• Hawksquawk.net

    Atlanta Hawks community, for the fans, by the fans

    lethalweapon3
     
    “SPIN MOR CHIKN!”
     
    There’s a first time for everything, I reckon. Yet I’m going to try getting through this game preview of the Atlanta Hawks and the visiting Chicago Bulls (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL) without tearing to shreds one of my favorite NBA management punching bags. That’s right, Garpax… you can call it a “rip-prieve”!
    The bad news for fans of the Bulls and the Minnesota Timberwolves is, when the ever-scrutinized managers of those clubs trade with each other, somebody has to come out on top with a “win”. Ask any bitter ex-NBA commissioner -- it’s rarely easy to glean a fair return when your young All-Star talent wants out. Especially, in this case, one who had already worn out his welcome in the locker room, just two seasons into what would certainly wind up as a four-year, $72.5 million extension deal.
    But the monster known as John Paxson and Gar Forman, attached at the hip, put their two heads together. They realized their old friend Tom Thibodeau was willing to make a devilish deal to scooch his unaccomplished roster into perennial playoff contention.
    Out went superstar sourpuss Jimmy Butler, on Draft Night 2017. In came beleaguered young lotto-pick guards Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine, plus a seven-foot lotto-pick forward in Lauri Markkanen, the latter swapped for a rookie center with lingering foot problems that can’t seem to get onto an NBA floor.
    Butler’s addition helped Minnesota earn a pair of postseason home games, their first since 2004, after barely squeaking into the playoff on their final night of the 2017-18 season. They also got a massive headache, with a discontent Butler, a pair of butt-hurt first-overall draftees, and a tone-deaf Thibodeau leaving the Wolves hustling backwards into this new season.
    As for Chicago, the ACL tear LaVine suffered with Minnesota already had last season as a dream deferred. While LaVine rehabbed for a return after the All-Star Break last season, Dunn emerged as a solid defensive guard and ballhandler. Markkanen strung together enough threes, rebounds, and dunks to earn himself an All-Rookie First Team honor.
    Despite all the losing, the chemistry problems began to sort themselves out under the watchful eye of Bulls coach Fred Hoiberg. After punching his way up the depth chart, third-year pro Bobby Portis proved to be a serviceable big man around the glass.
    Portis’ growth, the Markkanen acquisition, and a pair of seemingly smart first-rounders from this year’s draft (the pride of Pace Academy, Wendell Carter, and Chandler Hutchison) are giving Bulls fans hope that there is, indeed, somebody competent at the wheel in the Windy City.
    Now, if only Hoiberg could get all his Bulls in the pen together.
    Coach Fred announced during training camp that Garpax’s big offseason get, Milwaukee restricted free agent and Chi-town native Jabari Parker, would be coming off the bench in hopes of an offensive spark. The bad juju seemed to follow that decision. Markkanen suffered a severe elbow sprain, in camp, that will likely continue to keep him shelved well into next month. After missing the first pair of games for personal reasons, Dunn returned just in time to suffer an MCL sprain that has him out of action for a similar span.
    Not to be outdone, Portis suffered a similar sprain during the first win of the season for the Bulls (1-4), a 112-110 home thriller against the Hornets, and he will likely be sitting for some time as well. 2016’s low-lottery pick, swingman Denzel Valentine, has been out all season with an ankle sprain.
    I’d be tempted to note that the Bulls could have upgraded their depth during the offseason by doing something with the contracts of Robin Lopez, the grungy mascot bully relegated to third-string behind Cristiano Felicio, and Omer Asik, the apparition whose contract got waived just this past week. But, again, this is a “rip-prieve”!
    RoLo’s deal, signed with the nyuk-nyuk-Knicks back in the summer of 2015, mercifully expires after this season, but his play thus far makes it hard to see a contending team willing to take the $14.5 million contract off Chicago’s hooves before the trade deadline (Milwaukee says they have enough Lopezes, thank you).
    Adding Parker to a club that already hoped to rely upon LaVine and Markkanen for major minutes, this was bound to be an uphill climb for the Bulls’ defense. That was even before Dunn and now Portis bowed out with injuries.
    Bulls opponents are already lofting nearly 40 three-point attempts per game, a league-high. Only the Hawks’ most-recent vanquished foes, the Cavs and Mavs, have seen more of those threes go through the hoop than Chicago (13.8 opponent 3FGs per game). Now, on the second night of a back-to-back, after watching Kemba Walker (5-for-10 3FGs, 30 points in Charlotte’s 135-106 payback win) have another field day, the Bulls (120.5 D-Rating, 2nd-worst in NBA) face a team whose head coach thinks 40 perimeter shots per game is miniscule.
    Thus far, only Coach Bud’s Bucks are sinking more threes per contest (16.0 3FGs/game) than his former team. Of the top-20 NBA teams in three-point attempts, only Lloyd Pierce’s Hawks (37.8 3FGAs/game) have been hitting above a 40 percent clip.
    LL Cool P, demanding a breakneck tempo (NBA-high 109.0 pace), wants Atlanta’s attempts to get closer to 50 than 40. He’ll be leaning on Trae Young (NBA rookie-high 21.5 PPG & 7.5 APG) and his vet backup Jeremy Lin to push the pace, wear down the Bulls early, and set up quality perimeter chances for all their teammates.
    Healthy for the first time all season, Daniel Hamilton (shoulder) may have a role in the second half if he is activated. Lin (12.8 MPG, lowest among the Hawks’ active non-two-way players), whose early struggles compelled Pierce to rely on his wings to key the monumental comeback against the Mavs on Wednesday, will try to mimic the vintage night the Hornets’ Tony Parker enjoyed versus the bare-bones Bulls (7-for-11 FGs, 8 assists, one TO in 19 bench minutes) last night.
    The vastly-improved Cam Payne, pressed into starter’s minutes, and ex-Hawk Justin Holiday will try to fill in the offensive gaps alongside LaVine (29.8 PPG, 5th in NBA; 3rd in NBA Usage%), the off-guard is high-scoring but may want to trade off some of his high-flying paint plays for more perimeter chances (42.4 3FG%). Parker (19 points @CHA) still dutifully comes off the bench, although Hoiberg may be tempted to change that soon if the losing continues.
    Try all they might, there are simply not enough high-percentage, high-scoring opportunities for LaVine, Parker, and the Bulls to overcome their many defensive lapses. Even if they do force errors from Atlanta (16.1 TO%, 5th-highest in NBA) into quick points at the other end, it feels as though that just plays into Pierce and the Hawks’ hands by leaving Atlanta ample time on the game clock.
    Chicago will need to produce transition points from their wings in the three-point corners, much like the treys Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince (combined 8-for-20 3FGs, 5 corner threes) used to feast on Dallas during the Hawks’ 111-104 comeback victory. The question, with Payne, Parker and LaVine focused on scoring, is whether their bigs can haul it down the court and effectively dish the rock, too.
    “We are live from Allstate Arena!” Ugghh. ESPN’s Mark Jones got Wednesday’s remodeled arena unveiling off to a bad start for the Hawks (2-2), but the team and their fans eventually made themselves feel right at home, at just the right time. Coming into this game with a rest advantage and momentum, there is no reason Atlanta can’t get off on the good talon against the Bulls. Chicago’s managers get a reprieve today. But that doesn’t mean the Bulls on the court should. Rip and Run!
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    "Future" is Bright!
     
    Turn On The Lights!
    Tomorrow Starts Today. That’s the slogan for the basketball grand opening at the re-christened State Farm Arena, home of your Atlanta Hawks. Tomorrow Starts Today is all about laying a foundation, right now, for something huge, attractive, and fun, down the road. Tonight’s hip-hop headliner offers an ideal example of what the Future can hold, when one commits to laying the proper groundwork now.
    Let’s praise T-Boz as just one example. Tionne Watkins already had her hands full, making it big with the ground-breaking girl group, TLC, in the early 1990s, but she had even grander plans in mind. Around the same time that a bunch of attention around town was directed to the inflammatory relationship her stage partner had with a local football star, Watkins, a budding producer, was kindling sparks of a different sort.
    At a southside Atlanta beauty supply shop, it was T-Boz who introduced Pat “Sleepy” Brown to her colleague Rico Wade. Those two soon paired with Ray Murray to form the Organized Noize production team. Watkins helped facilitate the relationship between this trio, who toiled around the clock cranking studio music out of an unfinished basement with dirt floors (a “Dungeon”, if you will), at Wade’s mother’s house in the shadow of Atlanta’s Federal penitentiary, and the understandably skeptical folks at the powerhouse LaFace Records label.
    No T-Boz, no Organized Noize. No Organized Noize, no dungeon. No dungeon, no Dungeon Family. No Dungeon Family, maybe, no Goodie Mob? Maybe, no Outkast? No Southernplayalisticadillacmusik? No “Soul Food”? Certainly, no “Waterfalls” watershed moment for TLC.
    Maybe, amid all the jibber-jabber about East versus West coasts, “The South Got Somethin’ To Say,” never gets famously said at The Source Awards? Maybe, “Dirty South”, never becomes the catch-all catchphrase that bonded this artistically rich region of the country?
    One could stop there, in the Roaring Nineties of Atlanta, but the ripple effects continued outward. Wade, you see, had a cousin. One who was just one among thousands of local tweens caught up in the dopey dope game of the 1990s, but one who Rico brought under his wing to learn the ropes of the music biz. Like another next-gen artist of the collective, Killer Mike, who grew to prominence out of his collaborations with Outkast, cousin Nayvadius was given ample room to carve out his niche.
    Styled as “The Future of Rap” by the Dungeon Family’s G-Rock, Nayvadius picked up the Auto-Tune mechanism – seen as well-worn in the R&B/Hip-Hop game by the turn of the last decade – and mastered his rapping style around it. He created a distinctive club-banging sound, one that connected his hard-edged, purple-drank and Percocet-fueled lyrics in ways that sounded fresh to mainstream head-nodders of the 2010s. He reps for the “low life”, as he was, making it big and living large and in-charge: “Used to have no money for a crib. Now my room service bill cost your whole life.”
    Talent, ambition, perseverance. That’s what it took to create Organized Noize. That’s what it took to carry it three decades forward, and counting, so long as T-Boz, her friend Rico, and his cousin Nayvadius, who now produces as well, got something to say about it. It’s 2018, and while the latter, performing as Future, serves as the pregame and halftime entertainment before a packed State Farm Arena crowd, you might be watching from above while enjoying a haircut at Killer Mike’s newest SWAG (Shave, Wash and Groom) Shop.
    “I’m the one that’s livin’ lavish, like I’m playin’ for the Mavericks!”, Future spits famously on 2015’s “March Madness.” The sense of cozy extravagance that Mark Cuban has concocted over the decades for the Dallas Mavericks under his employ – for the fellas, at least – is one Tony Ressler admires and emulates.
    Ressler hopes to be able to proudly say that his investments, with a few kind dashes of public subsidy, laid the groundwork for the luxurious future of not only his Atlanta Hawks, who happen to host the Mavs this evening (7:00 PM Eastern, ESPN, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), but its fanbase, one that has long been slow to grow, and the hardscrabble environs that surround his stadium.
    As it was in trying to get the Philips Arena refurbishment plans off the ground, fostering a lavish experience around the basketball team itself will take talent, ambition, and perseverance. Ressler has entrusted Travis Schlenk to find the right blend, and the Hawks executive has given many fans the sense that he is just beginning to get that talent part locked down.
    Schlenk called the 2017 draft-day audible that brought John Collins (ankle, out of action for a couple more weeks) under the Hawks’ wing. In 2018, unwilling to be tethered fully to the designs of GMs past, Travis and head coach Mike Budenholzer agreed to part ways, allowing the former to bring in his own guy in Lloyd Pierce.
    Meanwhile, Schlenk’s draft compromise with Hawks ownership, reportedly (and ignoring Ressler’s subsequent, colorfully adamant protests regarding said reports) allowed the owners’ favorite Luka Doncic to head to Dallas, for the price of another potential lottery pick, while Trae Young suits up for Atlanta. After just a few games of Young and Doncic playing with their respective, uphill-climbing squads, neither Hawks nor Mavs fans are complaining much about the early returns.
    Luka is already, hands down, the top player. In soccer, that is. 33-year-old Croatian midfielder Luka Modric is the toast of FIFA, just last month beating out Ronaldo and Mo Salah for the federation’s award of the world’s best men’s player while holding it down for Real Madrid... yes, the same athletics organization that helped give rise to the teenaged Serbian sensation, Luka Doncic.
    If you still have doubts that the sports world is about to get ridiculously overrun by Luka-Mania, go get a look-see at Luka Samanic, the 6-foot-10 power forward from Zagreb and Ljubljana (Doncic’s hometown) who MVP’d FIBA’s U18 European Championship. Brace yourself, the Luka(s) are coming!
    Did you waste an otherwise beautiful summer fussing over which NBA franchise took “the” right player, “the” future superstar, over who “won” the draft-night deal? You just don’t argue anymore. You just don’t argue anymore. You just don’t argue anymore!
    This pair of rookies, currently leading their class in scoring, acknowledge their forthcoming NBA histories will be inextricably tied to one another. The youngsters not only embrace but appreciate that fact, and they appear to greatly admire each other’s skills and resolve. At worst, envision this budding rivalry, if one must call it that, as a rap battle, one in which two esteemed talents, in the quest to one-up one another, manage to make an even bigger name for each other than they could make for themselves alone. Them boys up to something!
    Unlike Luka, Trae’s smaller frame doesn’t allow him to live on an upper floor, so to speak, when making forays into the paint. But it’s Young’s estimable court vision and IQ that can help propel him to a figurative upper echelon in this league. His last game, on Sunday evening against a shell-shocked Cavaliers club, offered Hawks fans a satisfying glimpse of what could be to come.
    Luka (18.3 PPG, 4.3 APG, 4.3 TOs/game, 43.5 FG%, 61.5 FT% through 3 starts) may indeed become a rockstar around the Metroplex. But they’ll be making “Trae Songz” around the ATL in due time, if the Hawks’ ballhandler continues to dazzle with the flair of his artistic passes. Young, balla, move that rock!
    A highlight facilitator like Young (23.0 PPG, 8.3 APG, 2.7 TOs/game, 51.9 2FG%, 39.3 3FG%, 80.0 FT% through 3 starts) attracts not only fans, and not only opposing help-defenders that free up reliant teammates, but, down the road, NBA stars who would very much enjoy taking a few rides in a banana boat with him.
    The face of Trae’s franchise serves as a color commentator, calling out Young and his teammates’ heat checks. Conversely, the face of Luke’s franchise is still collecting checks (Future would agree; when in doubt, always chase a check). Dirk Nowitzki (ankle surgery) sits on the shelf along with Harrison Barnes and ex-Hawk Devin Harris (hamstring strains) for the moment. But the Germanator, who essentially got the Euro-craze going in the NBA, is already an ideal mentor for Doncic’s acclimation.
    The future Hall of Famer will be of even greater benefit, at least in Mavs coach Rick Carlisle’s offense, when he and Barnes return to finish plays keyed by Doncic. Until then, he and Dennis Smith, Jr. will spend their time perfecting lobs in the direction of free agent pickup DeAndre Jordan (17.0 PPG, 12.7 RPG, 2.3 BPG) and kickouts to Wesley Matthews (only NBA player with 125 made 3FGs in each of the last 8 seasons).
    In an NBA world where 120 is The New 100, Jordan serves as a last line of defense for the Mavericks (120.4 D-Rating, 3rd-worst in NBA; 117.2 O-Rating, 3rd-best), which can work if they can keep their opponents, like the Hawks (2nd in pace, 5th in eFG%) from engaging them in a track meet. Returning from injury, Hawks center Dewayne Dedmon can help Atlanta keep Jordan and the Mavs (6th in O-Reb%, 5th in and D-Reb%) from dominating the glass.
    One can only hope that all the Doncic hype hasn’t already relegated Dallas’ 2017-18 wunderkind to obscurity. Smith’s first games as an NBA player, much like Young, also brought statistical comparisons to league greats. Dennis’ 142 points and 49 dimes in his first ten career games were topped only by LeBron and Kyrie, as players aged 19 or younger, in their respective rookie campaigns. He has had his struggles in the early going, particularly when he cannot draw trips to the free throw line.
    Despite the Mavericks winning their second-straight home game, against Chicago, on Monday, Smith (3-for-15 3FGs so far) shot just 2-for-11 from the field and produced just three assists in a season-high 30-plus minutes of play. He was minus-19 against Devin Booker’s Suns in the season-opener.
    He’ll need a complete, impactful effort to help cool off Young and the Hawks (1-2) tonight. With pressure provided from Matthew and Dorian Finney-Smith, Smith’s team can also benefit if they can keep live-ball turnovers to a minimum and gains the edge in the transition scoring department (plus-8 PPG off TOs, 3rd-best in NBA; Atlanta’s minus-7 PPG 5th-worst).
    Talent, ambition, perseverance. It begins with a catalyst with an eye for bringing the right talents together, like T-Boz. Like Wyatt Durrette, a Kennesaw bartender who brought a fiddler and vocalist named Jimmy De Martini in touch with guitarist/singer and restaurateur Zac Brown, helping form the foundation for one of country music’s greatest bands. You can enjoy the band perform the national anthem tonight, while dining at Zac Brown’s newest social club. Imagine, no Durrette, no “Chicken Fried?” No “Toes”?
    Whether Schlenk is the catalyst that puts the Hawks on the path to becoming a primetime NBA draw remains to be seen. But after seeing what a Trae Young-directed roster, with rookies like Kevin Huerter and Omari Spellman on the come up, with Taurean Prince finding his groove, with Coach Pierce helping them all gel, has the potential to accomplish together, the Topgolf-swinging fans at State Farm Arena could happily get Used To This.
    A few more seasons of bonding, and Hawks fans could become the “gang members” looking askance at all of Atlanta’s new “tourists” in the arena, asking, “Where Ya [Bleep] Was At, Dawg? Tomorrow Started Yesterday!”
    When it comes to the Future of NBA championship glory, will it finally be the Atlanta Hawks who have something to say?
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    It’s only crazy until you Do It.
     
