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“Arrgh! How are we letting Damian Jones cherry pick us to death?”
Alright, here it is, your definitive answer on the “Who Better?” question, so we don’t have to put up with a debate that has dragged on 19 months too long.
The debate was settled, long ago. Luka Doncic is better than Trae Young. One person already made the decision, so we wouldn’t have to. He’s the only person on the planet whose opinion matters on the question. And that man is Sir Travis Schlenk.
Best player available is best player available. If Trae Young was the better of the two, then on Draft Night 2018, with both players at your disposal at Pick #3, you select the kid rocking the suit shorts, genuflect, and say, “Thank you all, and good night.” But that is not what the Atlanta Hawks GM did.
He had the presence of mind to consider the long-term interests of his team, about the value of what having the best player available could mean to your franchise, versus the value of having the right to draft that player as a bargaining chip for something more. Luka Doncic was the best player available. He, by his lonesome, simply wasn’t Travis Schlenk’s guy.
With the Memphis Grizzlies having no earthly idea what was going on, he got on the horn and told Dallas Mavericks management, “I’ll secure your kid if he falls to us. You secure my kid, because he WILL fall to you. And give me your first-rounder next year for the trouble.” Done.
Every highlight play, every highlight reel, every stat-monster game from Doncic elicits, somewhere out there on the Interwebs or in pundit-world, the same tired reaction: “Oh, Phoenix, Sacramento, Atlanta have all got to be kicking themselves.” Take our name out your mouths, you mindless twits!
The Suns ran out and hired a coach before that Draft, by all accounts a person of sound mind and strategy, ɯho nΩ ‘Mµrican pla¥ers ©an understαnd βecause h€ tålks £ike thi∑. You know what language he does speak? He speaks Luka. Fluently. And then they don’t draft the kid! No, they wanted a Tito Horford upgrade with their first dibs, because size. Congratulations, as DJ Khaled would say. The GM from that day is gone, canned before the season could even start, as is the coach.
That’s about all that ought to be said. But let’s delve further.
If there is a human alive who ought to know the value of a well-timed draft move, it’s Vlade Divac. The man should also know his Euro-prospects inside and out, at least a little better than Dave Joerger, his head coach at the time. But Vlade perhaps knew too much about some acrimonious relationship he reportedly had, or felt the need to ward off, with Doncic’s father.
Divac has since maneuvered a “phone call” to “Sasa Doncic” to get their radio guy, Grant Napear, to assert the report was unfounded, but I’m not fooled. Imagine if the Lakers had declined to deal Divac away because Jerry West had some old, tired beef with Jellybean.
No, Marvin Bagobones was the move. Talented fella, sure. But I may be out 3-to-4 weeks just from typing his name. Like Phoenix, Sacramento was in position to at least draft Doncic and trade him to a lower-drafting team for something of value, and whiffed. The GM from that day should be gone, and the coach, Joerger, is only gone because he wouldn’t quit giving the GM grief all last season over the blunder.
Oh, and how does Memphis get to run around scot-free, and not kicking themselves? They cleaned it up nicely with the do-over Draft Lottery luck of 2019. But put this on for size: “The Grizzlies! Home of the 2019 AND 2020 Rookies of the Year.” All they had to do was blow up Atlanta and Dallas’ scheme, and then maybe the Mavs are the ones trying to keep Jaren Jackson, Jr. from fouling out every other night.
Jackson, and nothing else, or Doncic? If you weren’t sure “Which Better?”, you certainly are now. The GM that was also a proofreader away from squandering Dillon Brooks, too, is gone, and the coach got the heave-ho, too. Once Vivek Ranadive regains his senses, that’s three out of four teams who picked ahead of the Mavs in 2018’s draft, three out of four whose picks from that class are or will be inherited by a new regime.
The opportunity to trade Luka Doncic down for Trae Young, and recoup additional value in the process, should never have been afforded to Atlanta. And yet, with the iron still steaming, an astute Schlenk was prepared to make a calculated strike.
What additional value, you ask? Well there’s January Rookie of the Month finalist Cam Reddish (40.3 3FG% and 82.8 FT% in January), whose confidence on the offensive end is growing by leaps and bounds, and whose defensive aptitude at the wing is pretty good fresh out the box for a team that sorely needs it.
Cam is with Atlanta and not, say, Dallas, because Luka was just good enough in 2019-20 to keep the Mavs from being among the league's five worst NBA teams, a calculated risk that I trust went into negotiations about draft pick protection. Dallas negotiates Top-10 protection, instead of Top-5, and they’d likely have wound up bringing Reddish or Rui Hachimura into the fold.
Tack onto that, both teams got a 2019 All-Rookie 1st teamer and 2020 All-Star out of their 2018 lottery picks, but Atlanta keeps about $6 million in would-be rookie-scale cash spread out over the course of four years to spend elsewhere.
One other item. Walking out of 2018’s draft with Young as Atlanta’s point guard of the future meant never having to wonder whether the good folks of DeKalb County, Georgia were going to take the Damocles’ Sword of a recommended felony assault charge for Dennis Schröder and shelve it in a drawer, away from harm.
By hookah by crook, Schlenk had to get value for The Menace, too. Now, a rebuilding OKC team that squeaks into 2022’s playoffs would bring the Hawks yet another first-rounder to add to a still-youthful core.
Yes, Luka Doncic is a better player than Trae Young. Yes, the Atlanta Hawks Basketball Club is doing just fine. Those statements need not be matters of controversy, nor must they be mutually exclusive.
