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Leave. Doc. Rivers. Alone!
Everything’s all lined up for the LA Clippers’ jack-in-the-box kazillionaire owner Steve Ballmer. The reigning Finals MVP and the biggest prize from the 2018 free agent class, Kawhi Leonard, now suits up for him. Third in last year’s MVP voting, Paul George engineered a move to come play with Kawhi, too.
PG’s shoulder is now healthy enough that he can play in his Staples Center premiere as a Clipper, tonight against the Atlanta Hawks (10:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Prime Ticket).
Pat Beverley, with these two SoCal superstars, can form as sound a defensive trio as you’ll find anywhere in The Association. Throw in perennial Sixth Man of the Year Lou Williams, six-foot-seven sugar cube Montrezl Harrell and a slew of contributors that know their roles well.
Ballmer has the Clip Joint poised in perfect position to face off with his cross-arena rivals, the Los Angeles LeBronkers, for supremacy in the Western Conference, if not the entire league, over the next two seasons. For Ballmer, the cash will be rolling in like never before.
I’m not all that sure, frankly, if Doc Rivers is gonna be able to see this thing through.
Sorry, but I just want longevity, fortune and happiness for all our ex-Hawk greats, particularly after the players “retire.” And I’ve never worried so much about poor Glenn running himself into the ground.
Now in his third decade of head-coaching in the NBA, Doc has over 1,500 games running the sidelines under his belt, not counting nearly 900 games he logged, spread out over 13 seasons, as a pro player. These days, he gets the pleasure of coaching his Clippers team against players like his son, Austin, and his new son-in-law, Seth Curry.
This man has survived getting traded by his Hawks to the LAughingstock Clippers way back in 1991, an appetizer for skeptical Hawks fans a few years before Nique was served up as the main course. He survived watching Charles Smith wall-ball away his last big shot at a title, as a starter, with the Knicks against the ’93 Bulls. Before hanging up his jersey at age 34, he survived Rainbow Brite Rodman on the Spurs.
As a first-year head coach, he survived a roster stacked with unknowns Ben Wallace, John Amaechi and Michael Doleac, earning Coach of the Year honors after breaking even with 41 wins in post-Shaq Orlando. He survived spurning would-be Magic star Tim Duncan’s request for family members to fly in the team’s plane, because Rules, and should-be star Grant Hill’s brittle body breaking down before his eyes.
He survived three declining years as a coach in Boston and was rewarded with Kevin Garnett and Ray Allen along the way to 2008’s NBA title. He survived Allen seeking out greener pastures in Miami, and the perpetual strain of keeping Ref-Bumper Rondo in check. He survived Danny Ainge effectively shopping him to LA, a team that needed his coaching magic to rub off on Chris Paul and Blake Griffin.
He survived the Sterlings. The Sterlings!
He survived the added duty of being basketball-ops president for three seasons, chasing free agents in the summer, trying to keep the Clippers’ contention afloat. He survived DeAndre’ Jordan nearly bailing for Dallas in the middle of it all. He survived the side-eyes gained from signing and playing Austin for years. He survived Ballmer, through executive Lawrence Frank, blowing the whole thing up, beginning in the summer of 2017 with the CP3 trade.
He survived every NBA lockout period. Before all of this, heck, he survived growing up in Chicagoland.
Look at the man. Does that look like a guy that has yet to see age 60? Father Time is unkind to us all, but geez. Is that Doc, or Dikembe? Ignore the carefully scrawled “hair” line. I mean this out of pure, nostalgic Hawksfan love: Doc is looking rough, folks. That’s a walking antacids billboard, right there, no cap.
I’d rather Rivers be sitting outside, in his yard, yelling at a cloud, not inside, at Tony Brothers, a few dozen nights per year. I’d much prefer Doc giving his money away at the roulette tables, not doling it out by the tens of thousands to Kiki Vandeweghe nearly every time he’s asked for his opinion.
Coach Kenny knows what I’m talking about. “You want me to go Doc Rivers on ya?”, Atkinson quipped just this past weekend, the Nets coach pressed by media for his unmitigated “opinion,” about the new greenlight coaches’ challenge rule. “I don’t love it, because I don’t want to be focusing on the referees when I coach.” That, and Kenny’s securing his bag.
