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NBA PM: An Early Look At The Rebuilding Atlanta Hawks

Buddy Grizzard takes inventory of the rebuilding Hawks and predicts a rapid turn-around.

Buddy Grizzard

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The Atlanta Hawks betrayed an underlying organizational instability during the first round of the NBA playoffs when Dwight Howard was held out of fourth quarters in Games 2 and 5 against the Wizards before turning in a dismal performance in Atlanta’s Game 6 elimination. Howard was -14 in 23 minutes in Game 6 while attempting only four shots. Hours earlier, Howard had his car towed for no insurance while driving at around 2 AM of the morning preceding the elimination game.

That instability created a situation where the Hawks, for the second offseason in a row, would face losing the team’s best player without compensation. The summer before, Atlanta had declined to offer Al Horford the full max and saw him depart to the Boston Celtics as an unrestricted free agent. The Hawks had made plans to trade Paul Millsap to the Phoenix Suns for assets while re-signing Horford to pair him in the front court with Howard. Horford would later imply that playing alongside Howard was not attractive for him.

After Howard’s meltdown in the playoffs, Millsap may have been thinking the same thing. The Hawks declined to extend a contract offer to Millsap, who departed to the Denver Nuggets. Atlanta finally committed to a full rebuild — much as the organization loathes to use that word — that many observers felt the Hawks should have started at least a season sooner. It’s important to note that the Hawks organization has not torn the team down to the studs like the Philadelphia 76ers. The developing young talent on this roster should give fans reason to hope that it won’t be an extended stay in lottery land, and here we’ll look at the key components of that picture.

Dennis Schroder

Statistically, Schroder took a step forward in the playoffs. After averaging 20.5 points, 7.2 assists and 3.7 turnovers per 36 minutes in the regular season on 34 percent shooting from three-point range, Schroder averaged 25.3 points, 7.8 assists and only 1.7 turnovers per 36 against the Wizards, including 42 percent shooting from three. The jump in assists while cutting his turnovers by a full two per 36 minutes was especially impressive, coming as it did while guarded by a well-regarded defender in John Wall.

The advanced metrics were less kind to Schroder, however, as his -7.5 points per 100 possessions in the Wizards series was the worst of any Hawk to play significant minutes. The degree to which Schroder and the departed Tim Hardaway, Jr. were outplayed by Wall and Bradley Beal was the biggest deciding factor of the series. Nonetheless, it was Schroder’s first experience as the starting point guard in a playoff series. His improvement in assist-to-turnover ratio should not be taken for granted, but rather as a sign of untapped upside he may further reveal in the upcoming season.

Schroder will lead the national team for his native Germany in the upcoming EuroBasket 2017 tournament, so observers will have an opportunity to see him in action against a high level of competition well ahead of the NBA’s preseason. Schroder will also face another new experience in the upcoming seasons as defenses key on him as they never have before with Millsap out of the picture.

Taurean Prince

After Hawks coach Mike Budenholzer declined to play Taurean Prince significant minutes early in the season, he surprisingly became the starting small forward toward the end of the regular season and kept that role into the playoffs. Prince became the first player since Tony Parker to start and score in double figures in his first five career playoff starts as a rookie and the first rookie in Hawks history to score in double digits in his first four playoff starts. Through Game 3 of the Wizards series, Prince shot an astonishing 57 percent from three point range and was second only to Kawhi Lenord in true shooting percentage for the playoffs.

That’s a pretty impressive resume for a first-year player. Prince also kept Otto Porter — recipient this offseason of a max contract extension from the Wizards — in check defensively for much of the series. Prince went into the playoffs known more for his defensive reputation than for the offensive outburst he displayed. That he showed up as a two-way player against the Wizards is a hugely encouraging sign for Atlanta. However, as with Schroder, Prince will face additional defensive attention for the upcoming season. Prince will go from an afterthought on Atlanta’s bench to possibly the second scoring option.

Ersan Ilyasova

The advanced stats love Ersan Ilyasova. He was among the net rating leaders for the Thunder, 76ers, and Hawks during the regular season and his +2.2 in the Wizards series trailed only Kent Bazemore and Jose Calderon among rotation players. However, Ilyasova was unable to help Atlanta avoid elimination as he shot 1-for-6 with a game-worst -7 in Game 5 before playing only five minutes in Game 6. The Hawks organization is infamous for failing to disclose injuries — an offseason wrist injury to Hardaway the season before was not revealed until midseason — so Ilyasova may have been limited toward the end of the series.

