Posted by lethalweapon3 in lethalweapon3's Pre-Game Preview Blog, 29 October 2014 - · 20 views
“Is... that… the Player of the Month trophy?”
So… yeah, Basketball!
You remember Basketball, dontcha? Round, dimpled leather, rubber interior shell, bounces nicely off the maple hardwood, slides nicely through an iron ring and into a cotton net when you pass it around and aim it just right. Basketball!
Our Atlanta Hawks hit the floor today trying to get themselves, and their fans, refocused on the whole Basketball thingy, and not the telenovela that publicly unearthed last month and plunged the franchise’s ownership, management, and fan base into multiple tiers of discomfiture. They’ll start by setting their sights on the Toronto Raptors (7:30 PM Eastern, SportSouth), and Hawks fans might as well get reacquainted with everybody who’s here for all that basketball stuff.
Howdy, Mike Budenholzer! Sure hope your hands aren’t too full! The coach that came here to reform Atlanta basketball into a championship-quality image has, for the foreseeable future, the added lead responsibility of roster management and personnel decisions. Bud’s pal, would-be-GM Danny Ferry, toils away in probationary obscurity, seeking out ways to wash the taste of his own foot out from his mouth after a faux-pas of epic, and hopefully transformative, proportions. In the interim, Bud, a man who prefaces almost every other comment with how much “We Like Our Group,” gets to put the depths of his adoration for his players to the test.
Welcome back, Al Horford! As the Hawks were starting to gel around Budball last December, Horford (21.1 PPG, 9.0 RPG, 3.0 APG that month) was on quite a tear, right up until his as-yet-untorn pectoral muscle went on quite a tear of its own. The lost chemistry, plus a spate of additional injuries, had the Hawks in a tailspin for months. Atlanta was 16-13 with Horford on the floor (on pace for at least a 45-win season) in 2013; 22-31 without him. The recovery period did grant Horford ample time to study on-floor strategy with the Hawks coaching staff, and they and his teammates will be eager for him to lead the way into 2015.
Even with the Eastern Conference in flux due to major personnel shifts, in order to compete and contend, the Hawks must have Horford not just healthy, not merely functional, not only competent, but dominant, vocal, focused and assertive on a regular basis. For at least the next couple months, the top lottery pick from the 2007 NBA Draft must be a guy wearing an ATLANTA uniform. For the Hawks to win back, and win over, the hearts and minds of an understandably skeptical Atlanta sports fanbase, this town must become Al-lanta.
Sup, Jeff Teague? No longer peering over his shoulder for a coach’s hook in favor of a more seasoned player, Teague helped the Hawks right the ship at the close of the regular season, and after some Billupsian big-shot baskets, he compelled the NBA world to sit up and take notice as he helped push the Pacers to the brink of elimination. Demonstrating what a bellwether he has become under Budenholzer, Atlanta was 29-3 last season when Teague registered a plus-minus of +6 or higher (7.5 APG, 2.5 TO/game, 37.1 3FG%), and 0-23 when Jeff finished games with a plus-minus of -6 or worse (5.5 APG, 3.3 TO/game, 21.7 3FG%).
Teague’s scoring efficiency rebounded nicely after the All-Star Break, up to 17.9 PPG and 48.2 FG% compared to 15.6 PPG and 41.2 FG% pre-Break. But Teague and the Hawks’ offense lost its way without Horford around for lobs and pick-and-pops. Jeff was among the NBA leaders at 8.2 APG through December, but managed just 5.7 per game the rest of the way. He’ll get a chance to reestablish his budding chemistry with Horford, now that Al’s back in tow. Teague comes into 2014-15 as stable in his career as ever before. It’s hoped that a persistent and consistent lead guard won’t need any introduction to Atlanta fans by the time next season rolls around.
It’s good to have you back for a little while longer, Paul Millsap! The 2014 season concluded on a sour note for the All-Star forward, after rough Game 6 and Game 7 shooting performances against a desperate Pacer squad. But if you’ll notice, Paul has a pep in his step of late, not the least of which because the league’s offseason infusion of media-contract cash is likely to result in next summer’s free agents crooning like Johnny Kemp.
