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Live look-in at Dan Gilbert’s new diving platform! "What's not to like?"
“I see what You’ve done for other people. And I want that for me!”
You’ve seen the meme. A soundbite from a televangelist’s prayer to the Upstairs gets selectively captioned for the sake of Internet humor. Like Frank’s Red Hot, we put that Dellavedova on everything!
Let somebody flaunt the latest SNKRS drop for followers on The ‘Gram, or some previously non-existent abdominals, lined up in a gym mirror, after a workout pays off. Perhaps that chrome Hummer they’re leasing for some weekend parties out on the shore. Soon enough, here comes the preacherman!
In short order, our Atlanta Hawks (1-0) have become the Thirst Trap of the NBA. It’s true, at least, for the usual suspects hanging out in the bottom tier of the Eastern Conference. Atlanta reached the NBA’s Final Four in 2016, spent roughly three-and-a-half seasons in sTankonia, and got back with a completely different cast of characters. Meanwhile, the forthcoming slate for the Hawks includes opponents that haven’t been seriously playoff-relevant in a minute.
Washington hasn’t won 50 games, in a full season or on pace, since the 1979 Finalists, also the last time they appeared in a conference finals. Anthony Davis wore a “That’s All Folks!” tee to his finale in New Orleans, who promptly stole logo-petting Zion in the Lottery. A few years of butter-fried tilapia sandwiches later, Pels fans have been left to wonder, “That’s All?” Detroit hasn’t won a playoff game since bowing out of the Conference Finals in 2008.
And then, there’s Cleveland. The Cavaliers host the Hawks (6 PM Eastern, Bally Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Bally Sports Ohio) one evening after another thirst-trapping club, Charlotte (no playoff-series wins since 2002), paid a visit to Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse.
Mike Fratello was the head coach for Brevin Knight, Bob Sura, and Danny Ferry. A rookie named Zydrunas Ilgauskas was taller than the Empire State. And Shawn Kemp was wider than Victoria Lake. That was the last time, in 1998, that a Cavaliers team reached the Eastern Conference Playoffs without The Chosen One.
In the next strike-shortened 1998-99 season, Fratello dragged the club to the equivalent of a 36-46 season, before being forced to take his telestrating talents to television. In the ensuing ten non-Bron seasons, 33-49 in 2013-14 was the Cavs’ high watermark. All this is to say, head coach JB Bickerstaff has an awfully low bar to clear in his second full season.
Eleven summers ago, team owner Dan Gilbert sought to assure miffed Ohioans, in comic fashion, that he is capable of shepherding a championship-level NBA franchise, without the services of the former hometown hero who wore a picnic table cover to a summertime interview at the Boys and Girls Club. Dan’s sort of still working on this. Only now, bearing the ring he got thanks to The Prodigal Son briefly returning to team up with Third Eye Blind, Gilbert gets his chance at a do-over.
Nobody cry for Dan, though. While you were slumbering the summer away, Gilbert went out and septupled his net worth, as Rocket Mortgage went public. Of North America’s sports-team majority owners, Steve Ballmer is now the only one who isn’t muttering, “Dow Jones, I see what you have done for other billionaires…”
No matter the final record, whether Bickerstaff hangs on, young talents like Isaac Okoro (NBA rookie-high 32.4 minutes/game in 2020-21) and 2021 Lottery catch Evan Mobley break through, Lauri Markkanen and Jarrett Allen prove to be worth the investment, Collin Sexton adroitly handles the club’s disinvestment, or Ricky Rubio sticks around through the springtime, 2021-22 is bound to conclude in favorable, encouraging fashion. That’s because Kevin Love’s albatross of a contract, in 2022-23, will at long last become an expiring one. Watch your back, Ballmer! Gilbert’s comin’ for that numba one spot!
Even if they find their top players snubbed, like Atlanta in 2021, for their All-Star Weekend, it’s bound to be a win-win of a season in Cleveland. But it would be soooo much better for the fans if the Cavs could win-win more than 35 times and, like the Hawks, make any sort of noise in the Playoffs. Heck, even in the Play-Ins.
As he did last season with a 3-0 season start, Coach JB is going to want to find a way to snag some early Ws, because the schedule gets treacherous fast. The Cavs (0-2) follow up tonight’s SEGABABA with a ten-day, five-game excursion. They’re at Denver on Monday, then, the dreaded double-dip at STAPLES Center, then at NBA Finalist Phoenix, then a cross-country flight to LaMeloville. The schedule eases up from there until mid-November, but who knows how squirrely things can get if they suffer too many early drubbings.
The Cavs acquitted themselves fairly well in their first road test, Wednesday’s season opener in Memphis. Despite getting gashed (53-36) on the glass at both ends, Cleveland surged back from a 14-point fourth-quarter deficit, behind Darius Garland (career-high 12 assists, ahead of Rubio’s 10), Mobley and Sexton, to get within a point of the Grizzlies with under two minutes to spare. Relying on players like Cedi Osman, rather than Garland and Rubio, to handle the rock, and not getting back properly after they turned the ball over, made the hole Cleveland fought to climb out from deeper than necessary.
They hung with the Hornets for a half last night, but found themselves bashed on the boards again, this time at the hands of Messrs. Bridges and Plumlee. Love comes off the bench, still displaying mastery at kickouts off the defensive boards if not much else (team-high 10 D-Rebs, all in 1st half, 4 assists vs. CHA), with Sexton (6.5 fastbreak PPG, most among NBA’ers w/ 2 games in their pockets) the most obvious beneficiary.
It’s a tall task, but the Cavs (NBA-low 36.0 team RPG so far, bottom-five in D-Reb% and D-Rating) are going to need near-7-footers Markkanen and Allen (11-for-11 FGs in his season debut @ MEM, 1st to do so in shot-clock era, as per Elias, but just seven D-Rebs through two games) to mix it up more on the defensive end, both to preserve Love and alleviate lanky rookie Mobley.
