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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – Atlanta Hawks

Matt John continues Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series by analyzing the Atlanta Hawks.

Matt John

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In case you haven’t been following along, Basketball Insiders has been running a new series called “Grading the Offseason.” So far, we’ve visited the Cleveland Cavaliers, the Chicago Bulls and the New York Knicks.

This go-round, we take a look at the baby Hawks that reside in the ATL. Things are looking up in Hotlanta. After kicking off a rebuild a mere two years ago, it looks like a new and promising era of Hawks basketball is forming before our eyes.

It may be a while before they see the playoffs again, but Atlanta has something to build off of here. The future may be bright for the Hawks, but how they handle that future depends on how they handle themselves over these next few offseasons.

How did they do in this one? Well, let’s take it from the top.

Overview

Seeing as they were in year two of a rebuild, not much was expected from the Hawks this season. Mike Budenholzer bolted for Wisconsin. Dennis Schroder was traded for Carmelo Anthony, who was promptly waived. The Hawks had now moved on from its previous “star-less” era.

The real headline coming into the season was the new kid in town, Trae Young. Hawks GM Travis Schlenk swung for the fences on draft night when he traded away the draft rights to Luka Doncic for Young plus an additional first-round pick from Dallas. Everyone was divisive on Young coming into the draft. The consensus on him was that he was a high-risk/high-reward player because of his inconsistent freshman season at Oklahoma.

Trading him for Doncic, who may have been the most hyped foreign prospect possibly ever, was a gamble for the ages. For a while, it looked like that gamble was going to come up snake eyes.

While Doncic was drawing oohs and aahs from the crowd from the very start, Young’s NBA career started a little rough. From October to January, Young put up a respectable 16.5 points and 7.3 assists per game, but doing so on 41/30/80 splits when he was taking 14 shots in almost 30 minutes a night? Not too pretty.

But his fortunes changed once February rolled around. With a slight uptick in minutes, Trae started finding his groove. From there on out, he averaged 23.2 points and 9.2 assists per game on 43/36/85 splits, highlighted by 49/16/8 stat line in a quadruple overtime victory over the Bulls on March 1.

Did that change anything? Not really. The Hawks were still one of the worst teams in the league, but the team could pride itself on that it was fun to watch the youngsters go to work.

Young wasn’t the only one having all the fun. John Collins throughout the season established himself as one of the NBA’s most promising bigs, averaging a near 20/10 on the season while showing a somewhat progressing three-point shot (almost 35 percent). Young and Collins together made for one of the most exciting alley-oop pairs in the league.

The centerpiece to the Hawks’ next generation seemed to have arrived, but the team may have also brought in its reinforcements as well. Kevin Huerter’s sharpshooting garnered some recognition for the All-NBA rookie teams. DeAndre’ Bembry showed progress in his third year. Omari Spellman showed he could stroke it from three as well as a nose for the ball.

The veterans also deserved some shoutouts. Dewayne Dedmon proved himself valuable for the Hawks. Alex Len was productive given the cheap contract he signed last summer. Kent Bazemore did what he usually does. Jeremy Lin was fine in his role as a backup before he was waived. And who can forget the guidance from good ol’ Vince Carter?

Atlanta’s 29-53 record may have qualified it for the fifth-worst record in the league, but it was clear that the seeds had been planted and a winning culture was sprouting. Many will still go back and forth on the Young for Doncic trade, but Schlenk got his guy in Trae. Lloyd Pierce has so far proven himself a worthy successor to Mike Budenholzer.

So far, things are going right in Atlanta that there really wasn’t much they could do wrong this summer. The best moves they could have made was continuing to build on the good foundation they already have.

Is that what they did? Let’s find out.

Offseason

The one ace in the hole for Atlanta in the Luka-for-Trae deal was the top-five protected 2019 pick that Dallas also agreed to trade to Atlanta. The Mavericks tried in the latter half of the season to retain the pick, but after the success the team had with Luka running the show, it was too little too late.

