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  1. “You’d better be glad I brought my Get Back Coach with me. Weiss! Do your magic and make this ref fool disappear!” “I speak for the entire organization when I say that we are excited to have Dwane on board as a member of the Wolves. We are looking forward to watching him lead our team.” Turned out, Glen Taylor wasn’t looking far enough forward. The Timberwolves owner’s patience, and excitement, ran out quick. Dwane Casey coached a wretched team built around a sour Kevin Garnett to a 33-49 record, in his first year, then he went 20-20 midway through the second. Yet that nominal improvement wasn’t up to Taylor’s grand expectations. A four-game skid that began with a bad home loss to Joe Johnson’s Atlanta Hawks dropped the Wolves back to .500. It’s why Taylor elevated the prior coach Casey replaced, Kevin McHale, to team president, and replaced Casey in midseason with Randy Wittman. Randy. Wittman! The 20-20 T’Wolves completely lost their vision, finishing 32-50 under Wittman (4-15 the season after that, whereby McHale came downstairs to upheave Randy and snatch his old job back), and Taylor never got to see his Wolves get on the good foot since. That is, aside from that one season under Tom Thibodeau, where the team squeaked into the playoffs at the last minute and the Atlanta Hawks stole away their first-round draft pick, keeping them from reeling in yet another Kevin. But enough about Adreian Payne. Heeding years of local pleas, Taylor finally waved the white flag this month, agreeing to slowly release his ironclad grip on Minnesota’s NBA and WNBA franchises to a group led, interestingly enough, by a retired athlete once endeared by the good people of Seattle, King County, Washington. News of the transaction got the baristas in the Emerald City percolating: “Could we finally be getting our dear old Sonics back?” Casey had been born to coach, originally asked to coach up a Little League team filled with players three years his junior. The young guard basically retired after winning a NCAA title with blue-blood Kentucky, quickly became an assistant with Western Kentucky, then with his alma mater, before finding his way into the NBA with the Supersonics in the 1990s. As an assistant, Dwane coached up the man who would come to be known as “Mr. Sonic.” By the time Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz bought the team, in 2001, the recently retired player Nate McMillan had elevated Casey to be his lead assistant. The Sonics were no longer perennial championship contenders, but they were on the rise by the summer of 2005, when Seattle lost a tough second-round series to the goody-two-shoes Spurs. It looked like a natural ascension for Casey when he accepted the job in Minneapolis. But did Dwane sense something slick in Seatown was afoot? “That’s not a dream PR scenario for us,” said Wally Walker, wannabe team owner who settled as team CEO, after McMillan shocked everyone, mere weeks after Casey’s hire, when he let his contract expire, declined a decent extension offer, and signed a similar deal with Seattle’s despised regional rivals in Portland, joining ranks with Microsoft co-founder and Seahawks owner Paul Allen. Coming off a 52-30 season, this was perhaps the beginning of many bad-dream PR scenarios for Sonics, Inc. “It wasn’t the money,” the 40-year-old McMillan shared after his stunning hire. “I thought Seattle offered fair money.” Seattle also, the day before, signed franchise star Ray Allen to a five-year, $85 million contract extension. Not enough to budge Nate. “This was the time for me to move on,” the AP reported McMillan explaining. “I needed a different challenge, a different opportunity.” The challenge? Getting the notorious JailBlazers out of jail, sternly yanking players back in-line after they ran roughshod for years over poor Mo Cheeks. 2021, and 2005, weren’t the only times Nate Mac was begged to clean up somebody else’s mess. Paul Westphal got the heave-ho after a floundering 6-9 start by the Sonics in 2000-01, and “interim coach” McMillan guided his team to a 38-29 finish, then a return to the playoffs the following year. They wouldn’t return to the postseason until 2005, but McMillan wasn’t going to wait to see whether Allen, or even Schultz, was going to stick around through his next contract. I theorize these two coaches, McMillan and Casey, woke up and smelled the coffee before most anyone else could. They saw the impasse over the KeyArena renovations, as citizens and politicos alike repeatedly ordered Schultz to go pound some eroding sand. They likely saw Schultz getting soft as cappuccino foam, and big-money sharks from odd places like Vegas, Missouri, and Oklahoma circling around Puget Sound. “Mr. Sonic”, in particular, wasn’t eager to be the guy tasked with turning the last light out on his way out of the town that embraced him. Back in 2005, these two coaches likely never imagined they’d be planting their flags anywhere beyond the NBA’s newly formed Northwest Division. Now clear members of the old-skool coaching fraternity, they find themselves meeting for, maybe, not the last time as the head coaches of the Atlanta Hawks and Detroit Pistons (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Detroit. Why is this not 8 PM?). And it’s truly a credit to them both. The Pistons are doing a masterful tank job, at least on the court, thanks to Casey. They’re 18-43, fending off the free-falling Magic for the bottom spot in the NBA East. But even if they lose tonight to the Hawks here at Little Caesars Arena, Detroit hasn’t dropped more than four games in a row all season long. And they’re hanging around in games longer than most expect. 27 of their 43 defeats have been by a margin of ten points or less, games versus New York and at Washington, both red-hot teams, the only losses by more than 15 points this month. Under first-year GM Troy Weaver, fresh from the Sonics’ second home in OKC, Detroit swiftly awakened from the pipe dream of reinvigorating Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose into some sort of playoff contention. They’re letting Killian Hayes, the Lotto point guard back from his early season-injury, cut his teeth while allowing Cory Joseph, a veteran flipped by Sacramento with some second-round picks for Delon Wright, to grab the starter reins for the rest of the season. Weaver’s offseason was hit-and-miss. The expiring contract of Tony Snell was the price for taking a four-day flyer with contract-stretched former Hawks center Dewayne Dedmon (they sure love stretching ex-Hawks up there). While this year’s first-round pick is heavily protected, ceding first-round conveyance rights over the next seven seasons is a high risk attached to the sign-and-trade of Christian Wood to Houston for, essentially, rookie big Isaiah Stewart. Literally hit-or-miss is Saddiq Bey, the rookie wing who Weaver gained by dealing Luke Kennard out in a multi-team trade. Bey went 2-for-14 from the field, including bagel-for-6 on threes, during Saturday’s loss in Indiana. But he also sunk six of 11 attempts at triples as Detroit, in their most recent victory, soured the Cavaliers’ fading Play-In hopes last Monday. Offseason acquisitions Jerami Grant and Mason Plumlee (career-high 21 rebounds, 17 points, 5 assists @ IND on Saturday) have reveled in their roles as the Pistons build up from the ground floor. Remember when the Hawks’ OT win over Detroit was the most thrilling win of the season? Grant (32 points @ ATL on Jan. 20) bowling over Trae Young and getting whistled for the charge, after blowing past John Collins for the would-be-game-winning layup attempt in regulation, may have prolonged McMillan’s assistant coaching tenure in Atlanta by a few weeks. The Hawks win in Brooklyn! The Hawks come home and lose the next night to Cleveland. The Hawks paste the Nuggets! The Hawks go to Cleveland, two nights later, and blow it. The Hawks blast Boston! The Hawks fly to OKC, two days later, and catch another big L. Atlanta, who nearly let all the air out of the MLK Day balloon by losing at home two days later to the Pistons, have matured under McMillan’s watch (20-7 since March 1), and it’s a good test on short rest to see how the Hawks (34-27; lost last two SEGABABAs) will perform after last night’s sweet sugar high. McMillan’s former team survived Detroit on Saturday, prevailing 115-109 on three days’ rest. But the Pacers, absent both Domantas Sabonis and Myles Turner, were cleaned clear off the boards 62-39 despite both squads shooting poorly. Clint Capela, Solomon Hill (career-high 12 rebounds vs. MIL last night), and Collins held Milwaukee to a pair of O-Rebs in each half, and the Greek Freak to none on Sunday. The rebounding edge Plumlee and Detroit enjoyed on Saturday should be, at the very least, narrowed significantly tonight. Atlanta out-boarded Detroit 63-42 (23-7 offensive) back in January. What made the difference for Indy versus the Pistons’ upstarts was turnover margin (18-4 in IND’s favor). Atlanta will rely on Point Bogi, Sweet Lou and Brandon B. Good to keep the sloppiness down (9 player TOs vs. MIL, incl. 3 very forgivable TOs by Lou as the Bucks were scrambling), and the transition defense up. As for forcing timely turnovers… KRIS DUNN PROBABLE ALERT! Weaver’s best moves still lie ahead of him. He has been able to remake the roster around a futuristic foundation of Grant, Bey, Stewart, and Hayes (where have you gone, Sekou Doumbouya?). But unlike his old boss, he has been unable to stockpile the first-rounder assets that could help Detroit break out of its abyss anytime soon. After this season ends in a few weeks, will one of those moves involve his lame-duck head coach? “I absolutely believe and trust that we have the best coach in the world for what we’re going through,” Weaver said to WXYZ-TV after the All-Star Break of Casey. “They often say that a team takes on the personality of a coach, and that has absolutely happened.” What, precisely, is Motown “going through”, you ask of Mr. Weaver? Shade Warning, Hawks and Wolves fans! “You can only restore something that’s great. There’s been greatness in Detroit, three championships and that’s what I wanted here. No slight to the Timberwolves, they can’t restore, they don’t have three championships, they don’t have the greatness. The Atlanta Hawks can’t restore.” Look here, pal, Imma let you finish but, unlike Minny, I’ve got a barely-tarnished punch bowl from 1958 that says otherwise, so keep OUR name out yo’ filthy mouf! “But the Detroit Pistons can restore.” Sure, Jan. Still, is Casey, under contract for two more seasons, part of the full restoration to championship prominence here? Or is he just another somebody you’re “going through?” Casey has been screw-jobbed at many of his pitstops. He resigned at UK and put on probation by the NCAA after being wrongfully fingered for money getting delivered in an envelope to one of the school’s highly-sought recruits (it’s always the assistants, never the heads). The T’Wolves refused to accept mediocrity under his watch, and they’ve lived in the Lottery (almost) every season since. He never got to see how far he could go with a Raptors club guided by a prime Kawhi Leonard instead of a milquetoast DeMar DeRozan, although accepting 2018’s NBA Coach of the Year award after being fired was a quaint parting gift. “Sarge” McMillan turning around the Blazers’ morass took four long years, but after three straight first-round exits and a 20-23 start to 2011-12, no one was trying to hear about the setback of losing Brandon Roy to a catastrophic injury. Portland stayed true to Terry Stotts after he went 33-49 the next season, even after losing 13 games in a row to end the year despite having LaMarcus Aldridge and a plum rookie named Damian Lillard. Losers of five straight and a shaky Play-In candidate as of April 2021, Portland hasn’t shoved Stotts out the door yet. Meanwhile, Tony Ressler is sweating to knock that “interim” label off McMillan after he has clearly ServPro’d yet another NBA roster, made evident once more following last night’s resounding 111-104 win over Mike Budenholzer’s Bucks. But Nate remembers how fervently he declined appeals to be extended in Indy last season, then relented in the final week of the regular season, only to be cut loose a couple weeks later because his Sabonis-less squad couldn’t hold a candle to the Miami heat in the first round. NBA owners drop coaches like a bad habit the minute they catch a glimpse of something newfangled and shiny, or guys with a gift for gab that fill up newspaper columns and keep talking heads talking on talk shows. Rising under the tutelage of older-skool guys from Joe B. Hall, to Pete “Big Man Camp” Newell, to George Karl, McMillan and Casey don’t fit the molds of what we like to think, in the pace-and-space age, is conducive to winning basketball, and until one or the other somehow show up with a team in The Finals, that narrow view will hold. But I surmise that McMillan is going to stay hard-and-fast to his mantra of not negotiating contracts with front offices, anymore, until a season is done-done. Further, when this one ends, two of the burning questions in his mind will not be about money. It will be about whether he and Casey can get together once more, in Atlanta, or elsewhere. McMillan will need to feel assured that Ressler is thinking far enough ahead, and not just excited about the moment at hand. It will also be about, in a town where James Donaldson is a serious candidate for mayor this year, whether the NBA owners are genuinely disinterested in getting the NHL Kraken an expansion sibling sometime soon. It’s a ring they’d love to throw their coaching hats into. It’s a coffee-roasting town. But when it comes to Seattle, and their careers, McMillan and Casey have gotten good at reading the tea leaves. Having suffered through decades of hard luck, the time may have finally arrived where, people realize, these coaches deserve to play a little hardball. