The New Atlanta! Real Housewives of… Atlanta! Preachers of… Atlanta! Love and Hip Hop… Atlanta! Say Yes to the Dress… Atlanta! Atlanta Exes! Atlanta Plastic! Big Rich Atlanta! R&B Divas: Atlanta! Little Women… of Atlanta!
Take a sampling of the world’s most exquisite, cattiest, most loquacious, and most wannabe-popular women. Mix in a few of the world’s most trifling, most conceited, most wannabe-respected men, mostly of similar age. Place them together in lavish estates, three-plus-star eateries, and hotspot ultra-lounges. Then, manufacture some of the tawdriest, most outlandish, most superfluous interpersonal dramas among them, for the world to see. By all means, be sure to include input from their most psychologically challenged relatives!
Take all of that, set it in a backdrop of… oh, say, Cleveland… and count the number of people who care using Jason Pierre Paul’s digits. Real Housewives of Toronto? Yawn. R&B Divas of Detroit? What is this, the 60’s? Boston Exes? I mean, aren’t they all by now, really?
Scrap that. Instead, change your settings to the bright lights and warm, southern charms of The ATL. Now, sit back and watch as the eyeballs pop, watch social media platforms get set ablaze as viewers take sides with your characters, watch bloggers cover their mortgage payments by reviewing each salacious plotline of every episode, and watch ad revenues show up to your house in briefcases.
Throw in fully-scripted shows like The Walking Dead (nice try, Fear The Walking Dead, but Hollywood zombies are a bore), feature a T.I. here, and a Tamar there, and you’ve got yourself a honeypot of diehard viewer demand. Taking just about anything remotely entertaining, and slapping “Atlanta” on the title, or placing Atlanta in the background, draws attention like no other city does these days. Not NYC, not Chicago, not even L.A. has drama for your mama quite like Atlanta does.
On-air since 1968, the Real Hawks of Atlanta are kicking off the 2016-17 NBA campaign with a visit by the division rival Washington Wizards (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, 92.9 FM). Nearly five full decades in, the team has yet to find a recipe that best profits from their host market’s insatiable appetite for pro basketball.
Back in the Hawks’ early days, this sleepy burg was merely the place where they filmed B-flicks like Sharky’s Machine: where else could you blast people out of skyscrapers and not trouble anybody below? But today, Atlanta has transformed into a truly glitzy, sprawling metropolis, and wherever the “Action!” is, it’s sure to draw the “Lights!” and the “Camera!”
With the help of one media-savvy exec, the Hawks are beginning to understand how to surf the small-screen-media wave. Being victorious in the NBA remains the overriding objective. But if you’re not winning the whole shebang, at least figure out how to be entertaining.
“Pokemon Go!” was the superheated craze of this summer. But the practice of capturing odd, random creatures from out of virtually anywhere and prepping them for titanic battles had already taken up new roots in Atlanta a few years before. For small-w wizard Mike Budenholzer to be pried away from his coaching incubator in the Alamo City, he needed to entrust two individuals.
First, a general manager buddy who understood intricately how he operated and the type of hoop talents he desired. Second, on the court, Bud needed a monster. One that was tall, rangy, team-oriented, and athletic. And, as was the case for his boss in Texas, one young enough that they could conceivably, together, achieve their pinnacles of success and eventually ride off into the NBA sunset.
The one he found in Atlanta already had a torn pec, and then tore another one, but eventually was refashioned into an annual All-Star, one that helped lug the Hawks kicking and screaming into the Eastern Conference finals for the first time ever.
PLOT TWIST: What happens when said monster raises up and sulks off into the New England hinterlands, never to return? This was never something Budenholzer anticipated.
Of course, The Notorious B.U.D. wasn’t expecting the GM pal tied to his hip to read The Best of Blanche Knott in a conference call with their bosses and get run out of town on a rail. And yet, he made the best of that situation, getting named Coach of the Year in the process, and now gets to call the shots as an executive himself.
Bud never imagined that, in 2016, he’d be in front of a jury dealing with some BSDUI charge, thanks to a busted taillight from three years ago. But he came away from that trial smelling like a rose, and not just the Derrick variety. This coach has already demonstrated he knows how to bounce back when fate lobs a curveball. So, losing the two connections that made him want to leave a stable NBA environment and come to Atlanta isn’t going to deter him from his goals, now that he’s entrenched here.