Luka is better because he was genetically built, raised, trained and marketed to be better. At age 17, Trae Young led his team to a regional high school championship, his state of Oklahoma naming him the high school sophomore of the year. At age 15, Luka Doncic was in the third year of his developmental contract with Real Madrid. By age 17, Luka was on the top-level club in the world’s second-best basketball league, already having appeared in preseason games against the NBA Celtics and Thunder.
Between high school and Big XII collegiate play, Young had his share of scrimmages with and against semi-pro competition. But he would have to join a team that had Vince Carter on it before he could play an official game against players more than five years his senior.
Doncic, now 6-foot-7 and pushing 220 pounds, has been playing well above his age weight since age 7. A 5-star recruit, Young traveled for competition across his country. Doncic performed for club and country across his continent, competing in Liga ACB and Euroleague to justify his place among men trying to bring home enough borscht to keep their families fed.
It ought to be impressive that both young performers have taken the NBA world by storm, already having left their many “draft bust” critics muttering bitterly to themselves. It ought to be amazing that both have reached the same stages in their short careers, to this point, given their disparate paths to get to the best pro league in the world. But that’s not enough for some. Somebody must be shamed for “losing” a draft deal.
If you want legitimate examples of a winner-loser draft trade, dial it back to 1998. Antawn Jamison had a mighty fine career, one that certainly worked out better than two lottery talents selected ahead of him The Kandi Man and Raef LaFrentz. About five years after making the All-Rookie team, he was the league’s Sixth Man of the Year. An efficient offensive player, ‘Tawn even got named to the All-Star Team twice, at ages 28 and 31.
Unfortunately for the Golden State Warriors, the veteran accolades came for Jamison after he was traded away, coincidentally, to Dallas. Unfortunately for G-State, Jamison was the second-best player in a two-player draft deal. Moreover, he wasn’t even the best player out of Chapel Hill in the trade.
The Raptors took Jamison 4th in the draft, the Dubs took Vince Carter 5th, and then they swapped draft caps. No draft picks changing hands, no other players, just straight cash, homie. Cash not for the Warriors but for the Raptors, to go along with Carter.
Vince was the better player, Vince had the greatest impact for his team, Vince had the better career. Advantage, Raptors. But please note -- by the time the Warriors and Raptors finally met in The Finals, neither player, and none of their coaches or GMs, were anywhere around.
Jamison can take solace that his NBA fate worked out better than the guy drafted right after him. This season, the Mavericks are, for the first time in a long time if not ever, above the .500 mark as a four-decades-old franchise. While Luka has helped them get over the hump, this would be a much longer time in coming had The Worst NBA Franchise of the 90s not drafted Robert Traylor 6th in that 1998 Draft, then sent him to Milwaukee for their pick at #9.
Mark Cuban bought the Mavs from Ross Perot, Jr. in 2000 and inherited the German wunderkind, Dirk Nowitzki, who turned the team’s fortunes around and made a roadmap for European parents to seriously consider orienting their athletic kids toward a pro basketball future in North America. While it wasn’t obvious to most at draft time, Dirk proved to be better than Tractor, had the greatest impact for his team, had the better career. Advantage, Mavericks. And it wasn’t close.
Those who craved to see Doncic and Young go tête-à-tête tonight at American Airlines Center (8:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Southwest in DFW), seeking out some play that will crystallize their “Who Better” argument one way or another, will be disappointed to find Luka sitting out with an ankle sprain.
I encourage them to instead check out last season’s games where the Hawks and Mavs split their series with home wins, the latter back in December 2018 snapping Atlanta’s ten-game head-to-head winning streak. Or, last February’s Rising Stars Game, won by Trae and John Collins’ USA Team. Or, that weekend’s Skills Challenge, where Trae prevailed over Luka to reach the finals.
The flaws with the “Who’s Better?” assessments come in the inferences. One might need to see them head-to-head to determine who’s “better” in their own minds. Others might be satisfied by gazing at the standings, where Luka’s team is already a likely first-round pest in the West (29-19; 4-3 on second-night of back-to-backs incl. 133-104 loss vs. PHX on Jan. 28), while Trae’s team has been failing to gain traction for months (13-36; 5-5 in last ten games) in the East.
Dallas, too, once took grief for taking a slick-passing point guard from an unassuming major college program Top-3 in the Draft, in the process passing up on a global sensation. People who watched Grant Hill’s brilliance in his time at Durham, his NCAA tournament majesty, could not fathom anyone taking Jason Kidd before him. Purdue’s Glenn Robinson was maybe understandable. But Kidd?
Mavs and Pistons fans would come out of their corners swinging for twelve rounds in that 1994-95 season – somebody had to be “better!” And the dismay on both sides was palpable after the votes were tallied and Hill and Kidd wound up splitting the Rookie of the Year baby.
Kidd was a superb ballhandler, an All-Star in his second season on a Mavericks club that went 26-56 (hmm.), and even a stout defender. But Ason had no J, as they would say. Having the next mini-Magic was cute and all, but the NBA was on a search for The Next MJ. Hill, a highlight-reel All-Star during his first four seasons in Detroit, a more versatile and athletic talent than Kidd, was fitting that bill.
Detroit surged into the playoffs with Hill while Dallas continued to sputter. The consensus by the late 1990s was clear: Grant Hill is “better” than Jason Kidd, who Dallas shipped away midway through his third season, essentially for Steph Marbury. Ergo, Grant Hill WILL be the more impactful player for the team that drafted him. Grant Hill will be winning rings for the Pistons before Jason Kidd wins one with the Mavericks. Advantage, Motown. That’s how the destinies are gonna work out, because Hill is just “better.” Right? Well.
