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Game 1 Preview: Washington Wizards vs. Atlanta Hawks

Buddy Grizzard breaks down the round one matchup between the Wizards and Hawks, and picks Game 1.

Buddy Grizzard



For a 23-year-old in his first year as a starter, Dennis Schroder has already amassed an impressive collection of beefs with other Eastern Conference point guards. The Atlanta Hawks’ lead guard famously accused Celtics point guard Isaiah Thomas of disparaging his family. Schroder was also quoted by German magazine Bild campaigning for since-departed Jeff Teague’s starting job last season. Schroder would later claim he was misquoted, but he also has history with John Wall, the Washington Wizards point guard he will face Sunday in the opening round of the NBA playoffs.

“I’m still mad about the time I injured my hand,” Wall told CSN Mid-Atlantic of the 2015 second round series Washington lost to Atlanta in six games after he suffered a fractured hand and wrist in Game 1. “That’s still in the back of my mind even though they might have a different team.”

It was Teague who knocked Wall to the floor and precipitated the injury, but Wall will still be motivated. After returning to the series a mere 10 days after suffering multiple fractures, Wall informed the Washington Post that Schroder told Hawks wing Kent Bazemore to hit him on his injured hand during Game 5. As the Wizards waited to see which team it would face in the first round, Wall told CSN Mid-Atlantic that he wanted the Hawks. Now he gets his wish.

In addition to a healthy Wall, the Wizards enter the playoffs coming off the franchise’s most impressive season in decades. When Washington clinched the Southeast Division title, it did so for the first time since 1979. That broke a division title drought that was the longest in major professional sports. The Wizards’ 49-32 record also marks its first 47-win season since 1979. The team also amassed a 17-game home win streak and won back-to-back road games for the first time since 1991.

Washington has one of the NBA’s best backcourts, with Wall combining with shooting guard Bradley Beal to average 46 points per game. Wall’s nearly 11 assists per game are second in the NBA and, per USA Today, the Wizards led the NBA with 27 games in which all five starters scored in double figures. Wall is one of only three NBA players to average a points and assists double-double, and the Wizards were 35-14 when he did so. He also set the Wizards’ record for assists in a season, while Beal set the mark for made threes. Beal and starting small forward Otto Porter were both legitimate candidates for Most Improved Player after both finished in the top 20 in increased Value Over Replacement Player this season.

Thus, Washington is having its best season in recent memory thanks to a balanced scoring attack led by a pair of stars that have learned to play together. Tempering enthusiasm somewhat is a defense ranked in the bottom third, and a rash of recent, relatively minor injuries. Porter missed recent games against Miami and Detroit with back spasms. Wall sat out the Detroit game with a quad contusion and starting power forward Markieff Morris missed a recent game against the Knicks with a sore ankle. The most serious injury was to backup center Ian Mahinmi, who will miss the opening of the series after straining his calf against Detroit.

The defensive woes were of especial concern to Wall, who told CSN entering the final month of the season, “If we don’t figure it out, (we) probably are going to have an early (playoff) exit.”

Although Atlanta’s 43-39 record is unimpressive, that stems from a stretch of nine losses in 11 games that correlated with missed games for power forward Paul Millsap (knee synovitis). A lot will hinge on how that knee holds up. The Hawks have almost the same .580 win percentage with Millsap available in each of the last two seasons. Had Millsap played all 82 games, the Hawks could have been expected to win around nine more games. His 67 games played are his fewest since 2011-12.

On the positive side for Atlanta is a defense that ranks in the top four, and a 5-0 record in overtime games that leads the league. Both teams are in the top four in clutch field goal percentage. And the Hawks finished the season with a flourish that included back-to-back wins over the defending champion Cavaliers and a 123-116 win over top-seeded Boston.

Where the Hawks have really struggled is on offense, especially with Dwight Howard on the floor. While Washington has a top-10 offense, the Hawks rank 27th. Since the All-Star break, Atlanta is scoring 96.5 points per 100 possessions with Howard on court and 106.7 with Howard on the bench. Overall the Hawks are -7.8 points per 100 with Howard on court since the All-Star break, the worst net rating of any Hawk with at least 200 minutes.

