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NBA PM: Chicago Bulls 2017-18 Season Preview

Basketball Insiders previews the Chicago Bulls ahead of what could be a long season.

Basketball Insiders

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After stubbornly avoiding a rebuild a year ago, holding white-knuckled to All-Star Jimmy Butler like a toddler with their lifelong comfort blanky, the Chicago Bulls finally actually did get “younger and more athletic” this past summer, if a year late, and the team now looks toward life after the playoffs. It’s a place they appear destined to reside for the foreseeable future as they attempt to rebuild the roster from the ground up, and while things are off to a slow start, the first years of rebuilds never are easy. This particular rebuild is going to be really ugly, though. Fans already are irate with team’s front office, and a dismal year in the league won’t do much to turn those frowns upside down.

It’s going to be a long season, but onward and upward, as they say. The Bulls literally have no other direction to go.

FIVE GUYS THINK…

There isn’t much good to say about the upcoming season for the Chicago Bulls. From the looks of it, their best bet may be to set their sights on the highest possible chance they can secure at winning the draft lottery.

After shipping off star shooting guard Jimmy Butler, and with talks of Dwyane Wade eventually being bought out, the shift to the future has now become the present for a Bulls team that just a few months ago had a 2-0 series lead on the Boston Celtics in the first round of the playoffs.

With all eyes on the return of Zach LaVine and the growth of Lauri Markkanen, the Bulls are thinking long term as they enter this season. With the production results that are likely to follow, it’s probably best if fans do the same as well.

5th place — Central Division

— Dennis Chambers

The Chicago Bulls traded Jimmy Butler and the 16th overall pick in this year’s draft for Kris Dunn, Zach LaVine and the seventh overall pick Thursday night, which was used on Lauri Markkanen. Chicago better hope that Dunn’s rookie season was an aberration, that LaVine makes a full recovery from his ACL tear and that Markkanen can build off of his impressing offseason. The Bulls have finally moved away from their failed strategy of retooling on the fly and seem prepared for an actual rebuild, which is a step in the right direction. But now they need to figure out what to do with Dwyane Wade, who clearly wants to play elsewhere.

5th Place — Central Division

— Jesse Blancarte

The Bulls are the latest reminder that, in the NBA, life comes at you fast. Jimmy Butler, Rajon Rondo and Taj Gibson all find themselves elsewhere, while Dwyane Wade doesn’t seem too far behind. Nikola Mirotic, one of the few bright spots for the franchise, enters mid-September without a new contract and the playoffs seem about as far away from Chicago as sunny South Beach in Miami.

The good news for the Bulls is that they are in possession of all of their first round picks and only currently have one pick debited, which is their 2019 second rounder. In terms of their payroll, the Bulls are one of the few teams that will enter the 2017-18 season with substantial cap room and only currently have $31 million and $8 million in commitments for the 2018-19 and 2019-20 seasons, respectively. Between now and then, the franchise will have to make a number of decisions on some of their young players, but let’s make no mistake about it; this team is in full rebuild mode.

I would go as far as to say that the Bulls may be the Eastern Conference team to experience the most dramatic drop off in win total—last season’s 41-41 campaign is a pipe dream. The best the Bulls can hope for over the next year or two is to lure one or two impact free agents, hitting a home run in the draft and that someone from the current crop—perhaps Kris Dunn, Lauri Markkanen, Zach LaVine or Bobby Portis—can fulfill their potential.

In the Central, it’ll certainly be them pulling up the rear, with the Pacers somewhere near. I favor the Pacers, though, mainly because they have at least four or five pieces that we know will be productive. I’m not sure what Chicago has at this point.

5th Place — Central Division

— Moke Hamilton

This is not going to be fun. Jimmy Butler was traded away for guys who can’t play, either because they are injured or because they just flat-out are not good at basketball, and the team’s only remaining “big name” is Dwyane Wade, a veteran who absolutely does not want to be there. Rookie Lauri Markannen had a promising summer, and Zach LaVine should be a 20+ point-per-game scorer when he finally makes his return from ACL surgery, but outside of that there just isn’t a whole lot to get excited about in Chicago this year. No team looks likely to lose more games than the Bulls.

