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  1. I still suspect Sue Ellen had something to do with it. ~lw3
  2. “Arrgh! How are we letting Damian Jones cherry pick us to death?” Alright, here it is, your definitive answer on the “Who Better?” question, so we don’t have to put up with a debate that has dragged on 19 months too long. The debate was settled, long ago. Luka Doncic is better than Trae Young. One person already made the decision, so we wouldn’t have to. He’s the only person on the planet whose opinion matters on the question. And that man is Sir Travis Schlenk. Best player available is best player available. If Trae Young was the better of the two, then on Draft Night 2018, with both players at your disposal at Pick #3, you select the kid rocking the suit shorts, genuflect, and say, “Thank you all, and good night.” But that is not what the Atlanta Hawks GM did. He had the presence of mind to consider the long-term interests of his team, about the value of what having the best player available could mean to your franchise, versus the value of having the right to draft that player as a bargaining chip for something more. Luka Doncic was the best player available. He, by his lonesome, simply wasn’t Travis Schlenk’s guy. With the Memphis Grizzlies having no earthly idea what was going on, he got on the horn and told Dallas Mavericks management, “I’ll secure your kid if he falls to us. You secure my kid, because he WILL fall to you. And give me your first-rounder next year for the trouble.” Done. Every highlight play, every highlight reel, every stat-monster game from Doncic elicits, somewhere out there on the Interwebs or in pundit-world, the same tired reaction: “Oh, Phoenix, Sacramento, Atlanta have all got to be kicking themselves.” Take our name out your mouths, you mindless twits! The Suns ran out and hired a coach before that Draft, by all accounts a person of sound mind and strategy, ɯho nΩ ‘Mµrican pla¥ers ©an understαnd βecause h€ tålks £ike thi∑. You know what language he does speak? He speaks Luka. Fluently. And then they don’t draft the kid! No, they wanted a Tito Horford upgrade with their first dibs, because size. Congratulations, as DJ Khaled would say. The GM from that day is gone, canned before the season could even start, as is the coach. The Kings. That’s about all that ought to be said. But let’s delve further. If there is a human alive who ought to know the value of a well-timed draft move, it’s Vlade Divac. The man should also know his Euro-prospects inside and out, at least a little better than Dave Joerger, his head coach at the time. But Vlade perhaps knew too much about some acrimonious relationship he reportedly had, or felt the need to ward off, with Doncic’s father. Divac has since maneuvered a “phone call” to “Sasa Doncic” to get their radio guy, Grant Napear, to assert the report was unfounded, but I’m not fooled. Imagine if the Lakers had declined to deal Divac away because Jerry West had some old, tired beef with Jellybean. No, Marvin Bagobones was the move. Talented fella, sure. But I may be out 3-to-4 weeks just from typing his name. Like Phoenix, Sacramento was in position to at least draft Doncic and trade him to a lower-drafting team for something of value, and whiffed. The GM from that day should be gone, and the coach, Joerger, is only gone because he wouldn’t quit giving the GM grief all last season over the blunder. Oh, and how does Memphis get to run around scot-free, and not kicking themselves? They cleaned it up nicely with the do-over Draft Lottery luck of 2019. But put this on for size: “The Grizzlies! Home of the 2019 AND 2020 Rookies of the Year.” All they had to do was blow up Atlanta and Dallas’ scheme, and then maybe the Mavs are the ones trying to keep Jaren Jackson, Jr. from fouling out every other night. Jackson, and nothing else, or Doncic? If you weren’t sure “Which Better?”, you certainly are now. The GM that was also a proofreader away from squandering Dillon Brooks, too, is gone, and the coach got the heave-ho, too. Once Vivek Ranadive regains his senses, that’s three out of four teams who picked ahead of the Mavs in 2018’s draft, three out of four whose picks from that class are or will be inherited by a new regime. The opportunity to trade Luka Doncic down for Trae Young, and recoup additional value in the process, should never have been afforded to Atlanta. And yet, with the iron still steaming, an astute Schlenk was prepared to make a calculated strike. What additional value, you ask? Well there’s January Rookie of the Month finalist Cam Reddish (40.3 3FG% and 82.8 FT% in January), whose confidence on the offensive end is growing by leaps and bounds, and whose defensive aptitude at the wing is pretty good fresh out the box for a team that sorely needs it. Cam is with Atlanta and not, say, Dallas, because Luka was just good enough in 2019-20 to keep the Mavs from being among the league five worst NBA teams, a calculated risk that I trust went into negotiations about draft pick protection. Dallas negotiates Top-10 protection, instead of Top-5, and they’d likely have wound up bringing Reddish or Rui Hachimura into the fold. Tack onto that, both teams got a 2019 All-Rookie 1st teamer and 2020 All-Star out of their 2018 lottery picks, but Atlanta keeps about $6 million in would-be rookie-scale cash spread out over the course of four years to spend elsewhere. One other item. Walking out of 2018’s draft with Young as Atlanta’s point guard of the future meant never having to wonder whether the good folks of DeKalb County, Georgia were going to take the Damocles’ Sword of a recommended felony assault charge for Dennis Schröder and shelve it in a drawer, away from harm. By hookah by crook, Schlenk had to get value for The Menace, too. Now, a rebuilding OKC team that squeaks into 2022’s playoffs would bring the Hawks yet another first-rounder to add to a still-youthful core. Yes, Luka Doncic is a better player than Trae Young. Yes, the Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club is doing just fine. Those statements need not be matters of controversy, nor must they be mutually exclusive. Luka is better because he was genetically built, raised, trained and marketed to be better. At age 17, Trae Young led his team to a regional high school championship, his state of Oklahoma naming him the high school sophomore of the year. At age 15, Luka Doncic was in the third year of his developmental contract with Real Madrid. By age 17, Luka was on the top-level club in the world’s second-best basketball league, already having appeared in preseason games against the NBA Celtics and Thunder. Between high school and Big XII collegiate play, Young had his share of scrimmages with and against semi-pro competition. But he would have to join a team that had Vince Carter on it before he could play an official game against players more than five years his senior. Doncic, now 6-foot-7 and pushing 220 pounds, has been playing well above his age weight since age 7. A 5-star recruit, Young traveled for competition across his country. Doncic performed for club and country across his continent, competing in Liga ACB and Euroleague to justify his place among men trying to bring home enough borscht to keep their families fed. It ought to be impressive that both young