Ilyasova led the NBA in charges taken, which shows that he has advanced defensive timing and positioning. With the Hawks this season, Ilyasova will have a real opportunity to play above his reputation as a journeyman as he projects as the team’s starting power forward. He’s started 365 games over his career, so it’s not a burden he’s unfamiliar with. And the 18 points and 8.1 rebounds per 36 minutes he averaged for the 2015-16 season would be welcome production. But as with Prince and Schroder, the refrain remains the same. Ilyasova will have to produce in the face of much greater defensive attention than he received as Millsap’s backup.

DeAndre Bembry

Possibly the biggest wildcard for the Hawks will be the play of DeAndre Bembry, who, unlike Prince, never got an opportunity to crack the rotation last season. This led to a great deal of consternation among Hawks observers who saw his potential during a road win in Houston during which Bembry applied lock-down defense against MVP finalist James Harden.

Bembry gives the Hawks another multi-position switching defender on the wing to pair with Prince. The limiting factor is the three-point line, where he’s shot just 1-for-18 for his career. His shot looked worlds better during NBA Summer League, but improvement against lower levels of competition can prove illusory. If Bembry’s improved three-point range turns out not to be a mirage, he could be a breakout player for Atlanta. In addition to his defensive versatility, he provides the Hawks with another ball handler who can create shots for his teammates and take some of the pressure off Schroder.

John Collins

After John Collins fell all the way to the Hawks at 19th in the first round of this summer’s NBA Draft, he was selected to the All-NBA Summer League first team in Las Vegas. Front office executives who spoke to Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler in Vegas said that Collins could be one of the truly special players to come out of the 2017 NBA Draft. It appears that the Hawks found a diamond in the rough and possibly the steal of the entire draft.

Collins proved to be an explosive dunker and rebounder in Vegas and should make an immediate impact as the most efficient offensive player in college basketball last season. The questions will come on the defensive end, where Wake Forest coach Danny Manning hid Collins by instructing him to avoid foul trouble. Collins is also not known for his outside shot, although in pre-draft workouts and during Summer League, his shot from the elbows and from deep looked competent and composed. While Hawks fans can look forward to the team’s first trip to the lottery in a decade, Collins should at least keep the home crowd entertained with his athletic rim assaults.

DeWayne Dedmon

The Hawks may have found another diamond in the rough in Dedmon, who started 37 games at center for the Spurs during the regular season and three in the playoffs. Dedmon is an interesting story as he was raised as a Jehovah’s Witness and did not play competitive basketball until he walked on to his junior college team. Thus, while Dedmon’s numbers are typical of an NBA journeyman, the fact that he’s only been playing since he became an adult indicates there could be untapped upside waiting to be revealed in an expanded role.

Like Schroder, Dedmon made an encouraging improvement in per 36-minute stats from the regular season to the playoffs in San Antonio. During the regular season, he averaged 10.5 points and 13.4 rebounds per 36 while shooting 70 percent from the free throw line and 62 percent from the field. During the playoffs, he averaged 16.7 points and 17.4 rebounds per 36. His field goal shooting held steady at 61 percent, but his free throw shooting took a dive to 53 percent on nearly 12 attempts per 36 minutes. It’s only a 12-game sample so it may not be cause for excessive alarm, but it will be something to keep an eye on.

While the Hawks will undoubtedly take a major step back this season with many of the team’s top scorers and impact defenders departed, Atlanta may not perform as poorly as some observers predict. There are enough pieces here that the Hawks could win enough games to hurt their chances of gaining one of the top three picks in the upcoming draft. Budenholzer is ultra-competitive and a former assistant with the world champion Spurs, and you can be sure that “tanking” is not in his vocabulary. It’s an intriguing collection of talent, and these young Hawks will be playing to win.

For the longer term, the Hawks will have as many as six first round draft picks in the next three drafts. New Hawks GM Travis Schlenk has stated the goal of retooling the roster while remaining competitive. Atlanta has managed to stock itself with both rising talent and future assets to make that goal more than just a talking point. Look for Atlanta’s rebuild to proceed rapidly.

