“Wait… don’t he have, like, a flight to catch?”
Wet eyes, heavy hearts… can’t lose! The Atlanta Hawks are straining to move forward without yet another integral member of their modern era. Yet even without Ryan Kelly -- whoop, I mean, Kyle Korver – around anymore, The Hottest Team in the East looks to extend their winning streak to six, with a victory in Dallas against the Mavericks (8:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL; Fox Sports Southwest in DFW).
Pace? Or Space? Mike Budenholzer wasn’t really faced with such questions when he took over the helm of the Hawks back in 2013. Already having kicked the tires on guys like Lou Williams and the Anthonies (Morrow and Tolliver), Bud’s running buddy Danny Ferry settled on Korver and newcomer DeMarre Carroll as the future at the wing spots.
The pair came alive as starters together, their floor-spreading coinciding with the increased stretchiness of Paul Millsap and Al Horford, and the improved shooting and decision-making of Jeff Teague. The collective rise of the pace-and-space Hawks created a scale of on-court success not seen in Atlanta in a generation, if ever.
Pace AND Space was working just fine for Atlanta. Sometimes, though, you want coffee, tea, AND milk, but you’re not granted that much choice during your flight. Certainly not in coach… I’ve tried.
Kyle was among the few fortunate ballers to enjoy the pinnacle of his NBA career as one of the senior members and vital cogs of his team. He arrived here in his young 30s, and hadn’t started regularly since he was benched back at age 25. Running marathons through screens in the halfcourt, he was catching-and-shooting with Teague, Carroll, Millsap, and Horford each reaching their basketball primes. Fast forward a couple seasons later, though, and Korver had quite a bit company in the 30-and-up club.
Coach Bud wants to push the ball, wants to haggle opponents into errors, wants to capitalize quickly and assertively. But it’s a tough sell when you have three and (when Thabo Sefolosha has to sub for Kent Bazemore) often four guys on the floor together who have surpassed 30 years young, two of whom had to come back from oddly broken legs in recent years, one of whom had to miss preseason planning due to a knee procedure, one of whom just got here and is figuring things out. To be sure, the minds are willing. But while this isn’t quite the Over-The-Hill Gang, the Sugar Hill Gang ain’t that much older.
Since Bud’s arrival, Atlanta has been among the NBA masters at spacing the floor and creating open perimeter jumpshots. But without the ability to make those shots routinely, what’s the point? Korver (40.9 3FG%) had done the best under the circumstances to hold his end of the bargain together. But he’s not the spring chicken he used to be in creating space for himself.
Around Korver these days were a cast of clunkers, from Baze to Sap to Thabo to Malcolm Delaney, who are shooting the ball from deep with Smoovian accuracy, at best. Nevermind that nobody has an appetite for Dwight Howard to start letting it fly. Nevermind that there’s a whole other side of the floor that brings its own set of challenges as time marches on.
Pace. Space. CHOOSE ONE. The (small-d) decision could no longer be put off by the Hawks, not after a 2016 year marked by disappointing defeats and one dastardly departure. Bud pressed the “Pace” button, and out of the machine popped starting point guard Dennis Schröder, who gets to run the show and help keep Howard feeling rejuvenated. He has helped Bud direct a higher-tempo attack for the Hawks (100.0 possessions per-48 in 2016-17, 8th in NBA) than in previous seasons (99.4, 96.2, 96.9), even while bringing the elder statesmen along for the ride.
By virtue of Bud selecting the “Pace” button, out goes Korver, who gets to now join the Club Med of the NBA. Club Cav has the most productive set of 30s-ish players in the league, attended to as needed by Kyrie Irving, Tristan Thompson and Kevin Love.
In Kyle’s stead are steeds of young wing players eager to show what they can do with added playing time. Tim Hardaway, Jr. (last 3 games: 18.3 PPG, 4.3 RPG, 61.8 FG%, 66.7 3FG%) has been showing signs of life after a rough start to the season. Taurean Prince may soon rejoin fellow blue-chipper DeAndre’ Bembry (3-for-4 FGs @ NOP on Thursday; out today due to death in family), after the former spent time surfing off the D-League coast of Long Island. These players may, someday, be floor-spacing threats, but that’s not why they’re here now. The Pace will do just fine, until the Space gets here.
The identity of the Hawks going forward is not one that emphasizes the importance of a Threezus. Going forward, the intended imprint is one that wears opponents down, still sharing the ball but attacking the paint with speed and athleticism, without ceding much in the way of defensive cohesion.
