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“BAG! ALERT! TRADING BAG ALERT!”
I may or may not have shared this opinion in earlier gamethreads, but one of my Stone Cold Lock predictions for this season was that no Head Coaches would be fired. Not unless some sketchy old cellphone messages propped up, or something.
Context matters, and you can’t get any more context for disappointing results in the standings and on the scoreboards than what this season offers. The shortened schedule, the lack of practice time, the lack of homecourt advantage, lengthy road trips, illness absences, hasty roster changes, revenue-strapped owners not eager to continue paying ex-personnel to sit at home, etc.
Then Minnesota went and changed the game, their GM unable to wait any longer to pry free his pal from Toronto. With Ryan Saunders handed his walking papers, I was left with no choice but to dust off my COACHES’ HOT SEAT RANKINGS.
Coaches get lumped into six categories. In reverse order, there’s FROZEN, COOL, TEPID, WARM, HOT, and FLAMING. There’s a big list under FROZEN, some coaches a bit slushier than others. On the other end, I had nobody’s keister feeling char-grilled, or even superheated. Just a handful of taskmasters in the WARM grouping, topped by Saunders.
‘Tis a shame that we take interest in the demise of somebody’s occupation, especially in this economy. But it’s hard to feel too bad when Vegas betting lines were immediately flaring up, with “Who is the NEXT NBA Coach to be fired?”, upon Saunders’ dismissal. Leading the betting odds, in a tie, were Dwane Casey, an admittedly odd choice given his sterling role as Detroit’s tank general, and Sacramento’s Luke Walton.
Both Casey and Walton (+250, as of the day after Saunders’ canning) were on my WARM list, as were Washington’s Scott Brooks (+300, preseason odds leader for the FIRST coach to get fired) and Orlando’s Steve Clifford (+500). And one other fella.
Somebody, hopefully, made a little pocket cash guessing right on the Hawks’ Lloyd Pierce (+1000). Atlanta has moved on to hand the job to an assistant, but to the surprise of many, their visitors this evening, the Sacramento Kings (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports California), haven’t made the leap, yet.
Five weeks ago, Kings fans redirected their ire toward their punching bag for this season, departed ex-ESPN analyst Amin Elhassan, who dissed De’Aaron Fox in December by declaring that Ja Morant was already everything that Fox fashioned of himself. The Kings had turned around a 5-10 start with a nifty 7-1 stretch to get into .500 territory in the NBA West, Fox had become a league leader in clutch scoring and earning Player of the Week honors and plaudits for All-Star contention. And their fans were ragging on Elhassan not even realizing he already left the Four-Letter Network for Team LeBatard down in Miami.
No sooner had the shade been thrown that Sacramento’s winning ways were eclipsed by a nine-game losing skid. It began with the Kings getting swept in a five-game homestand at the hands of teams like the Magic and Morant’s Grizzlies. The Sactown swoon continued on the road, topped by a 19-point loss in New York.
The Kings ended the streak in Detroit the next night, but they returned home to drop a game in Orlando Magic-deflating style, blowing an 8-point lead to Charlotte in the final 73 seconds. Fans’ ire finally wafted away from random sports analysts and toward head coach Luke Walton, perhaps the one coach in the league thoroughly disliked by not one, but two NBA fanbases.
There is hope, though, that the dive back into Lottery Land for the umpteenth consecutive season might finally be bottoming out. Edging a Lakers squad, before the All-Star Break that was without LeBron and AD and starting 10-day contractee Damian Jones at center, likely salvaged Walton’s job. Thursday’s resounding 125-105 home win over the scraps of what was once the Houston Rockets, with Fox scoring 30-and-9 and a trio of starters adding 20 points apiece, was as much a relief for Coach Luke as it was a disappointment for a bet-maker over in Nevada.
The Kings (15-22, 3.5 games behind Morant’s 10-seed Grizzlies) have also been able to rely, in recent weeks, on steadier scoring from 2018 lottery prize Marvin Bagley III. He’s scored in double-digits in 12 straight games, shooting 54 percent from the floor and 35.5 percent on threes, while averaging 17-and-8 as a rebounder.
That’s good news for Marvin Bagley, Jr., the know-it-all father who tweeted for his son to be traded back when the big man was struggling in January (and that was when the Kings were merely at 3-3 on the young season). It’s also encouraging, for similar reasons, for GM Monte McNair, who has yet to really remake the team in his own image after taking the reins from Vlade Divac back in September.
As the Trade Deadline nears, not being dubbed “Err McNair”, weighted down and harshly judged by the enumerable mistakes of his predecessor’s past, is a priority for the Kings’ general manager. It’s unlikely he will be fielding calls with anyone from Atlanta. Still cleaning up from the debacles of acquisitions of Dewayne Dedmon and, still stuck in DNP Land on the roster, Jabari Parker, he could only watch in horror this summer as restricted free agent Bogdan Bogdanovic, last year’s third-leading scorer, bailed by accepting a contract offer from the Hawks that his team couldn’t match.