The biggest issue with Howard — aside from his 53 percent free throw shooting — is his inefficiency as a post isolation scorer. Howard’s 1.18 points per possession as the roll man in pick and rolls ranks in the top 10 among players with at least 75 such possessions. But Howard has only functioned as the roll man 98 times this season. By contrast, Karl-Anthony Towns has used 363 possessions as the roll man this season for Minnesota. Howard has used 272 post-up possessions this season while scoring a meager .84 points per possession, which ranks in the bottom six among players with at least 200 post-ups.

Howard’s match-up with Wizards center Marcin Gortat will be key, but the most important match-up will be whoever Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer starts opposite Beal. Bazemore and Thabo Sefolosha have struggled with injuries, and both rank just ahead of Howard in net rating since the All-Star break. Meanwhile, Tim Hardaway Jr. has become the regular starter at shooting guard and has been in the team’s top five in net rating (minimum 200 minutes) while increasing his scoring from 13 to 18 points per game post-All-Star.

One interesting subtext to the series will be the play of Wizards reserve wing Kelly Oubre Jr., who fell out of Washington’s rotation until mid-May, then scored in double figures in eight of the team’s final 10 games. Washington drafted Oubre with a pick obtained from the Hawks as part of a series of trades that landed Hardaway in Atlanta. Budenholzer will need a strong series out of Hardaway to prove that he made the right choice.

Another player that has come on strong is Hawks rookie small forward Taurean Prince, who scored in double figures eight times over the season’s final 17 games. Prince barely played before the All-Star break but closed the season with 10 straight starts during which he averaged 11.4 points and 3.9 rebounds. Budenholzer has a huge decision to make: Will he stay with the hot rookie against Porter and deadline acquisition Bojan Bogdanovic (12.7 points on 39 percent shooting from three as a Wizard), or will he move one of the struggling wings — Bazemore or Sefolosha — back into the starting lineup?

While Budenholzer must find the right buttons to push for his struggling team, Scott Brooks is finally getting the credit that was denied him as coach of a star-laden team in Oklahoma City. With Beal and Wall finally getting along, Porter becoming one of the league’s most efficient scorers and young players developing, Brooks’ body of work is getting noticed.

“One of the things [Brooks] showed [in OKC] was that he was really good with developing young players, and you can see that here,” Wizards GM Ernie Grunfeld told The Ringer‘s Katie Baker. “John and Brad have gotten better, Otto has gotten better, Kelly [Oubre Jr.] has gotten better.”

From Wall versus Schroder to a pair of coaching minds that will match wits all series, Hawks-Wizards promises to be a must-watch. One of these teams will go home after a crushing first-round defeat with a long summer to ponder how it all went wrong. For the Hawks, it’s been chaos and for the Wizards, much more consistency. Our pick for Game 1: Wizards.

Buddy Grizzard has written for and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.


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Update: Eric Bledsoe Trade Talks

Michael Scotto updates the ongoing Eric Bledsoe trade saga.

Michael Scotto



The sun has set on the 2017-18 season for Phoenix three games into the year.

The Suns fired head coach Earl Watson and promoted Jay Triano as the team’s interim head coach, as ESPN first reported. The Suns suffered an embarrassing 124-76 loss in the home opener against the Portland Trail Blazers. The final straw came during a 130-88 loss to the Los Angeles Clippers on the road to drop the team to 0-3.

Then things went from bad to worse rapidly after a tweet from guard Eric Bledsoe.

General manager Ryan McDonough spoke with Bledsoe. Bledsoe told McDonough he was at a hair salon with a girl and the tweet wasn’t related to the Suns. McDonough didn’t believe that to be true and said the 27-year-old guard “won’t be with us going forward.”

Bledsoe spoke with McDonough and owner Robert Sarver privately several weeks ago. During that conversation the desire for a change was expressed, a league source told Basketball Insiders.

Since then, Phoenix has discussed trades involving Bledsoe around the league, sources told Basketball Insiders. In addition, Tyson Chandler has continued to be shopped by the Suns during that time.

Trade talks have rapidly picked up since Bledsoe’s desire to be traded was made public.

The Suns and Denver Nuggets have discussed a trade of Eric Bledsoe for Emmanuel Mudiay and other pieces, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Nuggets forward Kenneth Faried has emerged as part of the trade package with Mudiay, league sources told Basketball Insiders.