Manning the pivot throughout the Modern Playoffs Era of Hawks basketball was Al Horford, a name which roughly translates from Dominican to NBA-speak as “vapid, at best”. The All-Star center elected to depart from Atlanta and make himself appear interesting to the otherwise uninformed by donning Celtics green.
Speaking of green, Horford’s longtime point guard, Jeff Teague, has long been more Bill Bixby and less Lou Ferrigno, and was shipped off to Indiana this summer for a first-round draftee. However, the exodus of these two postseason pillars has introduced new opportunities for the Hawks to widen their mass appeal.
A homegrown big man who is as renowned for his defensive imprint and vertical leap as he is his teased for his atrocious free throw shooting? You’ll excuse Atlanta fans if they feel like they’ve maybe been down this path before. But Dwight Howard is a different beast. Especially this particular edition of Dwight Howard.
He’s no longer deliberately chasing promises of rings, rigged slam-dunk contest titles, or MVP trophies, nor is he striving to live up to Superman-style expectations. As he approaches 31 years of age, his ticket to Springfield is just about printed and punched. But the Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy product has rekindled an affinity for his hometown in recent years, even if said town hasn’t returned the sentiments in kind.
Howard recognizes the chance to win over Atlanta, and the larger NBA universe, lifting his Q-Score to levels not seen since he began charting Shaq’s path to NBA glory by guiding Orlando to The Finals. It was certainly a glorious time in the Magic Kingdom for Howard, in the days before his ill-fated insistence on joining forces with Kobe in Tinseltown derailed him and ushered the term “Dwightmare” into the public consciousness.
It will take more than his notoriously saccharine smile to turn perceptions around, something Dwight recognizes. He’s out to prove he hasn’t lost a significant step, is willing to run the floor, is unselfish, and remains willing to work on his game for his team’s betterment.
Escaping from L.A., Dwight met privately with Budenholzer, then the new Hawks coach in the summer of 2013, before settling on H-Town. Howard came away impressed, but unenthused. Since then, he has witnessed firsthand what talent whisperer Budenholzer and the Hawks’ capable staff has done in recent years with not just Horford, but also once-lukewarm prospects like Paul Millsap, DeMarre Carroll, Teague, Dennis Schröder, and Kent Bazemore, as well as glue-factory-bound vets like Kyle Korver and Thabo Sefolosha. Suffice to say, he likes what he sees.
Once Dwight brings his motivated, inspired play to the game, it will show up on the floor. Fans should grow to appreciate a defensive team effort that doesn’t get Al-ligator-armed once it’s time to secure the defensive rebound and terminate opposing possessions. Despite the natural downturn to his formerly annual All-NBA career, Howard enters this season ranking first among all active players with a 29.1 D-Reb%., tops in total rebounds per game, and second in blocks per game.
Last season, in Houston, there was a virtual black hole situated where the power forward spot was supposed to be, next to Howard. This season, he has Millsap, an Eastern Conference All-Star in the past three seasons whose own defensive efficiency peaked after he surpassed age 30. Together, a well-conditioned tandem of Millsap and Howard can take “one-and-done” defensive basketball to unforeseen heights.
In both L.A. and Houston, Howard found himself overcompensating for a high-scoring star teammate that was too often spaced out (and not in a good way) when it was their defensive responsibility to keep opponents in check. Here, Dwight has players in the backcourt, and on the wings, that aren’t dropping 30 PPG anytime soon, but are willing to put in the effort to D-up their assignments. Especially in L.A., he had to deal with coaches that didn’t have his best interests at heart, save for big-man assistant Darvin Ham. Now in Atlanta, Ham sits right beside Budenholzer in that Torch Red-hot lead-assistant’s chair.
In Atlanta, Howard won’t be left feeling like a Beaver where everyone seems willing to Leave It to him. Here, he can again be that toothy franchise face, but without having to carry undue weight and excess baggage. Coach Bud will see to that. “The factor was the coach, and the city,” Howard explained to Sekou Smith, Lang Whitaker and the intown NBATV guys a couple weeks ago while munching together at Mrs. Winner’s (yay, it’s back!) in nearby hood-burb East Point. “This is the guy I want coaching me.”
Much further north, the lamestream national media is suddenly chomping at the bit to lionize Horford in the same way they fall all over one another for the exploits and soundbytes of diminutive over-achiever Isaiah Thomas. The ability to be transformed in the public eye from NBA afterthought to The Chief ver. 2.0 was certainly appealing to the Son of Tito. Still, the heat of the summer might have caused Al’s memory to melt, forgetting his 2015 playoff series against his new team.