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. “OMG, Claire! Can you believe this? Our Lyft driver is the one and only Kris Humphries!” It’s Game #2 of Must-Win Week #2! Despite a C-minus effort on MLK Day, our Atlanta Hawks passed their first test with a win over the shorthanded Timberwolves. But here’s a Red Alert. The last-place Detroit Pistons returning to State Farm Arena today (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit) are not the last-place Pistons that the Hawks beat here in December. When the then-unbeaten Hawks fended off winless Detroit (now 3-10), coach Dwane Casey’s crew had two first-rounder rookies, Killian Hayes (now out indefinitely with a hip tear) and Saddiq Bey starting together in the backcourt. Grizzled vets Blake Griffin and Derrick Rose were rested and inactive. And the Pistons had to fly back home, saving their energies for a game against Golden State the next evening. This isn’t to say the Pistons are good now. Just that they’ll knock you clean off your high horse, if you roll a D-plus effort out there on the floor. Just ask Miami. Absent Jimmy Butler due to COVID protocols, the heat strolled home after dropping two straight in Philly, the last one by 17 points, only to fall at home to Detroit by 20, Miami players giving up the ball 22 times due to turnovers (sounds familiar?). The defending Eastern Conference champions, still sans Jimmy Buckets, got their chance at revenge in the same building two nights later. Yet they dug themselves in a 12-point first-quarter foxhole, then had to scramble and hang on to escape on MLK Day with a 113-107 victory over the Pistons. Coach Casey’s seat is warm, by design, as a lame duck under the purview of new GM Troy Weaver. He remains confident that his long-term status isn’t dependent on near-term player development. Youthful charges Bey, center Isaiah Stewart, Svi Mykhailiuk, Deividas Sirvydas and Sekou Doumbouya aren’t getting much burn as Casey relies on multi-year vets (including 23-year-old wayfarer Josh Jackson, whose defense is giving his slipshod career new life) to fill his short rotations. The Piston pupils are nearly non-existent on nights that aren’t part of back-to-back pairs. If he had his druthers, Detroit’s head coach would have them checking in against the Skyhawks and the Bayhawks, not the Hawks (6-7). “…they should be learning the G-League,” Casey told Omari Sankofa of the Freep about his blue-chippers on Tuesday, “making mistakes and learning from them in the G-League instead of our (NBA) games.” Even without much reliable depth for Casey to turn to, only one of Detroit’s ten defeats have been by more than ten points. They’ve stayed within shouting range throughout because Jerami Grant has been making plenty of All-Star noise. The Son of Harvey, already in his fourth NBA stop over seven seasons, is dropping career-best numbers (24.9 PPG, 6.1 RPG, 2.5 APG, 2.7 3FGs/game, 86.3 FT%). As a 2020 free agent, Grant expressed his appeal for working under an African-American coach+GM combo, and Casey is rewarding him with free reign as the Pistons’ new franchise face, good timing since Griffin’s gasket is leaking lots of oil (career-lows of 14.3 points per-36 and 0.1 BPG; 38.3 FG%, 35.2 FG% in 18 brief appearances last season; 67.9 FT%). Like Charlotte’s Gordon Hayward, and New York’s Julius Randle, Grant (27 points @ ATL on Dec. 28, tied with Jackson in the 128-120 loss) needs teams, like the Hawks and heat, that get caught slipping defensively to help his team escape the Eastern Conference basement and shine up his resume at All-Star voting time. The final bell hasn’t rung for Professor Griff just yet. Bleak Blake’s still averaging 4.3 APG (1.7 TOs/game), aiding Rose (team-high 5.1 APG, off the bench) and Hayes’ replacement starting point guard, Delon Wright (4.1 APG, 0.9 TOs/game) in creating ample shot opportunities, at least many more than Detroit’s foes can hoist (NBA-low 83.8 opponent FGAs; 17.2 opponent TO%, 2nd in NBA). Grabbing more steals, taking higher proportions of threes from the field, and crashing the offensive glass more frequently than last season, is all what keeps the Pistons more in the ballpark than the Tigers. The problems come when Grant’s teammates, like hot-and-cold Hawkslayer Wayne Ellington (7-for-11 3FGs @ MIA; 2-for-7 @ ATL on Dec. 28), Griffin and Wright aren’t hitting shots outside, or finishing inside (team 48.3 2FG%, last in NBA; 49.8 eFG%, 28th in NBA). Atlanta, fortunately, has a forward duo that can keep Grant and Griff inefficient when they’re on the floor together. I am here for De’Angry Hunter! (Way better than The Angry Whopper, no?) De’Andre is out here having it his way -- going up for ferocious dunks, wrestling away 50/50 balls, lofting threes with no hesitation, keeping candy away from babies at game’s end, even chewing out refs on bone-headed calls and drawing techs? My large, adult son! While watching Zion and N’Awlins taking their turn at getting flame-broiled by the red-hot Jazz on national TV last night, one of my Hawks Twitter faves (@REGGIES_WORLD) asked aloud, “You know who would look good on the Pelicans right now?” Aren’t you hungry? A double-digit scorer all season long, this will be the 12th opportunity in Hunter’s budding career to serve up consecutive 20-burgers for the first time (10.5 PPG in prior 11 chances), if he is indeed good-to-go tonight (probable, sore knee). With Clint Capela (28.8 D-Reb%, 3rd in NBA; 23-and-15 plus 3 blocks vs. MIN) doing the dirtiest of the dirty work around the defensive glass, John Collins and Hunter are ((slides on titanium draws)) powering forward. Their positive +12.6 Net Rating as a duo in Atlanta lineups is surpassed in the NBA East only by KD and Joe Harris (+13.6, min. 300 minutes played), and currently 6th-best overall. Tack on Trae Young (8.9 APG and 88.9 FT%; multiple 3FGs, despite a season-low 8 FGAs vs. MIN, for the 2nd time in his past seven games), even with his wayward floaters and jumpers, and with refs trying their darnedest not to fall for his Nashketball tactics, and the Collins-Hunter-Young trio (+12.7 Net Rating, 3rd-best among NBA East 3-Man Lineups w/ 200+ minutes, 6th-best anywhere outside L.A.) is only a Crosby or a Stills short of a supergroup. Teach your children well, LP! Hopefully, Cam Reddish (upgraded to questionable, bruised knee) or Kevin Huerter (3-for-8 3FGs, 8 assists, 2 TOs, 4 steals vs. MIN) can become that fourth wheel, although four shouldn’t be needed to turn Atlanta into the true Motor City tonight. Individually, Young (probable vs. DET, sore heel, although the ggod news is his wrist is fine) is just a marginally superior defender in the early going, compared to the balance of his past season. But after enduring Jabari Parker, Damian Jones, the esteemed Vince Carter, and the M.I.A. tandem of Alex Len and momentary Piston Dewayne Dedmon in last year’s frontcourt, Trae’s learning that not being the league’s worst defensive player often comes down to the company you keep. My only ask of De’Andre, as the serene sophomore begins to shed his Dr. Bruce Banner persona, is that he not try to keep up with Trae in the turnover department. It can be easy being green, if you play possessions looking less like Kermit The Frog flailing about, and more like The Incredible Hulk. The Hawks can be top-tier competitive (2-1 w/ team TO percentages below 10.0%, as per bball-ref; wins over Philly and the Nets, with sole loss @ BRK) when it’s only Young turning the ball over frequently. Hunter’s six TOs versus the T’Wolves on Monday, tying Trae and contributing to Atlanta’s season-high 24 player goofs, negated his and his team’s own defensive stops and were but his only significant blemishes. Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce must work on his game plans to improve off-ball anticipation on offensive possessions, his players effectively resetting when a play call is countered and the need to shift to Plan B, with a Drew-ian sense of urgency, arises. Such execution is essential against a Detroit team that thrives off scoring chances after producing turnovers (19.5 points per-48, 5th-most in NBA). A slop-fest won’t work against the Pistons as it did against the shorthanded T’Wolves. The Hawks need not look ahead, but that doesn’t mean their fans can’t. COVID-craziness notwithstanding, next week’s slate includes a visit to Budworld, where Giannis awaits, and home games with first Kawhi & PG, then the fat-suit-less Harden, KD & Kyrie in town on back-to-back nights. Will we get a well-rested and recuperated Wizards bunch in Washington next weekend? We’ll see. The week after that? A four-game homestand, but with LeBron and AD, then Luka and the Jazz on a back-to-back, then a Tampato team that’s shedding dead weight (sorry, Alex) and is on the mend. Atlanta will then get four days off, but only before heading to Lukaland for their next, and finally scheduled, national TV appearance. Things could go south, or soar north, in a hurry for the Hawks. But it’s the outcomes of those games, not the ones against the Knicks, Cavs, Hornets, Timberwolves and Pistons, that ought to define how one looks at this season’s success. It’s why Must-Win Week #2 cannot afford to go the way of Must-Win Week #1. The Georgia Tech men’s basketball team is aiming to win their third-straight ACC game, and fifth in a row, with a chance of rising to 7-3 tonight by beating 20th-ranked Clemson on the road. Unfortunately for Tech, they’re not Top-25 ranked, and may still not be even in victory, in part because their season has already been defined, by Thanksgiving weekend losses at home to local Peach State “rivals” Georgia State and Mercer. Once you do that, nobody wants to hear about how you beat blue-bloods Kentucky and UNC. You don’t want to be the Yellow Jackets; you want to be the team that does the stinging of weak opponents around here. Atlanta will have roster reinforcements coming along soon, and they don’t need to show perfection yet, although cutting the turnovers in half would sure be nice. Today, and on Friday in the rematch with D’demono Russell in Minnesota, we do need the Hawks to avoid another buzzkill, by at least showing us they’ve mastered their B-game. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  3. You said it, SPANX Lady! This Just In: The Lions have given up yet another touchdown. While it’s not the best time to issue hugs to unsuspecting strangers, if you come across a Detroit Sports fan, offer ‘em an air-hug, or a fist pump or something. If you’re aged 30 or below, you likely don’t recall the last time the Lions won an NFL playoff game. Matthew Stafford will soon join Barry Sanders, Herman Moore and Calvin Johnson on the At Least You Tried Ring of Honor. Last place in the AL Central, and dead-last-by-a-mile in the NHL, respectively, the Tigers and Red Wings know better than to have laughs at the Lions’ expense. All four of Detroit’s pro teams have been in dire straits for quite some time, including the visitors served up at State Farm Arena for the Atlanta Hawks’ home opener, the Pistons (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit). At least the Pistons once had Cleveland in their division to look down upon, last season. But a 128-119 double-OT home loss on Saturday to the momentarily undefeated Cavs has Detroit (0-2) dwelling the cellar. A foreboding schedule to kick off the 2021 calendar year (game pairs versus Boston and at Milwaukee) has folks wondering if there’s a subfloor. Far be it for any Atlanta sports fan to peer down upon anyone’s despair. But Mike Budenholzer was preparing for his first official game as the Hawks’ head coach the last time any Detroit major league team advanced in a postseason. When last the Pistons prevailed in a playoff series, Atlanta was still three seasons away from losing the Thrashers. While we rightfully critique our sports owners around here (the ones we can find), for various and sundry reasons, there has been a full-hearted push to get every one of Detroit’s owners, from the Ilitch and Ford families, to the Pistons’ reach-out-and-bilk-someone Tom Gores, to give up the ship. It’s a tale of two sports cities that, I believe, reflects the tale of two cities at-large. As a metropolis, Atlanta’s calling card is economic resilience. It’s hard to tell from a bird’s-eye view right now, with a rolling landscape of largely vacant office towers stretching from downtown to Sandy Springs amidst a global downturn. But on the ground, there remains a sense that our industrial diversity can keep The ATL afloat, long-term, in ways American metros sorely lacking in “depth” will struggle. Logistics, healthcare, legal services, entertainment media, information technology, hospitality, education, construction. All industries are being frazzled while wrangling with the pandemic, and many of Atlanta’s bellwether companies are gushing out laborers to keep their bottom lines from bottoming out. But the big bet here is that there is enough resolve among its citizens to shift with few seams from one workflow to another, enough ingenuity among its “creative class” to, if you’ll excuse the well-worn phrase, build our economy back better, as we alleviate ourselves from the stresses of COVID-19’s strains. Where Coke and Delta flounder, Home Depot, Chick-fil-A, UPS, Inspire Brands and others hope to pick up the slack. At business scales both large and small, many towns don’t have such flexibility. While Atlanta, like Detroit, relishes in tearing outmoded things down, it generally doesn’t proceed without a forward-thinking plan to build functional replacements that last. It tries not to chase after old-hat concepts (“Hey, let’s build a bunch of casinos!”), swinging for the fences in hopes of hitting an economic grand-slam. Atlantans aren’t successful at every venture. But, by and large, rational outsiders can at least understand what we’re trying to accomplish. These are attitudes that we like to think those in charge of managing our sports clubs admire and turn to for inspiration. The spirit of ATL Innovation produces people like one part-time Disney World worker, stand-up comic and door-to-door fax machine salesperson, who struggled with her LSATs -- and her stockings -- while striving to become an attorney. Her ideas to reinvent the hosiery business were initially scoffed at, in the male-dominated manufacturing field. In less than 15 years after moving to Atlanta, by building Spanx into an empire, Sara Blakely became the youngest self-made female billionaire on the planet. Within 20 years, she and her jet-setting ex-rapper husband would be proud co-owners of the Atlanta Hawks. The spirit of ATL Resoluteness lives in Dominique. Dominique Armani Jones, to be exact. In the late 2000’s, the Atlanta native was a freshman-year dropout at Booker T. Washington High, and it wouldn’t be long afterward that a fight with some racist inmate, while in the pokey for drug possession, would extend his stay there. But through writing trap music, and maintaining connections with up-and-coming artists for mixtape collaborations, Jones made his way out of the larger trap built to absorb millions of young men like him. In five short years since his last release from jail, “Lil Baby” has amassed more Billboard Hot 100-charting hits than either Prince or Paul McCartney. It’s a pace of hip-hop bangers that rivals Atlanta artist Future zipping past 8-Miler Eminem on the hits list. The song that helped Lil Baby surpass those titans, his Grammy-nominated “The Bigger Picture”, became an anthem during a superheated summer of 2020 protests in Atlanta and around the world. Not forgetting his Oakland City neighborhood roots, Dominique spent the days before Christmas partnering with MARTA for a pop-up wintertime coat giveaway in the West End. We may be known for gritty yet glittery places like Magic City. But what comes across as ATL Magic to the uninitiated disguises the coherent scheming and willpower that drives this area’s citizenry, natives and newcomers alike. As Lou Williams can attest with his signature wings, we come up with the sauce and the sizzle that best sells the gristle. Other