The Pistons indeed won a chip. But Hill was eating chips and dip by the time they did.
As both Hill and Kristaps Porzingis (also out tonight, knee injury recovery on a back-to-back) know, being a draft “steal”, or a beast instead of a bust, does not prevent injuries, misfortune, and bungling mismanagement from derailing your path to championship prominence.
Doncic is a better player than Young, but saying so is not enough. He was plugged into an NBA environment that was better suited for what he could bring to the table. Aside from the pervy guys in the breakroom, Dallas had a stable organization in an NBA market that was well-acclimated to embracing a European star. The coach, Rick Carlisle, that won the 2011 Finals with Nowitzki and, whaddya know, Kidd, is still here to guide Luka.
The Mavs’ brass didn’t really consider keeping Young because they thought they had their point god of the future, in Dennis Smith, Jr. As it became apparent that Luka being Luka renders point guard usage meaningless, off went Smith to New York. That allowed the Mavs to take a long-term flier on Porzingis while relieving the Knicks of their error bringing Tim Hardaway, Jr. back from Atlanta and Courtney Lee from wherever. Dallas also sent the Knicks a pair of future Top-10 protected first-rounders that, because Luka, are likely to convey.
The owner, Cuban, only believes in tanks that involve sharks. He chased around the summer streets of Houston looking to secure DeAndre Jordan, and finally got him last year, only to send him to the Knicks in that Porzingis deal. Rebuilding, shme-building. Dallas is over the salary cap, hard-capped, and committed to paying Porzingis, a 7-foot-3 unicorn shooting 40.4 FG% while settling for threes, upwards of $131 million over the next four seasons.
If he’s not enough of a frontcourt presence, Dallas went out and acquired Boban Marjanovic, and, last month, Willie Cauley-Stein to replace the season-ending-injured Dwight Powell. When Luka needs shooters to take pressure off of him, he’s got Hardaway, Seth Curry, Maxi Kleber, Dorian Finney-Smith, J.J Barea, and Ryan Broekhoff, all shooting between 38 and 48 percent from deep.
Hard-capped, potentially in a tighter tax situation next season if Hardaway eats his player option, and having to keep up in a conference that has Harden and Westbrook, Kawhi and PG, and at least for now LeBron and AD.
Next year’s Eastern Conference isn’t slouching, either, if Kyrie and KD can make some noise to join Giannis and the other contenders on this side of the country. But at least Atlanta, who has Chandler Parsons turning his wreck into a check while keeping the team above the salary floor, will have the maneuverability to move up and grow into contention around Young, without giving up too much.
It’s fine to wish that Schlenk was committed to a hastier roster construction and better coaching expertise to surround his new All-Star than his 2018 Draft trade partners. But anyone concluding that Dallas already “won” the trade by looking at their team’s current places in the NBA standings is willfully as narrow as a country road.
Luka Doncic is better than Trae Young. Going any further to suggest that the Mavericks are in a better position than the Hawks to win titles in the near future would be misguided and neglectful of even Mavericks team history. Luka’s better. If all goes well for him, he will likely be better. But to get meaningfully far in the NBA West, for the Mavericks’ sake, Luka had better stay better.
Let’s Go Hawks!
This is the time to remember. ‘Cause it will not last forever…
March Madness is here! Have you caught the fever yet? If so, you may want to self-quarantine and watch some NBA action to kill the time, if not a few germs, during tonight’s lull in NCAA conference tournament play.
This time last year, it was about to be a nice little run for the New York Knicks’ RJ Barrett, cementing himself as a certified PTP’er alongside Cam Reddish and Zion Williamson as Duke would win the ACC conference tourney championship. Indeed, those were the days to hold on to.
Williamson would wind up entering the NBA with some experienced, if not accomplished, veteran talent around him. Barrett was granted high expectations, just by being picked shortly after Zion by New York, but not a commensurately high amount of usage.
RJ ceded center stage to another former high NBA draft pick, in Julius Randle, trying to prove he can be a headliner, and a now-departed Morris Twin who was trying to grab the attention of his next NBA employer. But some fans and media are already dour over the prospect that Barrett (42.6 2FG%, 31.8 3FG%, 60.5 FT%) may not become the franchise-defining superstar for whom they have longed. Did I mention, he only turns 20 in June?
Barrett returns with his Knicks to visit Reddish’s Atlanta Hawks (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), and I can imagine the #3 pick from last year’s draft is a bit envious of his former Dookie teammate’s situation.
“Simply put,” Sopan Deb of the New York Times wrote in generality on Saturday, “being a rookie for the Knicks, a franchise seemingly addicted to chaos in the country’s biggest city, is different from being on any other team.” Deb noted that RJ’s career-high of 27 points in what should have been a rousing home win over Houston was overshadowed by the antics of his team’s owner and his squabble with its biggest superfan. “It can be jarring for young men entering adulthood, and even more so for Barrett – who fans hope will be the centerpiece of a long-desired championship team.”
Maple Mamba has a few supporters above the border who have been tracking his path to the pros for some time, and there’s hope he can become a consistent go-to star for the Knicks, sooner rather than later. By the time he does break through, he will likely be under the guidance of his second team executive, the incoming ex-agent Leon Rose, and at least his third head coach.
There’s a reason that surveyed first-timers, during a preseason poll predicted Reddish, above all others, would finish with the best NBA career. I suppose a lot if it is how well he has blended in as a talented teammate at all stages of his development, sharing the spotlight with Mo Bamba in high school, with Zion and RJ in Durham, and now with Trae Young, John Collins and a host of up-and-comers in The ATL.
