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  1. “SHHH! Nobody knows I’m really Caleb. Second crack, Trae, let’s go!” Go on ahead and have a Ball, Atlanta Hawks! Just one, though. There will be no LaMelo-Lonzo back-to-back, as the injured Chicago Bulls guard will miss tomorrow’s follow-up of (ERRATA CITY! see bleachkit's and JayBird's notes below) today’s Hawks game versus the Charlotte Hornets (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast; 92.9 FM in ATL). Another break for Atlanta involves the Schedule Gods laying out the next two games like they got some sense. Ten days ago, the Hawks traveled down to Miami for a Friday night rematch with the heat, an inexplicable 8 PM tip for two clubs in the Eastern time zone. Already waiting for their return to The A were the Knicks, who hadn’t played since the prior Wednesday, but got to chill out in town ahead of the Hawks’ back-to-back. Two tip-offs in the space of 23 hours, in 2022, was wholly unnecessary, especially when one team had a couple preceding rest days. This front-end FIRGABABA for Atlanta has a more reasonable start time. For coach Nate McMillan, it allows him to comfortably ramp up minutes for center Clint Capela, while easing Hawk elders Danilo Gallinari (questionable, sore Achilles), Gorgui Dieng (happy belated 32nd birthday!) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (out, sore knee) back into his unimpeachable rotations. There won’t be a creature double feature of Ball brothers. But we can still look forward to Trae Young (last 3 games: 31.7 PPG, 10.7 APG, 44.4 3FG%, 92.5 FT%; 5.3 TOs but 1.0 Ws/game) trying to complete the shaking and stirring of a double Martini this weekend. Cody Martin (1.4 SPG) follows in the footsteps of his twin bro, Miami’s Caleb, coming off the bench to try and help LaMelo Ball (team-high 1.6 SPG; last 7 games, 38.2 FG% but 8+ assists in six of them) check Atlanta’s supernova. Scoring 19 bench points and adding a pair of steals, Cody and the Hornets caught the Hawks on the downslide during their last meeting at State Farm Arena, a 130-127 Charlotte win without Terry Rozier or LaMelo back on December 5. Throughout the season, as both teams leaned into their offenses to save their hides, Atlanta (up to 28th in D-Rating, thanks to Portland and Houston) could always count on Charlotte holding it down in the cellar of defensive teams. But not anymore! Charlotte (8.9 team SPG, 4th in NBA; top-6 players average at least 1.0 SPG) has long been scrappy, their defenders reaching and getting taught by an array of perimeter catch-and-shooters (NBA-highs 14.2 3FGs/game allowed and 26.3 opponent APG thru first 33 games). They’ve improved modestly in that area, but the true sea change is on the interior. James Borrego did this neat trick called Adjustments. His team realized Miles Plumlee desperately needed help, the Hornets getting gashed along the boards (30.2 opponent O-Reb% thru first 33, tie-2nd-worst in NBA). Parking Miles Bridges closer to the defensive basket (3 double-digit D-Reb games over past ten; one in his first 34 games) has been transformational. Bridges eclipsed his career-best scores against the Hawks with 38 points, plus 12 rebounds (11 defensive) last week to help the Hornets, absent LaMelo, dust off the Knicks at MSG. His season-high of 12 D-Rebs aided Charlotte in easily plundering the visiting Thunder on Friday night. His interior presence has taken pressure off of not just Plumlee, but LaMelo, to scrap with for boards in order to ignite the Hornets’ transition offense. Over their past 13 games, Charlotte opponents’ 26.9 O-Reb% has been among the league’s ten lowest. So has the opponent free throw attempt rate, Borrego’s Hornets getting stingier with their fouls. The net effect has Charlotte (26-20; 16-0 when allowing under 110 points) going from 117.3 points-per-48 allowed in December (better than only Houston) to a respectable 107.4 this month. Atlanta (117.8 January opponent points per-48) has taken Charlotte’s place in front of the Rockets in terms of not firing on all cylinders. The Hawks suffer through lapses during games, whereas the Hornets’ lapses occur for whole games during what would be winning streaks. Ending a Western road swing right before the Christmas break, Charlotte kicked off a 3-game winning streak by allowing a valley-low 107 points in the Mile High City. Just as the Hornets seemed to gain some defensive consistency, they allowed 133 points in a blowout home loss to Phoenix to kickstart the January schedule, and 124 in Washington the next night. Redoubling their efforts, Charlotte secured a two-game home sweep of the Bucks, holding Milwaukee to 106 and 99 points in the space of three days, then traveled to Philly and held the Sixers to 98. Thinking the were the bees’ knees, Borrego’s Bugs returned home only to allow the Wagner Boyz to come up from Orlando, the Magic tuning the Hornets up for 116 points in a seven-point loss. Nine days later, Charlotte’s back at it again with yet another streak, threatening to crack the NBA East’s Top-6. 87 points allowed in MSG, 102 in Boston, 98 back here at Spectrum Center versus OKC, all Ws. Could Atlanta be the next team to slow the Hornets’ mini-roll? While the reassembling Hawks will have their hands full with Bridges (35 points @ ATL on Nov. 20, 32 @ ATL on Dec. 5), who has likely surpassed John Collins (countering with 31 points and 12 rebounds on Dec. 5) in the race for Eastern All-Star frontcourt vacancies, the lion’s share of reserve frontcourt minutes in the last two Hawks-Hornets meetings went to Gallinari. This time around, Atlanta ought to have better balance upfront. Despite some slips in Atlanta’s 110-108 thriller win over Miami on Friday, Onyeka Okongwu has been a defensive revelation since his long-anticipated return from injury. De’Andre Hunter, also absent from those two games, has been a solid help rebounder, snagging 10 D-Rebs in the win over the heat. Finding the proper blend of paint-scoring threats, including Young’s floaters, will keep the Hornet guards cheating away from the perimeter the whole game. The guard Borrego really hopes he will not have to plan for is Kevin Huerter (questionable, bruised hip; 63.8 career TS% vs. CHA, highest vs. any Eastern club). Averaging 22.5 PPG in two games head-to-head this season, Red Velvet followed up a 4-for-7 3FG performance against the Hornets, during Atlanta’s November hot streak, with a 7-for-11 splash-fest in the Hawks’ December loss. His five timely triples were just enough on Friday to stifle the heat. As with Trae and the other Hawks roving the backcourt, Atlanta needs Huerter to step up and find ways to create stops, whether it involves deflecting and picking off passes, winning 50/50 balls in the vicinity, or securing long rebounds off of Charlotte’s three-point barrage. The increasingly active Delon Wright (last ten games: 32 assists and 5 TOs, 1.2 SPG, 42.9 3FG%) will be relied upon more in this game to make looks tougher on Rozier and Ball if Huerter is a no-go. Gelling as five-man units on the defensive end isn’t going to happen overnight, and Atlanta may once again need to be solid offensively to come out on top of what could be a high-paced shootout in Charlotte. I’ve got my hopes up that, soon, Trae’s Hawks will follow the lead of LaMelo’s Hornets, who discovered that lackadaisical defensive effort is not a feature but just, well, a bug. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. “So the plumber looked behind the toilet wall, and guess what he found?” I’m gonna be real with y’all. When the calendar turned to 2020, Adrian Dantley, I was apprised of a pervasive, pernicious threat to North America expanding across the Pacific. A threat that looked, to me, like it would soon loom over almost all our livelihoods, making it tough to so much as spend time outdoors without needing to protect ourselves and those we hold dear. But I also knew for certain, if we all recognized the threat, and pulled together in close to the same universal direction, we could beat back this menace before it killed and created great pains for untold numbers of people. Our triumph would be the story that sets the tone for the decade to come. Bring on The New Roaring Twenties! We are just weeks away from turning the page on 2021, Anthony Davis. Why in blazes, I ask of thee, is anybody still dealing with Murder Hornets? Man alive, was I ready for battle. If you went to The Sto’ and found an aisle was thoroughly depleted of Raid and Hotshot, blame me. I had my swatters and zappers and foggers and fly strips and everythang. You are NOT gonna be the reason I hesitate to head out and sit beside thousands of fans cheering on my Atlanta Hawks, you pesky Murder Hornet! No-sir-bee! Our saving graces? These not-so-little buggers have been infinitely more of a terror for bees, beetles and wasps thus far, making direct impacts to human species tertiary, at best. By all accounts they’re still confined to the Pacific Northwest of North America, and even there you were more likely to be accosted by an NBA GM than some horde of venomous, stinging wingnuts. Still, most of us have learned that the thought, “It’s happening to them, over there, so I will be safe, over here,” doesn’t always, well, fly. State Farm Arena was fumigated of far less lethal Hornets back on November 20, our Atlanta Hawks having dispatched the buzzy visitors from Charlotte, North Cack-a-Lack. A couple weekends later, though, they have returned to The Farm (6 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL), rested and recalibrated following a three-day layoff. Is this incoming variant of Hornet something of concern? And what have they been up to since they were last run out of town? These Hornets are still a freewheeling bunch, zipping about at a pace that ranks second only to juggernaut Houston. With likely All-Star guard LaMelo Ball leading the charge in several major counting-stat categories, Charlotte’s still good for a couple reel-worthy highlights per night. And they still give up way too many points (111.7 D-Rating, 2nd-worst in NBA) for anyone’s liking. Since losing 115-105 to the Hawks last month, the Hornets took three steps forward, including a win at rival Washington, then took three steps back, all on the road. They managed to score 135 points in H-Town, and every bucket was necessary to erase an 11-point deficit in the final quarter, after allowing 110 Rocket points through the first three quarters. Charlotte fell in overtime, anyway, handing Houston their third win of the year by a 146-143 final score. They went on to fall short in Chicago and Milwaukee, allowing 133 and 127 regulation points, respectively. After falling to a 13-11 record, the Hornets are hoping to get the same Trust Fall catch Atlanta recently granted New York and Philadelphia. One commonality the Hawks and Hornets shared, before Atlanta’s win over Charlotte off of two days’ rest, was the high strength of schedule coupled with limited intervening rest days. While opponent strengths have remained comparable, Atlanta has at least been able to get significant practice and video time in at home, amongst the healthier bodies on their roster. Coach James Borrego’s hive has only enjoyed one two-day siesta this season, prior to the three-day break preceding tonight’s tipoff. It has been 17 days and counting since they’ve had a day off following a home game (their 7-2 home record, now, the best in the East), and tonight’s game will be their NBA-high 16th away game. They’ve only played once at home in their past seven contests, as Philly, resting since emerging victorious here on Friday, awaits the Hornets’ arrival to Spectrum Center tomorrow for a two-games-in-three-days affair. Atlanta needed all of last week’s 72-hour regrouping time just to survive the Pacers, back on Wednesday in Indiana. It’s the Hawks’ only victory since their seven-game get-right streak concluded back on November 26. Another three-day break arrives soon. But first, coach Nate