    As far as I can tell, Rudy Wanderone never even spent a minute in the Gopher State. He was an immigrant New Yorker. During the Great Depression, Rudy did what many a young Manhattanite aspired to do during the Roaring Twenties. He became a pool shark.
    And a darned good one, too. Taking his trick-shot skills on the road, Rudy got well into his adulthood, relocating to D.C. and later Illinois and Virginia, craftily separating marks from their money at the billiards tables. Gaining a low-key notoriety among those in the know, the burly Wanderone was just fine adopting the sobriquets he was given along the way: “New York Fats,” “Broadway Fats,” “Chicago Fats”.
    Then came The Hustler.
    The 1961 adapted film starred Paul Newman opposite the stocky Jackie Gleason, in a pool-styled predecessor to the Rocky-Apollo Creed skit. The antagonist that Gleason played from both the book and the flick, depicted as the hands-down best pool player in America, went by the name “Minnesota Fats.”
    Believing with all his heart, that the character was based on him, Rudy Wanderone didn’t ask for permission. He adopted that fictional moniker for himself, just in time for book deals and a viewership eager to be entertained as the Golden Age of Television reached its sunset. Turns out, that was a wise, profitable move.
    Over a half-century later, ask around about the greatest men’s billiards player of all time, and you’d find most folks would be pressed to recall the exceptional, but dry, Willie Mosconi. If you needed to win on “Super Password” with the secret word, “Fats”, start with “Minnesota…” and your gameshow partner isn’t likely to guess “Timberwolves?”
    Minnesota Fats became America’s Pool Player, even though he never actually won a formal billiards championship. He remains known as such decades after his passing; many people thought that was his birth name. Using his wit and guile to belie a boastful, competitive spirit, he successfully promoted not only his own persona but the game he loved, lifting it out of smoky gambling halls and into the living rooms of the mainstream.
    It’s time for somebody else to be globally renowned by the first-name Minnesota.
    Kevin Love was well on his way to becoming the second-greatest Timberwolf named Kevin of all time. That was, until Akron native LeBron James got homesick, looked around Cleveland, and suspected a future that included Andrew Wiggins and Anthony Bennett was likely to be a murky one... after all, I mean, what does everyone think LeBron is, a babysitter?
    James donned his Super Secret GM hat for his second go-round with the Cavs, and he grabbed a three-time All-Star from the T’wolves via trade, to help Tristan Thompson chase his and Kyrie Irving’s misses. By that time, Love was the preeminent rebounding forward in the game, at the ripe age of 25. He was also just beginning to display a pleasant perimeter stroke and a smooth passing touch he spent many years honing.
    In his final season with the Wolves, Love earned All-NBA Second Team, averaging well over 25 PPG, over 12 RPG, and a career-best 4.4 APG. The rub was just that his Minnesota team, much like the one that surrounded Kyrie, was wretched, his Wolves topping out at 40-42 and nine games out of the playoffs in the West. Joining LeBron in Ohio was supposed to fix all ills. It certainly did fix the “not making playoffs” issue. But it created new ones for Love.
    Kevin got his ring in 2016. But shortly after arriving in Cleveland, it did seem like “Kevin” had become his middle name – and “Blame” his first. Clevelanders tentative to heap criticism on The King, who was kind enough to bestow his presence upon a perpetual lottery team after winning titles in Miami, or face-of-the-future Irving, found convenience in turning a lot of their scorn onto Love, who was decidedly (perhaps, too comfortably) the third banana. Some teammates weren’t all that far behind the fans.
    Moments which directed a high degree of the unforgiving spotlight towards him, like the Kyrie-free contest against Luke Babbitt and the lowly Atlanta Hawks in November of last year, brought about panic attacks for Love at the worst possible times. Dealing with them, undiagnosed and untreated, brought forth internal team dissension that was no longer possible to obscure. A disappointing loss? Blame Kevin Love. “When,” fans would ask each other, loudly enough for him to hear, “are we finally going to see Minnesota Kevin?”
    Congrats, Cavs Nation, you are getting your chance. Like another guy once regaled as The King, LeBron Has Left The Building, probably for good this time around. Kyrie read the tea leaves a season early, and skidded across the flat earth all the way to Beantown. That essentially leaves Kevin Love as the face of the Cavaliers for today’s home opener at Quicken Loans Arena. That could be a good thing for the Hawks’ opponent this evening (6:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Ohio in CLE), if one chooses to look at it that way.
    Love returns with greater peace of mind, now getting treatment for his illness, and with a new, four-year, $120 million contract in his pocket. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, the Cavs are going to need their 30-year-old star to play like “Minnesota Kevin” if they are going to return to the playoffs. Post moves to attack the rim, boxing out for defensive boards and making Wes Unseld-style outlet passes to ignite breaks, drawing extra defenders and kicking the ball out to open shooters. Most importantly for Minnesota Kevin, not hesitating in deference to superstars who no longer roam The Land.
    LeBron’s Leftovers on coach Tyronn Lue’s squad would be smart, though, to ignore what any Kartrashian spouse has to say, particularly about their team still being the defending conference champions until further notice. Sears was a prominent department store for quite some time, too. But nobody’s deluded into thinking they’ll be around for much longer.
    The immediate challenge for Love is that he gets to play in The Land of Fatally Flawed Toys. Fellows like J.R. Smith, Jordan Clarkson, Rodney Hood, Kyle Korver, George Hill and local native Larry Nance (questionable, ankle) were never going to be headed to Cleveland without LeBron’s explicit blessings during the annual runs to The Finals.
    Heck, Thompson would probably have been long gone, too. Now they all remain, defensive deficiencies and all (26th in D-Rating through two games, worse than Atlanta’s 24th), left to the whims of T-Lue and Larry Drew to make work as the reformulated Pips, behind Love’s Gladys.
    With James gone, and Nance (questionable, sprained ankle) and Dekker (head injury @ MIN) dealing with early injuries, 2015 second-rounder Cedi Osman evolves from a Cool Story Bro to an actual starter on this roster, one which struggled to stop pretty much any Raptor (what a difference a few months make, eh?) during their 116-104 opening loss in Toronto – four team steals, zero blocks. Lottery rookie guard Colin Sexton, plus big men Ante Zizic and Sam Dekker, essentially spackle the final holes among the reserves.
    In Friday’s consternation-filled home tipoff for the T’Wolves, Love offered fans for both teams a glimpse of the Minnesota Kevin of yore – 25 points, 19 boards (17 defensive), 7 dimes. While he continues to feast from drawing fouls and getting to the charity stripe (10-for-10 FTs @ MIN), he suffers in a vein similar to Hawks rookie Trae Young.
    Opposing defenders don’t respect Love’s floormates, bringing double-teams his way all over the court. That leaves Love a high-volume, low-efficiency shooter (6-for-19 FGs) who needs complete games from Osman (career-high 22 points, 8 assists @ MIN), Thompson (7-for-9 FGs, 4 O-Rebs @ MIN), and others off the bench, for his team to stay in the running most nights.
    With Love (16 third-quarter points) leading the charge, Cleveland (0-2) dropped 41 points on the Wolves in the third quarter, yet still fell by a 131-123 score. His team-high 21 points two nights before (5-for-18 FGs, 10-for-14 FTs @ TOR), and Osman’s 17 points and 10 rebounds, proved futile against the Raptors.
    The Cavs (five team steals, three blocks @ MIN) need to manufacture stops, and it’s not likely that they’re missing the defensive inputs of Smith (sore elbow) and Nance any more than Atlanta has tried to impede foes without ankle-hobbled frontcourt starters John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon, among others.
    For all their woes on defense, especially around the perimeter (42.4 opponent 3FG%, 5th-highest in NBA), the Hawks’ offense under new coach Lloyd Pierce is showing signs of life (54.3 eFG%, 10th in NBA). That is, when they’re not committing copious unforced errors (league-low 1.07 assist/TO ratio; 19.6 TO% and 26.0 opponent PPG off TOs, 29th in NBA). Whether the Cavaliers will take an active role in forcing errors out of Atlanta (0-2) remains to be seen.
    Minnesota Kevin leading the way to victory today, and more often in the months to come, might prove beneficial for both the Cavs and the shorthanded Hawks (2019 top-10-protected pick, from the 2017 Korver trade) in the long run. But if Hill and Sexton fail to get help prying the ball out of Young’s deft hands, will it be the Cavs that find themselves getting… snookered?
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    Wise pick, “Cris” Broussard!
     