cities’ civic and corporate heroes now turn to Atlantans to help them thrive. Blakely opened a Spanx store in not only Atlanta’s but Detroit’s international airport. She once donated $100,000 of her fortune to a Detroit empowerment campaign that paid homeless women to produce sleeping bag coats for others in need. Motown drew world-class talents from Detroit and the upper Midwest to achieve top-tier status in the music world for decades. These days, through its joint venture with Atlanta record label Quality Control Music, Motown relies heavily on ATL performers like Migos, Lil Yachty and Lil Baby to stay on top in the record biz. This, while local products like Big Sean, Eminem, Royce da 5’9”, and Mike Posner toil for out-of-town labels beyond their own. On the hardwood, it’s hard to assess Detroit’s end-game strategy. But newcomer executive Troy Weaver, fresh from OKC, and incumbent coach Dwane Casey hope they’ll be granted enough time for all the demolition dust to clear. Detroit could “boast” of its league-high four players who were Top-4 NBA Draft picks. Or at least they would, except two are aging ex-MVP candidates -- Derrick Rose (out, rest) and Blake Griffin (injury management, left home ahead of Detroit’s third game in four nights tomorrow) -- while the others are redefining their careers after being literal busts elsewhere – Jahlil Okafor (questionable, sprained ankle) and Josh Jackson. Including lotto-pick guard Killian Hayes, and two-way backcourt mate Saben Lee, the Pistons have seven rookie or second-year contributors on its 17-man roster. But in the early going, Casey has not figured out a way to use them. With his leading minutes-logger (Griffin) and sixth-man spark (Rose) out of action tonight, Detroit’s coach won’t have much of a choice. “Everybody wants an instant overnight All-Star,” Casey told the Detroit News’ Rod Beard, “and that’s not going to happen with a 19-year-old kid. It’s a process with them.” Atlanta has stayed true to its process of molding a core of young talent. Now, unlike the case with Detroit’s Rose, it doesn’t necessarily require a 2008 Draftee clinging to what remains of his prime (Danilo Gallinari, questionable with a foot contusion) to help coach Lloyd Pierce’s Hawks (2-0) outshine bad-to-mediocre competition. Detroit (NBA-low 97.3 O-Rating, with Griffin and Rose) needs its biggest-moneyed acquisitions, Jerami Grant (18.5 PPG), Delon Wright and Mason Plumlee (team-highs of 8.5 RPG and 5.5 APG so far), to have huge nights to stay in the running for a victorious result. Comparatively, Atlanta’s Bogdan might need more time to shed the early Bustdanovic label (31.8 FG% through two games), while Clint Capela (probable, Achilles), Kris Dunn (out, ankle surgery), lotto-rook Onyeka Okongwu (out, foot imflammation) and ex-Piston Tony Snell (see Okongwu) would do well to simply grace the floor with their presences. But if prospects like third-year guard Kevin Huerter and the unheralded Nathan Knight (combined 35 bench points, 6-for-8 3FGs in Saturday’s 122-112 win at Memphis) continue stepping up in the aforementioned Hawks’ absences, there’s no need to rush. While the Motor City has been spinning its wheels, Atlanta has been building an all-wheel drive collective that suits near-overnight All-Star sensation Trae Young just fine. When Trae quits subtweeting Ted Bruz and other professional trolls around the league, his play is garnering the most likes and follows. With 73 and 77 combined points from the opening two contests of Young’s past two NBA seasons, as per Stathead, only Wilt Chamberlain (105 in 1961, 106 in 1962) and Russell Westbrook (81 in 2015, 83 in 2016) have scored more to kick off back-to-back years. While there’s reason to anticipate what scoring feats Atlanta’s latest Pistol Pete, Trebuchet Trae, might accomplish through Game #3, it will be more beneficial for Young to get his frontcourt freewheeling. Whether through stealthy lobs, cuts, or switches off pick-and-rolls, Young and the Hawks’ ballhandlers must find ways to endow Capela and double-double machine John Collins with productive touches around the rim. Keeping an overwhelmed Grant (28 points, 10 boards, 3 blocks in 2 OTs vs. CLE) and Plumlee contracted in the defensive paint and drawing fouls can wear down Detroit’s front line early. That would make it simpler for Young (87.1 FT%, leading the NBA’s most frequent and accurate free throw shooters) and Atlanta’s perimeter threats to make tonight’s game, unlike the case for Cleveland’s Sexton and Garland, a strictly four-quarter affair. Times are tough around the globe, and that’s especially true whether it’s in The 313 or The 404. But on and off the courts, strategic planning, collaborative talent building, and inner drive provides Atlanta the aspiration, depth, and flexibility to persevere and shine through all the down cycles thrown our way. No matter how grimy and sticky things get, as Lil Baby and Future know, it feels different when you can get it out the mud. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  4. Just like old times. Tidbits ‘n stuff for the Atlanta Hawks ahead of the Saturday night face-off with the Detroit Pistons (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit). For the Pistons, this won’t resemble the fresh-faced Atlanta Hawks team that energetically outclassed them, 117-100 in October’s season opener in Detroit, nor the weathered Hawks squad that, hardly a month later, crawled back into the Pizza Pizza Palace to get cheesed by a 128-103 score. One of last night’s Hawks Heroes, Eastern Conference POW candidate Kevin Huerter (past 2 games: 20.5 PPG, 8.5 RPG, 4.5 APG, 53.3 3FG%), hadn’t been a participant in either contest. Neither, for that matter, was Sekou Doumbouya, the Pistons’ newly 19-year-old sensation with a surname custom-made for the late Stuart Scott. Certainly, there was no Jeff Teague around. Among the best things for Jeff’s return to the Ol’ Highlight Factory, Ryan Cameron gets one of his signature calls back: “Jeffteeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeeague!” Further, whenever the Hawks hit the road, Teague has a ton of options when it comes to getting a young teammate to order the postgame pizzas. Retrieving Teague gives Atlanta (10-32) a reasonable chance of getting up off the Eastern Conference doormat in many ways. The depth chart will look less like a shallowness chart, especially once Jabari Parker (out, shoulder) and Alex Len (questionable, back) can return to couch Atlanta’s maturing set of wings, including Teague-mate Treveon Graham, part of the package exchanged for Allen Crabbe’s contract, and DeAndre’ Bembry (team-high and career-high 22 points, 4-for-5 3FGs and 4 steals @ DET on Nov. 22). Further, Agent Double Zero’s inclusion renders Brandon Goodwin as one of the league’s best third-tier point guards, which is what the Norcross product deserves to be. And the dual-PG option we hoped we’d have with Trae Young back when Jeremy Lin was here, or when Evan Turner was acquired, can finally come to fruition. No one is expecting Teague (team-high 6.1 APG w/ MIN, despite just 13 starts in 34 games; 37.9 3FG%) to replicate the stunning undefeated month of January five years ago, where he became a Player of the Week, one-fourth of the NBA’s Player of the Month and sealed an unexpected All-Star invite. Much in the same way, few should expect Jeff’s former Timberwolf teammate, the Pistons’ Derrick Rose (team-high 18.1 PPG, despite just 2 starts in 36 games) to carbon-copy his MVP campaigns from days gone by. Rose (20+ points in 7-straight games, longest run since 2011) has grown accustomed to playing to his spots and his strengths in abbreviated bursts. That’s a skill Teague is learning to master as he shifts fully into a valuable reserve role. Now that it’s almost certain he won’t have to hunt for short-term high-rise luxury apartment rentals in Buckhead, Andre Drummond (NBA-high 15.7 RPG) will turn his full attention tonight to showing the Hawks, and whoever his next prospective club will be by this time next month, exactly what they’ll be missing. Drummond has had to wage battles for most of this season without two other Piston pillars, Reggie Jackson (lumbar stress) and Blake Griffin (knee surgery), who remain on the shelf indefinitely. As coach Dwane Casey’s club sinks out of playoff contention, it has become clear Drummond, Rose, Langston Galloway and Markieff Morris, are assets to be dangled by the Trade Deadline, especially so long as the veterans can stay healthy. Despite a 4-13 slide lowlighted by a three-game home sweep at the hands of the Cavaliers, Bulls and Pelicans, Detroit (15-27) was able to grab a branch this past Wednesday before they could hurtle completely into the quicksand. The host Celtics may not have been surprised by That Other AD’s obligatory double-double, or by Rose’s perfect 11-for-11 shooting inside the 3-point arc, or even Keef Morris’ efficient 23-point game off the bench. But Boston was wholly unprepared for the Pistons’ emerging youth movement, overwhelmed by the teenage titan Doumbouya (24 points, 8-for-8 2FGs, 2-for-5 3FGs) and his 22-year-old teammate “Svi for Three” Mykhailiuk (5-for-8 3FGs, 21 points and 5 assists off bench), the only Ukrainian-born NBA player aside from Len. Wednesday’s win was the surest sign yet that Casey, striving for his own job security, and the Pistons organization is preparing to pivot in ways that haven’t been this drastic since 2008, when then-GM Joe Dumars heralded a rebuild by flipping the late coach Saunders out of Motown after three consecutive Eastern Conference Finals defeats. With some strategic deals in the works by team president Ed Stefanski, Casey can finally inherit a young core he can nurture, if owner Tom Gores grants him and the front office the latitude to do so. With Friday night off, the Pistons’ brass certainly had to be inspired by last night’s topsy-turvy, quasi-historic win by the upstart Hawks in Spursville. Just a couple weeks ago, Atlanta nearly toppled the Kemba-less Celtics in Beantown. But in a sign of growth by coach Lloyd Pierce’s club, they flew home and beat a playoff opponent here at The Farm, the Pacers, the very next night. That was the Hawks’ first win of the season on the back end of a back-to-back, and they’re hoping the ebullience exuded last night will carry over in front of another friendly home crowd to make it two in a row. Coincidentally, last season’s final victory by the Hawks, over the playoff-bound Sixers, came one night after Atlanta fell short in San Antonio. Slowly but surely, thanks in large part to rookies De'Andre Hunter (33.6 opponent above-break 3FG%, 26.4 this month) and Cam Reddish (34.7 opponent above-break 3FG%, 32.5% this month; career-high 5 threes himself last night), there’s an identity building in ATL! Similar to November when the Hawks held the Spurs to 8-for-33 from outside, and the Pistons in the season opener to 10-for-37 shooting, Atlanta raised its record yesterday to 8-7 when they held opponents below 30 percent on threes (2-25 record otherwise), and all seven losses were just by single digits. Get this team competent and reasonably consistent in just that one regard, perimeter D, and Atlanta gives themselves a puncher’s chance on any given night. With health and confidence on the rebound, Reddy V and Cammy Redd showed us that Trae can now rely on more than just himself to deliver the body shots, or even the occasional knockout blow. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  5. That's not the way to "Flick My Bic", D-Rose. ~lw3
  6. Yes, Billy earned himself a statue, too. Sorry, Danny. Good evening, Friends! I am not just addressing all of you out there in Atlanta Hawks Nation, eagerly awaiting today’s season opener versus the Detroit Pistons (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and V-103 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit) at Little Caesars Arena. By “Friends,” I also refer to individuals among us of the Quaker faith. If you’re not one, and you come across one, hug one. (WARNING: the following may contain perspectives gained from the Cracker Jack Box School of Theology. Viewer discretion is advised.) Around for over 350 years since its founding in England, the Quakers’ central tenet involves a belief that there exists a spiritual “light within”, a light which each human can internally access through experientialism, as opposed to relying on external, sacramental sources. Formally the “Religious Society of Friends,” Quakers got their name when their mid-17th-century founder, a dissenting English preacher testifying amid accusations of religious blasphemy, cited a magistrate judge who mockingly claimed he “bade them tremble” at what the founder asserted was “the word of the Lord”. The basis for “Friends” is a biblical reference in the Book of John, where The Notorious J.H.C. distinguishes his “friends” from mere servants. Associated with the Quakers’ signature wide-brim hats was the founder’s refusal to remove hats in court, or to comply with orders to be subservient or subjugate to laws that implied some divinely driven hierarchy among humans. It is why many Quakers grew to be acknowledged among the foremost abolitionists and opponents to slavery. It is also why they became one of the Protestant sects most rooted in pacifism. After World War II, the Quakers, many of whom were conscientious objectors, would become the first religious organization to receive a Nobel Peace Prize. The treatment of Quakers as heretics worthy of persecution was frequent in both the Old and the New World, where a Quaker convert turned colonial by the name of William Penn set up shop in the 1680s. The recipient of land as repayment of debts the King of England owed to his father, Penn granted 1,000 acres in his new Province of Pennsylvania to the Quakers’ founder, vowing to establish a colony where inhabitants were free from religious persecution and unjust imprisonment. He also planned and developed the capital of the future United States, the city of Philadelphia. Penn insisted that Quaker grammar schools be open to all citizens. His William Penn Charter School (1689), the first Quaker school in America and the school that, today, claims a strapping fellow named Matt Ryan as an alum, offered education to all races as early as 1770. Growing schools like Penn Charter began to build campuses outside of Philadelphia’s original city proper. Westtown School (1799) was built for coeds to live in West Chester, a one-day carriage ride away from the secular influences of Philadelphia. Friends Central (1845) moved out of Center City Philly to a sprawling suburban campus in Wynnewood in 1925. Beginning in the 1960s, notably with Power Memorial in NYC, DeMatha in suburban Washington, D.C., Evan Turner’s St. Joseph’s (of Hoop Dreams fame) outside Chicago, and St. Anthony in Newark, Catholic schools began recruiting and enrolling standout African American prep athletes, especially in the desegregating sport of basketball. The idea was to gain positive notoriety, local