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NBA AM: Horford Still Roots for Hawks

This is Al Horford’s first year watching the Hawks in the playoffs, but he wishes them well.

Joel Brigham

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When the Atlanta Hawks drafted Al Horford in the summer of 2007, the team hadn’t made the postseason for eight years. The last time they had even sniffed the playoffs, Lenny Wilkens was coaching Dikembe Mutombo. Just so everybody understands how long ago that was, Mutombo is 50 years old now. Wilkens turns 80 in October.

In drafting Horford ten years ago, the Hawks completely turned their competitive culture around. They made the postseason his first year in Atlanta, and they never missed the playoffs in his nine seasons there. Every year, the fans got a little more invested in the team, and by the 2014-2015 season, the year in which Horford’s Hawks won 60 games and made the Eastern Conference Finals, the City of Atlanta was more excited to watch Hawks basketball than it had ever been.

Horford had literally everything to do with that.

“Building a fandom is just something that comes with playing for a franchise,” Horford told Basketball Insiders. “But I can tell you that it’s fun coming out and having a packed house rooting for you, no matter where you play.”

He is, of course, referring to playing for Boston this year and battling in the playoffs for some team other than Atlanta. After spending the better part of a decade building rapport with Hawks fans, scraping and clawing his way up the Eastern Conference ranks and returning the city to basketball respectability, Horford has had to adjust to grinding through the playoffs with a different team for the first time in his professional career.

“It’s weird for sure,” he admitted. “After being with a team for so many years, it’s definitely weird to see that team playing on television and not being a part of it.”

Still, he admits, he can’t help but root for the Hawks, even if he’s entirely too wrapped up in his own series to watch those Hawks/Wizards games in their entirety.

“I always wish them well,” he said. “I honestly haven’t been able to watch much of their first few games. I’ve seen the scores, but I haven’t been able to watch. Still, you can’t help but still feel something about the team. I still have a good relationship with some of those guys and Coach Budenholzer, so I always wish them well.”

The Hawks currently are down 2-1 in their series with Washington, which means they still have an opportunity to win their series and face Horford and the Celtics in the second round. Horford didn’t want to think about what that might mean, but for now he’s able to enjoy the successes of his current and former teams.

“The playoffs are a great atmosphere in both places,” he said. “It was always a lot of fun playing in Atlanta because the fans always showed out. They were great there.”

Now, of course, they’re great in Boston, the most successful basketball city in the league’s history. That is where Horford likely will play out the rest of the career, and at some point, his time in Atlanta will be ancient history.

For now, though, the memories of what he accomplished there are still recent enough for us to care about what could happen in a Boston/Atlanta second-round series. Should that happen, there will be no waffling over where Horford’s allegiances lie.

He may be a Hawk for life in spirit, but he’s a Celtic now.

Joel Brigham is a senior writer for Basketball Insiders, covering the Central Division and fantasy basketball.

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NBA AM: Kyrie Irving Wants To Be His Own Star

Kyrie Irving says his decision to leave Cleveland is less about LeBron James and more about Kyrie Irving.

Steve Kyler

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Can You Blame Him?

Former Cavalier guard and current Boston Celtic Kyrie Irving has started to make his rounds on the PR circuit to not only set the record straight, but to try and clear the air before the 2017-18 season opens. During his appearance on ESPN’s First Take, he was asked directly about his motivations for wanting a trade from Cleveland.

“The request came at a time I deemed right for me,” Irving said. “As a 25-year-old evolving man, coming in to perfect my craft every single day, I just wanted to be in an environment where I felt I could be taught every single day and have that demand from my coaching staff and have that demand from a franchise that would propel me to exceed my potential and see how far I can go.”

As much as people have tried to make Irving’s exit from Cleveland about LeBron James, the story coming from Kyrie continues to be the same—he wanted to be the focal point, not just in the offense, but in how the team was coached and constructed.

Let’s be real for a minute: Irving is just 25 years old. He is not wise beyond his years, he is a young guy trying to make his mark in the NBA, and he’s doesn’t want to do so as the second option or the afterthought next to the Hall-of-Famer. Instead, Irving wants the chance at creating the opportunity for himself to be in the Hall-of-Fame discussion in his own right.

As much as people have blasted Irving for exiting a winning situation, the thing most don’t seem to want to accept is that Irving was also going to be the second concern in Cleveland. That’s a tough thing to expect from a young player. It’s easy to expect players to want to accept secondary roles or, worse yet, play from the bench, but when you consider how much blood, sweat and tears players put into their careers, can you blame Irving for wanting to see how far he can go on his own terms?