An NBA team could lose exactly one game to every NBA opponent, in a full season, and still come away with 53 wins. A solid regular-season finish for the 1-0 Hawks (1-2 versus 22-50 Cleveland in 2020-21, 0-2 against the 19-46 Cavs the season before) entails winning not just games, but series, especially versus teams like the forthcoming half-baked quartet of adversaries on the docket.
The WingStop duo (h/t @ATLHawks3) of Cam Reddish (team-high 20 points in the 113-87 win vs. DAL) and De’Andre Hunter (+19 vs. DAL, behind only Trae Young’s +21; one of 4 Hawks w/ 2 blocks) should be capable of doubling up the defensive production Cleveland relies upon from Okoro, and also tripling the sophomore’s offensive value. That would facilitate Young, John Collins and Clint Capela targeting and exploiting matchups that smell an awful lot like barbeque chicken from American Deli.
Hawk players have long been gracious and gentlemanly in their obligatory pregame pleasantries. Beginning this season, from teams like the Cavs that were just getting used to Atlanta as their playoff-starved peers, individual Hawks are going to hear an awful lot of, “Thanks! I’m just trying to get on your level!”
Go Bravos! And Let’s Go Hawks!
“We finally won something!”
You like mavericks? We’ve got your mavericks, right here. In this town!
As with all things gamethreads, we have to go back a way for a prime example. We’ll swing it to the late 1980s, featuring a former tight end, D-Lineman, and two-time SEC champion with his UGA Bulldogs, the son of a 1940s UGA Dawgs hero, the pride of prestigious Buckhead (not City)’s Dykes High School in Atlanta as its former quarterback. A couple decades removed from his gridiron glories, Billy Payne was a mover and a shaker in the white-collar world.
By then, Payne had presided as a lawyer and executive at major financial and real estate institutions with influences spanning the region and the globe. But like many a native Georgian and resident Atlantan present and past, Billy had quite a dream, a vision conceived on a random Sunday in church. When he relayed his reverie to his fellow bigwigs, they would tell him he needed to wake up and smell the coffee. Or, perhaps, swill another beer.
ANOTHER American-hosted Summer Olympic Games? Only this time, in the South? In Georgia, no less? Centered in what was often derided as the nation’s worst pro sports town? The place legendary AJC writer Lewis Grizzard affectionately dubbed, “Losersville”?
Entering its third decade trying to keep professional sports afloat, Atlanta’s baseball heroes were still seeking its first playoff victory -- not just a series, but a single game. The annual decline in regular season results, after getting swept in the 1982 NLCS, was congruent with the drop in fans venturing south of downtown Atlanta to watch the Bravos play. By 1988, the club was enduring its losing-est season since 1935, two MLB towns ago.
“Fall is glum in the Loss City of Atlanta,” scribed Sports Illustrated’s Rick Reilly in that summer of 1988. “The Braves fall, then the leaves fall, then the Falcons fall.” At least the baseball team’s co-tenants had a solitary playoff win, an NFL wild card game from 1978, to hang their helmets on.
The puny single-digit-win returns in most of the regular seasons that followed had the foxy Falcons mired in a swamp of their own making, the NFL’s worst team in 1987. Save us, #1 draft pick Aundray Bruce! Their owners essentially said, “Save us, Atlanta city and Georgia state coffers, with a new domed stadium. You wouldn’t want us running off to some Nique-forsaken burg like Jacksonville, now, would you? Would you???”
There was hardly a flicker when the pro-hockey Flames were shipped out at the beginning of the Eighties. Not even Miracle on Ice Olympic goaltender hero Jim Craig was enough to draw ice hockey fans and, more importantly, money, to downtown Atlanta’s luxury-suite-less Omni Coliseum. As Payne spoke of Olympic grandeur in Atlanta, in 1988, the recipient home of the Flames was celebrating not only the completion of a Winter Games, but an NHL President’s Trophy, and the embarking of an eventual run to the Stanley Cup.
The owner and seller of the Atlanta hockey franchise to Calgary in 1980, original Atlanta Hawks owner and Omni developer Tom Cousins, would level with Payne years later, when the latter shared his Olympic-sized ideas. “Billy,” Cousins recalled advising in a Golf Digest profile of Payne, “I think you’d be wasting your time and money. And I’m sure he got that from most places he went.”
Besides, many an American pondered, nobody wants to watch a bunch of 30-year-old Bobans thumping on our hastily-collected crew of NCAA All-Americans, not on our home turf. And wait, didn’t we just have the Games here a few years ago? No nation had ever hosted Summer Games as recently a dozen years apart. Why are we spending *our* time and money, taxpayer largesse in particular, trying to woo the world’s amateur-sports fans back here again, already?
Oh, and this wasn’t just any quadrennial jock-fest we’d be hunting. These would be the Centennial Games, the 100th anniversary of the initial “modern Olympics” effort in Greece back in 1896, a time I imagine when Greek pankration still had a Dream Team. The clear-cut favorites around the globe, Athens (not the quaint college town where amateur-athlete Billy excelled) had applied enough friendly pressure on the International Olympic Committee that most respectable metros and nations around the world had enough sense to just sit this run out.
Earlier efforts to drum up local support for Olympic bids died predictably on the vine. The city of Atlanta was mired in global disrepute for unsolved cases of missing and murdered children. Beyond the city bounds, Georgia was getting depicted in the media as an unwelcome haven of Southern hos-pi-tility, between Deliverance, Miss Oprah Goes to Forsyth, and The Big Boss Man.
To kickstart the Eighties, the state’s most globally-prominent native son was a loser, specifically, the first elected president since 1932 to lose in his attempt at presidential incumbency. The city’s best pro team squandered its chance at proving itself a peer of America’s Team, the Dallas Cowboys. As the decade neared its end, only the Hawks had the look of a possible contender in Atlanta, while Georgia’s most renowned athletic product was, at that moment, a Dallas Cowboy himself.
There were the social and geopolitical schisms, going back from at least Mexico City through Munich, Montreal and Moscow, and the exorbitant municipal expenses that went unrecouped whenever the Games left town, that had many critics rightfully questioning whether this pursuit was worth one red cent anywhere, much less here.