    Get to da choppa! Forget about Predator, if I had to pick an 80’s Ahnold movie for the many deposed head coaches of tonight’s Hawks opponent, the Memphis Grizzlies (8:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL), I’d have to go with Raw Deal.
    In that flick, during a catty exchange between Schwarzenegger and his Aqua-Netted damsel du jour, she tries him with some Tank Fan logic… “Losing builds character!”  But he claps back with, “Winning improves your wardrobe!” Despite winning, and often exceeding reasonable expectations, Lionel Hollins, Dave Joerger, and David Fizdale barely had time to load up at JoS. A. Bank by the time the Grizzlies’ axe came for them.
    Hollins guided the Blue Bears to their best-ever regular season finish, 56 wins, and their first trip to the conference finals, as a 5-seed, in 2013. Alas, his contract expired and wasn’t renewed, due in part to the cardinal sin of getting swept by Gregg Popovich’s Spurs.
    Joerger took just two seasons to get the team back to 55 wins. But one series victory over the course of three seasons wasn’t enough for a Memphis management team whose Commitment to Excellence is ringing hollower than anything you’d see on an Oakland gridiron these days.
    Fizdale thought he had the town wrapped around his finger following his first full season, in which his fiery 7-seeded Grizzlies took Pop’s Spurs to the brink of elimination in 2017’s opening playoff round. But along the way, he fell out with Memphian Marc Gasol, the stretchy pivot player who, by the year, is becoming more of a local civic mascot than an NBA All-Star candidate. The plop-plop that relieved Coach Fiz of his duties came just 19 games into last season, not long after Mike Conley went down and out (for the season, we would later discover) due to a heel injury.
    Conley’s planned replacement was Mario Chalmers (“???”); Gasol was to be relieved by the undersized Jarell Martin. But somehow, the failure to conduct alchemy that would turn this weathered Grizzlies outfit into an annual Finals contender fell squarely upon the head coach. As has become custom around here. You could almost make a good blues song about it all. I tried, but I couldn’t think of anything that rhymes well with J.B. Bickerstaff.
    “Oh, baby! Mmmm… gimme some o’ dem Bickerstaff Blues!” For Coach J.B., whose initials somehow don’t stand for “Junior Bernie”, the feeling of standing on shaky ground can’t be unfamiliar. Bickerstaff enters his third season as an NBA head coach, but for the first time, he has kicked off the season in that top-dog role. He has twice been the beneficiary when GMs/owners got a quick case of cold feet, in 2015 with Houston (when Kevin McHale got the early heave-ho) and last year after taking the reins from Fizdale. He certainly knows how this goes as well as anybody.
    Robert Pera, the owner who himself was an uncertainty to hang around the Volunteer State this time last year, signed Bickerstaff to a three-year deal after the 2016-17 season concluded, despite the thin and injury-riddled Griz going 15-48 under the coach’s watch. But Pera set the bar absurdly high, even with the health status of the returning perennial near-All-Star Conley, and Gasol, still up-in-the-air, even before his organization knew what they would do with the #4 pick in the NBA Draft.
    “I see no reason why we can’t return to being a 50-win-plus team,” Pera boldly declared to Grind City Media, the team-run media outlet. And no, he’s not talking about a “process,” he means, by April 2019. He added, “I have confidence in (Bickerstaff) to be that centerpiece of the culture we want to build.” We’ll get to see just how long that confidence wavers.
    Chandler Parsons was not Bickerstaff’s fault. Neither was Ben McLemore. Stringing along JaMychal Green in 2017 restricted free agency to the point where the scrappy young pro was sapped of motivation, just when the team needed someone to fill in for departed icon Zach Randolph, wasn’t a coach-created problem. Nor was keeping a red-hot Tyreke Evans around for a pointless close to last season. Nor was rewarding former Hawk Shelvin Mack this summer after a disastrous run in Orlando. Nor was relying on Chalmers last year to do what they expect Mack to do this season.
    Having next-to-nothing to show for three first-round selections between 2014 and 2016, or any first-rounders since Conley was taken back in 2007, can’t be laid at Bickerstaff’s feet. Or, to clarify, shouldn’t. The myriad of draft and free agency blunders this franchise has made has a common thread, and it’s not some sideline taskmaster.
    It’s Chris Wallace, the general manager who gets to thrive off the past success of Gasol and Conley, and the mystique of having some hand in setting the foundation for the Celtics’ last championship. In a world where What Have You Done for Me Lately has become the norm, Wallace, and his sidekick stat-head boss John Hollinger, stand out as inexplicable exceptions.
    In this space, I’ve long tied Wallace to the whipping post just as I have his welcome-overstayed peers in Washington, Sacramento, and Chicago. But none of my bi-annual griping should be seen as a suggestion that Memphis should pull a Suns and start pink-slipping people in the first month of the season. I’m just saying that when the knee-jerk reaction comes, and you can rest assured it will, you can be sure it’s the coach that gets the Raw Deal.
    What happens when Gasol sours, again, this time because lottery pick Jaren Jackson, Jr. is deservedly gnawing away at the soon-to-be 34-year-old’s floor time? When summer free agent gamble Kyle “Slow-Mo” Anderson, filling Memphis’ oft-vacant swingman role, fails to deliver here, at the FedEx Forum, by elevating his level, and pace, of play?
    What happens when an overreliance on Mack, Parsons, human lunchpail Garrett Temple, Omri Casspi, and the “Brooks Brothers” (Dillon and MarShon) to keep Memphis in games offensively, has exactly the effect everyone ought to expect?
    Wait, wait, don’t give away the ending, Memphis! Just promise me that, this time, it will involve some bad dude in a helicopter, a grenade launcher, some C-4, and Schawrzenegger in a beret, slowly walking off as he lights his cigar.
    By the way, how does a Washington Wizard play a part in this revolving Shakespearean tragedy? Bradley Beal isn’t the first misguided soul to overestimate the value of Jeff “Almost Like LeBron” Green. Wallace and the Grizzlies departed with a loosely-protected (top-8) draft pick, in a 2015 three-team deal to bring Green, from Boston, into the fold, where he quickly became the second-best J. Green on Memphis’ roster.
    They tried to recoup some value a year later, by getting a lottery-protected 2019 first-rounder in swapping Green for the Clippers’ Lance Stephenson. Oh, but then they gave that pick away, too, months later, to – you guessed it -- those same Celtics. That pick was relinquished for the rights to rent second-round rookies Deyonta Davis (discarded, along with McLemore and another second-rounder, this summer for Temple) and Rade Zagorac (just flat-out discarded, before last season started). Does Danny have some compromising pictures of you that we (don’t) need to know about, Chris?
    The looming probability of putting yet another lottery pick (9-through-14, this time) into Ainge’s hands could quickly change the calculus for the Grizzlies (0-1), particularly as the sobering reality of a not-50-wins season, or even a playoff spot in the Wild Wild Western Conference, comes into view. Who gets burned at fire sale time? Does Memphis find takers for some of the veteran contracts? Can they make deals without further tampering with their future? So long as Wallace continues running the show, I have a lingering suspicion about how this phase ends.
    Wallace will probably be here, regardless, as local reports suggest he’s been reduced to a media figurehead in lieu of Pera’s guys, including the G-League GM. But his and Hollinger’s long-term job statuses may have been buoyed by the second-biggest Atlanta Compromise in history.
    ESPN draft insider Jonathan Givony reported that Travis Schlenk and the Hawks’ front office was dead-set on drafting Jackson, but Atlanta’s fan-frenzied ownership clamored for the showmanship that Luka Doncic could provide. Splitting the baby, reportedly, is why Trae Young is rocking the three-tone triangles, while Triple-J dipped to Memphis.
    Surprising many with his jumper, Jackson outshined Young, and everybody else on the SummerHawks, in their teams’ July exhibition matchup. The 19-year-old rookie cooled shortly thereafter, and is he expected to be brought along slowly as a backup behind Green and Gasol. That is, except on nights when the Grizzlies are getting grounded-and-pounded inside.
    Wednesday’s season-opening game found Memphis getting gashed in the paint, 60-16, on the road in Indiana. Gasol was unable to even show up on the scoreboard until the third quarter, where he contributed all his (team-high!) 13 points in a resounding 111-83 defeat. Jackson chipped in 10 points, most of his offense coming from the free throw line (2-for-6 FGs, 6-for-6 FTs).
    Giving up all those interior points wouldn’t have been so horrific, had the Grizzlies been capable of shooting above 30 percent from the field (29.8 team FG%) themselves. Finding a perimeter defender to cool off Bojan Bogdanovic (3-for-3 on threes, team-high 19 points for the Pacers), would not have hurt either.
    Fortunately for the Grizzlies (for Bickerstaff, really), they return home to face the Hawks. Or, at least one would think they’re fortunate. Some people have “bad hair days”, but Atlanta had itself a “bad hair quarter” in the second frame of Wednesday’s tipoff game. Hemorrhaging 49 points along the way to a 126-107 loss, the Hawks (0-1) had the Knicks looking like the Harlem Globetrotters before halftime. I could swear I saw Curly Neal assisting Tim Hardaway, Jr. on some of his 31 points.
    Hasty shot selection, wild passing out of traps, and deficient transition D combined to allow the Knicks to sprint away in a New York minute. You will often hear coaches talk about young players improving their games “once the game slows down for them,” but that notion is merely figurative for Coach Lloyd Pierce.
    Pierce wants his charges to charge ahead with a high-tempo (ATL-NYK second-highest pace of the season-openers, behind only LAL-POR), but understands that driving full-bore along the learning curve at this speed will lead to some hair-raising hairpin turns during games. The T-n-T duo of Trae (5-for-14 FGs, 5 assists, 4 TOs, minus-20 in his official debut) and Taurean (7-for-15 FGs, 6 assists, 6 TOs for Prince, minus-23 @ NYK), may literally get to see things “slow down” tonight, if Conley and Memphis (MEM-IND second-slowest season-opener) play a lot of keep-away with the rock.
    With Conley and the high-post-passing Gasol setting up plays, and Bickerstaff espousing the values of player movement and quality reads in lieu of putting the ball on the floor, Memphis intends to again keep turnovers low (7 TOs @ IND), which could present a sizable advantage against a Hawks squad (24 team TOs @ NYK) that is still getting acclimated.
    For the Grizzlies, it is a matter of taking advantage of any miscues and defensive lapses by this young Atlanta team, not allowing them to hang around for four quarters. After suffering a 44-point paint deficit two nights ago, if you’re not building an interior advantage versus a Hawks team that’s rehabbing of trio of big-man ankles (John Collins, Dewayne Dedmon, probably Omari Spellman) and pressing Prince and two-way stalwart Alex Poythress into 4-man duties, you’re doing it wrong.
    They’ve got six road games among the first nine on their schedule, including visits to Utah (twice) and Golden State. But this home opener at the Grindhouse, against the half-baked Hawks, is almost custom-made for the Grizzlies to lick their wounds after stumbling out of the gate in Indy. If they find a way to blow it tonight in front of the home crowd, and then fail to turn it around anytime in the next couple weeks? You know how the saying goes, J.B. -- “Hasta la vista, baby!”
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “And then, Trae asked Vince, ‘Was Freddy Weis the dude that went on to coach Notre Dame?’”
     
