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NBA AM: Howard Excited for Fresh Start With Hawks

Dwight Howard seems thrilled about his latest change of scenery to join his hometown Atlanta Hawks.

Cody Taylor

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Howard Excited for Fresh Start in Atlanta

After establishing himself as one of the NBA’s premier players during his stint with the Orlando Magic, Dwight Howard’s time in the NBA has been a bit rocky ever since. Over the last four seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers and Houston Rockets, Howard has dealt with various injuries, on-court chemistry issues with teammates and a reduced role.

Most notably, Howard struggled to adjust to teammates like Kobe Bryant and James Harden. The Lakers were one of the teams on Howard’s wish list when he decided to force a trade from the Magic, but his time in L.A. didn’t go as planned as he clashed with Bryant and head coach Mike D’Antoni.

Howard’s move to the Rockets was expected to give Harden the help he needed to compete for a championship. But as Howard left the Rockets this offseason, the center’s relationship with Harden didn’t end on the best of terms. Howard even mentioned over the summer that their relationship wasn’t good enough for the team to be successful.

His decision to sign elsewhere this summer didn’t come as a surprise to many. Howard inked a three-year, $70.5 million deal with the Atlanta Hawks over the offseason in a move that will bring Howard back to his hometown. Signing with the Hawks can be seen as a new chapter for Howard, one that will presumably allow him to return to playing at a high level without any distractions.

“It’s another chapter in my life,” Howard said Sunday night in Orlando. “There will always be good chapters and bad chapters, but I think I’ve already got those bad chapters out of the way. Everything else will be up from here. Atlanta is great; it’s my hometown. My family has been great, my friends have been great and the team, for the most part, everybody is amazing.”

Watching Howard interact with friends, family and fans in a city that he once played for indicates that he is in a much better place in his life after having many ups and downs over the past few years. Howard flashed that vintage smile that was so popular during the positive times while playing for the Magic, and he seemed genuinely happy to be back interacting with old friends.

It seems as though signing with the Hawks can only be a positive for Howard. Atlanta has formed an outstanding infrastructure that starts with the front office and goes down to the players. Mike Budenholzer is one of the most respected head coaches in the league and has helped the Hawks qualify for the playoffs in an Eastern-Conference-high nine straight seasons.

Howard echoed those statements to reporters prior to a 105-98 win over the Magic on Sunday. Howard was held out of the game for rest but offered high praise for his new team. He called Budenholzer an unbelievable human being and said the Hawks are an organization that really cares about what’s best for their players.

“I really couldn’t be happier with how Dwight has integrated himself into our program – his willingness to work [and] his willingness to be open to coaching,” Budenholzer said. “He’s added a lot of positive energy and he’s got a big personality that I think our team has welcomed. It just feels like it’s a great opportunity for us and him. We’re just looking forward to growing together.”

While Howard didn’t appear in Sunday’s game, he’s turned in a strong preseason thus far. He said that he’s feeling great heading into the season, and it’s showing on the court. Through three games, Howard is averaging 15.7 points, eight rebounds, 1.7 blocks and one assist per game. He turned in a monster game last Monday against the Cleveland Cavaliers, recording 26 points, eight rebounds, two blocks, two assists and one steal.

The Hawks are hoping Howard can step into the lineup and take Al Horford’s place in the paint. While it’s safe to say that Howard is far removed from his dominating days with the Magic, he still has shown that he can be among the best centers in the league when healthy. His numbers dipped a bit last season with the Rockets – he averaged 13.7 points, 11.8 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game – but Howard’s role with the team diminished down the stretch of the season.

Based on how things have played out so far during the preseason, it seems like Howard will have a big role with the Hawks this year. Coach Budenholzer’s teams have performed well on defense under his watch, finishing 14th in defensive efficiency during the 2013-14 season, seventh in 2014-15 and second last season. Adding a three-time Defensive Player of the Year in Howard can only help bolster the defensive unit.

“He adds another layer to our defense, being a guy who can block shots,” Paul Millsap said. “He’s athletic enough to switch the pick-and-rolls and move on the pick-and-rolls. We look forward to that. We look forward to having a big body under the basket, altering shots and making guys work for twos.”

The Hawks have generally avoided making huge roster changes. When you have a nine-year playoff streak, you tend to stick with the same core group and value continuity. However, with Horford joining the Boston Celtics via free agency and Jeff Teague being traded away to the Indiana Pacers, the Hawks will enter this season with a much different look. With much of the Eastern Conference improving over the summer, it remains to be seen where exactly the Hawks fit into the playoff picture.

