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The Big 3: Hawks, Award Races and Play of the Week

This week’s Big 3 features the sneaky Hawks, award races and a slick Play of the Week.

Ben Dowsett



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Welcome to The Big 3, where we convene to break down three notable stories, features or plays from the week that was in the NBA. This week’s edition features the Atlanta Hawks’ strange trajectory, a wide-open awards race and a Play of the Week to help illustrate the value of spacing in the NBA. Let’s get started!

  1. The Hawks, Inscrutable

When Atlanta sent Kyle Korver to the Cleveland Cavaliers a couple weeks ago for a return package that was effectively just a future first-round pick, it appeared the writing was on the wall. The Hawks were in the midst of a disappointing year where they were merely fighting for a playoff spot rather than potentially locking up a home series in the first round like some had expected and Korver move was expected to be the first domino in a series of tear-down moves that dropped them fully out of contention and focused on the future.

Things were already changing at the time they made the move, though, and they’ve kept changing. The Hawks had won four straight before dealing Korver, a streak which would eventually reach seven straight and nine of 10 once he was gone. They now sit in that once-elusive home playoff seed – they’d be fourth in the East if the season ended today.

There are a few ways to look at this from the Hawks’ standpoint. This stretch of schedule looked pretty friendly for Atlanta for weeks leading up to it, so could these recent wins just be an expected part of the deal? Maybe, but recent rumors that star forward Paul Millsap was now off the trading block make it seem as though perhaps their decision-making changed somewhere along the line.

If that’s the case, the options are a little juicier. Is it possible the Hawks were originally planning a major fire sale, but pivoted quickly due to their strong run? Even juicier, is it possible that Korver’s absence suddenly made certain staffers realize the team might be better without him? It sounds a bit crazy, but Korver’s level has definitely slipped this year and the team was performing much better with him on the bench while he was in town.

Or maybe this was the plan all along. Maybe the Hawks saw the writing on the wall with Korver and figured the best way to get real value for him was to frame a trade as the first domino in a rebuild before pulling back on their other assets. It’s a savvy bit of maneuvering if so, and one that could set the Hawks up better for the future.

We’ll never know for sure, and it’s likely the answer is some combination of these theories. No matter what, tracking the Hawks for the rest of the year – and especially up to the trade deadline – will be interesting.

  1. Wide-Open Races

Joel Embiid has liquefied the Rookie of the Year race before it even got started and Giannis Antetokounmpo seems to be running away with Most Improved Player. Still, there are several other big end-of-season award races which, as of just over halfway through the season, still feel close to wide-open.

The MVP race has felt like a two-man job for most of the year, but squint hard enough and there are some cracks in the cases of both Russell Westbrook and James Harden. The Oklahoma City Thunder are beginning to slide a bit in the standings, now jostling with Memphis for the 6-seed and three full games back of Utah for anything higher than that – it’s historically nearly impossible to win the MVP on a team that’s not at least hosting a home playoff series in the first-round.

In Harden’s case, the Houston Rockets’ prolific success while their star is off the floor (a situation not duplicated by guys like Westbrook or LeBron James) has some whispering about “value” conversations despite his amazing production. Those two still lead the pack, to be sure. But with Kevin Durant putting up a ridiculously efficient season for the league-best Warriors, James still functioning as Cleveland’s only on-court hope at regularly winning basketball games and names like Leonard, Thomas and Lowry lurking in the wings, don’t count any chickens here yet.

Rudy Gobert and Draymond Green likely lead Defensive Player of the Year, but it’s neck-and-neck between the two and dark horses like Kawhi Leonard and DeAndre Jordan still loom if their teams have strong second halves defensively. Coach of the Year could go about 10 different ways – it would seem like Mike D’Antoni and Dave Fizdale are near the top of the heap for now, but guys like Gregg Popovich, Steve Kerr, Dwane Casey, Ty Lue and Quin Snyder could all deserve the spot depending on who you ask.