I mean, c’mon, that man has a family to feed! As does Rivers, as his kids marry Curries and add even more doe-eyed crumb-snatchers to Grampaw Doc’s stable. One minute, you’re smitten with love and unbridled passion. The next minute, you’ve got one kid throwing her arms around this whippersnapper who buries threes on your team’s heads, and another kid egging on the refs, and the crowd, to get you tossed from his arena. “You’re not the boss of us, Paw!”
“The refs screwed up,” Doc Don’t Lie told reporters after his Clippers succumbed to James Harden and company in Houston’s 102-93 win on Wednesday. Minutes before, late in the fourth quarter, he challenged an out-of-bounds call. You were right, the refs assured him, but you were a split-second too slow to hit the Greenlight thingamajig, so the errant call stands. However, Doc, good news! We saved money on our car insurance, and you get to keep the timeout you would have forfeited, had your challenge failed.
With two timeouts in his pocket and the game hanging in the balance, he calls for one with 90 seconds remaining, only to have Brothers advise him he’s now fresh out of them. “No,” Doc recalls Terrible Tony telling him, “when you called that timeout, you lost it.” No, Tony, Doc will now show you what “losing it” really looks like. What is this, The New Ref Math?
Rivers was left looking like the red homie on “Inside Out.” The Rockets’ Austin, probably last chastised by his pops for breaking some expensive vase after being warned not to play ball in the house, could not contain his glee as it was unfolding. You hate to love to see it. In the heat of the moment, I’m just happy Doc didn’t have a helmet to hurl at Tony B. and the Boyz.
Fined tens of thousands for ripping the refs… in 2009. In 2013. In 2014. In 2016. In 2018, as Doc’s googol-aire boss watches on in sympathetic solidarity. He’ll get fined, yet again, for his consistent statements on how awful Brothers and his notoriously ratchet brethren are at their jerbs, especially when their egos can’t allow them to own up to blatant mistakes.
Doc gets fined for the “inconsistent” statements, too, like earlier this month, about how the injury-managed Leonard (DNP’d on the back-to-back Thursday in New Orleans) is feeling nowadays. “Good morning, how are you today, Klaw?” “Oh, never been better! I’m literally feeling… fine!” Fifty thousand dollars fine, to be exact. “Tell me, Doc, you played against MJ in your day, how does free agent Kawhi compare to His Airness?” He doesn’t even get a penny for his thoughts, but Doc is always expected to give up a dollar when he shares them.
Now, what about Pop, you might ask? Gregg’s a different case. First, he’s made it all the way through his 60s, and the man’s got it made. After all, he’s got RINGZ. Plural. He’ll probably get a nice medal in Tokyo next year, too, just for occasionally glaring and pouting and pointing and smart-azz-ing sideline reporters while The Real Dream Team steamrolls Angola or somebody (sorry, Bruno).
You think failing to win another NBA title while putting LaMarcus Aldridge, DeMar DeRozan and Rudy Gay on Front Street is going to tarnish Pop’s legacy, or threaten his job-for-life-if-he-chooses status one iota? You think he stresses over that, either way? Nah, Coach Pop is more of a tenured dean, while Doc is merely an accomplished professor who catches flak from the regents for occasionally going nutty.
I think the coaches’ association and the AARP ought to swing a special deal for folks like Pop and Doc. If you’ve reached a certain age, maybe 55, and you can claim at least one NBA ring as a head coach, you get a 75% discount on all fines levied by the league for your ref-rants. Or, for just about anything about which you can’t hold your tongue. So long as you’re not, like, imperiling players and staff overseas with the threat of extrajudicial imprisonment or flogging or bonesaws by offering your views, have at it. Spo, Nurse, Steve, hang on for just a couple more years. Bud, you’ve still got work to do.
Rivers does have a near All-Star array of reliable assistant coaches at his side: former Hawks guards Armond Hill and Tyronn Lue, and Sam Cassell most notably. Already having contemplated retirement back in 2011 with Boston before deciding to stick around, I would prefer Doc nominate a successor for future seasons, after NBA win number 1,000 arrives, and get the baton-passing process underway, sooner rather than later.