Most anyone envisioning a 1996 Olympics in Atlanta would not have given it a second thought, given all the “Losersville” backdrop and all the dismissive scoffing. But Billy Payne was not most anyone.
Merriam-Webster’s defines a “maverick” as “a person who does not conform to generally accepted standards and customs.” Custom would dictate being gentlemanly enough to let Athens enjoy its Olympic centennial, granting enough time to get Atlanta’s reputation for pro sports off the mat, and Georgia’s stalled economic climate back in gear, for efforts much further into the future.
Payne, however, was a maverick with means, one with considerable pull in the boardrooms. To lug his dream toward reality, he had to get other mavericks on board to share his vision.
A former U.S. Congressman, Andrew Young endured a controversial and brief run as the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations. But he rebounded well in his return to local politics. Through much of the Eighties, Atlanta’s mayor pushed for expansion of both international investment and minority enterprises in his city’s reforming economy.
Payne, who originally convened an affluent professional group of White colleagues to brainstorm about the Games, recognized Ambassador Young as a suitable champion to bridge private-sector support with skeptical Black, minority, and/or poor and middle-class citizens, particularly those that held leadership positions and political clout.
Both Payne and Young recognized that in Atlanta’s pocket was the most recognized commercial product brand on Earth. However, the Coca-Cola Company’s CEO, Cuban-born American Roberto Goizueta, was still freshly licking wounds gained from the biggest protests anyone around town would see for a while.
Coca-Cola spent the early 80s quietly reformulating its fizzy brown soft drink. Eventually, Coke unveiled a new flagship beverage, “New Coke”, that would win many a Pepsi Challenge, since it tasted too much like the beverage of their bitter rivals from up north. The sarcastic adage, “Oh, THAT idea will go over like New Coke!”, supplanted lead balloons as a result of Goizueta’s folly.
The late Coke chairman would not only keep his job until his passing in the mid-90’s, but he’d have his name tied, Wharton-style, to Emory’s business college. Coca-Cola turned tail on “New Coke,” but not before accidentally creating a feverish demand, for an iconic, “Classic” product that the world’s consumers had hitherto taken for granted. In the interim, Goizueta needed desperately to take up a new cause that could return his company to Atlanta’s, and the South’s, good graces. Enter Messrs. Payne and Young.
Young, who was with his ally Dr. Martin Luther King on the day of the civil rights leader’s 1968 assassination, understood ways in which the city could leverage its history with civil rights and “rising from the ashes” to enhance its profile as an internationally progressive and influential locale.
Atlanta had an expanding interstate freeway and a spiffy new rail transit system coursing through its central city, a transport backbone feeding directly into an airport, regional hub to both Eastern and Delta Airlines, that was swiftly asserting its place among the world’s busiest. Young’s city also had what was emerging as the nation’s largest convention center, in the shadow of the Omni.
Witnessing the success Peter Ueberroth had in leveraging private finance to offset the local costs of the 1984 Games in Los Angeles, Payne sought to copy that model. He recognized the value gained by using existing sporting venues, like the Omni and UGA and Georgia Tech’s coliseums, for prospective Olympic events.
Further, it helped to establish ready-made plans for post-Games operations of new venues, from the Georgia International Horse Park, the forthcoming Georgia Dome, and Tech’s new aquatic center, to the notable conversion of Olympic Stadium into a new home for the Bravos. Tech’s central location and mostly-empty summertime campus made for an ideal Olympic Village site. The city and state paired up to clear land near the Omni for an Olympic fan celebration zone, transitioning the space into intown parkland.
Beyond his corporate mavericks, like Goizueta, and his public-private partnership mavericks, like Young, Payne also had the ear of a sports and media maverick. The sitting owner of the Atlanta Hawks and his self-styled baseball version of “America’s Team”, Ted Turner was thriving, even when his local teams were spinning their wheels. This was due to the wildfire success of his 24-hour news network, and his sports-flavored “superstation”, latching onto the rise of cable and satellite television.
An avid sailor who earned the nickname, “Captain Courageous” as 1977’s winner of the prestigious America’s Cup, Turner the media exec established the Goodwill Games in 1986. They were ostensibly his attempt to ease pressures on amateur sporting due to capitalist-communist policy fights disrupting participation in the Olympics. He proved capable of not just successfully fielding the events in Moscow, but also showcasing the power of his Atlanta-based television networks, broadcasting a multitude of live contests internationally while limiting the need for tape-delays.
Payne didn’t begin petitioning his dream in earnest until 1987. Yet by the spring of 1988, with the aid of maverick leaders like Young, Goizueta and Turner, Atlanta had eclipsed Nashville, San Francisco, and the early favorite, Minnesota’s Twin Cities, to nab the US Olympic Committee’s bid as America’s submission to the IOC.
Ranked 36th among cities in U.S. Census population at the time, Atlanta making it through the “first round,” and decisively so by a 14-2 vote over Minneapolis, raised plenty of eyebrows, plus a few guffaws and snickers around big-sports-media towns like New York and Philadelphia. “It’s Atlanta? Seriously?”
The USOC’s president considered a 1996 victory for America an impossibility, given all the attention demanded by the freaky Greeks. Other USOC officers agreed that any serious push to field another Games in the States, following L.A. and Lake Placid, was premature. To the US committee, Atlanta was intended as merely a sentimental vote, a tip of the cap to Payne and the local leaders’ hopes to be acknowledged as a worldly, big-league metropolis. Here’s to you, Atlanta. Who knows? You “might” even win, someday!
If any North American nation was securing an Olympic repeat anytime soon, the prevailing thought went, it would have to be Canada. Despite the debacles of ’76 in Montreal, the Canadians were submitting their second-largest city, Toronto, and their nation’s mild summer climes, for the ’96 Games, shortly after concluding a critically lauded Winter Games in Calgary. Yet while Toronto’s bid came with ardent opposition willing to travel to IOC meetings in protest, Young and local leaders were able to keep foes of Atlanta’s promotion relatively small, localized, and late to the party.