That’s what the exit from Cleveland was really about. Irving wanted to put himself in the environment to be the very best player he could be and give himself the best opportunity at long-term greatness.

Were there problems in Cleveland? Absolutely. You can’t look into that situation and think everything is perfect, because the evidence on the floor showed you that it wasn’t. That’s a tough thing to expect a player to accept.

“I was raised being in a professional environment,” Irving said about how long this was brewing. “Being in a workplace and making sure it’s conducive for everybody. So having those relationships and developing those every single day, and on top of that, still wanting to be as successful on the court and still trying to figure out myself off the court. I had to balance those two. When I was coming into that environment, there were times where my energy was a little off. I just had to figure that out. There were times when after games I would go out and shoot, and as any professional athlete or any person knows, when in your workplace and you have those tough days, there are questions that you ask yourself, ‘Is this the right thing for me right now?’ I answered that question for myself.”

As Irving has started to explain his motivations, it’s becoming increasingly clear that his desire to move was more about the environment he was in more than any interpersonal relationship. That’s not a surprising thing either. If you didn’t know, the Cavaliers are built around LeBron James. The offense is built around James, the defense is built around James, the pace of play is built around James. That’s great for James and it’s great for support players that benefit from James, but is that great for a 25-year old player trying to become his own superstar?

It’s not, and it’s a little naïve to think a player should accept that at this point in his career.

Irving may grow to regret leaving a sure-thing like the Cavs. He may find out the grass is not always greener on the other side. He may think he’s landed in a better environment than Cleveland, but that too can change. Just ask the Celtic players that were traded away before free agency decisions. Still, the one thing Irving can absolutely embrace is that he has bet on himself. He has taken the chance to be great on his own terms, and that’s what most players truly covet—especially the ones in Irving position.

As much as people have lambasted Irving for exiting a Finals team in its prime, Irving has put himself in a position to be his own guy. While that may seem short-sighted in the grand scheme of careers, ask yourself how you really view Scottie Pippen, Klay Thompson or Tony Parker. Being the guy next to the guy is pretty good way to become a footnote to a Hall-of-Fame career. You might win a lot of games and even make a lot of money, but when the book is finally written on your career, did you become what you set out to become when you started the journey? That’s the question Irving wants to answer on his own terms and if that means he fails, he will fail trying to be great, not just accepting the accolades of being the guy next to greatness.

It is easy to be dismissive or Irving’s desire for individual greatness, but can you really blame him for wanting to try? Isn’t that how the greatest of the greats got to their place in NBA history?

By blazing their own way?

Kyrie Irving wants to be his own star, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

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NBA PM: Memphis Grizzlies 2017-18 Season Preview

The Memphis Grizzlies seem to be at a cross-road. Are two-star players enough in the West? We take a look at the situation in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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For long-time fans of the Memphis Grizzlies, the 2017 off-season has been a bittersweet affair. Fan favorites have unceremoniously departed the team. Gone are the likes of Tony Allen, Zach Randolph and Vince Carter. With them, a few more core pieces of the prime “Grit and Grind” days have departed. In their place, the Grizzlies will look to others, including a few reclamation projects, to step up and help fill the void.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

This season looks to be one of the more interesting seasons for the Memphis Grizzlies. Zach Randolph and Tony Allen are gone. Their division, and conference for that matter, is deeper and while the league is shifting to small ball play, the Grizzlies are anchored by big man Marc Gasol.

While Randolph and Allen certainly are past their glory days, they take with them a specific gritty personality that Memphis had adopted over the years. Without that, the Grizzlies may head into this season without the edge that had made them the lovable underdog tough guys in recent postseason matchups.

As the league continues to change their point of attack from half-court ball to full-court ball, this may be the season it catches up to Memphis and leaves them on the outside looking in of the playoff picture.

4th place – Southwest Division

– Dennis Chambers

Every year, a few more folks pick this to finally be the season the Grizzlies fall of the playoff wagon – and every year, they get egg on their faces. Will this finally be the year a reduced version of Grit n Grind misses the second season? On the one hand, the roster is almost scarily thin once you get past stars Mike Conley and Marc Gasol. On the other, that always seems to be the case, and it never seems to stop the Grizzlies from eking out enough wins to get it done. I’ve got them slightly outside the playoff picture, but with no absolute certainty here given their history.

4th Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

They play the game for a reason, but it’s difficult to imagine the Grizzlies continuing to be the same team we remember them as without Zach Randolph and Tony Allen. After three years with the club, Vince Carter also followed Randolph to Sacramento, but the Grizzlies will resemble the team they have been so long as Mike Conley and Marc Gasol remain intact.