Buddy Grizzard has written for ESPN.com and BBallBreakdown and served as an editor for ESPN TrueHoop Network.

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NBA Daily: The NBA Ten Years Ago

With the 2018-2019 season on the horizon, Basketball Insiders’ Matt John takes a trip down memory lane to look at where the league was ten years prior.

Matt John

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It’s time to take a trip down memory lane – all the way back to 2009.

It was a different time then. The country’s first black president was inaugurated, Swine Flu was petrifying the nation and Justin Bieber was an innocent teenager just trying to make a name for himself. It was a time to be alive, particularly for NBA junkies.

There were some interesting storylines going on in the NBA, like the somewhat growing concern of ballplayers preferring to play overseas after Josh Childress went to Greece. Or the Seattle Supersonics switching cities to become the Oklahoma City Thunder under certain circumstances. However, the 2008-2009 season overall served as a transitional year for the players.

Some of the NBA’s youngest stars such as LeBron James, Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony were achieving success, as individuals and in the team setting. They were becoming the present face of the league while established veterans – such as Allen Iverson, Tracy McGrady and Vince Carter – were becoming the past. Chris Paul and Dwyane Wade had already shown themselves as two of the bright young stars in the league, and Kevin Durant was right around the corner. The 2008-2009 season was when the new generation of young NBA stars started making its mark.

Having said that, looking back at today, what should the 2008-2009 season be remembered the most for? Well, several things.

The NBA Champion

As you probably remember, the Los Angeles Lakers won their 15th NBA title in 2009.
The LakeShow deserved it. Detractors will make excuses – which I’ll get to – but the Lakers were a well-crafted team that was difficult for every team in the league to stop. Ten years later, only one question remains about them: Would they have worked as well in today’s NBA?

There’d be little reason for them not to. They had a top-10 NBA talent of all-time still at the top of his game in Kobe Bryant. However, while Kobe may have been their best player, the dirty little secret about the 08-09 Lakers was that their frontcourt was what made them tough to stop. They had one of the best offensive centers in the league in Pau Gasol, one of the NBA’s most versatile players ever in Lamar Odom and a promising young big in Andrew Bynum. The one commonality between these three: None of them were floor spacers.

Back then, stretching the floor wasn’t as much of a necessity as it is now. Also, teams didn’t value small ball nearly as much as they do now. Could that Lakers frontcourt have broken the trend, or would the league’s shooting evolution have limited their effectiveness? We’ll honestly never know, but it’s something worth pondering.

If X Team(s) Had Just Been Healthy…

Every season has that one team that many wonder what would have been had a certain player not gotten hurt. In 2009, the obvious injury to turn to was Kevin Garnett’s. The Celtics that year looked as good as ever until Garnett went down with a season-ending knee injury.

Boston did well without him, but Garnett’s injury left fans with unfulfilled desires. Perhaps the Celtics could have won it all had Garnett been available, but his injury was on them. Reportedly, the organization knew Garnett had bone spurs in his knee before the season started and played him hoping he’d be fine. Had they been more cautious, maybe they’d have 18 banners right now. This shows that when you’re a contender, you should take proper precautions for when the real games begin.

Besides, the Celtics weren’t the ones victimized the most by injuries. The ones that came the closest to beating the Lakers were, and that team was the Houston Rockets.

Many forget that the Rockets were expected to be title contenders leading up to that season. They had Tracy McGrady and Yao Ming leading the way, but after they stole the player formerly known as Ron Artest from the Kings, expectations were sky high in H-Town.

It didn’t take long for things to go south. McGrady’s knee was so troublesome that it knocked him out by mid-season. Hope was not lost, though. The Rockets managed to snag the fifth seed in the Western Conference without T-Mac and even advanced to the second round.

After splitting the first two games with the Lakers, Yao’s broken foot in Game Three of the conference semi-finals put the final nail in the coffin. The Rockets still fought until there was no fight left in them, as the Lakers eliminated them in seven games. The Rockets pushed the eventual NBA champs to the brink despite losing both T-Mac and Yao. If there’s one team that was robbed of their potential that doesn’t get enough credit, it’s the 2008-2009 Rockets.