Denver has shopped Faried for years. The 27-year-old forward is owed $12.9 million this season and $13.7 million next season. Mudiay is owed $3.4 million this season and $4.3 million next season. Mudiay will then become a restricted free agent if given a qualifying offer in the summer of 2019. For more information on Denver’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Suns also spoke to the New York Knicks and asked for No. 8 overall pick Frank Ntilikina and Willy Hernangomez in exchange for Bledsoe. The Knicks are not interested in that package, however.

Kyle O’Quinn is a candidate to be traded. Several teams have called the Knicks expressing interest in O’Quinn. New York wants to retain Hernangomez for the foreseeable future despite a lack of playing time early in the season. It’s also worth noting Hernangomez is a close friend of Kristaps Porzingis. Ntilikina is currently the point guard of the future in New York.

In addition, New York would need to add a salary filler to make the trade work financially. For more information on New York’s salary cap situation, click here.

The Milwaukee Bucks have also expressed interest in trading for Bledsoe, according to the New York Times. The Los Angeles Clippers and Portland Trail Blazers also have interest in Bledsoe, according to Amico Hoops.

Bledsoe is owed $14.5 million this season and $15 million next season before entering unrestricted free agency in the summer of 2018.

Bledsoe has averaged 18.8 points, 6.0 assists, 4.8 rebounds, and 1.6 steals per game with Phoenix. In addition, Bledsoe shot 45 percent from the field, 34 percent from downtown, and 81 percent from the foul line.

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NBA PM: Greek Freak Off to an MVP-Caliber Start

Giannis Antetokounmpo is the Bucks’ MVP and looks primed to be in the actual MVP race this season.

James Blancarte



The NBA season is officially underway. Although each team has only played a few games so far, it has helped illuminate where many teams and players are in their development. For example, last night’s game in Oklahoma City gave a glimpse into how the Thunder will handle a late-game situation now that the team has three previous number one options. In the final minute, Russell Westbrook scored two of the Thunder’s last three baskets and assisted Carmelo Anthony on the final basket just before Andrew Wiggins hit a game-winning buzzer beater from well beyond the arc.

After three games, Giannis Antetokounmpo’s individual development has been one of the most exciting storylines to follow. A number of positive and far-reaching questions can be asked of Giannis. What is the ceiling for him? Can a player of his considerable talents continue to improve after winning Most Improved Player last season? Remember, Giannis was drafted in 2013 and is still only 22 years old.

When told in August that although he could win most valuable player, he could not also win most improved player as well, he responded with a simple, yet telling response.

“Why not?” Antetokounmpo responded.

While he continued to be lighthearted and moved on to the next topic, it’s fair to ask, “why not?” when it comes to Giannis. Through three regular season games, he is averaging 38.3 points, five assists, 9.7 rebounds and 2.7 assists per game. These averages will likely regress to more sustainable numbers as the season continues. For now, however, his averages are in elite territory. In addition, his ability to impact the game is already getting to the point where LeBron James may be the only other player who can similarly fill up the stat lines while physically terrorizing opponents on both the offensive and defensive end of the court.

When asked who the “biggest freak in the NBA” is, Giannis elaborated that it was James due to his ability to impose himself on the game.

“The things [James] does, the veteran leadership he brings to the team, how big he is, how quick, how strong,” Giannis stated. “And at the end of the day, how smart he is. He can put his team in the right spots, make the right decision.”

In Saturday night’s game against the Portland Trail Blazers, Giannis willed his team to victory. It was Giannis demonstrating how big, strong and smart he was, putting his team on his shoulders and carrying them to an impressive win.
With less than a minute left in a close game, Giannis closed in with a well-timed double team on Damian Lillard and came away with a clean steal. The steal got the Bucks the ball back and Giannis was fouled, which put him on the free throw line. Unfortunately, he came up short on both attempts and the Bucks remained a point behind.

Despite missing the free throws, Giannis came up huge on the very next play. Giannis took on C.J McCollum one-on-one at the top of the key and created yet another steal. He then leaked out to receive the pass for a breakaway dunk that quickly gave the Bucks the lead with 11.4 seconds remaining.