    September 25, 2000. Where were you, on that fateful day? Do you remember?
    Sorry to get so Earth Wind and Fire-y with you to start the 2018-19 Atlanta Hawks season – as usual, it’s a bit of a sidetrack. While last season’s opening gamethread (the one that concluded with a foretelling thought, “Wait, where did they all go? They were just here!”) began with a now-mythical skyscraper in Midtown, this season’s first game preview kicks off just over 18 years ago, almost directly across North Avenue, in a nondescript barbershop.
    I snuck out of work on that early autumn afternoon (no, it wasn’t a cloudy day, EWF fans), fitting into the schedule of the gentleman who seemed competent at doing anything with the Brillo pad that passes for hair above my eyebrows. He, like many native Atlantans, was a huge NBA fan, and not at all a Hawks fan. An unrepentant Sixer fan myself at that point, I had fancied myself a Hawks sympathizer, still years removed from becoming a Hawks evangelist.
    “At least you got excitement up there in Philly,” explained the barber, as he tried, as best he could, to lineup my crooked forehead. “We need an A.I. around here, like you got. A Kobe, a J-Kidd, a Grant Hill, That Fella (like many, he used other vernacular for “Fella,” I’m just cleaning it up here) that puts teams on their back. That Fella you know will try to do something spectacular, just to put his imprint on the game.” The Starks jersey above his crisp, long white tee let you know where this Adamsville resident’s bread was buttered.
    No, years of the steady but staid Steve Smith didn’t pass muster, and Jim Jackson felt like Smitty warmed over. Smith’s effective replacement on the Hawks, Isaiah Rider, proved to be off-kilter yet somehow amazingly on-brand. We once had That Guy, y’know, but we traded him away at the worst time. Any cutter in the shop, when the occasion called for it, would remind you of that factoid. A poster of That Guy, eyeing the hoop in mid-air, hung in the back of the shop, in his memory.
    “Now, that boy from down there in Daytona…” the clipper man added while applying alcohol and giving directions while pretending not to know his name, “That young boy that went up there to Chapel Hill. Maaaaan…” He needn’t add much more.
    2000, anno dominique, was becoming quite the banner year for Vincent Lamar Carter, Jr. Having averaged over 25 points per game in just his second pro season, “Air Canada” was taking multiple nations by storm.  With help from his newfound cousin, Carter helped guide Toronto to its first-ever playoff year. Contests featuring the team from the lightly-regarded NBA outpost of Toronto had suddenly become appointment viewing, “Must See TV.”
    Along the way, the high-flyer landed in Oakland for the NBA All-Star Game. His exploits there, at what in recent years became a dying Dunk Contest, had jaws dropping, commentators running short of adequately descriptive words, camcorders running out of tape. “It’s OVER, Ladies and Gentlemen! Let’s Go Home!”
    The Mystique of Michael was finally beginning to wear, and hoop heads were yearning for somebody to pick up that mantle and take off. As the 2000-01 season neared, Carter was more than ready to fill the bill. But first, there was some Dream Team business to attend to, halfway across the globe, in Sydney.
    I gave my man dap, and a tip, just as his landline phone started ringing. Without a response, the phone rang again. My barber checked the caller ID, and dialed back using his fancy flip-phone, show-off that he was. As I departed, I grabbed just a snippet of his conversation: “Say what now? Hol’ up, wait, slow down… you heard Vince Carter did WHAT?”
    You must recall (if you’re old enough to do so) that there was no “dot-com”, really, not the way we know it today. No Tweeter, no Facechat or Snapbook or whatever, nothing with near-instantaneous online feedback of events that weren’t being aired and VCR’d live. Word-of-Mouth required actual mouths; it didn’t involve text unless you bothered to check your AOL account.
    If you had a real “smart phone,” like one of those newfangled BlackBerry joints, it might be able to tell you the weather forecast which, belaboring the point, was useless in September. Having just survived “Y2K”, heck, we were all just relieved our alarm clocks and wristwatches hadn’t imploded.
    During the Olympics, Team USA Basketball was a primetime show, so watching rounds of action that occurred a half-day away simply had to wait for a few hours on tape delay. Unbeknownst to most of us Yanks, on September 25, 2000, A.D., there were folks scattering around The Dome in Sydney like streetball mixtape attendees. They were breathless, desperate to relay to outsiders, as best they could, what they had just witnessed, clear out of the blue. It would take a lot of reach-out-and-touch-someone reverberation to make clear to us Statesiders that Something Had Happened.
    “Team USA did win their preliminary round with France, to wrap up group play,” the voice from 790 AM blurted through my Sony Walkman during their routine half-hourly update on my walk home. “BUT… we’re being told, you are going to want to catch the replay of this game, tonight. Vince Carter did… something in this game that was so spectacular, we’re not going to spoil it for you. Trust me, if what we’re being told is true, you are going to have to see it for yourself.” Okay, so, probably some big, impressive slam then, I thought. Whoop-Dee-Damm-Do. What could be so earth-shattering about that?
    America’s infatuation with not merely His Airness, but the Space Program, was winding down. My great-grandparents had Kitty Hawk; my grannies and parents had the awe of the Boeing 747, and The Man on The Moon. Testing the limits of human flight and gravity defiance, by then, was confined to how far anyone (Michael, really) could elevate from the ground -- pure will, aided solely by the latest in athletic gear technology. As can-do Americans, we were about done with clearing orbs beyond the stratosphere. The unfortunate domepiece of 7-foot-3 Frederic Weis would have to suffice.
    The Moment itself was purely improvisational, a spur-of-the-moment decision off an early second-half steal Carter made as just about everyone on the French squad, aside from the lead-footed Weis, were headed to the other end of the floor. Vince could not have preconceived what was about to transpire. No one, fathomably, could.
    Once it aired here, you likely had to adjust your antennae, and maybe even the vertical on your telly, to make sure what you witnessed was authentic. The only thing more stunning was that Vin Baker, of all people, was an Olympian standing right there to offer testimony. As far as Olympic feats went, this was about to be the Fosbury Flop for a whole new generation.
    Propelling himself, his momentum carrying him into the air off just one foot, its toes barely breaching the quadrilateral paint. His imposing human hurdle, already posted a healthy six feet from the basket, shrinking only to 7-foot-1 to flinch while instinctively cowering beneath him. Reaching down with the other arm, nearly fully extended, to post a helpful hand atop the behemoth’s shoulder. Soaring, with the ball cocked far behind his head, to windmill emphatically, leaving the breakaway rim, the arena, and its inhabitants quivering in the wake of what amounted to… two points.
    Should it be called an And-1? The refs were too shook to even take time to think about what minimal contact there was. How can one even classify this as a “poster,” unless they were blessed with walls in their house that were over fifteen feet high? This was a freaking mural dunk. A 6-foot-6 shooting guard had just created a Banksy, at least one that would never shred itself within the consciousness of sports fans.
    Up until The Year of Vince Carter, the deadly crossover had overtaken dunking as the in-game highlight of choice among the vox populi. But after this sensational slam, people kind of lost their heads. Dunk Contests, at all levels of play, were back en vogue, participants vaulting over chairs, tables, a person, a mascot, a whole bunch of people, a bunch of mascots, motorcycles, cars. Somebody made a whole semi-pro league out of dudes with bike helmets, posterizing each other with the aid of trampolines embedded in the floor. And he got multi-year TV deals out of it.
    At the NBA level? Sure, maybe you’re super-raw, maybe you can’t throw a shot into the ocean, maybe you struggle to stay in front of a mannequin, maybe you can’t even pass gas skillfully, to say nothing of a ball. But, say, can you leap tall people in a single bound? Rodney White, Fred Jones, Kirk Snyder, Josh Smith, Gerald Green, Hakim Warrick, Tyrus Thomas, Nate Robinson… welcome, fine sirs, to the first round of the NBA Draft.
    Aside from France, who was quite inured to the feeling of defensive resignation anyway, news of this eye-popping, Freedom-frying event brought delight throughout the globe, nowhere more so than the folks in offices back here in Beaverton, Oregon.
    As the afterglow of MJ waned, Nike was rapidly losing clout in the basketball universe. Among NBA players and hoop fashionistas alike, the Swoosh Crew was losing market share to the likes of Reebok… Reebok!... AND 1, adidas, and Fila. They wooed Carter away from Puma… Puma!... earlier that year. But they needed to come up with something gimmicky, like the Reebok Pump, but practical and not comical, to make his shoes marketable to the general populace.
    Enter the “springs”-loaded Nike Shox BB4, which did… BOING!... exactly what it was advertised to do, at least on Carter’s feet, which was all that mattered. Just like that, as shoe stores were swimming in sales orders for Shox, Nike became globally renowned for something other than Air Jordan (and Air Penny). At the other end of the continent, the hullabaloo in Manhattan was a lot less palpable.
    Fresh off a second-straight conference finals appearance, the great minds at the offices of the New York Knickerbockers (oh, did I yet mention we’re playing the Knicks tonight? Yeah, the Knicks… 7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, you’re welcome) had, just a year before, used their highest first-round draft pick in eight years not on hometown hero Ron Artest, but on this particular Frenchman, Frederic Weis. Sacre Bleu, y’all!
    Convincing New Yorkers that Monsieur Weis would become Patrick Ewing, version 2.0, and not Laughingstock Stiff, version infinity.0, was going to be a hard sell even before the Games of the XXVIIth Olympiad. But, after… this?
    Perhaps realizing that he, like Vince, was in over his head, Weis would never dare cross the Atlantic Ocean to don the blue-and-orange. Over the ensuing dozen years, the team that gambled on drafting him, the Knicks, would never win the Atlantic Division. The 2000’s date that would live on in infamy, the September day many a Timberlands-clad New Yorker would long remember with disdain, sure as heck looked like it was gonna be “Nine-Twenty-Five”. Thanks a lot, Vince Carter, you schmutz!
    After losing a decisive Game 5 at home, in the first round of the 2001 Playoffs to, coincidentally, Vince’s Raptors, the Knicks formally began their descent into the abyss, impeded only by a single-season run under Carter’s old coach, your friend and mine, Lenny Wilkens (do NOT bring his name up in The Shop around here, lest you wind up looking unwittingly like Dennis Schröder). By the time they finally won at least 50 games, claimed a division pennant, and prevailed in a playoff series, yet another ex-Hawks coach, Mike Woodson, would be running their sideline. Even Linsanity had already come and gone by then.
    Linsanity, born right here at Madison Square Garden seven seasons ago, was a small-guard derivative of Vinsanity, which had already been a force to be reckoned with from Carter’s initial Raptor years. But the reaction to this audacious Olympic feat went well beyond anyone’s grasp of Vinsanity. This was more like Vinsandemonium.
    The signature moment of Vince Carter’s career, of his athletic life, never occurred on an NBA stage. Thus, every NBA season that followed for Carter, every highlight play, every game, every contract, every injury setback, every outcome for every team, would get juxtaposed, unfairly, with one fleeting moment of majesty on September 25, 2000. For Vince, I imagine, the curse was worth the blessing.
    Where were you, way back then? Turns out, Carter wasn’t the only American rocking the rims and going up over Down Under in 2000.
    Swing west around the coastline from Sydney, about a half-day’s drive away, to the modest South Australia town of Mt. Gambier. There, an athletic, 24-year-old Californian, who once starred in college at Santa Clara U., was wrapping up his latest semi-pro season with a brief stint in the Southeast Australia Basketball League, dropping nearly 20 points per game on unsuspecting opponents’ heads, albeit in a more customary fashion than Mister Carter.
    Playing for the Pioneers not far from the Australian outback, Lloyd Pierce wasn’t drawing the oohs and aahs he might have hoped for, particularly way back home. His former backcourt running mate with the Broncos in college, Steve Nash, had completed his fourth NBA season, and even he had yet to break out as a full-time starter, much less a star.
    Absolutely no one was curious whether Nash’s former teammate should be on an NBA radar. Between stints in Mexico, a Pro-Am league in San Francisco, one in Montana, and here, in the distant continent of Australia, there was no telling when Pierce’s NBA odyssey would begin, if ever.
    But Lloyd eventually returned to Santa Clara as an assistant coach in 2003, right on time for Nash’s meteoric rise to stardom. And he caught his big NBA break in 2007, becoming a player development coordinator for LeBron James’ first defending Eastern Conference champions in Cleveland.
    When it comes to the player development of LeBron James, Steph Curry, Marc Gasol and Mike Conley, Joel Embiid and Ben Simmons, Pierce represents the singular space on the Venn diagram. Instead of the itchy, flaky czar of the whiteboard, Mike Budenholzer, the stern yet smooth-talking Pierce is the one guy Travis Schlenk (a video coordinator for the Miami heat, back when Vince performed “Le Dunk de la Mort”) will put his (owners’) money on to nurture the upstarts on this Atlanta Hawks roster.
    With his globe-trotting basketball experience, there are few better suited than Pierce to literally talk “Turkey” with military-brat-turned-jumping-jack forward John Collins (59.8 2FG% in 2017-18, 6th in NBA). Growing up in and around servicemembers is often a great way to foster good active listeners and leaders of men, and a lot will be expected of John The Baptist (out for a few games, after a minor ankle procedure) to soak up the tutelage and lead by example, on and off the court, in his first season following up on a promising All-Rookie 2nd-Team campaign. Having an Old-Head Gang member like Carter around can’t hurt.