In the meantime, having a healthy PG and Kawhi balling out for him, maybe even together at times, will help the Clippers’ anxiety-burdened coach get through the next 70-plus games a little better. George fell just short of the scoring marks held by Cassell (35), Phil Smith and (don’t remind us) Nique (34 each), by scoring 33 in his Clipper debut on Thursday, a 132-127 loss to the Pels that dropped LA to 7-5 on the season.
The argument I made about the Clips’ stout defensive potential is not so much “on paper” as it is on damp, no-frills bathroom tissue. LA has won just one contest in which they’ve allowed more than 102 points to the opposition, and that was to Golden State back on October 24. When Kawhi (26.8 PPG, 8.9 RPG, 2.1 SPG) plays, the Clipper D has tended to hold firm. In the three games he hasn’t, and Doc has to turn to Harrell or LouWill as a lead scorer, the results (0-3, 123.7 opp. PPG, 43.7 opp. 3FG%) haven’t been pretty.
Even when Kawhi has contributed, if the Clippers get sloppy defending perimeter shooters as they did in October 26’s 130-122 loss at Phoenix (17-for-43 on 3FGs), they can get burned. George was on hand as they gave up a season-worst 52.9 3FG% on 34 Pelican shots. Surely, with PG and Kawhi (3rd and 4th among active NBA players for SPG) as an on-floor duo, the Clips (98.7 D-Rating in wins, 114.4 in losses) will get better at defensive consistency. We just have yet to see it unfold.
Lloyd Pierce knows all about the Suns’ newfound mastery of the long ball. He also knows when his team is getting screwjobbed, one whistle at a time. “10 of the same offensive fouls,” Pierce noted after Atlanta (4-7) was left to sulk through the end of their 128-112 loss in Phoenix on Thursday night. “When our bigs are rolling, and you (random Suns cactus) step underneath our bigs, it’s tough.” Still pretty new to the game as a head coach, Pierce is trying to tip-toe through the media minefield to avoid fine-leveling criticism, much like his bigs and rookies look on their graceless drives into the paint.
Cam Reddish may look like Gene Kelly without an umbrella on his forays to the basket, but maybe he’s onto something. He drew two flagrant rookie-call fouls while Bowling for Big Men, and he got to join DeAndre’ Bembry in hitting the showers early. The already short-handed Hawks were about done at that juncture.
“Not a fun game,” said LP to postgame reporters, “That’s all I got.” Smart man, Lloyd. Secure the bag. Pierce, like Rivers, is not going to skirt around his team’s on-court failings (13 missed at-rim 2FGs after the 1st quarter; letting folks like Oubre, Saric and Kaminsky go awf) just to center blame on the greyshirts for losses.
Against the Clipshow, with two stars likely on the floor together for the first time, Pierce is going to need his longest-tenured Hawk, Bembry, on his best behavior. Assertive, but not prone to wasting his aggressions out on the Ricky Rubios and Pat Beverleys of the world. Bembry ought to leave it to Trae Young to get under these vets’ skin, or through their legs, as the case may be.
One of the early signs we had that Trae was starting to grab a toehold on the league came at an exasperated Beverley’s expense, here at Staples, back in January. On the way to a 123-118 victory, Young treated us with a fine offensive performance (26 points, 8-for-11 2FGs, 8 assists, 1 TO), the rookie leaving Bev and just about anyone assigned to him befuddled.
Even Alex Len got in on the act, outperforming 6MOY candidate Harrell off the bench with 19 points, 9 boards and a trio of assists in just under 21 minutes. Len’s recent play in his return to a bench role, at Denver and Phoenix, offers tantalizing hope for the Hawks’ future rotations, once starters John Collins and Kevin Huerter and some vet reserves get back up to speed.
The Hawks (29.5 O-Reb%, 3rd in NBA) are one of the few teams currently out-doing the Clippers (29.4 O-Reb%, 3rd in NBA) on the offensive glass. Beverley will need help from George and Leonard to force turnovers, keeping Young from getting shots off and cleanly passing to open teammates. But the pressure will be on Ivica Zubac, Harrell and the Clipper bigs to box out and terminate Atlanta possessions with sound rebounds and outlets.