There certainly is a collection of young players on the squad that could amount to something—Andrew Harrison, Wade Baldwin and Deyonta Davis are a few—but it’s difficult to imagine the Grizzlies improving from last season. They are clearly two steps behind the Spurs and Rockets and will be pushed by a number of teams that they beat out to secure the seventh seed in last year’s playoffs. With the Northwest Division looking quite formidable, the Grizzlies are probably going to be on the outside looking in come playoff time, but that’ll largely depend on whether Chandler Parsons can give them meaningful contributions and whether or not David Fizdale can coach one or two of the youngsters up into becoming impactful players.

Anything is possible, sure, but expecting much from the Grizzlies this season may be a bit of a reach.

3rd place — Southwest Division

– Moke Hamilton

The Grizzlies are at a turning point this season. After years of being right there in the West, the Grizzlies opted to shed some of their older veterans and have taken some chances on players that have star-level ability but have not put together star-level careers. Combining some promising younger players with franchise anchors Mike Conley and Marc Gasol could be enough to swing the Grizzlies forward, but it could equally be the beginning of the end given the age of Gasol and Conley. The Grizz are a tough team to predict. They are well coached, have two underrated stars and a lot of promise on their bench, but none of that may mean anything in the West. The Grizzlies have done the hard part – they have two game changers. If any of the new faces or young guys they have invested time in turn into real players, the Grizz could be as good as they were a season ago. The problem is that’s not as likely as falling back given the volume of change and unknown.

3rd place — Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

Some of the players that best represented the heart and spirit of the Memphis Grizzlies departed this offseason. Vince Carter, Zach Randolph and Tony Allen have all moved on, which leaves Mike Conley and Marc Gasol as the two major remaining players from the Grizzlies squad we have known for the last few seasons. Chandler Parsons is the team’s third most important player at this point, but he has struggled mightily with injuries over the last few seasons. The Grizzlies agreed to a four-year, max-contract worth roughly $94 million. That’s a huge amount of money for a player that just had his worst NBA season and seems unlikely to ever recapture his peak form. On the upside, the Grizzlies have taken a couple of fliers on players like Ben McLemore and Tyreke Evans, hoping they can have a bounce back season. The Grizzlies usually find a way to outperform our preseason projections, but this year may be different. These isn’t much overall talent, JaMychal Green has yet to re-sign and the team is depending on several players with significant injuries or injury histories. With this in mind, it’s very possible Memphis misses the playoffs this upcoming season.

4th Place — Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Marc Gasol

Marc Gasol continues to be an excellent player to build around. Count Gasol and point guard Mike Conley as the foundation for this team. Assuming Gasol continues his excellent play from last year, he will continue to be the focal point of the Grizzlies’ offense. Last year, Gasol averaged a career-high in points (19.5) and added three-point range to his game. This was the first year Gasol added the long distance shot to his arsenal on offense and the change came just in time to help a team that failed to get significant contributions on the perimeter from forward Chandler Parsons. Add in a career-high in assists (4.6) and Gasol stands out as the center piece of the offense as he can score from the inside, from three and as a facilitator for his teammates.

Top Defensive Player: Marc Gasol

Tony Allen’s contributions on the defensive end will be missed. He never lit the league on fire with his shooting or scoring but he thrived on defense. In a recent interview, he revealed the origin of the “hustle and heart” and “grit and grid” ethos the franchise has thrived on the past few years (it’s an interesting story that involves former Grizzly Rudy Gay). With Allen gone, we can surely count Gasol as the key defensive player for the Grizzlies going forward (especially considering Gasol led the team in defensive win shares last season). Gasol is a surprisingly effective rim protector and will be counted on as a last line of defense whenever Memphis’ wing defenders lose track of their opponents. Gasol will need to stay in great shape (he just finished playing in the Eurobasket tournament) to stay mobile and keep up when opposing defenses drag him out to the perimeter on close outs and pick and roll action. Gasol may be getting up there in age, but he’s still one of the best defensive anchors in the league.

Top Playmaker: Mike Conley

Like Gasol, Mike Conley used last season to increase his offensive output and help push the team into the playoff picture. Conley upped his scoring average to a new career-high (20.5) — a huge five-point jump from the prior year. Not only did the team make the playoffs but Conley helped to vindicate the franchise after it re-signed the lead guard to a maximum extension, amounting to the largest contract in NBA history. With the team’s backup point guard situation up in the air, Conley’s play will be key if the Grizzlies are to be successful. Conley will have to be aggressive in creating shots for himself and his teammates since there are no other playmaking ball handlers that can be counted on for a variety of reasons – mostly health. With a strong handle and the ability to get to the rim, Conley is and will be largely responsible for creating easy scoring opportunities for his teammates this season.