    Is it even fair to call Jeremy Lin an O.H.G., alongside the quadragenarian Carter? Lin himself once aspired to the great heights Vince was reaching on SportsCenter on a nightly basis. Alas, while Carter was trying to hurl himself over heads back in 2000, Jeremy faced quite a hurdle of his own… figuring out how to wrap up violin practice, so he could join his junior high school hoops team in time for the second halves.
    Between Lin and Carter, who knew his way around a tuba in his own scholastic days, there’s no telling how much great music they could make together. This is a pair of vets whose experiences and voices will serve more as a symphony, and less like a cacophony, for the youthful Hawks, particularly those future stars with quite a bit on their plates already, when adversity strikes during the season. How youthful?
    Do they make BB4 Shox in a Kids’ Size 7? Fresh off a career hooping at Texas Tech with a two-year-old in tow, Rayford Young surely had to be posing the question, on the day when Vince took flight. Like Coach Pierce, Ray went on to do the globe-trotting pro thing, leaving his high school and college sweetheart, Candice, to tend daily to baby Trae. Also like Pierce, Ray went on to become a D-1 grad assistant, in this case at Oklahoma. These days, his son is out here making draft caps and suit shorts a fit.
    While many in the Hawks Universe will have immediate, lofty expectations for their newest lottery plum, Atlanta’s first Top-5 draftee rookie in over a decade, Ray Young will not be the kind of NBA family member either openly fretting about Pierce’s coaching decisions, or encouraging his college-supernova kid’s head to overinflate in the pros.
    You do get the sense that other NBA pros, who have watched the ascension of Trae Young (2017-18’s NCAA D-1 leader in PPG and APG, a unique accomplishment for any collegian) at Oklahoma, to be genuinely pulling for the kid. Not so much to best them, individually, in head-to-head competition, but just to see his offensive ambrosia ripen to a point where it sticks in the craw of those who, for a variety of reasons, are his fervent detractors. There were folks jealous of the Sooner freshman’s hype, especially versus subpar collegiate competition.
    There are those who must continue to believe Trae will never reach the dignified level they ascribe to his draft-night trade partner, Luka Doncic, or to bigs like Jaren Jackson, Jr. and Marvin Bagley III. Or, heck, even to Schröder, the wunderkind who Atlanta dispatched to Oklahoma City after mixed-bag results in his first season as the full-time starting floor leader.
    Like most rookies, particularly those on rosters stripped of any experienced talent in their primes, Young is sure to have his share of struggles, and Told Ya So Twitter stands at the ready when those moments arrive. But the good news is, his long-term ceiling is well above his floor, the likelihood of achieving Traesanity far greater than Traegedy.
    Iverson, Nash, Curry. These are not players to simply mimic on the court, but superstar guards who had to toil through years of adversity, in some cases well before getting a college scholarship, before achieving success and MVP-level greatness in the pros. With the proper coaching and outside support, they built their status up from mythical to legendary levels. “Legendary” is not where Trae is now, but if all goes well, that is the scale of what he can aspire to. Everybody is The Next Somebody, until you create that exceptional aura of greatness, where somebody gets labeled The Next You.
    Bello. Acuña. Young. Behold, the potential future of sports greatness for The ATL. All are pressed into finding ways to shine now, before they hit their respective drinking ages. Unlike the first precocious pair, though, there will be no carefully-monitored grooming of Trae’s skillset in developmental leagues. No, following a couple weeks of summer league ball, Young gets to cut his teeth playing directly versus the likes of floor-leader names like Kemba, Wall, Dragic, Kyrie, Lowry, Curry, Westbrook, Lillard, Conley, CP3, etc.
    High-tier lottery guards with budding promise from seasons past (D’Lo, Dunn, whoever new Knicks coach David Fizdale elects to start tonight, Fultz, DSJ, Lonzo, Elfrid, Fox) have their future matchups with the highly touted Young pegged on their respective calendars, too.
    The fun part? With many promising-pick guards, other highly-regarded skills are well established entering the league, but, “wait a few years, and let’s see if they can build a steady jumpshot,” becomes the caveat. Not so with Trae, who has the form and the range down pat when it comes to his jumper, and he only needs to work on timing and its application versus top-notch defensive competition.
    As many of a lottery pick can attest, no matter your age of entry into The Association, these days, the book is written and sold via our future neighbor, Amazon, about you after just two NBA seasons, if you haven’t turned the corner toward All-NBA-dom. Flounder any longer than that, no matter your position, and you become a cast-off, a lost cause, a fella like Alex Len (the sixth-eldest player on this roster, Len turned age 25 in June).
    Pierce and the Hawks’ developmental staff understand the challenges ahead revolve around ensuring his younger players don’t get caught up in the WYSIWYG perceptions of pundits and fans. That’s inclusive of not merely the new rookies, namely NBA Combine standout Kevin Huerter and NCAA champion Omari Spellman, but the mainstays, still here in the aftermath of this summer’s Budenholzer Bailout.
    Taurean Prince, who was just kicking off second grade during Carter’s most reputable play, grabbed the Tank Bull by the horns during the back half of last season with the Hawks. In his sophomore campaign, he emerged as a double-digit scorer (19.0 PPG, 41.2 3FG% post-All-Star Break) while shooting above 80 percent from the free throw line for the first time in his college or pro histories.
    To continue rounding out his game, Prince (69th among 75 qualifying small forwards in 2017-18 Defensive RPM, as estimated by ESPN) needs only look to another NBA player, one who couldn’t wait to attend Pierce’s introductory press conference as Atlanta’s newest head coach.
    The Sixers’ Robert Covington was like many undrafted talents from small-conference schools, players who no one foresees breaking into the league, to say nothing of becoming a full-time starter and earning All-NBA Defensive First Team honors by the end of their fifth pro season.
    Defense is supposed to be Pierce’s passion, as Covington (1st among SFs in DRPM for the second consecutive season, 3rd among players overall in 2017-18) happily attests. Of course, such was the case with Coach Bud, too. Budenholzer’s growing trust level with Taurean was commensurate with the swingman’s commitment to on-ball and team defensive precepts.
    Prince’s focus on improving at that end of the floor, perhaps becoming more of a vocal leader in that regard, while continuing to make strides as a secondary passer, could prove critical in abbreviating Atlanta’s turnaround plans.
    And then, there’s Mister Just Happy to Be Here. Kent Bazemore has suffered the slings and arrows of Hawk fans, many “lam-Baze-ting” him, at turns, for not doing enough (because of his contract) and doing too much (again, because of his contract). But you’re not going to catch Baze (one school grade behind Lin, when Vince was grazing somebody’s scalp in mid-air) gazing with disdain at negative fan commentary. Nor will Kent be quibbling over playing time, which may diminish at the wing spots as Huerter and DeAndre’ Bembry pick up the pace.
    The final remnant from the Peak Hawks season of 2014-15, Kent has an eye on his next contract deal. If all goes well building from what was arguably a career season in 2017-18 (12.9 PPG, 3.5 APG, 1.5 SPG, 39.4 3FG%), Bazemore could opt out of his pricey single-season option next summer, in search of a more sustainable long-term deal. For however long he remains in Atlanta, the civic-minded Bazemore has enough experience on and off the court to teach the yung’uns what not to do.
    Unlike Prince, the willingness to guard and help-defend has never been an issue for Bazemore. It’s when the pair, and their teammates, are heading the other way where the Hawks now have potential to make their mark. For all the talk about pace-and-space during the Coach Bud era, last season’s swan-song Hawks (8th in pace) under Bud’s watch compiled barely over 10 points per 48 minutes on the fastbreak (21st in NBA), as per NBA Stats.
    Fastbreak scoring for Atlanta (3rd in preseason pace) was up to 14.0 points per-48 during exhibition play this month (14th in NBA). Theoretically, four extra points-per-48 would be enough to raise the Hawks’ woeful offensive efficiency (26th in NBA O-Rating last year) out of Lottery Land, and into parity with many of the league’s mid-tiered playoff contenders.
    Like Coach Bud, Pierce draws from coaching philosophies where maximizing possessions, in search of higher-quality scoring chances, is paramount. But the new head coach will not be pushing Young, Lin, and Daniel Hamilton to merely rush into halfcourt sets, with wings scurrying out to the corners.
    Pierce wants his floor-leading guards to push the rock in transition, not simply off opponent’s live-ball turnovers. But success is predicated upon Bazemore, Prince, and bigs like Collins, Spellman, Dewayne Dedmon, Miles Plumlee, Justin Anderson, and Len, finishing off pinpoint passes with scores at the offensive end, preferably around the rim. The more proficiently the supporting cast finishes plays on quick-hitter possessions during games, the less likely Heroball will be needed out of their lotto rookie at the ends of them.
    As for New York, the new brain trust at the Knicks (Kings parachutist and current GM Scott Perry, and team president Steve Mills) is wholly disinterested in hearing about the organization’s many swings-and-misses of the past -- Weis, Allan Houston, Amar’e, Starbury, Sweetney, Larry Brown, Zeke Thomas, Fisher, Hornacek, Phil and the Melodrama, the recently dispatched Joakim Noah, and much, much more.
    Instead, Perry and Mills want fans to focus on the future, specifically the recent draft picks that were rocking diapers during Vince’s athletic prime. French guard Frank Ntilikina, then age 3, had not even left Belgium by the time the rest of the world learned who Weis was.
    Fizdale has been left waffling on where to play the Belgian native, but it appears Coach Fiz has settled on starting Ntilikina at the wing alongside Tim Hardaway, Jr.  After averaging a career-high 17.5 PPG, the former Hawk Hardaway and his fellow Wolverine alum Trey Burke will carry much of the scoring load for New York until the team’s upstarts emerge consistently. Or, at least, until a mythical Unicorn can return to form.
    He’s not quite Godot, but fans and teammates alike eagerly await the arrival of Kristaps Porzingis during the back half of the season. Hope springs eternal for the young 7-foot-3 star (torn ACL) to return better-than-ever, and his rehabilitation will be worth the wait, even if it extends into next season. In the meantime, with Porzingis and second-year pro Luke Kornet missing time, there should be plenty of minutes available for rookie picks Kevin Knox and Mitchell Robinson.
    Another literal diaper-dandy back in 2000, Knox displayed enough glimpses of promise during summer league and preseason to get the Knoxsanity train rolling early. Enes Kanter, an offensive specialist (NBA-high 16.6 O-Reb% last season; career-best 68.3 FG% around the rim), and Robinson, a defensive stopgap, have enough of the troll gene instilled within them to help the Knicks be disruptive around both rims.
    But these bigs are usually unable to play (well) alongside one another. Whichever is on the court, the Hawks have an offensive game plan in mind to exploit a Knicks team that is only now hoping to show (2nd in preseason SPG; 29th last season), under Fizdale, that they can and will pressure ballhandlers.
    Attacking Kanter off the pick-and-roll, drawing the rookie Robinson out of the paint with perimeter shots to free up cutters (27th in defending cut plays last season), and generally boat-racing them both in transition, should open plenty of possibilities up for Atlanta to get buckets or earn trips to the free throw line. Len, filling in for the injured Dedmon, Spellman and Plumlee are likely to have active roles in igniting the Hawks offense, over the course of their first 48 minutes together.
    Individual game and season outcomes for the Knicks have no bearing on attendance at The World’s Most Famous Arena, where New Yorkers have turned attending, despite perpetually dampened expectations, into a rite of passage. Not so back home in Atlanta, where the Hawks moved a half-century ago from St. Louis, and seemingly brought much of the Show Me State along with them.
    Atlanta’s owners and figureheads are hopeful a revamped, swankier, and airier nest for the Hawks will draw a lot more people through the metal detectors, willing to flex their spending power on tix, grub, haircuts, beer and gear, on a nightly basis. Like my barber at that time, those who recall the debut of this very arena, during the 1999-00 season, beg to differ.
    Replacing the rusty Omni was nice. But you were going to need a more reliable draw than Bimbo Coles to get standing room only over 40 times a year. This Hawks regime understands that, if you’re going to fill up the Farm, you need players who at least look the part of flashy, highlight-making, competitive NBA stars. If you’re going to pursue those talents and use them to help you attract similar super-teammates, it behooves you to acquire them while they’re still reasonably cheap and, well, Young.
    Otherwise, you wind up with a lot of hoop-fanatic Atlantans who don’t stay, or even become, True To Atlanta. Folks like my hair-clipper from 18 years ago, whose premonition as I sat in his chair, regarding the second-oldest opening-night starter in league history, proved prescient.
    “We don’t go after legit stars here… not until it’s too late and they’re way past their prime,” the barber advised, adding a dash of wry humor as he poked me with the back of his pick. “By the time the Hawks get (fellas) like them boys up north, up there in Canada, they’ll probably be pushing 40… and, hey, ((chuckles)) hey… they’ll probably start ‘em!”
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “YOU PLAY TO LOSE THE GAME! HELLO?”
     