5th Place — Central Division

— Joel Brigham

The Bulls were only .500 last season, but they could be in for one of the most precipitous year-to-year drops of any team in the league nonetheless. Moving on from Jimmy Butler and clearly emphasizing a rebuild has left this group enormously thin on proven NBA talent, especially with Dwyane Wade expected to be bought out and off the roster in short order. Guys like Zach LaVine, Robin Lopez, Kris Dunn and even newly drafted Lauri Markkanen will be asked to play big roles, and the team will not be expected to do a whole lot of winning. This year is all about seeing which of the young guys fit best and who will be a major part of the core moving forward.

5th place — Central Division

— Ben Dowsett

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Zach LaVine

Coming off an ACL injury, there still is no definitive return date for the prize jewel of the Jimmy Butler trade, but once LaVine does start suiting up for the Bulls, there won’t be any doubt who the team’s best offensive player is. Before his injury last year, LaVine was having a career season, averaging almost 19 points per game and shooting .387 from deep, and as good as Minnesota is going to be with Butler this year, they will miss LaVine’s ability to space an offense. Conversely, Fred Hoiberg hasn’t had consistent three-point shooters to play with yet in his tenure as Bulls coach, which admittedly has tarnished his “legacy” in Chicago thus far. Adding LaVine and rookie Lauri Markannen should help with that, however dismal the season may be for the team as a whole.

Top Defensive Player: Robin Lopez

Easily much too old and much too good to remain on this team too deep into the season, Lopez will serve as the Bulls’ stalwart in the paint for however much time he spends in Chicago between October and February’s trade deadline. Defensively, he does everything a traditional five is supposed to do—swatting away shots, punishing driving guards, anchoring the defensive rotations in the paint—and it shows in the advanced stats. Chicago gave up 2.3 fewer points per 100 possessions with Lopez on the floor last season. He’s not quick enough to lock down the pick-and-roll, especially when the roller is a nimbler big man, but he still is far and away the best defender the Bulls have. For now.

Top Playmaker: Kris Dunn

The Chicago Bulls don’t really have any playmakers this season. Dwyane Wade would have to be considered the closest thing to that, but he seems likely to be bought out closer to sooner than later, while the point guard corps is as dismal as any team’s in the league. The best hope for a point guard to break out at this point is Dunn, a player who did average over six assists per game as a junior at Providence a couple of years ago. He only averaged 2.1 assists per game as a reserve in Minnesota last season, so asking for a big bump may not be fair, but if he isn’t the one forcing defenses to collapse and finding open shooters, who is?

Top Clutch Player: Dwyane Wade

Someday this will be LaVine, but in the interim it’s hard to bet against the ball going into Wade’s hands when the clock is ticking down. He has hit 15 game winners over the course of his career, and even with his athleticism waning, you can’t teach chilly veins in the clutch. As long as he’s a Bull, he’s taking the last shot.

The Unheralded Player: Paul Zipser

As a former second-round pick, nobody really expected much out of Zipser, but he showed in his rookie season in Chicago that’s he much more valuable than just about anybody expected. His 5.5 points per game average in the regular season doesn’t look like much, until compared to his 7.3 points per game in the playoffs. In fact, when Chicago upset the Boston Celtics for a second straight game in the 2017 NBA Playoffs, Zipser even had a game where he poured in 16 points. He quietly started 18 games last year and should start even more this season, using his scoring ability and deep shot to carve out one of the more understated roles on the team. Goodness knows the Bulls sure could use a sophomore leap from him.

Best New Addition: Zach LaVine

If the Jimmy Butler trade is going to look at all defensible in retrospect, LaVine is going to have to find himself back on the All-Star track he appeared to be on before his injury last year. He’s a Vince Carter-level athlete who should be the Bulls best overall player before the season wraps, unquestionably, in mid-April. Being the Bulls best overall player and being good in the context of the entire league are two entirely different things, however. Chicago needs LaVine to be the latter.