In addition to Howard, the team also added veteran Jarrett Jack to the roster to provide some depth at point guard behind Dennis Schroder, who will replace Teague as the team’s starting floor general. With so many veterans on the team that have won at a high level, it seems reasonable to believe the Hawks can continue to compete for a high playoff seed.

For Howard, returning to a place in which he’s personally comfortable seems like it’ll help his play on the court. He seems to be as happy as he’s been in awhile and looks to be the same player we saw in Orlando – the upbeat guy who gets along with everyone. Don’t be surprised to see Howard deliver a strong bounce-back campaign and send a reminder to the NBA that he’s still among the best centers in the game.

Millsap Returns with Strong Performance Against Magic

When Hawks power forward Paul Millsap underwent a preventative procedure to reduce swelling in his right knee in late September, the news came as a bit of a surprise since it was taking place so close to the start of the season.

The team deemed the procedure to be the best course of action to treat Millsap’s knee. The All-Star forward has stayed pretty close to the initial timetable to return, as it originally called for the big man to miss two preseason games and he ultimately missed four games.

While Hawks head coach Mike Budenholzer opted to rest several starters Sunday night in Orlando including Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore and Dennis Schroder, Millsap returned to the court for the first time this preseason.

In 19 minutes of action against the Magic, Millsap recorded 19 points (on 7-12 shooting), nine rebounds and seven assists. In a game in which his minutes were limited and many expected him to just knock off the rust, Millsap looked like he’s already in midseason form.

“We think he’s pretty good; we’ll probably keep him,” Budenholzer joked after Millsap’s impressive performance. “He’s such a unique and gifted player. I think the seven assists is probably what stands out to me as much as anything. He’s just a playmaker. He finds guys. He just feels things that I think are on another level. He had a good practice. It was good to see him now get out and do it in a game.”

Budenholzer said that the plan with Millsap is to continue monitoring his status through game situations and practices. He played in 19 minutes on Sunday night and will continue to increase his minutes incrementally each game. The biggest objective for Millsap moving forward will be getting his conditioning back.

“My body feels great,” Millsap said. “I was just getting my wind up. That’s going to take a few games. You can’t simulate that type of style in practice or [by] running on the treadmill. It’s good to be out there playing games. We still have two more preseason games to get ready.

“You have to get on the floor in game-like situations with the starters. We got two more games to do that. Hopefully, we can get out there and get our chemistry down and get ready for the regular season.”

As Budenholzer pointed out, the biggest takeaway from Millsap’s performance was his seven assists. It was surely an encouraging sign for the team that he was able to find his teammates like that in his first game back in action. It also shows his chemistry with his teammates is there, despite not yet playing during the preseason.

“[I’m] just taking my time, especially with these younger guys cutting to the basket and moving without the basketball,” Millsap said. “I think our offense was in pretty good sync tonight – guys moving without the basketball, setting screens for each other, just sharing the basketball. I think that’s what we’re all about. It just so happened to be me tonight, but any other night it could be anyone else.”

Last season, the 31-year-old averaged 17.1 points, nine rebounds, 3.3 assists, 1.8 steals and 1.7 blocks while earning his third-straight All-Star nod.

Cody Taylor is an NBA writer in his fourth season with Basketball Insiders, covering the NBA and NCAA out of Orlando and Miami.

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The Case for Upperclassmen in the NBA Draft

College upperclassmen are becoming increasingly viable options in the NBA Draft, writes David Yapkowitz.

David Yapkowitz

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Each year when the NBA draft comes around, there seems to be an aversion to taking upperclassman with a top selection. More specifically, it’s college seniors who often find themselves getting drafted in the second-round if at all.

It can be understandable. NBA teams are clearly looking for a home run pick with a lottery selection. They’re looking for a player who they can build a foundation around for years to come. College seniors often project as solid role players to strengthen a team once that foundational superstar is already in place.

However, recent years have seen the entire first round dominated almost entirely by freshmen and sophomores. In 2017, a college senior wasn’t drafted until the San Antonio Spurs took Derrick White with the 29th pick. The Los Angeles Lakers followed that up with Josh Hart. Hart ended up having a better rookie season than a few of the underclassmen taken ahead of him.

