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Atlanta Hawks 2016-17 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Atlanta Hawks.

Basketball Insiders

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Over the past decade, the Atlanta Hawks have been known for their consistency. The franchise heads into training camp in the midst of a playoff streak that has spanned nine consecutive seasons, with the driving forces of their success being the continuity that stemmed from the front office all the way to the core members of the roster.

However, the 2016-17 campaign marks a new beginning in Atlanta after an offseason full of revisions to the standard script. In many ways, the summer of 2016 was an abrupt change of pace after years of undeviating roster transition. For starters, the last remaining member of the team that started the current playoff run, four-time All-Star center Al Horford, opted to join the Boston Celtics in free agency. A few weeks before Horford’s surprising departure, the franchise traded former All-Star guard Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers in exchange for a lottery pick.

Teague’s departure wasn’t much of a shock to followers of the team after witnessing head coach Mike Budenholzer’s growing penchant for using fourth-year guard Dennis Schroder in pivotal situations and the veteran’s looming free agency in 2017. Horford’s defection will sting, but Atlanta did secure arguably the biggest free agent “name” in franchise history by bringing in hometown product and former three-time Defensive Player of the Year Dwight Howard.

The team’s playoff streak doesn’t appear to be in any serious jeopardy, but most are hesitant to consider the current unit title contenders.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2016-17 season for the Atlanta Hawks.

FIVE GUYS THINK

Even though this will be a new-look Hawks team, I trust head coach Mike Budenholzer to coach the hell out of this group and I think enough core pieces are returning for them win a ton of regular season games. I’m curious to see how Paul Millsap and Dwight Howard can co-exist in the frontcourt. I don’t expect Howard to completely return to form in his hometown, but I do expect him to be more engaged and impactful after the change of scenery. He was clearly upset in Houston and it’s best for all involved that the marriage with the Rockets ended. We’ll see if Howard can avoid clashing with any of his new teammates or coaches. I love Millsap, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder among others on this roster, which is why I have the Hawks winning the Southeast Division (with the Charlotte Hornets coming in second). However, there are too many question marks surrounding this squad (particularly Howard) to view Atlanta as a legitimate contender. The Cleveland Cavaliers are obviously the best team in the conference, with the Boston Celtics and Toronto Raptors one notch below the Cavs (in my opinion). After that is where I have the Hawks projected, which honestly isn’t bad after losing Al Horford in free agency and trading away Jeff Teague this summer.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Alex Kennedy

It’s not often that you see a team overachieve for a few years and then return without two of their top players, but that’s exactly what’s happening with Mike Budenholzer’s squad. By effectively swapping Jeff Teague and Al Horford for Dennis Schroder and Dwight Howard, you could argue that the Hawks downgraded their two most valuable positions. You could also argue, though, that they had plateaued with Horford, so while I don’t like the moves, I do understand them. Howard will turn 31 years old in December, so unless returning home to Atlanta rejuvenates him in a major way, it’s safe to say the Hawks will take a step back this coming season. I’ve chosen the Washington Wizards as my favorite in the Southeast Division and I think the Hawks will be battling the Charlotte Hornets for the second seed out there. It’s tough to make the call between those two, but because Howard hasn’t left me much reason to believe in him and Schroder will have to adjust to life as a starter, I think I slightly favor the Hornets.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Moke Hamilton

It’s hard to see this Hawks group being a better team without Al Horford. Obviously Dwight Howard was the team’s high-profile free agency acquisition this summer and he’ll give them the “true” center they’ve desired for quite some time, but Horford and Paul Millsap had such a nice chemistry and symbiosis the last couple of years that it’s impossible to imagine Howard replicating it. Trading away Jeff Teague is less of a concern because Dennis Schroder really does look ready to run the show, but otherwise the changes with this roster weren’t drastic enough to inspire confidence in them to come back as the contender they were a couple of seasons ago. There’s nothing to hate here, just not enough to love.