The Deal That Could Have Changed So Much

If you thought the Chris Paul trade to the Lakers could have altered the entire landscape of the NBA, wait until you hear about this nixed trade that happened in 2009. On Feb. 18, New Orleans agreed to trade Tyson Chandler to Oklahoma City for Joe Smith and Chris Wilcox. Basically, the then-Hornets were dumping Chandler to the Thunder. That was until Chandler’s “turf toe” raised enough red flags to convince OKC to rescind the trade.

After all that’s happened since then, it’s amazing wondering what could have been. The Thunder were one of the league’s worst teams when they traded for Chandler, so who knows what they would have done with him that season. His presence could have impacted whether they got James Harden in the draft that year. Serge Ibaka came over the following season, so imagine what he and Chandler would have looked like together. Trading for Chandler would have meant that he wouldn’t make it to Dallas, which probably meant no title for the Mavericks in 2011. It also would have meant the Thunder trading Jeff Green for Kendrick Perkins would be nixed, too.

So much could have been different had OKC rolled the dice with Chandler. Maybe they wouldn’t have lost Durant. Maybe they would’ve formed a dynasty. Maybe LeBron nor the Warriors wouldn’t have won any titles this decade. All of that could have come from one rescinded trade. It’s understandable that the Thunder didn’t want to take the risk with Chandler’s toe, but at times like those, the potential outweighs the risk.

Pull The Plug! Or Don’t!

One of the seasons more prominent storylines was the fall of the Detroit Pistons. After being among the Eastern Conference’s powerhouses for several years, Detroit’s downfall came when they agreed to swap Chauncey Billups and Antonio McDyess for Allen Iverson.

While the Denver Nuggets reaped all the benefits from this deal, Detroit crumbled from one of the top seeds to the eighth seed in the conference. In hindsight, the Pistons underestimated how much Billups had left in the tank and overestimated how good their opponents were. When you consider that the Orlando Magic was the reigning Eastern Conference Champion at the time – and the Pistons beat the Magic the previous year in a five-game playoff series – maybe the Pistons would have had a chance.

When you have a window of opportunity, even if the outlook isn’t great, you take advantage of it until you can’t anymore. The Pistons instead folded early and have never recovered since. This trade would have been forgivable had the Pistons used the cap space they got from Iverson’s expiring deal wisely.

Instead, they used it on Ben Gordon and Charlie Villanueva the following summer. Woof.

“Success Is Fleeting”

It was mentioned earlier that Dwight Howard and Carmelo Anthony were achieving success both for themselves and for their teams. Both played in the ideal situations for them.

Howard played for a team that had reliable shooters who spread the floor along with smart playmakers who could run the pick and roll with him. Howard may have been a shot-blocking terror, but he also benefited from having agile defenders on the wing. Howard’s dominating presence down low made it difficult for defenses to figure out who to cover, which helped the Magic power their way to the NBA Finals.

Anthony played for a team that had an MVP candidate for a starting point guard in Chauncey Billups. “Mr. Big Shot” knew exactly where to find Anthony which greatly helped ‘Melo’s efficiency as a scorer. Carmelo also played for a team whose frontcourt finally got past its injury issues. With everything going Denver’s way, they had one of their most successful playoff runs in years, pushing the Lakers to six games in the Western Conference Finals.

When the Magic and the Nuggets went on their playoff runs in 2009, Anthony was only 25 while Howard was 23. Making it that far into the playoffs is terrific when you’re that young, but little did they know, that was far as they would get in their primes.

Looking at where they are at now, Carmelo Anthony and Dwight Howard will more likely than not be Hall-of-Famers, but they’ll be remembered for being two superstar talents who could have done so much more in their careers had their hubris not gotten in the way. As their careers unfolded, both infamously burned bridges because things had to be done their way, which in turn, hurt their opportunities for success.

One can’t help but wonder if the success they had in 2009 played a role in their egos. Whether it did or not, young players coming into the league need to know that maintaining success in the NBA is not a given no matter how good you are. You never know when the glory days will be taken away from you.

