The Atlanta Hawks changed the team’s identity over the offseason, trading away a former All-Star point guard, swapping All-Star centers and re-signing an undrafted swingman – once ranked as the league’s 499th best player by ESPN – to a four-year, $70 million deal.
After winning 60 games and being swept by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Eastern Conference Finals in 2015, the Hawks took a step back last season, winning 48 games before being swept again by the Cavaliers during the Eastern Conference Semifinals.
It was time for a change in Atlanta after being swept in back-to-back playoff series by the Cavaliers.
The first domino to fall was a three-team deal that saw Atlanta send Jeff Teague to the Indiana Pacers, George Hill went to the Utah Jazz and the No. 12 pick in the 2016 draft (Taurean Prince) went to the Hawks.
The Hawks then turned to a hometown hero once free agency started by signing eight-time All-Star Dwight Howard, who replaced four-time All-Star Al Horford at center.
Finally, Atlanta decided to retain its own free agent: Kent Bazemore. Several teams, including the Bucks, Grizzlies, Timberwolves, Nets, Pelicans, Rockets and Magic, coveted the former two-time CAA Defensive Player of the Year and 2011 Lefty Driesell award winner from Old Dominion. However, Bazemore decided to remain with the Hawks.
“I’ve always echoed you can be the greatest person you can be if you’re comfortable and I’m super comfortable in Atlanta,” Bazemore told Basketball Insiders. “My fiancé loves it and we’re starting to plant some roots there, my network is growing there, and it’s just a city of opportunity. It’s up and coming, and it’s a place I can see myself actually growing with, more so than going to other places where they may be too far behind or way ahead of the curve. This is a place where I can see myself being for the next 10 years maybe.”
Bazemore’s ARMS foundation has helped him plant roots in Atlanta by developing and operating programs, activities and facilities to increase the health status for underprivileged, less fortunate or distressed children and younger adults. In August, Bazemore hosted a bowling, golf and UNO tournament.
For Bazemore, positively affecting the community and earning a $70 million contract was unfathomable after earning the 15th roster spot on the Golden State Warriors and starting a combined 25 games prior to his breakout campaign last season.
“It’s still unreal,” Bazemore said. “When you put it into perspective, what I’ve done, it’s a thing of the past for me and I think about it here and there to kind of humble myself. I want more, I’m a relentless worker. For me, seeing that I’ve come this far, who’s to say I can’t go even farther, twice as far, three times as far? It’s definitely a piece that gives me tremendous belief and faith. But there’s still more to go for me.”
While Bazemore believes there’s more to go for himself, he also believes the addition of Howard – playing alongside three-time consecutive All-Star Paul Millsap – in the frontcourt will help Atlanta challenge the Cavaliers.
“Dwight is such a big presence and last year, with Cleveland for example, they were able to put Tristan Thompson on Paul and put Kevin Love on Al,” Bazemore said. “So, with Dwight down there, you can’t really do that anymore. He’s able to be guarded by true power forwards and able to use his quickness and speed against bigger defenders, so they’re such a perfect duo, I think, because Paul can move out a little bit and give Dwight his space and Al was kind of a pick-and-pop big. He started shooting a lot of threes last year, so it’s good to have a true center down there, somebody that can rebound the ball. We went from like 29th to like second or third. That within itself has changed the total dynamic of our team.”
When asked about the different dynamic Howard has brought to the Hawks so far this season, head coach Mike Budenholzer praised the big man.
“Dwight is very unique,” Budenholzer said. “His physical gifts and attributes give our whole group a greater physicality. We’re rebounding the ball a lot better. I think we’ve been a very good defensive team and he allows us to maintain that and hopefully maybe even be better. Offensively, I think the group is adjusting to him and what he can do and what he can create kind of with that same physical presence on the offensive end.”
After making eight consecutive All-Star appearances, Howard has failed to make the All-Star team over the past two seasons. Therefore, after being regarded as the league’s best center during his prime, did Howard return to his hometown team with something to prove?
“People are always going to have something to say,” Howard said. “But for myself, I know what I can do for a team and I know what kind of problems I can present for opposing teams every night. It’s always about opportunities and systems. I don’t think I had the right opportunity or right system the last two places I was in and where I could be the most effective. I think with this system right here, I get an opportunity to be effective on both ends of the floor and I still have a lot left in the tank.”
