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Howard, Schroder, Bazemore Lead Redefined Hawks

Dwight Howard, Dennis Schroder and Kent Bazemore discuss the new-look Atlanta Hawks.

Michael Scotto

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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.”

Michael Scotto is a Senior NBA Writer for Basketball Insiders in his sixth season covering the league. He also works for The Associated Press focusing on Brooklyn Nets and New York Knicks game coverage.

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 11/17/17

Spencer Davies updates the list of names to keep an eye on and who’s in contention for DPOY.

Spencer Davies

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We’re exactly one month into the season now, as the NBA standings have started to take shape headed into winter.

A couple of weeks ago, Basketball Insiders released its first Defensive Player of the Year Watch article to go in-depth on players that could compete for the prestigious award. Since then, there have been injuries keeping most of the household names out of the picture.

Guys like Rudy Gobert (knee) and Al-Farouq Aminu (ankle) have been or will be sidelined for weeks. Kawhi Leonard has yet to make his season debut recovering from a bothersome right quad.

While that isn’t the best news for fans and the league at the moment, it’s likely that those players will be just fine and return with the same impact they’ve always made. In the meantime, there are opportunities for others to throw their names in the hat as elite defenders. With new names and mainstays, here’s a look at six healthy candidates.

6) Joel Embiid

Trusting the Process in Philadelphia was worth the wait. As polished as the seven-footer is with the ball in his hands on offense, he might be even more dangerous as an interior defensive presence.

One of ten players in the NBA averaging at least a block and a steal per game, Embiid makes a world of a difference for in limiting opponents. Through 14 games, the Philadelphia 76ers are allowing just 96.4 points per 100 possessions with him playing. Furthering that, he’s the only one on the floor who dips the team’s defensive rating below 100 and has the second-highest Defensive Real Plus-Minus rating (3.03) in the NBA.

5) Kristaps Porzingis

Like Embiid, it’s been an incredible season for the one called The Unicorn. Before the season started, Porzingis stated it was a goal of his to accomplish three things—an All-Star game appearance, Most Improved Player, and Defensive Player of the Year.

So far, he’s on the right track. Outside of being the league’s third-highest scorer (28.9 points per game), the Latvian big man is hounding and deterring shot attempts nearly every time inside. According to SportVU data, Porzingis is allowing his opponents to only convert 35.1 percent of their attempts at the rim, which is the lowest by far among his peers seeing at least four tries per game. Oh, and when he’s off the floor, the Knicks have a 112.4 defensive rating, which is 9.3 more points per 100 possessions than with him on.

4) Nikola Jokic

At the beginning of the season, it looked like the same old story with the Denver Nuggets defense, but their intensity has stepped up on that end of the floor for the past couple of weeks. Playing next to new running mate Paul Millsap has taken some getting used to, but it seems like the two frontcourt partners have started to mesh well.

Though it might not have been the case a season ago, the Denver Nuggets are a net -12.4 per 100 possessions defensively without Jokic on the court as opposed to a team-best 100.1 defensive rating with him on. A huge knock on the Serbian sensation last year and before then was his inability to defend. He’s still got things to work on as a rim protector with his timing, but the progress is coming. He’s seventh in the league in total contested shots (168) and has been forcing turnovers like a madman. Averaging 1.6 steals per game, Jokic has recorded at least one takeaway in all but two games.

3) Draymond Green

In the first DPOY watch article, the Golden State Warriors had been better off defensively with Green sitting. That right there should tell you how much we can really put into data in small sample sizes. It’s changed dramatically since that point in time.

Without Green playing, the Golden State Warriors have a defensive rating of 105.4 as opposed to 98.4 on the same scale with him on the floor. His matchups are starting to grow weary of driving on him again, as he’s seen less than four attempts at the basket. Currently, in DRPM, he ranks eighth with a 2.60 rating.

2) Al Horford

The Boston Celtics are still the number one team in the NBA in defensive rating. Horford is still the straw that stirs the drink for Brad Stevens. If you didn’t see that watching that knockdown, drag-it-out game against the Warriors on Thursday, go back and watch it.

He has the highest net rating on the team among starters and is leading the team by altering shots and grabbing rebounds with aggressiveness we haven’t seen since he played for the Atlanta Hawks. Ranking fourth in Defensive Box Plus-Minus and in DRPM, Horford is continuing to make his presence felt.

1) DeMarcus Cousins

Dominance is the word to describe Cousins’ game. With a month-long absence of Gobert, he has a real chance to show fans and voters that his defensive side of him is no façade.

Next to his partner Anthony Davis, Boogie has kept up the physicality and technique of locking up assignments. The third and final member of this list averaging at least a block and steal per game, Cousins is at the top of the mountain in DRPM with a 3.13 rating.

The New Orleans Pelicans significantly benefit with him on the hardwood (102.3 DRTG) as opposed to him on the bench (112.7 DTRG). He’s one of six players in the league seeing more than six attempts at the rim, and he’s allowed the lowest success percentage among that group. He’s also contested 193 shots, which is the second-most in the NBA.

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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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