A few other upperclassmen, Frank Mason III, a senior, and Dillon Brooks, a junior, both had better rookie seasons than many of the freshmen taking before them as well. Junior Semi Ojeleye is playing a major role for the Boston Celtics who are in the Eastern Conference Finals.

In 2016, Malcolm Brogdon, another college senior, was taken in the second-round with the 36th pick by the Milwaukee Bucks. He went on to win the Rookie of the Year award and was a starter for a playoff team.

Senior Tyrone Wallace was taken with the last pick in the draft at No. 60 that year. When a rash of injuries hit the Los Angeles Clippers this season, Wallace stepped in right away as a starter at times and helped keep the team afloat in the playoff picture.

There were a few college seniors that went undrafted in 2016, players such as Fred VanVleet Yogi Ferrell that have had better NBA careers to this point that a lot of the underclassmen taken ahead of them.

This isn’t to say that NBA teams should completely abandon taking young, underdeveloped players in the first-round. The Spurs took Dejounte Murray, a freshman point guard, over Brogdon, Wallace, VanVleet and Ferrell. That’s worked out well for them. It’s more a testament to having a good front office and scouting team than anything else.

But maybe NBA teams should start expanding their horizons when it comes to the draft. There appears to be a stigma of sorts when it comes to upperclassmen, particularly college seniors. If a guy can play, he can play. Of course, college production is often not the best means of judging NBA success, but it does count for something.

With the 2018 NBA draft about one month away, there are a few interesting names to look at when it comes to college seniors. Players such as Devonte’ Graham from Kansas, Theo Pinson from North Carolina, Chandler Hutchinson from Boise State, Jevon Carter from West Virginia and Bonzie Colson from Notre Dame are all guys that should be on NBA team’s radars.

Sure, none of those guys are going to turn into a superstar or even an All-Star. But you’re probably going to get a player that becomes a solid contributor for years to come.

Again, it’s understandable when teams take projects in the lottery. After a long season of losing, and in some cases years of losing, ownership and the fanbase are hungry for results. They don’t want a top pick to be used on a player that projects as only a solid contributor.

But after the lottery, the rest of the draft gets a little murky. A good front office will find an NBA caliber player whether he’s a freshman or a senior. The NBA Draft isn’t an exact science. Nothing is ever for sure and no player is guaranteed to become the player they’re projected to be.

College upperclassmen tend to be more physically developed and mentally mature for the NBA game. If what you’re looking for is someone who will step right in and produce for a winning team, then instead of wasting a pick on the unknown, it might be better to go with the sure thing.

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NBA Daily: Are the Houston Rockets in Trouble?

Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals may have been the perfect storm for Houston, writes Shane Rhodes.

Shane Rhodes

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The Houston Rockets took a gut punch from the Golden State Warriors, but they responded in Game 2 of the Western Conference Finals.

After they dropped the first game of the series, Houston evened things up at one apiece Wednesday night with a 127-105 blowout win over Golden State. With the Warriors struggling on the offensive end and Houston rebounding from a less than stellar Game 1, the Rockets rolled through the game with relative ease.

But was their improved demonstration a fluke? While fans may not want to hear it, Game 2 may have been the perfect storm for Houston.

The Rockets’ gameplan didn’t change much from Game 1 to 2. They attacked Steph Curry relentlessly on the offensive end, James Harden and Chris Paul took plenty of shots in isolation and their role players got shots to drop that just weren’t going down in Game 1. Eric Gordon, Trevor Ariza and P.J. Tucker exploded for 68 points while shooting 66.7 percent from three after scoring just 24 the previous game. The trio averaged only 35.8 points collectively during the regular season.

Meanwhile, Golden State couldn’t buy a bucket; starting Warriors not named Kevin Durant scored just 35 points. Curry shot just 1-8 from downtown while Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguadola combined for just 19 points while shooting 35 percent from the floor. All of that will undoubtedly change.

So, going back to Oakland for Game 3, where do the Rockets find themselves? Not in a great place, unfortunately.

Golden State did their job: they stole a game — and home-court advantage — from the Rockets at the Toyota Center. Now, as the series shifts back to Oracle Arena and, assuming the Warriors return to form in front of their home crowd, Houston will have their work more than cut out for them. If Curry, Thompson and Durant all have their shot falling, there isn’t much the Rockets can do to keep up

The Warriors, aside from Curry, played great team defense in Game 2, something that will likely continue into Game 3. The Rockets hit plenty of tough, contested shots — shots that won’t drop as they move away from the energy of the home crowd and shots that Golden State would gladly have Houston take again and again and again. Harden and Paul didn’t exactly bring their A-game in Game 2 either — the two combined for a solid 43 points but took an inefficient 38 shots to get there. If the two of them play like that at Oracle, the Warriors will abuse them in transition, something that can’t happen if the Rockets want to steal back the home-court advantage.