Even a modest regression in scoring, while deferring more to Teague and Horford, won’t stop Sap from joining Horford as a nightly double-double double-threat. The NBA’s second-leading power forward in steals last season also showed he’s no slouch defensively. For a brief spell this summer, he and Kyle Korver had a chance to compete alongside some of the NBA’s best in Team USA’s preparation for the FIBA world championship. While Paul’s stay with Team USA was short, the good news is he’ll come into the regular season healthy and chomping at the bit to keep Atlanta’s offensive engine humming.
Hey, Kyle, we were just talking about you! No one player buys into what Budenholzer and Ferry have been trying to build as robustly as Korver. His ability to peel off multiple screens and slip free for deadeye perimeter shots can be downright maddening to opposing defenders who know what’s coming yet struggle to stop it. While he spreads the floor for his teammates, Kyle also understands that a modest defensive effort on his part keeps him from having to go 6-for-8 from deep every night just to give the Hawks a chance at victory.
So nice to see you again, DeMarre Carroll! While we may not be seeing as much of the Junkyard Dawg this go-round (32.1 minutes per game last season, almost double his career-high from 2012-13 in Utah), that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Atlanta’s two defensive-minded free agent additions, Thabo Sefolosha and Kent Bazemore, will keep DMC from having to wear himself out against every opposing threat on the wing, especially shooting guards. Sefolosha, considered a washout in OKC, surprised in the preseason with his shooting and rebounding. The upbeat Baze will not only be a whirling dervish on the floor, but the league’s preeminent towel-waving celebrator on the bench.
Yo, it’s the return of the Mack! Considering the poise with which Shelvin handled the rock last season (3.0 assist-to-turnover ratio, 10th among NBA point guards), it’s easy to forget he’s merely 24 years of age. Re-upping Mack for three years is emblematic of the faith the Hawks’ brass have in developing players suitable for their so-called system.
Mike Scott, Pero Antić, Elton Brand, Mike Muscala, fancy seeing you all here! The odds weren’t high that this quartet of backup bigs would all be brought back, but yet here they are. Following wretched offensive playoff performances, Antić and Brand (each 16.7 FG% in the 7-game series) are eager to show their age and/or health won’t render them liabilities on the floor.
As for our young second-round draftees, the emoji-spotted Scott and the freestyle-rapping Muscala hope they’ve added enough wrinkles to their game to earn upticks in floor time. Scott will particularly be a spark whenever the Hawks’ offense seems to bog down, perhaps fully supplanting a role Lou Williams once handled admirably. All of these players’ minutes, though, will be suppressed by first-rounder Adreian Payne as the season wears on and the rookie gains traction.
Did somebody mention rookies? Oh, wait, we can’t call Dennis Schröder that anymore! The second-year point guard was aggressive but inefficient last season, and he intends to cut down on the rookie mistakes in Year 2. He has few issues using his handle for forays into the paint, but he struggled to execute Plan B once opponents took Plan A away. He’s shown enough spark in the summer league and preseason, though, to nibble away at Mack’s second-string minutes, at least in the near term.
Whoa, John Jenkins, what are you still doing here? Atlanta customarily (at least, under Ferry) sticks with a 14-man roster, but Jenkins’ solid preseason shooting, and his apparent recovery after health issues plagued him last season, make him a pleasant keeper for depth on the Hawks’ roster. It’s unlikely that his and Schro’s pending contract extensions hang in the balance based on how they perform in limited minutes of this season opener. But it’ll be fun to pretend as if they do.
Tonight’s tipoff brings together two Eastern Conference rivals not only with on-floor upside, but perhaps the most continuity among their returning starters. Nine of Atlanta’s 11 leading scorers from 2013-14 check back in with the Hawks this season. Meanwhile, ten of the 11 top contributors on the Raptors’ playoff squad remain, along with Dwane Casey’s entire coaching staff. In fact, the biggest player movement transactions Toronto made during the offseason were with Atlanta.
Well, speak of the devil! Hello there, Lou Williams! You all remember Lou, right? South Gwinnett’s Finest was playing streetball in Atlanta’s local parks over the summer when he was shipped to the Great White North for the talent equivalent of a bowl of lukewarm poutine. Probably suspecting that he wasn’t a Ferry Guy in more ways than one, Lou will be out to show everyone back home that he’s still capable of huge offensive performances. And he’ll get every opportunity to do that, coming off of Casey’s backcourt bench alongside an equally determined Greivis Vasquez.