3rd Place – Southeast Division

– Joel Brigham

For starters, the Hawks lost two All-Star caliber performers this summer in center Al Horford and guard Jeff Teague. Normally these types of losses would indicate a drastic decline in wins is on the horizon, but Atlanta was able to sign center Dwight Howard in free agency and homegrown fourth-year guard Dennis Schroder looks ready to emerge from Teague’s shadow. The rest of Atlanta’s core group stayed intact for the most part, but the additions of veteran guard Jarrett Jack and rookie wings Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry give the club much needed depth. The Hawks’ current streak of nine straight playoff appearances isn’t in jeopardy of ending this season, barring any major injuries.

1st Place – Southeast Division

– Lang Greene

Losing Al Horford and Jeff Teague won’t destroy the Hawks since they signed Dwight Howard in free agency and have Dennis Schroder filling in for Teague. However, Horford and Paul Millsap had such great chemistry together on offense and, in particular, on defense. The Hawks’ defensive schemes were heavily based on how Horford and Millsap were able to work together and make crisp rotations, so Howard will have to get up to speed quickly to preserve that defensive efficiency. I did like what the Hawks did in the draft by bringing in Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry. Prince and Bembry are some of the most NBA-ready players in this draft and should be able to contribute at least periodically. The Hawks have the talent to make some noise in the Eastern Conference, but I don’t think they took a significant step forward this offseason, which is what they needed to do to become real contenders, in my opinion.

2nd Place – Southeast Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Paul Millsap

The Hawks struck gold back in 2013 by luring the underrated forward away from the Utah Jazz in free agency. Although Millsap put together multiple quality seasons in Utah, the veteran forward was largely unnoticed by the mainstream. Fast forward three seasons and three well deserved All-Star selections later, Millsap has developed into one of the best power forwards in the game today. With Horford and Teague now in different zip codes, the pressure on Millsap to deliver the goods offensively will increase – every single night. Millsap scored in double figures in 75 out of 81 appearances last season, but there are a few areas of concern as he transitions into the team’s true offensive focal point. Millsap’s road production (15.9 points, 8.9 rebounds and 3.1 assists) significantly paled in comparison to the stat lines he posted at Philips Arena (18.2 points, 9.2 rebounds and 3.5 assists). Millsap also showed signs of decline post All-Star break, dropping from 17.7 to 15.8 points per game and his shooting efficiency declined from 49 to 44 percent from the field. This may just be a blip on the radar, but Millsap turns 32 years old during the season so it’s definitely a trend worth watching.

Top Defensive Player: Paul Millsap

The case can be made here for veteran forward Thabo Sefolosha as the team’s leading perimeter defender. Howard will undoubtedly get a few votes for consideration as well because of his past dominance as a defensive force. However, Millsap is the team’s top defensive player present day. The veteran posted an impressive defensive real plus-minus of 3.2 in 2016, finishing 12th in the league, and also posted the best defensive rating (96.2) on the roster.

Top Playmaker: Dennis Schroder

Whether the fourth-year guard is truly ready to assume the full-time starting point guard role is still up for debate as we head into training camp. But Schroder will be the unquestioned starter on opening night, barring a major injury or abysmal camp. Schroder hasn’t been shy about publicly stating his goal of becoming a full-time starter and now he’ll get his shot. While Schroder has become slightly known as a chucker in some circles, the guard ranked ninth in the league in assists per 48 minutes (10.3) and ninth in overall assist percentage (36.4). Those are two quality metrics to evaluate a point guard’s ability to distribute the rock and the youngster notched top 10 finishes in both categories. Schroder could become a free agent next summer, but the Hawks can sign him to an early contract extension to get a jump on the market. The club could also allow Schroder to enter next summer as a restricted free agent so the market sets the price of their floor general. There are risks associated with either road the franchise pursues.

Top Clutch Player: Committee Approach

While the most expected answer in this space would be Millsap considering how much the Hawks will lean on his offensive talents this season, digging deeper into the metrics shows that the Hawks are in desperate need for someone to step up and assume the go-to role. With five minutes remaining and with the team ahead or behind by five points or less, Millsap shot just 32 percent from the floor and 14 percent from three-point range last season. This is where the loss of Horford will hurt the team, as the departed center connected on 53 percent of his field goals in this same situation. Surprisingly, forward Kent Bazemore was fourth on the team in points in this situation and shot 50 percent from the floor, 71 percent from three-point range and 89 percent from the free throw line in the clutch. Millsap will obviously get the most looks based on his skill set and standing on the team, but his performance in the clutch last season indicates this designation is up for grabs.