When draft time rolled around, the Hawks had the fifth-highest odds to get the number one pick, and Dallas’ ninth-highest odds made it appear likely that the pick would convey. While Dallas wound up forfeiting the pick to Atlanta, lady luck didn’t do the Hawks any favors. When the lottery ended, the Hawks wound up with the eighth and 10th picks in the lottery.

But that didn’t stop Atlanta from going to work. A week or so before the draft, the Hawks agreed to trade Taurean Prince and a 2012 second-rounder in exchange for Allen Crabbe, the 17th overall pick and a protected 2020 first-rounder from Brooklyn. Doing this may have helped Brooklyn open up the necessary cap space to bring in two players on max contracts, but Atlanta’s motive was more than rational – it was all about asset accumulation.

It didn’t take long for Schlenk to cash in on these newly acquired assets. On draft night, the Hawks traded the eighth pick and the 17th pick as well as the Cavaliers protected 2020 pick to New Orleans for the fourth pick, which they would use to select De’Andre Hunter and landed them Solomon Hill. With Hunter, the Hawks have a promising 3&D wing who should complement Young and Collins quite well for the near future.

Atlanta still had the 10th overall pick at its arsenal. With it, they selected Cam Reddish, another boom or bust prospect – sound familiar? With the lack of top-notch prospects in this last draft, rolling the dice with Reddish seemed worth it. When the draft ended, the Hawks came away with a prospect believed to produce right away (Hunter) and one that may take some time to groom (Reddish).

Following the draft, the Hawks offseason has been pretty ho-hum. They haven’t exactly lit the world on fire, but they haven’t made any particularly dumb moves.

The first move that was made post-draft was sending Bazemore to Portland for Evan Turner. By doing this, the Hawks are giving Baze the chance to play for a playoff contender while getting back a reliable second unit playmaker who can be a positive influence on the youngsters in the locker room. Turner’s been well-liked by teammates and coaches alike in his previous two franchises, so he should at worst only continue what Vince Carter did last season.

By acquiring Crabbe and Turner, the Hawks seemed to have formed a pattern of trading for some of the most handsomely overpaid players from the 2016 Free Agency. That only continued when the team traded Hill and Miles Plumlee for Chandler Parsons. Atlanta did this with the intent of opening up a roster spot, and if Parsons suits up for the team, then anything positive he does is a bonus.

The one quasi-peculiar move the Hawks made was trading Omari Spellman, who was solid his rookie season, for Damian Jones. The rationale behind it might be that they had too many guys who played Spellman’s position in Atlanta, compared to Golden State who is trying to find any depth it can get its hands on.

The last prominent move made by Atlanta was adding Jabari Parker on a contract much cheaper than the one he signed with the Bulls last summer. Parker may wind up being one of the better economical additions of the summer, but that’s only as long as he’s the Jabari we saw in Washington. Not the one we saw in Chicago.

Even though their state as a team hasn’t changed too drastically, the Hawks may have had the most unpredictable offseason this summer. A fair amount of the moves they made probably won’t lead to much, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that said moves, for the most part, came out of nowhere.

PLAYERS IN: De’Andre Hunter, Cam Reddish, Evan Turner, Allen Crabbe, Chandler Parsons, Jabari Parker, Damian Jones, Charlie Brown Jr. (Two-Way)

PLAYERS OUT: Dewayne Dedmon, Kent Bazemore, Taurean Prince, Omari Spellman, Miles Plumlee, Deyonta Davis, Jaylen Adams

What’s Next

The Hawks are now entering Year 3 of their rebuild. Though their roster has gone through a fair amount of turnover over the past month or so – outside of the young kids who are still hitting their potential – this roster is about the same when it comes to boasting talent as it was last year.

One distinct difference though is that Parsons, Crabbe, Turner and Len are all expiring this season, which could affect how motivated they are to play at their best this season. It could become a real question if any of the aforementioned players finish the season in Atlanta should the Hawks either stay the same or take another leap forward.