How much of a balancing act is this, on the head of a pin? Of the 15 teams (top half of the league) that allow the fewest points per game in the NBA, Atlanta (20-16) is the only team that ranks among the top 10 in pace. The only other team top-15 in pace and per-game scoring defense, Kyle’s Cleveland, ranks 14th in pace.
Mark Cuban has not had a stellar 18 months. Things started heading south, arguably, when the billionaire owner swung-and-missed on the 2015 DeAndre Jordan deal (more specifically, he got tagged out going for an inside-the-parker). Tough sledding in 2016 as continued as Cuban got outfoxed by a fellow mogul, TV star, and social media rival who gets a plum new gig in just a couple weeks. And throughout this time, the man who made Dallas great again has watched the erosion of not only his team but its long-tenured captain.
Dirk Nowitzki was as much of a no-brainer to stick around as any major free agent the summer. A 38-year-old icon, just a half-decade removed from earning an NBA Finals MVP, signing for two years at $25 million apiece won’t cause many to bat an eye. Back when he came on the scene, seven-footers from Europe with handle and range weren’t exactly a dime a dozen. Now, it’s an annual draft-time commodity. Over 1300 games later, though, the 2007 league MVP is doing the best he can to stay on the floor after suffering through not one, but two strained Achilles tendons.
“It’s getting better,” said Nowitzki to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, after logging 28 minutes in a 102-95 home loss to Phoenix, the most floortime since his second injury absence ended. “Legs are still heavy in the second half, but been working toward the right thing, working toward feeling better out there.”
The whole Mavs team seemed lead-legged at the close of Thursday night’s game. A layup by Deron Williams (team-high 6.8 APG) knotted things up at 93 apiece, but the final two minutes featured Suns guards Eric Bledsoe and Brandon Knight closing things out with nine unanswered points.
The Mavs have struggled to lasso opponents from the perimeter, one of five teams allowing over 40 percent shooting from the corners, and including a league-worst 39.4 3FG% above-the-break.
To tighten up things on the interior, they conducted essentially a free agent trade, with Zaza Pachulia coming to the Warriors and Andrew Bogut (9.3 RPG; team-high 1.0 BPG) joining Harrison Barnes (team-high 20.6 PPG; NBA-high 2.3 FGs per game on iso plays) along the trip from Golden State. But lately, the rim-protecting Aussie sounds as though he’s about ready to check out.
Bogut asked coach Rick Carlisle if he could volunteer himself out of the starting lineup, allowing Dirk to play stretch-5 and Barnes to remain at power forward. Carlisle is putting a nice face on that, although it helps that Barnes and Nowitzki have been far better as a 4/5 tandem from a plus-minus standpoint than Bogut and Nowitzki so far. Plus, Barnes “holds his own despite being a little undersized at times” at the 4-spot.
Barnes and Nowitzki hope to draw Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard outside the paint with the threat of copious mid-range jumpers. Albeit by design, Atlanta allows an NBA-worst 44.1 2FG% on mid-range shots, and only Kenny Atkinson’s Nets (9.5) allow more mid-range buckets per game than the Hawks (9.3 2FGMs per game).
Doing so would grant the Mavs a puncher’s chance offensively, opening up lanes for penetration by Williams and kickouts to perimeter threats like the resurgent Wesley Matthews (2.9 3FGs/game) and shooter-sibling Seth Curry (39.4 3FG%). After the Hawks allowed New Orleans to make 15-of-35 on shots from downtown, Bazemore and Sefolosha will have critical roles in creating deflections and making perimeter looks tougher.
Atlanta’s Schröder should be able to thwart Williams’ drives and produce on a few of his own. Any activity that gets D-Will in foul trouble will put a dent in the Mavericks’ passing game, such that there is one (19.6 team APG, 27th in NBA).
The only other Mav with more than three dimes per game, J.J. Barea (5.2 APG) has Achilles issues of his own and has been mostly inactive since mid-November. Devin Harris is almost a full time 2-guard under Carlisle, while with the recent waiver of Mr. Jackson, the Pelican is the only employed Pierre in the NBA.
The Mavs’ one saving grace had been one of the Hawks’ bugaboos. Dallas leads the NBA by forcing 16.3 turnovers per 100 possessions (Atlanta’s 15.5 ranks 4th). Hawks’ players have committed under 15 turnovers (not counting team TOs) in each of their last eight victories, while Atlanta’s player TO tallies have gone down from 16.9 per game in October/November, to 13.9 in December, to 12.3 through three games this month.
Sound execution from the guards on both ends of the floor will allow the Hawks to continue playing inspired basketball. Hopefully, Coach Bud won’t need to remind the players that Kyle Korver isn’t coming through that door.
Let’s Go Hawks!