Howard and Millsap have averaged a combined 32 points, 21 rebounds and three blocks per game. Howard has shot 60 percent from the field, including 65 percent from within five feet of the basket. Millsap is shooting 34 percent from beyond the arc. Millsap has provided Howard adequate spacing needed to operate down low on post-up plays and diving on pick-and-rolls.
While Howard and Millsap have formed a cohesive frontcourt, he and new starting point guard Dennis Schroder are continuing to develop chemistry.
“So far he’s been playing pretty good,” Howard said of Schroder. “He still has a lot to learn. I think it’s tough coming in as the starting point guard after being a sixth man for a couple of years and now being asked to lead the team. It’s super tough. It’s one thing where you have to be patient and you have to allow him to go through that growing process and just stick with him through the process. There are going to be some good days, great days and some days he won’t have it, but we’ve got to continue to put our trust and faith in him that he will overcome all those little battles in his mind and he’ll be the point guard that we need.”
“He’s a good guy,” Schroder said regarding Howard. “He did a lot of amazing things in his career and now he’s home. He’s tried to prove to everybody too that he’s like the top center in the league and we’re on a mission with the team. Everybody is counting us out, but we like it and we just try to get better every game so when the playoffs start, then we’ll be prepared for that.”
A major key to Atlanta’s success going forward will be the pick-and-roll chemistry of Howard and Schroder.
“When [Howard] dives, he puts a lot of pressure on the rim,” Schroder said. “It’s good for us. People from the weak side shift and we’ve got Kyle [Korver] and Kent Bazemore wide open in the corner.”
Similar to Bazemore, Schroder spent the first three seasons of his career coming off the bench before earning a full-time starting role with the Hawks.
“I think he’s done well,” Bazemore said of Schroder. “He got his extension, so the pressures of playing in a contract season are diminished. He’s just out there trying to win ball games and he’s one of the most fearless guys I’ve met to date. That’s what you need with a young point guard and he’s a defensive-oriented guy so regardless of how he’s doing offensively, he’s going to impact the game, whether it be with a steal or disrupting the timing of an offense. He’s good to have out there at the point of attack and he’s been great for us.”
As Bazemore flourished in his first season as a full-time starter, Schroder is prepared to do the same as the team’s floor general.
“Coach and the organization trusted me and gave me the keys to the team,” Schroder said. “I worked a lot the last three years, and yeah, they trust me. I got the keys and it means a lot to me, and I can’t be more thankful.”
With Howard anchoring the paint on both sides of the court, Schroder pushing the pace as the floor general, Bazemore locking up opponents’ top scoring perimeter players and core players like Millsap and Korver returning, Coach Budenholzer believes it can all come together for a more prosperous postseason run.
“Well there’s still a long ways to go, [but] I think the thing we’ve been talking about since the first day of camp is we brought back 10 or 11 guys too, so I think it’s been a great balance of continuity with some significant change,” Budenholzer said. “When you have 10 or 11 guys that have played together for a couple years, and have had some success, and understand what we want to do and what’s important to us, I think you can integrate some changes, including a point guard and Dwight. Maybe it just made it a little more possible for us to hopefully [go further] with the results we’re having so far.”
Fixing The Chicago Bulls
Spencer Davies says the Bulls have a long way to go, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all they can ask for.
Next up on Basketball Insiders’ “fixing” series is a stop in the Windy City.
In spite of the criticisms over last summer’s Jimmy Butler trade with the Minnesota Timberwolves, it feels like the Chicago Bulls at least have a sense of direction. Many members of the media—including this one—expected them to finish dead last in the NBA, yet they have 23 wins, with seven other teams worse off.
Obviously, the goal for the organization this season was to establish an identity and see what they had with their new cornerstone pieces. To a good extent, there’s optimism regarding those players because of the potential they’ve shown.
There’s still a good chunk of the year left, but the Bulls are 12th in the Eastern Conference standings with 15 games to go.
What Is Working
If it weren’t for the spectacular seasons by Donovan Mitchell and Ben Simmons, Chicago stretch big man Lauri Markkanen might be the Rookie of the Year. Even with some second-half struggles, the entire body of work is impressive.
The 7-foot Finnish forward continues to stay aggressive with a high usage and great mentality in snatching up those boards. It’s normal for a first-year player to go through those ups and downs. Add in a back injury that’s been bothering him as of late and the slump make a little more sense. Markkanen has shown the skill and consistent effort that it takes to be a mainstay in this league.