— Joel Brigham

WHO WE LIKE

1. Lauri Markannen

What Markannen has done in EuroBasket this season has gotten sports fans in Chicago about 60 percent as excited as they are for rookie Chicago Bears quarterback Mitchell Trubisky, which really is saying something when we’re talking about 60 percent of infinite enthusiasm. Markannen, whose draft-day photographs are maybe the happiest draft-day photographs in the history of photographs, averaged 22.6 points and 6.2 rebounds in EuroBasket’s group phase, donning #23 in his Finnish team jersey and puttin’ a hurtin’ on defenders from all over the world. He looked great, frankly, somewhat justifying Chicago having picked him ahead of inevitable Rookie of the Year Dennis Smith, Jr. this past June. But we have yet to see how all those skills transfer to the NBA. They didn’t look great at Summer League, but he’ll have plenty of time to adjust. At the very least, it’s heartwarming to see anyone as excited as Markannen is to play for the Chicago Bulls.

2. Bobby Portis

We’ve seen flashes of what Portis can be. Game 1 of the Bulls’ playoff series against Boston last season saw Portis knock down everything in the Garden on his way to 19 points. He can potentially be a double-double guy, even though he tends to either score in double figures or rebound in double figures without doing both on the same night. To say this is a make-or-break year for him would be stating the obvious, but he’s going to get bigger minutes this year. It’s time for him to do something with them.

3. Cristiano Felicio

After getting paid $32 million this past offseason, Felicio had better be ready to make a leap of his own this year. He has averaged just 4.3 points and 4.3 rebounds per game over the course of his first two seasons, but now he is being paid like someone who can do more. He does shoot 57.3 percent from the field and has the ability and strength to improve upon those numbers, especially if Lopez ultimately is traded and Felicio becomes the team’s new full-time center and defensive cornerstone. Not everybody loved the contract, but whatever he’s getting paid, he’s in for a much bigger role this season.

4. The 2018 First-Round Draft Pick

We don’t know who this young man will be, but the dire struggles of the forthcoming season will be swallowed like a bitter pill, with this pick serving as the sweet applesauce into which that pill has been hidden for consumption. For now, Bulls fans still sleep well at night only because visions of Marvin Bagley and Michael Porter, Jr. dance in their heads like sugar plums. All this suffering will be for naught if the result isn’t a franchise-altering draft selection. Thankfully, there are four or five of those coming in the summer of 2018, and the Bulls will end up with one of them.

— Joel Brigham

SALARY CAP 101

The Bulls are in an interesting position in that they’re over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap but only have $78.4 million in actual contracts on their books. Restricted free agent Nikola Mirotic takes up $11 million. Chicago also has a trade exception worth $11.5 million for Jimmy Butler, which they partially used to acquire Quincy Pondexter from the New Orleans Pelicans. The Bulls can still get under the cap if they choose, although they cannot rescind their offer to Mirotic without his permission.

Next summer, the Bulls could near $50 million in cap room – although a multi-year deal with Mirotic could subtract from that figure. Chicago can also offer Zach LaVine an extension before the start of the current season. The team also needs to decide on 2018-19 options for Kris Dunn, Cameron Payne, Denzel Washington, Jerian Grant and Bobby Portis, with an October 31 deadline.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

Chicago has been an elite defensive team for years at this point. Even two years after Tom Thibodeau left town, Chicago still was among the best in the league last season in team defense despite everything (at least until Taj Gibson was traded), but this is an entirely new team. Chicago’s new lottery pick, Markannen, is as bad defensively as he is gifted offensively, and outside of Dunn, Felicio and Lopez, there just aren’t a lot of players who a.) like playing defense and/or b.) are any good at it. In other words, the team’s greatest strength in years past probably will not be again, which is to say the Bulls probably aren’t going to have a whole lot of strengths this year. They likely no longer are in the league’s basement in terms of three-point shooting, and they seem to put more butts in seats than another team in the league year after year, but outside of that, the only thing that will be strong after this season is the team’s draft pick.

WEAKNESSES

The other side of the coin is quite a bit larger. Point guard is, far and away, the team’s biggest weakness, with Jerian Grant already having proven he’s no more than a reserve NBA guard and Cameron Payne showing his bust inevitability within two practices of having been acquired by Chicago last winter. There are big questions about Dunn, too, and while he’s the team’s only real hope at that position, even he has more than his fair share of shortcomings, especially on the offensive end. This team is incredibly young and devoid of the talent to compete with so many quality NBA teams every night, especially in their division.

