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    Hawks at Nets

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    lethalweapon3

    “This Barclays Center sure is a nice place, eh, Dennis?”

     

    So, what did your team get by parting ways with Joe Johnson?

    Meeting tonight for the first time this season, both the Atlanta Hawks and the host Brooklyn Nets (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, YES Network in NYC) have had their destinies significantly shaped, for better or worse, by the July 2012 trade featuring the plainest-named star in the NBA.

    Paying what was, then, a ginormous salary agreed to previously under the Atlanta regime, Brooklyn squeezed three-and-a-half seasons, and one Paul Pierce-fueled postseason series victory, out of the 7-time All-Star (just one All-Star appearance as a Net).

    Back in that fateful summer of 2012, Atlanta could not have conceived that the swap options Brooklyn offered would not only prove useful, but occasionally teeter toward a lottery pick. Brooklyn could not have foreseen that the season before they would buy Johnson out of his contract, it would be the Hawks, not the Nets, going eye-to-toe with LeBron James in the Eastern Conference Finals, dispatching Joe Cool and the Nets along the way.

    Neither of the Duke-alum general managers who agreed to the 2012 blockbuster deal would have predicted that, by 2017, they would each be distant memories in their respective NBA locales, largely for reasons that have nothing to do with this mega-deal.

    Here we stand, Hawks and Nets tipping off at the Barclays Center, and the man who defined these teams’ histories over the course of the past decade is coming off the bench in Salt Lake City. That leaves us fans to ponder: what is left in Joe Johnson’s wake? Who are Joe’s legacies?

    Well in Atlanta’s case, for starters, we got full seasons and playoff contributions from DeShawn Stevenson and Johan Petro. Anthony Morrow stuck around for a cup of tea, then was dealt for a late-season run by the Kobe-stopping Dahntay Jones. All of them, including Jordan Farmar and the troubled Jordan Williams, were off the roster before training camp preceding the the 2013-14 season.

    There was also some cap space engendered by the Joe trade, and signed into it were two shooters, Lou Williams, and Kyle Korver. There was also a 2013 first-rounder. Atlanta shipped that pick, Shane Larkin, as part of a three-team draft-day deal and received a haul that included China’s future statue, Jared Cunningham, along with picks that became Bebe Nogueira and Mike Muscala.

    For a couple months, Brooklyn teased the Hawks with the prospect of a 2014 swap for a lottery pick, before Joe resorted to All-Star mode and made the Nets look decent again. Before becoming a Sixth Man of the Year winner, Lou was sent to Toronto in the summer of 2014, along with Bebe, for the opportunity to waive John Salmons goodbye.

    In 2015, the Hawks nearly had the best of both worlds: a number-one conference seed, and a chance to secure a seat in the draft lottery. Alas, this time the Nets tantalized all the way until the final game of the season before their playoff berth was clinched. Receiving Atlanta’s spot, Brooklyn selected Chris McCullough. The Hawks swung yet another three-team, draft-day deal, using their selection of Kelly Oubre and converting it into the Knicks’ Tim Hardaway, Jr., plus a 2019 second-rounder from Washington.

    Last week, Korver begat the retiring Mo Williams, a dragged-kicking-and-screaming Mike Dunleavy, Jr., and a top-ten protected first round pick in 2019, all arriving from Cleveland. Including that plus two future recruits to Hawks University (a 2017 second-rounder from Brooklyn; the 2019 pick from the Wiz), Atlanta has two legacies to the Joe Johnson deal that remain on the floor tonight: Hardaway, and Muscala.

    For whatever their flaws, Hardaway and Muscala have become integral contributors. Timmy (last 4 games: 19.3 PPG, 59.4 FG%, 65.4 3FG%) even more so, now that the Hawks have sent Korver packing. With the departures of Korver and Ryan Kelly, Moose becomes Atlanta’s best bet at hitting the occasional shot from the 3-point arc (team-high 44.8 3FG%), at least until Dunleavy gets back up to speed.

    At the other end of the floor, what does Brooklyn have to show for itself, after buying out Joe last February? Quite a bit, at least numerically, if you count McCullough plus the cap space created from the buyout.  That flexibility allowed the Nets to bring in Sean Kilpatrick and the since-jettisoned Henry Sims, undrafted free agents, in the back half of last season.

    The roster was also repopulated around centerpiece Brook Lopez, with free agents including Luis Scola, Justin Hamilton, Randy Foye, Joe Harris, and the since-dispatched trio of Greivis Vasquez, Yogi Ferrell and Anthony “Bustin’ Rebel” Bennett.

    With owner Mikhail Prokhorov looming above the franchise, the Nyets can’t possibly be the Nyets without spending a few extra rubles. The team swung-and-missed on offer mega-bucks sheets for Tyler Johnson and Allen Crabbe in the summer, and again in mid-season while making a play for Donatas Motiejunas.

    They also brought into the fold lunchpail forward Trevor Booker and hair-gel-aficionado Jeremy Lin to serve as starters during the Nets’ transition. Lin, however, has struggled with a hamstring strain, and he’ll miss his 25th game (7th in a row) tonight. Booker injured his hip during Brooklyn’s 105-95 Sunday matinee home loss to the 76ers, their 10th defeat in the past 11 games, and his status for tonight remains up in the air.