Drawing fouls (24.9 personals/game) more than any team other than the Suns (26.0) this season, the Clippers have been treated to more free throw tries than any team without a Giannis or a Harden on the roster, and they just got George (5th in league for FTAs last season) back in the fray. If they can slow the game down and wear down the Hawks early with whistles to open up a sizable lead, Atlanta will be tempted to save its energies for tomorrow in this same venue, when (maybe) LeBron and (maybe) Anthony Davis will be waiting.
Doc Rivers’ stellar NBA playing career, including an All-Star appearance in 1988 as a Hawk (we saving his number’s retirement ceremony for Alex Len, or…?), doesn’t pass muster for a spot in Springfield. But his coaching career does pass the smell test. I ask, do you want Austin mumbling through a posthumous induction speech on his dad’s behalf?
Of course not. You’ll want to enjoy unvarnished, fine-me-later-if-you-still-can tales and commentary, straight from Doc’s mouth. That’s why, as appreciative Hawks fans, we need to keep Doc’s wellness and his wallet, as he sails the next two championship campaigns amid the rough, unforgiving seas of LA and the national media, in our thoughts and prayers.
Yikes, that’s not a good look, Glenn. Is there a small-d doc in the house?
Let’s Go Hawks!
“Wet, Like I’m Book!”
You ever dance to Mambo No. 8? Me neither.
It’s Season No. 5 for Phoenix Suns star Devin Booker. When it comes to breaking through, as an All-Star, as a playoff-caliber standout, Booker hopes his Season No. 5 will be a huge, international hit. And rightfully so.
NBA fans get in our feelings whenever our highly touted draft picks aren’t ready-made stars, or at least reliable contributors, fresh out of the box after five games, five weeks, five months.
Our teams popped the champagne over the summer that whatever woes they’ve suffered over the past few years are firmly behind us, because The Commish shook your hand and handed you some (other) team’s baseball cap. No matter whether you’ve reached legal drinking age, the hangover effect for us fans arrives quickly. I like to pretend I’m more of a teetotaling, sober, patient fan.
But I’m also of the strident opinion that by Season No. 5, if you, hyped Lottery pick, haven’t emerged as a legitimate NBA star and a franchise face (for good reasons) for your team, if you are not playing in lockstep with a stable management and coaching regime by then, well, I’m sorry, that plan’s just not going to work out for you. A career of journeyman travels across the states and provinces of North America, hardball negotiations for trade-bait contracts, and fans annually heralding some future draftee as your replacement awaits.
The 13th pick from the 2015 Draft, Booker (25.3 PPG; 51.0 3FG%, 10th in NBA, say NOTHING to him about Evansville) has poured in the second-most points of his Draft class, and the second-most assists. He ought to be a rockstar in 28 NBA cities and several nations by now. Instead, he’s been more of a very good, one-note local lounge singer.
Partially, that’s because of being cursed with competing in the wrong Conference for upstart young stars. More significant, it’s due to having already cycled through four coaching headmasters (Jeff Hornacek, Earl Watson, Jay Triano, Igor Kokoskov) during his first half-decade in the pros. Plus, a pair of 30-ish executives who didn’t quite know what they were doing. (“Hold the phone. Are we getting Dillon, MarShon, or Mel Brooks?”)
Fortunately, the book hasn’t closed shut on D-Book yet, because his second Suns GM, James Jones, has begun to get the gist of his duties. Beginning with the offseason ouster of Igor, his prior’s hire, and subsequent offer to Monty Williams to become head honcho.
“I said to (Devin) that, ‘I want to help you become a household name. Right now, you aren’t because of all the organizational stuff,” said Williams, who offers his Full Monty critique tastefully but without sugarcoating. “But you have the talent.” Williams knows a thing or two about coaching talent.
At post-Katrina New Orleans, Coach Monty bridged Chris Paul’s search for the exits and the arrival of #1 pick Anthony Davis. His Season No. 5 as head coach of the Hornicans began with a caveat by a desperate, aging owner. Make the postseason, or else.