By starting its formal efforts late in the USOC and IOC processes, Atlanta’s contingent stymied the foment of organized local, and international, resistance. They sent a multi-racial “Dream Team” of enthusiastic women and men to the IOC meeting in Tokyo for Selection Day in September 1990. The perception of a prepared and diverse American crowd ready and eager to roll out the welcome mat for the IOC, standing alongside bitter Canadian protestors, would not go unnoticed by the committee.
Georgia’s diverse 300-person delegation also contrasted with those brought by Manchester, England, and Bogdan Bogdanovic’s hometown. Belgrade was awash in ethnic strife and political unrest. With the Yugoslavian city eliminated in opening-round IOC voting, as Mike Davis at The Medal Count blog noted, top-seeded Athens found itself surrounded by four “Anglosphere” challengers.
As one city would be eliminated in each round of IOC voting, those delegates largely cast their votes for another Anglosphere city, rather than Athens. The former ambassador Young’s pull with African, Middle Eastern and Asian voters carried underdog upstart Atlanta through each round. Feeling the heat, the Athens contingent went from feeling self-assured of victory to crying foul about this well-heeled, and amazingly prepared, American interloper.
“The Olympic flame will not be lit with oil,” a grouchy Athenian newspaper editorial complained, “but with Coca-Cola.” The Greeks entered Tokyo with its main message to the committee being, “regardless of our flaws, you’d better hand us the Centennial Games, or we may never bid again,” a threat that proved idle, and unwise. They demanded their A-plus, without taking their homework, or anyone else in their class, seriously.
Coke, being a longtime Olympic sponsor, gave Atlanta a leg-up that no competitor was prepared to counter, until it was too late. So did the application of American technical wizardry, including computer-generated animation by a firm that would later be known to larger audiences as PIXAR, in the 1990 U.S. bid presentation.
That September, it all came together. And yet, as Juan Antonio Samaranch decreed, “The International Olympic Committee has awarded the 1996 Olympic Games to the City of… At-lanta!”, the moment was a stone-cold global stunner, and an over-the-top-rope regional plancha. The scene around Underground Atlanta seemed every bit as surreal as it was jubilant. Specifically in all-matters sports, Atlantans were unaccustomed to good fortune in competition, and especially clinching what they worked so zealously to earn.
“Atlanta?”, had become, “It’s Atlanta?” within roughly a calendar year. In the space of two-and-half more years, “It’s Atlanta?” had become, “It’s Atlanta!” On this September day, there was joy in Losersville, as Atlanta was a genuine “world champion” in the arena of sports for the first time. Other towns could fuss with each other about “Rings” until the cows came home. But for us, five colorful, interlocking ones would do just fine.
One overjoyed attendee at Underground’s celebration shared with the AJC: “We finally won something!” Each word leaps from the page, as an exclamation unto itself. We! Finally! Won! Something!
Indeed, Atlanta did win something. To a greater extent, Georgia prevailed. The South, in a good way, prevailed. America prevailed. But none of it happens without a maverick willing to defy “It’s not your turn,” “They’re not sophisticated enough,” and, “He’s too little!” customs, seeing past all the reasonable doubts and unreasonable constructs to paint a bigger picture that no one else, at the outset, could.
The Georgian who made the Olympic Dream happen couldn’t see it quite as clearly as he would in another significant capacity decades later, but Billy Payne would come to learn that, even to a self-made maverick, big dreams cannot be realized in a vacuum. A committed collective of talented mavericks, diverse in ways that are more than just skin-deep, have to coalesce in order to turn notions of “Impossible!” into, “I’m possible!”
That’s the feat that faces one of Atlanta’s, and America’s, biggest sports mavericks around today. Trae Young graces State Farm Arena (You made it! Welcome back, Hawks fans. 7:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL) before an adoring crowd and an opposing team from Dallas that fashions itself as “Mavericks”. Not even six months ago, a nationally-televised, highly anticipated season-opener on TNT Thursday featuring Young and 2018 draft-mate Luka Doncic – in Trae’s downtown Atlanta NBA building, no less – seemed impossible. And yet, here we are!
A quarter century has passed since Atlanta made good on its promise and welcomed the world. Between Samaranch’s mealy-mouthed attempt to qualify praise of the hosts’ endeavors, the sting of the mid-Games park bombing, and the central city’s economic lurches once the Olympic high died down, you could understand the locals feeling a bit jaded, in the aftermath and ensuing years of ‘96.
Anyone expecting Atlanta to become some American utopia as a result of the Olympics coming to town was due to be in for a good measure of disappointment. But the region has transformed, in strange and unpredictable ways, including on the sports pages (remember sports pages?). Over the course of the past 25 years, Atlanta has shed its “Losersville” pro-sports wound. The new scar to rip off is called, “Can’twinitallville”.
The Bravos would shock the baseball world with a worst-to-first sprint in 1991, then run headfirst into one wall after another until the year before the Olympics. In defiance of their first 25 years of existence in town, they’d proceed to win ten more consecutive division titles after breaking through with its first World Series win in 1995. They would claim seven more such banners over the past 12 seasons, including four in a row. And yet, fans can only hope the second World Series trophy will arrive very, very soon.
The Falcons. You all know what happened. No, not that time, that other time. The Dream. Hmph. Hey, the Hawks won 60 games that one time, that was cool. Thrasher? Why, I hardly know her!
At least Atlanta United was able to defy the “Can’twinitall” gravity in our sport-mosphere, once in its first couple seasons of pro-soccer contention. We’re nearly three years removed from their breakthrough MLS championship. Largely, though, because of the other longstanding teams finding creative ways to come up short, if they come up at all, the MLS Cup celebration at Magic City still feels fresh.
Through it all, Atlanta has had its share of athletic mavericks blaze into town -- the Prime Times, the Number Sevens and Number Elevens, the Highlight Films, the Fab Five Freddies, the Angels and the Ices. It helps to have architects, like Alex Anthopoulos, Darren Eales and the Hawks’ Travis Schlenk, with the skills and foresight to identify them, and to build high-caliber teams around them.