Top Clutch Player: Mike Conley (Honorable Mention – Marc Gasol)

Count this category as a toss-up. Unsurprisingly, Conley and Gasol are the two easiest choices here. Both have virtually identical net ratings (+11.5 and +11.6, respectively) in clutch time, defined by nba.com as play in the last five minutes of a game within five points. Gasol has a strong ability to get his own basket in the post and can hit an open jumper anywhere on the floor. Although close, the nod goes to Conley as his usage percentage is much higher (35.3 to 24.5 percent) since he controls the ball more than anyone else on the team. Whether taking the shot himself or creating an open look for a teammate, Conley has the skill and experience to execute in high-pressure situations.

The Unheralded Player: JaMychal Green

Putting aside injury concerns (discussed below), the most pressing issue the team is currently facing is the contract status of restricted free-agent forward JaMychal Green. The team has been unable to sign the young big man to a multi-year deal up to this point. With the clock ticking to training camp, the chances of Green being signed to the one-year qualifying offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent next offseason, increases. The promotion of the versatile big man to the starting line-up helped to modernize the team’s offense last season. Green stepped in to compliment Gasol with sufficient outside shooting and athletic versatility. For a team that is trying to cement its lineup for the short and long term, this situation is concerning. Fans should hope that ownership finds a compromise that recognizes the young big man’s abilities and contributions before possibly losing him down the road.

Best New Addition: Ben McLemore

The Grizzlies have to deal with a lot of turnover. Many old stalwarts are gone and a new era of Grizzlies basketball begins. The signing of Ben McLemore is the most important new addition to help jumpstart this transition. Unfortunately, McLemore broke a toe in the offseason that projects to keep him sidelined for the first few weeks of the season. The team should keep high hopes that the change in scenery and a new, more stable enviornment, can help the young guard come closer to reaching his potential. McLemore has seen his minutes and productivity dip the last two years. If McLemore produces somewhere close to his full potential, he can quickly become the third most important player on a team looking for contributors up and down the roster.

– James Blancarte

WHO WE LIKE

1. Grizzlies Medical Staff

The franchise is in flux and pressure will be on the Grizzlies to keep the trove of injured and injury prone players healthy for the team to have a chance to make it back to the playoffs. Grizzlies’ fans have to hope and root for the team’s medical staff to effectively monitor and treat multiple players closely. The most important player in this regard is Chandler Parsons, who has been limited by severe knee injuries for several seasons. Add point guard Mario Chalmers (recovering from an Achilles tear) and wing Tyreke Evans, who has struggled with kneed injuries, to the list of players the Grizzlies’ medical staff will have to keep a close eye on. If even a few of these players can make a full recovery and stay relatively healthy throughout the upcoming season, the Grizzlies suddenly become a much more dangerous team in the Western Conference.

2. Coach David Fizdale

As mentioned, the team has to deal with a lot of ongoing injury concerns. Without reasonable assurances that the above players can be relied upon on a day to day basis, the pressure will be on Coach Fizdale to steer the team with a steady hand as players shuffle in and out of the line-up and the team likely struggles to find consistent contributors outside of Conley and Gasol. Fizdale endeared himself to the larger NBA community during last year’s playoffs when he complained about the team’s treatment by the referees. In frustration, Fizdale listed his grievances and punctuated the rant with the line, “Take that for data.” The Grizzlies eventually went down to the Spurs in six games but the coach gained additional recognition and further cemented the support of his players and Grizzlies fans.

3. Chandler Parsons

Chandler was ineffective last season after being signed by the team to be the third cog behind Gasol and Conley. The hope is that with sufficient time and rehabilitation, Parsons can be effective once again. After a poor outing last season, expectations are reasonably lower for the veteran forward. With so much cap space tied up in his contract, his comeback would be a nice boost for a team that is looking for all the help it can get on the wing. When healthy, Parsons is a versatile forward who can stretch the floor, facilitate the offense and guard both wings and some bigs in certain situations.

4. Tyreke Evans

Tyreke Evans has experienced varying degrees of success over the years. However, Evans struggled mightily last season with lingering knee issues. Evans was ultimately traded back to Sacramento, where he had spent his first five seasons in the NBA. Now going into his ninth season, Evans is looking to regain his peak form. While playing fewer minutes last year, Evan’s numbers, per 36 minutes, remained on par with his overall career arc. This gives some indication that if Evans can stay relatively healthy, he can still be an above average contributor on a team that sorely needs depth.