Mission accomplished – 45 wins in 2014-15, despite Davis and a slew of starters missing between a dozen and 40 games, despite plugging Omer Asik at center to appease AD’s wish not to shoulder the burdens of a starting five – and a competitive sweep at the hands of the 67-win eventual NBA champs. Job secured. Or, so he thought.
The retired nine-year NBA vet, having gained extra recognition around the league as a player’s coach after he and his wife went above-and-beyond to counsel a grieving Ryan Anderson, was on the outs, as New Orleans chased after the eventual champs’ lead assistant to take over. Fate dealt a more severe blow to Williams mere months after taking an associate head coach job with Russ-and-KD’s Thunder, when his wife was killed in OKC, and several kids injured, by a lane-crossing driver causing a head-on accident.
Monty took time off, then accepted a front-office gig with the Spurs. But he knew his late wife would want him to continue pursuing his passion to be an NBA head coach again. After one season lead-assisting coach Brett Brown and Ben-and-Joel’s Sixers, he accepted the open gig in Phoenix. It was offered to him by Jones, who played in Portland when Williams was an assistant there.
Having had to endure the CP3-to-LA saga(s), the knowledge that Booker has been devoted to see things through in Arizona has made it easier for Williams to accept auto-sigged checks from beleaguered owner Robert Sarver. Toward him and his teammates, Devin feels the devotion in return.
“The culture around, you can feel it. You can feel it in the air. It started with Monty,” Booker told The Undefeated about his newest head coach. “His voice travels. I’ve been in situations where things coaches say is kind of discussed amongst players. But with Monty, it’s not like that. We all believe in him. He believes in us all the same. It’s really contagious.”
Jones’ predecessor, Ryan McDonough, gambled when he sought out Jazz assistant Kokoskov, way-too-coincidentally, Lu Know Who’s Slovenian national coach, to take the reins a mere month before the 2018 Draft. But to the extent that it’s possible to get cold feet in the PHX, the Suns weren’t convinced that Doncic’s threats to stay at Real Madrid if he didn’t wind up with a team to his liking was mere bluffing.
They instead went big with Deandre Ayton, who was thrilled just to get people’s minds off whatever cash Arizona’s Sean Miller was offering him under the table, at #1. McDon’tneedapointguard’s failings to secure a reliable ballhandler in the 2018 Draft, or via free agency, made Sarver’s urge to replace the GM with his handpicked successor in Jones, right as last season was to begin, a justifiable one. The Suns having drafted anyone other than Luka in the Lottery sealed Igor’s fate before it could really get started.
Igor’s communication challenges with players, to say nothing of the media, made the quest to finish anything better than 19-63 a tall order. The upgrade to Williams has Phoenix (6-4) well on their way to leaving last season’s win total in the dust.
Here at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Tuesday, Monty’s young guns stayed neck-and-neck with the vaunted Lakers until the closing minutes, when a trio of consecutive three-bombs by LeBron and Kyle Kuzma blotted out the Suns.
They started the season with a bang, a 29-point home blowout of Sacramento, leaving many to wonder what had gotten into Ayton (18-and-11 plus 4 blocks). Ayton figured people would wonder, too, but his gamble to obscure whatever that was with a diuretic blew up on him (don’t laugh, John Collins; you got suspended for 25 games, too). Fortunately for Deandre, Jones and the Suns planned ahead.
A top-7-protected first rounder from Phoenix pried former Al Horford backup Aron Baynes, plus developmental guard Ty Jerome (out, sprained ankle), from the Celtics during the summer. Eager to show he picked up a few tricks from his time with Boston (21-for-61 on threes last year with the Cs), Baynes has already passed his 3FG volume from last season, sinking half of his 44 attempts in just ten games.
Aron has gone 10-for-18 from downtown during the first four contests in Phoenix’s six-game homestand, which continues tonight against the Atlanta Hawks (9 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Arizona), and concludes next Monday with Boston in town.
This past Sunday, the host Suns sunk a barrage of triples (19-for-42 3FGs) to beat the brakes off Brooklyn, 138-112. A team that finished last season (32.9 3FG% in 2018-19), and the 21-61 season before that (33.4 3FG% in 2017-18), dead-last in the league in three-point accuracy is flipping the script under Williams’ direction (38.8 team 3FG%, 3rd in NBA).