McMillan’s flock has to fly north for a wintry tilt in Minnesota tomorrow. No one has time to hear about the Hawks (12-11) being short-winged, perhaps least of all the Hornets. The starting backcourt of Ball and Terry Rozier were sent home from practice yesterday after being placed under the league’s Health ‘n Safety Protocols. Backup bigs Mason Plumlee and Jalen McDaniels were booted from the Hornets’ nest due to Pandemic Protocols, too, the former’s plans to return from a calf injury tabled for a little longer. For most pro teams, a visitor coming to your floor abruptly absent a key player or two is soothing news. But we all know The Atlanta Axiom. The fewer talents an opponent suddenly has, the bigger trouble an Atlanta sports team finds itself. The ATL Axiom held firm at The Farm on Friday night, when Doc Rivers’ Sixers were permitted to claw their way back into contention, and then toward a 98-96 victory, despite having to make-do without Tobias Harris as a late scratch. In deflating home losses to the Knicks and Sixers, Atlanta combined to score just 25 points in the fourth quarters, dropping their effective field goal percentage in final frames to 46.7 eFG% (a shade below Minny’s league-worst 46.6). The Hawks often get too caught up in swinging for the fences, hunting for home run plays and shots that look good on the nightly sport segments, when executing the occasional sacrifice bunts and bloop singles will do just fine. Subpar shot selection by Trae Young (questionable for today, sore knee), a lack of urgency getting set in transition (1.16 transition PPP allowed, 3rd-worst in NBA, although frequency of opponent possessions is thankfully 3rd-lowest), and delayed off-ball movement in halfcourt sets, bedevil McMillan’s club when they play with a lead. A furthering of these woes leaves the door open for Ish Smith, Cody Martin, Kelly Oubre, rookie James Bouknight and Gordon Hayward to waltz in and snag another reinvigorating win for the visitors at Atlanta’s expense. As Charlotte turns to G-League callups to buttress the front line behind Hayward, Miles Bridges (career-high 35 points @ ATL last month) and P.J. Washington, the Hawks will want to depend on veteran Gorgui Dieng, certainly more heavily than they have in recent weeks (5-for-8 FGs in past three appearances, DNP’d in two of last three games). Getting more mid-game pulp out of Danilo Gallinari (season-high 18 points vs. PHI, matching the Sixers’ whole bench production; 16 points vs. CHA last month w/ 8-for-8 FTs) and Dieng will lighten the loads for starters John Collins and Clint Capela (combined 17-for-19 2FGs vs. CHA last month). It should also grant Young, Kevin Huerter (questionable, sore quad) and any Atlanta ballhandlers a higher margin for late-game error. Atlanta (NBA-best 12.3 team TO%) remains among the stingiest with the basketball, a telltale sign of McMillan’s influence and Young’s continued maturation. For this to factor into winning advantages, particularly on a team that doesn’t force many turnovers themselves, just comes down to the timing of the turnovers at the starts (14.3 1st-quarter TO%, tie-22nd-lowest in NBA) and ends (13.0 clutch-time TO%, 19th-lowest in NBA) of games. The Hawks have been in a league-low 7 clutch-time situations (3-4 record; final five minutes of games w/ margins of +/- 5 points). While it's hoped they won’t need to deploy situational plays tonight, it’s more hopeful that they’ll look better prepared than they have recently. The good news with the impending threat posed by Charlotte Hornets, or maybe Murder Hornets, is that there remains plenty of time for Atlanta to prepare, adjust, get things right and steady the path toward a bright and fun-filled future. Don’t y’all have me out here looking silly in a beekeeper fit by this time next December. Not in the year 2022, Austin Daye. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. “The Hawkman has 24 hours to reveal himself.” Don’t let the smooth 10-7 record fool you. The Charlotte Hornets, like the Atlanta Hawks, are on the mend and on the rise! LaMelo Ball, Miles Bridges and the Hornets are in town (7:30 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast in ATL and CLT; NBATV elsewhere; 92.9 FM in ATL) at State Farm Arena, and they are bugs on a mission. Similar to Atlanta (7-9), Charlotte had to withstand an early-season downturn as they took their lumps on the road and in back-to-backs. Having lost to Cleveland on the business end of a back-to-back at home, coach James Borrego’s club headed out west and watched their losing skid extend to five in a row. Then the trip turned back east, and his team has since ventured north in the standings. First, there was victory in a showdown with Ja Morant in Memphis. Then, a packed-house homestand kicked off with a win over future number-retiree Kemba Walker’s Knicks. Following that, the Hornets became the first NBA club, as per Elias Sports, since 2017-18’s Hornets to topple the NBA’s sitting conference leaders in consecutive games. They denied Charlotte native Steph Curry’s Dubs another dub, before outlasting Brad Beal’s Wizards. The Hornets, coming off the 121-118 home win versus Indiana last night, are 0-3 on the back ends of back-to-backs, and like the Hawks did earlier this week, they’re aiming to rise to 1-3 in this category tonight. They also embark on a three-game road swing through much of their division-rival’s towns, with the rematch in D.C. on Monday, and the Magic in O-Town on Wednesday. These games, in particular, are a huge deal for Charlotte. Even as Atlanta plans (soon?) to raise their rare Southeast Division flag from their most recent banner season, having gone worst to first in-division since 2019-20, the Hornets, around the Carolinas in some form of fauna since 1988, have never been able to hoist a division banner of any stripe. Kemba’s and Borrego’s mad dash in 2019 for the Southeast title (and, by extension, a playoff spot, since the entire division was awful) came up short by three games to 42-40 Orlando, and that’s as close to the mark as they’ve been in a long time. Steph’s father Dell’s 1994-95 edition of purple and teal finished two games behind the Pacers for what was the Central Division crown at the time. If you’re the Red Sox, AL East pennants don’t add up to a hill of beans in Beantown, in and of themselves. But each one does scream out, suggestively, that in one particular Anno Domini, Boston finished a season ahead of the hated Yanks. The Hawks and the Hornets, as Chris Paul might tell the tale, don’t really despise each other, nothing like those longtime, bitter baseball rivals up north. But one thing fans of Atlanta’s and Charlotte’s teams with hoop dreams have in common is, we’re sick and tired of Miami acting like they’re Nique’s manna from the heavens. Short of a Larry O’Brien, nothing says, “we outwitted the smarmy Pat Riley this year!”, quite like a Division Champs banner. The heat, now one half-game out of 1st in the East, already cruised past Charlotte once last month. Charlotte understands that the best way to at least keep chase with the current division leaders is to rattle off as many divisional wins as possible, and that opportunity, continuing tonight, avails itself. After a post-Thanksgiving back-to-back versus Minnesota and at Houston, the only to-date schedule that, by most measures, is stronger than Atlanta’s, ratchets up again before the Bugs and Birds collide here again on December 5. That game will be the first of a back-to-back for both them and the Hawks. Both Borrego and coach Nate McMillan’s crews are trying to spiffy up their once-sagging defenses. A couple of overtime games register into it, but the Hornets (25th in D-Rating) have allowed a league-high 113.6 PPG. Also factoring in is a departure, for Charlotte, from snail-paced tempos (102.16 possessions per-48, 3rd in NBA), as Borrego transitions fully from the Kemba years to hand the offense over to LaMelo (7.6 RPG, 7.5 APG; 38.5 3FG%, 92.7 FT%). Just about all of Ball’s season-high 32 points (plus 8 dimes and 11 boards) were needed to outpace Indiana last night. But despite allowing 118 points in regulation, his team held their prior four vanquished foes to 98.3 PPG on 40.0% shooting from the field (25.3 3FG%). He’s no De’Andre Hunter, yet the defensive activity from the star of Real Baby Mama Dramas of the Queen City has been sorely missed. P.J. Washington (1.7 blocks per-36) remains out indefinitely, after hyperextending his elbow seven games into the season. Charlotte has ramped up the playing time for Washington’s fellow UK Wildcat, Nick Richards (2.8 blocks per-36), in part to account for Washington’s absence and to keep from wearing down starting center and offseason addition Mason Plumlee. Like the Hornets, the Hawks are finding ways to adapt. Atlanta’s defensive efficiency improved to 110.9 (tied with Orlando for 27th in NBA) after throttling Boston by a 110-99 score on Wednesday evening, the first Hawks opponent to be held in double-digit scoring over Atlanta’s past 12 contests. A defensive gem from Cam Reddish (3 steals and a block) on Wednesday helped make Jayson Tatum’s 34-point night taste like empty calories for Boston, and teammates helped keep Tatum’s teammates (6-for-29 3FGs) tranquil from downtown. John Collins isn’t the only one in the Dirty South Division who has been rounding out his game beyond his aerial exploits. Keeping up with JC’s T-shirts, mask coverings of Miles Bridges, flinging the ball past Clint Capela, are selling like hoe cakes in the 704. But Bridges has crossed over from Just a Dunker into Most Improved Player territory as Charlotte’s leading scorer (20.8 PPG on 16.7 shots per game, up from 12.7 and 9.4 as a sixth-man last season). Miles’ full-floor presence (6.1 D-Rebs per game, behind only LaMelo’s 6.2) also alleviates pressure on Gordon Hayward (41.8 3FG%) to be a stout post presence at both ends. While he’s not shooting the rock with high efficiency in the paint (40.0 FG% from 3-to-10 feet, as per bball-ref) or on the perimeter (33.9 3FG%), the frequency of Bridges' high-efficiency targets (just 3 of 163 2FGAs beyond 10 feet) help maximize his on-court production. Ball and the Hornets could stand to initiate Miles' touches more often in the paint, where his 77.8 FG% (on just 2.3 shots per game, as per stats) ranks 5th in the league (min. 10 games & 2 paint FGAs). Plumlee, by comparison, gets almost double Bridges’ paint touches, although he has the sense to pass safely out of most of them (NBA-high 41.0 pass%). Despite the occasional brilliance of Ball, the Hornets (NBA-high 30.9 PPG on spot-up plays), even with gunners like Terry Rozier and Kelly Oubre, are committed to moving the pill effectively. While playing at a high pace, all five starters average at-or-above three assists per game, and their 1.90 assist/TO team ratio ranks third in The Association. Thanks to Bogdan Bogdanovic (season-high-tying 6 assists w/ no TOs vs. BOS; 2.6 APG, down from 3.3 last season), the Hawks are beginning to realize the importance of not simply letting the ball stick wherever Trae Young (last 7 games: 9.1 APG, 5.3 TOs/game) hurls it. After Bogi, only Collins and the thawing bench guard Delon Wright (each w/ 2.1 APG; Wright had 5 assists and no TOs vs. ORL) average over two assists per game for Atlanta. Not every pass delivered from Young is required to result in a shot attempt, although the Hawks seem to take this notion a tad too much to heart (NBA-low 22.1 catch-and-shoot FGAs/game; 55.4 C&S eFG%, 5th-highest in NBA). The more confident and creative the Hawks (2.13 assists/TO ratio this week, 5th in NBA) get with their ballhandling decisions, particularly off catches from Trae, the less opponents can predictably drill down on their brightest star. Charlotte’s daring and dazzling playmakers make them must-see TV in the Land O' League Pass. But for those attending games in their stadium, they’d love to see at least one flag, commemorating a division title or two, make its way up into the rafters soon. Certainly, before Walker’s number gets up there beside Bobby Phills’. A division banner would mean as much to the fans as the team quenching its five-year-long playoff drought, if not more. But getting there will require beating the other division darlings, past and present, that stand in their way. Tonight’s game is shaping up to be a veritable springboard. But while it may set up a vault for the victor, their opponents may find themselves trying to avert another dive. Today, and come April, whose wings will be flying the highest? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. “I’ll allow one chair throw at halftime, Mel. ONE. Make it count!” Excuse the good folks of Charlotte, North Carolina if they’re tuning out of social media tonight, shortly after today’s affair between their Hornets and the Atlanta Hawks (1 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast in CHA and ATL, 92.9 FM in ATL). Following up on great documentaries reviewing the NFL’s 1983 and the NBA’s 1984 draft classes, NBATV is airing “Ready Or Not”, the stories of the many noteworthy players who put on shiny, baggy suits and shook David Stern’s hand at the 1996 NBA Draft. Charlotte’s a lovely town, I’m sure, to live in, especially when you’ve got wads of cash to stash, and it’s even a fun place to root on the local teams in teal. But on a couple occasions every year -- some predictable, some not -- a twister of commentary blows across the Queen City, the product of a combination of blissfully unaware Gen-Z’ers and millennials and crabby boomers and Gen-X’ers. The unifying sound, like an oncoming train, blares the same way every time: “The Hornets traded away WHO to get Vlade Divac?” 25 years of defensiveness and diviseness over a trade that’s become the stuff of legend will wear on anybody. When the quarter-century anniversary of the day of the 1996 Draft comes around, on July 29, and again on 8/24 Day, when the “What If?” thinkpieces make their way back around the Internet, Charlotteans will rather just dip into their shells than go around snapping at people. “12 other teams could’ve had him before he fell to us! We weren’t even trying to draft him!” Okay. While trading away a raw high school prospect named You Know Who was arguably the second-most notorious of own-goals in NBA Draft history (as an aside: get ready, Charlotte’s getting an MLS team next year! Copycats.), it was not necessarily the worst in Bobnets/Horcats team history. Never mind 2021, former #3 pick Adam Morrison is still crying somewhere over Gonzaga’s 2006 March Madness run, and ACC fans around town sobbed that he couldn’t at least have been Shelden Williams. Missing out on CP3 the year before, and having to settle for Raymond Felton, wasn’t much of a consolation. At least Justise Winslow’s struggles help to make everyone forget about Frank Kaminsky. When they did hit on somebody with a Lottery pick – Emeka Okafor, Kemba Walker – the Charlotte brass failed spectacularly at building around them. Baron Davis might have become the exception, had then-owner George Shinn not literally screwed his way out of town. In the middle of 2017-18, GM Rich Cho got the MJ Axe in part because, while backup guard Malik Monk (out, sprained ankle) is a’ight, he’s here while Donovan Mitchell, John Collins and Bam Outtadabyou are not. P.J. Washington is passable as a starting forward, by default, but he’s hanging around here at Spectrum Center only because Cho’s replacement, Mitch Kupchak, is still here, too, while his UK teammate drafted next, the sneering Tyler Herro, is not (statistically, passing up Herro for P.J. has been a wash, but the fawning national media can’t seem to tell). As a backup big with the occasional open three and highlight-reel dunk, Miles Bridges is a’ight, as evidenced by his team-high 26 points in Friday’s 127-118 win against Mike Budenholzer’s Half Dollars in Milwaukee. But he’s here, and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is not. If you wish to find a Draft day mistake from 2018, it’s a good idea to start, and end, there. What may become the 1996 Draft-trade reprise, from 2018, was not the finest hour for Mitch, the beneficiary of the old adage that if you can’t beat the Lakers, hire somebody the Lakers just pushed out. Yet not everything is about the top of the Draft, and not everything Kupchak and the Hornets have done in the past few years have been flops. Literally the next hour after trading away SGA, Charlotte sent the Hawks a pair of second-rounders for their selection of Devonte’ Graham, who carried the Hornets through the dregs of last season until the pandemic disruption. While his interior scoring skills have been wretched, Graham has been the league’s premier backcourt on-ball defender (NBA-best 4.20 Defensive Real Plus-Minus, as per BSPN; only Mike Conley and Pat Beverley are in the low 3’s), a literal “3-and-D” point guard that could have been a more useful complement as a backup to Trae Young (questionable for today, bruised calf; 4th-lowest among tracked PGs with a minus-3.23 DRPM). A couple days later, Charlotte got the least-stiff among Timofey Mozgov, Julyan Stone, Jerian Grant and Bismack Biyombo in a multi-team deal. Biyombo knows his role – block a shot, dunk a ball, try not to get hack-a-smacked, sit the heck down – and plays it well enough that he’s starting now. With the departure of John Wall and Aaron Gordon to other teams, there remain just two NBA players who have yet to leave the team that drafted them Top-5 in 2013 or any years prior. There’s Jordan Brand ambassador Bradley Beal, with the Wizards at least for now. And there’s Cody Zeller, who has remained serviceable in Charlotte for as long as he can stay upright. The big-bag contract extension he signed in 2016 (we’re gonna need a documentary on that train-wreck of an offseason, too) comes off the books after this season, allowing the Hornets space to be players this summer (autumn?) during free agency. Living up to his name, Kemba walked in 2019, but Kupchak still managed to get Terry Rozier for his troubles via sign-and-trade. Since leaving Boston, Terry’s jumpshot is no longer scary (40.5 3FG% this year, 40.7 percent last season), and he has embraced his role of being the reliable finisher in the clutch (3.5 clutch PPG, 0.2 PPG more than Young; 52.2 3FG%). Charlotte is 16-6 in clutch situations with a league-best +3.7 team plus/minus, spearheaded by Rozier (+4.0, best among NBA’s highest clutch scorers, min. 15 clutch games played). Mitch also pried agent Gordon Hayward free from Boston’s clutches this past year, netting extra second-rounders in the process, and folks still wonder why the Celtics don’t look so formidable this year. The flip side of screwing up drafts so routinely is, you tend to find yourself back in similar spots with a chance to make amends. Charlotte lucked out by leapfrogging Atlanta (and Cleveland, New York, Detroit, and Chicago) to wind up with the 3rd pick in the NBA Draft, and needed only to do so much work as to let LaMelo Ball fall into their laps. Coupled with the Hornets’ crunch-time viability, Ball and the flashy play that accompanies his flashy family’s name (team-high 7.7 assists per-36), is what made Charlotte a League Pass darling. Until a broken wrist a few weeks ago derailed his nightly threat of achieving triple-doubles (made good, for the first and only time, so far, in Charlotte’s 113-105 win over the visiting Hawks back on Jan. 9), Ball’s 2.9 Win Shares metric was blowing away the rookie competition (your per-48 Win Shares leader in the rookie clubhouse? Onyeka Okongwu, naturally). You can’t say the Hornets would have fared much better, or any worse, under the tutelage of Steve Clifford, but James Borrego has been proving himself to be capable of designing winning plays when the talent is healthy and growing together. Charlotte has suffered a few big losses in games since the All-Star Break, but no actual disappointing ones, unless you count losing by 30 in Boston last Sunday, just days after the oft-injured Hayward (out for at least three more weeks) sprained his foot. They’re back home following a six-game road trip that took them no further west than Oklahoma City. A question. When was the last time a reigning Eastern Conference champion kept their coach and their core intact entering the following season, and then failed to win their Division? I’d venture a guess that it has been a minute. Hawks ace assistant Melvin Hunt was with then-player development coach Lloyd Pierce in Cleveland, when GM Danny Ferry’s 2008 Cavs ceded the Central Division to the Rip Hamilton’s Pistons. Coach Bud was primed to pounce, in 2015 with the Hawks and in 2019 with the Bucks, when LeBron bailed from respective locales of Miami and Cleveland, but James was essentially the core, so those teams don’t count. With apologies to firestarter Solomon Hill, the Miami heat’s biggest loss in the 2020 offseason was starter Jae Crowder, the Villa Rican heading west to Phoenix in free agency. Literally everyone else returned. Miami added a Top-20 draft pick and sought out mid-season upgrades in the form of guys named Oladipo and Bjelica. And it still might not be enough to secure a Southeast Division title. So, sure, at this stage of the season, this Hawks fan is getting greedy. I want another banner to gawk at when peering up in the State Farm Arena rafters next fall. Context, schmontext. Someone is going to have one that says, “2020-2021 Southeast Division Champions”, with no asterisks sewed in, and I’d much rather that joint be dangling in Georgia, than in North Carolina or Florida. Hawks fans had to wait over two decades for our last division title, why hold out any longer for another? Atlanta (28-25) can’t win a tie-breaker over the Hornets (27-24, ahead by percentage points for 4th in NBA East), thanks to the defeats at the latter’s hands during the same week back in early January. But the Hawks could get at least one more win in hand in the race not only for a coveted 4-seed, but the Southeast Division title. Our futbol brethren, Atlanta United didn’t sit around waiting for old-hat clubs and wannabe regional upstarts to enjoy their days in the spotlight, first. Josef and the Five Stripes entered the sport, named it – We’re the Kings of the South – and claimed it. Even as Ball sits, the national media is prepping for Jimmy Butler and Bradley Beal to hand LaMelo the baton as the marquee-ready fresh face of the NBA Southeast. Trae Young’s Hawks, however, have a great opportunity to seize not only the division, homecourt advantage over perhaps the Hornets or heat, and a momentous first-round victory, but the prevalent narrative, of who is the Southeast favorite going forward, in the process of it all. Ready, or not. Barring a playoff meeting, it looks like the Hornets will avoid the wrath of Tony Snell (out, sprained ankle) and, in they’re lucky, Danilo Gallinari (questionable, sore foot), the latter of whom came alive 15 fourth-quarter points in the Friday’s 120-108 win over the Bulls. Graham, Rozier and the Martin Twins, Zan and Jana, were able to sink their teeth into Young (combined 7-for-28 FGs, incl. 0-for-8 3FGs, 13 assists and 12 TOs vs. CHA in January) largely because he had next-to-no perimeter help. Everyone aside from Kevin Huerter in the 102-94 loss at home on January 26, shot 5-for-28 from downtown. Aside from Hill (3-for-5 3FGs) a few nights later in Charlotte, things didn’t get much better (11-for-40 3FGs everyone else). The one fellow who could change the outlook today, easing things up for Young (1-for-6 3FGs vs. CHI, but 11-for-14 FTs and copious floaters for 42 points, plus 8 boards and 9 dimes) and/or Lou Williams (15 points and 3 steals vs. CHA w/ LAC on March 20), is Bogdan Bogdanovic. Bogi is eager to avoid a slump after missing all four three-point attempts in Atlanta’s comeback win over Chicago (I’m told Zach LaVine is still at The Farm this morning, trying to break Wilt’s record). Having outside shooters the Hornets must take seriously will open up the paint (CHA’s minus-1.9 paint points-per 48 is 3rd-largest differential in NBA East, worst among East playoff contenders) for Clint Capela (22-and-10 vs. CHI), Okongwu and the Hawks’ driving guards. If Atlanta is to avoid a season sweep today, they will want to do as other opponents have done and put Charlotte to bed early, avoiding a late charge led by Scary Terry. Hornets fans will be tuning in to the game, cheering their team on in hopes of victory in this Sunday matinee of Southeast Division rivals, then turning their watching devices off and unplugging everything for 24 hours. I can’t blame them. It’s not like their team passed up on That Man for Priest Lauderdale or something. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. Back before Trae, LP, and John, there was… Tidbits! The Atlanta Hawks hosted three disappointing games over the prior seven days against fellow non-Bubble teams, but all were consecutive fourth-games-in-six-nights. After a couple days off to reset, practice, and engage in some intriguing film sessions, will the Hawks use their rest advantage to pay back the Charlotte Hornets (CORRECTION: 7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL)? The Hornets (4-5) return home triumphantly after slow-boiling the Pelicans in a primetime Big Ball Brother bash last night in N’Awlins. Coming off his career-high 44 on Wednesday in Atlanta, Gordon Hayward rediscovered his groove in the fourth quarter yesterday with 22 of his team-high 26 points arriving in the second half. Maybe Road is where the Heart is? In the early going, 12 NBA clubs have winning road records, as many as the clubs with winning home marks. Atlanta’s 1-3 at The Farm, the sole victory nearly fumbling away a 20+ point lead to Detroit, while they’re 3-1 so far on the road, the sole loss a competitive one in Brooklyn. Charlotte would like to not only zip past the Hawks (4-4) in the standings today, but also even up their 1-2 record at Spectrum Center like they did their road record (3-3; 2 back-to-back losses at home-dominant Philly) in New Orleans. The Hornets’ biggest margin of victory (+18) so far came at Lukaland. Charlotte had two strong performers off the bench yesterday, in “Sky Miles” Bridges (20 points @ NOP, 4-for-6 3FGs plus a bunch of highlight-reel jams) and the triple-double-hunting LaMelo Ball (10 boards, 9 assists @ NOP), who looked way more comfy running the floor than his big bro 'Zo. If the Hawks keep their starting unit intact, they could use a stronger 1-2 bench punch from wings Bogdan Bogdanovic and Kevin Huerter (5-for-12 3FGs, 6 assists, 1 TO vs. CHA on Wed.). Bogi has had more time to heal up his once-stiff ankle and must be a better finisher on plays inside the 3-point arc (38.9 FG%). Huerter (112.8 D-Rating) has been Atlanta’s most susceptible defender so far, especially on occasions when his help defense (team-high 1.3 SPG) doesn’t create turnovers, the Hawks don’t rotate, and opponents find open teammates in their comfort zones easily. Reinforcements may be coming in the next couple weeks, including Tony Snell (questionable for today, foot). But for now, Bogi and Reddy V must be two cylinders properly firing. A listless effort from Trae Young (6 of his 7 TOs in the 1st half on Wed.) and the Hawks’ starters on Wednesday (1-for-18 combined 3FGs vs. CHA) created a first-half hole (27-11 after one quarter, 59-40 after two) that could not be overcome. Their poor execution, and inability to get to the free throw line, obscured Atlanta’s ability to hold the Hornets to 30.7 3FG% at the other end. It’s hard to tell the Hawks’ perimeter defense is the league’s most effective (NBA-best 30.0 opponent 3FG%). Opponents are finding the interior chances they need when Cam Reddish and De’Andre Hunter are shielding outside shooters, which is the bad side of the 19 rebounds (13 defensive) that made their way into Clint Capela’s capable hands. Whether it’s drawing charges, winning 50/50 balls, or aggressively pressuring ballhandlers at the point of attack, Atlanta needs to force more stops (12.5 opponent TOs per-48, 4th-lowest in NBA; 1 paltry team block vs. CHA on Wed) on a regular basis, particularly when the ball makes its way inside. The Hawks must also create quality scoring opportunities in transition (1.07 PPP on those plays, 6th-lowest in NBA; 9.8% FT frequency; 2nd-lowest), as Charlotte (20.0 points per-48 off TOs, 4th-best in NBA; 27 off-TO points on Friday) did so effectively last night in New Orleans. It has been a tale of two cities at the charity stripe. Atlanta comes into today sinking 81.3 FT% (3rd-best in NBA), even with a cold Capela. That’s been completely offset by opponents nailing an NBA-high 82.7 percent of their freebies. Conversely, Charlotte comes into today shooting a lukewarm 73.1 FT% (6th-worst in the league), despite scoring leader Hayward sinking free throws at a 91.2 percent clip. Their fortune comes from opponents making just 70.9 percent of their chances (4th-lowest in NBA). No matter the outcome today, the Hawks’ most urgent opportunity for victory awaits on Monday, assuming there is in fact a game to play ahead of a three-game West Coast road trip. Doc Rivers’ 76ers plan to arrive in the ATL after playing this afternoon in Denver with just nine (CORRECTION already: eight, really seven today with Mike Scott sitting, too) healthy and COVID-eligible bodies, two of whom are two-way players. There’s no need to look ahead, but Atlanta will not want to conclude Monday night looking like unprepared victims of The Walking Dead. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  6. “We’re the Atlanta Hawks. We are not a joke!” Let’s give some flowers to LaVar Ball, shall we? We are now well into our third week of rusty NBA basketball, and LaMelo Ball has yet to be named a starter in a Charlotte Hornets game. Playing ahead of the 6-foot-7, 19-year-old Chino Hills sensation on the Charlotte Hornets? A 6-foot-1 point guard, living off his breakout from last season, who is draining just 18.8 percent of his two-point looks. And a 6-foot-1 shoot-first guard, the established consolation for 2019’s loss of Kemba Walker, who is statistically and eye-test-ically a bottom-five guard on defense. Devonte’ Graham’s scoring offense (39.0 TS%, 3rd-lowest among NBA’ers w/ 5+ games and 20+ MPG) has made Terry Rozier’s defense (116.9 D-Rating, negative-15.4 Net Rating) look a little less scary. Yet, due to incumbency, they continue to start together. LaMelo has come off the bench and offered glimpses of Ballin’ Out, but he’s still solidly under the control of coach James Borrego. On Saturday in Philadelphia, Ball became the youngest NBA player to drop a boxscore line of at least 13 points, five dimes, four boards, four swipes, and two swats. He messed around real nice on Monday, too (12 points, 9 assists, 7 rebounds in 30 minutes). But the 76ers made mutton out of LaMB’s teammates in both games, hanging on to big second-half leads (imagine that!) to drop the Hornets to 2-5. Losers of three straight, Charlotte heads into State Farm Arena to kickstart a home-and-home with the Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 in ATL). And yet, the first father with a surname that begins with B openly lashing out on his prodigal son’s organization is not the one most anyone would have guessed. You’re not turning on “First Things First Take Hot Take” and catching LaVar calling out Borrego in between pot-shots at the hosts, or demanding a trade anywhere out of Carolina, or claiming that Jordans are only the second-best shoe on the market (did anybody’s Big Baller Brand orders come in yet?). If he is on Twitter tweeting anything about anything, you wouldn’t know it without looking. For the Bugs, that’s a big win, certainly bigger than any victory they could achieve by the end of this week. LaVar’s public silence remains a testament to his maturing as an NBA Dad. Toe-tapping dreams of “My Three Sons” playing together and lighting up Tinseltown didn’t come to fruition. But think of the gumption it takes, like Rayford Young, Jr., to orient your child toward one day becoming an NBA lottery pick, proudly naming it and proclaiming it, and seeing it through. Now, do it again with a second kid. One who, like the older bro, won’t make it to the bigs by virtue of height alone. But for an immature and international incident before a game against Georgia Tech in Shanghai, a third Brother Ball might have been well on his way to pulling off the trifecta. Three boys, all growing up to get at least a sniff of NBA action, two of them Top-3 draft picks, by a dad with no Tito-style NBA pedigree to speak of. It’s not a Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson truck pull. But you must admit, that’s one heck of a lift. LaVar’s silence is a testament to his willingness to defer to the aura of His Airness. Michael Jordan’s stewardship of the Hornets franchise has been less than stellar, and the urgency for the small-market owner to get GM/PBO Mitch Kupchak to Do! Something! to turn the former Bobcats’ fortunes around brings guys like ex-Celts Rozier (team-high 21.6 PPG, 44.6 3FG%) and Gordon Hayward (18.7 PPG, 4.7 APG) to the Tar Heel State under iffy contract terms. But if The Last Dance reinforces anything, it’s that MJ is a petty, vengeful man. And you don’t want to create bad juju for your son, or your family, or your fledging startup LLC, by stirring up Jordan’s villainous vindictiveness. Mr. LaVar seems to understand that. LaVar’s silence is a testament to LaMelo and Lonzo as well. It turns out, people care a lot less about what your father has to say when you’re not playing for one of sports’ media-market darlings. When you’ve been dispatched by LeGM to Louisiana, when you’re scratching out your hopefully Hall of Fame career in Charlotte, or Atlanta, or Sacramento, you could probably endure your parents’ Twitter fingers getting occasionally itchy. Big Ray Young’s only entries into the Hawks’ complaint box were a couple of surreptitious “likes” of comments, back in February of last year, questioning Team USA assistant Lloyd Pierce for suggesting it wasn’t quite yet Tokyo Time for Trae. Earlier this week, even before the Hawks doubled-down on their downward trend at home with a collapse versus the Knicks, there was a not-directed-at-anyone-in-particular Retweet of a comment suggesting coaches need to look inward for criticism when their youthful players are struggling. Aside from that, not so much as a blip of consternation. That’s a display of respect by an NBA Dad, accentuating the positive, allowing his son to sort out trying stretches privately, with his coaching staff, just like every other teammate is doing. Like Ray, LaVar is understanding he can’t get away with being an AAU Dad anymore. LaVar’s silence about LaMelo coming off the bench in Charlotte is a testament. It is also a testa-his patience. “If he is your Marquee Guy,” LaVar queried about LaMelo, in front of TMZ cameras before his BBB holiday charity event in L.A., “what Marquee Guy don’t start?” He’s not wrong. Not even after a fairly treacherous preseason for LaMelo (26.2 preseason FG%, 3.5 TOs/game). Big Baller Brood’s comments were critical, but more on the side of promoting his son being able to cut his teeth from the outset of games, like his top-tier draft-mates hope to do (note that 2020 top pick Anthony Edwards is awaiting his first start, too), and not fire-roasting the team who is fashioning this rookie, for now, as a useful sixth-man. Kupchak expressed being perfectly fine keeping his powder dry. His Hornets planned to sit on its cap space (including Nic Batum’s expiring deal) and grow slow around their surprise Lottery prize, after a 23-42 season whose prospects, around Most Improved Player award finalist Graham, seemed to be brightening (7-6 in 2020’s final regular season games) before the league cut the lights off. But then, Charlotte’s cap-rich cousins down south started making free agent