The 2008-2009 season was remembered for many other things as well. LeBron had finally taken the reins as the league’s indisputable best player, a label he still has yet to relinquish, as he went on to win his first MVP award. It was also the one and only year we got the closest resemblance to a full season from the injury-plagued Greg Oden. Hilariously, it was also the year when we realized that maybe fans had a little too much power in all-star voting, as Iverson and McGrady were voted in as starters purely on reputation.

There are many other reasons to remember the 2008-2009 season. Ten years from now, what will the 2018-2019 season be remembered for?

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NBA Daily: Six Breakout Players To Watch – Central Division

With LeBron James in Los Angeles, the Central Division will be looking for a few players to break out and make a name for themselves in 2018-19 — here are Ben Nadeau’s top six candidates.

Ben Nadeau

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While the Central Division likely won’t feature any of the Eastern Conference’s biggest powerhouses, there are plenty of franchises here with postseason aspirations. In order for those teams to rebuild or reach new heights, they’ll need a cast of different characters to ascend into bigger, more important roles. Out in Indiana and Milwaukee, two darkhorse contenders, it’ll take more than just Tyreke Evans and Brook Lopez in order to challenge the likes of Gordon Hayward and Joel Embiid — but who fits the bill?

For Detroit and Chicago, the pressure will be on to avoid a lottery-bound fate once more by leaning on two up-and-comers — no matter the massive difference in their contracts. But Cleveland will undoubtedly have the toughest task of all: Replacing LeBron James. With each franchise staring down a difficult benchmark, breakouts must come in all shapes and sizes, by veterans, new arrivals and budding stars alike — so what will this season bring?

Whether through an opening in the rotation or an offseason acquisition, these are six of the Central Division’s strongest candidates to leave a lasting mark in 2018-19.

Bobby Portis — Chicago Bulls

The Bulls’ fourth-year man is a solid, if not unspectacular, contributor whenever he gets regular playtime. Last year, Portis suffered an immediate setback following his preseason scuffle with former teammate Nikola Mirotic, but he bounced back stronger than ever. The forward made good on his uptick in minutes and nearly posted career numbers across the board thanks to his relentless motor and desire to compete. Averaging 13.2 points, 6.8 rebounds and 1.7 assists on 47.1 percent from the floor, Portis frequently excelled as a change of pace rebounder off the bench.

This season, he’ll have an even bigger opportunity to shine. With Lauri Markkanen sidelined until November at the earliest, it looks like Portis will earn significant minutes and maybe even a legitimate shot at the starting power forward position. In his first start of the preseason on Wednesday, Portis dropped 20 points, six rebounds, two assists, two steals and a block in just 21 minutes. If he comes off the bench, Portis could become an underrated Sixth Man of the Year candidate. But even if he just starts until Markannen’s return, he’ll be well on his way toward earning a lucrative offer sheet in restricted free agency next summer.*

*Portis is eligible to sign an extension until Oct. 15

Zach LaVine — Chicago Bulls

For a hot minute, it looked like Zach LaVine might end up in Sacramento during his own trip to the restricted free agency pool this summer. Ultimately, he’s staying in Chicago to the tune of $78 million over the next four years — which, officially, will put the pressure of an entire franchise squarely on his shoulders. Naturally, the high-flyer will not be alone, joined once again by Kris Dunn, the aforementioned Portis and Markkanan, plus newcomers Jabari Parker and Wendell Carter Jr., but LaVine will deservedly receive grander-than-ever expectations.

He struggled after returning from his torn ACL in January — but before he got injured, LaVine was on the cusp of a breakout with the Minnesota Timberwolves. Through 47 games in 2016-17, LaVine was averaging 18.9 points, 3.4 rebounds and 3.1 assists on 45.9 percent from the floor. With all that in the rearview mirror — the injury, the trade, the contract — LaVine will have a clear path forward for the first time in years. Certainly, LaVine’s defense still needs work, but given the Bulls’ presumed fate outside of the postseason and their unproven collection of talents, there’s a stellar chance that the hyper-athletic scorer will make his big leap now that he’s back at full health.

Pat Connaughton — Milwaukee Bucks

By far, Pat Connaughton has the least spectacular case on this page — but when the opportunity comes knocking, it’s best not to ignore the call.