2018’s Draft saw the Suns trade back up into the Lottery to grab Mikal Bridges, a scrappy defensive wing who didn’t add much to the equation from the perimeter. This season, Jones and the Suns traded out of the Lottery altogether, passing up the opportunity to draft one Cameron to take the less-heralded, sweeter-shooting Cameron Johnson (3-for-8 3FGs vs. LAL on Tuesday; 40.0 3FG%) instead, getting Dario Saric (37.5 3FG%) from Minnesota as a throw-in.
Aside from Ayton, who can’t do so yet, everybody’s gotten into the floor-spreading craze. Ricky Rubio (8.8 APG, highest average by any Sun since Steve Nash in 2011-12; 21-and-10 vs. LAL) was brought in by Jones to alleviate Booker and the Suns’ longstanding play-setting and defensive issues, not as much for his outside shooting prowess. But even his 1.3 triples per game, at a 40 percent clip, are currently career highs.
Of the eight most active Suns in Williams’ rotations, all but Bridges are lofting three 3FG attempts per game, and all beside Bridges and Frank Kaminsky are hitting at a 35 percent clip or better. The availability of shooting threats across the floor at all times, and the reduced need to dribble the ball into oblivion, allows Booker to diversify his offensive approach.
The reliability of perimeter shooters allows the Suns’ frontcourt to get back in defensive sets (PHX 6th in D-Reb%; 27th in O-Reb%) instead of crashing the offensive glass and risking exposure in transition (1.07 opp. points per transition possession, 9th-best in NBA; 24th last season).
Stifling would-be shooters around the three-point arc, or at least knowing which personnel to leave open (quit hacking people, Nik the Slick), has been one of the fortes on the young season for Atlanta (4-6). Only foes of Miami (NBA-best 28.9 opp. 3FG%) and the Hawks (32.8 opp. 3FG%, 7th-best in NBA) have made less than a third of their long-distance attempts while taking 35 or more of them per game.
The Nuggets were 11-for-41 on Tuesday night, and any defensive performance approaching this one while minimizing second-chance opportunities would allow Atlanta a chance to steal a second-straight road game.
The iron is unkind to almost anyone on the Hawks not named Trae Young (8-for-13 3FGs @ DEN) or Kevin Huerter (3-for-3 3FGs, out for at least today with a shoulder injury). It’s a lot easier fighting for first-time backcourt All-Star fan votes when your surname begins with, say, a ‘B’, as opposed to a ‘Y’. Up-and-coming stars like Young have to make discerning fans want to scroll all the way down to check the box next to their names, and that means branding brains with a string of virtuoso performances like he had a couple days ago (42 points, 8-for-13 3FGs, 8-for-11 FTs, 11 assists @ DEN).
But Young’s and Huerter’s Hawkmates could connect on just 4 of 18 attempts (half of those by rookie De’Andre Hunter) during Tuesday’s rousing 125-121 win in the Rocky Mountain air. The Suns know of Trae’s teammates’ desire to get open inside to compensate, particularly the rim-stapling Jabari Parker (67.7 2FG%, 2nd in NBA; 20 points, 9 rebounds, 4 assists @ DEN), a guy who never got to see Season No. 5 in Milwaukee, or even No. 2 in Chicago.
Lacking a shotblocker with Ayton waitin’, Phoenix will scrap and claw for steals but commit a lot of fouls (24.8 personals per-48, second-most in NBA). So Atlanta (22-for-34 FTs @ DEN) will have to avoid giving certain Squawkers heartburn troubles tonight by sinking the free throws they’re handed. I’ll skip the chimichangas, thanks. It’s notable that the second-leading free throw shooter (4-for-8 FTs) during the Hawks’ win over Denver is faintly familiar around Phoenix.
“I wish I would have left after that third year,” with the Suns, said Alex Len, Pick No. 5 in 2013’s Draft, to Amico Hoops this past summer. By Season No. 5 of forlorn under-development with the club that made him their highest pick since 1987’s Armen Gilliam, Len was already perceived around Phoenix and the league as a lost cause. Deserted in the desert, the 2018 free agent approached this season, as an incumbent starter in Atlanta, as “The happiest I’ve been in a while.”