Cam isn’t under the urgency to be the signature star, or even to start, in Atlanta. Away from the pressure of lugging a mismanaged major-market titan back into viability for the first time in deceades, the optimism is higher than the expectations for Reddish (42.6 2FG%, 33.5 3FG%, 80.2 FT%), and neither is overblown.
Spirits have lifted a bit, at least on the court, since coach David Fizdale got his ouster following a 4-18 start. Yet the wins have come in drips and drabs for “Mikey Two Shoes” Miller and the Knicks lately. Yes, they have won three of their last six, including that 123-112 win over the slip-sliding Rockets. But a regression could also be viewed in the context of the six-game losing skid that preceded the 3-3 run, a slide that began on February 9 with a double-OT loss (stop me if you’ve heard that before) to the Hawks at State Farm Arena.
That 140-135 loss in Atlanta, like today’s game, was the back end of a road back-to-backs. New York (20-45) returns here today at 1-8 on the season in SEGABABAs, the sole victory, Miller’s first, by two points at Golden State three months ago.
With the Knicks coming off a 122-115 loss in Washington last night, the indicators point to the Hawks (20-46) coasting past the Knicks in the right-side-up standings like two ships passing in the night. Alas, like the last game between these two, and like the double-OT win over the Hornets, we’re likely setting ourselves up for something akin to the Merrimack versus the Monitor.
Miller must be somewhat miffed to see coaching colleague JB Bickerstaff turn a 5-5 start, in taking over the Cavaliers since the All-Star Break, into a multi-year extension. Well before that time, the Knicks’ interim coach has had his job status come up out of the blue by a new employee on First Take, and he has had to watch his owner prioritize the situation with celebrity entrance choices at MSG. On the court, however, Miller’s biggest issue has been his penchant for getting the upper hand, then giving it away with his rotations.
His Knicks built up a sizable 31-20 lead on the Hawks here on February 9, thanks to Randle’s 12-and-8 in the opening quarter, only to watch it dissipate by halftime and dissolve completely by the end of the third (John Collins’ 14 second-quarter points propelled Atlanta), necessitating some late-game scrambling to force the OT periods.
Last night, New York bounced back from a slow start to pour on 70 first-half points on the defensively woeful Wizards. But the Knicks could only muster 45 points the rest of the way as Washington turned the tables. Unlike the last Hawks game, the reserves carried the day in the first half, particularly Frank Ntilikina, the former lottery hopeful now in his third year who enjoyed his first 20-and-10 performance, and bug-eyed big Bobby Portis. But by the time Miller put the subs back into the game, it was too late to stop the Wizards’ second-half blitz.
The Knicks do come into the game healthy. Starters like Elfrid Payton, Queens native and ex-Clipper Moe Harkless, and Taj Gibson, along with rotation players Mitchell Robinson, Wayne Ellington and Kevin Knox were used sparingly in D.C., so it’s imagined that Miller will ride with a lot of them to support Barrett and Randle, the latter of whom fouled out last night with four minutes to spare. New York will also hope, while challenged with defending Young for much of this evening, that Ntilikina’s offensive output on Tuesday was no mere mirage.
Atlanta exploited Charlotte’s interior early and often, and more of the same will be needed from Lloyd Pierce’s young charges this evening. Randle will post up and hog the ball on occasion, and when transition opportunities come from his shots that Hawks need to turn those into points at every opportunity. Majestic offensive displays from Young and Reddish can come later in the contest. But early on, we’ll need to see the guards looking for Collins (28-and-11 vs. CHA), Bruno Fernando and Dewayne Dedmon (+20 plus-minus vs. CHA) running the floor against New York’s travel-weathered legs.
Tonight ought to be a rookie showcase between former college teammates Barrett, the Knick who is challenged with becoming a more efficient scorer, and Reddish, who has been a defensive salve for the Hawks but could stand to become a more consistent rebounder and playmaker. So far, they’ve given us the best of them. And now, we need the rest of them.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“You called that a foul, ref? Man… you’re a TRIP!”
You all are familiar with the Memphis Grizzlies by now. Hopefully, our Atlanta Hawks know them a bit better, too. At least well enough to stay neck-and-neck with them as this week’s two-game series shifts to FedEx Forum (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL and MEM; FWIW, Five Stripes’ home opener will be on 94.1 FM and Fox Sports South).
Monday’s 127-88 drubbing of the Hawks was the largest road win in Memphis’ franchise history, with a team-high nine Blue Bears ringing up double-figure scores. That 25-year franchise record for road victory margin was matched a mere two nights later in Brooklyn. The Grizzlies cut down the Nets on Wednesday, 118-79, likely the game that caused Kenny Atkinson and Sean Marks to decide they should maybe stop seeing each other.
Including the 105-88 win over LeBrongeles in Memphis, making them the first conference opponent this season to beat the Lakers outside of L.A., coach Taylor Jenkins’ club became the first NBA team to hold three consecutive foes below 90 points since yet another Budtree disciple, Quin Snyder, and his Utah Jazz did the deed back in March 2018. It was an impressive feat considering the Grizzlies are still roaming without Jaren Jackson, Brandon Clarke, Justise Winslow and Grayson “Dindu Nuffin” Allen.
That party came to an end last night in Lukaville, but was it just an interruption? As the Hawks (19-45) headed to Graceland after Friday’s too-little, almost-not-too-late loss to the Wizards in D.C., the Grizzlies (31-32) slipped back below .500 with a 121-96 road defeat at the hands of a Mavericks team whose owner took quite an L of his own. Dallas rang up 30 assists while turning over the ball about half as much as Memphis (19 TOs, led by Ja Morant’s six).