THE BURNING QUESTION

Will Chicago Set Dwyane Wade Free?

The Bulls are tanking to land a big fish in the draft next season. Unfortunately, Wade is caught up in this swirling hurricane of awfulness and wants to find his way to a new team as badly as just about any player in the league this side of Carmelo Anthony. Chicago owes him almost $24 million this year, and since nobody is trading $24 million worth of assets to bring in D-Wade on a rental, that means the only way Wade gets his freedom is via buyout. Just about anybody would suffer through just about any job for six months if it paid $24 million, but Wade still has eyes on more playoff-focused teams. Rumblings exist suggesting Chicago will let him go, but why would they pay him all that cash to go play for someone else?

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NBA

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

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

Spencer Davies

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

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

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

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

6) Joel Embiid

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

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

5) Kristaps Porzingis

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

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

4) Nikola Jokic

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

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

3) Draymond Green

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

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

2) Al Horford

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

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

1) DeMarcus Cousins

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

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

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

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NBA

Gregg Popovich Continues To Be The Gold Standard For Leadership

There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and Gregg Popovich.

Moke Hamilton

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There are three guarantees in life: death, taxes and the San Antonio Spurs.

Okay, let’s be honest, it’s probably not the first time that you’ve heard that one, but it also won’t be the last.

Behind the genius of Gregg Popovich, the Spurs have qualified for the NBA Playoffs 20 consecutive years. In hindsight, they appear to have been the only team to legitimately frighten the Golden State Warriors during their 16-1 playoff run last year, and this season, well, they’ve been the same old Spurs.

That’s been especially amazing considering the fact that the team has been without Kawhi Leonard. Although Popovich recently said that Leonard would return “sooner rather than later,” he himself admitted to not being certain as to what that meant.

Best guess from here is that Leonard will return within the next few weeks, but at this point, it’s entirely fair to wonder whether or not it even matters.

Of course, the Spurs don’t stand much of a chance to win the Western Conference without Leonard thriving at or near 100 percent, but even without him, the Spurs look every bit like a playoff team, and in the Western Conference, that’s fairly remarkable.

“A team just has to play in a sense like he doesn’t exist,” Popovich was quoted as saying by Tom Osborn of the San Antonio Express-News.

“Nobody cares if you lost a good player, right? Everybody wants to whip you. So it doesn’t do much good to do the poor me thing or to keep wondering when he is going to be back or what are we going to do. We have to play now, and other people have to take up those minutes and we have to figure out who to go to when in a different way, and you just move on.”

In a nutshell, that’s Popovich.

What most people don’t understand about Popovich is what makes him a truly great coach is his humility. He is never afraid to second-guess himself and reconsider the way that he’s accustomed to doing things. Since he’s been the head coach of the Spurs, he’s built and rebuilt offenses around not only different players, but also different philosophies.

From the inside-out attack that was his bread and butter with David Robinson and Tim Duncan to the motion and movement system that he built around Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili, the latest incarnation of Popovich’s genius isn’t only the fact that he has survived without Kawhi Leonard, it’s what could fairly be considered the major catalyst of it.

There are many head coaches around the league that take their roles as authority figures quite seriously, and that’s why a fair number would have been threatened by one of their star players requesting that things be rebuilt in a way to maximize his potential.

So when LaMarcus Aldridge proactively sat down with his coach to discuss the ways that he felt he was being misused in the team’s schemes, it wouldn’t have come as a shock for Popovich to meet him with resistance.

Instead, he did the opposite.

“We have talked about what we can do to make him more comfortable, and to make our team better,” Popovich acknowledged during Spurs training camp.

“But having said that, I think we are mostly talking about offense. Defense, he was fantastic for us. Now, we have got to help him a little bit more so that he is comfortable in his own space offensively, and I haven’t done a very good job of that.”

Just 11 days after those comments were printed, the Spurs announced that they had signed Aldridge to a three-year, $72 million extension.