performers have taken the NBA world by storm, already having left their many “draft bust” critics muttering bitterly to themselves. It ought to be amazing that both have reached the same stages in their short careers, to this point, given their disparate paths to get to the best pro league in the world. But that’s not enough for some. Somebody must be shamed for “losing” a draft deal. If you want legitimate examples of a winner-loser draft trade, dial it back to 1998. Antawn Jamison had a mighty fine career, one that certainly worked out better than two lottery talents selected ahead of him The Kandi Man and Raef LaFrentz. About five years after making the All-Rookie team, he was the league’s Sixth Man of the Year. An efficient offensive player, ‘Tawn even got named to the All-Star Team twice, at ages 28 and 31. Unfortunately for the Golden State Warriors, the veteran accolades came for Jamison after he was traded away, coincidentally, to Dallas. Unfortunately for G-State, Jamison was the second-best player in a two-player draft deal. Moreover, he wasn’t even the best player out of Chapel Hill in the trade. The Raptors took Vince Carter 4th in the draft, the Dubs took Jamison 5th, and then they swapped draft caps. No draft picks changing hands, no other players, just straight cash, home. Cash not for the Warriors but for the Raptors, to go along with Carter. Vince was the better player, Vince had the greatest impact for his team, Vince had the better career. Advantage, Raptors. But please note -- by the time the Warriors and Raptors finally met in The Finals, neither player, and none of their coaches or GMs, were anywhere around. Jamison can take solace that his NBA fate worked out better than the guy drafted right after him. This season, the Mavericks are, for the first time in a long time if not ever, above the .500 mark as a four-decades-old franchise. While Luka has helped them get over the hump, this would be a much longer time in coming had The Worst NBA Franchise of the 90s not drafted Robert Traylor 6th in that 1998 Draft, then sent him to Milwaukee for their pick at #9. Mark Cuban bought the Mavs from Ross Perot, Jr. in 2000 and inherited the German wunderkind, Dirk Nowitzki, who turned the team’s fortunes around and made a roadmap for European parents to seriously consider orienting their athletic kids toward a pro basketball future in North America. While it wasn’t obvious to most at draft time, Dirk proved to be better than Tractor, had the greatest impact for his team, had the better career. Advantage, Mavericks. And it wasn’t close. Those who craved to see Doncic and Young go tête-à-tête tonight at American Airlines Center (8:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in DFW), seeking out some play that will crystallize their “Who Better” argument one way or another, will be disappointed to find Luka sitting out with an ankle sprain. I encourage them to instead check out last season’s games where the Hawks and Mavs split their series with home wins, the latter back in December 2018 snapping Atlanta’s ten-game head-to-head winning streak. Or, last February’s Rising Stars Game, won by Trae and John Collins’ USA Team. Or, that weekend’s Skills Challenge, where Trae prevailed over Luka to reach the finals. The flaws with the “Who’s Better?” assessments come in the inferences. One might need to see them head-to-head to determine who’s “better” in their own minds. Others might be satisfied by gazing at the standings, where Luka’s team is already a likely first-round pest in the West (29-19; 4-3 on second-night of back-to-backs incl. 133-104 loss vs. PHX on Jan. 28), while Trae’s team has been failing to gain traction for months (13-36; 5-5 in last ten games) in the East. Dallas, too, once took grief for taking a slick-passing point guard from an unassuming major college program Top-3 in the Draft, in the process passing up on a global sensation. People who watched Grant Hill’s brilliance in his time at Durham, his NCAA tournament majesty, could not fathom anyone taking Jason Kidd before him. Purdue’s Glenn Robinson was maybe understandable. But Kidd? Mavs and Pistons fans would come out of their corners swinging for twelve rounds in that 1994-95 season – somebody had to be “better!” And the dismay on both sides was palpable after the votes were tallied and Hill and Kidd wound up splitting the Rookie of the Year baby. Kidd was a superb ballhandler, an All-Star in his second season on a Mavericks club that went 26-56 (hmm.), and even a stout defender. But Ason had no J, as they would say. Having the next mini-Magic was cute and all, but the NBA was on a search for The Next MJ. Hill, a highlight-reel All-Star during his first four seasons in Detroit, a more versatile and athletic talent than Kidd, was fitting that bill. Detroit surged into the playoffs with Hill while Dallas continued to sputter. The consensus by the late 1990s was clear: Grant Hill is “better” than Jason Kidd, who Dallas shipped away midway through his third season, essentially for Steph Marbury. Ergo, Grant Hill WILL be the more impactful player for the team that drafted him. Grant Hill will be winning rings for the Pistons before Jason Kidd wins one with the Mavericks. Advantage, Motown. That’s how the destinies are gonna work out, because Hill is just “better.” Right? Well. The Pistons indeed won a chip. But Hill was eating chips and dip by the time they did. As both Hill and Kristaps Porzingis (also out tonight, knee injury recovery on a back-to-back) know, being a draft “steal”, or a beast instead of a bust, does not prevent injuries, misfortune, and bungling mismanagement from derailing your path to championship prominence. Doncic is a better player than Young, but saying so is not enough. He was plugged into an NBA environment that was better suited for what he could bring to the table. Aside from the pervy guys in the breakroom, Dallas had a stable organization in an NBA market that was well-acclimated to embracing a European star. The coach, Rick Carlisle, that won the 2011 Finals with Nowitzki and, whaddya know, Kidd, is still here to guide Luka. The Mavs’ brass didn’t really consider keeping Young because they thought they had their point god of the future, in Dennis Smith, Jr. As it became apparent that Luka being Luka renders point guard usage meaningless, off went Smith to New York. That allowed the Mavs to take a long-term flier on Porzingis while relieving the Knicks of their error bringing Tim Hardaway, Jr. back from Atlanta and Courtney Lee from wherever. Dallas also sent the Knicks a pair of future Top-10 protected first-rounders that, because Luka, are likely to convey. The owner, Cuban, only believes in tanks that involve sharks. He chased around the summer streets of Houston looking to secure DeAndre Jordan, and finally got him last year, only to send him to the Knicks in that Porzingis deal. Rebuilding, shme-building. Dallas is over the salary cap, hard-capped, and committed to paying Porzingis, a 7-foot-3 unicorn shooting 40.4 FG% while settling for threes, upwards of $131 million over the next four seasons. If he’s not enough of a frontcourt presence, Dallas went out and acquired Boban Marjanovic, and, last month, Willie Cauley-Stein to replace the season-ending-injured Dwight Powell. When Luka needs shooters to take