Because it was Dennis Schröder who came off the bench to serve Thomas a taste of his own trolling, who made the crucial plays on both ends of the floor to finish off the series, who spoiled what was touted as Losing Isaiah’s coming-out party, who left Boston’s self-made star feeling some kind of way after the final buzzer sounded on the mediocre season of the Sell-Tix. Instead of selling more playoff tickets at the Gahden, Thomas found himself selling wolf tickets, to Schröder. Have fun with that, Alfredo!
Schröder’s late-season emergence allowed Hawks fans to reminisce over the days when Teague rose from the end of the bench to dance toe-to-toe in the playoffs with former wonderboy Rose. Now, it’s Dennis, bursting at the seams with promise as-yet-unfulfilled, who enters this season as the top-dog among Atlanta’s ballhandlers. Even better, he knows he’s about to get paid handsomely to come up like Paper Boi, right here and nowhere else.
Schröder’s gung-ho attitude is best displayed by his maddening forays into the paint, where he can exploit his quickness to occasionally devastating effect. Teague certainly earned his All-Star mettle here in Atlanta. But whereas Jeff’s lasting image as a Hawk is The Blown Uncontested Layup, Dennis is known around town by a singular catchphrase: “GOT HEEM!”. His preseason connections on lob plays with Howard (I have dibs on the phrase “Dunke Schoen”) have certainly borne promise, and we’re likely to see this play more routinely than we did ever from the Teague-Horford combo.
As was the case for Teague, the acclimation to the gold-coiffed 22-year-old Schröder starting full-time is bound to have its share of missteps along the way. More turnovers under higher-quality defensive pressure, misfired passes out of the paint, occasionally lackluster defensive effort. But as Teague exemplified in his latter seasons, to reach full Potential, you have to endure the Po’ part. Nothing says, “through the slings and arrows, we trust you”, quite like, “Guess what? Malcolm Delaney is your backup.”
Coach Bud and the Hawks are convinced it will be worth going through more growing pains with Schröder, whose 36.1 assist percentage last season ranked 10th in the league and eclipsed Teague’s 34.4. Dennis is a privateer who is learning how to become Budenholzer’s main floor general. There will be no training wheels, though, to start this season. Schröder will get to go eye-to-eye tonight with The Best Point Guard in the East, a player who new Wizards coach Scott Brooks suggests is “as fast as anybody in this league, probably in the history (of the NBA).”
While working through offseason rehab, All-Star point guard John Wall has had to tapdance around the perceptions of strained relationships between he and shooting guard Bradley Beal. Once touted collectively, including by themselves, as The Best Backcourt in the East, Wall & Beal have had to watch from afar as tandems like Teague & Korver, Irving & Shumpert, Hill & Stephenson, and Lowry & DeRozan, earned trips to the Eastern Conference Finals.
They’ve had to watch up close as other teams won the Southeast Division, and as rival teams like the Hawks and Pacers rolled through D.C. while advancing in the playoffs. Somehow, the team with the world’s fastest baller always winds up a split-second too late, one productive play short, a few wins behind when it counts.
Injuries have long hampered this pair’s development, but so, perhaps, has their coaching staff, and their headstrong interpersonal relationship. To turn things around and make NBA fans believe again, they must find each other more often on the floor to complete plays (Beal insists passing is a part of his arsenal now), and find some sort of kinship after the buzzer. Mutual disappointment could become a bonding factor.
You want to build a team around lottery picks? Tonight, we present to you mid-tiered first-rounder Schröder, and second-rounders Korver, Kent Bazemore, and Millsap, tipping off versus Wall, Beal, and Otto Porter. The latter three were all plucked by the Wizards among the first three selections in their respective NBA Drafts. Three seasons now under their collective belts, the lotto trio has yet to surpass 46 wins, or reach the NBA’s Final Four.
Washington GM (still!) Ernie Grunfeld cashed in mid-level first-round picks to round out the starting unit with center Marcin Gortat in 2013, and power forward Markieff Morris this past winter. Yet even that constellation was insufficient to return to the playoffs.
Washington faced the sobering reality this summer that, no, hiring Kevin Durant’s high school towel boy plus his former coach in OKC was not going to endear him any more to his home-area NBA team. But at least they got free agent big man and former Pacer Ian Mahinmi, who is ready to… oh, wait, he’s out for another month with a meniscus tear.