Was Jenkins’ crew simply conserving their energies? If the emerging Cam Reddish shows up and shows out, they’ll be glad they did.
Reddish wasn’t available to plug the cracking dam for coach Lloyd Pierce’s club on Monday. But with Trae Young out due to illness last night, Reddish took it upon himself to become a faucet the Wizards would struggle to cut off. 6-for-10 inside the 3-point arc, 5-for-7 beyond it. Coming off the bench, Reddish built his career scoring high with only one free throw attempt (I don’t have a half-million to spare, but c’mon refs), and despite 7 TOs.
The next big step for Cam (probable, back pain) is to outdo himself on the back end of back-to-backs. Last weekend at The Farm, he followed up an efficient 26-point performance (6-for-9 3FGs) in the win over Coach Kenny’s Nets with just 8 points in 24 minutes against the Blazers the next evening. In mid-January, 22 points to expunge the Spurs Hex on a Friday, 7 points on 3-for-10 shooting back home on a Saturday, as the Hawks lost at home to Detroit by 33.
The back-end game before that one, in late December, Reddish tallied two points on one made bucket on five attempts, as the Hawks fell in Chicago by 35. He was a net minus-21 on that day, an improvement over the minus-23 in yet another 30-plus-point back-end loss in Chi-town just 17 days before.
Granted, it shouldn’t all be about The Cam Reddish Show every night, certainly not at this early stage. The Hawks need a multitude of positive contributors at both ends of the floor, more seasoned folks like Kevin Huerter (career-high 11 assists vs. WAS yesterday) and John Collins (26-and-10 plus a pair of blocks vs. WAS; 16 fourth-quarter points), in particular. But the competitive progress Coach Pierce and his staff seeks of his Hawks will reveal itself when arguably(?) their most valuable two-way performer can be counted upon to recover quickly and string very good games together.
Cam wasn’t the singular difference between victory and a 40-point tail-whooping. Yet, the Hawks needed Reddish on Monday the way Mississippi State games need more cowbell. The rookie is one critical defensive body that Pierce can use to help Young (still questionable w/ flu-like symptoms) and/or Jeff Teague thwart the Grizzlies’ ballhandlers, and to switch onto Memphis’ best perimeter-shooting forwards and swingmen.
Reddish, his fellow rookie De’Andre Hunter (team-high 8 D-Rebs vs. WAS) will also be vital in keeping Jonas Valanciunas (7 O-Rebs @ ATL, none last night @ DAL) from getting easy catches on rolls to the rim and from feasting on the offensive boards. Their interior defensive activity, neutralizing the rebounding edge Valanciunas and Gorgui Dieng seek to establish in the halfcourt, will make it tougher for the Grizzlies to scamper away during Atlanta’s predictable offensive lulls.
The Hawks went from a Hunter three-pointer, putting the visitors up 52-48 last night, with five minutes to go before halftime, to a Reddish triple with two minutes left before the end of the third quarter to end a 35-13 Wizards run. No Hawk shots, aside from an 8-foot jumper from Brandon Goodwin were sunk beyond three feet of the rim in that time.
Forcing Valanciunas and the Grizzlie bigs to do more than dig in their heels waiting for caroms will require a more diversified attack, exploiting driving lanes, moving the rock inside, outside and back in, and getting Collins, Bruno Fernando and Dewayne Dedmon more post-up opportunities.
All eyes were on Morant on Monday, but Memphis’ offensive balance came largely from Tyus Jones (9 assists, 1 TO @ ATL, 6-and-0 @ BRK, 7-and-1 @ DAL), now the NBA’s active leader in assist/turnover ratio (5.3 ratio, actually down from 7.0 last season w/ MIN). It is that level of confidence with one’s own personnel, exhibited by Jones in his first season in Memphis, that Atlanta, with or without Trae, will be challenged to match.
Jones’ former protégé with the Timberwolves, Teague made two assists in the opening six minutes of last night’s game, and he wouldn’t make another until Atlanta found themselves down double digits with ten minutes remaining. Young would help minimize those droughts with his passing wizardry and ability to get to the free throw line. But if he remains out tonight, the more balanced offensive approach should begin and end in the hands of Teague and Goodwin.
“I ain’t THAT sick y’all… Relax lol”, tweeted Young prior to last night’s game, certainly a relief for fans to hear these days. Feeling better is Priority One for him, but Atlanta can still do plenty of things to aid what ails them on the court, particularly during back-to-backs and on the road. Trae isn’t THAT sick, but after a spirited comeback attempt in D.C., can Cam and the Hawks play THAT well, throughout tonight’s game?
Let’s Go Hawks!
“OnlyFans, but with you and Beal guarding people. OléFans!”
“It’s a masterstroke of heartache, brutality, and redemption.”
“YOU DIDN’T READ THE BOOK, DID YOU?”
I let out a hearty snorkle (snark and chortle? snort and chuckle?) every time that car ad comes on. We all know that guy, the one who comes to class, the book club, or the big meeting, and does his best attempt at Winging It, in hopes of not making it obvious he showed up wholly unprepared?
Few creatures do a better job at Winging It than hawks. But under the unrelenting scrutiny of the National Basketball Association, Atlanta’s young Hawks have a hard time getting away with it, not without getting exposed on the regular.
Such was the case on Monday night at The Funny Farm, as brave onlookers endured the Hawks shooting 32 percent from the field on the same nets they used over the weekend, while a visiting Grizzlies club had randos walking into the arena and piling up double-digit scores with ease.