    This is it! The Recess versus The Process! Our Atlanta Hawks get their final run in, against (maybe) Ben Simmons and those wascally Philadelphia 76ers (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast, NBC Sports Philadelphia). We’re going to use this, the final gamethread of this glorious 2017-18 season, to raise the subject you’ve come here to read about… me!
    You see, it’s still April, the dogwoods have yet to bloom, we’re only 80-some gamethreads in, the season has already drawn to a close and, now, I don’t quite know what to do with these hands.
    The boss lady in the glorified cubicle nearby has a few ideas, to be sure. But among the many perversely wonderful things about this 2017-18 campaign is that, for the first time in many years, the last gamethread can actually be The Last One. I’m not having to wrap these things up prematurely, hoping against hope that our Hawks’ final playoff loss might turn out a different way. So, first things first, I’d like to thank the Academy… whoops, wrong notecard.
    Since essentially Halloween, I’ve had ample time to contemplate how I am going to use the extra month of free time that #LotterySZN bequeaths upon me. So here’s how I intend to spend it, and the offseason that starts just hours from now.
    Not far from the Potemkin Village situated outside the Bravos stadium, somebody opened up an indoor skydiving facility. I’m totally trying that. Back in my drunken fratboy stage I was just another Jager shot away from trying the real thing, but common sense prevailed just in time.
    A more gravity-bound idea is the Top Golf spot closer to home, where I can perfect my swing in time to school fools once the new one at Highlight Factory ver. 3.0 is ready. (Most Atlanta Hawks ad ever: “Come see the SECOND biggest arena transformation in NBA history! Check that… Killer Mike just said WHAT? THIRD! The THIRD biggest transformation…”)
    I probably could use a spa treatment. No, not those “spas” on Cheshire Bridge with Pacific-sounding names where you enter from the back. A legit spa, where they lay cucumbers over your eyelids and stuff. I was told I need more Vitamin B in my diet, anyway, so that might be a two-fer. I’m not certain what “exfoliation” entails but, hey, YOLO.
    Fishing sounds nice. Maybe a little snorkeling would do the trick, too. But no way will anybody catch me on anything named “Chattahoochee” or “Lanier”. There’s Loch Ness Monsters in them joints. Folks getting swallowed up there on the regular. If the water body is more than ten times as wide and deep as my bathtub, no thanks, I’ll pass.
    Pottery. Poetry. Yoga. Helping little ol’ ladies cross streets. Big ol’ ladies helping me cross streets. Rescuing puppies. Frying hush puppies. Yeah, that’s a good start to a playoff-free springtime.
    Now, allow me to share what I am NOT going to do.
    We don’t know how many times we’ll get this extra time off. Certainly, with the way Mike Budenholzer has demonstrated he can coach a turnip to turn up, there’s just no telling how momentary our Recession is going to last, once more lauded young basketball talent washes ashore.
    This forthcoming free time is precious for me, as I trust it shall be for many of you in the Squawkosphere. So believe me when I disclose that, as Your Friendly Neighborhood Co-Moderator, I shall not be wasting precious moments under the Georgia sun dilly-dallying with some of you and your petty interpersonal Hawksquabbles, over woulda-shoulda-coulda, over foregone lottery odds, over foregone draft choices, over missed opportunities at your coveted free agents, over who on this dear roster gets to stay and who has to go.
    Brewing on other sites, I’ve already seen from Hawks fans what I call Absolutism, not necessarily the result of too much Swedish vodka on the brain. “If the ATLHawks don’t lose the game on (pick any day that ends in the Letter Y), I am DONE with this Treadmill team!” “If they DON’T draft (top-ten talent they’re obsessed with), that’s it, I am THROUGH!” “If they DO draft (top-ten talent they don’t trust), that’s it, I am THROUGH!”  “If they don’t get (random player… okay Baze) outta here, I am OUTTA HERE!” “If they (pursue, or don’t pursue) (free agent), my fandom is OVER! KA-PUT! FAREWELL, CRUEL WORLD! Disgusted Hawks fan, OVER AND OUT!”… ((not even 48 hours later))… “Oh, and ANOTHER thing!...”
    We’re Hawks fans, many of us Atlanta Sports fans to larger extents. We do healthy, informed Skepticism as well as anybody in this hemisphere, for good reason, and that’s fine. But, please, refrain from the Absolutism that mandates of Budschlenk, or our fragile fanbase, “my way, or the highway!” I-285 is congested enough as it is without any more miffed Hawks fans going round in circles.
    Discussion is great. Differing is valued. Debate is encouraged. But, I’m sorry, Discord is not on the menu this summer. There’s no appetite for that. Most of you have had months of practice in these forums to know whose rhetoric gets all subcutaneous with you, who you can disagree with without being disagreeable, who you can ignore without acting ignorant, and which personal accusations are verboten around these parts. @AHF, @PSSSHHHRRR87 and Yours Truly have no intentions to mediate tugs-of-war between parties who should already know when, and how, to let go of ropes.
    If I’m doing any babysitting between now and October, it’s because my buddies and their significant others need a weekend break for fun and frolic. If I’m doing any refereeing this summer, it’s because Lou Williams or 2Chainz is chewing me out over a block/charge call in the AEBL. Your mods and I will not be coming onto this site every other day to dish out warnings, timeouts and Banhammers because somebody decided to respond to perceived boorishness with more of the same.
    Every off-season there is a ridiculous Squawkpurge that ensues due to unnecessary interactions, and last summer was arguably (and sadly, it’s arguable) the very worst we’ve ever seen. Review the Golden Rules on this here site, and if you feel the urge to issue an inappropriate response to somebody, follow the guidance the soon-to-be-overmatched Pac-12 coach above advises his young charges… Don’t Press Send! The next six months can be pleasant, if we all choose to make it so.
    Enough of all that drivel. Before I go off and ask Alexa for hammock instructions, I want to thank Coach Bud, the staff, and every one of the 87 players that suited up in a Hawks uniform, for an intentional losing season that was about as well-done as I could have hoped.
    This was not a 15-win team that won 25 games (oops, I gave away tonight’s outcome too soon. Pretend I said 24!).  Certainly not in this LeBronference. Au contraire, this was a 30-win team, 35 at the max, that was poked and prodded and pulled down into 25-ish territory four our long-term benefit. To a tank fan, 25 wins only looks disturbing when somebody else has 20, or 24.
    Now, if you truly wanted to get to a baker’s dozen and stop, what you would do is, you’d hire Isiah Thomas, or Phil Jackson, or any exec with an overinflated sense of entitlement and accomplishment, to run your company. You’d let him dump Coach Bud, and his collection of whiteboard braniacs, in the summer of 2017, then replace them with a staff that knows only so much as to question their players’ guts, or other vital organs, and not much more. If you prefer, you can wait until the season starts, then pull the chair out from under the incumbent coach you were so enthralled with just months before, a la Phoenix and Memphis.
    Speaking of overinflation, you stack your roster with Michael Beasleys and D.J. Augustins of the world, single-minded players for whom the full box score matters not nearly as much as their individual lines. Add Joakim Noahs and Bobby Portises, so when they predictably fly off the handle and threaten to harm someone, it’s their own teammates and staff, not just some random schmoe in a Buford Highway parking lot.
    Swing deals for the Dwight Howards, ensuring your most lead-footed highway drivers are the ones angling for 30+ minutes a night. Put the ball in the hands of guys for whom, once adversity strikes and the 40-point losses roll in, running to Twitter and asking for a way out sounds like a splendid idea. Add in dashes of G-Leaguers, two-ways and ten-days that will hesitate to hustle, or make a basket, or a stop, for fear their participation might spoil the fans’ draft hopes.
    Need it be noted that, among the NBA players cited in the preceding paragraphs, despite their teams’ best efforts, none of them outperformed the Hawks in the upside-down standings? Need it be mentioned that none of those teams had to plummet farther than Atlanta did from last season to his one? Look at the respective sidelines, the way these Hawks players pull for each other even during downturns and losses, and you would think it was those other teams circling the drain for last in the NBA East.
    We’ve seen disastrous resets around this town before. The Babcockian variety, where Isaiah Rider, Glenn Robinson, and Antoine Walker get trotted out by the salespeople as if to say, “THIS is the turnaround, folks. Lock in your seats and get in on the ground floor, while you still can!” I credit this staff for not going that route, where the “ground floor” turns out to be a sub-basement with broken rungs on the ladder.
    Instead, the Hawks gave Dennis Schröder, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, and Dewayne Dedmon a chance to show us what 32-50 might look like, three of those players missing critical time while wearing themselves out along the way. They allowed John Collins to build up his playing time gradually, rather than throwing their most efficient player to the proverbial wolves from the outset.
    They allowed Schröder, Prince, Malcolm Delaney, Mike Muscala to play their way out of, into, and again out of funks, some of epic thread-worthy proportions, gaining valuable tutelage both on and off the court. They acquired veterans like Miles Plumlee and Luke Babbitt, once thought to be useless, and found a way to render them useful.
    Surging at season’s end, Prince (25.3 PPG, 4.7 APG and 52.4 3FG% in last three games; Atlanta 3-2 in last five games) has been less Bob Sura, the shelf-lifed nine-year vet who nuked the 2005 Hawks’ lotto chances (Atlanta 6-5 season finish) for a shot at one final free agent contract, and more Zaza Pachulia, the player thrust into starts as a young Hawk due to circumstance, whose late 2006 run (Atlanta 4-5 season finish) heralded his practicality for Atlanta’s next playoff string, one that began two seasons later.
    Around mid-season, the Hawks eased Babbitt, Ersan Ilyasova, and Marco Belinelli on to (at least momentarily) greener pastures. By the time Ilyasova drew his final charge as a Hawk, Atlanta was sitting at 18-40. With a win tonight, they check in with a slightly worse finish (7-17, 6-18 if they lose). Thing is, much of the time, they looked pretty good doing during the downturn, even with Schwab-stumping surnames like Dorsey, Lee, Morris, White, Cavanaugh, Magette, Cleveland, and Evans (and you, too, Bembry) blending smoothly into the rotation.
    The first year of the Recession under Coach Bud’s stewardship has been unwaveringly functional, the staff never allowing dysfunction and disinterest to take hold among the rank and file. Illustrating his staff’s moderation of the team’s success, the Hawks (24-57) made it to tip-off of the final game of the season without winning three consecutive games at any point. Even with adversity baked in, they never reached double-digits in terms of losing streaks, either, enduring one eight-game stretch in October-November, and one six-gamer in February-March before hitting the skids for five games to conclude last month.
    In the right-side-up standings, I peer up at every one of the East’s fellow cellar-dwellers – from Detroit and Charlotte to the NYC teams, Chicago, and Orlando, and I find myself, as a fan, unenvious of all of them. Do they have potential championship-caliber stars on their squads? Sure, some do. Do any of them have management regimes that give their fans reason to believe such glory is right around the corner? That would be a no. As it stands, the odds are pretty good the Hawks will select a top-tier talent ahead of all but maybe one of them this June.
    The sole exception? The franchise that was handed Shaq, C-Webb (if they wanted to keep him), and Dwight on a platter and has as many NBA titles as we do. (Sorry, but if we’ve decided that a single conference final trip doesn’t matter around here, then coming up short repeatedly in NBA Finals will, too. With all that fortune, where are the rings?)
    Should I be tossing and turning at night that the division rival who got a young Tobias Harris for a song, Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Mario Hezonja, and Jonathan Isaac with top-6 picks, Dario Saric and Domantas Sabonis with top-12 picks, only to squander most and fail to adequately develop them all, will be beating us over the head four times a year with some future Hall of Famer we should have super-duper-tanked for? Perhaps. But I’m not. Sorry, John Hammond, but Larry Drew isn’t around to save you this time.
    Chris Wallace and John Hollinger got anything special up their sleeves? I have my doubts. The last time Memphis lucked out with a Top-3 pick (2009), they took Hasheem Thabeet. The 4-spot in the lottery that year, OKC, and the team that drew the 7-spot, Golden State, assuredly had fans that were peeved that they couldn’t stink up the joint enough to improve their lottery odds to the Top-3. Rest assured that fans of the Thunder, who leapfrogged two of the Top-3 clubs at lottery time, and Travis Schlenk’s Warriors, got over it soon enough. Memphis? Not so much. And their draft record hasn’t been much better since.
    Has Ryan McDonough done enough in this league to make you worry about a missed opportunity? The raw Dragan Bender and Josh Jackson haven’t proven to be the swift turnaround specialists they were once touted to be. Phoenix’s fellow Top-Fiver Alex Len has been no great shakes, either.
    It’s a good thing low-lottery prospect Devin Booker has panned out, at least on offense, enough so that Arizona’s DeAndre Ayton relishes the prospect of pairing with him. But who appears to be a sure thing to me or you, could very well look like somebody inferior to Bender in McDonough’s estimation. Maybe I should lose sleep over what the Suns might do before the Hawks can pick. But I’ll probably be snoozing with cucumber slices above my eyes instead. I’ll try not to snore too loud.
    I’m not losing sleep that Phoenix or even Memphis can draft-and-stir their way back to championship contention anytime soon, especially in the treacherous West where these would-be All-NBA upstarts have to bump heads with the Currys, KDs, Hardens, Westbrooks, Lillards, Davises, Boogies, Jokics, KATs, and maybe someday Kawhis out there. And don’t let LeBron start feenin for Hollywood, too. Do these teams even know who will be their head coaches, yet?
    Winning the Draft Lottery outright would be sweet. Still, I’m almost hoping a couple of these particular clubs get to pick ahead of the Hawks, if only to save us from ourselves (where have you gone, Bill Russell?).
    The peak of PoppaWeapon3’s Sixers fandom came in 1986, when Philly bumped lucky-ducky Boston aside to win #1 in the Draft Lottery. Neither team had to tank to get in the lotto mix, they just had to snooker some other teams, like the San Diego Clippers and Lenny Wilkens’ Sonics, into giving up their future picks. But just a few weeks after the Lottery, Philadelphia’s Harold Katz and Pat Williams got cute.
    Out goes the chance to draft Brad Daugherty; in comes Roy Hinson. Roy. Hinson. Oh, and out goes former savior Moses Malone on the same day, too! In comes the broken remains of Jeff Ruland. One would think Williams, who bailed from the Sixers later that year, then wound up running inaugural Orlando, would never be granted such lottery fortune again.
    PW3 Never Again’d the bridesmaid-aspiring Sixers from that summer day forward. “Trust” that -- he reminds me of it weekly. The Process, for guys like him, are now three decades in the making, and counting. Maybe Simmons, Saric and Joel Embiid will be enough to finally melt the ice.
    Simmons (questionable, tummy flu) and Embiid (out, fractured orbital bone) display tremendous handle and touch in just their first and second seasons, respectively. Mix in Saric, D-and-3 specialist Robert Covington, 2017 first-overall pick Markelle Fultz (1st career start tonight, if Simmons is a no-go), and a bevy of shooters including JJ Redick, Belinelli and Ilyasova, and as MJ might say, the ceiling is the roof.
    Baseball aside, the sports vibe is as high as they’ve ever been around the City of Brotherly Shove, with parades for Nova and the Iggles in recent months, the Flyers back in the playoffs and the Sixers (50-30) rolling on a 14-game streak, looking like they plan to go on an even bigger tear. But the older fans have seen enough stories like this before -- Barkley’s Sixers, Lindros’ Flyers, Cunningham and the 46 Defense’s Eagles -- to know how quickly it can all unravel and evaporate with one or two less-than-fortuitous postseason ventures, and with a few poorly-timed injuries.
    Not that he needs it, but Coach Bud has a colleague who he can turn to for advice on how to expertly endure organizational turnover and young rosters in flux. Sixers coach Brett Brown patiently guided this club out of the Process age, and they have a good chance of adding (via the Lakers) one more plum lotto pick to the mix this summer. The Process, we’ve been told by Brown, draws to a close in 2018. At this new tier with wildly heightened expectations, but with Embiid’s early return a wild-card, the new challenge for Brown is to ensure that his Sixers don’t devolve into Processed Meat. He knows Phickle Philly Phans can shift from “Whoo!” to “BOO!” in an instant.
    The Sixers have two bugaboos, turnovers (NBA-worst 16.2 TO%, slightly worse than the Hawks’ 15.5%) and a propensity for fouling (22.1 personals per-48, 3rd-most in NBA; opponents shooting just 74.5 FT%, 29th in NBA), that could haunt them like the ghosts of Boston Garden at playoff time. They don’t need Simmons or Embiid on the floor (7.1 combined TOs, 5.9 PFs per game) to begin repairing those issues today. But veterans Ilyasova and Amir Johnson can help demonstrate what good discipline could look like on the floor while the headliners sit.
    Any live experimentation Brown wishes to conduct is likely to happen tonight against the Hawks, as the Sixers travel home tomorrow to meet Milwaukee, a possible postseason opponent. Finishing the regular season ahead of reigning conference champ Cleveland (50-31) would be quite an accomplishment, especially useful if there’s a Conference Final in these teams’ immediate future. But getting gameplans ready to make a splash in the opening round is more important than looking too far ahead.
    If you haven’t had much enjoyment as a Hawks fan this season, I can only hope you at least tried to have some. I know I did, way more than last season, although I acknowledge the team’s pragmatic, incremental approach to 2017-18 suits me better than others. Balancing the desire to compete with the desire to tank was at once exhilarating and nauseating, but no different than any rickety thrill ride one would find at Six Flags. At Philips Arena, all the half-court fan shots, concerts, cricket tacos, and Hot Sauce breaking ankles were entertaining enough to pass the time.
    I know I will at least try to enjoy the offseason as well, right on through the draft, free agency, Summer League and training camp, and I look forward to your help, Squawkers, in making it a pleasurable adventure. Anybody ever try zip-lining? It helps to already be a Hawks fan, but I’d better check with my cardiologist first.
     