pressure off of him, he’s got Hardaway, Seth Curry, Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, J.J Barea, and Ryan Broekhoff, all shooting between 38 and 48 percent from deep. Hard-capped, potentially in a tighter tax situation next season if Hardaway eats his player option, and having to keep up in a conference that has Harden and Westbrook, Kawhi and PG, and at least for now LeBron and AD. Next year’s Eastern Conference isn’t slouching, either, if Kyrie and KD can make some noise to join Giannis and the other contenders on this side of the country. But at least Atlanta, who has Chandler Parsons turning his wreck into a check while keeping the team above the salary floor, will have the maneuverability to move up and grow into contention around Young, without giving up too much. It’s fine to wish that Schlenk was committed to a hastier roster construction and better coaching expertise to surround his new All-Star than his 2018 Draft trade partners. But anyone concluding that Dallas already “won” the trade by looking at their team’s current places in the NBA standings is willfully as narrow as a country road. Luka Doncic is better than Trae Young. Going any further to suggest that the Mavericks are in a better position than the Hawks to win titles in the near future would be misguided and neglectful of even Mavericks team history. Luka’s better. If all goes well for him, he will likely be better. But to get meaningfully far in the NBA West, for the Mavericks’ sake, Luka had better stay better. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. "Future" is Bright! Turn On The Lights! Tomorrow Starts Today. That’s the slogan for the basketball grand opening at the re-christened State Farm Arena, home of your Atlanta Hawks. Tomorrow Starts Today is all about laying a foundation, right now, for something huge, attractive, and fun, down the road. Tonight’s hip-hop headliner offers an ideal example of what the Future can hold, when one commits to laying the proper groundwork now. Let’s praise T-Boz as just one example. Tionne Watkins already had her hands full, making it big with the ground-breaking girl group, TLC, in the early 1990s, but she had even grander plans in mind. Around the same time that a bunch of attention around town was directed to the inflammatory relationship her stage partner had with a local football star, Watkins, a budding producer, was kindling sparks of a different sort. At a southside Atlanta beauty supply shop, it was T-Boz who introduced Pat “Sleepy” Brown to her colleague Rico Wade. Those two soon paired with Ray Murray to form the Organized Noize production team. Watkins helped facilitate the relationship between this trio, who toiled around the clock cranking studio music out of an unfinished basement with dirt floors (a “Dungeon”, if you will), at Wade’s mother’s house in the shadow of Atlanta’s Federal penitentiary, and the understandably skeptical folks at the powerhouse LaFace Records label. No T-Boz, no Organized Noize. No Organized Noize, no dungeon. No dungeon, no Dungeon Family. No Dungeon Family, maybe, no Goodie Mob? Maybe, no Outkast? No Southernplayalisticadillacmusik? No “Soul Food”? Certainly, no “Waterfalls” watershed moment for TLC. Maybe, amid all the jibber-jabber about East versus West coasts, “The South Got Somethin’ To Say,” never gets famously said at The Source Awards? Maybe, “Dirty South”, never becomes the catch-all catchphrase that bonded this artistically rich region of the country? One could stop there, in the Roaring Nineties of Atlanta, but the ripple effects continued outward. Wade, you see, had a cousin. One who was just one among thousands of local tweens caught up in the dopey dope game of the 1990s, but one who Rico brought under his wing to learn the ropes of the music biz. Like another next-gen artist of the collective, Killer Mike, who grew to prominence out of his collaborations with Outkast, cousin Nayvadius was given ample room to carve out his niche. Styled as “The Future of Rap” by the Dungeon Family’s G-Rock, Nayvadius picked up the Auto-Tune mechanism – seen as well-worn in the R&B/Hip-Hop game by the turn of the last decade – and mastered his rapping style around it. He created a distinctive club-banging sound, one that connected his hard-edged, purple-drank and Percocet-fueled lyrics in ways that sounded fresh to mainstream head-nodders of the 2010s. He reps for the “low life”, as he was, making it big and living large and in-charge: “Used to have no money for a crib. Now my room service bill cost your whole life.” Talent, ambition, perseverance. That’s what it took to create Organized Noize. That’s what it took to carry it three decades forward, and counting, so long as T-Boz, her friend Rico, and his cousin Nayvadius, who now produces as well, got something to say about it. It’s 2018, and while the latter, performing as Future, serves as the pregame and halftime entertainment before a packed State Farm Arena crowd, you might be watching from above while enjoying a haircut at Killer Mike’s newest SWAG (Shave, Wash and Groom) Shop. “I’m the one that’s livin’ lavish, like I’m playin’ for the Mavericks!”, Future spits famously on 2015’s “March Madness.” The sense of cozy extravagance that Mark Cuban has concocted over the decades for the Dallas Mavericks under his employ – for the fellas, at least – is one Tony Ressler admires and emulates. Ressler hopes to be able to proudly say that his investments, with a few kind dashes of public subsidy, laid the groundwork for the luxurious future of not only his Atlanta Hawks, who happen to host the Mavs this evening (7:00 PM Eastern, ESPN, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), but its fanbase, one that has long been slow to grow, and the hardscrabble environs that surround his stadium. As it was in trying to get the Philips Arena refurbishment plans off the ground, fostering a lavish experience around the basketball team itself will take talent, ambition, and perseverance. Ressler has entrusted Travis Schlenk to find the right blend, and the Hawks executive has given many fans the sense that he is just beginning to get that talent part locked down. Schlenk called the 2017 draft-day audible that brought John Collins (ankle, out of action for a couple more weeks) under the Hawks’ wing. In 2018, unwilling to be tethered fully to the designs of GMs past, Travis and head coach Mike Budenholzer agreed to part ways, allowing the former to bring in his own guy in Lloyd Pierce. Meanwhile, Schlenk’s draft compromise with Hawks ownership, reportedly (and ignoring Ressler’s subsequent, colorfully adamant protests regarding said reports) allowed the owners’ favorite Luka Doncic to head to Dallas, for the price of another potential lottery pick, while Trae Young suits up for Atlanta. After just a few games of Young and Doncic playing with their respective, uphill-climbing squads, neither Hawks nor Mavs fans are complaining much about the early returns. Luka is already, hands down, the top player. In soccer, that is. 33-year-old Croatian midfielder Luka Modric is the toast of FIFA, just last month beating out Ronaldo and Mo Salah for the federation’s award of the world’s best men’s player while holding it down for Real Madrid... yes, the same athletics organization that helped give rise to the teenaged