John Konchar, professional basketball player or State Farm Agent? Josh Jackson, redemptive lottery pick or lost member of New Edition? (text your uncles, if you don’t know who they were.) Tyus Jones, steady NBA backup or one-armed blues legend? Think fast, De’Andre Hunter, John Collins, Brandon Goodwin. Y’all didn’t read the playbook, did you?
After a promising weekend, our Hawks took off from their homestand finale with a bad taste in their beaks. The palate cleanser as they hit the road? None other than our good friend Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards (7 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington).
I trust that Trae Young knows Brad’s lady friend’s name without prompting. Can we say the same about Shabazz Napier? Recent Wizard arrival, or the late Malcolm X’s pet cat? If you need to call a friend, Trae, check with former T’Wolf Jeff Teague. That sure might’ve helped the Hawks on Monday with Anthony Tolliver, who didn’t even have a jersey for Memphis’ shootaround that morning.
“You can’t teach effort,” was about all a terse Lloyd Pierce would share with postgame reporters who, I can only assume, stayed awake for the entirety of Monday’s 127-88 flop. I can kind of disagree with the Hawks’ head honcho. NBA coaching and development staffs are charged with having their players adequately prepared to compete. How players prepare, as much as how they perform, is a reflection on the gentlemen in suit-and-tie on the sideline.
They’ve got uber-talented kids who are inured to being up the night before playing Mario Go-Kart or whatever, then throwing on jerseys the next day to face some St. Ignatius Prep team that’s petrified of being on these guys’ Overtime and Ballislife highlight videos. If you’re not instilling into 22-year olds’ noggins the adequate level of discipline and preparedness for the highest level of this sport, then what are you instructing?
I can’t forget that Lloyd Pierce is a newbie head coach as well, liable to be outwitted, hoodwinked, bamboozled (come on home, Spike) by even other neophytes on occasion. He’s learning what works and doesn’t work with his charges, even 145 NBA games into his tenure. He’s also fairly secure with his position for the next 145 games or so. It’s the rank and file below LL Cool P who should approach every game as if they’re walking with a panther.
I’ve long been fond of Chairman Mel. While Melvin Hunt could use less bodily threatening tactics to snap Hawks players to attention, I can understand the desperation with which he resorts to a Bad Cop role. It’s not Pierce’s job that’s on the line in 2020 when the Hawks play poorly. It’s Hunt’s, Greg Foster’s, Matt Hill’s, Chris Jent’s, Marlon Garnett’s. Somebody within that quintet has to prove themselves capable of providing Pierce the feedback that keeps a 12-point deficit from careening to, say, 41.
For example, what did Sidney Lowe, Chad Iske, and Maz Trakh once have in common? They were all assistants for Scotty Brooks on his 49-33 Wizards, the ones who paid back the Hawks in the 2017 playoffs’ first round before falling in seven games to the Celtics. That season’s run was the high-water mark of the Wizards’ history over the past four decades.
Things have fallen apart a good deal for Washington (22-39, 2-6 since the All-Star Break, 9th-by-default in NBA East) since then, but Brooks is still standing strong, with the unwavering support of owner Ted Leonsis, as is lead assistant Tony Brown. A slide in the standings can be blamed on injuries and scheduling and stuff. But on teams that find it tough to woo top-notch talent in free agency, if people can’t point to players developing to become steady standouts, a recession in on-court performance can be Iske business.
John Wall returning next season to hopefully recreate an offensively potent backcourt with Beal (NBA-high 38.0 post-Break PPG) is enticing. But Wizards fans have the right to wonder, with the emergence of division-rival bigs like Collins and Bam Adebayo, is it reasonable to expect a meaningful growth spurt from Thomas Bryant (last 3 games: 80.0 FG%, but 2.7 RPG)? Is Rui Hachimura (1st game vs. ATL) a core starter going forward, or will his lack of stretchiness (28.6 3FG%) and defensive chops hinder his development?
A similar question can be asked regarding second-year pro Troy Brown (last 15 games: 1.4 SPG, but 41.7 FG% and 64.7 FT%), who has seen a subsidence in playing time from Brooks over the past month-plus. Taken a few spots before Atlanta selected Kevin Huerter, is Brown part of Washington’s starting core by this time next year, at the very least a valuable sixth-man waiting in the wings behind the backcourt stars? Speaking of underutilized mid-tier first-rounders, will the formerly stashed Clipper guard Jerome Robinson (5-for-7 3FGs vs. ATL on Nov. 16), starting in place of the injured Ish Smith, become the future answer behind Wall?
Davis Bertans has provided some great offensive patchwork in Wall’s absence. Assuming he departs in free agency, who will pick up all those great perimeter looks in Bertans’ place? I said *great* looks, so surely, it’s not Wall. Will it be the mystery 2020 lottery pick? Is it someone the Wizards, who traded vets Isaiah Thomas and Jordan McRae away, are cultivating to be that guy? If so, is he hiding out on the Capital City Go-Go somewhere?
The Hawks have at least enough viable young options, going forward, to start printing up Beatles-style T-shirts. If we look up at next year’s Wizards roster and see “John, Brad and ???”, the wannabe All-Star returnees will be screaming, “Help!”, at anyone who’ll listen.
Even in the meantime, the Wiz cannot afford to be serving up one-fifty-burgers to opponents like the Hawks, who can hardly be bothered to know whether Moe Wagner is Wizards’ starting center tonight or the King of Pops guy in the State Farm Arena stands. When they visited Atlanta back on January 26, Beal scored 40 points (1-for-5 3FGs), only to be outdone by Trae’s cherry-picking 45 (6-for-11 3FGs), while a balanced home squad played more like a team that bothered to do its homework in Atlanta’s 152-133 win.