The aforementioned trio of Gordon, Ariza and Tucker are unlikely to replicate their Game 2 performance as well, and relying on them to do so would be foolish on the part of Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni. Devising a game plan that will keep the offense moving while not leaning heavily on the role players will be of the utmost importance — if the offense returns to the bogged down effort that Houston gave in Game 1, the Rockets stand no chance.

Meanwhile, Warriors head coach Steve Kerr will likely adjust his defense in an effort to limit the Rockets effectiveness in the isolation while also trying to find somewhere to hide Curry on the defensive end. It almost certainly won’t be the same sets that Houston throttled in Game 2 which will take another toll on the Rockets offense, especially if they fail to execute.

Not everything looks bad for Houston, however. Faced with a do-or-die scenario, Harden, Paul and co. were the more aggressive team from the jump. Pushing the pace flustered the Warriors and forced some pretty bad turnovers consistently throughout the night. If they come out with the same kind of energy and pace, the Rockets could have Golden State on their heels as they did in Game 2.

Budding star Clint Capela also has plenty of room to improve his game, as he has averaged just 8.5 points and eight rebounds through the first two games of the series — the Rockets need him to play his best basketball of the season if they want a chance to win.

Still, the Warriors are virtually unbeatable at home. The team has lost three games this postseason, just four times over their last two playoff trips and not once at Oracle, making the Rockets’ task even more daunting than it already was. Like Game 2, Game 3 should be played as a do-or-die situation for the Rockets because, if they don’t come out with the same aggressive, up-tempo energy, things could be over quickly.

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NBA Daily: Hope Not Lost for Mavs

The Dallas Mavericks were the lottery’s biggest losers, but VP of basketball operations Michael Finley still believes the team will land an elite talent.

Joel Brigham

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Dallas Mavericks vice president of basketball operations Michael Finley knows what it’s like to be on the other side of the draft process. In 2018, he’s an executive for the third-worst team in the league that somehow slipped to the fifth overall pick in Tuesday night’s NBA Draft Lottery, but in 1995 he was a kid from the University of Wisconsin hoping to get drafted.

Finley was a first-round pick that summer, ironically selected by the Phoenix Suns, who won the first overall pick in the 2018 NBA Draft earlier this week, but he says he doesn’t even remember the lottery. The lottery wasn’t the event then that it has since become.

“The lottery wasn’t this big when I was in the draft,” Finley told Basketball Insiders. “I don’t even remember how the lottery process played out when I was coming out of college. It’s grown so much, but the league has grown. It’s good for fans, and it’s good for people to get excited about this process.”

Of course, the irony in getting excited about a draft pick isn’t lost on him.

“It’s kind of weird that [fans] are celebrating the losing process, isn’t it?”

Not surprisingly, Finley wasn’t especially thrilled to see his team fail to reap the rewards of a Dallas Mavericks season that was stepped in that losing process. The lottery odds will change next year, and Finley believes that’s a good thing.

“It’s a good thing to change the system a little,” he says. “It will help keep the integrity of the game intact, especially toward the end of the year. It also will be even more suspenseful than these lottery events have been in the past.”

That’s next year, though. This year, the Mavericks are tasked with finding an elite player at a pick lower than they expected. Finley’s trying to look at things optimistically.

“It could have been sixth,” he said. “It’s still in the top five, and going on what we did this season, we don’t want to be in this position next year, so hopefully the guy we pick at #5 will get us out of the lottery and back into the playoffs.”

In fact, having that selection doesn’t preclude the team from finding a star, especially in a draft this loaded. Most agree that Luka Doncic and DeAndre Ayton are the prizes of the draft, but there are other guys available with All-Star potential. Marvin Bagley, Trae Young, Michael Porter, Jr., and Mo Bamba all have incredibly high ceilings. The Mavs may yet do something meaningful with that selection.

“It’s a strong draft, and a lot of the draft is going to go with what player fits what team in a particular system. If you’re lucky enough to get that perfect combination, the players that are in this draft are really good and have the capability of helping a team right away.”

That’s what Finley and the rest of the Mavericks’ organization hopes will happen in 2018-2019.

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