While these standout athletes get Atlanta close to the pin on occasion, to do what King Josef accomplished and nail a hole-in-one, these otherworldly talents must assess the maverick spirits within the people that surround them, and then forge environments in and beyond the sporting venue conducive to championship-quality contention.
Such are the tasks that face Trae Young (9.4 APG, 2nd in NBA in 2020-21, and 25.3 PPG), coming off an ascendant NBA Playoffs run (28.8 PPG, 9.5 APG) that now has the rising fourth-year point guard on a first-name basis in sports markets like New York and Philadelphia that, no matter their own shortcomings, could always take Atlanta and its “Can’twinitallville” reputation for granted. Until now.
Bold and unbothered, crafty and cunning, recalibrating and unrelenting, Trae exudes the qualities that are hallmarks of people we identify as mavericks. But to achieve his ultimate ends, he needs other mavericks, willing and able to collaborate with him, letting him lead as he continues applying what he learns along the way.
There’s the top-20-winning-coach maverick in Nate McMillan, who learned much about himself along the way to dismissing his “Can’twinatplayofftime” reputation, perhaps once and for all. There’s the league-leading-rebound maverick in Clint Capela, and the model-of-efficiency-with-mad-boosties maverick in John Collins, who will now spend years together redefining what a modern NBA frontcourt looks like. That’s thanks to real estate maverick Tony Ressler, who showed this summer that parsimoniousness, unlike some owners of NBA clubs on the rise, won’t get the best of him.
There’s the net-scorching perimeter-shot maverick in Bogdanovic, whose surge as a healthy starter this past April, together with tactical improvements from McMillan, set the stage for the Hawks’ fascinating turnaround (27-11, following a lackluster 14-20 start) to become the NBA’s unexpected Southeast Division champions.
Then, there’s the legion of mavericks-in-training, from De’Andre Hunter, Kevin Huerter and Cam Reddish at the wings, to local product Sharife Cooper at the point, to Cooper’s fellow rookie Jalen Johnson and Onyeka Okongwu. Whether it was during critical junctures in the Playoffs or the free-wheeling Summer League, these up-and-comers have already had some shining moments, each demonstrating that when it comes to revealing true maverick potential, they have only scratched the surface.
There’s a definitive difference between being a maverick and being, well, a “Mav”. It is possible to be both. Sharing space with Trae under the net on the SI magazine cover, as Reilly’s former rag previewed the NBA’s 75th season, Luka Doncic has been brilliant on the court (11 triple-doubles over 66 games in 2020-21) while lugging former Internet maverick Mark Cuban’s franchise back into perennial playoff position.
How much further the big-M Mavericks can navigate, through the rough-and-tumble Western Conference during the regular season, and whether they can become much more than an intriguing first-round exit, depends on how well-conditioned Doncic can remain, and how many other small-m mavericks Doncic has at his disposal.
While I know little of his overseas offseason regimen, this summer, Luka has certainly thrown his considerable weight around. He pushed out his championship-winning head coach, the on-paper longtime GM, and Cuban’s riverboat-gambling maverick pal, the fellow that seemed to be truly pulling basketball-operation strings behind the scenes. The point guard who helped Dallas’ prior star maverick claim their franchise’s first NBA title a decade ago, Jason Kidd takes the head coaching reins.
Kidd has spent many of his recent years on the sidelines fine-tuning the point guard skills of superstars who would customarily be forwards. He’s expected to do more of the same with Luka (35.0 usage%, 2nd in NBA last season; 8.6 APG, 4.3 TOs/game), who doesn’t have much of a learning curve in that department. To advance this club further, Luka and Kidd need their one-time unicorn to morph into the transformative maverick that Dallas (and previously New York) thought they were getting.
Averaging just over 13-and-5 in Dallas’ seven-game series loss to the Clippers, while shooting under 30 percent on threes, 7-foot-3 Kristaps Porzingis is now Dallas’ full-time option at the four-spot, with Dwight Powell serving as the starting pivot. “I want him to be who he is, and that’s a basketball player,” says Kidd, proponent of the league’s fashionable “position-less basketball,” of Porzingis. “I want him to feel comfortable on the floor in any spot.”
Like former Mav and new Hawk backup point guard Delon Wright, the Mavs have an adequate assistant ball-caddie in Jalen Brunson. But Kidd needs his other basketball players, from Porzingis on down, to commit to moving the rock (22.8 assists per-48 in 2020-21, 26th in NBA, even with Doncic), especially in the rare moments Doncic gets a breather.
If not Porzingis, can the returning Tim Hardaway, Jr. be a maverick in thus-far unforeseen ways? Can it be Dorian Finney-Smith (9.8 PPG), who finished third behind Luka and Timmy in floor time, or former Knicks shooter Reggie Bullock, or Bucks bench man Sterling Brown, expanding their repertoire? Can a young gun, like second-year swingman Josh Green, emerge to be that reliable second- or third-wheel that helps free the offense from stagnation?
Dallas finished its preseason scrimmages tied for first with Golden State in averaging 29.8 assists per contest, while committing just 13.0 turnovers (3rd-fewest in NBA), and it wasn’t all Luka doing the dishing. If Coach Kidd can get successful ball movement to carry over into the next 82 games (please, hoop gawds, let there be 82 this season), and find more on-ball stoppers to cluster around Doncic as his own defense improves, Dallas might be a legitimate postseason threat for reasons beyond #77. If not, Doncic may be demanding more staff members, on and off the court, to hit the bricks.
Unfettered by any star-player distractions or setbacks, Atlanta enters 2021-22 with a clearer understanding of who their current and future mavericks are, certainly more so than the “Mavs.” For the Hawks, it’s a matter of teammates helping each other realize their full capabilities, individually and collectively, and Trae Young is proving to be the kind of facilitative maverick that makes this happen.
Despite this summer’s postseason breakthrough, no one among the NBA media is out over their skis about the Hawks’ chances at title contention, not just yet. Rather, they’re resuming the position the USOC gave Billy Payne and Atlanta back in 1988. Great effort, here’s your laurels. While the world turns their attention back to the prohibitive favorites, Atlanta, just stay at it and, who knows? You “might” even win something, someday.