Serbian sensation, Luka Doncic. If you still have doubts that the sports world is about to get ridiculously overrun by Luka-Mania, go get a look-see at Luka Samanic, the 6-foot-10 power forward from Zagreb and Ljubljana (Doncic’s hometown) who MVP’d FIBA’s U18 European Championship. Brace yourself, the Luka(s) are coming! Did you waste an otherwise beautiful summer fussing over which NBA franchise took “the” right player, “the” future superstar, over who “won” the draft-night deal? You just don’t argue anymore. You just don’t argue anymore. You just don’t argue anymore! This pair of rookies, currently leading their class in scoring, acknowledge their forthcoming NBA histories will be inextricably tied to one another. The youngsters not only embrace but appreciate that fact, and they appear to greatly admire each other’s skills and resolve. At worst, envision this budding rivalry, if one must call it that, as a rap battle, one in which two esteemed talents, in the quest to one-up one another, manage to make an even bigger name for each other than they could make for themselves alone. Them boys up to something! Unlike Luka, Trae’s smaller frame doesn’t allow him to live on an upper floor, so to speak, when making forays into the paint. But it’s Young’s estimable court vision and IQ that can help propel him to a figurative upper echelon in this league. His last game, on Sunday evening against a shell-shocked Cavaliers club, offered Hawks fans a satisfying glimpse of what could be to come. Luka (18.3 PPG, 4.3 APG, 4.3 TOs/game, 43.5 FG%, 61.5 FT% through 3 starts) may indeed become a rockstar around the Metroplex. But they’ll be making “Trae Songz” around the ATL in due time, if the Hawks’ ballhandler continues to dazzle with the flair of his artistic passes. Young, balla, move that rock! A highlight facilitator like Young (23.0 PPG, 8.3 APG, 2.7 TOs/game, 51.9 2FG%, 39.3 3FG%, 80.0 FT% through 3 starts) attracts not only fans, and not only opposing help-defenders that free up reliant teammates, but, down the road, NBA stars who would very much enjoy taking a few rides in a banana boat with him. The face of Trae’s franchise serves as a color commentator, calling out Young and his teammates’ heat checks. Conversely, the face of Luke’s franchise is still collecting checks (Future would agree; when in doubt, always chase a check). Dirk Nowitzki (ankle surgery) sits on the shelf along with Harrison Barnes and ex-Hawk Devin Harris (hamstring strains) for the moment. But the Germanator, who essentially got the Euro-craze going in the NBA, is already an ideal mentor for Doncic’s acclimation. The future Hall of Famer will be of even greater benefit, at least in Mavs coach Rick Carlisle’s offense, when he and Barnes return to finish plays keyed by Doncic. Until then, he and Dennis Smith, Jr. will spend their time perfecting lobs in the direction of free agent pickup DeAndre Jordan (17.0 PPG, 12.7 RPG, 2.3 BPG) and kickouts to Wesley Matthews (only NBA player with 125 made 3FGs in each of the last 8 seasons). In an NBA world where 120 is The New 100, Jordan serves as a last line of defense for the Mavericks (120.4 D-Rating, 3rd-worst in NBA; 117.2 O-Rating, 3rd-best), which can work if they can keep their opponents, like the Hawks (2nd in pace, 5th in eFG%) from engaging them in a track meet. Returning from injury, Hawks center Dewayne Dedmon can help Atlanta keep Jordan and the Mavs (6th in O-Reb%, 5th in and D-Reb%) from dominating the glass. One can only hope that all the Doncic hype hasn’t already relegated Dallas’ 2017-18 wunderkind to obscurity. Smith’s first games as an NBA player, much like Young, also brought statistical comparisons to league greats. Dennis’ 142 points and 49 dimes in his first ten career games were topped only by LeBron and Kyrie, as players aged 19 or younger, in their respective rookie campaigns. He has had his struggles in the early going, particularly when he cannot draw trips to the free throw line. Despite the Mavericks winning their second-straight home game, against Chicago, on Monday, Smith (3-for-15 3FGs so far) shot just 2-for-11 from the field and produced just three assists in a season-high 30-plus minutes of play. He was minus-19 against Devin Booker’s Suns in the season-opener. He’ll need a complete, impactful effort to help cool off Young and the Hawks (1-2) tonight. With pressure provided from Matthew and Dorian Finney-Smith, Smith’s team can also benefit if they can keep live-ball turnovers to a minimum and gains the edge in the transition scoring department (plus-8 PPG off TOs, 3rd-best in NBA; Atlanta’s minus-7 PPG 5th-worst). Talent, ambition, perseverance. It begins with a catalyst with an eye for bringing the right talents together, like T-Boz. Like Wyatt Durrette, a Kennesaw bartender who brought a fiddler and vocalist named Jimmy De Martini in touch with guitarist/singer and restaurateur Zac Brown, helping form the foundation for one of country music’s greatest bands. You can enjoy the band perform the national anthem tonight, while dining at Zac Brown’s newest social club. Imagine, no Durrette, no “Chicken Fried?” No “Toes”? Whether Schlenk is the catalyst that puts the Hawks on the path to becoming a primetime NBA draw remains to be seen. But after seeing what a Trae Young-directed roster, with rookies like Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman on the come up, with Taurean Prince finding his groove, with Coach Pierce helping them all gel, has the potential to accomplish together, the Topgolf-swinging fans at State Farm Arena could happily get Used To This. A few more seasons of bonding, and Hawks fans could become the “gang members” looking askance at all of Atlanta’s new “tourists” in the arena, asking, “Where Ya [Bleep] Was At, Dawg? Tomorrow Started Yesterday!” When it comes to the Future of NBA championship glory, will it finally be the Atlanta Hawks who have something to say? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  4. “Vobble, Baby! Vobble, Baby! Vobble, Baby! Vobble…” Beez in the Trap! It won’t take any more Nicki Minaj slander to for Atlanta Hawks fans to understand that tonight’s meeting with the Dallas Mavericks at Philips Arena (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in DFW) is the quintessential “trap game”. When our Hawks last left American Airlines Center on January 7, they played at a tempo more amenable to the Mavericks’ style of play, but still stifled their perimeter offense (25.0 3FG%) along the way to a smooth 97-82 win. So, coming off a big win in Boston on Monday, it’s likely Atlanta thinks it has (again) turned the corner, and can now just stroll down the street, unencumbered by a Dallas squad missing swingman shooter Wesley Matthews (hip). Well, not so fast, my fine feathered friends! Dallas fell to 11-26 with that loss to the Hawks. But within a week, the Mavs would embark on a 13-8 run that elevated them completely out of the Western Conference basement. Now just 2.5 games out of that 8-seed in the West, Rick Carlisle’s club is perfectly happy competing and letting the chips fall where they may. Up until that point, the Mavs seemed a bit lost in terms of direction. Slow and aging starters around a free agent pickup in forward Harrison Barnes (career-high 20.1 PPG) who is still getting a feel for the ropes, supported