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Charlotte Hornets Are Poised to Make A Playoff Run

After a successful offseason, the Charlotte Hornets are in the position to return back to the postseason.

Dennis Chambers

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After losing some of their sting last season, the Charlotte Hornets made the right moves this offseason to put themselves right back in the thick of the Eastern Conference playoff race.

Two years ago, the Hornets were one of the NBA’s hot young team’s on the rise. Kemba Walker led the club to 48 wins and the sixth seed in the Eastern Conference while scoring nearly 21 points a night. Last year, Walker took another step forward, bumping his scoring output up to 23.2 points per game. However, Charlotte failed to make a second consecutive playoff appearance due to some obvious holes in their roster.

With the little wiggle room they had entering the offseason — nearly $8 million over the 2016 cap — the Hornets managed to swing some salaries, bolster a position of need, move up in the draft and reunite a former star with an old coach in one fell swoop.

On June 20, Charlotte sent Marco Belinelli, Miles Plumlee, and the No. 41 pick in the 2017 NBA Draft to the Atlanta Hawks for Dwight Howard and No. 31 pick.

As a result of the transaction, the Hornets shipped off just over $44 million in salary between Belinelli and Plumlee and took on the remaining $47.3 million on Howard’s deal.

Adding Howard to the mix, despite the fact that he’s no spring chicken, gives the team an inside presence that they desperately missed last year. Moving up in the second round gave the Hornets a shot at drafting Florida State product Dwayne Bacon, adding him to their rookie collection that included No. 11 overall pick Malik Monk. With Monk and Bacon, Charlotte brings two players aboard capable of scoring the basketball. While Monk will have a much larger role in that capacity next season, Bacon should still see his chances.

But the main addition for the Hornets next season is without a doubt Howard. Charlotte head coach Steve Clifford spent time as an assistant during Howard’s tenure with the Orlando Magic and Los Angeles Lakers. The team’s new big man is a familiar face to their head coach.

“I know what he has to do to play well,” Clifford said following the trade. “He understands that I know him. I know his game. Being around him in different settings I have a feel for what he likes to do… There is no reason he can’t get back to playing at a really high level.”

Last season, the Hornets were average in terms of rebounding the basketball. The team ranked 16th in the league in terms of total boards, and their highest individual participant was small forward Michael Kidd-Gilchrist with seven rebounds per game. Coincidently, Howard had his best season rebounding the basketball since 2011-12 last year with Atlanta. If Clifford believes his old ties with the big man can return him to prime form, or close to it, then Charlotte adds a whole new facet to their attack.

Along with the addition of Howard, the Hornets benefitted from a bit of luck on draft night when Monk fell into their lap at No. 11. The 6-foot-3 combo guard out of Kentucky was projected at some points during draft season as a potential top-five pick. Monk himself even stated that he was surprised the New York Knicks passed on him at No. 8.

By other teams choosing to pass on the dynamic scorer, Charlotte was able to reward themselves with a premier talent to help shoulder some of the load carried by Walker. Last year, while Walker was scoring more than 23 points per game, the Hornets next best scoring threat was Nicolas Batum, who averaged 15.1 points per game. After Batum, Frank Kaminsky was the next best threat with 11.7 points per game. For opposing teams, if you wanted to shut down the Hornets, all you had to do was key in on their All-Star point guard. In fact, when Walker went to the bench just to grab a breather, the Hornets registered a -7.0 net rating.

Bringing Monk on board, even at just 19 years old, allows Walker the opportunity to pass the ball to someone else who can consistently get buckets.

Despite missing the playoffs last season, and having a few glaring holes on their roster, the Hornets aren’t as far off from making some noise in the playoff picture as they may seem. In fact, Charlotte even outscored their opponents on the whole last year.

With the changes in the Eastern Conference being so monumental — Paul George, Jimmy Butler, and Paul Millsap all moving west — the bottom half of the conference will be up for grabs in terms of playoff spots. Clifford and his guys have been there before, and Walker has only gotten better since that seven-game series against the Miami HEAT two years ago. By adding in some pieces to what the team already has, especially while addressing obvious needs, the Hornets have positioned themselves as one of the teams ready to take an open seat at the playoff table.

However, placing the bulk of their postseason hopes on the shoulders of a 31-year-old center and a 19-year-old combo guard would be misplaced. The core of the Hornets, obviously anchored by Walker, will need to continue to grow from last season.