McNair wants to be known as the guy who began righting the ship by not letting Tyrese Haliburton (3rd in rookie PPG, 2nd in rookie Win Shares and rookie APG) slip past him at pick #12 in November’s NBA Draft. Shooting a team-beat 43.4 3FG%, Haliburton would be a worthy starter alongside Fox, but the team, for now, is literally too indebted to Buddy Hield (career-low 39.0 FG%, career-high 34.9 minutes and 10.4 3FGAs per game).
Finding a taker for Hield’s bloated multi-year deal may require attaching Bagley and engaging several suitors, a tall order. But whether this season ends in playoffs or not, McNair probably values the ability to enter next season with a fresh new set of problems to solve, including the coach.
Atlanta (17-20) still has 99 problems, but the late-game coaching isn’t Problem #1 anymore. The Hawks have yet to provide the even, four-quarter effort that would suggest they’ve truly turned a corner. Getting one today against the Kings (league-worst D-Rating, opponent 3FG% and FT%) and allowing Nate McMillan (currently TEPID, on my hot-seat rankings list) to whip up a finishing sprint for the Hawks’ first four-game winning streak since Bud’s Bunch in April 2017? That would certainly be COOL.
Let’s Go Hawks!
“MMM… POLLO A LA PARRILLA! POLLO A LA BARBACOA!!”
Ahead of tonight’s TankWars tilt between the visiting Atlanta Hawks and the Sacramento Kings (10:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports California in SAC, NBATV everywhere else), let’s take a moment to give it up for Vince Carter. He’s the half-man, half-amazing player-vaulter-turned-Blake-Griffin-troller who is willingly wrapping up season #20… 20!... in Northern California. And, no, he’s not sipping merlot and just taking it all in on the bench with the Warriors.
With deference to Schoolhouse Rock, and De La Soul, 30 is the Magic Number. Or, at least, it once was. I still recall the glee with which I reported in a 2014 game thread about LeBron James’ 30th birthday party, which was here in Midtown Atlanta a night before he would get DNP’d for a game at Philips Arena. The Chosen One was about to become The Olden One, and I proclaimed James’ forthcoming entry into his fourth decade of life as great news for the rest of the wannabe contenders for his annual Eastern Conference crown. Welp.
It used to be common understanding that the NBA veteran body breaks down precipitously after crossing the Rubicon into The Big Three-O. Go look at those videos of venerable fellas like Tree Rollins looking like downright geriatric giants in the 90s. Tom McMillen looked every bit like a senior Congressman from Maryland, even before he got traded by the Hawks to the Bullets in the mid-80s. Carter is now the same age McMillan was, when the latter concluded his time serving… the U.S. House of Representatives!
Witness even our prime NBA example of Fighting Father Time: Kevin Willis, clinging to dear life in the early 2000s as he tried to keep the folks over at Fernbank from turning him into an exhibit. Back then, even a young Vince Carter had to be looking askance at the graying Dell Curry on the Toronto bench like, “…Dude? Don’t you have some tweens back home to attend to?”
Well, in this day and age, NBA medical staffs, and dietary and training methods, are way more advanced and personalized. The players are far more cognizant of their abilities to continue making bank if they keep themselves in tip-top athletic condition. No more butter-fried tilapia sandwiches at lunchtime, no more Tractor Traylors and Big Babies, not if you’re going to keep up at the pace these modern-day coaches demand. Players might, indeed, have spent a recent night racing Michael Vick in the parking lot after an eventful evening at Onyx. But you, the average fan, wouldn’t be able to tell either way.
LeBron, at age 33, is still out here like, “Ladies, look at your man. Now, look at me.” He’s logging an NBA-high 37.2 minutes per game, a shade below his 37.8 MPG from last season. Not that he should have to, but he can, and he is. Oh, and he is still slaying fools, and winning, dropping 35-and-17 on the Raptors last night to lug his Cavs to victory just last night. As for Carter, whose All-Star invites stopped coming at age 30 but still is punching in the clock 11 seasons later, he ushers in an era where we wonder if 40 is even over so much as a mound, to say nothing of a hill any more.
You know those 90s mixtapes where a young hooper pulls off such a spectacularly audacious play that he sprints out the gym, intending never to be seen on video again? That would have been me down in Sydney at the 2000 Olympics, had I gone off a steal and Fosbury Flopped over some 7-foot-3 dude, nearly off-vert, for a jaw-dropping one-handed jam. “Yep. Looks like my work is done here! Meep meep!”