by a relatively clueless supporting cast off the bench, was the recipe for a rudderless campaign. Then, point guard Yogi Ferrell came along, and pairing him with That Other Curry, Seth (last 3 games: 24.3 PPG, 61.1 3FG%, 4.0 APG; 29 points on 5-for-7 3FGs in win vs. MIA on Monday), allowed the Mavs’ offensive uptick to commence in earnest. One trivial note: despite having a middle name of Duane, and growing up in Indiana, Yogi is completely unrelated to former Hawks player, sportscaster and ex-Pacer Duane Ferrell. Kevin Duane Ferrell, Jr. is doing more than just distinguishing himself from his father by using a cartoonish first name. Yogi has stood out enough over just 13 games (4.8 APG, 1.8 TOs/game, 41.0 3FG%), that the Mavs’ brass had no qualms about cutting ties with Metroplex native Deron Williams, who now gets to be that coveted playmaker LeBron has been whining about. Keeping the youth movement in a positive direction, the team also moved their intractable center Andrew Bogut, and the disappointing second-year pro Justin Anderson, in a deal with Philadelphia for the formerly sandbagged Nerlens Noel. Noel’s exploits with compiling steals and blocks in games had disappeared, once the 76ers turned the pivot over to Joel Embiid. Now, the Mavs hope to make prominent use out of what Donnie Nelson calls the “Tyson Chandler Starter Kit.” These moves serve Dallas well in keeping the Dirk Nowitzki Farewell Tour extended for another season or two. Noel will eventually allow Dirk (13.6 PPG, lowest since rookie season in 1998-99; 38.6 3FG%; career-high 25.9 D-Reb%) to shift away from center and back to a stretchy power forward, while moving Barnes into the small forward spot that he played frequently at Golden State. Carlisle’s Commandment is to press, press, press opponents from halfcourt to the three-point line, shooing them off from taking contested shots and forcing them into mistakes once they put the ball on the floor. Opponents shoot 38.5 3FG% against Dallas (2nd-highest in NBA), but open looks are surprisingly few and far between (24.5 opponent 3FGAs/game, 4th-fewest in NBA). The Mavs’ 15.3 opponent TO% is the best in the league, but their 7.8 steals-per-48 is just average (15th in NBA). Instead, they’ll force all the other kinds of mistakes out of their foes: traveling, double-dribbles, offensive fouls, 3-second violations, and the like. The slow tempo accommodates Nowitzki, while the dogged defensive efforts around him keep him from having to do too much at the rim. The defense has been just sound enough to allow the Mavs time to find their individual comfort zones on the offensive end. To keep the perimeter defense sound, Matthews’ absence pushes Dorian Finney-Smith back to the starting unit. Noel was supposed to start, but a bout of Schröder’s Disease had him late for the team plane, thus keeping him a reserve for now. Dallas leaves the offensive rebounding chances alone (18.3 O-Reb%, last in NBA), likely suggesting that a rested Dwight Howard (17 points and 12 rebounds in less than three quarters @ BOS on Monday; 38 double-doubles, most by any NBA player age 30+) and Paul Millsap (10 D-Rebs plus 2 steals @ BOS) should have a field day around the rim, with only Noel likely to try changing that outcome. No longer a team with a running identity (11.7 fastbreak points per-48, 21st in NBA) Atlanta needs to push the pace when they can. But when setting up in halfcourt, the key for Dennis Schröder and company is to emphasize motion (more cuts, less drives) while keeping the ball off the floor as much as rationally possible. On the defensive end, let’s pressure Dallas’ relatively new guards and make it clear that it’s the Mavs, not the Hawks, who are stuck in the trap game. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  5. “Wait… don’t he have, like, a flight to catch?” Wet eyes, heavy hearts… can’t lose! The Atlanta Hawks are straining to move forward without yet another integral member of their modern era. Yet even without Ryan Kelly -- whoop, I mean, Kyle Korver – around anymore, The Hottest Team in the East looks to extend their winning streak to six, with a victory in Dallas against the Mavericks (8:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; Fox Sports Southwest in DFW). Pace? Or Space? Mike Budenholzer wasn’t really faced with such questions when he took over the helm of the Hawks back in 2013. Already having kicked the tires on guys like Lou Williams and the Anthonies (Morrow and Tolliver), Bud’s running buddy Danny Ferry settled on Korver and newcomer DeMarre Carroll as the future at the wing spots. The pair came alive as starters together, their floor-spreading coinciding with the increased stretchiness of Paul Millsap and Al Horford, and the improved shooting and decision-making of Jeff Teague. The collective rise of the pace-and-space Hawks created a scale of on-court success not seen in Atlanta in a generation, if ever. Pace AND Space was working just fine for Atlanta. Sometimes, though, you want coffee, tea, AND milk, but you’re not granted that much choice during your flight. Certainly not in coach… I’ve tried. Kyle was among the few fortunate ballers to enjoy the pinnacle of his NBA career as one of the senior members and vital cogs of his team. He arrived here in his young 30s, and hadn’t started regularly since he was benched back at age 25. Running marathons through screens in the halfcourt, he was catching-and-shooting with Teague, Carroll, Millsap, and Horford each reaching their basketball primes. Fast forward a couple seasons later, though, and Korver had quite a bit company in the 30-and-up club. Coach Bud wants to push the ball, wants to haggle opponents into errors, wants to capitalize quickly and assertively. But it’s a tough sell when you have three and (when Thabo Sefolosha has to sub for Kent Bazemore) often four guys on the floor together who have surpassed 30 years young, two of whom had to come back from oddly broken legs in recent years, one of whom had to miss preseason planning due to a knee procedure, one of whom just got here and is figuring things out. To be sure, the minds are willing. But while this isn’t quite the Over-The-Hill Gang, the Sugar Hill Gang ain’t that much older. Since Bud’s arrival, Atlanta has been among the NBA masters at spacing the floor and creating open perimeter jumpshots. But without the ability to make those shots routinely, what’s the point? Korver (40.9 3FG%) had done the best under the circumstances to hold his end of the bargain together. But he’s not the spring chicken he used to be in creating space for himself. Around Korver these days were a cast of clunkers, from Baze to Sap to Thabo to Malcolm Delaney, who are shooting the ball from deep with Smoovian accuracy, at best. Nevermind that nobody has an appetite for Dwight Howard to start letting it fly. Nevermind that there’s a whole other side of the floor that brings its own set of challenges as time marches on. Pace. Space. CHOOSE ONE. The (small-d) decision could no longer be put off by the Hawks, not after a 2016 year marked by disappointing defeats and one dastardly departure. Bud pressed the “Pace” button, and out of the machine popped starting point guard Dennis Schröder, who gets to run the show and help keep Howard feeling rejuvenated. He has helped Bud direct a higher-tempo attack for the Hawks (100.0 possessions per-48 in 2016-17, 8th in NBA) than in previous seasons (99.4, 96.2, 96.9), even while bringing the elder statesmen along for the ride. By virtue of Bud selecting the “Pace” button, out goes Korver, who gets to now join the Club Med of the NBA. Club Cav has the most productive set of 30s-ish players in the league, attended to as needed by Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love. In Kyle’s stead are steeds of young wing players eager to show what they can do with added playing time. Tim Hardaway, Jr. (last 3 games: 18.