Connaughton played in all 82 games last season and averaged 5.4 points, two rebounds and 1.1 assists on 42.3 percent from the field — all career-bests. Of course, those 18.1 minutes per game came behind Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum, one of the league’s best backcourt duos. After the Trail Blazers did not extend his qualifying offer, Connaughton was free to explore other destinations, eventually signing with the Bucks for two years and $3.4 million. For the Bucks, he’ll likely join rookie Donte DiVincenzo as the backup guards, looking to space the floor at the perimeter and set up his teammates.

Of note, Connaughton played 20-plus minutes in 37 contests and exceeded his points per game total in 25 of them. It’s a somewhat basic lens through which to examine Connaughton’s impact, but when he gets the minutes, he typically rises to the occasion. Connaughton has some serious bounce and playmaking skills that should fit seamlessly with Milwaukee’s long, athletic rotation immediately. The fourth-year professional even has some experience at small forward as well — so if he can facilitate for others, hit some open three-pointers and scrappily defend, this will be Connaughton’s best season yet.

Luke Kennard — Detroit Pistons

After an up-and-down rookie season, there are lofty expectations brewing for Luke Kennard as he heads into his follow-up campaign. At first, there was some disappointment that the sweet-shooting lefty was picked ahead of Donovan Mitchell, but as the season went on, the Detroit faithful grew fond of the former Blue Devil’s nuanced play style. Over the final 19 contests of the year, Kennard averaged 11.3 points, 3.5 rebounds and 2.5 assists, even reaching the multi-three-pointer mark in seven of those games. Assuming that his role grows under the tutelage of Dwane Casey, the reigning Coach of the Year, Kennard could be a standout sophomore in 2018-19.

Even craftier, the Pistons had planned to use Kennard at point guard during summer league, but a strained knee tempered those expectations for now. Kennard can play three positions, flexible enough to compete on both offense and defense already. His potential from three-point range is not without merit either, as Kennard averaged 19.5 points on 43.8 percent from deep during his final season in college, marking him as one of Division-I’s most elite shooters. At 6-foot-5 and just 22 years old, it looks like we’re just scratching the surface on Kennard’s budding future.

Doug McDermott — Indiana Pacers

Perhaps the most interesting case on the list is that of Doug McDermott.

Dangerously close to joining the rank of journeyman, McDermott landed a three-year deal worth $22 million in July — a contract that left many onlookers initially puzzled. But now that he’s there and entrenched in the Pacers’ preseason rotation, it’s clear what type of impact he might bring off the bench. Although Indiana will be McDermott’s fifth team since he was drafted in 2014, he’s excelled as an above average three-point shooter thus far. Sporting a career tally of 1.1 three-pointers per game on 40.3 percent, he could fill a serious void for the Pacers if they let him loose.

Between New York and Dallas last season, McDermott had 26 multi-three-pointer outings, including a blistering 5-for-7 effort against the Clippers in November. Admittedly, he’s not really a consistent contributor anywhere else, but the recent long-range renaissance means that there will always be room in the NBA for a sharpshooter like McDermott. Most importantly, then, is Indiana’s desperate need for not just bench three-point marksmanship, but shooting in general. In 2017-18, the Pacers only made nine three-pointers per game (their bench contributed a woeful total of 2.4), which left them tied for the fifth-worst mark in the entire league.

Even if McDermott doesn’t see a major uptick in volume, he’ll join the Pacers as their fourth-best three-point shooter at the very worst, only trailing Darren Collison (1.4), Bojan Bogdanovic (1.9) and Victor Oladipo (2.1) from deep. His track record may not be exhilarating on just numbers alone, but given his above-average percentages and his forthcoming opening, this may be McDermott’s biggest chance to breakout yet.

Cedi Osman — Cleveland Cavaliers

Everybody loves Cedi Osman.

Not much was expected of the 23-year-old when he joined the Cavaliers last season as an end-of-bench piece. But as the season grew longer, Osman got an honest shot at the rotation and he made the most of his unexpected fortuity. From February on, Osman tallied five or more points in 13 of his 22 appearances, even reaching double digits in six of them. During an uneventful win against the Atlanta Hawks, Osman notched 16 points, six rebounds, five assists, three steals and two three-pointers over 38 minutes — more or less, the kid can play.