    To top off the teardown-and-rebuild, the Nets elected to follow the lead of Joe’s current employer, and pluck a Mike Budenholzer disciple off the Atlanta Hawks’ bench. After concluding his final playoff run with the Hawks, Huntington native Kenny Atkinson returned to the island he once geographically shared with NYC’s biggest borough. Joining forces with Brooklyn’s newest general manager, Spurs-Guy Sean Marks, Coach Kenny remains effusive in praise for his former boss.

    “Fantastic all-around coach,” Atkinson said of Coach Bud during his introductory presser, “really taught me about building a program and building a culture on and off the court.” As Hawks fans know, Atkinson is not in the mold of the freak-out, panic-button, antacid-swilling win-now taskmasters to whom the league once grew accustomed. Patience is literally Kenny’s virtue. After watching the products of Hawks U., Atkinson’s brass are willing to wait for Nets Community College to grow into something bigger under his and Marks’ watch.

    After years of being sold on champagne dreams with Riunite on Ice talents, Brooklynites these days know the deal. Still, Nets fans have seen enough to know which players they want to see more, and less, of on the court.

    They’ll hand you a Coney Island dog, with relish, if you would take Bojan Bogdanovic (35.8 3FG%) off their hands. Defensively, he and Kilpatrick formed the “Bad and Bojie” duo at the wing spots, a problem Atkinson is trying to ameliorate by replacing SKil with Harris (also 35.8 3FG%) in the starting unit.

    Rookie Caris LeVert is not your Casanova, but fans would prefer seeing more of Hardaway’s former Wolverine teammate, who was acquired in the dealing of Thaddeus Young to Indiana. There’s a little less desire to see 2015 draftee Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, whose jumper remains wayward as he also seems lost with respect to his defensive assignments.

    Lin’s perpetual absence has forced the Nets to go with youth at the point. New York City’s least absent point guard is Isaiah Whitehead, a Brooklyn native and a second-round rookie out of Seton Hall. As his team-high 2.9 APG shows, he’s still figuring this whole thing out. Third-year pro Spencer Dinwiddie got some D-League seasoning and, with his contract newly guaranteed, should expect to see more time bringing up the ball in Brooklyn.

    Like Paul Millsap in the first year of his Hawks tenure under Atkinson’s eye, Lopez just started seriously shooting the rock from outside this season. Already, B-Lo is Brooklyn’s most accurate perimeter shooter (36.4 3FG%), most recently going 3-for-7 for 9 of his 26 points against Embiidelphia. Brooklyn will simply hope that his newfound floor-spacing will distract Atlanta’s Dwight Howard and open things up for the Nets’ offense inside.

    Also getting the jump-shooting big-man tutorial is backup center Justin Hamilton (34.3 3FG%, 2-for-4 3FGs, 16 points off the bench vs. PHI). Lopez is a continual trade target, and if the Nets pull the trigger on a deal, it seems they’re content with letting Hamilton ride out the remainder of the season as a starter.

    Either Hamilton (shifting Lopez to the 4-spot) or the lightly-used Scola will start if Booker cannot go today, although Nets fans would like to see more of the young and lanky McCullough. Ivan Johnson doppelganger Quincy Acy was brought in on a ten-day today, replacing Bennett, and is available to play.

    Brooklyn may not be winning ballgames, but it’s not from a lack of trying. Much of their league-low 8-28 record is attributable to their woeful road mark, a league-worst 1-17 away from Barclays. Never mind that, you see, the way their future draft pick control is set up… Suffice to say, there is little benefit to tanking.

    Thanks to the deal the old regime made with Boston, the Celtics get the Nets’ lottery slot this spring. The Hawks (21-16), though, cannot afford to screw with the Celts’ lottery odds. They need a seventh-straight victory to keep Boston (23-14, in Toronto tonight) close in the standings and set up a semi-titanic clash back in Atlanta on Friday night.

    Atkinson, like Budenholzer, is imploring his team to push the tempo, and these Nets are running (NBA-high 104.1 possessions per-48), even if it’s full-speed into a brick wall on most nights (NBA-high 16.6 TO%). On the good side, they are listening when Atkinson, drawing from his Mike D’Antoni roots, warns them not to fall enamored with mid-range shots (7.6% of offense, 2nd-lowest in NBA behind Houston).

    Masterful ball control from Dennis Schröder (20.2 PPG, 40.0 3FG%, 6.0 APG, 3.0 TOs/game during win streak), and on-ball pressure defense without fouling the Nets (18.2% of offense from FTs, 7th in NBA), should be sufficient for Atlanta to set the tone early tonight.

    Stifling defense from Millsap (NBA-best 99.1 D-Rating, min. 20 games and 25 minutes/game) and Dwight Howard (100.5 D-Rating, 2nd to Rudy Gobert among starting centers w/ same criteria) should keep Lopez and the Nets out of the paint (45.1 PPG-in-the-paint, 7th in NBA), and more reliant on perimeter shots (31.4% of offense from 3FGs, 6th in NBA) contested by Atlanta’s wing defenders. Hawk opponents have hit on just 31.5% of their three-point attempts during this win streak.

    Neither team should expect the former star, Joe Johnson, to be watching from afar. He’s prepping for Korver, LeBron and visiting Cleveland tonight. Besides, he’s just striving to be the best guy named Joe coming off Utah’s bench these days.

    Let’s Go Hawks!

    ~lw3


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