Pierce will have Dewayne Dedmon (elbow) and Cam Reddish (probable, back pain) returning to the fold for the season’s penultimate road back-to-back series, which concludes tomorrow evening in the Grizzlies’ den. Trae is questionable with “just a flu”-like symptoms, as is DeAndre’ Bembry (abs pain). But if Young can tough it out, he can help Atlanta shake off the rust exhibited earlier in the week.
One thing aiding Atlanta (19-44), heading toward the close of the season, is that they sauntered out of the loss to the Grizzlies with anywhere from 1 to 4 games in hand on their lottery-level competitors in the East. That was erased somewhat in the days that followed. But, as the Wizards return from a 125-104 loss, in Portland on Wednesday, to face their third opponent in four nights for the second-straight time, Atlanta had several days to go literally back to the drawing board in Brookhaven, even taking time out for a spades tournament in between (Kevin’s still on the hunt for the elusive Draw Four card).
Atlanta is 3-2 when they’ve managed to have three or more preceding off-days, road losses at Milwaukee and Boston as Collins worked his way back into the swing of things being the setbacks. It’s in these interims where staff should be quick to remind the players that they have to gameplan for every possible opposing team, every opposing player. Atlanta would likely be 2-0 against the Wizards this season, entering today, if they had bothered to find out who McRae was (29-8-and-6 vs. ATL on Jan. 10) before he skipped town.
Transition defense (7th-worst in NBA, based on points per possession; 2nd-most PPG allowed), exposed most recently in media reviews of plays ensuing Trae’s long-distance trey attempts, has to be an item of heightened focus for the Hawks. Young doing a better job hindering direct pathways to the rim is one challenge, but so it is for Young’s courtmates getting back, not only to help inside but to seal off the corners from dangerous-shooting personnel. Only James Harden’s Rockets and the Cavs are more subject to transition (17.5 percent of all opponent plays), successful or otherwise, by their foes.
Washington, still somewhat new to this heightened pace of play under Brooks’ watch, is just about as bad (1.13 transition PPP allowed, to the Hawks’ 1.14), but they at least manage to stub runouts by forcing turnovers more effectively (14.1 opponent TO% on transition, 4th-most in NBA). A sloppy game that features the Hawks compounding unfortunate shooting with miscues, poor finishes, and lazy recoveries works well in Washington’s favor.
After January’s embarrassing loss in Atlanta, the Wizards’ assistants will be eager to show what they’ve been working on in the intervening month. Rest assured, Brooks’ job won’t be on the line anytime soon, but their slots could be up-for-grabs, unless someone among the younger supporting cast steps it up soon.
Similarly, the Hawks must begin demonstrating the more consistent composure and maturity that their coaching staff harps upon them, especially away from Atlanta, the city that hosted eight of their last nine victories. Coming off Monday’s loss, after nearly a full week of tutelage, the Hawks’ assistants are in no mood this weekend to field a team that looks like a dog ate their homework. The fans are right there with them. We want less heartache and brutality, and more redemption!
Let’s Go Hawks!
“So you’re saying I just take the handoff, split the double-team HERE, then hurdle the seven-footer THERE. Got it!”
The Race for the 8-Seed is underway!
Well, not so much for our dear Atlanta Hawks, who would do well to ignore crazy talk about Tragic Numbers and whatnot. As Atlanta hopes to roar in like a lion in this new month of March, though, their outcomes versus several opponents will have a big role in determining who wins some dates out West with LeBron and LeBrow in the month that follows. Teams like the Memphis Grizzlies, who the Hawks will visit at the end of this week, just days after playing them here at State Farm Arena tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in both MEM and ATL).
Not having had Lottery worries since 1997, fans of the San Antonio Spurs may rue the day their team finally let the Hawks off the hook back in November. Like New Orleans and Sacramento, the Spurs are just 3.0 games back of the last team currently in the Western Conference playoffs, the Grizzlies (29-31), and they’d love to have their two losses to Atlanta back.
The Lillard-less Trail Blazers (3.5 games back of MEM) squandered their chance at a season-sweep of the Hawks, with Saturday’s 129-117 defeat at The Highlight Farm, as did the Suns (4.5 games behind MEM) back in January. The Kings, finally seeming to get out of their own way, hope to avoid a similar fate later this month.
Ending a five-game losing streak that included a pair of defeats at the hands of Kent Bazemore’s Sacramento, Ja Morant and the Grizzlies upstaged the mighty Lakers with a resounding 105-88 win two nights ago at the Grindhouse. Yet, somehow, the first-round matchup for Los Angeles that America wants to see is with a team situated a little further down the Mississippi.
The Pelicans, surprise winners of the 2019 Draft Lottery, had bouncy bowling ball Zion Williamson giving poor Kyle Kuzma fits last night in primetime, and now seemingly everyone is setting their dials 90 days early in hopes New Orleans can make a serious run at a series with the Lakers.
Like the Grizzlies, before the Pels can dream of a run at The King (not you, Elvis), they must take care of business in a pair of games this month against Trae Young and the Hawks. Morant can be rightfully miffed that the Grizzlies are not the consensus Cinderella darlings in the NBA West. But after a long-needed shakeup and a stroke of good fortune that brought the Murray State product to town, Memphis has a lot of good things going for it right now.