Len suffered under the same instability that Booker had to deal with in Phoenix. But, at least for the time being, Len has benefited from a stable combo of coaching, conditioning and management that won’t be so easy to give up on him. Atlanta coach Lloyd Pierce pointed at himself, not Len, for the latter’s brutal offensive struggles with the starting unit, finding him better suited as a reserve. Len rewarded LP and the Hawks with 17 vital points (6-for-8 FGs), 7 rebounds and a +18 plus-minus in 22 bench minutes on Tuesday.
Bench scoring comes at a premium with Parker starting, in place of Collins, and several veterans under load oops did I say that aloud I mean injury management. But for four missed freebies, Alex would have been Atlanta’s third 20-point scorer on that night. Sarver’s old Suns regime could not have foreseen a performance like that from him, not in the NBA, and certainly not beyond Season No. 5.
A couple years behind the Hawks’ organization, due to citywide skepticism, Sarver eventually finagled a $230 million arena renovation deal out of the city of Phoenix. Yesterday, he, Williams and Jones were on hand to break ground on a $45 million intown training complex for the team.
Sarver hopes that, with the Jones-Williams pairing and Booker, armed with the max contract extension he signed in 2018, locked in, his Suns can get Ayton back soon and, with the improved supporting cast, surprise many with a charge toward the Suns’ first Western Conference playoff appearance in a decade.
As for Devin, this is a make-or-break season to confirm his long-term worth in The Association. Phoenix’s prime All-Star prospect and All-NBA hopeful, Booker can make his owner, the GM, the new coach, the facility deals, and everyone around them smell much better to his team’s faithful fanbase. Time, for Booker, is of the essence.
Why? Ever heard of Chanel No. 6? Exactly. Ladies and gentlemen, this is Season No. 5!
Let’s Go Hawks!
“What? Where?? Wait, when was this???” – Alex Len
Holy hot sauce, we’ve got some Louisiana lads squaring off tonight!
I shall spare everyone my 21st annual, “Why Hasn’t Louisiana Tech Retired Paul Millsap’s Jersey Number?” fuss, for now. We’ve got bigger catfish to fry tonight.
This time last year, Damian Jones was holding the fort as a starting center for the defending NBA champs, as was the plan, until Boogie Cousins could get upright and healthy. A year later, the pride of Baton Rouge is back with a top line and will be front-and-center at tip off when his Atlanta Hawks face another Bayou State baller, Uncle Paulie, and his red-hot Nuggets in Denver (9 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Altitude TV if you can get it). This time, Jones will be holding the fort until… well, we will have to wait and see, won’t we?
Nobody can convince me that climate change isn’t real, because I am the last soul here on Alex Len Fan Club Island, up high on the last standing tree, clinging precariously to a coconut. The NBA’s worst offensive big man and worst offensive starter so far this season (89.3 O-Rating, 5th-lowest among all NBA’ers w/ 15+ MPG and 5+ GP; 6.0 O-Reb%, 39.2 TS%), Len will get to come sit by coach Lloyd Pierce and Cam Reddish, as the Hawks try to not waste Trae Young’s considerable energy (sole NBA player in Top-10 for PPG, APG and SPG).
Jones won’t be the last player to catch flak from his new team’s fans based on his previous place of employment. Many hoped he could bring some of that Dub Magic with him, pixie-dusting it onto his new mates. Instead, his Derp Tragic play during the Hawks’ preseason rendered him gravely disappointing and downright unplayable, in the minds of many, as the regular season commenced.
Still, others have noted that the fourth-year center out of Vanderbilt has less than a full season of play, just 57 regular-season and 12 playoff appearances, under his belt, a great number of them unworthy of being categorized as much more than, “appearances”. The 24-year-old is as much a developmental player as anyone on Atlanta’s roster, although the pair of championship rings he carries can obscure that fact.
Jones has put up binary boxscore lines throughout his early tenure in the pros. But, to his credit, he has shown a propensity for putting the Popeyes biscuit in the basket (68.2 2FG%, 77.8% at-rim; they do still have biscuits, I am told). And during Portland’s Baze-tastic 124-113 overtime win there were times, early on, where the race to be the best Damian on the court was surprisingly close. Jones’ seven boards were a career-high, and he came dangerously close to the fifth double-digit scoring effort of his career.