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 61.8 FG%, 66.7 3FG%) has been showing signs of life after a rough start to the season. Taurean Prince may soon rejoin fellow blue-chipper DeAndre’ Bembry (3-for-4 FGs @ NOP on Thursday; out today due to death in family), after the former spent time surfing off the D-League coast of Long Island. These players may, someday, be floor-spacing threats, but that’s not why they’re here now. The Pace will do just fine, until the Space gets here. The identity of the Hawks going forward is not one that emphasizes the importance of a Threezus. Going forward, the intended imprint is one that wears opponents down, still sharing the ball but attacking the paint with speed and athleticism, without ceding much in the way of defensive cohesion. How much of a balancing act is this, on the head of a pin? Of the 15 teams (top half of the league) that allow the fewest points per game in the NBA, Atlanta (20-16) is the only team that ranks among the top 10 in pace. The only other team top-15 in pace and per-game scoring defense, Kyle’s Cleveland, ranks 14th in pace. Mark Cuban has not had a stellar 18 months. Things started heading south, arguably, when the billionaire owner swung-and-missed on the 2015 DeAndre Jordan deal (more specifically, he got tagged out going for an inside-the-parker). Tough sledding in 2016 as continued as Cuban got outfoxed by a fellow mogul, TV star, and social media rival who gets a plum new gig in just a couple weeks. And throughout this time, the man who made Dallas great again has watched the erosion of not only his team but its long-tenured captain. Dirk Nowitzki was as much of a no-brainer to stick around as any major free agent the summer. A 38-year-old icon, just a half-decade removed from earning an NBA Finals MVP, signing for two years at $25 million apiece won’t cause many to bat an eye. Back when he came on the scene, seven-footers from Europe with handle and range weren’t exactly a dime a dozen. Now, it’s an annual draft-time commodity. Over 1300 games later, though, the 2007 league MVP is doing the best he can to stay on the floor after suffering through not one, but two strained Achilles tendons. “It’s getting better,” said Nowitzki to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, after logging 28 minutes in a 102-95 home loss to Phoenix, the most floortime since his second injury absence ended. “Legs are still heavy in the second half, but been working toward the right thing, working toward feeling better out there.” The whole Mavs team seemed lead-legged at the close of Thursday night’s game. A layup by Deron Williams (team-high 6.8 APG) knotted things up at 93 apiece, but the final two minutes featured Suns guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight closing things out with nine unanswered points. The Mavs have struggled to lasso opponents from the perimeter, one of five teams allowing over 40 percent shooting from the corners, and including a league-worst 39.4 3FG% above-the-break. To tighten up things on the interior, they conducted essentially a free agent trade, with Zaza Pachulia coming to the Warriors and Andrew Bogut (9.3 RPG; team-high 1.0 BPG) joining Harrison Barnes (team-high 20.6 PPG; NBA-high 2.3 FGs per game on iso plays) along the trip from Golden State. But lately, the rim-protecting Aussie sounds as though he’s about ready to check out. Bogut asked coach Rick Carlisle if he could volunteer himself out of the starting lineup, allowing Dirk to play stretch-5 and Barnes to remain at power forward. Carlisle is putting a nice face on that, although it helps that Barnes and Nowitzki have been far better as a 4/5 tandem from a plus-minus standpoint than Bogut and Nowitzki so far. Plus, Barnes “holds his own despite being a little undersized at times” at the 4-spot. Barnes and Nowitzki hope to draw Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard outside the paint with the threat of copious mid-range jumpers. Albeit by design, Atlanta allows an NBA-worst 44.1 2FG% on mid-range shots, and only Kenny Atkinson’s Nets (9.5) allow more mid-range buckets per game than the Hawks (9.3 2FGMs per game). Doing so would grant the Mavs a puncher’s chance offensively, opening up lanes for penetration by Williams and kickouts to perimeter threats like the resurgent Wesley Matthews (2.9 3FGs/game) and shooter-sibling Seth Curry (39.4 3FG%). After the Hawks allowed New Orleans to make 15-of-35 on shots from downtown, Bazemore and Sefolosha will have critical roles in creating deflections and making perimeter looks tougher. Atlanta’s Schröder should be able to thwart Williams’ drives and produce on a few of his own. Any activity that gets D-Will in foul trouble will put a dent in the Mavericks’ passing game, such that there is one (19.6 team APG, 27th in NBA). The only other Mav with more than three dimes per game, J.J. Barea (5.2 APG) has Achilles issues of his own and has been mostly inactive since mid-November. Devin Harris is almost a full time 2-guard under Carlisle, while with the recent waiver of Mr. Jackson, the Pelican is the only employed Pierre in the NBA. The Mavs’ one saving grace had been one of the Hawks’ bugaboos. Dallas leads the NBA by forcing 16.3 turnovers per 100 possessions (Atlanta’s 15.5 ranks 4th). Hawks’ players have committed under 15 turnovers (not counting team TOs) in each of their last eight victories, while Atlanta’s player TO tallies have gone down from 16.9 per game in October/November, to 13.9 in December, to 12.3 through three games this month. Sound execution from the guards on both ends of the floor will allow the Hawks to continue playing inspired basketball. Hopefully, Coach Bud won’t need to remind the players that Kyle Korver isn’t coming through that door. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  6. “Let’s kick off Black History Month in style!” You really can’t expect much more than you’ve gotten out of Rick Carlisle and the Dallas Mavericks. They come into Atlanta tonight (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Southwest) aiming for their fourth win in five games, the sole exception being a blowout loss to a red-hot Golden State. They’ll also look to snap a four-game losing streak against the Hawks head-to-head. Amid a stretch of five games in seven days before the All-Star break, Carlisle is running a master-class in conserving player energies. Future Hassel-HOFer Dirk Nowitzki sat out from yesterday’s home game vs. Phoenix, in advance of tonight’s contest. While his 44.8 FG% is the second-lowest of his storied career, Dallas (28-22) is a stout 12-3 when Dirk (5-for-12 2FGs, 1-for-8 3FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 9) contributes at least 20 points in a game. Former Hawk and almost-All-Star Zaza Pachulia (career-best 10.8 RPG) rested a sore leg for three games last week, then returned and picked up right where he left off (12.5 PPG, 13.5 RPG in wins versus Brooklyn and Phoenix to wrap up a homestand). He and Dirk are adequately running a Statler and Waldorf frontcourt, delivering plenty of silly media soundbytes while betting which player can log the most dunks by season’s end (Z-Pac’s up 9-4, for those keeping score at home). The one player who was a wild card at the start of the year due to the prior season’s injury, free agent acquisition Wesley Matthews, leads the team in minutes played. Wes is mired in a shooting slump (37.6 FG%, 28.4 3FG% in last 15 games) but insists he’ll play his way out of it. “Look, he’s fine,” Carlisled remarked after yesterday’s game. “I’m not going to fistfight him tomorrow to try to get him to sit out.” The Mavs have a well-seasoned roster whose top 8 players in minutes-per-game are aged 27 and up, and six of them (excepting Matthews and swingman Chandler Parsons) are at least 30. One of them, former Hawk Devin Harris, has missed the past several games and was left back in Big D to heal his sprained toe. Mark Cuban is more interested in fielding a League of Legends team than pulling any moves as the trade deadline approaches. “Nothing is really tempting to us,” Cuban told recently. Injecting youth for the sake of youth ahead of the playoffs only threatens Dallas’ team chemistry. Collectively, Dallas doesn’t turn the ball over (12.3 TO%, 4th-lowest in NBA), as only DFW-raised Deron Williams exceeds two TOs per game. They set up lots of three-point shots (28.0 3FGAs per game, 4th in NBA) and tend to make their free throws (10th in NBA for FT%). The one bad free throw shooter among their top scorers in Parsons (61.6 FT%), who is bouncing back in other aspects of his offensive game (January: 16.1 PPG, 51.0 FG%, 43.8 3FG%). Much like Atlanta, they shy away from crashing the offensive glass (20.4 O-Reb%, 29th in NBA), save for easy opportunities for Pachulia or JaVale McGee. Unlike Atlanta, the Mavs do clean up on the defensive end with a focus on rebounding (34.2 D-Rebs per game, 3rd in NBA) over blocks (28th in NBA) and steals (25th in NBA). Altogether, they’re smack in the middle of the league (15th in NBA) in both offensive and defensive efficiency. Yet they’re over-achieving at 10th in the overall NBA standings. That’s because they have veteran leadership that actually leads, a no-nonsense coach armed with a contract extension that still won’t accept mediocrity, and a vocal owner that’s willing to pull strings and take risks at the first sign of slippage. Dallas will try to make more hay out of the turnovers they produce against Atlanta. In their last meeting in mid-December, the Mavs committed just 9 turnovers to the visiting Hawks’ 15, yet were outscored off turnovers by a 17-16 margin as the Hawks wrested back the lead in the final three minutes to prevail, 98-95. Bench players like J.J. Barea (0-for-6 FGs vs. ATL on Dec. 9) and Dwight Powell did light work in yesterday’s game, Jeff Hornacek’s swan song in Dallas, and will be expected by Carlisle to help Dallas push the pace. Raymond Felton filled into the starting lineup in place of Nowitzki and recorded six assists (zero TOs) as the Mavs went small against the Suns. As for the Atlanta Hawks (27-22), losers in their last three games, and in five of their last six? When they decide to give their fans something worth writing about, we’ll mention it. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  7. “I Wear My Sunglasses at Night…” When next July’s free-agent wooing period kicks off, emojis of planes, trains, yachts, motorbikes, drones, Segways and hoverboards will, once again, fly across social media. Only this time around, it could finally be Zaza Pachulia that finds the doors to his estate Krazy-glued to the jambs and the knobs ripped off. America’s Fallback Big Man gets a visit from the team where he discovered his greatest NBA prominence. The Atlanta Hawks arrive at the Metroplex following a four-day break to face Pachulia’s Dallas Mavericks (9:30 PM, ESPN, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Southwest). This past summer, Mavs owner Mark Cuban leapt with both feet into the Shark Tank to snag a big free agent fish: namely, the Clippers’ DeAndre Jordan. He managed to earn a big bite, but came out of the ensuing ordeal looking all wet. Jordan had boxed Cuban out while his Clipper teammates boxed Jordan in. L.A. pulled out all the stops to encourage DeAndre to renege on Dallas’ handsome offer, and to disallow Cuban a second chance to make a first impression. Along the way, the Mavs’ incumbent center Tyson Chandler was so peeved by Dallas’ sudden negligence that he ran off on a free agent deal with Phoenix. By then, there were slim pickings among the remaining free agent options, and by slim, I mean Javale McGee Slim. Dallas went from perceived title contention, with Jordan manning the middle and a recuperating Wesley Matthews at the wing, to a team with a Texas-sized sinkhole at the 5-spot that will struggle to make the playoffs out West. Along Came Zaza. Sounds like a good mid-season replacement sitcom, no? Out of nowhere, did your starting center from the prior season kick the bucket just two weeks before Opening Night? Did your All-Star center get shelved for the season after popping a pec? Did your emergent young franchise center, hardly a year removed from signing a lucrative contract-extension deal, flame out of the very idea of playing pro hoops altogether? After losing out on both Chandler and Jordan, are you on the verge of starting your venerable good-soldier Dirk Nowitzki at the five? In case of emergency, break glass, and reach for Zaza Pachulia. Mavs GM Donnie Nelson did just that. After getting bridesmaided in the DeAndre Sweepstakes, Dallas traded a second-round pick to Milwaukee in exchange for the 31-year-old (Republic of) Georgian, who has always seen himself as much more than a stopgap plugging up personnel dam breaks. These days, Chandler is back to looking brittle in Phoenix, and Jordan’s free-throw clanking and wishy-washy play is but one of many issues on a middling Clipper squad. Sometimes, as Cuban would happily advise, it’s the move you didn’t make that makes the difference. Under the old format for All-Star balloting, it would no longer be surprising to find Pachulia near the top of the Center votes. His play has underscored Dallas’ position firmly in the Western Conference standings, sitting at 13-9 ahead of tonight’s contest. Zaza has been all that anyone could ask for; as usual, all that anyone ever seems to ask for, and more. A pivot that averages a double-double (10.7 PPG; 10.0 RPG, 9th in NBA; 12 double-doubles, 3rd in NBA), hits more than half his free throws (77.8 FT%), racks up steals (0.9 SPG) and can pass out of the post (2.0 APG)? Where does one sign up for that? As a free agent in 2016, a 32-year-old Pachulia won’t just be chasing options as a third-stringer, like he did when he rejoined Atlanta’s displaced coach Larry Drew in Milwaukee back in 2013. There will be starting spots to fill around the league, and this time the Mavs might be the ones holing themselves up in a house to keep their guy. Primarily an offensive rebounder (3.1 