Bobby Portis is another member of the frontcourt who’s made a noticeable impact off the Bulls’ bench. In his third year, you can see the confidence continue to grow as a versatile offensive threat with a ton of touches. He’s taken a responsibility upon himself to lead the second unit and the proof is in the pudding. According to Cleaning The Glass, the team is a net plus-11.5 per 100 possessions with him on the court.
Second-year swingman Denzel Valentine has filled the stat sheet in multiple games as one of the most unselfish players on the roster. David Nwaba’s role from the beginning was to be a defensive menace and he’s come through for the majority of the year. Even two-way contract rookie Antonio Blakeney has shown flashes as a volume scorer in stretches.
Recently, Chicago has given a couple of cast-offs opportunities to display their skills. In 10 games, Cameron Payne looks as comfortable as he has in quite some time coming off a major foot injury. Noah Vonleh has been an effective late addition playing next to Portis and filling in for Markkanen. Let’s not forget that these two were lottery picks and are still in their early 20s.
What Needs To Change
Looking at what Kris Dunn and Zach LaVine have done, it’s been a mixed bag. With that being said, there’s clearly untapped potential between the both of them.
Dunn proved in very little time that the narrative of him being a lost cause was far from the truth. Hoiberg’s trust in him to be Chicago’s floor general has gone a long way. He’s been in attack mode with the ball in his hands, has seen his outside game get better and has been bothersome with his length defensively. It hasn’t resulted in wins, but remember—it’s this group’s first season together.
As for LaVine, it’s difficult to judge where a player is using a 23-game sample size. Yes, it’s a good amount of playing time, but let’s not forget he’s coming off a devastating left ACL tear. His defense has been subpar, but the bounce seems to still be there. The jumper is on and off, but he hasn’t been bashful at all. Starting the year off fresh in 2018-19 will benefit him.
Speaking of next season, the goal for the front office of Gar Forman and John Paxson should be simple—get younger. Currently, Robin Lopez is the highest paid player on the Bulls and he’ll have one year left on his deal going into the summer. The same applies to Justin Holiday. These are two veterans who could contribute on teams ready to win now, and it would be logical to part ways considering the direction the franchise is going.
Focus Area: The Draft
Due to the Nikola Mirotic trade on February 1st, Chicago acquired a first-round draft pick from the New Orleans Pelicans. That gives them two chances to add to their young talent pool in the upcoming 2018 NBA Draft.
Typically you’d go with the best player available when you’re slotted in the top ten, but the Bulls should feel good about their backcourt and the power forward position. What they really are lacking are reliable shooters and perimeter defenders, as well as a player with a bulldog mentality.
Chicago doesn’t get to the free throw nearly enough and they don’t convert looks that they should. Considering a true wing is amiss, it’d be the ideal scenario for Michael Porter Jr. to fall right into their lap. The Missouri freshman just returned after missing basically the entire season with a back injury. He was a top name coming into the class because of his size and could be a steal with the eighth selection.
If Porter Jr. doesn’t make it to them, Miles Bridges would make for a heck of a consolation prize. Unlike Porter, he has a more muscular frame at 6-foot-7, 230 pounds that allows him to bully the opposition. There’s a relentless nature and fearlessness about him that will translate to the next level.
Using that Pelicans pick, the Bulls would be happy to see Duke sharpshooter Gary Trent Jr. fall to them in the early-to-mid 20s, but that seems more unlikely with Anthony Davis continuing to carry New Orleans to new heights. If they end up selecting towards to the back end of the first round, Arizona junior guard Allonzo Trier could end up being a good fit as well.
Focus Area: Free Agency
Entering the summer, Chicago doesn’t have too many decisions to make on the contract front.
The trade exception from the Butler deal expires on June 22nd. If it’s not used by then, the amount will be renounced if the team goes under the salary cap. The deadline to present Noah Vonleh and David Nwaba a qualifying offer is June 29th.
Everybody’s going to keep an eye on LaVine because of restricted free agency, but the Bulls have indicated they prefer him to be a part of their core. They’ll in all likelihood look to bring him back on a long-term contract. If he doesn’t approve of the terms, he can always choose to play on his qualifying offer and bet on himself.
Chicago has to decide whether or not to guarantee Paul Zipser’s $1.5 million salary for next season by July 18th. The extension deadline for Payne, Portis, and Grant is the day before the first day of the 2018 campaign and team option deadlines for Dunn and Markannen come on Halloween.
There probably won’t be too much activity on the Bulls’ part regarding free agency. The focus will lay on improving their young core and getting guys who are just getting on the upswing in the pros. There are talents out there who fit the bill. It just all depends on what comes from the draft.