The Hawks have plenty of young talent with high enough ceilings to get them there that it honestly wouldn’t be surprising if they did. They are also young and inexperienced enough that it wouldn’t surprise anyone if no progress is made. Considering that they were showing progress towards the end of last season should make fans a whole lot more excited for what’s in store this season.

This will be a year in which the Hawks will get to see what works and what doesn’t. What might be the best part about this rebuild going on for Atlanta is that there really is no pressure on the Hawks right now to produce right away.

The goal for Atlanta should have been to add talented players who will only add to its youth movement and adding veterans who will only continue the winning culture the Hawks have established.

From the looks of things, they did just that.

OFFSEASON GRADE: B+

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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Looking Toward The Draft: Power Forwards

Basketball Insiders continues their NBA Draft watch, this time with the power forwards.

David Yapkowitz

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We got some updated NBA draft news this week when the league announced that several key dates have been pushed back including the draft, the start of free agency and the beginning of the 2020-21 season.

The 2020 draft was originally scheduled for Oct. 16, but it will now likely occur sometime in November. Obviously, with the COVID-19 pandemic still wildly out of control in the United States, all of these potential deadlines are fluid and subject to change.

With that said, we’re continuing our position by position breakdown here at Basketball Insiders of some of the top 2020 draft prospects. We looked at the point guards and shooting guards last week, and this week we’re covering the small forwards and power forwards.

The power forward crop, like the draft overall, doesn’t appear to be as strong as recent years, that doesn’t mean there aren’t potential contributors and high-level NBA players available, as well as one who might just turn out to be a star-caliber player.

Onyeka Okongwu, USC – 19 years old

Okongwu is the player who just might develop into a star on some level. He was actually underrated in high school and was snubbed for a McDonald’s All-American selection his senior year. He established himself early on at USC as the team’s best player as a freshman and now appears to have turned some heads.

He’s been mentioned as a lottery pick and in some mock drafts, he’s top 4-5. He possesses a great all-around skill-set; he can score in the post, he can put the ball on the floor and attack and he can shoot. But perhaps his biggest attribute is his versatility on the defensive end. He’s got quick feet and mobility and can guard multiple positions.

Okongwu might actually play center in the NBA, especially in small-ball lineups, but he’s mostly played power forward and so he’ll probably see time there in the league. His skill-set fits perfectly with today’s game.

Obi Toppin, Dayton – 22 years old

Toppin is one of the older players in the draft, and in recent history, players that age tend to slip on draft boards. In Toppin’s case, it looks like the reverse might actually be true. He’s been projected as a lottery pick, and even going in the top 3.

He’s an incredibly athletic player who thrives in the open court. He looks like he’ll do well in an up-tempo offensive system that has capable playmakers who can find him in transition. He’s extremely active around the rim and he can finish strong. A decent shooter too, something he’ll need at the next level.

Toppin has the physical tools to be an effective defensive player, but that’s where the questions marks on him have been. In the NBA, he’s likely going to have to play and guard multiple positions. Whether or not he can adapt to that likely will answer the question as to what his ceiling can be.

Precious Achiuwa, Memphis – 20 years old

Achiuwa is another intriguing prospect. this writer actually got to watch him play in person while he was in high school and he was very impressive. He looked like a man among boys. He’s projected to be a late lottery pick.

He has an NBA-ready body and he’s got some toughness around the rim and in the paint. He was a double-double threat during his one season at Memphis and his knack for rebounding is something that should translate to the NBA. He’s a very good defender too, in particular, as a rim protector. He’s very quick and has the ability to guard multiple positions.

One of the main knocks on Achiuwa is his shooting ability. He didn’t shoot that well in college and power forwards being able to space the floor is almost a requirement in today’s NBA game. It’s something he can certainly work on and improve on though.

Honorable Mentions:
Paul Reed, DePaul – 21 years old
Xavier Tillman, Michigan State – 21 years old
Killian Tillie, Gonzaga – 22 years old

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Looking Toward the Draft: Small Forwards

Basketball Insiders’ examination of the 2020 draft class continues with a look at the small forwards.