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “Oh, no! We’re actually gonna win!”
     
    Our Atlanta Hawks Nation turns its lonely eyes to you, Al Horford of the Boston Celtics (1:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, CSN New England in BOS).
    Hi there, Al.
    Our former multi-year All-Star center bailed on Atlanta for Boston, largely, because he wanted more global acclaim without all the critical attention. He could be a $25 million man without being a $25 million scorer, and he wouldn’t have to up his $15 million rebounder game, either.
    Up until now, the whole shtick has worked well for him. His PER (as per basketball-reference) is the lowest it has been since his second NBA season. His current rebounding rate is a mild uptick from last season’s career-low. Yet, thanks to his choice to don this clover-green basketball jersey, toiling under the auspices of a highly respected coach-GM combo, he has never been lauded by the NBA fanbase more.
    Horford went into the playoffs last season looking forward to making a run at LeBron with his running buddy, Isaiah Thomas, handling the scoring load. A calendar year later, he enters the postseason without not only his free agent salesperson, but Thomas’ functional replacement, too.
    Kyrie Irving’s knee procedure leaves Boston without its only 15+ PPG scorer (second-year pro Jaylen Brown averages a team-high 14.4 PPG; rookie Jayson Tatum’s 13.9 PPG is right behind him). Lost in the season opener, 2017 off-season prize Gordon Hayward (ankle, tibia) won’t be around to fill in the gap.
    Coach Brad Stevens’ club will continue to rely on stifling defense, particularly around the perimeter, to carry the day. But even the defense is taking a hit, as guard Marcus Smart (thumb) will likely miss the opening playoff round. Rookie backup big man Daniel Theis (knee) is done for the year, and Guerschon Yabusele may be questionable after tweaking a knee in Friday’s 111-104 win here at TD Garden against Chicago.
    Working on Horford’s sharp-shooting craft began in Atlanta, and Boston has benefitted by him perfecting his outside jumper under their watch (43.2 3FG%, 7th in NBA). But with diminishing scoring, defense, and depth around him, the Celtics will need Horford to morph more into a 20-and-10 guy than ever before, once the playoffs begin. Thankfully, that’s not of immediate concern today at the Gahden. He is also the team’s top-remaining assist-man (4.7 APG), so doing it all will be essential at playoff time.
    Even if Horf gets to play today against his old team, Brad Stevens isn’t going to take too many risks at this point. Don’t expect to catch him wrestling with Miles Plumlee for 50-50 balls. “We’ll probably be judicious with minutes,” Stevens told shootaround media on Saturday. The C’s (54-25) have locked down the #2 seed in the East. With three games upcoming in the next four days, it is purely a matter of sorting out rotations and building positive momentum as the regular season draws to a close.
    Boston will also lean on the “Oh! Jays” more than they had hoped at playoff time, although that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While Horford and rookie Jayson Tatum rested on Friday, second-year pro Jaylen Brown scored his career-high 32 points to help fend off the visiting Bulls. Also helping the Celts avoid a worrying third-straight defeat, backup big Greg Monroe notched his second career triple double.
    Brown and Tatum will have ample opportunity, at least in the early stages, to do what Otto Porter, Bradley Beal and the Washington Wizards could not. Specifically, they’ll have to cool down the inside-outside wing combo of Taurean Prince (6-for-11 2FGs @ WAS on Friday) and sixth-man Tyler Dorsey (4-for-8 3FGs @ WAS), who helped the Hawks trip up a Wizards team that was doing itself no favors.
    Up front, it’s hoped that John Collins and Dewayne Dedmon, each with a double-double and at least three dimes on Friday, will have a Morris twin around to defend them for at least a half. Marcus will be out trying to compensate for getting tossed on Friday, forcing Stevens’ hand in playing more of Yabusele, Semi Ojeleye and Aron Baynes than the Celtics coach would have preferred.
    For now, Stevens hopes he can count on the likes of Jabari “Don’t Call Me Larry” Bird and Kadeem “Don’t Call Me Ray” Allen to provide positive production in the backcourt. Bird and ten-day contractor Jonathan “Don’t Call Me Boobie” Gibson won’t be eligible for the playoffs, so days like today are where they will be expected to cut their teeth.
    Gibson, a 30-year-old point guard called back home from the Qingdao Doublestar Eagles, checked in during the fourth quarter on Friday and riled up the crowd with nine quick points, including a three-pointer to snap an 86-86 tie and provide the Celtics, and their fans, some welcome relief. In the short-term, Boston hopes these guards will be effective enough to preserve the necessary floor time from “Scary Terry” Rozier, who now starts in Irving’s place at the point.
    It won’t be put on Horford today to pull off a victory. But it will be time, very soon, where his enhanced play will be vital to Boston collecting four wins in seven games, several times over. For better or worse, this 2018 postseason will be where he gets to make a name for himself, where no one else can help make the name for him.
    Have fun in the playoffs, Al. Take care.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    “Hey, John Vall, me and Huncho gonna get our offseason vorkout started early. Join us vhen you’re freed up in a couple veeks!”
     
     
    We’re almost done! Our 2017-18 Atlanta Hawks season nears its end as they visit the 2015-17 Atlanta Hawks. Pardon? Oh, actually it’s the Washington Wizards (7:00 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, NBC Sports Washington) that will participate in the Hawks’ final intra-division fun-run.
    Maybe it’s the Friday Happy Hour beverage. But I do get the vibe that the Wizards’ course is currently charting our old one. Coach’s-pet All-Stars; veteran starters that seem increasingly beyond their sell-by date; high hopes, for a young talent, that are growing sour; patchwork bench contributors (including Mike Scott) that provide an occasional spark but not much consistency. Led by a former Coach of the Year award winner. A regular season record, and postseason outlook, that belie the players’ boundless expressions of self-confidence that THIS year will somehow be different.
    Current Pacers reporter and former Wizards correspondent J. Michael tweeted, after reviewing a lackluster effort in the clutch by John Wall and Bradley Beal, during last night’s 119-115 loss in LeBronopolis, “…when you demand more and crave more (attention) – and they got it this season – you’ve gotta make good on it. Otherwise it sets you back even more.” Now in their sixth season together, The Best Backcourt in the East has long had little trouble talking the talk, but it’s walking the full walk that has proven to be problematic for this duo.
    Fans of the Wizards will now wait an inexplicable 40 years for their team to reach 50 wins in any one particular season. It’s also likely that the wait for a trip to a Conference Finals will stretch into decade number five. This, despite the plethora of injuries befalling the Celtics, and the shifting sands in Cleveland. One would think that if any NBA team would know how to capitalize by now, it would be the one from the District of Columbia.
    Here they are, at 42-37, going through the motions, bearing a huge payroll for a probable first-round exit, with its top six salary recipients returning for 2018-19 and with Wall’s salary doubling the season after that. Following Hawks-fan parlance of yore, is it past time, perhaps, to begin blowing this roster up?
    Not if you’re Ernie Grunfeld, somehow still there in an executive capacity. They’re holding out hope that LeBron jumps out West this summer, and that the only comparable superstar that ever jumps East will come because the Wizards hired the player’s former lunchlady as the Director of Team Nutrition. I made that last part up. I think.
    If there is a single thing the Wizards accomplished in 2018, aside from maybe wresting the Southeast Division title away from Miami, it is putting to bed the notion that this cluster of Wizards is in some way “better” without Wall on the floor than otherwise.
    One of their pan-flashers, Tomas Satoransky, will fill in for Wall as he rests and remains in and injury-management mode. Post-surgery knee soreness has caused him to miss half the season. But there were times when fans, and at least one player (we see you, Marcin Gortat) felt like Wall’s absence made the rest of the team’s heart grow fonder. Of one another. The last two meetings with the Hawks (22-57) allow a glimpse at what Marcin, et al., were thinking.
    On December 27, Wall had 11 assists, but was otherwise non-existent over the course of 33 minutes and the host Hawks won it going away, 113-99 on the strength of the Not Best Backcourt in the East, Dennis Schröder and Marco Belinelli.
    A month later, with Satoransky in for the re-injured Wall, a balanced effort (six players, including Scott’s 19 points, in double figures) led to a thrashing of the Hawks on the same Philips Arena floor, a 129-104 win for the Wizards. That sparked a five-game streak, but in the middle of it, Gortat flubbed an attempt at damning with faint praise, a tweet that had Wall telling his center to shut his pierogi hole.
    All told, Washington with Wall was 25-17 before his latest return last week, 16-17 without him. But even with him back on the floor, the Wizards aren’t showing signs of an uptick in winning play. After dusting off Charlotte at home one night before, losing by 19 in Chicago (Wall DNP’d for rest) had to be the day’s biggest April Fool’s joke. The Wiz were no match for the Rockets, losing by 16 in Houston two days later.
    Then last night, in what Wall hoped would be a statement game in Cleveland, Washington allowed 39 opening-quarter points. They surged ahead of the Cavs by 17 midway through the fourth, thanks to some nifty passing by Beal and Satoransky, and a scoring spree by Scott. But, much like the season, or their recent history, once Washington gets something going, they can’t sustain it when it counts. That 17-point lead was gone in the space of six critical minutes.
    Wall finally found his scoring touch last night, but his habit of wild circus shots and wilder passes (leading to turnovers, 18 in his past 3 games) off his frantic drives to the hoop must cease before the first-round opponent gets here.
    Fortunately, the Wizards won’t have to deal with a Kyle Lowry tonight. And the only Cleveland that matters today is Antonius (available to play), coming off the bench behind Hawks backcourt starters Damion Lee and Isaiah Taylor. Taurean Prince (sore back) will also be around to make things interesting for Atlanta.
    Like the Wizards, Grunfeld is probably not going anywhere, yet again. If he is seeking my advice about the way forward going into 2018-19, I’ve got just one word for him. It’s four letters, beginning with a T and ending in K.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool!
     