splish-splashes. Meanwhile, rumors were billowing that Washington wanted to go wowy for Westbrook. The calls from Jordanland started pouring in: Do! Something! So Mitch ditched the old plan, and reeled in a player the prior regime lusted after. Hayward signed an offer sheet with the Hornets back in 2014, one that Utah matched and only made easier for Charlotte to later pry free Batum from Portland, in that awful 2016 free agency season. They got Hayward, but not the form of the Jazz’s 2017 All-Star. After unfortunately breaking his leg in Game 1 of the next season with the Celtics, Hayward has worked his way back to All-Star-caliber minutes, and usage (23.2%). But he’s not quite at the scale of efficiency we saw even in his final season with Boston (52.3 eFG%, down from a career-best 56.1% last season). Not being able to supplement young star wings Jaylen Brown or Jayson Tatum, but instead having to be one of those guys while rounding back into form at age 30, isn’t helping. Hayward (112.5 D-Rating) has to help plug the frontcourt dam, too. Longtime mainstay Cody Zeller is hurt yet again, the would-be starting center gone for the next 2-4 weeks due to hand surgery. Thus Bismack Biyombo (career-high 9.4 PPG and 28 MPG; 7.1 RPG) is getting overused, while second-year sophomore big P.J. Washington (37.5 FG% in past 3 losses; 42.6 2FG%) appears a bit overwhelmed. The Hornets have been scrappy at forcing turnovers via steals, specifically Ball (NBA-high 3.6 Steal%) and Hayward, while getting a boost in rim protection from Miles Bridges (1.6 BPG) off the bench. They’ve been Capitol-Police-crappy at keeping opponents from turning up the tempo and getting the shots they want (NBA-worst 17.9 opponent fastbreak points per-48). Like Cleveland, Charlotte comes into The Farm hoping for a successful trust fall, courtesy of the Hawks (4-3). Sphincterball takes hold in Atlanta anytime foes’ unlucky shots and breaks get lucky. Tightening up affects everything from Trae Young staying sound as a playmaker (36.7 2nd-half FG%), to Old Reliable John Collins (48.6 FG% 2nd-half FG%) finishing plays around the rim, to the whole team moving the rock (4.9 4th-quarter APG, 26th in NBA), hitting jumpers (30.6 4th-quarter 3FG%, 18th in NBA; 39.1% and 6th for full games), and disrupting opposing offenses when it’s time to close the deal. Playing it too cool early has allowed the Cavs and Knicks to hang around early, leaving points in their bag that shouldn’t be there when they make their 15-point comebacks in the second half. The idea of “Cam Clutch” isn’t as strong as the reality of the defensively stout Reddish unable to produce much at the other end of the floor in the first half (32.9 first-half FG%). A swifter hook of Reddish by Pierce, in lieu of Bogdan Bogdanovic, can help Atlanta start stronger early, so Cam can be of better service against Charlotte’s desperate, but proficient playmakers (NBA-high 29.7 team APG; they also allow an NBA-high 29.9 APG) late. Tonight, we’ll have the first inklings of what ought to be a fascinating, competitive division rivalry between two of the NBA’s top young point guard stars, one already an All-Star starter by Season #2, the other a soon-to-be starter on the Hornets. With the proper support around them, on the floor, on the sidelines, and at home, they’ll reach the lofty heights they’re aiming for. But it will be easier on these two, and everyone around them, if the Papas Don’t Preach. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  7. “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
  8. I still suspect Sue Ellen had something to do with it. ~lw3
  9. Buyout, then Fly out! ~lw3
  10. “Te’ YOUNG!” ‘Tis a tough time if you’re a Torero. Back before James Borrego hooped at the University of San Diego, a pipeline was already growing. USD alum Bernie Bickerstaff got Mike Brown into the pro ranks as an unpaid video coordinator. After establishing his foothold in the league, Brown would hire Chris Grant, who later worked his way up the Atlanta Hawks’ front office ranks for a decade. At Golden State, former Hawks assistant Eric Musselman reeled up David Fizdale, who was a USD player-turned-assistant while Borrego was playing at the Jenny Craig Pavilion. By the next season, Fizdale was an assistant helping coach Mike Woodson lug the Hawks out of the NBA abyss. Borrego immediately shifted from student-athlete to assistant coach for this otherwise unremarkable West Coast Conference school when the NBA’s Spurs, with a recommendation from departing assistant coach Brown, came calling with an open video coordinator spot. The number of USD alums currently serving as NBA head coaches was sliced in half over the weekend. Fizdale’s firing by the Nyuk Nyuk Knicks leaves Borrego as the last Torero standing. He’ll need to have his up-and-down Charlotte Hornets ready to go in a Sunday matinee at Spectrum Center against their division rival Hawks (5:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL). Like Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce and, until Friday, like Coach Fiz, Borrego is in his second season clutching the clipboard for a team that’s below the NBA playoff line. The Hawks (5-17) have been undergoing a controlled burn during this time, while the Knicks (4-18) have sustained the look and smell of a dumpster fire. It is hard to assess, at this stage, which organization the Hornets (9-15) better reflects, largely because it’s difficult to sense what even the near-term plan is, for owner Michael Jordan and GM Mitch Kupchak. That has left Borrego as a prisoner of circumstance. The team is no longer obligated to cater to franchise face Kemba Walker, who left this past summer for Beantown. But Charlotte did get Celtics backup Terry Rozier (17.9 PPG, 41.9 3FG% w/ CHA) in return. Borrego and the Hornets staff are charged with appeasing the point guard, and developing him into a star contributor, in hopes things don’t get too scary in the Carolinas. Well, then along comes Raleigh-raised guard Devonte’ Graham. Emerging to become the team’s surprise leading scorer (19.1 PPG, 42.1 3FG%), the second-year second-rounder has been not only a top perimeter threat (88 3FGs, 2nd in NBA) but the team’s superior playmaking passer (7.8 APG, 3.2 TOs/game). Borrego can’t bench the guy who was supposed to be the primary play-setter, Rozier. So, might as well start them together. A shade below Fizdale’s beleaguered Knick, Dennis Smith, Jr., the league’s bottom-dweller in Player-Impact Plus-Minus (as calculated by Bball-Index) has been the Hornets’ Miles Bridges. To this point, “Sky Miles” has also logged over 100 minutes more, in some cases 450 minutes more, than any of the next 17 NBA players ranked ahead of him in PIPM. Having traded down in 2018 to acquire Bridges and a pair of future second-rounders for All-Rookie Second-Teamer Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, Kupchak and the Hornets don’t want it to look as though they’ve followed his predecessors’ footsteps with a draft-day mistake. So, the high-flying, low efficiency forward might as well start, alongside rookie forward PJ Washington. It’s a pairing that would seem redundant but for the latter’s sweet shooting from outside (42.1 3FG%). Mainstay center Cody Zeller (team-high 53.0 FG% and 13.0 O-Reb%) bruised his hip during a five-game losing skid, and along comes Bismack Biyombo (career-high 7.4 PPG), who suddenly played like a man trying to shed that Bust-mack label once and for all. Biyombo has since ebbed, and Zeller’s healthy again. For Borrego, who promised since the preseason he’d shake things up to improve Charlotte’s almost Hawks-bad defense (113.5 D-Rating, 27th in NBA, just ahead of ATL’s 113.9; NBA-worst 60.5 opponent 2FG% within 10 feet of rim; 56.0 opponent eFG%, 29th in NBA), but now seems stuck fielding the Graham-Rozier and Bridges-Washington duos? Might as well keep Biyombo in there, too. Two of the three Hornet lineup duos (as per bball-ref) with positive net-scoring effects each include third-year guard Malik Monk. But the undersized shooting guard’s jumper has been so atrocious lately (32.0 FG%, 17.9 3FG% in last seven games) that he has been drifting out of the rotation. Borrego has been relieved of the obligation to give big minutes to draft and free agency gaffes that preceded him, specifically Nic Batum (team-high $25.5 million salary, $27.1 million player option for 2020-21; career-low 3.5 PPG and 36.4 FG% in 22.5 MPG after returning from a finger injury), Michael Kidd-Gilchrist ($13 million salary, two appearances and 18 total minutes played this season), and Monk (drafted two picks ahead of Donovan Mitchell in 2017). But, given the alternate options of unready rookies Cody and Caleb Martin and Jalen McDaniels, or Dwayne Bacon (32.0 FG% on the season)? Borrego might as well let Monk shoot his way out of the funk. The sole free agency veteran pickup that seemed to pan out over time, Marvin Williams (27 points @ ATL last February; probable, knee) can still shoot (career-high 49.6 FG%, 40.0 3FG%) and provide defensive effort, but even his overall in-game production (7.6 PPG, career-low 20.3 minutes/game 4.9 rebounds per-36) seems spotty. Charlotte’s current record appears gaudy compared to Atlanta’s. But before thrashing the Great Value Warriors 106-91 at home last Wednesday, Charlotte had not defeated any team by more than seven points, and even that game was one day before Halloween. They’ve beaten Chicago, Sacramento, Golden State (twice), Detroit (thrice), a Pacers team absent Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, and Fizdale’s Knicks. The win over the scrub-a-Dubs was sandwiched by home losses in the past week to Phoenix and Brooklyn. Seven of the Hornets’ 15 defeats have been by margins of 15 or more points. The quality of Charlotte’s victories wouldn’t get much better today against the Hawks, who arguably are enduring the league’s toughest schedule (NBA-high 56 percent opponent winning percentage, not counting their own contributions to their success, as per In his return home, DeAndre’ Bembry remains in the Hawks’ starting lineup, as De’Andre Hunter (finger) is doubtful to play in what would be a return to the site of his last loss as a collegian, in the 2019 ACC semifinals (Cam Reddish’s Duke squad won the tourney). Early and late, Coach Pierce will want to limit the inefficiencies of Bembry (48.6 FT%, 25.7 3FG%; 1-for-9 FGs vs. BRK on Wednesday) coming to the fore, so one should expect more re-acclimation for Kevin Huerter in his return from shoulder rehab. Having rookie Reddish (25 points, 6-for-10 2FGs, 4-for-7 3FGs, 3 steals), coming off a banner day in Atlanta’s 130-118 loss to the Nets, alongside Huerter (37.8 3FG%), and having both more involved in motion offense, ought to better alleviate Trae Young, the Hawks’ do-it-all-beside-defending-on-ball guard (4th in NBA for Usage%) who could use a wider array of options when he emerges from traps and double-teams. Enhanced wing play should also be enough to add a defense-worthy dimension to an Atlanta offense (53.4 paint points per-48, 2nd in NBA) that gets overly content with dumping the ball inside to the bigs, notably Jabari Parker, Damian Jones and Alex Len, and hoping for the best. The preoccupation with the big-man paint points, particularly via rim-rolling (9.1 roll-man PPG, 2nd-most in NBA; 1.11 PPP, 8th-lowest) and the second-chance rebounding has come at the expense of second-half fatigue that opponents use to bludgeon the Hawks on the defensive end. Defensive transition is lacking (1.14 opponent PPP on transition, tied w/ CHA for 8th-most in NBA) without the frontcourt contributors hustling back, and no team approaches the third-quarter deficiency of Atlanta’s 59.7 D-Reb%, creating deficits too steep for Young (27 of 39 points vs. BRK in second half; 8-for-10 FTs vs. BRK, only two other teammates a combined 5-for-11) to singularly climb out from. Judicious with committing fouls (5th-lowest personal fouls per 48, 2nd-lowest opp. FT%), the Hornets will make it tough on Young or any Hawk to retrieve former NC scholastic hoops star Nique's single-game NBA free-throw perfection record. Still, the Hawks will give themselves an opportunity to steal this game if they return in kind the pressure Young receives on the backcourt scorers of the Hornets, who now turn the ball over more frequently (16.0 TO%, 6th-highest in NBA) than they did in recent seasons with Kemba running the show. Former Hornets coach Steve Clifford has the Magic (four straight wins to reach 11-11) punching above their weight, making the likelihood of Charlotte snagging a 7- or 8-seed less likely with each bad loss. Kupchak and Jordan have expressed confidence in Borrego, not resorting to the Knick-stakes that put Fizdale’s future in early limbo. But without a clear plan as to exactly what they’re building, mounting losses, dotted with unimpressive wins, may cause Charlotteans to question whether the head coach is truly part of the foundation. Borrego himself may begin to question his superiors, as to whether there’s a foundation at all. You stay classy, San Diego alum. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  11. “Où sont toutes les femmes chaudes?” The future of your Atlanta Hawks rests in the capable hands of… Tony Parker? And Nicolas Batum, too? Okay, it’s not that serious. Still, the Hawks may want to be extra nice to the Frenchmen when they pay the Charlotte Hornets a visit (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM in ATL). Travis Schlenk’s draft-and-stashee, the final selection from the 2017 NBA Draft, forward/center Alpha Kaba is currently having his paycheques signed by Parker. The longtime NBA point guard and one-time Finals MVP doubles as the team president for ASVEL Basket, the French LNB Pro A outfit in suburban Villeurbanne. Last year, Parker took Batum (club president of basketball ops) under his employ. Kaba shined for the SummerHawks back in July, putting together an impressive double-double in Atlanta’s Summer League finale. Yet he injured his elbow a month later while training with ASVEL, who have nonetheless raced to the top spot in Pro A action with a 7-1 record. “You can tell he found the weight room in France,” Schlenk told the AJC, clearly impressed by the work he had put in the prior season with Parker’s club. Albeit from afar, Schlenk and Batum are carefully monitoring Alpha’s rehab, as the 22-year-old is expected to be back in action later this month, in time to help his team wrap up Eurocup group play. While he looks awfully weird in teal after so many seasons rocking the black-and-silver, Parker landing in Charlotte as a result of this past summer’s free agency period made sense. For starters, Tony now gets his own checks signed by an accomplished NBA champ. After giving the ineffective Rich Cho the heave-ho, Hornets owner Michael Jordan sought out more folks with a winning pedigree to bring under his wing, starting with Original Redeem Team gold medalist, multiple-time NBA champion, and ex-KobeLakers GM Mitch Kupchak to run the show. To fill the coaching spot vacated by Steve Clifford, Kupchak hired a Spursguy in James Borrego, an assistant on Gregg Popovich’s bench during ten of Parker’s seasons in San Antonio. Beyond the bond with Borrego, Parker saw the opportunity to coordinate directly with Batum on foreign affairs as a positive. Then there’s his most essential role, as a steady backup and reliable stopgap behind Kemba Walker, the two-time All-Star who has all the look of an All-NBA candidate in the early going (career-highs of 28.0 PPG, 52.5 2FG%, 40.4 3FG%, 86.2 FT%; fewest MPG since his 2011-12 rookie year). Having cycled through D.J. Augustin, Mo Williams, Jeremy Lin, Ramon Sessions and Michael Carter-Williams as Kemba backups, the Hornets’ fanbase, Parker knew, wasn’t about to have outsized expectations of the 36-year-old’s current skillset. It’s early, but it appears Parker (5.0 APG, 1.4 TO/game in 18.1 MPG) is clearing a reasonably low bar as a reserve ballhandler. With either Walker or Parker paired with Batum, Borrego fields Hornet lineups that are better equipped to move the ball, even though it occasionally winds up in the hands teammates that are often accuracy-averse. Charlotte ranks 6th in the league with 18.0 assists per 100 possessions (the top three teams in this department are a combined 26-3). Last season’s edition of the Hornets ranked 27th. Maintaining the predecessor coach Clifford’s emphasis on ball control, their 1.99 assist-turnover ratio is just behind pass-happy Golden State, at 3rd in the league. Last season, Charlotte was bottom-ten in threes attempted; this season, they rank 7th. Replacing Dwight Howard in the offseason, effectively, with Bismack Biyombo and a horde of future second-rounders (recouping the picks sent to acquire Willy Hernangomez from New York) hasn’t harmed the Bugs’ defensive efficiency (it helps that they have a healthy Cody Zeller this season to help man the middle, too). As a result, the Hornets’ 7.5 Net Rating (5th in NBA) currently belies their otherwise benign 5-5 record. Aside from Kemba’s brilliance, Charlotte hasn’t opened many eyes around the league yet, not in ways fellow small-market Sacramento has done so far. That’s in part due to a feeble strength-of-victory -- wins have come against Orlando, Miami twice, Chicago, and Cleveland. Also factoring into the muted reactions to the Hornets’ play are the stale remnants of the roster left in Cho’s wake. Shots by Kupchak’s fellow Tar Heel alum, 13-year NBA yeoman Marvin Williams, have landed like dead ducks by the time they approach the rim (37.1 FG%, 20.5 3FG%, 62.5 FT%). Acquired in a draft swap with the LA Clippers for Shai Gilgeous-Alexander, rookie Miles Bridges (39.1 3FG%, team-high 75.0 2FG%) has been gently nudging his way toward Williams’ spot in the starting lineup. Another former second-overall draftee, Michael Kidd-Gilchrist remains the WYSIWYG of the NBA, a defensive pest for forwards and wings, but incapable of extending his range beyond the paint. The dead-and-buried lottery bust Frank Kaminsky has become the spirit animal representing Hornet draftees’ unfulfilled promise, and the cover model for Deadspin’s latest list of “Butt” NBA youngsters. Batum, Williams, and Zeller aren’t going anywhere, not with their eight-figure salaries guaranteed through at least next season. It’s unlikely that Biyombo or MKG, slated to again make $30 million combined as opt-ins next season, will be dipping, either. The crux of the issue for the Hornets is that Walker and Jeremy Lamb very well might this summer. Returning the backcourt starters at their respective market value will only further bloat a core payroll that no one foresees as championship or even contender quality. For Charlotte to become more than they are, Kupchak’s cupboard must be emptied, somehow, of the treadmill veterans he inherited. And his coaching staff has to find a way to get 20-year-olds Bridges and Malik Monk playing consistently ahead of their development curves. For the Hawks (3-6), Taurean Prince’s ankle sprain, suffered late during Saturday’s 123-118 win over Miami, will produce even more next-man-up action out of Lloyd Pierce’s reserves. Kevin Huerter may become the third rookie inserted into the starting lineup, in place of Prince. Chapel Hill legend Vince Carter may make a return to the top line as well. But another strong option could be former Charlotte Nets AAU star DeAndre’ Bembry. Despite a recent swoon, DeAndre’ has been pure Pierre from the perimeter (42.9 3FG%), a vast improvement from injury-riddled seasons past. He and/or Huerter could help draw Batum, the Hornets’ top defensive rebounder (6.5 RPG), out of the paint. But he’ll have to be a stronger finisher on his forays inside (39.2 FG%; 2nd-most missed FTs on the team) to balance out his offensive threat. Bembry and Kent Bazemore will be switching intermittently to relieve Young of the defensive pressure of containing Walker. Trae, in turn, must be ready to help with intercepting dishes out to Batum (40.0 3FG%, 4.1 APG) and Monk (13.4 PPG, 2nd on the team in scoring). Omari Spellman (team-high 1.8 O-Rebs per game), Dewayne Dedmon, ex-Hornet Miles Plumlee and The Alexes (Len and Poythress) need to crash the glass as a platoon, keeping Zeller, MKG, and Hernangomez occupied and unable to maximize second-chances for the Hornets. Keeping Kidd-Gilchrist, Marvin, and the Charlotte bigs from helping Walker and Parker would allow Young and the Hawks to execute plays and, in combination with Prince’s absence, keep the turnover margin with the stingy Hornets close. Charlotte’s offense relies heavily on the point guards driving inside and drawing trips to the charity stripe. Keeping a wing defender in front of Parker and/or Walker and getting them to pick up their dribble before they get into the paint, without fouling, will lower the Hornets’ offensive efficiency and keep the Hawks in the contest late. No matter the outcome tonight, Atlanta had better stay on Parker and Batum’s good sides. That is, unless we want Alpha Kaba to become the next Alain Digbeu. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  12. TRADE SZN! Where is Dwight off to, now? Mozgov (also in this deal) fell out with Coach Kenny and made it public, while Dwight's ex-Magic coach (Cliff) got fired by Charlotte and is back in Orlando now, so this deal makes a little sense for both clubs. ~lw3
  13. Moar Spurz Guyz! ~lw3
  14. “Next stop… NBA championship glory!” No, Dwight Howard, you’re no Coach Killer! Not anymore, anyway. These days, think of yourself as more of a PBO/GM Manslaughterer. Howard arrived in Charlotte hoping to resurrect his formidable but fun-loving reputation, once more, under the auspices of his trusted coach from olden, more golden days of yore. Now Howard arrives for the final time this season at the Highlight Factory, with the GM who acquired him summarily dispatched, while suddenly lame-duck coach Steve Clifford is nearly on the outs, too. Perhaps coach (and former PBO) Mike Budenholzer and his Atlanta Hawks can lob Coach Cliff, Dwight, and the Hornets yet another lifeline tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Carolinas). This time next week, Philips Arena will be populated to the rafters with countless fans of Final Four hopefuls, and more than a few discerning NBA scouts as well. While March Madness is thrilling for most of us, prognosticating by the seats of our pants and pulling for schools we’ve never heard of before, it must be an increasingly bittersweet feeling for the Carolina Ranger. Seven years removed from a blistering run to the NCAA Championship, Kemba Walker is finally getting All-Star accolades, but seems to be losing his way as the luster from his One Shining Moment wears thin. Hornet/Bobcat fans have learned, as well as anyone, that Tank-and-Stir isn’t a surefire way to NBA title contention. Kemba entered the league with all the well-deserved media hype and, with a college championship ring in hand, took Charlotte by storm, one Dougie dance at a time. The Bobcats didn’t wind up with the worst lottery odds, or the number-one pick, but when Walker landed in their laps, they sure felt like a 49er finally striking gold. Their new Savior was a good soldier, as fans endured the worst NBA campaign (7-59) in recorded history, plus a franchise remake on and off the court, with Kemba at center stage amid it all. There were supposed to be more than five first-round home playoff games in the Queen City by now. Kemba was supposed to be the effervescent talent that puts Charlotte routinely front-and-center on TNT Thursday nights, the lead guard with a dizzying handle and a unique five-letter name beginning with K who draws other superstars to his once-struggling NBA locale for annual shots at NBA Finals. But now, in 2018, Walker looks around him and is certainly scratching his head. That 7-59 tanktastic campaign begat Michael Kidd-Gilchrist, a 2012 second-overall pick and fellow NCAA