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“I’m feelin’ good! I just thought you should kno-ooow!”
Ahhh, the joie de vivre of one Mr. Tilman Fertitta. He never knew Lottery Love like this.
“I never thought I could feel this good after winning only 16 games,” Fertitta shared with Tim McMahon of ESPN, his team a win short of its current total. “…when I look at all the draft picks that we have and the future, I’m just happy.” Clap along if you know that sucking is what you wanna do.
“I know it’s unusual to feel this good with your coach and your general manager, but I do.” Happy to oblige, says Stephen Silas and Rafael Stone, respectively.
Beginning with the end of Jeff Van Gundy’s coaching run of T-Mac and Yao in 2007, through the next decade of ownership under Leslie Alexander, to the oversight of Fertitta from 2017 through last season, teardowns weren’t something Houston liked to do. Through the Rick Adelman, Kevin McHale, and Mike D’Antoni coaching eras, the Rockets haven’t fallen below .500 in a season. Not until this one.
The constant up until this season was Moneyball Morey, the analytics guru and offseason sultan of swat. Daryl Morey had a good thing going, swinging for the fences in deals for fellows like James Harden and Chris Paul, and Russell Westbrook, until his Hong Kong Oopsie tweet at the outset of the 2019-20 season had Tilman tap-dancing, and Morey unsure, with just two Conference Finals trips over the course of his lengthy tenure, whether he could be Fertitta’s No. 1 super guy for much longer.
In the midst of this uncertainty swooped Atlanta PBO Travis Schlenk. Swinging a four-way deal at 2020’s Trade Deadline with Minnesota and Denver, the Hawks sent out what was left of Evan Turner and Brooklyn’s first rounder to the T’Wolves, and a 2026 second-rounder to Houston. What Atlanta got back for their trouble was a handshake with Nene, and this season’s leading rebounder and third-leading shot blocker, Clint Capela (14.3 RPG; 1st in NBA for both O-Reb% and D-Reb%, per bball-ref).
Without much argument the Hawks’ Southeast Division-winning season MVP, Capela could get to take one last dig at his old employer as the Rockets pay Atlanta a visit (7 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, AT&T SportsNet in HTX) to close out their season. Atlanta (40-31) may not have much left to play for – first-round homecourt depends on what our first-round opponent, the Knicks, do this afternoon – so hopefully Capela won’t have to make an imprint on this game for terribly long.
Drafted as a raw 20-year-old in the lower end of the first round by Houston back in 2014, Clint had been the only thing resembling a homegrown Rockets product, as Morey swore off developing his own draft picks, or even taking them, while going for the gusto. Olivia’s hubby (she works for MGM Sportsbooks now) Sam Dekker, selected the next year in 2015, was the last selection the Rockets took with their own first-rounder. The last Houston draftee to actually play, just a little bit, for this team? 2017 second-rounder Isaiah Hartenstein, who was cut before the team made it to the 2020 Bubble.
I will suggest here that, while there were worthy questions about the Swiss center’s health heading into the 2020 Playoffs, the Capela deal was probably the first warning to the rest of the organization – to D’Antoni, Harden, Westbrook, P.J. Tucker – that it was finally time to get out while the getting’s good.
Scratch that… we can maybe go back a few months more, to Eric Gordon’s four-year, $76 million extension in August 2019, for the first sign. Capela’s expulsion, excused with the D’Antonian desire to go all-out with the so-called “small ball” in a playoff run that almost ended prematurely against Westbrook’s former club, was probably just the loudest clarion call.
“I’m still p*ssed,” tweeted Eric Gordon, in reply to McMahon highlighting Capela’s blocks triple-double in one of this past January’s wins over the T’Wolves. Gordo knows that Capela, when healthy and playing to his strengths, is among the more efficient bigs in the league, and his presence at both ends of the hardwood makes otherwise good guards look great.
As an example, look at bball-ref’s list of Houston’s “Top 12 All-Time Players”, based on cumulative Win Shares, a nearly elite list of Hall of Famers and NBA notables. Look who is sitting there, in Hawks gear, at #12 (Atlanta’s “#12” is Atlanta’s Own, Josh Smith, pictured in Rockets gear. Life is a circle).
You can’t convince me that, had he ridden out most of the five-year, $90 million deal he inked from Morey and Fertitta in the summer of 2018, and had he again been playing to his strengths, that Clint (13th in Win Shares this season) wouldn’t be sitting there to the left of Otis Thorpe by the time he left Houston. Thorpe played in that town from age 26 until his age-32 season. Capela doesn’t hit 32 until 2026, coincidentally, the year Atlanta’s second-rounder to Houston comes due.