Drew Maresca

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It was announced on Wednesday that the NBA Draft would be delayed from Oct. 16 to Nov. 18. The rationale is that the extra month gives the league and its players association more time to negotiate changes to the CBA. It also grants teams additional time to procure information on prospects and allows the NBA to establish regional virtual combines. But nothing is set in stone.

Still, draft prep must continue. This year’s draft class has more question marks than usual – which was complicated by the cancellation of the NCAA tournament (along with the NIT and a number of conference tournaments). There are incredibly skilled offensive players with limited offensive upside and jaw-droppingly talented defenders with incomplete offensive packages. But if (recent) history serves as a guide, there will be a few guys who make an immediate impact – and some of them very well could be small forwards.

The small forward position is key for the modern NBA. Want proof? Survey the league and you’ll find that most – if not all – contenders have an elite small forward – Milwaukee, Los Angeles (both), Boston, Miami, Toronto.

But the list of can’t miss small forward prospects feels smaller than usual. Scanning the numerous legitimate mock drafts (including our own by Steve Kyler), it becomes apparent that we lack a consensus on which small forwards will be selected (and in what order) after the top 3 or 4. Can any of them grow into a star? Maybe. Maybe not. But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, let’s identify what the top few bring to the table.

Deni Avdija, Israel – 19 years old

Avdija is a relatively well-rounded prospect who’s played professionally since he was 16. He boasts good height (6-foot-9) and uses it effectively to shoot over and pass around opposing defenses. Further, Avdija is an exceptional playmaker and he’s incredibly confident, enabling him to take chances many players would be apprehensive trying. Avdija is a high-IQ player. And what’s more, he’s a surprisingly strong defender. His height and above-average athleticism allow him to block shots, and he’s more physical than you’d expect him to be.

But there are drawbacks to Avdija, too. His main issue is around shooting. Avdija shot only 28% in the EuroLeague last season, and he shot only 60% from the free-throw line. Further, while he’s a decent athlete, he’ll struggle to secure a role in the NBA. He’s going to need to add speed to stay with modern wings, and he’ll also have to bulk up to bang with power forwards.

Still, Avdija’s upside is alluring. He’s only 19, and his smarts, confidence and grittiness should provide him cover for much of his rookie season. Avdija should be the first small forward off of the board.

Isaac Okoro, Auburn – 19 years old

Avdija might be the flashier name currently, but Okoro will give him a run for his money in terms of which small forward is first off the board. Okoro is built like a traditional NBA wing; he’s 6-foot-6 with good strength packed in his muscular frame (215 lbs). Okoro finishes well around the rim and he converts well through contact. He’s an exceptional athlete who excels catching the ball on the move. Like Avdija, Okoro has the poise and composure of a more experienced player. Also, like Avdija, Okoro looked the part of a high IQ player in his lone season at Auburn.

And while all that is great, the main allure of Okoro is his defense. He’s a fairly advanced defender given his age, and his athleticism and timing make him an effective weak side help defender.

While Okoro’s raw abilities are exquisite, his refined offensive skills leave something to be desired. Okoro shot 28 percent on three-point field goals and he struggled from the free-throw line (67.2 percent). His mid-range jump shot also needs work, and he struggles in isolation situations.

If Okoro can hone his offensive game, he could grow into an All-Star. He has the ability to guard multiple positions, and his strength and athleticism give him a leg up on most prospects. But even if he doesn’t become an All-Star, he possesses a fairly high floor given his defensive abilities — and the guy definitely fills the state sheet (12.9 points, 4.4 rebounds, 2.0 assists, .9 steals and .9 blocks). He has lockdown defender potential and he’ll put his stamp on the game beginning on night one.

Devin Vassell, Florida State – 20 years old

Vassell played two seasons at Florida State, but he came into his own in his Sophomore season. He averaged 12.7 points, 5.1 rebounds, 1.6 assists, 1.4 steals and 1.0 blocks per game. He shot a more than respectable 41.5% on three-point attempts, and he demonstrated a strong stroke from the free-throw line (73.8 percent) and on two-point field goal attempts (53.2).