prestige and, in the process of building renowned athletic programs, perhaps some new adherents as well. The successful religious-based basketball programs became powerhouses on a regional, state, and even national scale. The movement to cast larger nets for basketball talent extended not only to religious schools like Philly’s Roman Catholic High, but the secular suburban ones, too. Wynnewood, in Pennsylvania’s Lower Merion Township, is home to not only Friends Central, but the public Lower Merion High School that Kobe Bryant and his many jersey-rocking stans have made famous. It was probably around the time of young Kobe’s prominence that Friends Central, and other Quaker schools, decided their athletic programs needed to get in on the act. The first future NCAA Final Four hero to walk the halls at Friends Central was a pogo stick out of Philly named Hakim Warrick. The Quaker schools ran independently from the state’s interscholastic hoop tourneys at the time, yet in 2001, Warrick helped snag the school’s first Friends Schools League title since 1974 before going on to become a legend at Syracuse. The next year, they drew future Arizona Wildcat Mustafa Shakur away from a Philly public school named coincidentally after William Penn. By the end of that decade, Friends Central was riding the skills of Philly-kid Amile Jefferson to the first of four straight state independent-school titles, drawing the attention of scouts at Duke University. Jefferson would go on to become a three-time team captain for a Blue Devils squad that won the 2015 NCAA title. No Dookie would ever appear in more games than Jefferson. Coach K and company didn’t return to this particular well at Friends Central, leaving the state’s 2016 Class AA Player of the Year, senior De’Andre Hunter, who was raised in Northeast Philly near his Under Armour circuit-ball teammate (Hawks two-way contractor Charlie Brown) to settle for a less-accomplished ACC program at the University of Virginia. But Duke was not done with Quaker schools from the Quaker State. Sports Illustrated, while producing a full-length documentary in 2018, claimed the Westtown School’s basketball team featured, “perhaps the greatest starting five in HS basketball history,” which is lofty praise, indeed. The towering center Mo Bamba commanded everyone’s attention, but it was the super-shy introverted kid, about five inches smaller, that Westtown’s head coach could not stop raving about. “Cam (Reddish) is the hardest working player I’ve ever had,” said Westtown coach Seth Berger to SI, “it’s not close… You’ll never see him try a move that he hasn’t practiced in the gym by himself… He’s the best offensive player I’ve ever seen in high school… unquestionably, the best combination of skill, size, athleticism, and intelligence.” More lofty praise for Reddish, 2018’s Mr. Pennsylvania Basketball, who grew up in gritty Philly-burb Norristown, same as Hawks coach Lloyd Pierce’s wife. Once more, Coach K was sold. Outside of high school hoops, Hunter and Brown trained together under Sean Colson, a former Philly prep star and journeyman pro who had a cup of tea in the NBA back in 2001, with ten-day contracts in Atlanta and Houston. De'Andre took Hakim’s and Amile’s college-championship legacy at Friends Central and turned it into a lineage. He led his UVA Cavaliers on a wild-and-woolly March Madness journey to the 2019 NCAA title while avenging an embarrassing loss when the top-seeded Cavs had to play the 2018 tourney without him. Another accented DeAndre of sorts, the Atlanta Hawks’ DeAndre' Bembry, mentored the college star, Brown, who followed him down the road from Friends Central at St. Joseph’s University. Now they may very well be teammates on an NBA floor. All of these local connections add credence to those who suspect Travis Schlenk, the Hawks’ GM and new Prez of Basketball Ops, must have aced a Chemistry class or two back in his own school days. Even better, Schlenk came away with a bachelor’s in something called Human Ecology, the interdisciplinary study of humans’ relationships with their natural, social, and built environments. But I posit there’s more involved than mere Philly roots when Schlenk and the Hawks maneuvered to pair these particular lottery talents with Atlanta’s growing stable of blue-chip pro-spects. Quaker schools are not into the whole proselytizing business. But both Westtown and Friends Central do require their students to attend a weekly “Meeting for Worship.” It’s akin to a collective for a Protestant church service. Except here, the Meeting of Friends and students involves sitting together, generally in silence, for at least a half-hour. Exceptions may include a Meeting leader who presents a query, or food for thought, as a point of initiation. Occasionally, after many minutes of pondering, an attendee will be moved by their “inner light” to stand and offer thoughts, or poems or songs, they find to be beneficial to the attending community. After that, it’s back to the silent treatment until the Meeting concludes. If you’ve managed to read this far, you’d know I’d be toast at these Meetings. If you’ve heard about Reddish, and Hunter, being a bit reserved for the types of players pro teams tend to gravitate toward, I may suggest that weeks after weeks of mandatory Friends’ Meetings will do that to you. The incoming first-rounders are mistaken by those not in the know as bearing some detrimental sense of passivity, of deference, of timidity that won’t fare well as the spotlight shines even brighter at this level. Schlenk was in the Warriors’ war room back in 2012, when Draymond Green fell into Golden State’s lap at Pick #35. He understands that there is room in this league for the more caustic, extroverted opinion machines like Green, when those teammates commit to improving their own game, conditioning, and leadership skills along the way. Travis was also in the draft room a year prior, when a decision to take the more reserved, withdrawn Klay Thompson at Pick #11 was at hand. Declining to pass up on either player was key to the bonanza of basketball excellence that would soon support the Warriors’ young, nifty-dribbling, sweet-shooting point guard star. Thompson, and the reigning NBA Finals MVP, could be categorized as the “strong, silent types” whose game occasionally makes all the noise anyone needs to hear. That “silent, with an emphasis on strong” characterization could very well be the future cases for both Hunter and Reddish, and perhaps 2018-19 All-Rookie selection Kevin Huerter, too. In Atlanta, for now, they can leave the jersey-tugging and flexing and crowd-rousing to 2019 All-Star candidates Trae Young and John Collins. If Reddish read his press clippings and hogged the ball during his stay in Durham, maybe Zion Williamson and R.J. Barrett don’t get enough chances to shine as play-finishers and become Top 3 picks in the 2019 Draft. Maybe the trio of frosh doesn’t outlast Hunter’s eventual Natty winner, UVA, to emerge with the ACC conference title, and advance to within a single point of the Final Four. Cam routinely deferred, stepping forward only when called upon in critical moments, and his team won 32 games anyway. Now, instead of a 6’6”, 270-pound rim-rocking behemoth at center stage obscuring Reddish, the marquee in Atlanta is for a 6’2”, 180-pound sprite who absolutely craves finding creative ways to share the ball with talented guys like him. For the lottery rooks, their common off-court tutelage brings even more to the table for the young Hawks. Quakers are well-renowned for their structured consensus-building and mutual decision-making process. The underlying assumption is the sense of a common humanity, pulling toward “unity” rather than “unanimity” when there’s a need to reach a resolution. The “Quaker-based” consensus model produces team members who are well-versed in the practice of active listening, ensuring that every voice, including those of dissenters, is heard and valued equally in discussion. Adversity looms for all young teams in the pros as they look to make the rugged, slippery climb toward relevance and contention. Rough stretches of quarters, of whole games, of whole weeks, await. Especially eager to face the Hawks, in the early going, are teams loaded with veteran players and highly experienced staff. Teams like the Pistons, a squad that broke even (41-41) under coach Dwane Casey in 2018-19 and secured an 8-seed, one that returns its star talents and most of its starters despite a 4-game first-round bludgeoning at the hands of their division rival Bucks. Fervent in their belief they’ll need vets couched around Blake Griffin (out until November, hammy and sore knee) and Andre Drummond to better compete, Detroit’s biggest offseason additions were Derrick Rose, Markieff Morris, and soon-to-be fellow tricenarian Tim Frazier. On draft day, they acquired Kevin Porter and veteran Tony Snell from the Bucks, then cast off the 19-year-old prospect, Porter, for a trove of Cleveland’s future second-rounders and cash. With eight regular-rotation Pistons having at least five NBA seasons under their belts (almost nine, had they hung on to our old friend Joe), they are a team that can stash youngsters like Sekou Doumbouya, Bruce Brown, Svi Mykhailiuk and Khyri Thomas, pinning their development to the team’s long-term hopes rather than their immediate ones. Highly regarded NBA rookies and sophomores in repetitive lottery locales like, say, New York, or Dallas last season, will be looked upon to seize the Singular Superstar mantle, solve challenges mostly on their own, and turn things around in ways their predecessor peers could not. They often must swim upstream against veteran squads like the Pistons despite, not so much with, the residual talents of flawed teammates that put them in this situation in the first place. Conversely, in Atlanta, Hunter and Reddish can demonstrate leadership through listening and collaboration, contributing to an even-keeled locker room. They will have a stern yet relatable taskmaster in Pierce bending their ears, and a host of veterans, including the venerable Vince Carter, to help get them acclimated with all the off-court rigors and on-court tricks of the trade. Barely a couple months younger than the 22-year-old Collins, Hunter enters the league with a maturity and composure one normally would not expect of his newbie cohorts. For Hawks fans in search of something a lot more tangible in the near term, the rookies, including second-round center Bruno Fernando, step onto the court as the team’s best bets to make immediate impacts on the defensive end of the floor, the side where the Hawks found themselves most woefully inadequate in 2018-19 (28th in 2018-19 Defensive Rating, 24th after the All-Star Break, 22nd in final 15 games of the season; NBA-worst 20.9 opponent points-per-48 off TOs). The young veterans like Collins (5th-best in 2018-19 NBA for Roll-Man Defensive points per possession, min. 40 games played), Young and Alex Len will be expected to continue making defensive strides this season. But the first-year performers could be the rising tides that float all the Hawks’ boats. While both will start tonight, as Huerter’s minutes are restrained due to preseason recovery, whichever of Hunter or Reddish does not remain in Atlanta’s precocious starting five could be one of the strongest rookie candidates for Sixth Man of the Year since the days of Ben Gordon. Surrounded by a host of experienced veterans, including Turner, Bembry, Jabari Parker, Chandler Parsons, Allen Crabbe and Damian Jones, the rookie reserve is sure to have a featured play-making role while also charged with inducing stops on the defensive end. There’s no certainty that the Hawks’ plans will bear fruit immediately, or even this season, in the form of a formidable postseason contender. Yet the consumer confidence in this team’s long-term potential, carried over from the promising close of last season, has arguably never been higher entering an NBA season. Fan skepticism around an NBA team coming off a 29-53 campaign, conversely, has never been lower. If the playoff payoff begins to arrive in 2020, at State Farm Arena, there will be a whole lotta quakin’ going on, in the ATL and beyond. In the months and years to come, if Hunter and Reddish have much to do with a sudden basketball breakthrough, with teammates discovering and embracing their “inner light” as they reshape themselves into legitimate contention, Hawks fans will have many a Friend to be thankful for. Just remember, before you hug any Quakers in appreciation for their contributions, they had absolutely nothing to do with oatmeal or motor oil. Let’s Go Hawks! (and you too, Five Stripes!) ~lw3
  7. “I like to KICK… STRRRRRRETCH… aaannd KICK!” It’s time to renew that all-time great NBA rivalry… Fort Wayne versus St. Louis! Imagine if the industrialist owners of those 50s-era NBA midwestern franchises were just a tad bit more civic-minded. We’d never know for sure, but while we NBA fans might indeed be watching Detroit versus Atlanta tonight at State Farm Arena (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), we could very well find ourselves rooting for expansion franchises. The Pistons are the Pistons because the top gadgets supplied to the automotive industry were cranking out of a foundry run by Fort Wayne’s Zollner Machine Works. The NBL team was branded by company executive Fred Zollner’s family as the Zollner Pistons, and the cagers brought multiple championships to the northeast Indiana city, prior to the BAA merger in the 1940s. It was Fred who was known as “Mr. Pro Basketball”. The Pistons came close to claiming back-to-back NBA titles in the 1950s, falling in the Finals to the (Philly) Warriors, the (Minny) Lakers and, probably, some (Greedy) point shavers. It was the Fort Wayne-versus-Minneapolis 19-18 stall-fest, in 1950, that would soon usher in the shotclock era. Around Indiana, it was reasonable to project that their Pistons would soon overtake those Lakers as the NBA’s next dynasty. Allen County built War Memorial Coliseum (probably a favorite venue of the late George Carlin) on the outskirts of its county seat in 1952 to keep the Pistons around, and the arena hosted the 1953 All-Star Game. Yet not even five years after getting into his new palace, Zollner was ready to high-tail it out of town. The Hawks’ town-trotting owner, Ben Kerner, felt Milwaukee wasn’t big enough of a beertown to support the brave new world of high-scoring NBA hoops, bailing for St. Louis in 1955 after just four years in America’s Dairyland. Zollner was watching closely, and it wasn’t long before he announced a move from Motor Parts City to the Motor City itself. The decision was questionable, since a decade before, Detroit clubs in both the BAA and the NBL folded. Is Detroit even a basketball town, like Fort Wayne? I imagine some disaffected Hoosier shifting his fandom to the Hawks after the 1957 move out of Fort Wayne. To continue supporting Midwestern pro hoops, it was either that, or root for the Royals who just relocated