5. Mario Chalmers

Chalmers has never averaged more than 10 points a season and has never made the short list of the league’s best point guards. However, he should be lauded as a key contributor in the HEAT’s multiple title runs and two championships. Chalmers stuck around after the departure of LeBron James and continued to carve out his own success. Chalmers eventually joined the Grizzlies in the 2015-2016 season. Although he played as the back up to Conley, Chalmers effectively ran backup point and put up some of the best per-minute numbers of his career. Unfortunately, his season came to an end with an Achilles tear in December of 2015. Coach Fizdale and the front office both have made clear that they monitored his recovery and, when asked, Chalmers indicated this is why he went back to his previous team. Fizdale and Chalmers have history going back to their shared Miami HEAT days. With the mediocre play of Wade Baldwin and Andrew Harrison last year at the backup point, Grizzlies fans should be rooting for a full recovery for Chalmers.

– James Blancarte

SALARY CAP 101

The Grizzlies have stayed over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, triggering a hard cap when they used most of their Mid-Level Exception (MLE) on Ben McLemore, Rade Zagorac and Dillon Brooks (along with their Bi-Annual Exception on Tyreke Evans). Memphis still has $1.4 million left in their MLE. The roster has 15 guaranteed players, not including restricted-free agent JaMychal Green – who is still negotiating with the team.

At almost $105 million in salary, the Grizzlies aren’t close to the $125.3 million hard cap, even if Green does return. Before November, Memphis needs to decide on 2018-19 options for Wade Baldwin and Jarell Martin. Next season, the franchise does not project to have any cap room, given their sizable investments in Mike Conley, Marc Gasol and Chandler Parsons.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Conley and Gasol are arguably in the peak of their respective primes. The two stalwarts share great chemistry and will rely on each other heavily this season. When healthy, these two are the foundation of the team, both on and off the court. The team has developed a reputation for hustle, defense and punishing teams with their post play. With Fizdale, the team will continue to shift to small ball play predicated on ball movement to keep up with the modern offensive trends in the NBA. While it’s not clear how far this team can go, with Gasol and Conley leading the charge, Memphis should have a shot of winning on most nights.

– James Blancarte

WEAKNESSES

Youth and injuries. Outside of the team’s big two, there is a shocking drop off when identifying the team’s third best player. Parsons has the talent to be this player but what version of Parsons comes back is unclear. McLemore can step into this role, as mentioned, but has to overcome his offseason injury and reach his potential – something that isn’t necessarily a given. With the injury bug hitting the above players, as well as Chalmers and Evans, the team’s success is heavily reliant on players that are currently injured or injury prone. Reliability and consistent production will likely be hard to come by for the Grizzlies this season.

– James Blancarte

THE BURNING QUESTION

Does the franchise continue to build around Gasol and Conley (both already in their 30s), or take preemptive action and look to rebuild the roster through a trade of one or both of their stars?

This is a tough question, especially for the fans who just witnessed the Grit and Grind era quietly come to a close with many familiar faces departing. As constructed, it’s hard to envision this team ever competing with the league’s top teams, such as the Golden State Warriors and Cleveland Cavaliers. Trading Conley and Gasol now could help accelerate a rebuilding effort, similar to what the Boston Celtics did with Paul Pierce and Kevin Garnett. The likelihood is the Grizzlies won’t trade their two best players, but it’s something that should at least be considered.

– James Blancarte

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Atlanta Hawks 2017-18 Season Preview

The Atlanta Hawks were once a promising up and coming team, has their window closed? We take a look at the Hawks in this season preview.

Basketball Insiders

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After 10 consecutive seasons of reaching the playoffs, the Atlanta Hawks have hit the reset button and are at the beginning stages of what promises to be a long-term rebuilding project. In recent years the Hawks have been powered by All-Star performers Al Horford, Jeff Teague and Paul Millsap. All three players are now in more promising situations. Teague is the presumed floor general on a revamped Minnesota Timberwolves roster, the Boston Celtics are relying on Horford to help lead them into title contention and Millsap joins an emerging Denver Nuggets franchise filled with promising young talent. The Hawks usher in a new era with a new general manager, Travis Schlenk, at the helm and expecting more production than ever from starting point guard Dennis Schroder. The Hawks have put together a scrappy bunch but will enter the 2017-18 campaign with major losses from last season and even less experience. Expect the team to battle opponents tough each and every night, but the franchise has work to do before returning to the land of the playoffs.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

From a playoff team to potentially the league’s basement, the Atlanta Hawks enter this season in a complete rebuild mode.

