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  1. “May I have your attention, please!” “I PERSONALLY GUARANTEE THAT THE CLEVELAND CAVALIERS WILL WIN AN NBA CHAMPIONSHIP BEFORE THE SELF-TITLED FORMER ‘KING’ WINS ONE.” Instead, the Former King ran rings around the planet’s third-wealthiest sports owner. After winning two in South Florida, Former King was gracious enough to swing by the shores of Lake Erie and bestow a ring upon Dan Gilbert’s finger before heading out once more, earning a fourth ring with yet another team while hanging out in Central Florida. Wouldn’t it be nice if Mr. Dan and Former King get to kick back, crack open a frosty O’Doul’s, and watch the 2022 NBA Playoffs together? There could be plenty of room in both these fellas’ busy schedules to make it happen. I’m a self-titled Atlanta Sports fan, certainly a Hawks fan, so by definition I can’t be in the business of personally guaranteeing anything. But America’s most successful loan shark has gotten a glance at just how much his self-titled Personal Guarantees are worth. On this one, Dan’s deep into default. In case the Guardians are scouting, they should know Chuck’s hitting a higher batting average on Guar-On-Tees. Immediately after spell-checking his Comic Sans missive and pressing ‘Send’, Gilbert’s Cavaliers were committed to figuring out a means to contend for championships without the aid of Former King. Twelve years removed from that 2010 Personal Guarantee to the Cavs faithful, frankly, those guys are still at it. It’s not like they haven’t had help along the way. The Clippers sent the remains of Baron Davis and a first-rounder to Cleveland in 2011 for Mo Williams and Jamario Moon. That first-rounder became top-pick Kyrie Irving, who looked to be left to his own devices to figure out how to tricky-dribble the team around him into the postseason. Getting Tristan Thompson with their own pick at #4 wasn’t a bad deal, either. More Lottery Luck landed The Land the top NBA picks in 2013 (moving up from 3rd) and 2014 (up from 9th). That gave them the fodder they needed to bring Kevin Love to town, to the great satisfaction of Former King. King, Kyrie, Kardashian and K-Love got the breaks they needed to win it all, at long last, for Cleveland in 2016. One ring was all there was to be for Mr. Dan, as a gentleman’s sweep during the next Finals at the hands of the Warriors quickly had King and Kyrie looking to faraway lands. But, hey, Kevin’s still here! And more Lotto Luck was to come. Yes, the Cavs dropped three spots out of the #2 position twice, in 2019 and 2020, leaving them to settle for Darius Garland and Isaac Okoro, respectively. No Zion or De’Andre Hunter, no Anthony Edwards or LaMelo Ball would be coming to save them, sorry. But then that old table-tennis ball magic came through once more last year, the Cavs eking up from 5th to 3rd and having Evan Mobley ripe for the picking. Mobley proves ready to ball out from the jump for coach JB Bickerstaff and company. Garland breaks fully out of an injured Collin Sexton’s shadow (Ricky Rubio’s, too) and into the All-Star limelight. Getting in on the drama in Houston orbiting a plumpy James Harden, GM Koby Altman completes a four-team deal in 2021 that sent Harden to the Nets, Caris LeVert to the Pacers, and Jarrett Allen to the Cavs. Allen joins Garland in 2022’s All-Star festivities, proudly representing a team hovering around the top of the Eastern Conference. Now, LeVert’s here, too? Playoffs, here they come! Even two-time world champion Rajon Rondo wanted in on the action. “This type of personnel, the DNA that we have, the character in this locker room with the coaching staff,” Rondo shared with a Cavs sideline reporter just a month after arriving via trade from Los Angeles (with nary a hint of Lakershade), “We got a chance to do something special.” He could have stayed sunnin’ and funnin’ in L.A. with Former King. But the former veteran backup to Atlanta Hawks’ All-Star Trae Young knew he’d have a greater shot at meaningful postseason action for himself by returning East. To an extent, Rondo has been proven right. Rondo has a vital role helping Brandon Goodwin back up Garland as the Cavs, despite losing in Brooklyn a few nights ago, have a single shot at snapping a string of Playoff-less appearances that goes back to 1998. It was under coach Mike Fratello, in those Nique-awful uniforms, that Cleveland last appeared in a Playoff game without the services of Former King. While Rondo was the top second-grade hooper in his class, it was under coach Lenny Wilkens that the Cavs last won a playoff