All in all, Chicago has a long way to go to get back into the postseason conversation, but they’re taking steps forward. In year one without the former face of the franchise, that’s about all you can ask for.
NBA Daily: 76ers’ Ben Simmons Enters Rarefied Air
Philadelphia 76ers guard Ben Simmons passed Magic Johnson for second in rookie triple-doubles.
As the Philadelphia 76ers continued their playoff push with a come-from-behind victory over the woebegone New York Knicks Thursday, rookie Ben Simmons joined some NBA legends in the record book. With his eighth triple-double of the season, Simmons passed Magic Johnson for second all-time in triple-doubles among rookies. According to ESPN’s Ian Begley, Simmons is only the third rookie to record 1000 points, 500 rebounds, and 500 assists.
After the win over the Knicks, Simmons told reporters that the process for him has been to disregard the expectations thrust upon him as a scorer and focus on his ability to contribute in a variety of ways.
“I try not to get carried away with what people say,” said Simmons. “People want me to be a scorer or a player that I’m not right now. I can score the ball, but I can also rebound and pass the ball. I’d rather do that and do what I’m pretty good at than force things.”
Simmons was clearly aware of the gravity of what he had accomplished in the postgame locker room. He spoke with reverence of the legendary players his name will always be associated with, including Oscar Robertson, whose record of 26 triple-doubles as a rookie may never be challenged.
“It’s surreal knowing the game’s been played for a long time,” said Simmons. “So many greats have been through. I’ve set a record with Magic and Oscar Robertson, which is surreal to me.”
Before the game, Knicks coach Jeff Hornacek described how Simmons’ combination of size, speed, and court vision make him especially difficult to guard.
“He’s got the speed, he’s got those long strides and he’s got the vision as a passer to pick you apart,” said Hornacek. “You’ve got to kind of collapse and kind of create a wall to not let him get in [the paint], but then he goes ahead and throws it out to the shooters that they have on his team.”
Begley also quoted 76ers coach Brett Brown during the pregame discussing how Simmons’ assignment to the point guard position was debated within the organization.
“I’m so pleased that the organization, he, the coaching staff, had the courage to try him as a point guard,” said Brown. “Because, let’s face it, that was highly scrutinized.”
It seems it was the right decision, as Simmons’ 507 assists easily leads all rookies. Lakers point guard Lonzo Ball is second with 325 while Dallas’ Dennis Smith follows with 289, De’Aaron Fox of the Kings has 262 and fellow Rookie of the Year candidate Donovan Mitchell of the Jazz has 236. Simmons leads the 76ers with 7.7 assists per game and is third in scoring with 16.2 points, trailing leading scorer Joel Embiid (23.6) and veteran shooting guard J.J. Redick (16.6). His 7.8 rebounds per game trails only Embiid (10.9) for the team lead.
The 76ers are currently sixth in the Eastern Conference, but could easily move up with only three of its final 15 games coming against teams in playoff position. Philadelphia trails the third-seed Pacers by a mere two games, so home court advantage in the first round is definitely in play. Meanwhile, Simmons said at a practice over the weekend that he hasn’t experienced a rookie wall.
“I don’t think there’s a wall,” said Simmons. “I wake up every morning and I love what I do. You’re going to have great games and you’re going to have some bad games, but that just comes with it.”
With history notched into his belt and no signs of slowing with the playoffs looming, Simmons’ All-Star snub could look even more ridiculous as time passes. Magic posted an eerily-similar 18 points, 7.3 assists and 7.7 rebounds per game as a Lakers rookie. He was an All-Star starter and became the first rookie to be named NBA Finals MVP.
Fixing the New York Knicks
How can the Knicks build a contender around Kristaps Porzingis?
The City That Never Sleeps. The Big Apple. The World’s Most Famous Arena. All home to the New York Knickerbockers.
When the Knicks are competitive, the basketball world is better for it. The NBA thrives when the Mecca is packed night in and night out. However, that’s not the reality of this rendition of the Knicks.
Sitting at 24-44, the Knicks are without their best player for the rest of the season, and are plummeting down the standings. On the bright side, with a star player already in-hand, a home run in June’s draft could move past the Knicks’ misfortunes into the next era of competitive New York basketball.
So, without further ado, let’s fix the New York Knicks.
What is Working?
To reach the point the Knicks have this season, it means not much of what they planned coming into this campaign is working. Granted, New York didn’t account for a season-ending injury to Kristaps Porzingis.