By season’s end, with the rise of Atlanta’s many mavericks, we could bear witness to a stunning and groundbreaking outcome -- one where “might” makes right!
Thank you, Squawkdonors! Let’s Go Hawks!
Ugh! Another PEG (Playoff Elimination Gamethread), already? We were just starting to have some fun around here! Anyways, some Tidbits.
The “Atlanta Sports” narrative is the Hawks let the head coach who sought his independence by abandoning this franchise, some four score and three years ago, walk out of town on Independence Eve with a glittery Eastern Conference trophy ball under his armpit. The competing, “Believe Atlanta” narrative ain’t tryin’ to hear none o’ that mess.
If the Milwaukee Bucks have learned anything from the 76ers, it’s that these Atlanta Hawks don’t fear The Reaper. With all respect due to the Blue Öyster Cult, and to the happy people of Starkville, Mississippi, do you know what the rest of the Eastern Conference Finals series could use? A little more Collins. We have Finals Fever, and the only prescription is, more Collins! Ring it up!
We’re going to insist that John Collins (0-for-5 FGs with neither a board nor an assist in Game 5’s troubling first quarter) really explore the studio space, this time. That goes for Game 6 (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), before a rambunctious, standing-room-only State Farm Arena crowd, and once more in a couple days back in Wisconsin. He’s got to make enough noise, with his two-way play, that it becomes downright uncomfortable for anyone who has to share the stage with him.
At the risk of summoning the FULPers, Collins’ prior head coach, seemingly as a point of pride, indicated on many occasions his gameplans run, paraphrasing, “literally not a single play” for an athletic, energetic fella, one who was supposed to go out and rack up 20-and-10s just off vibes. Since his rookie-year coach skipped town, John has thrived on offense by waiting to be served an array of lobs, layups and open threes, often courtesy of point guard Trae Young (questionable, bone bruise in foot), while feasting on stick-backs when his teammates’ jump-shooting offense stalls and clueless opponents get lax with boxing out.
Speaking of boxing out, Collins alone cannot be blamed for the lack of rebounding presence in Game 5. Even Khris Middleton (team-high 13 rebounds on Thursday) had a field day on the glass as all five Buck Starters collected at least two offensive rebounds in Antetokounmpo’s absence. Thanks in part to early second-chances, Milwaukee’s 66-36 paint-point advantages rendered Milwaukee’s subpar shooting day (31.0 team 3FG%) and Bogdan Bogdanovic’s breakthrough (team-high 28 Game 5 points, 7-for-16 3FGs) moot. A team effort to keep the Bucks one-and-done is essential going forward, but Collins can do more to lead the way in that regard.
It is true that this is just Collins’ first playoff foray, as it is for many an Atlanta Hawk. But the constrained development, to date, is why a guy about to receive ginormous contract offers in a few weeks can look so painfully pedestrian (2-for-8 FGs in Atlanta’s Game 5 win) in halfcourt sets, especially without Young to offer guidance. After going 10-for-11 on 2FGs in the Hawks’ successful series opener, Johnny Bap has hardly made a blip on the inside (15-for-27 combined 2FGs in past 4 games) while game outcomes are still up-for-grabs.
One should note that this is only Bobby Portis’ second playoff run, the punchy Bucks forward’s first since a brief trip in 2017 with the Bulls. Yet the first-time starter, filling in in a pinch for Giannis Antetokounmpo (out again for Game 6, hyperextended knee), looked like a completely comfortable veteran in getting what he wanted in Game 5. It’s an awkward time to start running plays with Collins as a focal point, but Atlanta Playoff Basketball on Independence Day Weekend is, by definition, an awkward time.
In these NBA Playoffs (Knicks and Sixers series included), JC has managed to shoot a sturdy 64.0 eFG% on post-up plays, his 1.13 points per possession placing him a smidge ahead of Philly’s center Joel Embiid and not far from The BK’s Kevin Durant. But it’s hard to recognize this, since he’s had the option to post-up on just 1.8 plays per game, according to Synergy stats on nba.com, roughly half of Antetokounmpo’s 3.4 and a far cry from Embiid’s 8.5, or even KD’s 4.4. Collins also hardly draws foul-worthy contact (6.7% FT frequency) on those few plays.
Efficiency-wise, the only postseason player still standing who has fared better is Danilo Gallinari (1.18 PPP, on just 2.2 post-ups per game), who has shot at a slightly lower eFG of 57.1% but gets to the foul line (21.1% FT frequency). With Giannis down for the twenty-count once more, Collins and Gallo ought to receive more post-ups, peeling Brook Lopez and Portis away from helping on guards while elevating the Bucks’ risk of early foul trouble.
Whether they emanate from Young, Lou Williams, Kevin Huerter or Bogdanovic, Collins in particular has to do a better job of getting in position to receive passes on the low block, and he needs to maintain his dribble until either a decent shot goes up or he gets the whistle. Of course, it would be nice if one of his prior coaches had the power forward honing his post-up game in real time, prior to and during the regular seasons, but that issue for a more well-heeled Collins can wait for 2021-22 to get here.
We all can wait for 2021-22 to get here, but I remain hopeful our Squawkers and the rest of Atlanta Hawks Nation can do what they can to keep themselves and their loved ones healthy and upright, in what will soon be a very brief interim period.
For those of you heading intown or to some friendly watering holes this evening, you’ll likely notice we have a wilder group of companions in the mix. 99 percent of us are up to some good, but there are a few jackboys, gun-runners, sliders, club-busters and raging drivers out to make “fun” for themselves on this busy weekend by spoiling somebody else’s. In what we can still hope will be a warm-up act for Game 3 of The Finals, have a great, boisterous time tonight, but be cognizant of your surroundings and avoid confrontations on your way to and from the arena and wherever you go to enjoy the proceedings.
If our Hawks still don’t fear The Reaper… we’ll be able to fly!
Happy Fourth! Believe Atlanta! Let’s Go Hawks!