series without Former King, a 1993 five-setter when they edged Rumeal Robinson, Drazen Petrovic and the Nets. These hexes can’t go on forever. But I can personally guarantee they will extend at least another year if the Cavs fall at Mr. Dan’s Rocket Mortgage Fieldhouse to the Hawks tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL). I don’t think I am underestimating how humungous this Play-In game is for Cavalier Nation, for the sun-setting Rondo and Love, and for one well-heeled guarantor in particular. Just making it to Miami for Game 1 of the first round would qualify as “something special.” They have the misfortune of trying to tackle a Hawks team that is getting used to this business of playing spoiler to fatally-flawed NBA teams’ postseason hopes and dreams. They played the Caron Wheeler role to devastating effect during Wednesday’s 9-versus-10 game in hurtling the funhouse Hornets back to reality (Sixers and Knicks fans: “So, Charlotte, this here’s your first time?”). Particularly so in the second half, as Hawks fans realized how ever do they want, and need, an exceptional-playing Hunter (16 points, 4 rebounds in 3rd quarter vs. CHA). Atlanta by now ought to recognize, though, that the team that swatted the Hornets into ether is rarely the same once they leave the cozy confines of State Farm Arena. Open looks don’t fall so cleanly, the bottom-ten defense (117.3 post-Break away-game D-Rating, 22nd in NBA) gets tight, and everyone not named Trae starts looking to each other for answers to the riddles on the road. As @Final_quest noted following the Hornets’ game, the Hawks caught their first L of this season in this Fieldhouse in October, days after what felt like a momentous home triumph over Luka and the Mavs for the season opener. Cam Reddish led the non-Trae Hawks with 19 bench points as the team shot 38.4 percent from the field, including Hunter (5-for-16 FGs) and a foul-troubled John Collins (3-for-8 FGs). With no Garland in that low-scoring affair, the Cavs didn’t shoot it much better (41.6 team FG%). But Rubio sure seemed to have his way taking pressure off of Sexton, while the questionable pairing of Mobley with Allen in Bickerstaff’s starting frontcourt looked like it might work out after all. For Atlanta, that 101-95 loss was a setback that kicked off a 1-8 start to the road schedule, quickly dampening expectations that the Hawks were ready to pick up where they left off. Garland was unavailable once more, on New Year’s Eve, when Trae and the Hawks got a measure of payback in Cleveland, despite 35 throwback points from Love, with the help of Chaundee Brown, Wes Iwundu, and a whole other Cam, namely Cameron Oliver. The Hawks would then go into 2022 to strike out a Jaywalker’s Row of opponents in their buildings – the Kings, Hornets, Magic, Wizards, Knicks, Pacers, Thunder and Rockets – all of whom as of Wednesday night are watching the NBA postseason from afar. The upshot is that Atlanta has to be considerably better, tonight, than the road teams that beat those opponents, if the Hawks want to return to Miami for a few days in a professional capacity, and to do something good once they arrive. It is unlikely we’ll witness a Hornet Lover’s Feast resembling the one Clint Capela sopped up with a Cheddar Bay biscuit on Wednesday. This Win Or Go Home contest will feature Mobley and, more likely than not, Allen (sprained finger), which was not the case when the Cavs were blitzed in Atlanta by a 131-107 score on March 31. Cleveland will have answers that they lacked versus Capela and Mobley’s AAU-mate, Onyeka Okongwu. The heightened challenge of scoring via lobs and floaters will require Young, Delon Wright and the Hawks’ ballhandlers to exploit Cleveland’s perimeter defense (38.5 opponent post-Break 3FG%, 4th-highest in NBA, incl. 44.2% from corners). Swingmen and forwards staying in motion to get open while keeping Okoro, Lauri Markkanen and LeVert busy picking poisons will help Young generate scoring opportunities with greater efficiency, particularly for himself (6-for-17 2FGs, 1-for-7 3FGs, 11 assists, 3 TOs vs. CHA). Bogdan Bogdanovic is listed as questionable due to a sprained ankle, but the presence of Kevin Huerter, Hunter and Danilo Gallinari still grants Atlanta a superior array of options. As the Cleveland bigs cluster to protect the interior, a few of Atlanta’s timely dimes for threes could come from the hands of Capela, whose Hawks are 12-2 this season when he registers at least three assists. Depth has been a challenge during Cleveland’s slide out of first-round-homecourt territory. As