“Say, pal, how much did you pay for that?” Seriously, can you stand people that ask questions like that? Whether it’s your cars, clothes, shoes, lunch, whatever… there is always That Guy or That Gal who gets obsessed talking not merely about your worldly possessions, but the price tags that came with them. “You paid how much? Sheesh. I saw that on sale around the way for 20% less!”
Well before tonight’s finale before the All-Star Break against the depleted Chicago Bulls (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, CSN Chicago), our Atlanta Hawks have established themselves as the I Can Get It For You Wholesale team of the NBA. You’re not gonna pay a whole lot for decade’s worth of playoff appearances. Up to four All-Stars… and a division title… without the four-All-Stars price!
Bigger-market teams like the Knicks, Nets, Lakers, Clippers, Rockets, and these Bulls (even, briefly, the Sixers, remember?) have gone All-In in that span on big-money schemes. Yet individually, since 2010, none of the above can boast of more Conference Finals appearances than Atlanta’s solitary one.
That said, having the best probable early-round exit that money can buy isn’t a huge sell around these parts. Even if ownership has long been satisfied with their “Great Value!” savings, NBA fans around town want more a little more bang for their hard-earned bucks. Certainly, more bang than what the Hawks (30-24) have been producing lately. Is it too much to ask for some sizzle with this Salisbury steak?
Here were those high-flying Hawks in summer 2015, with revenues at the box office and eyeballs on the tube as high as ever, on the heels of the most regular-season and postseason victories in their franchise’s semi-storied history. With a new owner in tow, and In Bud We Trust at a peak level, the offseason was a big chance to make some splashes and feed the fans’ growing frenzy. What did we get?
We got yet another team that’s bottom-10 in total salary, quite like 2014-15, quite like 2013-14. When we were spending big, it was largely tied up in one dude. These days, despite an expanding cap, when it comes to spending we’re just a million or so ahead of an Orlando Magic team that, in an alleged surprise, swept the Hawks on back-to-back nights this week. Only the Magic, Bucks, and Suxers are deliberately paying less in the East.
No, you’re told, there’s no need to splurge on talent to hang around the middle of the playoff rat-pack! But video-projection floors, nightclub-quality DJs, and homegrown-rapper concerts? Oh, we’re all over that!
The Hawks have the look of somebody that showed up to the biggest cocktail party of the year humble-bragging about the three-piece suit they bought for a steal at K&G, the unbelievable deal they got on their gown at Dress Barn. And they’re quite satisfied with being the most lukewarm sports ticket in town. There’s no more blaming the A$G.
We’ll have ourselves a national holiday for Justin Bieber before we get steady production out of Justin Holiday. Kent Bazemore has moved up to the top-line to replace DeMarre Carroll, but no worries, people, we brought in Lamar Patterson from Turkey! Why roll the dice on a rookie prospect, when we can bring in Tim Hardaway, Jr. from the Knicks? You all remember Tiago Splitter from the Spurs, don’t you? His salary declines just like Kyle Korver’s, isn’t that nice? And hey, just wait ‘til you all see the work Edy Tavares has put in! He can even dribble now!
Quality 82-game-ready depth should have been of utmost priority for Mike Budenholzer and the Hawks, who lost one starter to free agency, and had one starter and one key bench player each returning from broken legs. They replaced two backup centers with a guy that hadn’t appeared in 60+ games in the prior two seasons and a not-ready-for-prime-time project. Then, Coach Bud pushes these pace-and-spaced-out Hawks to play at the team’s highest tempo since 1992-93. It’s little wonder, then, why Atlanta’s starters have frayed.
Kyle Korver’s shooting slumped right out of the gate. Jeff Teague grinned-and-bore-it through a bothersome ankle, leaving him ineffective on both ends of the floor for months. Franchise captain Al Horford has been as “Where’s Waldo?” as ever around the glass and at the free throw line. Even remnant All-Star and Birthday Boy Paul Millsap, as demonstrated in the Magic sweep, has struggled to find the rim in the clutch. Collectively, they’ve sapped the “fun,” and a lot of “da mentals,” from a team built largely on fundamentals.
For a team that places so much emphasis on rest-and-recovery days, it’s hard to see the results on the floor over the course of 48-minutes, no matter the quality of the opponents. Just as much as rest and recovery, this team needs reserves, at more than just point guard.
Now, it’s the rest of the league that’s trying to bargain-shop the Hawks. How ‘bout a pastrami-on-rye for Teague? If we throw in a pickle, can we get Horford, too? With a bag of chips, can you give us Dennis Schröder?
Teague, to his credit, has done little this month to depress his value in the eyes of opposing team’s GMs (20.6 February PPG, 52.8 FG%, 56.5 3FG%, 1.4 SPG) as the trade deadline approaches. And while he doesn’t waste too much time on so-called “social” media, he did enjoy a little Instagram fun at the expense of nosey NBA fans yesterday. A lot of NBA players get very Mopey Smurf at the prospect of being traded out of town, especially when it’s the only NBA town you’ve known. For all his flaws, Jeff remains pragmatic, not overly dramatic, and isn’t allowing all the speculation to weigh him down.
You paid how much to go 27-24? The Bulls ($19 million over-the-cap) are among the many teams Atlanta has money-trolled in recent seasons. Teague first got the NBA world’s attention when he came out of nowhere to frequently stare down the reigning MVP, Derrick Rose, in the 2011 Playoffs. With the Rose Rule kicking in, it was Danny Ferry and the Hawks who swooped in to rescue Korver from NBA irrelevancy. Although largely due to injuries for Chicago’s hometown star, Rose, Teague and Korver all have one All-Star appearance since those 2011 playoffs.