Following the departure of Paul Millsap this summer, the Hawks officially lost the final piece of the Millsap-Al Horford-Jeff Teague-DeMarre Carroll-Kyle Korver squad that won 60 games in 2014-15. After spending the last few seasons battling for playoff position, Atlanta will be in the uncomfortable position of battling for draft lottery position instead.

With no real discernible star talent currently on the roster, it would probably behoove the Hawks to set their sights on the upcoming draft where the consensus around the league is the top half of the lottery will be plenty talented. Of course, monitoring the development of rookie John Collins and continuing to bring along Dennis Schroder is still plenty important for Atlanta. Nevertheless, this year will certainly be far from a playoff year for the Hawks.

5th place — Southeast Division

– Dennis Chambers

Sadly, the Hawks seemed to have embraced the fact that being in the middle is the very worst place to be in the NBA. After an impressive string of playoff appearances, the Hawks seem more likely set on a run through the lottery than another run through the post-season meat grinder. With new leadership in place, the Hawks look like a team with a tough season ahead of them. It’s possible their young guys blossom under great coaching, but it looks like likely that this season is going to be a tough one.

5th place — Southeast Division

— Steve Kyler

The Atlanta Hawks made the decision to restructure the front office rebuild its roster this offseason. Not returning from last season’s squad includes players like Paul Millsap, Dwight Howard, Thabo Sefolosha, Tim Hardaway Jr., Jose Calderon and Ryan Kelly. The Hawks are now surely focused primarily on developing its young players like Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry while maintaining financial flexibility and making opportunistic deals to acquire more future assets. Mike Budenholzer, who gave up his role as the president of basketball operations this offseason, resisted undergoing a full rebuild for arguably too long and now will have to embrace a down season for the first time as the head coach of the Hawks. Budenholzer is one of the better coaches in the league, but now we’ll get the chance to see how he responds and performs in a rebuilding environment. How he does this upcoming season could have a big impact on how quickly things turn around in Atlanta.

4th Place — Southeast Division

— Jesse Blancarte

By letting Paul Millsap walk in free agency and trading away Dwight Howard, the Hawks have loudly announced their intentions for the 2017-18 season. With only a few NBA starter-level players left on the roster in Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and perhaps a couple others, Atlanta should be tank city this year in the East. The primary goals this year will be development of the young talent on the roster: Taurean Prince, Tyler Dorsey, John Collins and DeAndre’ Bembry. Figuring out which of these guys fit with the Schroder-Bazemore core is priority one in a season where actual wins should be very tough to come by.

5th Place — Southeast Division

— Ben Dowsett

All good things must come to an end, and the playoff streak of the Atlanta Hawks is no exception. Believe it or not, the Hawks have qualified for the playoffs for 10 consecutive seasons, second only to the San Antonio Spurs (they’ve done it for an amazing 20 years in a row).

Sadly, this season will probably mark the end of the line.

Sure, Mike Budenholzer is a great coach. He led the club to 60 wins just a few shorts years ago and won the NBA’s Coach of the Year Award after they began the 2014-15 season with minuscule expectations, but three of the team’s top six scorers from last season have moved on, including the leading scorer and All-Star in Paul Millsap.

The Hawks are somewhat reminiscent of the Indiana Pacers. Players like Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and Taurean Prince are great pieces to complement three more gifted players, but a team built around secondary contributors probably isn’t good enough to compete for anything meaningful, not even in the Eastern Conference.

In the end, I do expect the Hawks to overachieve, but for this bunch, that probably means winning somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 games, and I don’t think that’ll be enough to escape the cellar of the Southeast Division. It almost certainly won’t be enough to qualify for the playoffs.

5th place — Southeast Division

— Moke Hamilton

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Dennis Schroder

As talented as Schroder is, most would agree that he would be best suited to be a second or third option on a playoff bound team. However, for the 2017-18 Hawks, the team’s offense will begin and end with him. The fifth-year guard averaged 17.9 points, 3.1 rebounds and 6.3 assists last season on 45 percent shooting from the floor, showing tremendous growth while being entrusted with a larger role.

There’s a lot to like about Schroder. The guard has proved to be extremely durable since entering the league, missing only missed 10 games over the past three seasons. Schroder has also increased his scoring, rebounding and assist production in every campaign since his rookie season. He is primed to increase productivity in all of these categories this season without the presence of Millsap and former All-Star center Dwight Howard in the fold.

Top Defensive Player: Taurean Prince

The Hawks had four players ranked in the top 40 of ESPN’s real plus-minus defensive ratings last season. Three of the four – Howard, Millsap and Thabo Sefolosha – are now playing elsewhere. The fourth, Taurean Prince, remains on the roster and should make an even bigger leap next season.