Atlanta (3-6) has regressed in many measures during their current three-game skid, mostly due to the absence of John The Pharmacist, but the one area where they have maintained a decided advantage is in the paint points department. Thanks largely to a more seasoned and scrutinized 24-year-old, Renaissance Man Jabari Parker (27 points, 4 blocks and 11 rebounds, 12-for-17 2FGs @ POR), Atlanta’s 52.3 per-48 paint points rank third in the NBA, their +9.9 net edge in that area behind only one of Parker’s former clubs, Giannis’ Milwaukee (+11.3).
That advantageous interior gap could be as wide as Lake Pontchartrain by now, one can imagine, if Len didn’t bring the arms and hands of a Turkish wrestler to the floor with him. Jones has gone six consecutive appearances where his personal plus-minus exceeded his team’s final margin, and so coach Pierce has decided that while Jones isn’t Mister Right, he is Mister Right Now.
Until the Hawks can improve on their atrocious perimeter shooting (29.0 team 3FG%, somehow not dead-last in NBA), and horrendous free throw shooting (70.2 team FT%, somehow not dead-last in NBA), finishing interior plays is the way to go. The Nuggets’ offensive efficiency (103.7 O-Rating, 23rd in NBA) has been almost as bad as Atlanta’s (102.3, 27th in NBA), but for different reasons. Their 46.7 team 2FG% is somehow not dead-last, either, despite the third-highest two-point shot frequency (68.2% of all FGAs).
Coach Mike Malone’s club has been living and dying by clutch threes, winning three of their past four games by four points or less. If the Hawks’ perimeter defenders show up at critical junctures, they could be the second Atlanta team with a losing record this week to catch a happy-go-lucky, seven-win opponent off-guard. On that note...
Does the Louisiana native, Millsap, even like the Aints? All indications are that Paul has been as True to Atlanta as any former Hawks star. This past summer alone, you could catch him balling at the AEBL summer league, working with his brothers to keep their Core 4 Atlanta training facility running up in Chamblee. This month, he’s been named the regional development director for southside ATL’s longtime popular local eatery, “This Is It! Southern Kitchen and BBQ.” Heck, he’s one Dimitroff call away from becoming the Falcons’ fifth punter.
Sap has been very, very good for Atlanta, but he has been indispensable for Denver (7-2, tied with the Lakers for 1st in the West). Almost every SportsCenter highlight has Millsap (12.1 PPG, 96.8 FT%, 47.8 3FG%) in the background doing his quiet superhuman routine. Fending off multiple defenders for a loose ball then kicking it out to Nikola: “Jokic with the BIG 3!” Flexing old-man hops to dunk on unsuspecting bigs in the post: “What a smart inbound pass by Jamal Murray (18.8 PPG, 4.2 APG, 2.9 TOs/game), spotting the mismatch.” Stripping a ball, or blocking a shot in the restricted zone, leading to the play that gets TV announcers’ attention on the Nuggets’ transition at the other end.
Millsap’s opponents have suffered a minus-11.2 FG% differential within six feet of the hoop, third-best among Western bigs defending at least five such shots per game. The Nuggets will need Millsap, in tandem with guard Gary Harris and forward Jerami Grant, to be as disruptive as possible, to allow 24 Hour Fitness at Happy Hour model Jokic (16.7 PPG, 6.0 APG, 9.3 RPG) to shine when the game matters most.
Replacing Len with Jones isn’t quite as controversial a switcheroo as bait-and-switching Frank Ocean with Drake at Camp Flog Gnaw, so the reaction among the Hawks fans for this latest starter switch will be supportive but tepid. But if Jones’ incremental improvement enlivens Atlanta’s offense around Young and the awakening Kevin Huerter, and improves the league’s worst defensive rebounding unit in away games (NBA-low 66.3 D-Reb%), starts during the Hawks’ current road trip might become more of a carnival atmosphere and less of a sideshow.
Throw us somethin’, Mister Jones!
Let’s Go Hawks!