Building a little more wisely around the All-NBA talent they reeled in, the Rockets could very well have kept going at title runs for the better part of the next half-decade. Instead, everyone, from the GM and coach to the stars, either jumped ship or demanded a life raft. Left behind, Fertitta is determined to convince us he’s on the Good Ship Lollipop.
How else can Fertitta feel? That I-just-threw-up feeling after overindulging for too long can come with an odd touch of relief. Stone and Silas are providing the right amounts of plop-plop-fizz-fizz until Fertitta is capable of saddling back up to the table.
With a combined $63.5 million in guaranteed cash due next year, John Wall and Gordon get to sit out the back half of this season with injuries. Joining them on the shelf, today, are as many as nine other players, including Booby Trapper Sterling Brown, Bubble buster Danuel House, 2020 offseason prize Christian Wood, and Harden consolation prize David Nwaba.
That leaves Kelly Olynyk, out to pump up his 2021 free agency profile, and D.J. Augustin as the sole recognizable veterans in the season finale on Silas’ roster. Otherwise, it’s been plug-and-play for Silas with a host of two-way players, ten-day dudes, can-tank-erous castaways, other teams’ second-rounders, hardship pickups and unsigned free agents.
Here’s the thing, though. No one who plays is encumbered with the unspoken obligation of losing ballgames. Thanks largely to a 20-game midseason freefall after starting out 11-10, Houston (17-54) has secured the #1 pre-Lottery slot, and nothing they do today imperils or improves their Top-4 Lottery odds. Everyone on the floor is encouraged to go for the 20-and-10 boxscore line of their choosing.
The Clippers, who sat virtually all of their starters on Friday while satisfied with their Top-4 playoff standing, learned this the hard way as Kelly Olynyk went almost Westbrook (20 points, 11 ASSISTS, 9 rebounds) on Jay Scrubb and the Clipper scrubs in Houston’s home finale. Our old friend Khyri Thomas (that Snell-Dedmon deal still looks pretty good, btw) got snatched up recently on a ten-day deal, and has averaged 16.4 PPG, including 17 in the 122-115 win over the Clips.
Brown’s Booby Trap buddy Kevin Porter, Jr. (22 points and 8 assists vs. ATL on Mar. 16) is having himself a ball. Milwaukee lost Giannis less than a minute into their game in Houston just a couple weeks ago, and KPJ decided to assert himself as the star of the game, pouring on an obvious career-high 50 points and 11 assists as Tucker’s Bucks found themselves fresh out of answers. The Rockets won that game, too. Silas has his Rockets dousing the net with three-point attempts early and attacking the rim late. If they can find hot hands at the outset, they then hope to get enough and-1’s and foul calls to break opponents’ will.
The show hasn’t translated well on the road, with Orlando and Minnesota being their sole away-game wins since February 4, and a lack of quality defensive communication (119.2 road D-Rating post-All-Star-Break, worst in NBA) is a big factor. But whether it’s fireplug forward Jae’Sean Tate (20 points, 3-for-5 3FGs vs. LAC), highlight hunter KJ Martin (career highs of 27 points and 10 boards @ UTA on May 8; 26 points the night before @ MIL), or April pickup Armoni Brooks (18.5 PPG in last six games), you can’t know who is going to show up to State Farm Arena feeling dangerous.
Under interim coach Nate McMillan, the Hawks reached the .500 plateau with a 119-107 win in H-Town on March 16, and never looked back. They fended off a third-quarter charge from Tate 25 points, 4-for-7 3FGs vs. ATL), a showcased Victor Oladipo, and momentary Rocket Mason Jones to pull away in the final frame.
Leading the charge off the bench on that evening was rookie big Nathan Knight (season-high 6 FGs), his 15 points one off of the season-high he tallied two nights before in Cleveland. One more productive outing from Knight can help Atlanta give Capela and Onyeka Okongwu (questionable, sore shoulder) a breather before the Hawks barrel into the NBA Playoffs for the first time in four years.
Has it only been four years? The Hawks’ “Recess”, under Schlenk’s watch, wasn’t all that painful, especially compared to other NBA so-called rebuilds, like the one Houston has initiated. While there was a lot of stress over mantras like “Play Badly for Bagley!”, “Stop Tryin’ for Zion!”, and “Fall ‘til you Ball!”, Atlanta dipped their toe intentionally into Lottery waters on three occasions, failed to finish Top-2 in any of them, and basically came away with Trae Young, Cam Reddish, De’Andre Hunter, and Okongwu. Not quite a Murderer’s Row of certified future All-Stars, but a solid Pickpockets’.