Prince has the size and athleticism to guard at least three positions effectively. Playing acceptable defense at the NBA level is one of the toughest aspects of the pro game for younger players to grasp and Prince made an immediate impact as a rookie – despite limited playing time early on.

The Hawks will likely expect Prince to guard opposing teams’ top perimeter player next season. Prince finished fifth in the league among small forwards in the plus-minus rankings ahead of more prominent players such as LeBron James, Giannis Antetokounmpo and Kawhi Leonard. Obviously, Prince doesn’t have the offensive responsibilities the aforementioned three players have but he is positioned strongly to make improvements with a year under his belt.

Top Playmaker: Dennis Schroder

Schroder is unquestionably the Hawks’ floor general and top playmaker as the roster is currently constructed. While there are valid concerns about Schroder’s penchant for erratic ball control and turnovers (3.3 per game in 2017), the fifth-year guard managed to average 7.2 assists per game on a per 36 minute basis last season.

Schroder will be asked to score more this season and will enter the campaign without proven scorers such as Howard, Millsap and Tim Hardaway Jr. as options for the assist, but the Hawks’ offense is predicated on spacing and ball movement while exploiting defensive holes. Schroder finished second in the league in drives into the lane last season and is one of the elite penetrators in the game today. The ability to get into the paint and create havoc will continue to open up passing windows and create easy scoring opportunities for teammates. With the Hawks lacking many players on this roster that can create their own offense off the bounce, Schroder will be under even more pressure to deliver and keep the offense flowing.

Top Clutch Player: Kent Bazemore

For clarity, we’re defining clutch as the game point differential being five points or less with five minutes remaining in the fourth quarter — whether the team is ahead or behind.

The Hawks had multiple players perform above average in the clutch last season. Departed shooting guard Hardaway Jr. was one of the league’s best two guards in late game clutch situations in 2017 and most of the Hawks’ offense in these situations flowed through Millsap. Both are gone.

Logically, we could easily assign this to Schroder, but the fifth-year guard will likely be the focal point of opposing defenses this season and double-teamed at every opportunity. The Hawks will need someone else to step up and hit late game shots.

Incoming shooting guard Marco Belinelli sank 50 percent of his three-point shots in clutch situations last season, so he’s a sneaky option in the Hawks’ offense which is based on spacing. However, Kent Bazemore may be the man for the job. To be clear, Bazemore was abysmal last season in these situations. Bazemore shot just 38 percent from the field and 31 percent from three-point range last season in similar situations. To make matters worse, Bazemore only connected on 46 percent of his attempts from the charity stripe.

But let’s assume the 2016-17 season was an outlier. In 2015-16, Bazemore shot 46 percent from the floor and 46 percent from three-point range while connecting on 92 percent of his attempts from the free throw line.

Will the real Bazemore please stand up? We believe a return to late game form, for Bazemore, is on the horizon.

The Unheralded Player: Ersan Ilyasova

Ilyasova won’t win any popularity contests, but he has proven to be a very consistent performer throughout his career. Think about this: Ilyasova has averaged at least 10 points per game in seven out of nine pro seasons, including the past six years despite never averaging more than 28 minutes in any campaign.

For his career, Ilyasova has averaged 16.2 points per 36 minutes on the floor. The biggest drawback to Ilyasova is his defense, which is a liability. But to end things on a positive, Ilyasova has shot at least 36 percent from three-point range in five of the past six seasons, a trend that should continue in 2018.

Best New Addition: Dewayne Dedmon

Rookie John Collins received plenty of consideration here (and we’ll get to him in a minute), but Dedmon also has a decent amount of upside. Dedmon averaged 5.1 points and 6.5 rebounds last season in San Antonio. Those numbers look pedestrian until you consider he only received 18 minutes of action per night. On a per-36-minute basis, his numbers jump to double-double territory over the past two seasons with the Spurs and Orlando Magic (sample size: 134 games).

Dedmon has played behind Nikola Vucevic and Pau Gasol the past two seasons so there’s a legitimate reason why the minutes have been scarce. The Hawks signed Dedmon to a two-year $12.3 million deal this summer with a player option for the 2018-19 campaign. With Howard traded to the Charlotte Hornets, Dedmon should enter training camp with the starting center position his to lose.

— Lang Greene

WHO WE LIKE

1. Travis Schlenk

The Hawks announced the hiring of Schlenk as their new general manager and head of basketball operations in May. Schlenk spent the past 12 seasons in the Golden State Warriors’ front office, with the last five serving as assistant general manager. This means Schlenk was a valuable part of the Warriors brain trust that constructed one of the best rosters in the game today.