that same year to Cincy themselves. Otherwise he’d have to settle cheering for Minneapolis, and nobody likes the Lakers. At least St. Louis, he’d reason, looks like they’re not headed anywhere soon. No matter whether their teams were winning from one season to the next, Kerner and Zollner each struggled to keep the teams profitable in their new NBA locales. Zollner eventually sold the franchise to Bill Davidson, who kept the Pistons in (and mostly around) Detroit for the ensuing four decades. Revenue for Kerner’s Hawks stagnated after winning the 1958 NBA title in St. Louis, and no enterprising locals were willing to let him off the hook. He did find some takers, though, in recent Georgia governor Carl Sanders, and Atlanta-area real estate developer Thomas Cousins. Pro sports was off to a rocky start in Atlanta in the 1960s, in part due the tumultuous race relations that percolated at the time. But the continued success of Henry Aaron with the Braves facilitated the race to establish Atlanta as the Deep South’s first major-league city. Fifty years ago, Loving v. Virginia was perceived as the harbinger of some kind of national crisis. Tonight, people will spend their Friday nights sharing arm rests regardless of their background, while multi-racial Oklahoma Sooner legends Blake Griffin and Trae Young trade baskets. As competitors both franchises were stuck in neutral for decades, before the Pistons surpassing the Hawks by winning NBA titles in 1989, 1990 and 2004. But throughout their tenure in Motown, the Pistons have seemed like the NBA’s Club Castoff. Largely, a team accustomed to making-do with players other teams had already given up on. As sad-sack as the Cleveland Cavaliers of the early 1980s were, couldn’t find a steady role for Bill Laimbeer, and they couldn’t foresee a future with coach Chuck Daly. Orlando saw more of a chance at a championship-winning future with Grant Hill, and the Magic were more than happy to part ways with Ben Wallace in order to grab for the brass ring. Same deal with the Wizards, who couldn’t believe their luck when Detroit was willing to hand them All-Star Jerry Stackhouse in 2002 for the low-low price of Rip Hamilton. Portland had to shed their JailBlazers notoriety, so Rasheed Wallace found himself getting passed around. Pistons got three NBA trophies for making smart moves and draft decisions to accompany these acquisitions. But the strategy doesn’t always work out, as those who recall Joe Dumars bidding against himself for Josh Smith’s services can attest. In 2018, with current owner Tom Gores’ team formally back in town, his new management is trying the same tack. Gores put ex-Sixers executive Ed Stefanski in charge of stewing the Pistons Potluck for a new generation. Stefanski was with Toronto back in 2011, when that club gave Dwane Casey a shot to coach. Last season’s NBA Coach of the Year found himself washed ashore after his Raptors got Thanos’d in the playoffs yet again by LeBron James. The votes Casey earned for that coaching honor was attributed to first-place Toronto’s offensive resurgence, something Raptors management now entrusts to his successor and ex-assistant, Nick Nurse. Casey has been directed to eventually replicate that success, with a new set of staff, for a Detroit franchise that hasn’t seen much of a functional offense since the 2007-08 Flip Saunders-led team bowed out of the Eastern Conference Finals. He and the Pistons are turning to the mammoth Andre Drummond (18.9 PPG, NBA-high 16.6 RPG) and a slew of castoffs headlined by Griffin (career-high 27.3 PPG, 40.7 3FG%, 10.7 RPG). Blake’s star shone brightly in making the Clippers the surprise marquee club in L.A. for a half-decade. But with his injuries and dwindling assertiveness, the Clips were looking for an out, in hopes of spending Steve Ballmer’s cash on some future superstar instead. In mid-season last year, Detroit was more than happy to take in both him and his freshly-inked multi-year contract ($39 million in 2021-22, the season he turns 33 years of age). The NBA’s 29 other teams, including the Oklahoma City Thunder for obvious reasons, where unwilling to give shoot-first, shoot-next, shoot-last point guard Reggie Jackson a shot at scratching out an All-Star career as a lead ballhandler. The Pistons were the exception. Now with Casey at the bat, Detroit has to craft a gameplan where Jackson (3.7 APG, lowest since his 2012-13 season as a Thunder reserve) and the big men all share the ball, and a cast of role players all chip in to make the trio’s lives easier. If that sounds like a big challenge, that’s because it is proving to be one. The Pistons (5-5) squandered a 4-0 start to this season, dropping five straight games before escaping Orlando with a 103-96 win on Wednesday. Edging a Ben Simmons-less Sixers team at home, in a 133-132 overtime win over two weeks ago, is perhaps the signature victory thus far. After years of entrusting DeAndre Jordan to patrol the paint, Griffin isn’t fond of Drummond’s interest in expanding his range beyond the three-point line. The spread floor, in Blake’s estimation, only makes it more likely he’ll face double teams on his post-ups and forays to the hoop. The more pressing issue is that Griffin’s teammates aren’t scoring much from long distance, either. Detroit’s 30.5 3FG% has them ranked next-to-last in the NBA, with Griffin the sole Piston popping above a 35 percent clip. Getting Ish Smith (33.3%), Jackson (30.4%), Langston Galloway (29.3%) and Reggie Bullock (23.3%; 44.5% last season, 2nd in NBA) unstuck would do wonders for this offense (NBA-low 47.9 eFG%), although some of that requires more mindful inside-out play from both Griffin and Drummond. The Piston defense has been solid but front-heavy, as it is too reliant on Drummond, the sole player averaging at least one steal and one block per contest, barely (1.0 SPG, 1.3 BPG). They’re heavily reliant on Stanley Johnson and rookie Bruce Brown contesting shots and drives well from the wing, a strategy that doesn’t work when their opponents get hot. Fortunately for the Pistons, their opponent tonight is the Hawks, who struggle to string together two or more productive possessions on offense (17.7 TO%, 29th in NBA; 21st in 3FG%, 24th in FT%). Rookie guard Trae Young will need better movement and execution out of Taurean Prince, the marquee for tonight’s 50 Years in Atlanta celebration, who returns to the starting lineup, as well as Kent Bazemore. A combined 4-for-24 on threes during Wednesday’s 112-107 loss to the Knicks, none of that trio of Hawks stood out in a good way until it was too late for Atlanta to dig out of another unnecessarily large second-half hole. The Hawks’ Net Rating in 3rd quarters is an atrocious minus-25.9, and no other club is as bad as Chicago’s minus-12.9. The Pistons would love to feel sorry for Atlanta, but they have their own troubles getting off the blocks to start games (minus-13.6 Net Rating in first quarters, 29th in NBA). The team that shakes out of their doldrums after leaving the locker room is likely to be the one with something to cheer when they return to the tunnels. As new Piston and recent NBA champion Zaza Pachulia once said, “Nothing easy!” With exception to a couple noteworthy eras, it has not been a simple task for either of the Hawks or the Pistons to sustain competitive success over much of their five decades in their respective NBA towns. But unlike Detroit, Atlanta isn’t satisfied with the approach of cobbling together unwanted spare parts to build a something better than an Edsel. This is the type of town that moves on from the rusty Ford plant to make room for Porsche. If all goes well, by the time we celebrate the Hawks’ 60th, and 75th, seasons in the ATL, perhaps fans at The Farm will have some worthy banners to point to, as evidence that the best engines can indeed be built from scratch. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  8. PICTURED: Ad promo for future Atlanta Hawks head coach, circa 2003. Random Detroit Piston in foreground. Yadda yadda yadda, Atlanta Hawks visit the Detroit Pistons tonight (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit), blasé blasé… ATTN: TANKFAM! Listen, I need you some of you fellas and fellettes to take a quick break. In that spirit, here goes a few interesting weblinks, to humor you while you step aside. In my I-got-no-spare-time-left time, many know that I double as the Smithsonian of poster-dunk archivists. So, the first sideshow is one of your favorite ex-Hawks, on one of your favorite teams (at least TODAY, they are), getting dunked on in the closing seconds to lose a game! Blowing it in the closing moments of a game, eh? What a novel concept. The second distraction is an article about an ex-Hawks’ Triple Double That Never Was. Bonus Hawks-affiliated Trivia, from this article: before this lame attempt at getting a last-second rebound, who was the previous NBA player to mess around and notch three-straight triple doubles? The third item to tickle your fancy is that same ex-Hawk (the subject of an upcoming “Where Are They Now?” thread over in the Seniorsquawk forum, sometime during the All-Star Break) in his current habitat. Here, he’s trying to demonstrate to viewers that he’s still got it, yet still finds a way to come up short! Say it with me: “He’s trash!” One more Pistons-Hawks Trivia item. This same ex-Hawk’s jersey number, with the Pistons, was previously worn (one season before him) by which other former ex-Hawk? Answer is in link #4 below! Grab a Kit Kat bar or something (V-Day candy is at a steep discount, right now! Just sayin’!), check out the links to kill time, and then meet us all back here in a few minutes, making sure to skip the bolded language in the Spoiler below! Tank You Very Much! (1) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lWu93oxeYM8 (2) http://www.espn.com/nba/news/story?id=1781342 (3) http://www.espn.com/video/clip?id=19967819 (4) https://www.basketball-reference.com/teams/DET/numbers.html * * * ((no, really: Tanksquad, get the Hawk outta here. Move along, now. Git! Git!)) * * ((and keep scrolling past the bold stuff in the Spoiler, Tankamaniacs. That’s not for you!)) * * * * * ((shhh… they’re filing back in here. Everyone, look busy!)) * * In conclusion, I’ve discovered the best home remedy for getting rid of a boil down there is to… what? Ohh, hey! You’re ALL back! Welcome back, my Tank Legionnaires! It’s crazy about that ex-Hawk, huh? No wonder the guy we got in the 2004 draft, along with that ex-Hawk via an infamous trade, never got to wear #5 for Detroit… they’re obviously waiting to retire that other cat’s jersey! I’ve always wondered, remember when dude went with the platinum blonde number, up top? Did he steal that look from Eminem, or vice versa? Anyway, yeah, our current slate of Hawks gave us all a grand ol’ time last night in Brewtown, and Some Hawks Fans can only hope that a desperate Motown team will be up to the task tonight. The Pistons’ Week of Living Dangerously began here at Little Caesars Arena last Friday, in a deflating loss to Blake Griffin’s former employer. No worries, they thought, as a bounce-back win in Atlanta is right around the corner! Unfortunately for the Pistons (and Some Fans), somebody forgot to gameplan for Dewayne Dedmon, who moved up to the top line and put up a career-high 20 points, plus 13 boards and 3 steals, as the Hawks blazed to a 118-115 win in its Sunday matinee. No biggie, Detroit thought, since they were coming right back home, where they had previously swept a five-game homestand! Oh, but here’s the thing. The first of those five wins were against the Cavs, who were obviously drunk even before Kevin Love exited that contest early in the first quarter with a busted hand. The next four opponents who sauntered into the Pizza! Pizza! Palace had each previously played just like the Hawks did yesterday: on the road, on the first night of a back-to-back. By the time the Pistons returned from ATL, they were greeted by a Pelicans team that only needed a night off. Detroit found themselves getting roasted, 118-103, by a New Orleans team that was starting, at center… Emeka Okafor (six O-rebs in under 14 minutes)! That really needs to be the last 2004-era reference in this thread. A rising sixth-grader back when Okafor got drafted, that Anthony Davis kid proved to be quite a handful, too. That new-car smell wafting from the pre-owned Griffin (last 3 losses: 38.6 FG%, 21.7 3FG%) is wearing off rapidly. Stan Van Gundy is predictably ringing alarm bells ahead of this rematch with Atlanta (18-40) that soon, they won’t be able to sniff the playoffs, either. “You just can’t limp into the break,” SVG told the Detroit News, the postgame interviewers and, presumably, his team, after the latest loss dropped the Pistons to 27-29, 2.5 games behind the 8th-seeded heat and fading fast. “We need to get a win and keep ourselves as close to this thing as we can, to have a chance to make a run.” No, he’s not talking about a “run” at Jaren Jackson, Jr. Van Gundy knows that another humbling defeat tonight, at home, in the finale before the All-Star Break, could prove disastrous for his team. Not nearly as disastrous for Michiganders as, “We’ve secretly replaced the fine water they usually serve with gruel we piped in from the Flint River. Let’s see if anyone can tell the difference!” Still, another L would be calamitous enough for the long-term prospects of the coach-slash-executive’s tenure with the club. The burden question: do the rank-and-file on the Pistons’ roster share that sudden sense of urgency? If they do, then they’ll have to come up with a scheme that keeps Griffin and Andre Drummond from getting gashed by opposing front lines (I forgot to mention New Orleans’ Nikola Mirotic, who showed off his nose-for-the-ball with 21 points and 12 rebounds against Detroit off the bench on Monday). Opposing bigs with some semblance of an inside-outside game have left Piston defenders unsure whether they were coming or going. That includes Atlanta’s Ersan Ilyasova, who is eager to put the lowlights from Tuesday night’s 97-92 thriller in his original NBA hometown on the back burner. Also a former Piston, Trillyasova added to Detroit’s misery on Sunday with 19 points, hitting half of his four three-point attempts while being one of four Hawk starters ushered to the charity stripe for six or more free throw shots (7-for-7 FTs). Atlanta was granted a season-high 37 freebie attempts by the Pistons, and they are a gaudy 9-4 when they climb above 110 points in games this season (2-18 when they score 100 points or fewer, as was the case yesterday). Detroit also allowed the Hawks to convert on 28 of 49 interior shots (57.1 2FG%), rendering the fantasy-friendly defensive figures from Drummond (25 points, 10 D-Rebs, 3 blocks @ ATL on Sunday) as ultimately empty calories. Off the bench in Motown, when Stan calls your name, who will Be There? James Ennis? Anthony Tolliver? “There were four, five, six loose balls when nobody goes on the floor,” Van Gundy lamented after the loss to the Pels. “There