Vassell is an extremely athletic leaper, who can rise up for a highlight dunk and sprint down the floor with ease. He has good body control and demonstrated a strong mid-range game, especially his step-back jump shot. But Vassell must generate more free throws through decisive moves to the hoop, which would be bolstered by a more muscular frame. Additionally, he must improve his ball-handling to get more from isolations.

Vassell will have an adjustment period in terms of scoring the ball at the next level. Fortunately, his defense and shooting should get him by. If he can bulk up and improve his handling, Vassell could grow into a serious player.

Aaron Nesmith, Vanderbilt – 20 years old

Nesmith probably has a lower floor than any of the other top small forward prospects given that he’ll be 21 by the draft. Still, he looked quite good in his Junior year, averaging 23 points, 4.9 rebounds and 1.4 steals per game on a scorching 52.2 percent shooting from deep. Nesmith is an incredibly gifted shooter who has impressive range. His ability to catch-and-shoot and create space with fakes makes him a promising prospect – for the right team.

Nesmith is a high IQ player who uses his smarts on the defensive end. He’s also quite strong, can get buckets in the open floor and demonstrates above average ball-handling skills, as long as he’s not taking the ball to the hoop.

But there are inherent limitations in Nesmith’s game. He’s doesn’t create for his teammates too effectively and he turns the ball over more frequently than one would like with. Further, Nesmith is plagued by robotic movements that limit his athleticism. His ball-handling breaks down when taking the ball to the rack – something he’ll certainly have to work on in the NBA if he wants to be a versatile scoring threat against the bigger and stronger competition.

Still, Nesmith’s positives give him an excellent chance at being selected in the first round. His range alone will intrigue teams in need of a shooter.

Honorable Mentions:

Saddiq Bey, Villanova – 21 years old

Jaden McDaniels, Washington – 19 years old

Robert Woodard II, Mississippi State – 20 years old

With the uncertainty around small forward prospects, expect to see a revolving door of names enter the discussion after the first four wing prospects are off the board prior to Nov. 16 – assuming the draft is held then. But regardless of how you have them ranked, all of the aforementioned prospects have question marks. But all have had far more time to improve than they would have in years’ past. Let’s hope that shows come next season.

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NBA Daily: Opposite Plotlines for Today’s Matchups

With the two matchups going on today, Matt John examines the two teams who could be in the most trouble because of one of their individual stars for opposite reasons.

Matt John

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The second round of the NBA playoffs was hyped up to be one of the most entertaining we’ve had in years. So far, they haven’t fallen short of expectations. We knew that Houston and Los Angeles’ battle of opposite philosophies would make for some twists and turns. We knew that Boston and Toronto would duke it out in an Atlantic Division showdown. We knew that Miami would push Milwaukee to new heights. We didn’t really know if the Nuggets would give the Clippers a good series, but the fact that they have so far has made an intense postseason all the more gripping.

Anyway, today we’re getting two games from two series in completely opposite places. The Lakers and the Rockets will face off for the series lead, while the HEAT will try to finish off the Bucks once and for all. Below, we’re going to focus on two teams who have an individual star that either may be more flawed than we thought or one that may not be as flawed as we thought.

Bucks vs. HEAT: Giannis is great and all, but…

We all pretty much knew this was going to be a good series. We did not expect this.

The buzz surrounding Bucks v. HEAT was that Miami was going to make Milwaukee earn every win they got in this series. If that was the plan, then Miami has failed miserably, because until Khris Middleton went supernova on them on Sunday, Milwaukee had come up terribly short.

Let’s first give Miami the credit that they are due and more. With Bam Adebayo and Jimmy Butler alone, Miami was going to be a tough matchup for Milwaukee – but to see the Bucks all but roll over in this series is an unpleasant sight. Acquiring Jae Crowder and Andre Iguodala has paid huge dividends and it’s showing. There are other factors involved, but Miami’s defensive efforts have limited Giannis to 21.8 points a game and that’s played a role in the HEAT being in the driver’s seat of this series.

