery peers. Hawks fans have no choice but to forgive the upcoming slate of opposing stars, when their minds are fixated on a Game other than the one they’re supposed to be playing. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  24. “This insurance had better cover white shirts on windshields.” It’s time to make some big changes! Yes, I am talking to you, State Farm. Listen, the whole Cliff Paul thing was cute for a minute there. But it is 2020, and nobody is taking Chris Paul’s straight-man “comedy” routine and laughing straight to your friendly neighborhood insurance agent’s office. The bits you cook up for CP3 are funny. Face it, though, it’s the deer rampaging around garages, the mascot firing off T-shirt cannons in living rooms, the guy wearing khakis, the geckos, woodchucks and camels that elicit hearty guffaws in insurance TV spots. Anyone in or around the National Basketball Association can attest, Christopher is not, and has never been, innately “funny.” Not unless junk-punch gags make you snort a giggle. (I do not recommend laughter anytime Steven Adams is around). You think the tykes at Nickelodeon’s Kids’ Choice Awards, if they really were given the choice, would have insisted upon Chris Paul to be the NBA star who hosts and reads one-liners off a teleprompter? In 2018? Get real. The kids would rather just let the green slime run the show. Everybody Tolerates Chris. This was once a young star who steered his way out of the Deep South to get himself to L.A., although not quite in the way he envisioned. Once there, he used his newfound Hollywood connections, his union prez pull after upending Derek Fisher, and the still-spry and legit-funny pair of Blake Griffin and De’Andre Jordan to secure himself some TV bags. Including an insurance ad where the sweater-clad alter-ego became more famous than the player himself. These days, he’s more renowned for ratting on opponents when they’re supposed to have their shirts tucked in. He’s The Feds at this stage of his career. Seriously, State Farm, you’re asking a guy who’s known for not minding his own business to make you some. What consumer would trust this guy to be Like A Good Neighbor? CP3’s a long way removed from the nine consecutive years when he was a surefire All-Star. At least for now, he’s a long way removed, geographically, from the bright lights of Hollywood, too. The Clippers drafted Shai Gilgeous-Alexander in 2018 and let Paul walk. Even Houston has since passed him up for an “upgrade” in the form of Russell Westbrook. Now, as the Atlanta Hawks come to Oklahoma City (8 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Oklahoma), Paul is way out here in prairie land, grooming Gilgeous-Alexander for Sam Presti’s cost-cutting Thunder. Reaching age 35 this spring, he’s well-suited for a future selling us all term life insurance and enhancement pills. But it’s time to give Paul the heave-ho, State Farm, and turn to a fresher, fan-friendly face. Like who? So glad you asked. (Not you, Baze. So sorry.) You’ve spent truckloads of dinero to swipe Philips’ name off a swanky, newly renovated NBA arena. Why not shift your TV ad campaigns to the fella who casually launches 35-foot bombs from your logo on Atlanta’s arena floor, to the growing joy of millions of insurance-starved fans? Unlike your current rep, Trae Young’s got charm and charisma for days. Your rep sneers, mocks refs and fake-laughs, while this kid’s biggest crime is flexing with a smile. His enthusiasm is infectious. Just witness the joy “T.Y. Thrill-ton” effused while rocking his red velvet smoking jacket on the sideline, cheering young Brandon Goodwin on to victory in Wednesday night’s stunning late-game thriller over a squad that coincidentally kicked Mr. Paul to the curb. Trae’s already making insurance out of his two-way contractor. You want to appeal to Middle America? Chris is just in Sooner Country for a minute or two, but Trae has Oklahoma crimson ‘n cream in his veins. Further, peep the newest All-American-born All-Star starter’s bubbly persona daily on social media accounts. Never types a thing that requires an “I wuz hacked!” excuse. Imagine: “Another Day, Another Opportunity (100),” to protect your home and auto from bears! Oh, and the man CAN ham it up, on the spot. Have you not yet seen him and John Collins reminding us all why Landmark DCJ is The Georgia Giant? Meanwhile, you’re out here trying to sell with an Abbott, when you really need to bring a Costello to the table. I promise you, State Farm, this is not somebody you want to risk losing to Aflac. You’d better get your people in touch with Trae’s people and lock him down, before Flo hits him with a lab coat and a name tag. How long Paul sticks around OKC depends on what team exec Sam Presti has up his sleeve. A year ago, the Thunder were trying to sustain their rep as The Small Market Club That Could. That could spend big, at least, if not win big, having thrown money at Paul George and Westbrook to back up their commitment to eventual excellence. But after PG requested to buddy