The Hawks have benefitted from players who make “turning the corner” look as easy as traversing around the Washington Monument. Meanwhile, the Zards have been, and remain, loaded with youngsters who have yet to fulfill their once-hyped promise (add in momentary Hawk Kelly Oubre, and Tim Hardaway’s former collegiate co-star Trey Burke to that mix), with a few reclamation projects sprinkled in for good measure (Morris, Andrew Nicholson, Jason Smith).
Even without the KD2DC gamble paying off, they’re a bit hamstrung financially, already top 10 in salaries and primed to pay their current core even more guaranteed salary in the coming year. They’re relying heavily on stability and organic, internal growth to save the day, and they hope that Brooks is the taskmaster who can help them pull through. Until they start winning games, consistently, they have one division rival to emulate.
A winning brand (regular season, anyway) through internal development, without blockbuster deals or big-splash free agent hires, has been the theme in this town for quite some time. The official brand for the franchise, though, is “True to Atlanta.” Hawk draftees Horford and Teague stayed True to Atlanta in every game, right up until the moment it was time to shed their jerseys and head home.
As for the players that remain? Schröder, an enterprising fellow, opened a hookah lounge in Buckhead. Sefolosha followed suit this summer with a luxury sneaker shop up the street. Bazemore rebuffed offers from desperate middling teams and stayed put, making a nonprofit bonanza out of his summer hanging around town.
Korver (with K-baby #3 on the way in another week or two) and Millsap understand as professionals that nothing’s guaranteed, especially in this brave new NBA world of free-flowing cash. But these veterans have repeatedly expressed appreciation for the Hawks staff and a desire to grow DNP-OLD and maybe even retire here. Add to that group ATLien Dwight, who has had as much of an offseason presence in his hometown as any player that was paid to be here during his time in the league. Hawks fans have never had an assemblage of players who could hold up a “True To Atlanta” banner, and genuinely mean it.
This is a daffier collection of players than we’ve seen in seasons past as well. With the Jolly Brown Giant now in the fold, the Funny Farm will be on display quite a bit. Bazemore, emoji pioneer Mike Scott, and Schröder are all-in on the Baze Gaze stuff. Mike Muscala is always ready for a good beatbox battle, while I think Howard has finally given up on planking.
It will be fun to watch this cast of characters engage their dour-faced coach, and deadpan guys like Millsap and jack-in-the-box rookie Taurean Prince. Need a big foreign dude still sorting out American culture for comic relief? Edy Tavares is your guy. Further, no one on earth loves the Hairdo Game more than Atlantans, and no team in the league brings more to that table than the Hawks. Fros, dyes, braids, man-buns: what’ll ya have?
A caveat, though: all the fun, frolicking, and pageantry works best when you’re winning games. Millsap, Korver, Kris Humphries and Sefolosha are the Fun Police, around to help keep the comics in-check when needed. But there’s always the possibility that bad strings of losses will turn the goofy laugh track into “womp-womp” around the locker room. If you’ve watched any kind of show with “Atlanta” on the name, even that’s good news. Comedy can be fun, but Drama sells!
Which way this thing goes will depend a lot on Atlanta’s perimeter production. No team in the NBA came close to the 2015-16 Hawks in terms of creating open perimeter jumpshots. Well over a quarter of their overall shots were wide-open (no defender within six feet at the time of the shot), a league-high and a testament to the quality strategizing of the coaching staff. Problem was, much like k.d. lang, the Hawks on the floor rarely capitalized.
They created nearly four more wide-open three-point attempts per game than the mighty Warriors. Yet, by hitting them at a pitiful 35.3 3FG% clip (26th in NBA), they wound up selling themselves short, making just 0.2 more baskets per game from downtown than Golden State. The departed Teague led the team in overall three-point accuracy with a career-best 40.0% mark, while Horford just began extending his own range before bailing for the exits.
While he was no J-Smoove, converting leading scorer Millsap into more of a stretch-four was often a stretch of the imagination (31.9 3FG%). The Hawks occasionally turned last season to Scott, whose on-ball defensive acumen and perimeter shooting (career-high 39.2 3FG%) improved at the right time. Alas, Scott (out today, anyway, with mild knee soreness) has one external fire to stamp out before he can be relied upon as a steady rotation member.