I’d have Usain Bolted out that arena, and the next you’d hear of me, I’d be retired in the Outback feeding kiwis to koalas. At best, I’d be turning my signature silhouettes into annual big-money sneaker releases – when do those Lethal 14s come out? But, nope, not Vinsanity!
The guy who, even before that career-defining play, had already terminated the usefulness of any future Dunk Contests, anywhere, instead decided to grace us with his eminence for four-and-a-half more seasons with the Raptors. Then four-and-a-half more in New Jersey. Then a year-and-a-half near his hometown in Orlando, and then a brief run in Phoenix (oh, he’s 34 by then). Then, three seasons in Dallas. Three more in Memphis.
And now, in Sacramento, rather than ring-chasing, Carter’s dutifully schooling the Kings on how to give one’s best effort regardless of the scoreboard, or the standings, or one’s accomplishments of yore. Vince heads into this summer as a 41-year-old free agent, and yes, he WILL get offers, significantly more than a VetMin. Out here trying to guard Griffin on occasion in the post, and complaining only to the refs about it, Vince (18.9 MPG in last five games; 48.0 2FG%, highest since 2007-08) is showing us that 40 is The New 30. LeBron might show us that 50 is The New 30, when all is said and done.
Carter wasn’t on the floor back on November 15, when the Hawks raised their record to a dangerous 3-12 with a resounding 126-80 win over the Kings at Philips Arena. Atlanta pummeled a starting lineup that featured another O.G. in Zach Randolph, plus George Hill, rookie gunner Bogdan Bogdanovic, Garrett Temple, and Willie Cauley-Stein. Z-Bo and Stick Willie remain among the starters, but Randolph (stomach bug) will not play. Second-year pro Skal Labissiere is most likely to join a green first line loaded with yung’uns for Coach Dave Joerger, inclusive of rookie De-Aaron Fox and sophomore Buddy Hield.
At this level of hoops, team shooting splits of 40.4/27.3/73.7 are usually an automatic addition to the L column. Yet two nights ago in SLC, wunderkind Dennis Schröder (13-for-21 2FGs, 3-for-7 3FGs, 7 assists, 2 TOs) picked-and-rolled apart the vaunted defense of the Utah Jazz.
Dennis plopping a career-best 41 points (most by any road Hawk since Shareef back in December 2003) on the hapless Ricky Rubio and Friends was just enough to lift the Hawks – without Kent Bazemore, with Taurean Prince shooting 3-for-13 from the field, with Mike Muscala in place of the injured John Collins, with the soon-expiring 10-day pickup Damion Lee in the starting lineup, with random cats named Dorsey, Taylor, White, Plumlee, and Cavanaugh coming off the bench – to a 99-94 victory over a team trying to win their tenth-straight NBA game. At least, we think the Jazz were trying to win. It’s kinda late to start tanking now.
Tonight’s pressing question for Joerger’s staff is, who is their Schroderstopper? Fox, the rookie whose DRPM (-2.87) is about as awful as Dennis’ (-2.80)? I don’t think so. Hill? Utah would’ve loved him the other night, but he’s in Cleveland now. Trade recipient Iman Shumpert (knee rehab) was shelved virtually upon arrival. Garrett Temple? Good choice, but he’s out with an ankle injury. Frank Mason? M’kay, good luck with that.
It takes two to make a thing go right, so for the Kings, they need a screen-busting gameplan not only for Schröder (21 points, 11 in the third-quarter vs. SAC on Nov. 15) and his backup (Taylor, who had 11 fourth-quarter points vs. SAC), but their offensive partner in the post. Dewayne Dedmon (15-and-15 plus 4 assists @ UTA on Tuesday) enjoyed 11 points, plus eight of his game-high 14 rebounds, in the second-quarter as his Hawks blew that November game open.
Ded-head also dropped five dimes, nearly matching Prince’s eight (seven in the final frame) as Atlanta shot 16-for-32 from downtown, plus an absurd 34-for-47 on the cushy interior of the Kings (NBA-worst 54.7 opponent eFG%). If Cauley-Stein (1.1 SPG, 1.0 BPG, one of 10 active NBA players averaging at least on of each) isn’t locked in defensively, it could prove to be a long night for hoop fans inside the sold-out Golden 1 Center (80-game sellout streak. No Onyxes in Sactown?) and, perhaps, Beyond.
The Kings will strive to fight fire (NBA-worst 38.6 opponent 3FG%) with fire (38.1 3FG%, 2nd-best in NBA). They’ll lean on Hield and Bogdanovic, if he’s available (probable, sore hammy), plus rookies Justin Jackson and Mason off the bench, to get open for Fox. Failing that, hey, there’s always that guy Vince Carter on the bench. If we’re lucky, maybe he’ll get to show us all what tricks he still has up his sleeve. Do they even have lawns to get off of, down in Daytona Beach? If I lived there, I’d be so retired by now.
Let’s Go Hawks!
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