up with Kawhi Leonard in La-La-Land, it was Presto-chango time for Sam, whose organization could face a repeater tax bill this season and next, right as they try kickstarting their rebuild. The plan was to find Paul a new NBA landing spot before this season began. But then, a funny thing happened, and not because some State Farm agent was up in the middle of the night wearing khakis. Paul professed a commitment to stay and mentor SGA (team-high 19.8 PPG, 6.0 RPG), the 6-foot-5 stringbean who starts alongside him. Not only that, but CP3 has taken Dennis Schröder, about as big an afterthought as a flashy young player with funny hair could be in this league, under his wing. Now Schröder, once a one-trick driving pony as a future All-Star hopeful with the Hawks, is mastering the dark arts of on-ball defense, ranking 4th in Defensive RPM among NBA starter/rotation PGs (bottom-ten w/ OKC last year, 6th-worst w/ ATL in 2017-18). Further, the Menace is hitting money jumpshots to win games, as he did from 20 feet out with the 30th and 31st point of his barrage in Orlando (10-for-14 2FGs, 3-for-4 3FGs, 9 assists in 33 bench minutes) to dust off the Magic on Wednesday. I’m comfortable in asserting that this isn’t Thunder coach Billy Donovan’s doing. You can credit assistants an ex-Hawks Mo Cheeks and Mike Wilks, if you must. But it’s the egging from Paul that’s getting through to Dennis and Shai’s noggins. Westbrook, with his triple-double hunts, gave this team an edge every night. But Paul, effectively the head coach for the moment, has spread that vim and vigor across the whole rotation, and it particularly shows up in the second halves. As noted by Forbes SportsMoney’s Nick Crain this week, CP3 leads the league with 110 clutch-time points, and Gilgeous-Alexander (+70 clutch plus/minus) and Schröder (NBA-best +71 clutch plus/minus) aren’t all that far behind. OKC has been in as many as 31 clutch scenarios all year and have thrived in nearly all of them. SGA’s ranginess on defense (team-high 12 rebounds, all defensive, @ ORL) allows Donovan to go small-ball at winning time, plugging sharpshooter Danilo Gallinari at power forward alongside Adams (questionable, ankle; Nerlens Noel has been starting in his place) and featuring three guards under 185 pounds (OKC’s top-3 minute-leaders) to ramp up the pressure. In recent games, OKC has been conveniently starting two-way rookie Lugie Dort at the 2-spot, because how this team finishes is proving to be far more important than how they start. The Thunder have become true League Pass darlings with one thrilling comeback surge after another. Coming back from down 26 to beat the Bulls in mid-December, down 24 just two nights later to get past Memphis. Down 18 four days after that (don’t remind Doc) to beat LA in George’s return to OKC, behind 32 points by former Clipper SGA. Just this week, in Westbrook’s Houston, climbing out from a 17-point third-quarter hole to ground the Rockets. That’s just scratching the surface of what has been a fun ride for Thunder fans, watching the team slide into a cozy 7-seed spot (26-19, winners of 11 of past 15 and 3 straight) with a reasonable shot at sneaking up to 5th in the West soon with some favorable games (vs. ATL, CLE, DET; at MIN, SAC, PHX) on the docket. Unfortunately, this is a campaign, and a roster, that might look very different a couple weeks from now. “Especially as it heads toward a rebuild,” Maddie Lee of The Oklahoman recently suggested, “the Thunder won’t jeopardize its long-term plan for a short-term payoff.” Presti has slashed lots of salary weight to this point, going from tens of millions over the luxury tax level last spring to hardly a million over the top as the calendar turns toward February and the looming trade deadline. I’d argue, what’s the rush? As far as my Hawks are concerned, we don’t need to see the Thunder back in the playoffs until 2022, when the lottery-protected pick for Menace ‘n Moose comes due. But by this summer, surely there’ll be a taker for Paul’s two years and $85 million remaining (assuming he opts in for 2021-22), Adams’ $27.5 million expiring deal for next season, and certainly Schröder’s $15.5 million, now that he’s becoming a hot commodity. Gallinari’s $22.6 million comes off the books after this season ends. A simpler dealing away of Noel (set loose the Moose!), Justin Patton, or Slamidou Diallo could be more than enough to evade the repeater tax. Even so, such a penalty under the multiplier won’t be as ginormous as the Thunder once budgeted. Instead of a drastic, destabilizing February teardown, I’d rather reward the OKC fans by running with this Thunder core into the playoffs, formally hand the leadership keys to Gilgeous-Alexander, then make the tougher player-personnel decisions in June and July. Perhaps some thunderous deals are in the works, and if so, I conjecture it’s to have a trial run, for Presti to see if Donovan and this staff are the right folks to coach up a roster from the ground floor. For now, though, the Thunder are modeling quite well