On the next play, when Jusuf Nurkic set a high screen and roll, he received the pass on the roll and headed to the basket. Giannis’ primary responsibility was the shooter in the corner and yet he read the action correctly and was ready and waiting at the rim for Nurkic. Giannis times Nurkic’s shot perfectly and rejected him at the rim, which effectively ended the game in favor of the Bucks.

Giannis’ ability as defensive Swiss Army Knife was instrumental in the Bucks’ close win over Portland. In addition, Giannis has also made further improvements in an area of his that has received a lot of attention over the years. He continues to shoot a below average three-point percentage for his career (27.6) and has had a rocky start to this season as well (16.7). It’s likely that Giannis’ three-point shooting will be a significant limitation in his game for the foreseeable future. However, over his career, Giannis has shown an ability to improve his shooting percentage on two-point shots consistently, especially shots from 0-3 feet and 3-10 feet, per basketball-reference. As Giannis has gotten stronger and more explosive, he has developed a strong desire to attack opponents off the dribble and absorb contact at the rim. Whether he blows by his opponent outright or scores through opponents at the rim, Giannis has developed into an offensive force that few players in the league could hope to slow down.

In addition to his scoring, Giannis continues to display his unique ability to handle the ball in transitions and run the Bucks’ offense in the half court as a point forward. This sort of ability separates Giannis from the other elite wings in the league who don’t have the skill or vision to act as a primary playmaker. Giannis is doing much of what he did last year, but seems more aggressive and physically dominant through the first three games of this season. That sort of improvement of course puts Giannis in the MVP discussion (though it is incredibly early in the season to even start this sort of discussion).

Giannis was recently asked about his ability to win the MVP and wasn’t shy about his desire to win the prestigious award.

“I’m going to be one of the players that hopefully dominates the game. But I’ve got to still make sure that my team wins, that my teammates get better,” Giannis stated. “I’ve set the goal since the last game against Toronto last year, at the playoffs. I want to be the MVP this year.”

What helps solidify Giannis’ ability to be such a strong MVP candidate is also what makes his team less dangerous. The Bucks are woefully dependent on their star and, at least for now, lack the necessary depth to be a true contender in the East.

Through three regular season games, it’s clear that the Bucks will only go as far as Giannis can take them. And that is the key to Giannis’ budding MVP campaign. Let’s take a look at last year’s top five MVP candidates. Last year’s winner, Westbrook, has two new star-caliber players (Paul George and Carmelo Anthony) to share the spotlight, and the ball, with. James Harden is sharing the ball with Chris Paul, who is currently struggling with a knee injury. LeBron James and the Cavaliers are almost exclusively concerned with the postseason. Kawhi Leonard is similarly crucial to the San Antonio Spurs on offense and defense but has lingering health concerns and has yet to play this season. Finally, Isaiah Thomas is coming off a major hip injury and is not projected to play until January.

With so much uncertainty, Giannis has the opportunity to continue to draw attention as not only the most important player on the Bucks but perhaps the most valuable player in the league. Giannis’ early play this season indicates that this is possible. Despite his early-season outburst, Giannis is giving deference to LeBron James — though he admits he hopes to reach James’ level at some point in the future.

“Definitely [James is] the best player in the NBA. For a few years to come,” Giannis stated. “But I think a lot of players are getting better. Even myself. And hopefully one day we can get to that spot from him.”

Perhaps Giannis will take the spot as the best player in the NBA as early as this season. Considering how dominant he has been so far this season, it’s fair to ask “why not?”

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Wright Primed To Take Next Step With Raptors

Third year Utah alum Delon Wright is showing flashes of what he can do in an expanded role for Toronto.

Spencer Davies



Backup point guards are essential to a team’s success.

They’re the floor generals of the second unit. They create for themselves to score. They collapse defenses in order for the others to get opportunities.

In some cases, these players perform so well that they outgrow the role they provide and force their way into the starting five—on that same team or elsewhere. Just look at past examples: Darren Collison, Eric Bledsoe, Reggie Jackson, Dennis Schroder, etc. The list goes on.

Kyle Lowry was 20 years old when he was drafted late in the first round of the 2006 NBA Draft by the Memphis Grizzlies. He studied the position behind veteran guards Chucky Atkins and Damon “Mighty Mouse” Stoudamire.