While not all had gone perfect with these young Hawks’ development from the jump, with one-time All-Star Trae by far the closest to instant stardom, the aforementioned panaceas on the Pelicans and Kings, as of today, are still looking forward to clinching their first playoff trips, while guys like Ball and Ja Morant still have a lot of work to do on that front this week. Thanks to some ownership-encouraged expedition on the Recess, smart additions like Capela, and a well-timed coaching shift, Atlanta has already built themselves back better than they were when Coach Bud was stuck with the GM duties.
This is already a more comprehensive, cohesive, and competitive collective than the crew Bud endured in 2017, Atlanta’s final postseason go-round to date. Whether it proves to be any more successful at playoff-time than when Dwight and Dennis’ goofball goonie gang bowed out to Wall’s Wizards will depend on how things play out, today and in the coming weeks.
Fertitta, who has never gone the Recess route before, is taking a much longer tack, echoing management views held by one of Morey’s predecessors in Philly. “I can tell you this: I’m going to be patient,” he vowed to McMahon. “We’re not going to go do something stupid to try to get into the playoffs next year,” (are you writing this down, Messrs. Gordon and Wall?), “that then will prevent us from competing for a championship in a couple years.”
Houston’s got a 52.1 percent shot at keeping their pick in the Top 4 this year, otherwise it heads to OKC as part of Morey’s Westbrook rental scheme. For the same reason, they’ll get to play that game again in 2024 and 2026. But they’ll get their hands on Portland and Brooklyn’s first-rounders this year, and possibly the Nets, Pistons, Wizards and Bucks in future ones. What’s the rush?
“It could be 2027,” Fertitta exclaims, “that we get a Top-5 pick that ends up being the next greatest player.” This is true. He could also end up being the next Kris Dunn. Either way, you rising 7th Graders in AAU and tweens around the world, consider yourself put on notice. Work on Your Game. Because, let’s face it, there’s a chance you’re already on some Rocket scout’s Top-50 watch list.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“It’s all Greek to us, Jimmy V!”
The Chowan Junior College transfer couldn’t believe it was happening. His dream school wants to offer him a scholarship. And he’ll need to sign fast, before the basketball team heads off to Greece.
A Raleigh native, Nate McMillan adored the NC State basketball program, at a time before anyone around the state had heard of city slicker Jim Valvano. Norm Sloan was the essence of Wolfpack Basketball, and the coach scoured the state capital and places all across the state seeking out the best talent. Guys like Tony “Doc” Warren (pictured, with McMillan and others at The Parthenon, above), who the school newspaper’s sports editor suggested, in 1978, “can do everything with a basketball except squeeze the air out.”
Young Nate tracked the path of Doc, a 6-foot-7 high school local legend, through the junior college ranks and into State, under Sloan’s watch. McMillan shined as a local prep player, too. But with his small, slight stature, unlike Doc, Nate couldn’t attract D-1 offers, especially from no one you know along Tobacco Road. Here’s one example of the type of in-state product the major Carolina schools, in lieu of little Nate, were fawning over.
“I’ll certainly never get over losing him,” Sloan would say to Sports Illustrated, about Pam-Pack phenom Dominque Wilkins spurning him for UGA. Unable to recruit the second-coming of David Thompson while squabbling with his AD over salary, Sloan left his legendary program in 1980 for Florida, where he got to watch a lot more of Wilkins’ flights of fancy in the SEC.
Like Doc Warren, Nate went through the junior college circuit. It was at Chowan where his height sprouted upwards by four inches, became a Junior College All-American, and got the attention of Sloan’s successor.
Scouring the JuCo ranks, Valvano hit the jackpot finding a lightning-quick guard in Anthony “Spud” Webb down in Texas. A bit closer to home, Jimmy V hoped to have success again, with the now 6-foot-5 McMillan.
After years of carefully following Doc’s footsteps, in 1984, Nate was on his way to the Pack, joining an instant legend, in NCAA champion Valvano, and the club in time for fun, frolic and exhibition games versus the Greek National Team in That Other Athens. ACC regular season champs in his first year on campus, back-to-back Elite Eight appearances in both seasons, the latter concluding with an early second-round selection in the 1986 NBA Draft.