what a playoff-steeled veteran from Wake Forest, a possible supernova from the 2018 Draft on the rise, and a cat-quick player who’s not chopped liver, could look like while staffing the point guard position on the depth chart. It’s looking like the Hawks have been paying attention. It is kind of nice to see Atlanta (11-34) cut their two most gaping roster flaws in half. The re-arrival of Jeff Teague (8 assists, 1 TO vs. LAC) and the glorious breakout of Goodwin (17 fourth-quarter points, 3-for-4 3FGs vs. LAC) was a long time coming to address Atlanta’s dire backup situation behind Young (29.2 PPG, 8.6 PG, plus a sturdy 4.7 RPG). I’d even venture to suggest the Hawks checked off two out of three big boxes, if Wednesday’s lineup shift by coach Lloyd Pierce is an indication he’s no longer requiring De’Andre Hunter and Cam Reddish (minus-9.0 net points per 100 possessions as a two-man unit; 700 minutes together, second among Hawks tandems) to suffer their rookie lumps together. The third leg on the stool is a starting-caliber center capable of providing steady rim protection and pick-and-roll coverage, allowing John Collins (18.3 PPG, 9.9 RPG, 33-and-16 plus 3 steals vs. LAC; limited sample size, but NBA-best 0.36 PPP on roll-man defense) to become the productive double-double machine and defensive rover the beastly power forward is destined to become. Having Bruno Fernando and Alex Len (probable, continued back strain) available has been helpful, but the duo would be more valuable as reserves for a more competent contributor at the pivot. Noel (team-high 1.6 BPG in 18.8 MPG; minus-3.9 defended FG% differential; Collins’ minus-6.1 ranks 10th-best among NBA bigs, Damian Jones’ plus-7.2 the 3rd-worst), who himself just returned from ankle injury, might fit the bill if the soon-to-be 26-year-old can stay healthy, although it would likely take more than some future-year second-rounder for Hawks GM Travis Schlenk to pry him loose from Presti. In the meantime, having Teague back in a reserve role to spell Young (available, as per LP, after missing Wednesday’s game with a bruised thigh) will help Atlanta match up with OKC’s backcourt depth and strive to avoid yet another big first-half deficit. Kevin Huerter’s layup to give the Hawks an early 11-4 lead against the Clips could not be followed by another field goal until the final minute of the opening quarter. Amid that first-quarter funk, Montrezl Harrell entered the game with LA up 22-12 and went unimpeded, scoring 19 of the Clippers’ next 22 points as the visitors’ lead on Wednesday ballooned to 19. The Hawks showed great fight in storming back late to pull off the win, thanks primarily to Goodwin, but OKC (+10.8 4th-quarter Net Rating; Milwaukee is 2nd-best at +7.9) is not a team you want far ahead of you deep in the second half. Staying in front of OKC’s shooters and drivers, again avoiding fouls, will be a defensive priority for Atlanta. Among the biggest shifts for the post-Russ-era Thunder is their eagerness to get back on defense once shots go up. Last-year’s Thunder cluster amassed an NBA-high 12.6 O-Rebs per contest, ranking third in the league for O-Reb%. This year, even with Adams (3rd in NBA for O-Reb%) still flailing about, those numbers are down to NBA-lows of 8.3 O-Rebs per game and 19.6 O-Reb%. Keeping the opponent one-and-done in their halfcourt-heavy offense, while pushing the pace and finishing in transition, will be key for the Hawks to compete tonight, early and often. The Thunder (79.7 FT%, 6th in NBA) won’t give the Hawks the breaks Harrell and the Clippers offered up (14 missed FTs @ ATL) on Wednesday. It was wonderful to watch the Young household in Oklahoma, conveniently convening on Thursday evening, as Trae officially earned his first All-Star starting nod (Don’t think he earned it? Rather hand out Lifetime Achievement Awards? Cry about it!). You know what would also be nice to see? Some timely spots during All-Star weekend, as Chris Paul gracefully confers insurance agent Cole Perez to Trae Young as his final "assist." Better yet, just have Trae run into Agent Travis Young, his long-lost geeky twin. You know what, State Farm marketing department? Some of us don’t have an off-season. The NBA’s All-Star voting fans have spoken -- it’s time for a big change. Get to work! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  25. True To LouWillVille. [I'm too lazy to update my draft. PG's out, Kawhi's out, Pat Bev's out. Bembry's on personal leave. Trae and Alex... we'll see! ~lw3] Hooray! We finally got one! Just once this season have the Atlanta Hawks watched from the comfort of home as an opponent trudges through a road game, the night before arriving to meet up at State Farm Arena. While it would be nice to nab a schedule win against a fellow jabroni, like the victory over the Boneless Warriors over a month and a half ago, whoever shows up for the LA Clippers (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Prime Ticket in LAX, NBATV elsewhere) will have to do. A home win tonight is far from a certainty, but the outcome ought to be far easier on the eyes than the wing-clipping our Hawks endured on a lousy November weekend at Staples Center. Kawhi Leonard was DNP’d when Atlanta got LAmbasted by a 150-101 score, but tonight he may try to pick up where Paul George (out, hammy strain; 37 points, 11-for-11 FTs, 6-for-11 3FGs vs. ATL) left off during his home debut. Cam Reddish (4-for-15 FGs, minus-45 on/off @ LAC) was there to bear the brunt of PG’s onslaught, and the Hawks’ swingman would appreciate not having to cover either PG or Kawhi today. Leonard (27.1 PPG; six consecutive games w/ 30+ points) logged 36 minutes and scored 36 with the aid of 29 FGAs to help his team edge the Mavs yesterday in Lukaland. If Leonard plays tonight, it would be the first time in nine Clipper back-to-back series where coach Doc Rivers fields him in both games. Even before PG returned to action, Coach Doc sat Kawhi on either the front or back end of LA’s first three back-to-backs. Another player who sat the November game out, and may do so yet again, is guard-dog Pat Beverley. Even without him or Kawhi on the floor against Atlanta, Hawks star Trae Young found himself overmatched (2-for-9 2FGs, 2-for-7 3FGs, 6 assists and 3 TOs) as the woeful shooting and the anemic defense brought about by starting Y2J (Young-Jabari-Jones) with two rookies proved insurmountable. The returns of Kevin Huerter and John Collins give Young (questionable, contused thigh) much more to stand toe-to-toe with the Clips at both ends on the floor, especially tonight if Huerter (4-for-19 FGs in last 2 games) shakes out of his recent slump. For all their squabbles about imperfection and inconsistency, not having Leonard, George and Beverley playing a full slate has more to do with the Clippers (31-13, 3.5 games behind the Lakers atop the NBA West) staying in their intown rivals’ shadow. But what they have had to their benefit is a quality bench (NBA-high 51.3 bench PPG and 20.7 bench RPG) loaded with veterans who lead, and developmental guys, like Landry Shamet (5-for-8 3FGs @ DAL) in the clutch last night, who figure out how to step up when needed. Back in his home metro, summertime AEBL star Lou Williams will be eager to show up and show out after a less-than-stellar performance (2-for-8 2FGs, 3-for-11 3FGs) last night in Dallas. Even though Beverley sat against the Hawks in November, a 2019 second-round pick named Terance proved to be a Mann amongst men (team-high 8 assists, career-high 13 points on 6-for-8 FGs) when inserted into the starting lineup. Against Atlanta, the Clips were buoyed not only by super-subs Williams (15-for-15 FTs, 25 points) and Montrezl Harrell, but 2018’s lightly-used draft pick, Jerome Robinson, who sunk five of seven three-point shots along the way to his career-high of 21 points. Against a Mavs team not renowned for their defensive exploits, the Clippers shot just 37.1 percent from the floor last night, including just 12-for-38 on threes. But LA’s fitness is maintained when they keep turnovers low (11-1, incl. last night @ DAL, when committing under 12 player TOs/game) and the charity stripe trips high, especially the backups (NBA-high 12.4 bench FTAs/game). Versus Kawhi’s former team on MLK Day, you’d have thought Atlanta switched the ‘w’ in their team sobriquet with a ‘c’. Coach Lloyd Pierce’s troopers could ill afford another hackfest like they swam through on Monday’s 122-117 loss (season-high 34 personal fouls, 43 Raptor FTAs). Young’s 10-for-12 FTAs was perhaps the only thing keeping the Hawks from losing to the Clippers by 50 back in November, and his 18-for-21 marksmanship kept the Hawks crawling back in Monday’s game. But the Hawks are burrowing animals, and they cannot dig their way out of holes as deep as the ones they create (14-5, 34-22, 112-91 Hawks deficits vs. TOR), certainly not with Thundersticks. And no amounts of Chick-fil-A sandwiches can be piled high enough to climb out of such holes if Trae can’t play. Neutralizing the Clippers’ offense by forcing them to make tough shots and tough passes without fouling will keep the Hawks within shouting distance for 48 minutes, if not ahead late in the game. The upcoming schedule for the Hawks remains a tall order. But now that I’m done colluding with the Ukrainians to max out both Trae Young’s and Alex Len’s vote tallies (quid pro quo, baby! Alex has been upgraded to questionable tonight), I have a new pair of sipping words for the weeks between now and the end of All-Star Weekend. I’ll need our Hawks to cobble together as many W’s between now and then to make the utterance of those words by hoop pundits possible. The sipping words? “ONE OF.” As in, “Trae Young is here in Chicago despite Atlanta being ONE OF the worst team(s) in the NBA.” Or, “I know the Hawks have ONE OF the worst team(s) in the Eastern Conference, but you cannot blame Trae Young for that, and most fans sure haven’t.” At this stage of the season, those two words together would sound, and taste, so sweet. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3