That’s intriguing for sure, but the reason Schlenk makes this list has been his ability from day one to make the tough call. The first decision was to completely revamp the team’s roster. Then the club drafted rookie John Collins. In free agency, the team could have opted to give Millsap, a four-time All-Star, a maximum contract extension worth over $100 million. Schlenk didn’t. The Hawks could have matched the New York Knicks four-year $71 million deal for Hardaway Jr., a restricted free agent. Schlenk allowed him to walk. The franchise could have attempted another year with Howard manning the interior, but Schlenk dealt the former Defensive Player of the Year to Charlotte.

This will be a long rebuilding process, but Schlenk appears to have a clear direction in mind. Keep cap space flexibility, evaluate young talent and protect draft picks.

2. John Collins

The former Wake Forest University product was selected by the Hawks with the No. 19 overall pick in the 2017 draft. Collins quickly turned heads in Las Vegas this summer and was named to the NBA Summer League first-team after averaging 15.4 points and 9.2 rebounds on 59 percent shooting from the field.

Collins was Schlenk’s first draft pick at the helm of the franchise and the big man produced more than a few flashes of explosiveness. Collins’ defense and passing are two question marks heading into his rookie season, but those two traits plague many a young player entering the association.

3. Mike Budenholzer

Budenholzer has compiled a 189-139 (.576) record in four seasons pacing the sidelines in Atlanta. All four of those campaigns resulted in a trip to the postseason. The 2017-18 season will undoubtedly be Budenholzer’s stiffest test as a head coach. The Hawks have a proven system but no longer feature All-Star level talent at key positions. It’s hard to imagine a Budenholzer team not playing with grit and determination, so effort won’t be the problem.

One area where Budenholzer has excelled since joining the franchise is talent development. DeMarre Carroll, Kyle Korver, Bazemore, Hardaway Jr., Millsap and Schroder all took their games to the next level under Budenholzer. Who will be the next player that benefits from Budenholzer?

— Lang Greene

SALARY CAP 101

The Hawks are still under the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap, with up to $5.0 million to spend. Quinn Cook’s salary guarantee will increase from $100,000 to $500,000 if he’s still on the roster by opening night. Luke Babbitt has an even healthier promise with $987,080 of his $1.5 million locked in. Atlanta also has its $4.3 million Room Exception still available.

The team needs to decide on 2018-19 options for Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry before November. Looking ahead to next summer, the Hawks can get under the cap by roughly $36 million – assuming both Dewayne Dedmon and Mike Muscala opt out of their respective options of $6.3 million and $5.0 million. Currently, Kent Bazemore is Atlanta’s highest-paid player at $16.9 million for the coming season.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

The Hawks are entering into uncharted territory they haven’t experienced in over a decade. On most nights the team will enter an arena as an underdog. One of the strengths this unit has is their athleticism and youth. While youth laden teams don’t typically rack up wins, the Hawks current situation will provide the organization with an opportunity to evaluate the future. Collins, Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry could be potential building blocks. Prince could develop into a fine two-way player, while Collins should be in the nightly rotation playing bigger minutes near the All-Star break (if not sooner). Throw in Schroder, who hasn’t reached his ceiling, and Dedmon with an opportunity to finally earn big minutes, the Hawks have a lot of young and motivated guys with something to prove.

— Lang Greene

WEAKNESSES

The team’s frontcourt depth, specifically at power forward and center, is extremely thin. The collection of Ilyasova, Mike Muscala, Collins, Dedmon and Miles Plumlee have never been entrusted to play major minutes at any time in their respective pro careers. Outside of Ilyasova, none of these guys have put together a season averaging at least 10 points per game. That’s just looking at scoring. None of these players have averaged more than seven rebounds in any of the past three seasons. Of course this trickles down to rim protection, where the team will struggle on a nightly basis. For all of Howard’s issues (and steady decline), he always demanded some respect in the paint from opposing teams. This year’s unit will have to earn theirs.

— Lang Greene

THE BURNING QUESTION

How will Dennis Schroder handle the increased workload, scrutiny and pressure?

Schroder successfully transitioned from top reserve to full-time starter last season in a pretty seamless manner. But now the fifth-year guard will be the team’s focal point and unquestionable best player. Previous security blankets such as Horford, Millsap and Teague are gone. This is Schroder’s show, Schroder’s time to shine. But how will he handle the increased pressure? Many a man has been humbled by moving from the co-pilot to the pilot’s seat. All eyes will be on Schroder until Schlenk and the front office bring in the cavalry.

— Lang Greene

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