Fast forward 36 years from his recruitment to NC State, and Nate had become an accomplished NBA retiree and head coach for the Indiana Pacers. A rising newcomer to McMillan’s roster already has his jersey hanging on the rafters in NC State’s arena after just two years of playing there. It’s a gentleman who knows not only of Nate’s NC State roots, but his deep Raleigh-Durham ones, having been sired by Doc Warren himself.
It’s the summer of 2020 and a sixth-year forward, castoff for cash by the Phoenix Suns, T.J. Warren, Doc’s son, is going bonkers for McMillan and the Pacers.
Imagine: a monstrous 41 points and 21 rebounds by a three-time All-Star, Joel Embiid, starring for a Finals favorite, in a performance that no one will remember. That’s because he got eclipsed by a stunning 53-point performance courtesy of Warren, the third-most points ever scored in a game by a Pacer in their NBA era, as Warren’s Pacers passed the 76ers in the conference standings like a ship in the night.
T.J. vowed to publicly demonstrate that Phoenix had “messed up” by believing “cash considerations” were the height of his value. Yes, Warren had dropped 40 before, in his days with young Devin Booker and the Suns back in 2017. But the entire sporting world was watching the Bubble in 2020, and Warren was giving ample reason to sit up and take notice.
Where did this come from? Who saw this coming? Who’s coaching this guy up?
With Warren (42-25 as a Pacer starter) asserting himself, ahead of names like Oladipo, Turner and Brogdon, as perhaps Indiana’s new #2 star, and shining under McMillan’s direction, the Pacers finished the regular-season with a solid 6-2 finish, earning Warren (31 PPG) the unique All-Bubble 1st-Team honors. When the seeding games concluded, Indiana, not Philly, would be the 4-seed, drawing the Miami heat.
25 days after Warren’s epic game, he lost his Triangle-area, Pack alum coach. Disregarding injuries to Domantas Sabonis and others at critical junctures of the season, the Pacers fired Nate McMillan, shortly after a 4-0 sweep to Miami during a series based entirely in Florida. McMillan would not get to return to Bankers Life Fieldhouse as an employed head coach, until tonight, as his Atlanta Hawks are in town (8 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, BS Indiana) for a contest featuring two clubs that played brow-raising games just last night.
Pacers owner Herb Simon was dismayed that, through four years transitioning out of the Paul George era, the team had failed to get OUT of the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
Today, with their replacement Nate, Mr. Bjorkgren, in charge, the Pacers (30-35) find themselves at a crossroads with their new coach already. Together, they face the prospect that they will fail to get IN to the first round of the NBA Playoffs.
Don’t nobody blame Warren. A navicular stress fracture in his foot, shelving him after just four games in December, made it impossible for him to settle into the new NBA season after a quick turnaround. That’s 61 games and counting. Now dealing with a tear in his toe, league-leading BPG man Myles Turner has missed 18 games and counting.
Concerned about lagging impacts from his January 2019 leg injury carrying into the next stage of his career, Victor Oladipo was shipped just 12 games into this season, only to find his replacement star, Caris LeVert, needing to miss 24 games to treat a mass discovered on his kidney during post-trade physicals. Oddly, LeVert (4-for-12 FGs @ ATL on Apr. 18, 5-for-18 vs. SAC last night; 25.9 PPG, 48.9 FG%, 4.7 APG, 1.7 TOs/game in 8 games between) is about the healthiest specimen the Pacers have going right now.
Their All-Star big man, Sabonis played in that 129-117 loss to the Hawks in Atlanta, then missed six games with a sore back as the opportunity for his Pacers to escape the Play-In prospects grew bleak. The 2021 All-Star Skills Challenge winner missed three straight games before that, too, earlier in the month.
Jeremy Lamb had an ACL tear in February 2020 that caused him to sit for 11 months. He missed the first 14 games of this season, and toe and knee ailments have caused him to miss 15 more. Re-signed in the offseason for frontcourt depth, JaKarr Sampson has been in-and-out of the lineup, and he was just beginning to enjoy steady minutes until one of Blake Griffin’s pointy elbows placed him in concussion protocol last week.
Also missing in action just last night was former Hawks season-ender Edmond Sumner, now questionable for tonight due to a bruised knee. Inactive for the past three games, including the anomaly 152-95 win over OKC, Malcolm Brogdon remains questionable with a sore hammy. Rookie center Goga Bitadze is questionable with an ankle sprain, and probably wishes he sat himself the Dellavedova down instead of trying to play through it last night.