are three or four times we don’t get back, and people are behind us defensively. Times when we’re not pulling in on the roll man. Those things are inexcusable when you’re trying to win… We allowed our offensive play, our frustration of missing shots and just different things going on throughout the game to really get away from our defense. That’s kind of what we anchor ourselves on.” Yeah, kind of. To turn the frowns around town upside down, keeping Ish Smith, the point guard struggling in a starting role until Reggie Jackson returns, from incessantly switching onto Dedmon and Ilyasova would be a good start for Detroit on D. The Pistons did manage to keep Atlanta’s wings cool from the three-point line on Sunday. But given that one of those swingmen is Taurean Prince (good luck on Friday!), who’s been Cooler than Whip (last 3 games: 1-for-19 3FGs), that’s no great shakes for the fellows from Great Lakes. To be fair, new Clipper Avery Bradley’s presence is sorely missing. But instead of rushing out just to contest TP, Piston swingmen Reggie Bullock and Stanley Johnson need to stay home, helping the bigs around the paint to slow the rolls of Dennis Schröder, John Collins (good luck as well, especially versus Embiid!) and Dedmon to the hoop. Staying true to Nique’s “K.Y.P.” mantra, the Piston point guards (Smith and Jameer Nelson; ten combined personal fouls on Sunday) should hang out closer to the elbows, enticing the whirling dervish Schröder to hone his craft as a perimeter shooter instead of a toast-burning driver. There will be no more Malice at the Palace, as years of management ineptitude has sapped the Detroit fanbase of excessively passionate ticketholders, both inside and outside the city limits. But one can anticipate a little Animus at the Arena if these Pistons drag Detroiters through four more wretched quarters of basketball and break some playoff-starved hearts on, of all days, St. Valentine’s Day. Hell hath no fury like a spurned lover, dragged to a bad basketball game on a holiday night, pelting the arena floor with half-eaten Russell Stover chocolates. Or, so I’m told. Happy V-Day to you and yours! and Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  9. “I don’t know what to do with my hands!” In preparing a quick preview for this game between the Detroit Pistons and your Atlanta Hawks (3:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit Plus), several times, I’ve confused this afternoon’s opponent with the LA Clippers. Just a couple weeks in, I imagine Blake Griffin’s teammates are still trying to envision him as a Piston, too. That’s how inextricable Griffin is from an iconic persona the former #1 pick of the Clippers built up over seven-plus pro seasons. The LA-era franchise leader in points scored, and SportsCenter highlights rendered, put that long-forlorn NBA franchise on the proverbial map. He won’t bear that kind of burden in the Motor City, but he will have to help re-entrench their team’s Bad Boys reputation, perhaps Eddie Haskell-style, while making them more consistent winners. Going from glitz-and-glam to grit-and-grease, Detroit is having a hard time figuring out what to make of their new star, too. He’s like a pre-owned model infused with that new car smell. His introduction has been infectious for the Pistons (27-27), who were sliding toward the Hawks and the NBA abyss just weeks ago but, after winning their first five games with Blake around (all at home), are threatening to push several Eastern Conference rivals out of the postseason. Opponents are still scratching their heads a bit, too, and that drawn attention has allowed Griffin (21.0 PPG, 25.0 3FG%, 7.0 RPG and 6.2 APG as a Piston) to serve as a catalyst for enhanced production by several of his teammates. Andre Drummond has been punishing the paint with more freedom around the glass (19.7 RPG in last six games). Stanley Johnson (15.0 PPG in last six) is playing with fewer burdens, while Reggie Bullock (51.5 3FG% in last six), Ish Smith and Anthony Tolliver have been burying perimeter jumpers with fewer closeout defenders around. The Pistons did slip up against his old team at home on Friday, the bench overwhelmed while trying to keep a rejuvenated Lou Williams in check. Also, the frequency with which Detroit’s offense gets bogged down when neglecting to move the ball has not been lost on its head coach. “Even though we've been winning,” Stan Van Gundy remarked to media, after Detroit managed just 15 fourth-quarter and 39 second-half points in the loss to the Clips, “we have that dilemma of how we're going to get Blake the ball and not be standing around watching.” They need a win today at the Highlight Factory to keep pace in the conference standings with the Sixers, who are reportedly stocking up for a playoff run with bought-out Hawk Marco Belinelli, the heat and the Pacers. For Griffin, he’ll have to demand the ball, early in the clock, and move the ball when the Hawks’ defenders coalesce around him, a strategy that worked wonders for LeBron James (new career-high 19 assists, 10th career triple-double in a 123-107 win @ ATL) and his “shorthanded” Cavaliers on Friday at Philips Arena. This task had been Drummond’s (196 assists, already more than double his career-high) to this point in the season, but he now has Griffin to key the offensive attack from positions all across the halfcourt floor, while he returns more fully to the low block. With teammates like Undulating Star Taurean Prince (0-for-9 3FGs, zero assists vs. CLE on Friday) struggling mightily on many nights, Dennis Schröder has been compelled to go it alone lately on offense (last 5 games: 20.2 PPG, 16.8 FGAs/game, 28.6 3FG%, 95.8 FT%, 4.2 APG) to mixed results. The temptation will only be higher, relative to Friday’s game, as he is less likely to have Griffin switched onto him, allowing him to feast against the likes of Smith, newly-acquired Jameer Nelson, Dwight Buycks (questionable due to illness) and Langston Galloway (5-for-9 3FGs @ ATL on Dec. 14). Atlanta’s starting lineup combined for 67 points but a mere eight assists (one of those dimes from the lightly-used Miles Plumlee) against the Cavs, however, and it’s on their floor-leader to model the importance of the extra-pass to the Hawks offense. When Dennis (10 assists, 2 TOs, 3-for-7 FGs vs. DET on Dec. 14) calls his own number against the Pistons’ block-averse defense, he must finish his got-heems off the glass, or else Atlanta will be perpetually one-and-done. Handling Drummond (19 rebounds and 8 assists @ ATL on Dec. 14) and Griffin will be a tough task for Plumlee and the Hawks’ frontline. They didn’t have Dewayne Dedmon for the last meeting against the Pistons, and Atlanta’s backup pivot will be hopeful for a big game after posting a pair of duds (combined 3-for-13 FGs and 6 boards) at Orlando and versus Cleveland. SVG has vowed to find a way to get his star frontcourt more rest. But Jon Leuer is out for the season, and Griffin’s fellow ex-Clipper Willie Reed remains suspended by the league through the All-Star Break. Further, the Pistons have Released The Boban to the Clippers, and second-year pro Henry Ellenson has yet to impress. One can expect an uptick in playing time for backup big Eric Moreland, especially if the Hawks’ bigs and paint drivers can get the Piston star starters in foul trouble. Detroit (9-16 on the road; one road win, at Brooklyn, since Dec. 15) has extra motivation to get into the playoffs, following Blake’s acquisition. The 2018 first-rounder they sent LA is only 1-4 protected. They don’t want to hand Blake’s old team a lottery pick. By the time May comes around, they want to find themselves challenging teams like the Cavs in the playoffs, not vying with teams like Atlanta (17-39) for a top-4 draft talent. As for the Hawks, it’s just the latest in a string of opponents facing a Must-Win scenario at The Highlight Factory. Ultimately, it’s up to them to determine which ones they let off the hook. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  10. Look what you made look what you made the Grizzlies do, Hawks... ~lw3
  11. Do they make Kias in Detroit? Just askin'... Can you inclu-dig it? ~lw3
  12. “We’ll be the biggest fans you’ll ever lose, Slim. Sincerely yours…” Let’s Get It! Amid these downturns in temperatures and competitive play, who better to serenade Atlanta Hawks fans during The Recession than The Snowman himself? While quadragenerian rhyme-spitter Jeezy enthralls his hometown head-nodders during tonight’s clash with the backsliding Detroit Pistons (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit), it appears the number of “Stan” stans are dwindling by the minute up in Motown. Coach-PBO Stan Van Gundy has stridently stuck by his first Pistons lottery-draftee from 2015, swingman Stanley Johnson, handing him the reins as this season’s starting small forward. Johnson got Put On even after he put up a Bagel-for-13 shooting effort in his season debut. The growing pains seemed fine at first, as Detroit broke out of the gate with a pleasant 10-3 start, including a 111-104 victory at desolate Little Caesars Arena (Johnson missed that game while recovering from hip and back injuries). But like Dennis Rodman riding his motorcycle through the left-lane of an intersection, the worm has turned, causing The Master of Panic to pull whatever strings he can behind the curtain, and Johnson (35.3 FG%, same as last season; 28.6 3FG%, career-low 1.3 APG) was among the most obvious targets to yank. “He’s got to find his way,” said SVG to the Free Press last week, with his Pistons (14-13) mired amid its current seven-game slump, “and I think he’s very capable of shooting the ball better than he has and that’s what we want to get him doing.” Pulling the Stanimal from the first unit did nothing, however, to prevent the Pistons from dropping their seventh-straight contest on Tuesday. Losing by 19 versus the Millsap-and-Jokic-less Nuggets squandered a three-game homestand at the Big Pizza Pizza and was their second straight double-digit defeat. Detroit was granted a chance to get the homestand off on the right foot last Friday, as the Curry-less Warriors allowed them back in the game late. But Reggie Jackson (past 4 games: 32.7 FG%, 2.8 APG, 1.8 TOs/game) Schröder-ed away their opportunity with some ill-advised Ballin’ into a flock of Dubs, forgoing a chance to set up a game-winning or game-tying play with 15 seconds remaining. Stan benched Stanley… And Then What? Johnson was supplanted by an equally poor-shooting Reggie Bullock (36.8 FG%, 15.0 3FG%), a decisive downgrade on the defensive end. Whatever the case, the pressure is on Van Gundy to firmly establish a team identity going forward. He must figure out some lineups that can make buckets (last 7 games: NBA-low 40.1 FG%) and get stops, or else he’ll need to get with GM Jeff Bower and start making some moves, as a plethora of NBA players become trade-eligible after midnight. Dem Boyz got blocks? The Pistons rank dead last in inspected-rejected shots (NBA-low 3.2 team blocks per-48; NBA-low 2.4 in the last seven games), making the Hawks look like Tree and Dikembe out there (3.8 blocks per-48, 26th in NBA). They’ve simultaneously been the biggest victim of swats (NBA-high 6.3 opponent blocks per-48), and much like the Hawks, haven’t been rebounding the ball well on the defensive end. During this seven-game skid, opponents have snatched 10.9 O-Rebs per 48 (3rd-most in NBA). Buoyed by improved free throw shooting, Andre Drummond (61.2 FT%, 16 points, 10 O-Rebs, 10 D-Rebs, 7 assists, 6 TOs vs. ATL on Nov. 11) was the focal point for Detroit during their early success. But the heavy dribble-handoff activity that defined the Pistons’ early renaissance (NBA-highs of 13.2 DHO possessions and 11.0 points per game) has devolved into isolation station for Dre and his teammates in recent weeks (NBA-lows of 3.9 Roll Man possessions and 3.6 points per game). While Drummond must improve on his defensive imprint, it’s on Jackson and the Pistons’ ballhandlers to keep him involved in plays at the other end. Unfortunately for him, Atlanta’s proficiency in getting carved up along the perimeter may render him an offensive mirage if he cannot create putbacks and second-chances. Hawk defenders are following Coach Mike Budenholzer’s instructions to Leave You Alone in the corners (NBA-high 8.7 opponent 3FG attempts/game; 40.0 opponent corner 3FG%) if the odds are expected to work out in Atlanta’s favor. Several Piston playmakers will be tempted to Go Crazy, calling their own number from long-range without really setting up a play. Parked outside like they’re sittin’ on vogues, Tobias Harris (team-high 18.2 PPG, 44.3 3FG%) and Avery Bradley (40.5 3FG%) will be licking their respective chops after Witnessing LeBron’s Cavs light up the Hawks with 20-for-38 shooting beyond the arc on Tuesday. Even ex-Hawk forward Anthony Tolliver (broken nose; 36.5 3FG%) will be donning the mask in hopes of a Kyrie effect tonight. One benefit to having John Collins back in uniform tonight, even in limited minutes, is his activity around the rim (in tandem with Tyler Cavanaugh and/or Miles Plumlee) allowing the Hawks’ wing defenders to step further out of the defensive paint, hopefully curtailing the bombs-away approach the Pistons’ backcourt and stretch forwards have in store. His presence will also help reduce the success opponents have had converting inside versus Atlanta (53.9 opponent 2FG%, 2nd-highest in NBA; 66.2 opponent restricted-area FG%, 4th-highest in NBA). Like the Pistons, the Hawks have stuck with the forced-turnover-or-bust approach to defensive activity, although Atlanta has been more successful in separating man from ball (last ten games: NBA-high 16.8 opponent TOs per-48; DET’s 15.6 ranks 7th). Dennis Schröder and the Hawks’ wings will particularly be in Trap Or Die mode, in hopes of forcing Jackson into ballhandling mistakes. Whichever team is less sloppy on offense, and makes their opponent pay in transition, is likely to have the upper hand as tonight’s game heads toward the final buzzer. Before Jeezy warms up for his final postgame act, which team will prove to be the true Go Getta, with Hustlerz’ Ambition? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  13. “CEL-E-BRA-TION!” After pushing the past two Eastern Conference finalists to the wall in consecutive days, and a well-deserved three-day respite, the scene shifts for our Atlanta Hawks to Little Caesars Arena. It’s the new, palatial, 20,000-plus-seat intown home of the Detroit Pistons (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, Fox Sports Detroit), the second-best team currently in the Eastern Conference. They’ve got a lively, well-known, coach-exec in Stan Van Gundy guiding the ship. They’ve broken out the blocks with a nice 8-3 record, including three in a row during this five-game homestand to stretch their home mark to 5-1. Fans are treated to cushier seats, clearer sightlines, a WiFi network modeled after Cobb County’s SunTrust Park, three Pizza! Pizza! Booths, a bar featuring a PB&J burger, and a Kid Rock-themed eatery. There’s franchise-face Andre Drummond, still just 24 years of age, leading the NBA with a career-high 15.2 RPG. And SVG’s biggest heist, 25-year-old forward Tobias Harris (acquired in 2016 for the low-low price of Brandon Jennings and Atlanta’s Ersan Ilyasova), is playing like an All-Star reserve candidate (career-highs of 20.0 PPG, 3.0 3FGs/game, 47.1 3FG%, 88.2 FT%). All of this fresh and successful news about the team leads to one, burning, smoldering question. Where the heck is everybody? Only Atlanta (tickets sold at 76.8% of capacity) has had less success thus far in filling up their NBA stadium (77.2%). And everybody already knows the deal with the Hawks (2-9), who are simply happy for now to give it The Old College Try every time they’re on the floor. The Pistons express a desire to win, not just compete, and pretty much are doing that. With all the hype rightfully directed toward LeBron and the Greek Freak, Detroit is looking down on both their teams in the Central Division. Yet, everyone is taking potshots at the rows of empty seats in the new arena. So, what gives? While it did go through some rough times, this stretch of Woodward Way never quite achieved the outright dystopia that RoboCop filmmakers depicted thirty years ago. While not nearly as spread-out as the team’s former expanses in Pontiac and Auburn Hills, the new digs in Midtown Detroit come with ample parking. Plus, there are streetcar and people-mover options for those who like the idea of their car windows remaining intact. So, access and safety are not big problems, even for suburbanite hoop fans that must now shift their gameday commuting patterns in ways they haven’t consistently done since the Pistons bailed from Cobo Arena in 1978. The Red Wings of hockey fame claim they’re selling out every game, although the new whiz-bang attractions around the concourse have made it tough to keep fans in their arena-bowl seats. Here, the Hawks’ would-be ticket-buyers gripe about the lack of a championship legacy, yet here’s a franchise that won two NBA titles before MJ, and one more afterward, that can’t lean on that history to sell out games (To that point, Chicago remains #1 in NBA attendance… yes, those Bulls). Lady Gaga and Kid Rock have packed the place to the rafters as recently as this past Tuesday. So maybe it is simply that Detroit, unlike Chicago, but maybe like Atlanta, is holding out for somebody in basketball that’s worthy of top-billing. And they’re not convinced that That Guy is already here. Detroit is hoping to reach the NBA Playoffs for just the second time in eight seasons. They’ve dipped into the mid-to-low-level lottery barrel in six of the past eight drafts, and have plucked a single All-Star-quality apple (Andre Drummond) and one other starter (Stanley Johnson: career-best 40.3 FG%, not probable to play with a hip flexor strain) in the small-p process. The young remnant first-rounders have yet to show that they’re Hot-n-Ready, as second-year forward Henry Ellenson joins his fellow Wonder Bread Twin, rookie wing Luke Kennard, along the third string of the roster. Detroit let Aron Baynes bolt for Beantown, and the Celtics also grabbed Marcus Morris in exchange for defensive stalwart Avery Bradley. They let Kentavious Caldwell-Pope walk to Tinseltown, making more room for Bradley while backing him up with more offensive-mided wings in Langston Galloway, Kennard, and Reggie Bullock, the latter filling in on the top line while Johnson heals. All told, the Pistons replaced two starters, but are relying on organic player development and a severely diluted NBA East to improve on a 37-45 record and a 10th-place conference finish (4 games behind the 8-seed) last season. That promise begins with their star center. Already in his sixth NBA season, Drummond has heretofore struggled to adopt new wrinkles to his game that could benefit his team. Yet Dre had been drawing raves in recent weeks not for his long-held rebounding prowess, but for his newfound ability to sink free throws. A career 38.1 FT% shooter coming in, Drummond sunk 28 of his first 36 one-pointers, including an unprecedented 14-for-16 effort last Friday to help his team top visiting Milwaukee. He has cooled off in recent days, including a bagel-for-7 outing on Wednesday night (the Pistons won anyway, 114-97, over Indiana). But Drummond’s improving marksmanship means more for Detroit than a mere extra point or two per game. Opponents, like coach Mike Budenholzer’s Hawks, cannot rely as much on the Bang The Drummond Slowly approach to stifle the Pistons’ offensive flow. SVG can keep his big man in the game for more possessions, not only producing more stops through his defensive board work and steals (1.9 SPG), but also contributing on the offensive end with second-chance opportunities and, now, assists (career-high 2.8 APG; 4+ dimes in four of his last five games). Rather than needing to be an integral Plan B element to Van Gundy’s gameplans, under-experienced backups Eric Moreland and Boban Marjanovic can be used sparingly. Bradley and Johnson can spend more time sinking their teeth into opposing perimeter-oriented offenses (like the Warriors, who shot just 10-for-27 on threes in a home loss to the Pistons on Oct. 29), and less having to help their dominant rebounder box out inside. Drummond’s more effective two-way presence is integral to Detroit being the only team other than Golden State among the NBA’s top-ten for both offensive and defensive efficiency ratings (9th in each category; Atlanta is bottom-ten in both areas). How well the Pistons can sustain their success this year hinges a lot on the comfort level of their star-crossed point guard. Reggie Jackson was withheld from major preseason participation as he recuperated from knee tendinitis and a groin strain. Then, he got caught up in the league’s early-season tradewinds, prompting assurances from Van Gundy that he shall not be moved -- not, at least, for Eric Bledsoe, Jackson’s newest division rival. Reggie is rewarding his team so far with a career-best 7.9 assists per-36. He is showing better decision-making within the perimeter as well, shooting much better than his troublesome 44.2 2FG% from last season, while producing his lowest turnover rate (13.3 TO%) as a starting ballhandler. But if a downturn in his production coincides with a plummet down the standings for Detroit, the spectre of persistent trade rumors won’t help alleviate the pressure on him. Jackson is capably backed by Ish Smith (4.0 APG off the bench, 1.5 TOs/game), and the conclusion to last season gave many fans the sense that Smith could succeed with a heavier workload. Bradley has been widely praised as one of the best on-ball defenders in the land, and one can bet he won’t be spending much time zeroed-in on Atlanta’s Kent Bazemore (35.6 FG%). Bradley will instead be hounding Dennis Schröder, who leads the league with 68.2 eFG% in isolation (min. 1.5 iso-possessions per game). In what would serve as a disappointment to Gordie Howe, the Hawks have produced a mere 2.2 “hockey assists” per game (tie-8th-fewest in NBA) despite dishing out the fourth-most passes (324.1 per game) per contest. Dennis can help his Hawks boost their secondary-assist production by kicking the ball out on drives to teammates who can swing the ball around the horn, particularly to spots Bradley cannot reach. Atlanta wants the majority of Bradley’s activities directed in the paint, crowded around Harris and Drummond defensively to help the Hawks in transition, and lofting interior shots (44.8 2FG%) where he has been less effective than at the three-point line (career-high 42.0 3FG%). Avery leads the NBA with 4.5 dribble hand-off plays, and 3.4 DHO shots, per game, but has shot just 37.8 FG% on those possessions. Cutting from swingmen Taurean Prince, Bazemore, and/or Marco Belinelli can help Atlanta keep Bradley occupied with running from pillar-to-post. When Jackson isn’t calling his own number, the Pistons will turn to leading-scorer Harris for end-of-clock shots. Similar to Bradley’s DHOs, Tobias takes a league-high 6.4 attempts per game on spot-ups, but shoots a modest 44.3 FG% on them. Poor player-personnel decisions from the recent past, plus a cadre of fans left weary after years of second-fiddle play in the LeBronference, are perception issues that the Pistons have been unable to leave behind in the ‘burbs. Detroit has been winning lately, but to inspire its long-reticent fanbase to take the leap and make more trips downtown, they must continue to do win, and avoid slip-ups on nights like tonight. Like Jay-Z to Mob Deep, the prevailing sentiment around Motown is, “We don’t believe you. You need more people!” Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  14. ACTUAL DEEEEEEEETROIT... ...BASKETBALL! ~lw3
  15. It’s never too early to take up a second career! The Atlanta Hawks are right near the top of the NBA… in one key category. The Bulls’ flop last night to Dallas dropped the Hawks into a tie with the Spurs (10-6), and 1.5 games behind the mighty Warriors (12-5), among the NBA’s best records versus teams at-or-above .500. Wins over Cleveland, the Spurs, Toronto, the Rockets, Pacers and Bucks, plus near-misses against the likes of the Celts and Warriors, suggest the Hawks (24-17) deserve the small cushion they’ve gained above the rest of the playoff pack, halfway through the NBA season. What has kept that first-round-homecourt margin from getting any larger has been Atlanta’s underwhelming record against the lower rungs of the league. Versus teams like tonight’s hosts, the Detroit Pistons (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit), only the Bulls’ record against sub-.500 teams is worse (among the East’s Top 11) than Atlanta’s 14-11. The good news is, the Hawks have not dropped a game to a team with a losing record since collapsing in Minnesota back on December 26, and five days before that to those same Wolves at Philips Arena. Beginning with December home victories over the (at the time, with a winning record) Knicks and Pistons, Atlanta has rattled off seven-straight against the league’s current lower tier. But as the Dwight Howard-less Hawks showed against the Porzingis-less Knicks in New York on Monday, the Hawks still have their work cut out for them before they can fully rebuild consumer confidence in their competitive product. Speaking of confidence, normally, a “vote of confidence” from a team owner is a dreaded sign of bad things to come. But Tom Gores’ thumbs-up for coach/exec Stan Van Gundy just feels different. “I have full confidence in Stan,” Gores told reporters at halftime of the Pistons’ 102-97 win over the Lakers at Staples Center on Sunday, Detroit bookending their 5-game West Coast road trip with victories. “We are having a hard time, and Stan and I are very real about that,” the Detroit Free Press reported Gores as saying, “but we also know that we have a great group of guys. We believe they’ll work through this. We’ve hit a bump in the road and that’s what success is about, you gotta work though it.” Detroit is carrying the third-highest salary load in the NBA, albeit due to past mistakes. They’re eighth in guaranteed salaries next season, and top-ten in guaranteed salaries for the three seasons after that. Yet, at 19-24, they stand at 10th in the East, last in the Central Division, and two games behind those 8th-seeded Bulls. Things were expected to trend upward with the arrival of star guard Reggie Jackson, but it has decidedly not been the case (8-14 since Jackson’s return). Conversely to Atlanta, the Pistons hold a 6-16 mark versus current break-even or winning teams, the last W coming at home against LeBron-less Cleveland back on December 26 (before that? The 121-85 blowout in Millsap-less Atlanta, way back on December 2). Despite the playoff push from just nine months ago, Piston fans don’t seem terribly enthused. Their average attendance at the cavernous suburban Palace of Auburn Hills ranks 28th out of 30 NBA teams. Yet, as it pertains to Stan Van’s status, file it under “What else are ya gonna do?” Gores knows that Van Gundy, who fumed throughout December as things went haywire, cares deeply about his team’s on-court effort. “This isn’t the YMCA, this is the NBA,” zinged Van Gundy to the Detroit News and reporters pregame, when asked about the team’s defensive intensity. “This is high-level basketball; you’ve got to play it hard, aggressive and smart. It’s not enough to say they’re trying hard.” Gores is willing to let the man who cut bait on Joe Dumars’ disastrous Josh Smith contract work through the back end of Smoove’s buyout, which concludes this season. The Pistons have a few walking-wounded struggling to play as well. Logging the most minutes-per-game on the team, guard Kentavious Caldwell-Pope (40.4 3FG%) strained a rotator cuff early in the Pistons’ blowout loss in Oakland last Thursday, and the 23-year-old ironman will miss his third-straight game. Mega-rebounder Andre Drummond (NBA-high 36.1 D-Reb%) and his frontcourt mates Jon Leuer (out) and Aron Baynes (active) are each dealing with varying knee maladies. Detroit’s adversities should bode well today for a rested Howard, assuming he gets plenty of post touches and runs the floor. Dwight matched Drummond’s 15 rebounds, in five fewer minutes, during the 105-98 win on December 30 that nudged the Hawks back above .500 for the season. There was a time, up until around 2011, when Howard shot 59-60 percent on free throws consistently. Now he’s trending upward again toward that area (65.4 FT% in last 15 games), making it tougher for opponents to defend him around the rim without giving buckets away. Having to defend Howard straight-up specifically makes it harder for Drummond (team-high 1.5 SPG) to toil as an eager help defender. Once defensive ace Paul Millsap (January: 13.4 second-half PPG, 1st among East PF/Cs; 52.2 second-half FG%) and Dennis Schröder (28 points, 13-for-16 FGs @ NYK on Monday) inevitably find their offensive grooves, and the pace picks up, it becomes harder for Jackson and Tobias Harris (combined 12-for-31 FGs @ ATL on Dec. 30) to keep up. Detroit is the league’s most reliable defensive rebounding team (80.0 D-Reb%). The wall-building Pistons are, somewhat amazingly, more adept at one-and-done whenever Drummond (79.2 team D-Reb% On-Court; 82.2% Off-Court) takes a breather. This suggests it’s crucial for the Hawks to execute well in setting up, and delivering, first shots during its possessions. Tim Hardaway, Jr. is 7-for-22 on field goals in two games this season versus his father’s current employer, going 2-for-8 (0-for-3 3FGs) back on December 30 as he watched Kyle Korver (22 points on 7-for-13 shooting) carry the day offensively. But he came alive once again in the fourth quarter on Monday to hold off the Knicks, 108-107, matching Schröder with 9 points in the final frame. He’ll find less defensive pressure on him with KCP out-of-action. Detroit has been cuddling, snuggling, and petting for well over 100 games. Yet there are finally signs their tireless