O-Rebs per game, 9th in NBA) for much of his career, Z-Pac has been getting it done at both ends, his 6.9 defensive boards per game besting his career-high 5.2 as an emergency starter with the 2011-12 Hawks. It’s become obvious that Zaza has been working on back-to-the-basket post moves. While long-revered in Atlanta, he was humorously notorious for missing chipshots around the rim. His career-best 61.0 FG% around the rim, and 55.1% within ten feet, has been no laughing matter this season. Zaza’s presence has taken a ton of pressure off of Nowitzki, Dallas’ 37-year-old leading scorer (17.9 PPG) whose 60.7 TS% is the second-highest mark in his storied, Hall of Fame-bound career; his 5.8 turnover percentage is a career-low. With his longtime coach Rick Carlisle having been granted a five-year extension, newcomer guards Deron Williams (15.2 PPG, career-low 13.7 TO%) and Matthews (35.9 FG%) getting up to speed, and backup big Dwight Powell (team-high 25.7 D-Reb%, 17th in NBA) blossoming off the bench, Dirk cannot be more satisfied with the way things are shaking out. Carlisle is perfecting Mike Budenholzer’s method to madness on defense: by design, the Mavericks rank dead last in offensive rebounding percentage (19.5 O-Reb%; tomorrow’s opponent, OKC, ranks 1st). By leaving all but the most available extra-chances (by Zaza) alone in order to get back in sound defensive position (9.5 second-chance PPG, tied with Spurs for fewest in NBA), Dallas has its best defensive efficiency (100.5 D-Rating, 4th best in the West) in its past four seasons. The steals and blocks are bottom-ten in the league, but the Mavs are generally forcing foes into tough, deep, well-contested shots (27.0 opponent 3FG attempts per game, 3rd-most in NBA; 32.3 opponent 3FG%, 5th-lowest in NBA) and securing the boards (77.4 D-Reb%, 8th in NBA) to set the stage for their offense. As embodied by Dirk’s style of play, what the Mavs do well offensively is drawing lots of contact (23.2 opponent personals per game, 2nd-most in NBA) without turning the ball over (13.8 per game, 4th-fewest in NBA). D-Will (92.9 FT%, 2nd in NBA) and Dirk (89.0 FT%) are both top-ten free throw shooters. If they can’t get shots on drives to the hoop, they’ll settle for plenty of patented step-back mid-range J’s. On shots from the 10-to-14 foot range, Dallas shoots at a league-high 47.8 FG%. The Mavericks haven’t been proficient from the perimeter (32.6 team 3FG%, 24th in NBA) save for Dirk and D-Will, and aside from Matthews’ 10-for-17 3FG display (season-high 36 points) in a win at Washington on Sunday, both he and Chandler Parsons have been rusty in their returns to action. Former Hawk first-rounder and Mavs preseason star John Jenkins has been lightly used off the bench and has shot just 21.4% from deep. But he is getting more playing time in Carlisle’s recent rotations, especially with J.J Barea (ankle) and Devin Harris (ribs) missing time with injuries. Until Parsons can get back in the flow, Raymond Felton has taken his place in the Mavs’ starting lineup, shifting Matthews to the 3-spot. Williams and Felton shot a combined 13-for-24 while dishing 12 assists in their triumphant return to New York City proper on Monday. Parity prevails in the East! While Dallas’ 13-9 record has them currently in a pleasant 4th place out West, Atlanta’s 13-9 record had them sliding down to the 7th slot in the Eastern Conference without really doing anything. Nobody in the conference has more than a two-game winning streak, and none have currently lost more than three in a row. The Hawks (1.5 games back of first in the East) watched every team that was above them drop a game or two during their sorely-needed four-day break. But with fewer games under their belts, none of those teams managed to drop below Atlanta in the standings. Fortunately, playoff positioning for the defending Eastern Conference regular season champs is irrelevant in December. What is crucial for the Hawks is getting back healthier, and returning to their early-season execution on road trips (1-5 after a 4-0 start) and back-to-back nights (3-3 after a 6-0 start). They’ll head to Oklahoma City for a rematch with the Thunder tomorrow. Zaza isn’t the only over-30 Euro-hooper who’s been ballin’ outta control lately. Born in the town that invented milk chocolate, Atlanta’s Thabo Sefolosha has been Vevey, Vevey good. It’s arguable that he is enjoying the best season of his near-decade-long career thus far. His per-game scoring (7.6 PPG), steals (1.7 SPG), blocks (0.7 BPG) and rebounding (5.1 RPG) are all career-highs, despite averaging just the fifth-most minutes per game in his ten NBA seasons. His 52.3 FG% blows away his high-water mark of 48.1 FG% from 2012-13. Not too shabby, for a man with a fractured tibia and damaged ligaments just eight months ago. On the subject of Euro-ballers, it’s hard to forget the game Dennis Schröder had the last time the Hawks visited American Airlines Center. Filling in for an injured Jeff Teague last December, the brisk Braunschweiger broke out for his then-career-high 22 points by making 9-of-15 from the field (6-for-8 at the rim), tacking on six assists and one highlight-reel steal of his mentor Nowitzki. While it will be tempting for Budenholzer to match Dallas’ small-guard lineup with Teague and Schröder, Kyle Korver will find ample open perimeter looks against Felton, while Schröder can have a greater impact versus the Mavs’ depleted backcourt reserves. While most teams have caught on to Schröder’s Schtick, Dallas lacks the defensive playmakers to both impede Dennis’ relentless forays into the paint and keep his teammates covered. The Hawks have mastered the art of creating open perimeter shots. They simply haven’t been converting them into points. Based on NBA Player Tracking data, Atlanta has averaged a league-high 15.6 “wide open” three-point attempts (with closest defender six or more feet away) per game, 3.2 more than the Juggernaut State Warriors. But while the Splash Brothers and Company have connected on half of those shots, Atlanta’s 36.4 3FG% ranks just 18th in the league. Leading scorer Paul Millsap (30.8 3FG% down from 35.6% last season; 11.8% in last eight games; 29.0% on “wide open” threes) could be averaging 20+ per game if he would make opponents pay for leaving him so open. With a hopefully reinvigorated commitment to defensive rebounding and drawing shooting fouls, Al Horford (16.3 PPG, 10.3 RPG, 1.7 BPG, 40.0 3FG%, 81.8 FT% last week) earned himself an Eastern Conference Player of the Week nomination. Depth at the frontcourt positions will be restored with the return of Tiago Splitter (hip) to game action. The sooner Splitter can return to being the pick-and-roll defensive savant of days past, the sooner Atlanta (100.6 D-Rating, 9th in East) can move back among the top defensive teams in its conference. If Horford’s recent outings come consistently closer to the norm, he’ll help the Hawks surge back toward the top of the Eastern Conference logjam in the standings. If Al regresses to the production of the low-impact player from prior weeks, this summer, he may find himself waiting for his former longtime backup to come out of free agent lockdown, first, before the big-money suitors come for him. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  8. Big play, Ray! ~lw3
  9. ~lw3