champion, a defensive savant who can never stay healthy enough to resolve his flaws at the other end of the floor. There’s Cody Zeller, the fourth-overall pick from 2013. The golden boy arrived in the Tar Heel State with similar post-March Madness promise. Yet Zeller has settled in as a solid reserve, behind Dwight, with his own sketchy injury history (unlikely to play tonight due to a knee injury). There’s Frank Kaminsky, 2015’s Naismith and Wooden Award winner and NCAA finalist, who has had a career arc that’s roughly the inverse of MKG’s. The season before he got there, Noah Vonleh was the belle of the ball at ninth-overall. He became a near-instant washout. But flipping him to Portland allowed the Hornets to gamble with Nicolas Batum, who stuck around for his big NBA payday but has yet to consistently display the sharp-shooting 3-and-D promise he once flashed as a Blazer (34.1 3FG% w/ CHA in 3 seasons). As Kaminsky was up late this morning, watching Drake and Ninja play Fortnite on Twitch, Walker (22.7 PPG and 43.1 FG%, down slightly from 23.2 and 44.4% last season) must be up wondering why his whole team, that started from the bottom, is still here (in the lottery). He serves as an example of the perils which await lotto-bound teams that forget their work isn't done, once their long-sought Savior arrives via the draft. Kemba knows he isn’t even the first UConn talent that a Charlotte NBA club failed to properly build around. Second-overall pick Emeka Okafor arrived in 2002, and he was subsequently supplemented with top-ten lottery picks Raymond Felton, Adam Morrison, Brandan Wright, and D.J. Augustin before giving up on him. A consistent thread from the prior era, continuing into the current one collected by recently-deposed GM Rich Cho, is most of the Horcats’ choices being swayed by big moments on big college teams on the biggest stage. As all the Dougying around Uptown has given way to Dabbing and, now, just plain Doubting. And as Walker continues looking around, he sees remnants of other teams’ former lottery dreams washing ashore at Lake Norman. Orlando’s 2004 1st-overall pick, Atlanta’s 2005 2nd-overall pick, and Philly’s 11th pick from 2013 and 2014 Rookie of the Year, all collecting checks and biding their time around Kemba, as he prepares for another playoff-less springtime with Charlotte (29-39, 7.0 games behind 8-seed Miami, who swept the Hornets 0-4), his third in the past four NBA seasons. The latter of that trio of once-heralded talents, former Syracuse star Michael Carter-Williams, was supposed to be the kind of steadying backup presence Charlotte gave up on when they traded off first-rounder Shabazz Napier in 2014 for P.J. Hairston. But while Napier is enjoying a career-best season as Damian Lillard’s caddie, MCW lurched his way toward what is, somehow, his worst season ever (career-lows of 36.2 eFG%, 19.5 assist%) before getting shut down two weeks ago for shoulder surgery. Hornets fans hope Carter-Williams’ injury is finally enough of a factor to allow Clifford to begin assigning 2017’s lottery hopeful, Kentucky Wildcat Malik Monk, significant playing time either behind or alongside Walker. Monk has gone from mere spot duty to about 15-20 minutes per game in the past month. But as playoff hopes dim for Charlotte (Tragic Number: 8), losers of six of their past seven games, one should expect a lot more than that. How transformable is this outfit? The next Hornets GM is about to find out. Aside from MCW, but including Knicks refugee center Willy Hernangomez, plus swingmen Jeremy Lamb (questionable for today, back spasms) and Dwayne Bacon, 11 of Charlotte’s 14 highest-salaried players are under fully guaranteed contracts for 2018-19. That’s a luxury-tax-teasing $117.9 million in team salary, including Kemba’s $12.0 million expiring, but not even counting the rookie-scale deal for 2018’s lottery fantasy. If players can’t be moved in the offseason, the Hornets’ next beekeeper will probably be inclined to make a shift along the sideline. But that’s where Coach Bud can assist Dwight with Coach Cliff’s cause tonight. The Hornets’ record would be all the more deflating without three decisive wins over the Hawks (20-48), by a decisive average score of 117.7 to 103.7. Atlanta has been outrebounded 47.3-35.3 during this season’s series as Howard has feasted (62.5 FG%, season-high 18 made FTs on 27 attempts, 19.3 PPG, 14.0 RPG), playing as close to his desired, centripetal style of play as Clifford will allow. When last these teams met here, on January 31, Howard’s 20-and-12 plus the All-Star-bound Walker’s 38 points (6 assists, 1 TO) was more than enough to outlast a Hawks team led in scoring by the now-departed Marco Belinelli (22 points) and the now-shelved Kent Bazemore (25 points). Baze’s and Belly’s teammates combined to shoot 5-for-20 from three-point land, including Dennis Schröder, who could dish it out (9 assists, 1 TO) but couldn’t take it (0-for-5 3FGs) in a 123-110 defeat. John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon made their marks coming off the bench back then. Now in the starting lineup, Dedmon (37.8 3FG%, 2-for-4 past two games) should be able to freely let it fly, particularly with Howard entrenched in the paint to play traffic controller against Schröder, Isaiah Taylor and the Hawks’ depleted backcourt. Miles Plumlee soaking up minutes (and fouls) off the bench should alleviate Mike Muscala (41.1 3FG%, 9-for-13 past three games) from the indignity of wasting energy guarding Howard around the rim. The small guards should find paths to the hoop with Batum and MKG now obligated to take turns trying to hold down Taurean Prince, who has been finding his offensive stride (10-for-21 3FGs, 13-for-14 FTs last two games) during Atlanta’s brief three-game homestand. His Princely sum of 25 points, in Tuesday’s late-game loss to OKC, followed up his career-high of 38 against the Bulls. Including his game-saving exploits in a win earlier this month against the Suns, Atlanta’s just 2-14 this season when Prince scores 18 or more points. But when he and his floormates are engaged defensively (Atlanta’s 7-0 when he finishes with a plus-minus above +10), Taurean is learning that his collectives can compete well, on most nights, against mediocre competition like the Hornets. For Charlotte, who will want to put this game away early once again, they need more than a wavering effort from Walker, who has laid some eggs in crucial games this month. Four days after dropping 31 in Philly, Kemba returned home and managed just five points on 1-for-9 shooting in a loss to the Sixers, his playoff-contending rivals. Last weekend, Walker sunk just four of 14 shots against the woeful Suns at Spectrum Center. He was in for the entire fourth quarter as Phoenix scored 43 points in the frame, narrowing a 22-point Hornet lead to just three during the final minute of play. In past seasons, we’ve hinted here that Budenholzer, a former NBA Coach of the Year with his stature secure here in Atlanta, would lay off the gas pedal against teams whose coaches’ futures might be imperiled. As demonstrated in the fourth quarter on Tuesday night, the difference this season is that, with the Hawks now able to focus fully on player development, a collegial Coach Bud easing off the strategic throttle can be of long-term benefit to more than just the opposing team. Don’t forget to send Bud a thank you card this summer, Dwight! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  15. Gents: always wear protective gear before answering the question, "Who is MJ looking to hire?" ~lw3
  16. “NOW, ONCE UPON A TIME, A HAWK AND A HORNET LOVED EACH OTHER VERY MUCH…” We already know the dealio with those Charlotte Hornets, the host Atlanta Hawks’ opponent tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, Fox Sports Carolinas in CLT) for the second time in a week. So in lieu of scintillating pseudo-analysis, I’m going to take a rare moment (yeah, right) to hop on the soapbox and Squawk about… proper pronoun usage. “We” are Tankamaniacs, for all intents and purposes. This season, “we” are resigned to desiring the team we root for to play hard, but fall short, more often than not, much like last Friday’s nice-try defeat in Charlotte. Our Hawks hung with the Hornets for the better part of four quarters and even seized a one-point lead with under three minutes to play. Our Hawks dared those Hornets to save the day and avert another momentous collapse in front of their home fans. And Charlotte obliged, rattling off 12 unanswered points, with Dwight Howard making crucial stops without (getting caught) fouling, to happily close the proceedings at the Cable Box. Our team’s nightly foes, unfortunately, are not KITT. Opponents aren’t equipped with some Turbo Boost button whenever the occasion calls for it. Sometimes, a somewhat-sucky Dennis Schröder will get trumped by an epically suckier Jeff Teague. Other times, his wayward shooting proves no match for a totally off-kilter Donovan Mitchell. Our team can leave perimeter shooters open all night long, as was the case in the three losses prior to Monday’s win over Minnesota, but they are not obligated to place the ball in the basket for them. “We” know, deep down, that this team, on its worst day, is not the worst NBA team ever designed by man. It is not, structurally, the least-competitive collection of players in the Association, with its Not-Worst coaching and player-development staff guiding the way. We’ve known these things since October. Yet “we” feign surprise and disappointment as we stray further away from 0-82 with each occasional victory, perhaps only because rivals like Orlando seem to be Competitanking harder, keeping their lead players on ice while pushing MVP candidates to post 60-point triple-doubles just to beat them. “We” are Hawks fans, now and into the future. “We” are not the Atlanta Hawks themselves. “They,” the 15-plus-man roster, hear all this “we”, and as far as “they” are concerned, “We” is a Nintendo game console. When “we” talk about how “we” need to lose every game, every night, “we” might as well be speaking French. Oui-oui! “They” are responsible for suiting up and preparing to square up with Warriors of the Golden State variety, not placating us Warriors of the Keyboard variety. “They” are True to Atlanta for as long as they’re here. But there’s that old adage about ensuring you give yourself oxygen, first, before passing the mask on to your neighbors. Individually, to a man, “they” are employed by the NBA, and would like to maximize their value to their future teams, be it the Hawks or somebody else. “They” are being watched and scrutinized by 29 other clubs on a nightly basis, and they don’t benefit from scouting reports that say, “Hey, this fella is a pure Tank Commander. It truly takes effort to suck as bad as him. He’ll be perfect for throwing games and getting our team to 20-62!” “They” would prefer to be around to support next season’s Hawks rookie star, to demonstrate that, together, they could be instrumental in swiftly turning around this intentional recession. “They” want to play right alongside 2018-19’s rook, perhaps come off the bench to give him a breather, to help him properly acclimate to Budball and the pro lifestyle, to fill his Kia up with popcorn and send him on daily Krispy Kreme runs. What “they” don’t want is to be summarily supplanted on the team, or in this league altogether, by him, whoever he becomes, however we acquire his services. “We” need to give Coach Bud and company a break. By most statistical measures, this should be the fifth-or-sixth-worst team right now. But as things stand, the Hawks (15-35) enter today with: The most in-conference losses (24) of any NBA team, including three more than Orlando, who have now gone over a month without their leading rebounder and longest-tenured veteran. The worst road record (4-20) in The Association, two full games worse than the Magicians, who nearly made it three last night. The most losses (14) versus