In a season that’s over before it’s actually over, the most important thing for that particular club is evaluating what they have for the next season. In that regard, certain players for the Knicks are helping their case as being fixtures for the future in New York.
After signing Trey Burke from the G-League, the former lottery pick is proving himself more than capable of contributing quality NBA minutes off of the bench. In-season finds and rediscovering talent like Burke is a positive note for new Knicks brass Steve Mills and Scott Perry can hang their hat on during an otherwise disappointing season.
Along with Burke, the development of last year’s lottery pick Frank Ntilikina is crucial. Ntilikina’s season has had its ups and downs, as most teenagers experience in their first go around with an NBA year. But the Frenchman currently leads his team in steals and has shown flashes of being a future elite wing defender in this league.
Jeff Hornacek, despite not having a full arsenal of talent at his disposal, is still taking this season to implement his system. Predicated on winning the rebounding battle and moving the basketball, two of the lone categories the Knicks actually rank in the top half of the league, Hornacek’s style of play should become more effective upon Porzingis’ return (much like their early season success).
It’s been a rough year in New York, but take away the franchise player from almost any team in the NBA and the results would surely be disappointing. Not all hope is lost for the Knicks.
What Needs to Change?
The Knicks need to evolve with the rest of the NBA.
Simply, they take too many two-point jumpers. That’s not where the rest of the league is trending. Today’s game is based on the three ball, and simple math proves three points beats two points every time.
A lot of that comes down to personnel. The Knicks only have three players who attempt three shots from deep a game — Porzingis, Courtney Lee, and Tim Hardaway Jr. Porzingis is effective when he’s on the court, Lee shoots 41 percent from downtown, but Hardaway Jr. shoots below the league average at 31 percent.
While the Knicks aren’t built right now as a team who can fire away from beyond the arc, they need to address that the best they can moving forward, or risk getting left behind in the rapid change of the game.
Equally, learning to take care of possessions needs to be a point of emphasis for New York as well. In fouls and turnovers, the Knicks rank 20th and 22nd in the league, respectively. For a team that doesn’t possess the firepower that many of the teams around the league do, making the most of their chances is going to go a long way.
Focus Area: The Draft
Thanks to Phil Jackson, the Knicks already have their franchise player in Porzingis.
And because of Porzingis’ injury this year, the Knicks have another chance in the draft lottery to add a big piece next to their star.
Ntilikina has shown signs of growth this season, but there’s no indication thus far that he’s a star caliber player capable of being Porzingis’ second option. If the season ended today, the Knicks would be picking ninth in the draft (barring some lottery magic). But New York is just two games out of jumping into the top-seven and having a chance at nabbing one of the projected elite talents in the draft.
Because of the Knicks’ situation of having just one star player, they aren’t in a position to be drafting for fit. Their game plan heading into the draft process is to identify the best talent available for where they will be drafting, and take that player regardless of position.
In other words, despite drafting a point guard last year in Ntilikina, should a talent like Trae Young or Collin Sexton be available when the Knicks are on the clock, they should take a long, hard look at selecting a player of that caliber.
To take the Knicks to the next level, Porzingis needs star caliber help. New York’s next best chance at getting their unicorn that player is in June’s draft.
Focus Area: Free Agency
The biggest elephant in the room this summer comes in the shape of Joakim Noah’s contract.
On the hook for $18,530,000 next season, the Knicks need to figure out how to shed the big man’s even bigger cap hit.
Back in January, the team and Noah came to an agreement that he would no longer be involved with the club in any basketball-related activities. While that’s a plus for the on-court production, Noah’s still collecting a paycheck. If the Knicks want to have cap flexibility to make productive moves when it comes to filling out the rest of their roster for the future, addressing Noah is the first priority in doing so.
After Noah, the Knicks have a few boisterous contracts that don’t allow them much maneuverability come summertime. Lee is on the hook for over $12 million, and Hardaway Jr. is going to cost over $17 million. While Lee has been productive this season, he’s 32 years old, and that type of price at that age isn’t ideal for a team that’s rebuilding.
Shedding some of the bigger cap hits with an eye on future summers to use the New York draw as a pitch to free agents may be a crucial decision Knicks’ brass will have to make if they want to field a more talented roster around Porzingis, Ntilikina, and whichever college star they come away with in June’s draft.
While this season is a wash for the Knicks, they have a star player already on their roster, which is more than a lot of teams in a similar position can say. That alone could help speed up their rebuild should they execute the other areas they need to effectively.