Rose has been passing the franchise-face mantle onto fellow backcourt mate Jimmy Butler. But with Chicago having dropped three straight and sitting just 1.5 games above the playoff Mendoza Line, the cape is back on Rose (career-low 15.9 PPG; 43.8 2FG%, 24.0 3FG%, 25.6 Assist%) to save their season. Butler is out for at least the next three weeks with a strained knee. Rose himself is expected to play despite nagging soreness in his leg, lest he join Joakim Noah (out for season, separated shoulder), Butler and Nikola Mirotic (appendectomy, hematoma removal) on the IR.
Butler was trying to play through knee issues for at least a week, yet Bulls first-year coach Fred Hoiberg, Thibodeauian-style, had his All-Star slog through 47 minutes in Utah. After sitting out the Bulls’ next game in Sacramento (Chicago’s sole win in their last six games), Hoiberg trotted Butler back out in Denver, and Jimmy Buckets promptly put up 19 points in 18 minutes before getting wheeled off the floor.
The Bulls went on to lose that contest with the Nuggets, then collapsed late in Minnesota and early (without Rose) in Charlotte, the ninth-seed that’s now just 1.5 games behind them. While Coach Bud has been reluctant to expose many of his scrubbier players, Hoiberg has been trotting out Aaron Brooks, E’Twaun Moore, Tony Snell, Kirk Hinrich, Cameron Bairstow and the recently-returned Mike Dunleavy to try and fill the gaps.
In a similar vein as the Hawks, the last time the Bulls played ball at their current pace (98.6 possessions per-48, 11th in NBA, just behind Atlanta’s 99.2), Michael Jordan was still a season away from crying over his first NBA title. Suffice to say, the results in Chi-Town have been less than championship-contention-quality.
The Bulls have allowed triple-digits in their past six games for the first time since the Vinny Del Negro era was screeching to a halt in 2010. And Chicago remains Bullish when it comes to forcing turnovers (league-lows of 10.7 opponent TO%, 12.0 TOs per game, and 6.0 steals per game; 13.7 points off TOs, 28th in NBA). Throw in an offensive rating that ranks 26th in the league.
However, somebody please let Coach Bud know that Fred Hoiberg’s job isn’t a charity case. While the Bulls aren’t exactly parsimonious, board chairman Jerry Reinsdorf has no interest in paying three coaches’ salaries in 2016-17. There are signs of a rift among the two heads of the GarPax monster that is likely to be resolved this summer, but Hoiberg’s gig is safe. So there’s no need for Bud’s Hawks to gift-wrap a job-saving win tonight at the United Center.
One pillar that Hoiberg can still lean on is Pau Gasol. The 35-year-old center is averaging a double-double (17.0 PPG, 10.9 RPG) for the second-straight season and holding the fort defensively, earning himself a trip to Kobe’s final All-Star Game in Butler’s stead.
Thanks to Pau, Taj Gibson and rookie Bobby Portis, Chicago is second in the league with 36.4 defensive rebounds per game and holding opponents to one-and-done basketball (47.2 opponent eFG%, 3rd-lowest in NBA; 56.5 opponent restricted-area FG%, 2nd-lowest in NBA).
Gasol is poised to join Horford in summertime free agency when he spurns his player option, leaving the Bulls to spend their All-Star Break snooping around for long-term options at the pivot. As for today, he and the Bulls’ frontline will try to wear down a Hawks unit that has scant interior defensive options behind Horford (33 points, 10 rebounds, 6 assists, 4 blocks vs. CHI in a 120-105 win on Jan. 9) and Millsap, with Splitter remaining out until at least after the Break.
Butler won’t be around to patrol the perimeter, so there will be considerable sag in Chicago’s defense of the three-pointer (33.4 opponent 3FG%, 5th in NBA). Moore will take pressure off of Rose by D’ing up whichever of Teague or Korver (52.8 February FG%, 50.0 3FG%, season-high 2.6 APG; 3-for-6 3FGs vs. CHI on Jan. 9) has the hotter hand.
But Hawks’ frontcourt players Millsap, Horford and Bazemore have to find open shots from outside as well, helping to drown out Chicago’s long-range output from Dunleavy, Gasol (3-for-5 @CHA on Monday) and Doug McDermott. The Hornets tried this tactic on Monday with 36 total shots from Uptown by all nine players against the Bulls, leaving it mostly to the guards to scrap for second chances while the bigs got back on defense. An attacking Rose would make this particular ploy much more difficult tonight.
While the Bulls have benefitted from opponents shooting a league-low 71.4 FT%, key to Atlanta succumbing to the Magic’s pixie dust on back-to-back days were blown free throws, especially at crucial junctures. Whining about ref calls is a bad look when you’re not taking advantage of what opportunities you’re given. As a team, Atlanta has failed to make 80 percent of their freebies in their past five games, the longest stretch of Hawks BDL since December 2014, the month before the magical carpet-ride that defined this core group’s competitive zenith.
With the league’s trade-deadline on the horizon, this could be the last opportunity for this cast of characters to show they’re worth people’s time and, perhaps down the road, a little bit more money. Will they perform like they know it? Will Bud and Tony Ressler recognize if they don’t? Or is Discount Contender status still good enough for them all?
Let’s Go Hawks!