Bebe, is that you? Que pasa! You folks remember Bebe, back when he was just about yay high? He’s been drinking milk and getting himself stronger. Now the 2013 Hawks first-rounder is in a Raptors jersey, and the seven-footer would love to make his NBA debut against the very team that drafted him. The propensity for Toronto’s bigs to get into foul trouble (22.1 personal fouls per game, most in the East last season) could mean Bebe will get some time to shine tonight.
Before Ferrygate dropped, the award for Best Verbal Slip-Up by a GM of 2014 was all set to be engraved for Masai Ujiri. Perhaps after having too much of whatever the Ford Brothers were having, Toronto’s general manager grabbed the mic on stage before Game 1 of the Raptors-Nets series and delivered a colorfully dismissive diss of the Brooklyn team/borough.
Although the Nets, and the league, eventually made him pay for his choice words, Ujiri’s gaffe endeared him to a rabid Canadian hoops fanbase. They’ve entrusted him and Casey to get the Raptors to 50+ wins, amazingly, the sole NBA franchise that has yet to do so. Ujiri’s and Casey’s diligence paid off with a franchise high 48 wins last season, along with Toronto’s first division title and playoff appearance in six years.
Ujiri’s main offseason goals were to extend their defensive-minded coach for three more seasons and to do all he could to ensure the point guard who came alive in 2014 didn’t get wooed away. Extending Kyle Lowry for four more seasons, and satisfying Casey’s thirst for defensive play by bringing James Johnson back following a career-year in Memphis, allowed Ujiri to sit back and enjoy the balance of the summer while his team bonds.
Back in May, one Paul Pierce deflection was all that stood between Lowry and stratospheric stardom. Now, Toronto’s wiry yet fiery ballhandler can’t wait to prove he’s an All-Star talent who’s worth every penny of his new four-year, $48 million deal. The point guard battles between Lowry and Teague should continue to be highly entertaining.
Lowry would love to join the East’s third-leading scorer from last season on the All-Star squad. DeMar DeRozan paired with Lowry (40.6 combined PPG) to wind up just a shade behind The Splash Brothers (42.4 PPG) as the league’s highest-scoring backcourt. The Hawks could stymie the Raptors’ offense by forcing Lowry and DeRozan to settle for tough shots without fouling. Both are decent free throw shooters who accounted for nearly half of Toronto’s free throw attempts last season (DeRozan 7th in NBA in FT attempts per game).
Jonas Valanciunas’ prospects for this season brightened after strong offensive performances at the FIBA World Cup buoyed Lithuania to a 4th-place finish, and after the obligatory offseason workout with Hakeem Olajuwon. His newfound fake-and-shakes in the post could help Toronto shoot more than 27.6% of their shots around the rim, the league’s lowest proportion last season.
How far Big Valley advances this season, though, depends a lot on what he does on the defensive end. Despite Toronto’s overall defensive efficiency, the Raps were next-to-last in defending opponent shots around-the-rim. They gave up 3.2 more points per 100 possessions with the Jonas brother on the floor. Bebe and Greg Steimsma were brought in to make sure someone other than Amir Johnson (1.1 BPG) averages more than a blocked shot per game.
Toronto’s veteran bigs can be leaden at times getting back on defense, so the Hawks have to push the pace and force the Raptors to play on their heels, with Teague (3rd in the East with 3.8 fastbreak PPG in 2013-14, behind LeBron and John Wall) leading the charge.
The specter of 4th quarter collapses appeared throughout the preseason for the Hawks. They don’t want a facsimile of the final stanza against a Toronto team that put clamps on opponents with an NBA-high +2.4 plus-minus in fourth quarters last season. On Atlanta’s last trip to the Air Canada Centre in March, there was no Kyle Korver (50.0 3FG% vs. Toronto last season) around to save them from a 36-15 fourth-quarter drubbing (Lowry with 13 points), the Raptors swinging an 11-point deficit into a ten-point victory.
Despite not quite reaching the second round, Toronto did just enough in the space of five short months to become the darlings of basketball’s media pundits coming into this season. But pushing the pace, keeping Toronto’s offensive stars bottled up without copious trips to the line, and minimizing the Raptors’ second-chance points will go a long way toward the Hawks making a strong first impression on the league.
They the North, but We the South! And I don’t mean that in a bad way!
Let’s Go Hawks!