All told, that’s well over 200 games missed due to injury for Bjorkgren’s Pacers, and it’s tough for any coach, much less a first-year one, to gain traction with so many moving parts. But Indy can’t help but notice how similarly McMillan has uplifted Atlanta (37-30), this season, while he and former coach Lloyd Pierce juggled lineups to account for closer to 300 missed games.
Further, few shed tears for McMillan overachieving over the course of four seasons, since his club’s valiant efforts to win against the odds could not be duplicated at playoff time. He came close in nearly toppling LeBron’s Cavs during 2018’s first-round, as Oladipo stood tall in Paul George’s former superstar gap. But close only counts in those things on Colts helmets.
At this moment, McMillan is getting paid by the Simons not to be here in the Hoosier State anymore, but only because management – probably watching the Warren scoring bonanza -- rushed an extension (re-worked for this season, team option for 2021-22) in front of him before his fateful and brief postseason voyage could begin. Nate had only been working in this town because his Blazer buddies – PBO Kevin Pritchard, GM Chad Buchanan – that found their way here invited him onto Frank Vogel’s bench following his ouster from Portland.
“Simon says,” in 2007, that Rick Carlisle lacked the tools to elevate a team into championship contention. Then-PBO Larry Bird had Carlisle share his agreement that the team needed a “new voice.” Four years later, well. How’d Jim O’Brien work out for y’all?
Two years removed from a second consecutive Conference Finals trip, Simon had enough of Frank Vogel, having Bird tell the media in 2016 the team needed a “new voice” if they were ever break through and reach the Finals. Four years later, well. Maybe the voice the players needed to hear was LeBron’s, the whole time?
Indiana showed off a fighting spirit yesterday evening at the Fieldhouse, and not in any way directed at the visitors, as Luke Walton’s Sacramento Kings won handily, 104-93. I don’t know how you feel about Atlanta PBO Travis Schlenk’s maneuvers since the 2020 Trade Deadline – Dedmon for Snell, Bogi for nothing, Capela for some Sun Chips – but I think my favorite was a call that went something like this:
“Hey, K-Pritch, we’re thinking about adding Coach Nate to our staff, so LP’s bench is getting a bit crowded. How would your Swedish Chef guy like to bring in Greg Foster? He’s got a fiery disposition I think your guys will just love!” Coach Greg, as you might imagine, will not be available for today’s proceedings. On the good side, Goga’s lighter wallet should help his ankle heal quicker.
Schlenk does a good job in sensing the quality of interpersonal connections when building players and staff for his club. Alternatively, after ditching McMillan, the coach whose breakout player’s dad served as a young neighborhood idol, they pursued Bjorkgren, who also spent a couple seasons coaching up Warren and the Suns in Phoenix. As Bleacher Report’s insider article by Jake Fischer alludes today, had Warren appreciated Bjorkgren’s coaching style enough to rehab quickly and help the Pacers win games, he’d have done so by now.
Larry Legend still hovers around the club as an advisor to Pritchard, and it sure looks like they’re already hearing the call for “new voices” again, as it pertains to Bjorkgren and the entire Pacers coaching staff. Simon may do with the front office what he does with his deadmalls and clean house for good, rather than just settle with paying another head coach not to be around. He’s paying over $113 million next year to players in guaranteed cash. As it stands, it’s unclear which ones want to be around, and which will be healthy enough to do so.
Finally able to have a predictable lineup of active players at his disposal, McMillan will want to deploy his Hawks in a similar manner to last night’s resounding 135-103 home win over the Phoenix Suns. Have the starters hang tough as Indy gives the first quarter it’s best shot, rely on the advantage of depth and hustle among the second unit to carry over into the next quarter. Sabonis and the Pacers will do all they can to craft a game narrative that has nothing to do with the sidelines.
By the end of the third quarter, the rest advantage gained by the Hawks’ first unit late last night should allow them to seize control of the contest, giving way for some entertainment in the final frame as the backups continue to hone their budding chemistry at both ends.
It will be fun to track where the Pacers are, in 2024, and what McMillan has accomplished in that time, be it with the Hawks, or as a head coach or assistant somewhere else by then. It is noteworthy to look back upon his playing tenure and coaching career and see, while not championship-successful, just how resilient he has been.
From his hardscrabble days in northeast Raleigh, to his time at NC State, the Pacific Northwest, Indiana, and now Atlanta. Through it all, Nate embodies the adage that applies to the many ups-and-especially-downs that life throws at people. Don’t give up. Don’t ever give up.
Let’s Go Hawks!