The Unheralded Player: Kent Bazemore

Bazemore signed a four-year, $70 million deal in free agency this past summer, so the Hawks organization clearly values their starting small forward. However, for those who casually follow the team, Bazemore’s value is occasionally questioned. Bazemore struggled down the stretch, specifically post All-Star break, which saw his three-point accuracy decline from 39 to 29 percent to end the season. Overall, Bazemore shot 36 percent from downtown en route to a career high 109 three-pointers made. The club will be expecting another significant leap from Bazemore during the 2016-17 campaign.

Top New Addition: Taurean Prince

Prince, the No.12 pick of the 2016 draft, was the prize the Hawks received from the Utah Jazz in the three-team Jeff Teague trade. After missing the start of Summer League awaiting on his trade to become finalized, Prince led the Hawks in scoring – contributing 13.7 points and six rebounds. Like most rookies, Prince struggled with his shot, connecting on just 38 percent of his attempts from the floor and 25 percent from three-point range, but defensively he managed to walk away with three steals per contest. It’s rare for a playoff team to rely on a rookie for production, but the 22-year-old Prince is more NBA-ready than most first-year players and could carve out a role in the rotation before season’s end.

– Lang Greene

WHO WE LIKE

  1. Mike Budenholzer

Budenholzer has amassed a 146-100 (.593) record in Atlanta since taking control of the team before the start of the 2013-14 season. Immediately after his arrival, the Hawks – once considered a bland offensive unit – developed into one of the most polished scoring teams in the league. But Budenholzer’s impact also extends to the defensive side of the ball, where the team finished sixth in points allowed (99.2) in 2016. The squad also ranked second in defensive rating (98.8), trailing only the San Antonio Spurs (Budenholzer’s former squad). Budenholzer’s fingerprints are all over the Hawks organization and that’s more evident than ever after witnessing the team sign Howard and have the confidence to trade Teague over the summer to make way for Schroder.

  1. Dwight Howard

Atlanta has a long history of polarizing sports figures. From John Rocker to Michael Vick to Josh Smith, there’s been no shortage of players who have divided fans in the city over the years. Howard is the biggest “name” the Hawks have ever secured on the dotted line in free agency. A former three-time Defensive Player of the Year and future Hall of Famer, Howard comes back home slightly past his prime and replacing an All-Star performer in Horford. Conversations regarding Howard’s impact have varied wildly since his signing was announced. Seemingly everyone has drawn their line in the sand. Some believe Howard’s presence will translate into net negative wins for the franchise. Others believe Howard is ready to resume his dominance on the league after flame-outs in Los Angeles and Houston. As always, the truth is somewhere in between. Peak Howard, circa 2009-10, isn’t walking through those Philips Arena doors. But naysayers are foolish to dismiss a player who has never averaged less than 10 rebounds over 12 seasons. Mind you, rebounding was a huge area of need for Atlanta in recent years. Howard performed his best under a hard charging coach in a defined system during his days in Orlando playing for Stan Van Gundy. The Hawks have a defined system and Budenholzer is well respected, so we’re expecting a slight bounce-back season from Howard in 2016-17.

  1. Jarrett Jack

Jack is coming off a torn ACL and appeared in just 32 games for Brooklyn last season. But the veteran floor general is the perfect insurance policy for the Hawks, who have entrusted Schroder to take command at the point. If the youngster falters, Jack can step in – as he has averaged 13.3 points, 3.3 rebounds and 5.6 assists over his career when starting. Obviously the team’s goal for Jack is to assume the backup point guard role and serve as a mentor for Schroder, but the Hawks are fully aware the veteran can absorb a larger role if needed (and assuming he’s fully healthy).