You may say to yourself: “My God. What have I done???”
Until 2021, many an Atlanta Hawks fan will tell you how the scene inside then-Philips Arena, during the 2008 NBA Playoffs, was as loud as they had ever heard the place. Pent-up fan emotion, from having to endure a near-decade of laughable, madcap basketball teams, owners, coaches and players, the scramble to sneak in as an 8-seed, and the venturing into town of the top-seeded opponent from a legendary franchise that fashions itself as predestined for glory, bubbled up at The Highlight Factory to tear the roof off the sucker.
At long last, on Atlanta’s home floor, plenty of things seemed to finally be coming together. There was the rise of a coveted young playmaking guard, one for whom the spiritless ownership group nearly ate each other alive over acquiring, to become a steely All-Star reserve. There was a big man with a two-time NCAA championship pedigree, for whom the elevated stage didn’t seem too big.
There was the midseason upgrade at point guard, a ball caddy who already had his moments going toe-to-ugly-toe with Shaq and Kobe. There was the backup big from That Other Georgia, who wasn’t afraid to mix it up, or step on toes, if he felt it necessary to win.
There was a forward who, while not ordained to reach the professional heights of Chris Paul, was beginning to make a nice versatile scorer and defender out of himself. There was the local high school standout who took whatever was missing between his ears and made up for it with hops and heart, who brought highlights to the Factory, and whose multifaceted nightly box score made him the darling of counting-stat-heavy fantasy hoops leagues everywhere.
All of the aforementioned were in their 20s, toiling for coach Mike Woodson, with only the incoming point guard exceeding age 26.
Running the self-satisfied Celtics out of town on a rail, and not just once, in the NBA Playoffs’ opening round was more than enough to satisfy even the most obstinate local sports fan on the fence about supporting these Hawks. Set within the context of the sub-.500 team’s relative youth with ample room to grow, being already good enough to push a championship favorite to seven games, the future was bright. The present, that spring in 2008, was looking not-too-shabby, too.
Then, suddenly, that summer.
There was one other twenty-something in the Hawks’ mix, the team’s top sixth-man, who shared the first name of the multi-faceted forward and was drafted eleven picks before the latter by Atlanta in 2004. Josh Childress was another up-and-comer being groomed as an integral part of the Hawks’ slow rise to playoff prominence.
The lanky guard from Stanford was a restricted free agent and, as Hawks’ management was wont to do, Atlanta intended to let Chillz shop around for the best offer sheet he could find, allowing the Hawks brass time to pursue other interests while preparing for the clock to be set on matching the deal.
That non-negotiating approach often served to miff players, from The Other Josh to Jeff Teague, who thought they had invested enough into the club to deserve a little back-and-forth bargaining. What was worse for this Josh, Hawks Inc. seemed to be prioritizing The Other Josh’s pending offer sheet first, while the offers this Josh was receiving, certainly not NBA-starter-level appeals, were unappetizing.
Childress and his agent, though, had an ace up his sleeve that no one else saw coming. An alpha, if you will. “Greece!”, is the word that they heard.
I have long wondered what the news of Childress’ Gambit, to forgo NBA Free Agency altogether and instead land a lucrative deal with once-proud Greek powerhouse Olympiacos B.C., did for Nigerian parents’ impressionable kids running the streets of Sepolia in northwest Athens. Specifically, one who only began playing organized basketball the year before, at the ripe age of 12.
The Michael Jordan By Default of Greece was on his way there, and that had to be a double-take moment for the young, wispy Giannis Antetokounmpo and his siblings. Chillz was several stratospheres removed from His Airness, but you wouldn’t know it by Childress’ 3-year, $20 million tax-free deal, the fancy Volvo and the condo floor with a swimming pool that the club reserved for his personal use. (Did I mention, in Greece, there was a major post-Olympic austerity crisis underway?)
In making Childress the highest-paid hooper ever outside of North America, Olympiacos’ investment didn’t quite pay off the way the team had dreamed. Yes, they reached the Greek League title games in each of Childress’ first two seasons there. But they couldn’t get over the hump versus hated rival Panathinaikos in either year. Their rivals basically paid a lot less for ex- Memphis Grizzlie and American expatriate Mike Batiste, the Greek League MVP, to get the job done for seven years straight.
The larger aims for Olympiacos were EuroLeague championships. The Reds fell short after reaching the EuroLeague Final Four in Chillz’ first season, and the title round in his second. And the true team stars by that time were Lithuanian forward Linas Kleiza and point guard Milos Teodosic. The riches and perks delivered to an American, mediocre among his own NBA-level countrymen, to be the third-banana on a team not winning trophies, was not lost on a growing legion of angry Greeks. All that movie-star munificence, for The Ron Harper By Default of Greece, while everyone already there struggles to make ends meet? As sporting venues built for 2004 were already looking like ancient ruins? Opa!
That Olympiacos would go on to win those coveted Greek League and Euroleague titles in ensuing years without Josh, but with the leadership of guys named Acie Law and Pero, only underscored the peninsula's consternation over Childress' nationally lampooned European vacation. Not much gets past the radar that was Childress’ sizable ears. Before the third season could arrive, before his value in the NBA could spoil, Chillz opted out of his Olympiacos deal, returning to The States to take Robert Sarver’s taxable money.
“That man brought in Hedo Turkoglu and Josh Childress,” stated Amar’e Stoudemire, disparagingly, of his former paycheck signer at the Phoenix Suns. When Stoudemire’s free agency period arrived, Stoudemire told the All the Smoke Podcast that Sarver bragged that the NBA All-Star “could be replaced, tomorrow.” When he took a gander at these so-called replacements, “I said, ‘Man, you got to be kidding me,’” Amar’e recalled. “So, I end up going to New York.”
No high-level free agent, by that point in 2010, was banging on doors to grab much of Atlanta Spirit Group’s money, a stash that was dwindling by the year. Josh’s overseas exploits didn’t prove to be something Atlanta would sorely miss. But the ability to develop Childress further here, versus NBA competition, as part of the organic growth of an emerging young club, felt like an opportunity only the Hawks could creatively squander.