Lottery twins De’Andre Hunter (6-for-9 3FGs vs. POR) and Cam Reddish (team-high +16 plus/minus vs. POR, ahead of Hunter’s +12) have given Atlanta Hawks fans reason for optimism with their recent play. However, from the jump, the rookie duo that has taken the league by storm this season is not Hunter and Reddish, but Memphis’ Ja Morant, a three-time Rookie of the Month winner, and Brandon Clarke.
Zach Kleiman took over the executive reins for the Grizzlies (when in doubt, get you a Duke Law School guy), and couldn’t believe his luck when the 33-49 club he inherited, like the Pelicans, leaped over several thirsty NBA clubs, including the Hawks, to nab the top two 2019 Draft selections. Memphis happily “settled” for Morant, and Kleiman sweetened the pot.
Taking a mid-first-rounder he inherited from Utah for Mike Conley (imagine the former point guard star playing like he is now, only still in Memphis), Kleiman’s Grizzlies traded up two spots with Oklahoma City, giving the Thunder prospect player Darius Bazley in exchange for a more finished product in collegian Brandon Clarke.
Morant (17.7 PPG, second now only to Zion; rookie-high 7.0 APG, not far behind 2018-19 rookie Young’s 8.1) has remained the highlight reel he was in the Ohio Valley Conference. Meanwhile, Clarke has been a smooth two-way contributor off the bench, shooting 65.5 2FG% (5th in NBA) while offering per-36 values of 20.0 points, 9.7 rebounds, and 1.4 blocks.
I can’t say what I expected to see out of a team coached by Taylor Jenkins, the longtime Hawks assistant and Budenholzer disciple. But I didn’t expect a shift from grit-and-grind to grease-and-grace to work out so smoothly in the early going.
An uptick in tempo for Memphis (103.4 pace, slightly behind 6th-place ATL) was a long time in coming. But I doubt that, even with 2019’s NCAA assist leader in tow, the entire NBA expected to be looking up at Memphis with a league-high 27.1 assists per game. Jenkins has capable ballhandlers in Tyus Jones and De’Anthony Melton at his disposal, and he uses them liberally to free up Morant. Dillon “the Good” Brooks (37.2 3FG%), armed with a new three-year contract extension, and Jaren Jackson, Jr. have helped spread the floor so Morant doesn’t have to kick the ball out to himself.
Several of the Hawks’ recent foes had been struggling in their runs out of the All-Star Break. It’s not terribly surprising that, until Saturday’s win, the Grizzlies seemed to have stubbed their bear claws, too. Jackson has been out of action, the 3-and-PF forward bowing out midway through Memphis’ Western road swing with a sprained knee. Clarke (out, quad strain) followed suit one game later.
Getting Andre Iguodala out of contract purgatory before the Trade Deadline also required parting ways with the team’s second-leading minutes-logger, Jae Crowder, and the surprisingly serviceable Solomon Hill. The return haul from Deadline Day maneuvers included Gorgui Dieng from Minnesota, Justise Winslow from Miami and Jordan Bell from Minny via Houston.
But J-Win’s slow to return, mostly out since early December while working through back issues, and it will take time for Jenkins to get Dieng and Bell up to speed in the rotation with Jonas Valanciunas (27.6 D-Reb%, 9th in NBA; 20+ rebounds in back-to-back games) while Jackson rehabs.
Returning home, however, proved vital for showcasing some of Memphis’ developmental talents. Midway through Saturday’s game, Jenkins trotted out a unit that featured Jones, Dieng, the resurrecting Josh Jackson, and two-way players Jon Konchar and Yuta Watanabe. That crew proved shockingly effective in stymieing a Lakers squad that came into town on an 8-game winning roll.
Morant and his pass-happy Grizzlies set up tantalizing matchups this week with Young and the Hawks (19-43, 11-11 over past 22 games), whose 34 assists versus Portland (led by Trae’s 15 dimes, with just 2 TOs on his part) was a season-high.
John Collins (4 assists, 2 blocks vs. POR) is threatening to join Karl-Anthony Towns (last three seasons) and Kevin Love (way back in 2010-11) as the only modern-era NBA players to shoot 40 percent on threes while averaging 20 points and 10 boards per game, and he’s showing a willingness to fill out other components of the boxscore as well.
With Kevin Huerter (3-for-7 3FGs, 4-for-4 FTs, 8 assists, 3 steals vs. POR) showing signs that he can get it going, Atlanta offered a glimpse of balanced fullcourt effort nearing its peak, one that won’t always need a stellar perimeter outing from Trae (1-for-8 3FGs vs. POR) to thrive.
Drawing Valanciunas out of the paint is a tall order, but the Hawks will look to woo the Memphis big man with plenty of open looks for Collins. Whether shooting or driving, Atlanta will want Hunter to catch-and-react quickly against Kyle “Slo-Mo” Anderson. A stout defensive effort to keep Morant from feasting inside and Brooks, who has been shaking out of a shooting slump (last 3 games 26.0 PPG, 35.7 3FG%), cool from outside will be crucial, particularly if Reddish (doubtful w/ back pain) cannot make it on the court tonight.
Coach Lloyd Pierce’s crew will want to benefit from standout bench performances, as he did on Saturday from Treveon Graham and Bruno Fernando (combined 10-for-10 FGs vs. POR). If Jeff Teague and Brandon Goodwin can match the Grizzlie subs’ energy and production at the point, then the Hawks’ first three-game winning streak of the season will be within reach.
The potential for a strong confidence-building March is here for the Hawks to seize. How many of their foes fare against them this month will become a major subplot in the story of How the 8-Seed in the West was Won.
Let’s Go Hawks!