Everywhere you look, the people surrounding Osman can’t stop gushing about his love for the game, his desire to get better and the impact he may have this season. During his two Las Vegas Summer League contests, Osman exploded for 20 points, eight rebounds, 4.5 assists, 2.5 steals and one block per game — a salivating preview most definitely. Although the team is undoubtedly Kevin Love’s now, he’ll need some backup and Osman — a grinder, slasher and do-it-all-glue-guy — has the skill-set to take a leap in 2018-19 and beyond.

Needless to say, there are some intriguing storylines developing in a freshly LeBron-less landscape. Can the mid-tier teams join the conference’s current royalty? Can the division’s two lottery members reach the postseason conversation? Surely, if anything, the Cavaliers won’t make their fifth straight NBA Finals — but can the efforts of Osman keep them from falling out of the playoff race completely? Answers will come sooner rather than later, but all these teams will need some breakout players to help lead the way this season.

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NBA Daily: Can Timberwolves Repair Relationship With Butler?

Is a change in heart possible for Jimmy Butler when it comes to staying with the Minnesota Timberwolves? Shane Rhodes examines.

Shane Rhodes

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After a long offseason hiatus, Jimmy Butler returned to the Minnesota Timberwolves on Wednesday.

It probably didn’t go as Tom Thibodeau and his coaching staff had hoped.

Butler was fired up as soon as he stepped onto the court with his teammates. According to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN, it was the first time he’s done so since the Timberwolves were eliminated by the Houston Rockets back in April. However, Butler wasn’t fired up to be on the floor with them, but to show them what he can do and that they need him.

Butler, in an outburst that may or may not have been staged for an interview, dominated the floor and challenged all he could, per Wojnarowski. He went at teammates, coaches and front office personnel. As the frustrations over his September trade request (and lack of an actual trade) boiled over, Butler pushed his teammates and, while he may have initially stunned them, energized them in the process.

Ironically, that’s one of the major things Butler was brought to Minnesota to do in the first place; push Karl-Anthony Towns and Andrew Wiggins, among others, and make them better.

But where do Butler and the Timberwolves go from here? Whether this was a one-time stunt, a last-ditch effort to get his teammates to match his effort and intensity or simply a way to force management to make a move, Butler is still unhappy with the team.

Butler reportedly won’t miss any regular season games, and Thibodeau may just be happy to have him back in the building, but how long can things go on like this before it all blows up? Can a strained player-franchise relationship potentially on the brink of collapse even be fixed?

Butler, to put it short, doesn’t think so.

In an interview later Wednesday evening with ESPN’s Rachel Nichols, Butler further elaborated on the flare-up. Among the talk of passion, heart, appreciation and other factors that led to his eventual trade request, Butler put it bluntly.

“It’s not fixed,” Butler said. He added that it could be, though, in the end, he doesn’t think it will be.

But why not? If the roster goes into the season energized and if Towns and Wiggins practice and play with the passion and heart that Butler is looking for, there is no doubt that Butler’s feelings toward the team and thoughts on a trade may shift.

On paper, and with Butler in the fold, the Timberwolves have the talent to be one of the best teams in the NBA. They certainly afford Butler the best opportunity to win games right now. Barring the blockbuster of all blockbuster trades, there isn’t another team with an established star of Towns’ caliber and high-level role players that Wiggins, Taj Gibson, Anthony Tolliver, Jeff Teague and others that Butler could turn to.

The Miami HEAT, who continue to pursue Butler despite numerous trade disruptions, have similar issues that forced Butler’s hand in the first place. Hassan Whiteside, namely, has a questionable motor and intensity and – as arguably the best player Erik Spoelstra’s squad has to offer  – it may, at the very best, be a lateral move for Butler.

If Butler is all about winning, and those previous criteria are met, it would almost make more sense to work things out in Minnesota rather than continue to seek a trade.

Of course, Towns, Wiggins and the others could just as easily go about their business as usual while Butler further isolates himself from the team before an eventual departure via trade or otherwise.

Either way, it is clear that the Butler-Timberwolves saga will be the storyline to watch in the early days of the season until some outcome is achieved. That outcome, whether it be realized in Minnesota or elsewhere, could have the potential to alter the playoff landscape as we know it.

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