Speaking of Giannis Antetokounmpo, this series has not been a good look for the Defensive Player of the Year. Especially since it looks like his second consecutive MVP (presumably) is right around the corner. So, to see both him and Milwaukee, once an unstoppable force without an immovable object in sight, get stopped by a sturdy but not immovable squad is saddening.

Nearly a year ago, Basketball Insiders compared these current Bucks to the Dwight Howard-led Orlando Magic from the late-2000’s/early 2010’s. To oversimplify things, both were contenders led by a superstar with a rare physique that made them tough to stop. To put the superstar in the best position, they surrounded them with playmakers and three-point shooters.

While the teams’ roster constructions weren’t exactly the same, their strengths as a team certainly were. Now we’re seeing the Bucks’ flaws just as we did the Magic 10 years ago. If you have the personnel to make the lone superstar uncomfortable, the team doesn’t function as well.

Giannis is near impossible to stop, but the one major flaw is that if you take away his ability to drive and force him into a jumper, he loses his rhythm. Even if his shot is on – never a guarantee – his opponents will let him beat them that way until he makes them pay. Hardly any team can pick on this, but the HEAT are one of them, and now they’re one win away from their first Eastern Conference Finals since LeBron James took his talents out of South Beach.

This ultimately is what puts Antetokounmpo below the likes of LeBron James and Kawhi Leonard for now. Those guys are rare physical specimens like him, but their elite games don’t revolve entirely around their natural gifts as he does or Dwight did. At 25 years old, there’s plenty of time for him to change that and, for all we know, he will, but to see him struggle at a time when the conference was supposed to run through him has ignited tons of questions.

Milwaukee’s technically not out yet, but they’ve shown their mortality against Miami. If this really is it for them, then they’ve got to find a quick fix for this problem because if they don’t, then the unspeakable may happen.

Lakers vs. Rockets: Westbrook has been bad and all but…

Shaking off the rust and recovering from a balky knee would be tough for anyone. For Russell Westbrook, it’s killing his productivity and, in turn, the Rockets’ playoff chances. He’s averaging 15.6 points on 39/16/47 splits with a most recent 10-point, 4-of-15 effort from the field which included seven turnovers and air balling wide-open threes sticking out like a sore thumb.

It also doesn’t help that he’s playing the Lakers of all teams. When Westbrook has been in, the Lakers have taken advantage of his shortcomings offensively and it shows both on the court and the stat line.

Most of Westbrook’s damage is hurting Houston on the offensive end. With the All-Star guard in the game, Houston is minus-13.7 with him on the court, the worst offensive rating on the team. The 12 turnovers he’s coughed up in this series probably have something to do with that.

With Westbrook’s struggles and his predecessor Chris Paul coming off of his best individual season since 2016, this, of course, has led to many second-guessing the swap last summer. Or let’s rephrase that: People have been second-guessing that trade since the moment it was announced and, in light of recent events, they’re piling on now more than ever.

Maybe they’re right. Even after playing in the NBA for over a decade now, Westbrook still hasn’t proven that he can control himself enough to reach his potential as a team player. We’ve seen glimpses. On the other hand, Paul showed that he can still pick apart defenses while holding his own on that end.

But replacing Paul with Westbrook was Harden’s idea. He didn’t want to play with Paul anymore and chose to play with one of his closest friends. You may think that the better fit is what’s best for the team, but we’ve seen the damage that can happen when your team’s best players have friction with one another. It hurt Utah this season. It hurt Boston last season. It destroyed the Lakers back in 2013. There’s no telling what it could have done to Houston this season.

Besides, we know that as bad as Westbrook has been, he’s capable of being better. Not a knockdown shooter, not even an efficient scorer, but he has done better in the past when the focus was on him. The more days he takes to shake off the rust from his knee, the more optimistic the Rockets ought to be.

The Rockets have to take the glass-half-full on this one because they don’t really have a choice otherwise.

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