Considering that Aldridge’s first two years as a member of the Spurs yielded some poor efforts and relatively low output, the extension seemed curious and was met with ridicule.

Yet, one month later and 15 games into the season, the Spurs sit at 9-6. They’ve survived the absence of Kawhi Leonard and the loss of Jonathon Simmons.

Behind an offensive system tweaked to take advantage of his gifts, in the early goings, Aldridge is averaging 22 points per game, a far cry above the 17.7 points per game he averaged during his first two years in San Antonio.

Coincidence?

I think not.

Death, taxes and the Spurs.

So long as Gregg Popovich is at the helm, exhibiting strong leadership while remaining amazingly humble, the Spurs will be the Spurs.

Sure, Kawhi Leonard will be back—at some point.

But until then, the Spurs will be just fine.

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NBA

NBA AM: Atlanta’s Dewayne Dedmon Is Letting Shots — And Jokes — Fly

Dewayne Dedmon’s emergence has been an unexpected positive for the rebuilding Atlanta Hawks.

Buddy Grizzard

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It’s been a brutal season for the Atlanta Hawks, currently 3-12 with the worst record in the Eastern Conference.

Wednesday’s franchise-record 46-point win over the visiting Sacramento Kings was a rare chance for Atlanta to have a laugh in the postgame locker room and reflect on things that have gone well, including hot shooting for the team and a potential breakout season for center Dewayne Dedmon.

The Hawks trail only the Golden State Warriors in three-point shooting at just over 40 percent. Prior to joining the Hawks, Dedmon had attempted only one three-pointer in 224 career games. As a Hawk, though, Dedmon is shooting 42 percent on 19 attempts. Atlanta coach Mike Budenholzer explained after Wednesday’s game how his staff decided to encourage Dedmon to extend his range.

“You do your research and you talk to friends around the league, you talk to people who have worked with him and you watch him during warmups,” said Budenholzer. “We had a belief, an idea, that he could shoot, he could make shots. We’re kind of always pushing that envelope with the three-point line. He’s embraced it.”

Dedmon is currently averaging career-highs in points, rebounds, blocks and minutes, and set season-highs in points (20), rebounds (14) and assists (five) against the Kings. He’s also brought an offbeat sense of humor that has helped keep the locker room loose despite the struggles. It became apparent early on that Dedmon was a different type of dude.

At Media Day, when nobody approached Dedmon’s table and reporters instead flocked to interview rookie John Collins at the next table, Dedmon joined the scrum, holding his phone out as if to capture a few quotes.

“This guy’s going to be a character,” said a passing Hawks staffer.

Those words proved prophetic, as Coach Bud confirmed after Wednesday’s win.

“He brings a lot of personality to our team, really from almost the day he got here,” said Budenholzer. “I think he’s getting more and more comfortable and can help the young guys and help everybody.”

Dedmon took an unconventional path to the NBA. Growing up, his mother — a Jehovah’s Witness — forbade him to play organized sports. Once he turned 18, Dedmon began making his own decisions. He walked on to the team at Antelope Valley College, a two-year school in Lancaster, Ca., before transferring to USC and eventually making it to the league.

His personality, which formed while Dedmon forged his own path, shone through in the locker room after the Sacramento win. Asked about conversations he’s had with Budenholzer about shot selection, Dedmon turned to teammate Kent Bazemore at the adjacent locker.

“What’s the phrase, Baze? LTMF?”

“Yep,” Bazemore replied.

“Yeah, LTMF,” Dedmon continued. “Let it fly. So he told me to shoot … let it go. I’m not going to say what the M means.”

Amidst laughter from the assembled media, he explained that ‘LTMF’ is Budenholzer’s philosophy for the whole team, not just part of an effort to expand Dedmon’s game.

“Everybody has the same freedom,” said Dedmon. “So it definitely gives everybody confidence to shoot their shots when they’re open and just play basketball.”

With the injury bug thus far robbing Atlanta of its stated ambition to overachieve this season, Dedmon’s career year and team success from three-point range are two big positives.

Rebuilding or retooling can be a painful process. But with a unique personality like Dedmon helping keep things light in the locker room, Atlanta should make it through.

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