Around town, Childress’ departure was the Jenga moment for consumer confidence in Hawks stewardship. Subsequent to the dreamy postseason of 2008, the team itself scraped through the next two years of opening rounds, only to be waxed thoroughly, at home and away, in second rounds, by teams seen as authentic superstar-led contenders.
“The Hawks looked to have a nice thing going, for a minute there,” was the old saw. “And then Josh Childress ran off to Greece, so that’s the end of that. Atlanta Sports! smh.”
Whether it’s Childress bailing for the Aegean Sea, or Thabo and Pero celebrating the clinching of the top-seed with a fateful late night out on the town in NYC, you never know precisely when the Hawks’ Jenga moment arrives, and especially not how. What you come to understand, in hindsight, is the destabilizing event causes a step back that makes it hard for Atlanta’s carefully-crafted collectives to recover.
As Game 4 unfurls here at State Farm Arena in these Eastern Conference Playoffs (8:30 PM Eastern, TNT, 92.9 FM in ATL, Postgame coverage on Bally Sports Southeast), Hawks fans can only hope that Trae Young’s step back, onto the clown shoe of a Game 3 referee along the sideline following a bad pass, won’t be just another Jenga block to toss into the fire of, “We had a good run going, BUT…” Atlanta Sports moments.
In this series with the Milwaukee Bucks, as other Hawks have struggled to be reliable offensive contributors, Young’s scoring proficiencies are essential for Atlanta to keep up with a phenom from Greece, that former 12-year-old from Sepolia who’s all grown up now.
Giannis was but 16 in 2011, the year after Childress concluded his Olympiacos run, when he was invited to play for a third-tier semi-pro basketball league, catching the eye of European and at least a couple American pro-league scouts alike. A full decade later, simply counting to ten remains a challenge at times for Antetokounmpo. But the two-time NBA MVP and 2020 DPOY has had little trouble maturing in many other aspects of the game.
Giannis has assumed the top-spot previously held by Atlanta’s Clint Capela (12.7 RPG) as this postseason’s rebounding leader (13.3 RPG). Blending his newfound strength with his eye-popping dexterity, the Greek Freak only needs teammates willing to compensate for his shortcomings at the three-point line (18.5 Playoff 3FG%) and at the charity stripe (55.1 Playoff FT%, with a few of the makes disallowable, but for the referees out here trippin’).
His 6.3 APG in this series now outpaces Young (team-high 6.0 APG; as per Locked On Bucks podcaster Frank Madden, held in consecutive games below 5 assists for the first time since March 2020), as does Khris Middleton’s (6.3 APG) and Jrue Holiday’s (9.7 APG). The ball movement for coach Mike Budenhozer’s club has become a point of exploitation, in contrast to a Hawks offense (107.8 O-Rating, lowest among the NBA Final Four) that gets stilted for long stretches and struggles to create when Young isn’t initiating plays.
Giannis’ dips, dunks, and dishes deep in the post are creating opportunities for his co-stars, who in turn create quality offensive chances for the rest of the roster. Whether it’s halfcourt heaves, awkward layup shots, or contested mid-rangers, Atlanta’s field goal makes in the two most recent games come with much higher degrees of difficulty.
Rebounding, after Capela and John Collins (10.3 series RPG, despite 4.0 personals/game), dime-dropping, after Trae, and defense, after Kevin Huerter (team-high 3 blocks in Sunday’s 113-102 loss, which only scratches the surface of how good he looked) and Bogdan Bogdanovic (2.3 SPG), are near-binary in numerical production among the remnants of the Hawks’ cast.
Hawks coach Nate McMillan could do well to consider going big earlier, introducing Danilo Gallinari as a quick sub for Bogi (listed as probable ahead of Game 4), and preserving the swingman’s weary knee for crucial defensive stops later in the contest. Bogdanovic played through Sunday’s entire final quarter but was a defensive non-factor as Middleton (20 4th-quarter points in Game 3, incl. 4-for-6 3FGs) ignited to help Milwaukee surge ahead for good.
It wasn’t the playoffs, but two months ago, a Hawks team without Young available caught Giannis and the Bucks slipping. One night after clobbering an injury-and-illness-riddled Sixers team at home, Milwaukee flew to Atlanta and was feeling good after entering the fourth quarter up by 8 points. As was the case on Sunday, Middleton heated up in the final frame as well, with 12 of his 23 points. But so did Atlanta’s Bogdanovic and Lou Williams from beyond the 3-point arc (combined 8-for-9 3FGs).
Meanwhile, Capela and fill-in starter Solomon Hill did just enough on that April evening to contain Antetokounmpo, while Buck teammates were of little use, at either end, on the back end of their back-to-back. In Game 3, the revelatory rookie Onyeka Okongwu showed he could serve Hill’s defensive role well, and maybe not just in a pinch.
Whether Young (6-for-14 3FGs in Game 3; listed as questionable, bruised foot) is fully functional, fully productive, fully available, or not, some of the Traemates have to catch fire from outside if Atlanta intends to fully recover in this series. The Otherhawks (4-for-19 3FGs in victorious Game 1, 7-for-31 in Game 2) were by default a series-best 9-for-23 on non-Trae treys in Game 3, skewed downward by Bogi’s 2-for-10 outing, and are 21-for-70 in this series overall. Having the proper personnel getting back on defense is essential, too, whenever the Bucks aren’t retrieving Atlanta’s jumpshots from the bottom of the net.
Hopefully, Young will be available to help the Hawks wage a fairer fight with Antetokounmpo and company tonight, earning Atlanta a guaranteed third home game in these conference finals while staving off the potential for elimination on Thursday in Wisconsin.
In so doing, the Hawks will also have staved off what looked to be, on Sunday night, another Jenga moment for Atlanta Sports history. Also, it is hoped, we’ll get through the summer offseason without any others unfolding.
John, if you get a call in a few weeks about a business opportunity from the Sultan of Brunei, please, just hang up the phone.
Let’s Go Hawks!