    Brain freeze! I’ve grown comfortably numb in the afterglow of last night’s thrilling Tankwin by our Atlanta Hawks over the Miami heat. Instead of a semi-cogent game thread for the rematch at Philips Arena tonight (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Sun in MIA), I’m just going to roll into Stream of Consciousness mode and see what flows out of that. Apologies in advance.
    Who wants a shiny arena banner? Anybody? Remember back in the day, when division championships meant something? Now that the league has taken away a first-round homecourt guarantee, it’s just fancy-schmancy window dressing. The heat and the Wizards, neck-and-neck at 42-36 apiece, are more concerned about avoiding LeBron – oops, did I say that out loud? I meant playoff positioning – than besting one another for the Dirty South Division title.
    The Hawks might have a say in who ultimately claims the Southeast. But, hopefully not. Of more pressing strategic interest for Atlanta: do you want probably-playoff-bound Milwaukee to get a 1st-rounder this year, or not? The Bucks’ draft pick to the Suns is 17-30 protected, and my favorite burnt-orange-colored website, Tankathon, has the Bucks at #17, their 42-36 record tied with the Hawks’ next two opponents, Miami and Washington. Our ideal strategery would push the heat and Wiz out of the first two non-lottery slots, making room for Milwaukee (You’re welcome, Phoenix! Don’t be greedy with all them picks. Let us hold somethin’!) at #16, and our dear Thibobullves at #15.
    Players Only! Shaq the analyst displayed his soft spot for big men last night, in commenting on heat pivot Hassan Whiteside’s travails of late. “He has a legitimate beef,” Shaq said last night on TNT while inadvertently making himself hungry.
    “He made the comments, ‘hey, there’s a lot of teams that want a center.’ He is correct. But he needs to understand strategy. If I was him, I would say, ‘O.K., I’m going to [let] Coach [Spo] do what he do. But I’m going to get a rest!’ Because, playoff time, when the game slows down, they’re going to need you, big man… I know, as a player, I didn’t win championships until I had 15, 20 games off.” Not entirely true, as it was more like 5-10 days off during his first Laker title years, but it’s a nice tale to tell. Whiteside finally being able to make a meaningful play at the close of the game did wonders for his psyche.
    Somebody went after Dewayne Dedmon’s rib (Shaq: “mmm, ribs!”), which might become the most fortunate circumstance involving a rib since the days when Adam loafed around the desert leaving toilet seats up everywhere. Dedmon’s questionable to play tonight. G-League superstar Tyler Cavanaugh will be available to sop up minutes so it won’t be all put on Miles Plumlee and Mike Muscala in the clutch. Say, does Hassan like Barbeque Chicken? Don’t ask Shaq, at least not until I get ahead of him in line at Fat Matt’s.
    By the way, I’m only half-serious, Miami. You’re not obligated to have another late-game “clutch.” The Miami Herald notes the heat’s 52 games with a five-point margin with 5 or fewer minutes to play leads the NBA. “I don’t know what it is,” said Dragic after last night’s scramble-from-behind, skin-of-their-teeth 101-98 victory. I’m hoping [Wednesday] is not going to be close, but you know, that’s us.”
    Cavahellyeah brought along some of our favorite Bayhawk pals with him, including Andrew White (I don’t like using Jr. or III, IV or the like, unless Daddy played in the Association, too.  Andrew White works just fine until Andrew White IV gets here), 10-day contractor Jeremy Evans (welcome back!), and Josh “Yung Bud” Magette.
    I know they’ve got some crazy playoff stories from Fort Wayne to share with the rest of the crew before they head back. Evans, 30, has averaged nearly a double-double up Nawf (naw not dat way, DAT way) for the B-hawks and has earned himself another quick sip of NBA tea. He and Chris McCullough (wait, Erie got him too? Sheesh! Don’t hurt ‘em, Malik Rose!) could get a nice dunk contest going.
    Is John Collins well on his way to becoming what we all imagined Al Horford would one day be when he grew up? Rebounds without the flinching, threes without the jab-stepping, infrequent turnovers without the clapping. Develop those passing chops (Shaq: “mmm, chops!”) and I say it’s a wrap! (Shaq: “mmm, wraps!”)
    Taurean Prince still seems to be in good spirits! On the Hawks’ leading scorer from the past two Atlanta-Miami matchups, Mike Budenholzer pulled out the dreaded “Coach’s Decision” card ten minutes into the game, jussssssssst in time to affect the final outcome. I’m always got my eye on Taurean the DeLorean (all 78 games played), who seemed to be running low on fuel lately (17 total points and 11.1 3FG% in two games prior to last night), to see if he’ll pull a Whiteside on Coach Bud in the media (we still have media, right?) after a short-hook. Thankfully, Taurean keeps the banter between them on the sideline. Atlanta is 3-15 when Prince gets crowned with less than 25 minutes, including 0-4 when he gets under 20 of them. Nice!
    For all his struggles getting it going all season long, it was kinda nice seeing DeAndre’ Bembry back and mixing it up out there! Rebounded well, got some steals, dished a few dimes, hit a three, and everythang. Had a few too many turnovers, but, hey, you can’t just go from 0 to 60 in… okay, that was bad, nevermind.
    Bembry (abs) and Antonius Cleveland (ankle) are each listed as probable for today, but I’d really like to see what Cleveland could do in his NBA debut before the home crowd tonight. C’mon Coach Bud, give our NBA virgin the AC Greenlight! Okay, that was somehow even worse, sorry. Just get on out there and break a leg, Antonius! Broadway-style, that is, not like Tony Finau. More like Fin-owwww, amirite? Okay, okay, sorry! That was really sub-par. Ohhh, while I got my mind on the links, congrats to Malcolm Delaney, 2018 Hawks Masters champ! Those Red Jackets are a nice look.
    If the heat are legitimately trying to do more than simply show up as a low-seed for the first round of the Playoffs (0-5 in postseason series history under such circumstances), they have got to show they can beat teams at least as intentionally underwhleming as the Hawks (22-56) when they’re away from their own comfy confines (I don’t miss the “White Hot!” T-shirt white-outs, not at all). The only playoff-probable clubs with worse away-game records than Miami (17-22) are both in the West: Minnesota (darn it, Thibs!) and the Spurs (gasp! I wonder Kawhi that is…)
    How does one know, for certain, that a restaurant's She-Crab Soup is 100% feminine? Dare I ask? Stuff like this keeps me up at night.
     
    Happy 404 Day! Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3
    lethalweapon3
     
    heat center trying to read the Hawks’ pick-and-roll scheme.
     
    The Miami heat have no reason to mess around. Winning either of two back-to-back games against our Atlanta Hawks, beginning tonight with the good guys down in South Beach (7:30 PM Eastern, Fox Sports Southeast and 92.9 FM in ATL, Fox Sports Sun in MIA) before returning to play here, or another loss by the Pistons, would be enough to secure a playoff spot for just the second time in the four seasons since Mr. Not One Not Two skipped town.
    Everyone, aside from Do-It-Yourself Dion Waiters, is healthy enough to suit up for coach Erik Spoelstra, tonight and tomorrow. Following a Tank-busting overtime home loss to Brooklyn, Miami (41-36) has also had two full days off to rest, recalibrate and prepare for whatever Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer has up his sleeve.
    So, why is the team’s highest paid player deciding that now is a good time to make himself the center of attention?
    “Why we matching up?”, notoriously brooding big-man Hassan Whiteside complained to media outlets, following Saturday’s 110-109 loss to the Nets at AmericanAirlines Arena, when Coach Spo countered Coach Kenny’s small-ball lineups with one of his own.
    “We got one of the best centers in the league,” Whiteside asserted to the postgame microphones, quite self-assuredly in third person before again begging the question, “Why we matching up? A lot of teams don’t have a good center. They’re going to use their strength. It’s bull(Shinola!). It’s really bull(pucky!), man. There’s a lot of teams that could use a center. (Shucks!). That’s bull(chips!).”
    Whiteside had returned to action in just his second game after missing most of March with a strained hip, and Spoelstra was already being cautious by restricting him to under 20 minutes in the prior game. But if Hassan sincerely wanted to be in the Nets game at crunch time, he didn’t help matters by calling for a sub just under five minutes into the start of the game.
    Instead of Whiteside, who sat through the final quarter plus OT on Saturday, and rookie Bam Adebayo (DNP-ankle, but available today) Coach Spo relied on his floor-spacing Fabio, Kelly Olynyk, to relieve James Johnson at the 5-spot. That irritated Whiteside enough to disrespect his head coach’s “authoritah.”
    “I don’t know if it’s because I was on a minutes restriction,” Whiteside continued, characteristically digging himself a deeper hole. “The minutes have been like that all year.” When queried whether this issue made him question his future with the heat, Hassan (two more seasons guaranteed for $51.5 million) couldn’t resist chomping on the bait. “I don’t know. I don’t know.”
    This is no way to head into April, as your team sizes itself up for one of Boston, Cleveland or Toronto in the first round. Before Whiteside could infest the rest of the locker room with his ball-so-hard attitude, Miami wanted to fine him. Along with the undisclosed payment from Whiteside came a begrudging apology.
    “…I could have handled it different,” Whiteside explained to the Palm Beach Post and the Miami Herald after practice on Monday. “But I got so caught up in wanting to get that win. I get real competitive,” he added, perhaps confusing impetuousness with competitiveness. “I really want to be out there. But I just trust coach’s decision.”
    Spoelstra tried to put a nice face on the whole ordeal with a bulleted response on Monday. “We’re going to help him continue to learn how to be a better professional, how to be a better leader in this locker room, how to be a better teammate and, ultimately, how to be a better winner.”
    Adding levity to the PowerPoint he conveyed to Whiteside, Coach Spo quipped, “If guys want to throw a few eggs at my car after the game, or T.P. [toilet paper] my house, that’s actually a better way to deal with it than speaking to all of you [in the lamestream media] about their frustrations.”
    All’s well that ends well in South Beach. That is, so long as tonight’s game ends well for the home team. Even with the levied fine, Miami can expect to endure more moody-blues if they fail to clinch tonight, and if Whiteside is on the bench at any time that the Hawks’ Miles Plumlee is ballin’ outta control.
    One of the teams that couldn’t use a decent center right now is Atlanta. Dewayne Dedmon isn’t just getting his double-doubles (#14 versus Orlando on Sunday, shooting 3-for-7 on threes, five double-doubs in his past seven games) by parking himself around the post and demanding the rock.
    As sketchy as the Hawks’ overall offensive efficiency can be (99.8 March O-Rating, 3rd-worst in NBA) with so many moving parts, it improves when Dedmon’s paired with John Collins, whose surefire 58.5 FG% (6th in NBA) is presently the best shot accuracy by an NBA rookie since Otis Thorpe in 1984-85.
    Collins and Dedmon with the standard starting backcourt (Taurean Prince, Kent Bazemore, Dennis Schröder) produced a positive +8.1 Net Rating (109.9 O-Rating) in 118 minutes together. Replacing Dedmon and Collins with Ersan Ilyasova and the lumbering Plumlee, Atlanta’s efficiencies plummeted to minus-7.0 Net and 100.2 O-Ratings, in thrice the floor time (352 minutes). Hopefully, Hassan is taking notes when he’s not in the game.
    The struggles for Whiteside (career-highs of 19.9 points, 16.3 rebounds, 1.4 assists and 1.1 steals per-36; 25.6 MPG, lowest since his magical renaissance in 2014-15; 54.4 2FG%, lowest since 2011-12) beyond the boxscore is exemplary of Today’s NBA, where the Howards and Drummonds of the world are having a hard time coping with their growing disutility.
    The seven-footer blessed with a 7-foot-7 wingspan aches to dominate with his post-up game, at a time when the number-crunchers suggest that even a decent day exploiting mismatches around the rim can prove to be under-efficient for the larger team offense. Miami has a tepid 104.6 O-Rating (19th in NBA; up to 109.1 and 11th since the Break, mostly without Whiteside available) and moves up-and-down the court with a bottom-five pace (97.6 possessions per-48, 26th in NBA; up to 17th since the Break).
    It wasn’t like there was some behemoth tempering the heat while Whiteside looked on. It was Brooklyn’s swingmen, Rondae Hollis-Jefferson and Caris LeVert, flummoxing Miami counterparts Josh Richardson, Wayne Ellington and Justise Winslow. Relying on the pick-and-roll, featuring James Johnson in tandem with Goran Dragic in the fourth quarter, helped Miami narrow the gap and force overtime in the first place.
    Winslow sunk a three-pointer to give Miami a 37-26 lead on the Nets early in the second quarter. Tellingly, Miami didn’t convert on another one for the remainder of Saturday’s contest (0-for-7 3FGs, after starting out 7-for-10), including OT. Failing to LTMFF won’t fly if they expect to make any pleasant noise in the playoffs, and Spoelstra recognizes Whiteside can’t help in that department.
    Ellington went full Ogunbowale on the Dennis Schröder-less Hawks when they last visited Miami, saving the Whiteside-less heat’s bacon by contributing 19 second-quarter points while nailing 6 of 8 threes in a 104-93 win. But it wasn’t exactly Wayne’s World when the heat (again without Whiteside; also missing Goran Dragic, James Johnson, and Winslow) played in Atlanta two months later.
    Ellington ran into foul trouble and shot just 1-for-6 from the field, and the shorthanded heat (7-for-25 3FGs) proved to be no match for Schröder and Taurean Prince, the swingman who played less like a frog (team-highs of 24 points, 7 rebounds and 3 blocks, a DiVincenzoan 4-for-7 3FGs) in his Hawks’ 110-104 victory. Despite 7 critical turnovers in the October meeting, Prince balanced things out with a game-high three steals plus team-high scoring (20 points) in that contest as well.
    Vital to victory for Miami, today and tomorrow against Atlanta (22-55), will be clipping the Hawks’ wings (including Prince and Tyler Dorsey, whose 19 bench points helped subdue the Magic on Sunday) while finding some consistent offensive attack at the same position. Richardson, Ellington Tyler Johnson and the returning Dwyane Wade shot a combined 13-for-38 from the field against the Nets.
    Another player who knows a thing or two about airing his grievances through the media, Dragic (2 assists in 39 minutes, 4 TOs vs. BRK; DNP @ ATL on Dec. 18) must be a better facilitator, finding shooters and passers in position to finish perimeter plays off his drives. Miami is 5-2 when Dragic (25.5 assist%, lowest in his Miami-era) registers 8 or more assists. But the fact that this sample represents less than a tenth of the first-time All-Star’s 72 appearances is the rub, Whiteside aside.
    It’s on the heat to put hard-charging Detroit firmly in the rear-view mirror, and build positive momentum toward the playoff’s opening round, preferably in a way that better incorporates Whiteside as he returns to full health. Spoelstra will need all the time he can to craft a winning strategy against far more arduous opponents than the Hawks. He can’t be wasting precious time scrubbing breakfast off his car.
    Let’s Go Hawks!
    ~lw3