Kyrie’s Nets had the Cavs climbing out from a 20-point first-quarter hole, Bickerstaff had to rely heavily on Rondo (9 assists in 27 bench minutes) to help Garland (34 points @ BRK, 5 assists, 6 TOs) move the ball, and on Love (3-for-4 3FGs, team-highs of 4 O-Rebs and 9 D-Rebs in 29.5 bench minutes) to hit threes and secure boards. The Cavs need current starters Markkanen (54.2 eFG%, down from 59.4 last season w/ CHI) and LeVert (48.1 eFG%, down from 49.6 this season w/ IND) to have a positive impact, particularly on the offensive side of the court (combined 6 steals but 9-for-26 FGs @ BRK) and alleviate overreliance on a withering reserve unit. Getting Hunter and Danilo Gallinari to abdicate help in the paint would benefit Garland on his drives, and Mobley and/or Allen on his post plays. If they fail at that this evening, there will be not much left for Cleveland to do but run it back for 2023. Love, LeVert, Markkanen, Cedi Osman, Okoro and Dylan Windler are all part of a core that could return, under contracts personally guaranteed, by Gilbert through at least 2022-23. Add in another dash of Lottery Luck (their own pick from the LeVert trade with Indiana is Lotto-protected), plus an extended offseason for recalibration and growth, and these Cavs might have a better chance, next season, at finally chasing after a ring, or at least a playoff series win, without the Former King. Come on, Mr. Dan. What’s not to like? Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3
  2. “I’m so excited! And I just can't hide it! He’s about to lose control. And I think I like it!” Atlanta crawls, then stumbles, then walks, so Charlotte can fly. At 370 feet tall, Charlotte-Douglas International Airport proudly cut the ribbon last week on their new, state-of-the-art control tower. It more than doubles the old one’s size, with about 70 feet to spare, and offers traffic controllers expansive 360-degree views of the friendly Piedmont skies. It's now the second-tallest freestanding control tower in the USA, in North America, and the Western Hemisphere. If you know who’s in first, you already understand why Charlotte’s got a touch of control-tower envy. The one trade where Atlanta, Georgia is the unquestioned Showtime Lakers of the universe, in kind of a good way, is passenger aviation. Hartsfield-Jackson has just reclaimed its pre-pandemic top spot as the busiest airport on Earth, with over 75 million enplanements and deplanements last year. But check out who is riding hot on our heels. Charlotte’s airport ranked 34th globally in 2019, but they’ve surged to over 43 million trips in 2021, surpassing Las Vegas, Orlando, Guangzhou. With no Mouse, no glittery casinos, no Great Wall, no fancy movie studios, CLT is sneaking up on LAX for the title of the nation’s, and the world’s, fifth-busiest aerotropolis. Charlotte, North Carolina draws its inspiration from so many things Atlanta does. But what Charlotte does isn’t as simple as just peering over the shoulders of Atlanta, or Washington or Raleigh, and cribbing notes. No, what they do is sit back, watch carefully at what rivals like Atlanta are up to, try to learn from their successes and their mistakes, then aim to do something just as good, if not better. Every time we pull a Home Depot, they come up with a Lowe’s. We Chick fil-A, they Bojangles. This mimeographing attitude applies to urban transport, to CBD nightlife (not that kind of nightlife, I mean the central business district), to skylines and gentrification and sporting arenas. Sports teams, too. As he was drawing his pennies together, George Shinn got to watch Tom Cousins and, later, Ted Turner try their best to make pro basketball in the South, centered around Atlanta, kind of a big deal. Naming his expansion outfit with a winged creature, he Muggsy’d our Spud, and Granmama’d our Human Highlight Film, but he also innovated with a team color scheme that’s now a lasting element of the Queen City’s identity. Shinn would literally screw away what goodwill he fostered, taking the club with him down to the Big Easy. But once Charlotte got a second crack at an NBA team, the new owners and the business community brought his dream of a new transport-accessible downtown arena to life. An Omni Plus, if you will. Mitch Kupchak and the current regime has done much of the same imagineering of Atlanta, ver. 2.0, for a Hornets franchise that has struggled since its Bobcat reincarnation to reach the NBA playoffs with any degree of regularity. You need a Popovich disciple who can transform the style of the Hornets’ color-by-numbers play? But