work on their Hatchimal is paying off, as second-year forward Stanley Johnson may at last be breaking out of his offensive shell. SVG granted Johnson significant playing time in the past 3 games, and he has responded by going 5-for-9 on threes (26.4 3FG% prior 40 appearances) and tying a career-high with 6 assists in L.A. on Sunday. That’s not quite enough to make Stan Van a Stanley-stan. But with KCP still injured, Johnson’s the most reliable defensive wing the coach has in the stable, and he can help prop up the league’s best defense in transition off turnovers (NBA-low 13.1 points per 100 possessions off TOs). If he keeps this up, Johnson will push “KST” test subject Marcus Morris (41.2 FG%, lowest since rookie season) further down in Van Gundy’s rotation. Possibly sensing a flame under his butt, Mook put up a team-high 23 points (incl. 4-for-8 3FGs), playing in all but five minutes during Detroit’s win in Los Angeles. While not exceptional against the Knicks (12-for-32 team 3FGs), the Hawks’ three-point accuracy on Monday met-or-exceeded 37.5 3FG% for the seventh time in the past eight games (43.1 team 3FG% in January, 3rd in NBA behind the Spurs and Celtics’ 43.4%). Before January rolled around, Atlanta’s 32.6 3FG% ranked 29th. Even Kent Bazemore (42.4 3FG%) is showing signs of life… at least, beyond the arc (41.1 2FG%). With the ankle injury for Mike Muscala, Coach Mike Budenholzer was compelled to turn to Kris Humphries to relieve Millsap and Howard. Kris’ 3-for-3 triples and team-high seven boards in 24 minutes helped get Atlanta over the proverbial Hump in New York. Expanding contributions from Mike Scott, Mike Dunleavy, and Taurean Waller-Prince would also help improve flexibility for Coach Bud’s rotation of bench forwards, at least until Muskie returns. Schröder and the Hawks have benefitted from the improving play of backup guard Malcolm Delaney (last 9 games: 51.8 FG%, 4.6 APG, 1.9 TOs/game; 37.4 FG%, 2.6 APG before). The rookie currently ranks 5th among all NBA players (min. 15 minutes/game) with a 98.0 D-Rating, a value that was especially good (91.2 in October/November, 2nd in NBA) before the team’s November/December nosedive. While NBA.com stats are always sketchy in this area, his high rating suggests Delaney (5 assists and 2 steals @ NYK) and his teammates are doing something right. Another solid two-way effort by Delaney versus Pistons reserves Ish Smith (13 assists @ ATL in his last start on Dec. 2) and Beno Udrih could help the Hawks gain a decided advantage. Atlanta is 11-4, with just one loss (Boston) since November, when he collects four or more dimes in a game. Last month, it took consecutive home wins over the Knicks and Pistons to get Atlanta back on track. This time around, a two-game parlay would extend the Hawks’ road streak to six (most since the 12-game magic during December/January of 2014-15) and earn the team its 14th road win on the season, potentially tops in the Eastern Conference. Relying just a little more upon a player once self-identified as Superman could have the Hawks looking up, up, and away from the bottom half of the East. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record
  16. “You Gettin’ Mad... I’m Gettin’ Rich!” “DESTROYED! BASKETBALL!” Things sure were revving up in the Motor City the last time the Detroit Pistons met the Atlanta Hawks on the neutral court known as Philips Arena, a December day not much different than today (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Detroit). Why, it was only four weeks ago, when the league’s most-shy 3-point shooting team strolled into the Lamelight Factory and shattered their franchise record with 17 three-point makes (on 29 attempts). Sure, the Hawks were missing their Anchorman in Paul Millsap (hip). But the Pistons likewise enjoyed their biggest victory of the year margin-wise, 121-85, without their team’s leading scorer. Reggie Jackson (knee, thumb) had been out all season, but was ready to hop on the wave two nights later back home against Orlando. Surely, a surge to the upper room in the Eastern Conference was around the corner, right? Well, not exactly. They flopped against the Magic. The next game, though, they toppled their division-rival Bulls at The Palace. Happy days are here again, right? Well, not quite. A season-low 77 points in a loss at Charlotte (despite a familiar-sounding 26 & 20 performance by Andre Drummond) was quite a bummer. However, after that game came a resounding 117-90 victory in Minnesota (Drummond with 22 & 22). So, it’s Morning in Auburn Hills, right? Well, not really. The Pistons returned home and suffered an inexcusable 97-79 loss to the 76ers (and, no, Joel Embiid did not play). But, hey, after a couple days off, Detroit bounced back and prevailed in Dallas. Now, the ship is steering in the right direction, right? Well, hold your horses. Back-to-back defeats at Washington (allowing a season-high 122 points) and back home versus the Pacers meant it was time for the tried-and-true Players-Only Meeting! Leading scorer Tobias Harris felt relieved after the meeting, convened by backup big Aron Baynes after the 15-point loss to Indy. “It’s a dialogue about communication for everybody… it was good to just get everybody talking,” Harris told the delayed postgame media. Marcus Morris gave his best Bluto impression. “Are you going to play for the next man beside you, or are you going to play for yourself?”, he paraphrased for reporters. So, all for one, one for all, right? Well, not quite. See, Jackson (45.7 eFG%, lowest eFG% among top 35 NBA players in Usage%) kinda got the impression that the team’s frustrations were directed squarely toward him. After all, things were on the uptick before he returned – hey, did you not see how good we looked against Atlanta, without you??? So, a miffed Jackson decided to come into Chicago playing not so much Detroit Basketball, but something more like Deez Nuts Basketball, declining to take a shot, even when open, until nearly halftime. The result? A 113-82 drubbing. That’ll learn ‘em, R-Jax! “That wasn’t us,” said the always forthcoming Pistons coach Stan Van Gundy, “That was him.” Atlanta knows all about up-and-down, one-step-forward, two-steps-back basketball. I joked just yesterday, though, that the Hawks’ alternate logo ought to be a Black Box. Through all the ups and mostly downs, if you catch so much as a hint of off-court dissension on this team, from either coaches or players, your flight has officially landed inside a volcano. That’s never the situation in Detroit, certainly not when their head coach is anywhere within eight miles of a microphone. I present to you, via MLive and the Detroit Free Press, the many smooth stylings of “Stan Van Gundy: Master of Panic.” Reflecting after the loss to the Suxers, after returning from Minnesota: “We weren’t ready. To hell with the weather… You’re an NBA player. It’s your job to be ready to play. But I didn’t do my job in getting them ready to play.” After the loss to the Pacers: “We’ve definitely got to look at some things, lineup and rotation-wise. That unit (Jackson, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Morris, Harris, Drummond) is clearly not working… So, the question is, how long do you stick with it?... There’s no question we’re not as good as before (Jackson’s return)… Our offensive frustrations have taken a toll on our defense. It shouldn’t, and it’s not a legitimate excuse. But I’m just giving you the facts.” After the third-straight double-digit loss, in Chicago: “Team meeting, my [patootie]. Like I said before, that stuff means nothing; it’s what you do on the court. Talking is easy… It was a disgusting performance, by all of us. Me included. It was unprofessional. Embarrassing. Humiliating. Whatever you want to say, it was terrible… Looks to me like a lack of effort, a lack of heart… I guarantee you on Wednesday night, we’re not trottin’ that (starting) five out there again.” Riffing on players, like Drummond, concerned about fewer touches since Jackson’s return: “I told them today I don’t really care… you know what, my basic message today was, ‘Do your job’… Does the plumber get a motivational speech in the morning? No… He either does his job right or he doesn’t get paid… I don’t know in how many jobs, and I said this to them, does your employer pay you and then also take responsibility for your happiness? That ain’t the way it works.” All of that, and more, from The Notorious M.O.P. in just the past 18 days. If Coach Bud’s mealy-mouthed postgame commentaries bore you to tears, go catch some interviews in the Pistons’ locker room after a bad loss. Oh, and he’s not done. SVG is virtually down to using toes to find something he can point at people with, so he’s trying a different tack. “When a team is having the problems we’ve had this many times, it’s on me,” he told the media after a 25-point loss at home to the Bucks on Wednesday, “I’m not going to get in here and blister the players… I’m responsible. I got to figure out what needs to be done. Quite honestly, I’m embarrassed. I’m not getting it done. I’m NOT getting it done.” Detroit has one win in their past seven games, and that exception was gifted to them on Monday by Tyronn Lue, after the Cavs coach DNP-REST’d LeBron James. Close-shave losses to Golden State and Memphis served as encouragement, but the Milwaukee loss knocked them for yet another loop. Tonight, will they be able to once again sip from the Fountain of Relevance in Atlanta? While they indeed whooped the Hawks by 36 points back on December 2, Van Gundy surely noticed when the Hawks (16-16) got waxed on Toronto’s floor the very next night, by 44 points… and what happened in that same building less than two weeks later. After such high hopes to start the month, a loss in Atlanta tonight would plummet the Pistons (15-19) to 12th in the LeBronference, the very bottom of the East’s Crab Barrel. “We’re in jeopardy right now,” said You Know Who. With the curtains wide open, the Wizard of Osmosis is pulling on whatever levers he can find. Harris (16.3 PPG), the Pistons leading scorer, now comes off the bench, Stan Van turning to Tobias’ super-efficient sub Jon Leuer in the starting lineup. His play as a reserve (last 3 games: 23.3 PPG, 55.8 FG%, 52.9 3FG%, 8.3 RPG) has sparked the bench offensively, but Leuer’s effect on the starting-unit’s defensive intensity has yet to bear fruit. The Pistons’ three-point barrage back on December 2 essentially ended the Hawks’ ability to distract viewers with their then-top-ranked defensive efficiency. Their slippage has them at 7th place in D-Rating entering today’s action, although still 2nd in the East, ahead of Milwaukee and Detroit. Among the NBA’s top ten teams in D-Rating, only the Hawks and Pistons have a negative Net Rating, a tell-tale sign of offensive struggles. Behind Drummond, the Pistons, for their part, have also led the league with 84.5 D-Reb % in December (NBA-low 9.5 opponent second-chance PPG, only team allowing less than 10), so second-chances may be hard to come by for Atlanta, even for Dwight Howard (1 O-Reb in 25 minutes vs. DET on Dec. 2). This suggests that the first shots need to be good ones. For Hawks’ ballhandlers Dennis Schröder, Malcolm Delaney, Tim Hardaway, Jr. and (yes) Kent Bazemore, it means knowing when to attack the paint, like when they’re guarded by Jackson instead of KCP, and when to find passing lanes, rather than forcing the issue when Drummond and Baynes form walls and seal off penetration. Despite his considerable girth, Drummond (1.0 BPG) is decidedly not a shot-blocker, preferring to make stops by drawing charges and making steals when he’s not boxing out. He will be occupied with sealing off Howard and averting lob plays, so players on the opposite side of the floor from D8 need to be active, ready to receive the rock and finish plays from that side. Continuing to recover from a sore groin muscle sustained last week, Hardaway is a past-due target to get to the bucket, especially when KCP strays to help with Schröder. Hardaway was 0-for-7 shooting over just 13 minutes versus his prior team, the Knicks, on Wednesday. And in the UM alum’s last meeting with the Pistons, he was a few more wayward clanks (0-for-6 3FGs) from being disowned by his assistant-coach father. He and Bazemore (3-for-11 FGs vs. DET on Dec. 2) need to make more cuts to the hoop and be prepared to produce more assists for Schröder (11 assists, 1 TO vs. DET) via interior buckets. While Hawks foes like the Pistons have had a field day from the perimeter this month (NBA-high 40.5 opponent 3FG% in December; 11.6 opponent 3FGs per 100 possessions, 2nd-most in NBA), Atlanta continues its own slide in that area (8.3 3FGs per 100 and 31.6 3FG%, 3rd-worst in NBA). If your team relies on your 6-foot-8 power forward, shooting 31.0 3FG% and rocking a swollen eye, to take the most three-point attempts, you’re not making it easier on your team to win games. Instead of allowing Millsap to think he’s somehow spreading the floor, allow him to work on Harris and Leuer inside. The Hawks must feed the tandem of Howard and Millsap, and allow them to create better outside options for players paid to hit those shots, like Kyle Korver (3-for-5 3FGs, 1-for-5 2FGs in the OT win vs. NYK). Kyle’s last five triples have come by way of passes from either Howard, Millsap, or Mike Muscala. Facing a back-to-back, Coach Bud sat Thabo Sefolosha (season-low 16.6 minutes) in the second-half of the loss against Detroit, and Baze was given a rest in the final quarter. So Detroit’s decision to go buckwild from deep (11-for-20 3FGs) was no accident, especially after a first-quarter test (5-for-6 3FGs) revealed the water was fine. Both Kent and Thabo should be healthy enough to contribute major minutes tonight, making perimeter looks on the back end of the clock tougher for the Pistons. Detroit’s 32.9 3FG% since that game (27th in NBA) is not much better than Atlanta’s 32.1% (28th). Just as NBA opponents have figured out they should go ahead and let Atlanta fire away from outside, they’ve also learned not to bail out the poor-shooting Pistons with ticky-tack fouls. Detroit’s 18.0 personal fouls drawn (per 100 possessions) are the league’s lowest this month; their 19.8 FTAs per-100 in December are ahead of only Dallas’ 19.7. Plus, the lion’s share of those hacks are directed at Drummond, whose 44.2 FT% (41.1% this month) is actually a career-high. One half-full way of looking at the Hawks’ late-December stretch is that they have not lost consecutive games since December 5. They also haven’t won back-to-back contests since December 9, or consecutive home games since November 16. But these are low bars that they can clear tonight. Considering Bud’s hard-to-beat mentor (and the source of Van Gundy’s plumber philosophies) Gregg Popovich is swinging by on New Year’s Day, this is no time for the Hawks to resort to half-empty basketball. Let’s save all the drama tonight for the guys in the other locker room. Hit Dem Folks! Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3 View full record