The good news is, Korver (6th among active NBAers in eFG%, while Howard ranks 3rd; 39.8 3FG%, lowest since 2008-09) has enjoyed a full summer regimen to get his conditioning back up to speed, after the 2015 playoff injury by Dellavedoveonya slowed Kyle’s roll. It’s a similar deal for Sefolosha as well. As for Schröder, Bazemore, Millsap, and Hardaway, when it comes to perimeter shooting accuracy, there’s hardly any way to go but up.
The early preseason returns were not promising (team 31.4 3FG%, 24th in NBA) in this regard. But while sorting out the whole iron-unkind thing from three-point territory, the team is building its early offensive identity as one that will pound away at their opponent’s interior (NBA-high 42.3 preseason paint PPG), on the strength of sound passing (NBA-highs of 19.2 preseason assists per 100 possessions, 70.5% of baskets assisted).
Meanwhile, Atlanta aims to make life miserable for their foes not only inside (NBA-low 34.9 preseason opponent paint PPG), but also around the arc (NBA-low preseason 27.4 opponent 3FG%). Backup shooting guard Marcus Thornton was the last regular season opponent to nail 5 triples in a game versus the Hawks, matching Korver’s 5-for-10 output in a losing effort back in March. Thornton will try to help Beal boost the Wizards offense tonight from the outside... if he can get good looks.
Preseason opponents managed just a 19.6 offensive rebounding percentage (4th-lowest in NBA), a far cry from the 25.4 O-Reb% (5th-highest in NBA) Hawks opponents enjoyed in 2015-16. Illustrating how little help Dwight had around him, the Rockets were the worst in this category last season (27.2 opponent O-Reb%). Howard and the Hawks can make each other measurably better.
For what it’s worth, the Wizards were dead-last in the league in second-chance points in 2015-16 (10.2 PPG, eight fewer total points than Atlanta), and there’s little reason to suspect that should change tonight.
Howard is not as nimble running the floor as his Atlanta predecessor, and is much more likely to diverge from Budball by going after a few easy putbacks. That means it’s incumbent upon Atlanta’s wings and forwards to get back in transition and help the guards stem opponent runouts. The speedy Wall, pushing the ball up the floor for the Wizards, should provide a good test for the Hawks’ transition defense.
Like the Hawks, the Wizards are also going the Euro-ball route to secure a backup point guard. A 2012 Draft-and-stash Czech, Tomas Satoransky is getting his first taste of full-time NBA ball, and Brooks is fascinated by the 6-foot-7 guard’s ability to play three positions. As with the intrigue of the season-opening Wall-Schröder matchup, Satoransky against his fellow Euroleague standout Delaney should be worth watching.
There’s not exactly a Murderers’ Row of NBA opponents leading up to the Hawks’ November 8 tilt in Cleveland, home of the reigning NBA champions. Treat it more like an Aggravated Assailants’ Row. After these Wizards, there’s an afternoon affair in Philly this weekend. Then it’s Boogie and the Cousinnaires and the Lakers back here, followed by a trip to D.C. and a quick return home to face those Rockets on back-to-back nights. After the Cavs, it’s Bulls, Sixers, heat, Bucks, Hornets, Knicks, Pelicans. A few back-to-backs are in this early mix, but it’s a schedule versus moderate competition that the Hawks can use to either find their bearings early, or alternatively stumble out of the gate.
Despite a modest 48 victories, we watched in horror last season as fully capable Hawks teams blew far too many contests to teams competing without their star players, without their head coaches, without much of anything worth speaking of. The coup de grace arrived in the regular season finale, when our Fine Feathered Friends punted away the opportunity to maintain its clutch on the Southeast Division banner and claim an infinitely more valuable higher playoff seed.
They did that in Washington, against the Wizards’ B-Team and C-Team, against the likes of Ramon Sessions, Jared Dudley, Nene, and Garrett Temple, all of whom are now scattered about in new basketball locales. That victory granted the Wizards left behind renewed hope for the future that lay ahead.
Especially with Teague, Horford, and their nonchalant dispositions out of town, these 2016-17 Hawks won’t be in such a gifting mood. This roster may not win more games or advance further than their predecessors have. But leave no doubt, this group cares about winning, for this organization and this city, as much as any we’ve seen since at least the days of the Atlanta Air Force.
That collective “True to Atlanta” consciousness, with winning basketball, would create great storylines as the season wears on. Even on the other hand, with more losing than we’ve grown accustomed to, the emotional effect would create fascinating sideline drama. Whichever way things blow, there’s a new reality dawning in the ATL, and these Real Hawks of Atlanta are destined to create Must See TV. Even better yet… Must See Live!
Let’s Go Hawks!