  1. The Hawks’ assortment of wings

The Hawks’ wing depth over the years has been questionable. But entering the 2016-17 campaign, the Hawks have an intriguing unit of forwards that will give Budenholzer plenty of lineup flexibility. Bazemore is the starter at small forward, and Sefolosha figures to get extended minutes in the rotation too. However, the question is can the Hawks’ duo of young forwards, Taurean Prince and DeAndre Bembry, break the rotation in year one? This is the most talent the team has had on the wing in quite some time.

– Lang Greene

SALARY CAP 101

The Hawks went under the NBA’s $94.1 million salary cap, signing Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore, Kris Humphries and Malcolm Delaney. Now over the cap, Atlanta still has their $2.9 million Room Exception, but have a full roster with 15 guaranteed contracts. The team may look to shed one guaranteed player in trade (or by waiver) to make room for Mike Muscala, who has $507,848 of his $1 million deal guaranteed.

Looking ahead to next summer, Atlanta could have $31 million in space under a $102 million projected salary cap, although that assumes Paul Millsap opts out of his final season at $21.5 million. Both Dennis Schroder and Tim Hardaway Jr. are eligible for contract extensions by the end of October. Both Kyle Korver and Tiago Splitter are eligible to have their contracts restructured and extended, but the Hawks no longer have the cap room to do so.

– Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Offense gets the headlines, but the Hawks will continue leading with their defense. The team won 48 games last season and were primarily driven by their ability to negate opposing offenses. But the unit does enter the season with a few question marks. Howard, in his prime, was one of the better defenders the league has seen over the last 25 years. However, at this point in his career, he’s likely a downgrade from the departed Horford. But one area Howard excels where Horford doesn’t is providing elite rebounding. The Hawks allowed the third most offensive rebounds in the league last season and this should immediately be improved by the glass cleaning Howard. Schroder is an upgrade over Teague defensively, on paper, but the youngster will have to be consistent and truly lock in. Expect the Hawks to remain an elite defensive unit in 2017.

– Lang Greene

WEAKNESSES

Atlanta’s depth at shooting guard is a bit concerning. When the Hawks rollicked to 60 victories during the 2014-15 season, the team ranked second in three-point percentage (38 percent), trailing only the Golden State Warriors. Last season, the Hawks connected on just 35 percent of their attempts behind the arc. A significant portion of the team’s decline from distance can be traced to veteran guard Kyle Korver’s struggles to find a consistent rhythm. Korver shot 49 percent from three-point rage in 2015, but just 40 percent in 2016. It marked the first time in three seasons Korver didn’t finish in the top 10 for three-point accuracy. Korver will turn 36 years old before season’s end and the team’s primary depth behind him is Sefolosha and Tim Hardaway Jr. Some believe Korver’s decline is Father Time beginning his work, while others point to the fact the veteran entered training camp less than 100 percent after suffering an injury in the playoffs the prior season. Wherever the truth falls, the Hawks must start a succession plan for their starting shooting guard sooner rather than later.

– Lang Greene

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will the new additions, after a summer of defections, negatively impact the team’s chemistry?

As stated earlier, the Hawks have made their bones over the years by being consistent in their approach. It hasn’t always been what the team’s fan base has wanted, but attempting to dispute the success year in and year out would be hard to do. The core group has mostly remained the same with a carousel of revolving role players keeping the team perennially in the playoff mix. However, the Joe Johnson, Al Horford, Josh Smith, Marvin Williams and Jeff Teague crew responsible for so much of the team’s success over the past decade are now all wearing different uniforms. This means the locker room culture will shift. The arrival of Howard, after some internal turmoil in Houston, is a dynamic to watch. The big question is can the Hawks continue their winning ways with new guys manning pivotal roles, previously reserved for the old guard? Only time will tell.

– Lang Greene

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Second Half NBA Story lines

With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.

Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.

Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.

So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.

After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.

But things may be different this year.

The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.

At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.

For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.

Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.

Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.

These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.

LeBron’s new teammates

The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.

Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.

So far, so good.

The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.

But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.

Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.

As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.

Tight Playoff Races

For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.

In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.

Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.

That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.

The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.

Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.

At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.

With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.

In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.

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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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