But even after showing promise in his rookie season, management decided to take Mike Conley Jr. the very next year. Though the two were about even in playing time, it was clear the Grizzlies favored youth over anything else, so in 2009, Lowry was dealt with the Houston Rockets in a three-way trade at the deadline.

At this point, Lowry had started in only 30 games over two-and-a-half seasons, so the keys to the car weren’t ready for him just yet. Aaron Brooks was a unique talent that Rick Adelman loved to throw out there along with Tracy McGrady and Kevin Martin.

Brooks started all 82 games in the 2009-10 campaign and blossomed into a scoring machine. He was shooting the lights out that year, and because of that, it was tough to sit him. Lowry still took advantage of his playing time, though, with plenty of floor run. He averaged nearly 14 points and seven assists per 36 minutes.

To the misfortune of his teammate and the advantage to Lowry the next season, Brooks struggled mightily with the jump shot that made him so deadly. After 34 games, the Rockets moved him in a deal to Phoenix for Goran Dragic and a first-round pick. Dragic was on his way to carving his niche in the league, but it opened up a door for Lowry to really take hold as “quarterback” of the team.

Circumstances arose once again, however. Houston had let go of Adelman and hired Kevin McHale in June 2011. Lowry and his new head coach did not have the same rapport. He unfortunately suffered from a bacterial infection and missed out on the beginning of the season, and towards the end, the emergence of Dragic led to his demise.

That summer, the Rockets sent Lowry to the Toronto Raptors for Gary Forbes and a future first-rounder. Once again, it was a fresh start for him, but also a brand new team with a different head coach.

It didn’t take long for the man to realize his true potential there. Aside from shuffling a bit with Jose Calderon as the starter in Toronto, Lowry found a home. The jump he made between that season and the next one was impressive.

Lowry got paid after that 2013-14 season and re-signed with the Raptors for four years. He earned three All-Star appearances and—aside from the postseason disappointments—led the team to new heights with his fellow All-Star backcourt partner DeMar DeRozan.

Toronto and its star point guard agreed to a three-year, $100 million deal over the summer to keep him running the show and to honor that contract well as he has always had. But now there’s somebody behind Lowry waiting to break out, and could very well be the one who gets the torch passed to him.

Delon Wright is ready to make his mark. When he entered the league, he was a reserve behind Cory Joseph and had to observe and soak in the experience of NBA life. For some rookies, they get the chance immediately, and for the others, they have to wait their turn. In this case, it was the latter.

Playing the waiting game ended up working out well for him. In the offseason, the Raptors went out and traded Joseph for C.J. Miles due to the loss of DeMarre Carroll. It was a move that not only addressed a need for depth at the wing but also opened a door for Wright.

So here we are, two games in. The Raptors are 2-0 and have outscored their opponents by 51 points. In those combined, Wright has received 55 minutes of playing time.

Despite the competition being the rebuilding Chicago Bulls and a Philadelphia 76ers team trying to find an identity, he looks extremely comfortable. You don’t want to take too much out a sample size as small as that, but neither the numbers nor the eye test lies.

Wright has played the third-most minutes on the team thus far. He’s done a great job on both sides of the floor but has truly made a difference on the defensive end. As of now, the Raptors are only allowing 83 points per 100 possessions with him on the hardwood. When he’s not, that number blows up to 98.9 using the same scale.

Offensively he’s almost been just as good. Wright has been aggressive as a facilitator and as a shooter, putting up 13- and 14-point games early on. He dished out five assists in the season opener and nabbed five rebounds in the second game. He has a higher offensive rating than both Lowry and DeRozan.

According to, Toronto’s net rating with him off the court (12.9) is the second lowest to his lifelong teammate Jakob Poeltl (12.8). Take it with a grain of salt because it’s one week into the season, but Wright has the best net rating in the league (37.6) among those playing at least 25 minutes per game.

Call it garbage time play or whatever you want: He has the tools to succeed. The stature is there. The intangibles are evident. It’s all about putting it together over the course of an entire season.

If the trend continues, there’s no way Casey can keep him off the floor for long. We don’t know where Wright’s career could go. It’s way too early to tell. The Raptors are likely hoping for him to be the successor after this era of basketball has come and gone.

Lowry is the man in Toronto, as is DeRozan. Nothing is changing that anytime soon. But rest assured, Wright’s primed to take a big step this year and it’s going to be fun to watch.

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