Cody Zeller will need to adjust to his role behind Howard, after proving himself more than valuable to Charlotte last year (the Hornets were 3-17 when Zeller didn’t play). Kidd-Gilchrist, who has never been able to shoot the ball, should look to operate more in the lane next season with more eyes locked on Howard. And former lottery pick Kaminsky will need to continue his development that he showed last season as a big who can stretch the floor with his outside shooting.

The Charlotte Hornets aren’t going to be beating down the doors of the Cleveland Cavaliers or Boston Celtics next season for Eastern Conference supremacy, but after a more than successful summer, this team looks poised to be more than just a bystander next postseason.

Dennis Chambers is an NBA writer in his first season with Basketball Insiders. Based out of Philadelphia he has previously covered NCAA basketball and high school recruiting.

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Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, they’re just already 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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Covington’s Contract Extension Adds Value On and Off the Court

Robert Covington cashed in for himself while also allowing the Sixers to potentially cash in this summer.

Dennis Chambers

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The Philadelphia 76ers are keeping their X-factor in town for the foreseeable future.

Wednesday night, hours before the Sixers were set to tip off against the Los Angeles Lakers, ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that Covington and Philadelphia were finalizing a contract extension for four-years and $62 million.

But what the Sixers did to preserve their financial flexibility for the future, while still rewarding Covington, was potentially what makes this deal so valuable. In addition to his current $1.57 million salary this season, the Sixers will renegotiate an additional $15 million into Covington’s salary for this year.

As Wojnarowski reported, that chunk of change the Sixers coughed up this season allows them to still have $25 million in salary-cap space next summer. Along with paying a large portion of the deal upfront, the four-year extension Covington will wind up agreeing to pays him around $45 million over the duration, as reported by The Athletic’s Derek Bodner.

For Covington, coming from his undrafted status out of Tennessee State, to being sent down to the D-League after a short stint with the Houston Rockets, to a team-friendly Sam Hinkie special four-year contract with the Sixers back in 2014, now finally culminating in a big payday as one of the NBA’s premier 3-and-D players, is nothing short of an amazing story.

It’s duly noted what Covington brings to the table for the Sixers on the court. After leading the league in deflections last season, along with his ability to guard 1-4 spots on the court, Covington secured votes in the Defensive Player of the Year race. This season, without sacrificing any of his defense (registering the same 105 defensive rating as last season), Covington is experiencing a renaissance on the offensive end.

Along with averaging a career-high 16.5 points per game, Covington is shooting an absurd 49.5 percent from deep on 7.2 attempts per game. Believe it or not, he has made more threes than Stephen Curry and is shooting a higher percentage from beyond the arc—Covington is 50-of-101 from three-point range, while Curry is 47-of-121.

It’s only the second week of November, but that is nonetheless impressive, and a testament to how on-fire Covington has been this season.

Playing along Ben Simmons, Joel Embiid, and another sharpshooter like J.J. Redick gets Covington open looks. He’s learned to maximize those opportunities.

Now, with his new extension, Covington is just as big of an impact off the court, as well.

By renegotiating his salary for this season, the Sixers are left with enough money to be serious players next summer when some marquee free agents will hit the open market. It was a stroke of genius for the front office, and also a rare occurrence, as ESPN’s Bobby Marks pointed out that a move similar to this has occurred just seven times since 1998.

As reported last season, the Sixers made a significant push to acquire Paul George from the Indiana Pacers at the trade deadline. Part of that package included Covington. Although they love Covington in Philadelphia, they believed giving him up for George would have been worth it. Obviously, that didn’t pan out, but the good news now is that the Sixers will have the cap space to pursue George should he opt for free agency this summer.

It’s been no secret that George would like to test the open waters and find the best fit for himself. Although George is playing alongside the most talented players he’s ever had by his side with Russell Westbrook and Carmelo Anthony, he is just one of many impact free agents on the market.

Covington’s brilliant extension gives Philadelphia the option to meet with a player like George, and not only offer him the promise of playing with budding stars like Embiid and Simmons, but with quality starters like Covington. And if George isn’t amenable to the possibility, someone else might be.

On a personal level, Covington embodies “the process” in Philadelphia. From his humble beginnings to now being a multi-millionaire whose efforts are being handsomely rewarded, his story is a good one. 

Not only for him, but for the Sixers, too.

Yes, Ben Simmons and Joel Embiid hold the keys to the Sixers’ championship hopes, but once again, Covington is proving to be the X-factor.

This time, he’s extending his intangibles off the court as well.

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