Atlanta has already been there, done that, and moved on from Coach Bud? Go get James Borrego, then. You chased after a Malik Monk, and let Wake Forest’s jumpin’ John Collins escape your grasp? No problem. Next year, you can acquire Miles Bridges in a draft trade. You need a scene-stealing guard who wakes up and chooses violence towards the NBA’s hallowed record books? But Trae Young, the NBA’s scoring and assist-making leader having duplicated his feat as a college freshman, is locked down in the ATL? No problem. Tank, and go snag LaMelo Ball, who is sure to threaten the “Most triple-doubles by Age XX” marks with each passing game. With his extended size for rebounding, the All-Star Ball may one day be an upgrade of All-NBA Trae. One day. The Hornets, with their 4th winning season (43-39) since returning to the NBA in 2005, caught up to the Hawks (4 winning seasons since going 60-22 in 2015-16) this season in the standings and now visit them at State Farm Arena for a Win or Go Home Part One contest (7 PM Eastern, ESPN, 92.9 FM in ATL) before a sellout crowd. Borrego and Ball direct an offensively efficient club (113.6 O-Rating, 3rd in the East) that almost compares to Atlanta’s (115.4 O-Rating, tops in the East). Try as they might, though, there is no one on the floor who parallels a Clint Capela. Goodness knows they tried, bless their hearts, first replacing Cody Zeller with Miles Plumlee, then acquiring the rim-running Montrezl Harrell at the trade Deadline. But Capela has the East’s best Defensive Real Plus/Minus, while Bridges is unable to outleap him by ranking a team-best 55th. Atlanta’s relative defensive efficiency improved as the season went on (114.7 D-Rating post-Break, better than Charlotte’s 21st-ranked 116.0; 113.3 over past 15 games to the Hornets’ 117.0), and they don’t get to middle-of-the-road in this league without the stewardship of Capela and the emerging input of two players, guard Delon Wright and center Onyeka Okongwu, who the Hornets can’t quite approximate, with all respect due to Cody Martin and P.J. Washington. Whatever defensive precepts Borrego instills seem to get lost when the Hornets hit the road, too (115.4 away-game D-Rating, 26th in NBA and worst among still-active teams). Coach Nate McMillan’s Hawks will have to not only win the turnover game by keeping their offensive goofs to a minimum, but by pressuring Charlotte’s would-be spot-shooters to the ball on the deck, and by picking off harried passes. In the Hornets’ 130-127 win here at The Farm on December 5, the Ball-less and Rozier-less Hornets committed as many turnovers as a team as Young (six of Atlanta’s reasonably low number of ten). Charlotte players turned over the rock on just nine occasions to Trae’s six on March 15, but the host Hornets were able to take advantage of an off-shooting night from Young and Bogdan Bogdanovic to prevail 116-106. When the Hawks were at their letter-best in mid-season, they walloped the Hornets not only by suppressing their perimeter shooting (4-for-36 3FGs on Jan. 23) but by stealing the ball twelve times to account for 16 Charlotte turnovers. Neutralizing the Hornet offense will require fighting over screens and chasing shooters out of their comfort zones, while boxing out and keeping Ball, Plumlee and Harrell from earning extra-chance opportunities. Even without Collins (finger) available, if De’Andre Hunter, Okongwu and Danilo Gallinari can match the rebounding and rim-finishing energy from Bridges and Washington, the Hornets will be left to hope Atlanta’s guards are in for another off-shooting eve. For what amounts to Game 6 and Game 7 practice for these teams, thanks to their 2021 playoff sprint, Atlanta now has the experience advantage on the floor, unless you count bucket-fillers Terry Rozier and Isaiah Thomas’ runs with the injured Gordon Hayward on the Celtics, back in the mid-20Teens, and Harrell’s time in the Bubble with the Clippers, as meritorious. These Hawks have already gotten, once, where the Hornets aspire to be. But so long as Atlanta isn’t “bored” with the prospect of traveling to Northeast Ohio after the game (Young reaffirming himself as The King of New York will have to wait at least a bit longer, after last night’s Nets win for the 7-seed) and up to the task of eliminating teams at home, Charlotte will have to reassume the position of looking up at Atlanta while biting our style. Or perhaps, down, while flying out of town for the final time this season. Cancun is a more pleasant nonstop flight destination than Cleveland this time of year, anyway. Let’s Go Hawks! ~lw3