NBA teams currently carrying losing records. That includes Charlotte (20-29), who had no intention of being one, yet would be 13-games below-.500 if not for two rope-releases courtesy of the Hawks so far this season. Despite their we-try-hard motif, 21 losses by margins of ten points or more, only one fewer than Phoenix and Sacramento, and three more than anyone in the East (Orlando, having played just one fewer game than Atlanta, has only 18). According to Playoff Status, the third-worst remaining schedule of opponents (behind only the Wizards and Knicks, neither of whom are pretending they’re not “Tanking”), based on winning percentage. Instead of balling out in the G-League, or overseas, random, unheralded guys named Delaney and Cavanaugh are granted 15-to-20 minutes a night, cutting their teeth no matter the quality of competition. Meanwhile, the team’s best three-point threat from the wing has been DNP-CD’d 15 times already. Everyone from Dennis Schröder, Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince, to Malcolm Delaney and Isaiah Taylor are given ample opportunities to dig their way out of their own funk on the live floor, catching the hooks only when they mentally stray too far from Bud’s gameplan. The most obvious potentially-productive frontcourt tandem, including a would-be Rookie of the Year candidate, gets minutes off the bench, because Miles. Plumlee. Is. Starting. NBA. Basketball. Games. This season has been a master-class, conducted by Atlanta’s coaching staff, in how to underwhelm without making it blatantly obvious. They are fostering potential first-or-second-units of worthy NBA talent for the future that can occasionally win games right now, especially when opponents play down to, or below, their level. When opponents get low, we don’t just fight to get lower. That’s commendable, not excoriable. To reach the objective “we” Tankamaniacs ardently demand, the Hawks could have done simply offered some vet-min contracts to “me,” “you,” and “Harry.” It’s not like home attendance would get much worse, anyway. Maybe dish out some ten-days to 2Chainz, Migos and Hot Sauce when they’re in town to liven up a homestand or two. Let Nique draw up some plays where we move the ball from side-to-side, as he’s wont to suggest. And then, just sit back, and hope for the best… or, the opposite. But the Hawks aren’t interested in disposable contributors that can only seem to master the dark art of blowing chunks harder than everybody else. Yes, the degree of difficulty in overachieving will be raised, depending on what Travis Schlenk and “Hawks, Inc.” have up their sleeves in the coming week. But while players like Bazemore improve under our auspices, figuring out how to come through consistently (not comically) in the clutch on both ends of the floor, he raises either his value to current team, or the value of the return from any NBA team that covets his services. All of “them” provide a day-round utility to the Hawks organization that’s greater than the banality of “us” tracking final scores in hopes of the once-in-a-lifetime chance of maybe getting Nerlens Noel, Markelle Fultz, or the upstart SportsCenter wow-maker of the moment. None of “them” should be ruing the days they failed to “Chokafor for Okafor,” or “Yield for Hield”. That task is left for “us”. “We” are free to say, “We needed to lose this game!”, every night. That’s fine, so long as everyone uttering that understands who “we” does, and does not, include. Bidding “adieu” to all the “we” talk until after the game. That’s enough speaking French for today. Because… it is time, once more, for Tank Karaoke! It’s that Ol’ Skool Hip-Hop Edition, baby! Yo, you know how we do out here in The A. We got our Soul Brother #2, DJ Special Ad Wes Wilcox on the Ones and Twos. We got our Dookie-roped virtuoso G-Hill tickling the ivories as only he can. And, as always, Buddie Down Productions on the mic, bringing the bars, and the heat, straight from the street. You head-bobbers all know when to chime in. One. Two. Three. Kick it! Take Ilyasova. Take Ilyasova! **BELLY, BYE-BYE!** Here’s Ilyasova. Grab Ilyasova! **HEY! HEY!** Here’s Ilyasova. Get Ilyasova! **BELLY, BYE-BYE!** Here’s Ilyasova. Take Ilyasova! ((Dip to Verse 2!)) Di-phy-si-cal-i-ty-di-di-di-dah-di-day **AIY!** All you sucka GMs, won’t you offer up some trades? **‘CAUSE?** Here go some “credit” from BUD-One **BO!** Come get your “credit” from BUD-One… To get a great draft pick, I need my team to stink So step up and get fleeced by WHO? **GM TRAVIS SCHLENK!** That’s him! He knows your barely-playoff squad is out here desperate for some **SAVIORS** Our cricket tacos come in Spicy Cajun **FLAVOR** That’s why we got no need for bland Derrick **FAVORS** Stretch out your slop and then we put them all on **WAIVERS** Twenty minutes nightly go to Isaiah **TAYLOR** Don’t need Howard back; that dude is soft as Teddy **RUXPIN** Nicolas Batum? He’s only good for steady **CHUCKIN’** Danny Ainge and Daryl Morey need to quit they **BLUFFIN’** Take Muskie in the morning, Cho; we’ll throw you in a **MUFFIN** My Team Prez woo you so hard, you’d think it was **SEDUCTION** Relieve me of Babbitt, come get Dewayne Dedmon Me second-half rotations you just con’t understond Ty Dorsey over **here**, DeAndre’ Bembry over **there** Clear out the lane, and watch my rook, Collins, get some **AIR! AIR! AIR! AIR!** **Ooooooooooooooooooo-oooh** What’s the matter with you, GM SVG? Don’t you know, you’re desperate, much? What’s the matter with you, GM Presti? Sam, swing a 3-way with Milwaukee Bucks! No, Fournier can’t help you out; don’t be a reacher You’re better off with Baze and his wack UA sneaker That Plumlee gonna get shopped, ‘n Schröder’s hookah bar flopped It’s all blowin’ smoke to meeeee Everybody’s talking ‘bout Delaney’s box score But he’s still playing fine to meeeee RIP Rasual! and Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  17. “Soulless Boy, Kill’em!” “I wanna kill them.” That’s the desire Dwight Howard professed during shootaround to the local rag about his most recent ex-team, the Atlanta Hawks, who pay him and his Charlotte Hornets (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast in ATL, Fox Sports Carolinas) a visit tonight. Well, that’s not very hospitable, D12! Unlike the Hawks’ last opponent, Howard (20 points and 15 rebounds in a 109-91 win vs. ATL back on Oct. 20) and the Hornets have been struggling to establish a killer instinct. There’s no better time to start figuring out how, than when you’re sitting five games below the playoff line and facing the prospect, tonight, of finishing closer in the standings to a team with the NBA’s worst record than to the 8-seed. We’re all fortunate nothing literally happened to Steve Clifford to add to his starting center’s “coach killer” persona. Clifford’s a tough guy, as noted by Woj at ESPN: he returned to coach the Bugs against the Hawks in November 2013 just a few days after getting stents inserted. But a lingering sleep deprivation problem, one that long preceded Dwight’s arrival in the Piedmont, produced aggravating headaches that eventually made it impossible for Coach Cliff to function, never mind roam the sidelines in a high-pressure vocation. But Coach Cliff has those headaches beat, or so he tells us. His team has been doing its best to re-induce that malady, both from him and the folks who populate Spectrum Center. Only the Nets and the Hawks have as many home losses among Eastern Conference clubs so far. And my land, some of these losses. Last Saturday night’s wresting of defeat from the jaws of victory, versus division rival Miami in front of the home crowd, had even Yours Truly’s milkshake-sucking vein popping out between my eyebrows. “That’s how you become a team that wins two and loses one, like we have been,” said Clifford to the Charlotte Observer and the postgame media of his Hornets (19-27), who have won six of their past ten games, but haven’t won three-straight since back before Thanksgiving. “Just a total lack of concentration, intensity, technique, and understanding who the hell you’re playing against. It’s terrible. Terrible.” The blow-by-blow of that loss, where Charlotte blew a 10-point lead in a manner of ten minutes, low-lighted by a five-point lead evaporating in the space of four seconds during the final minute, is too excruciating to recollect here. Yet the Hornets could have salvaged the game in overtime, had Dwight not made it his mission to “kill” Miami’s Kelly Olynyk with a senseless foul with just 0.2 seconds remaining. Even with Clifford chewing his team out, the Hornets went out and walked the tightrope just two nights later, sad-sack Sacramento narrowing a 20-point Charlotte lead to just three with 85 seconds left. The Kings got cute with Hack-A-Howard, and Dwight (53.4 FT%; 53.3 FT% last season w/ ATL) made them pay by sinking both freebies. Moments later, his offensive rebound off a way-too-familiar missed jumper from Nicolas Batum (40.8 FG%; 28.8 3FG%), and a defensive goaltend on his putback, saved Hornets fans from wanting to tear the arena down with their teeth. Those nervous fans caught a break Wednesday as the Hornets (minus-5.6 fourth-quarter Net Rating, 26th in NBA; NBA-low 44.7 fourth-quarter eFG%) played from behind for most of the game against the Pelicans. But chances at victory were dashed shortly thereafter, by Dwight barreling into Anthony Davis for an offensive foul, then by a pair of bad passes from Kemba Walker, who senses that his time as the face of basketball in the Queen City is fleeting, despite assurances from His Airness to the contrary. Now the Hornets (6-13 on the road) simply want to wrap-up their homestand at 3-2, before embarking on a stretch of seven away-games in their next eight, including next Wednesday at the Highlight Factory. A key reason they’re even in some of these contests to begin with? Marvin Williams is no more an ugly duckling from the perimeter. The feathery touch on the stretch-four’s jumper has been on display the whole season, the Hawks’ former corner-shot lamppost shooting a career-best 44.4 3FG% (4th in NBA, two spots in front of ex-Hawk Al Horford). Without Marvin’s consistent shot on a squad shooting just 44.2 percent from the field (28th in NBA), defenders would be easily clamping down on Kemba (41.9 FG%, lowest among top-20 NBA shooters) and Dwight (3.0 TOs/game) and getting stops. Walker generally takes care of the ball, but the Hawks (NBA-high 18.7 points per-48 off TOs) will look for Dwight to get sloppy with careless dribbles and excessive physicality away from the play. The Hawks will deploy his trade counterpart, Miles Plumlee, and charge-sponge Ersan Ilyasova to help throw Howard (6 TOs, 5 personals vs. ATL in October) off his game. Charlotte allows the third-fewest points-per-48 off turnovers, in part due to Kemba’s ballhandling, but also because they have Michael Kidd-Gilchrist and Batum to get back. Carolinian Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince (just 13 minutes in the blowout loss vs. TOR on Wednesday, no assists) can get out on the break, but they should be prepared to find Dennis Schröder (25 points, 11-for-19 2FGs @ CHA in October) and other shooters on the floor as passing options to finish offensive plays with buckets and trips to the line. Lost in Atlanta’s blowout loss to the Raptors on Wednesday was the effort of Rising Star John Collins, who grabbed 16 rebounds and rejected four shots over 26 minutes, generally ignoring the scoreboard as the Hawks cut Toronto’s lead in half to close the contest. He’ll try to show he’s grown by leaps and bounds since last October, when he fouled out of his second game in just over 15 minutes of play. Hawks fans are free to ignore Dwight’s murderous mindset coming into this evening’s affairs. The Hornets aren’t so much obsessed with slaying opponents, these days, as they are merely surviving fourth quarters without humiliating themselves. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record