For Sixth Man of the Year, it would appear Eric Gordon and Enes Kanter are among the favorites. But who can count out Lou Williams or Jamal Crawford at any point? Does anyone ever have any clue who’s winning Executive of the Year until it happens?

All of this is without even getting into various All-NBA teams, which could create as much noise as ever this year due to their potential attachment to Designated Player contracts in the newly-signed CBA. It’s going to be fun to track several of these races as we close in on April and May.

  1. Play of the Week

If you still think of the NBA’s shooting revolution as nothing but a lazy replacement for “purer” kinds of basketball, there are dozens of reasons why the game left you behind years ago. One of the strongest? Three-pointers directly influence dunks and layups, the more “traditional” great shots purists continually yell themselves hoarse about.

There’s no better team to illustrate this than the league’s three-point poster boys, the Golden State Warriors. The Warriors launch a ton of triples, but they supplement their unparalleled shooting arsenal with smart plays designed to leverage that shooting into free points – and they do it using a bit of nitty-gritty Xs and Os.

The common tactics for defending Stephen Curry when he handles the ball in pick-and-roll have mostly been tried and tested down to two methods most opponents take: Either they blitz him with both his defender and the screener’s defender, forcing the ball out of his hands earlier, or they simply switch the screen and live with whatever damage Curry does to a bigger defender. The other main option – defending him conservatively and dropping the big man back into the paint like many teams do against most pick-and-rolls – is suicide, as it leaves Curry an open pull-up three anytime he wants.

For teams who choose to blitz or trap Curry with both pick-and-roll defenders, the Warriors have a wrinkle to get an even higher expected point value out of the play. They use a tactic called “shorting” the pick-and-roll – let’s see who can spot it on first viewing.

As Curry is rounding his pick set by JaVale McGee, it’s clear the Kings are looking to trap him with Kosta Koufos, who was guarding McGee. At the same time, note Draymond Green (left side of the screen) moving from a standard weak side dunker position over to the opposite, strong side:

The biggest obstacle in this play is honestly Curry getting the ball out over two defenders, and he generally does just fine given his craftiness. Here, by the time the ball is leaving his hands, look at the head start McGee has on Koufos:

Draymond catches the ball on the right block – there’s no effort from Rudy Gay, guarding Andre Iguodala in the strong side corner, to interrupt the pass to Green, which might have been Sacramento’s last actual chance at stopping this play. Instead, Green (one of the best taller passers in the league) and McGee are two-on-one with the helpless Anthony Tolliver:

The Warriors are smart and detail-oriented – note in the above still how Klay Thompson is the guy spacing the floor on the weak side, meaning his defender, Garrett Temple (17 in black), can’t sell out helping McGee, lest he risk a wide open three for Thompson. As a result, McGee gets the easy two points. Watch it again:

Before you rip on the three-pointer next time, remember that it’s all connected.


Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.


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NBA Daily: Georges Niang’s Big Break

After dominating the G-League for a year, Georges Niang has more than earned this big opportunity with the Utah Jazz, writes Ben Nadeau.

Ben Nadeau



For Georges Niang, reaching professional stability was always going to be a tall order.

Even after four dominant seasons at Iowa State, the tweener forward was viewed as a draft risk. At 6-foot-8, the versatile playmaker has always scored in bunches but also struggled to find his place in the modern NBA. Despite excelling as a knockdown three-point shooter, the fundamentally sound Niang has bounced around the country looking for a long-term opportunity.

In the two seasons since he was drafted, Niang has played in 50 G-League games for three separate franchises and had his non-guaranteed contract waived twice.

As a summer league standout for the second straight offseason, Niang’s determined efforts officially paid off last week after he signed a three-year deal with the Utah Jazz worth about $5 million. Now with a fully-guaranteed contract under his belt for 2018-19, Niang has been eager to prove his worth both on and off the court — a newfound skill-set he happily attributes to Utah’s excellent system.

“In the Jazz organization, from top to bottom, they do a good job of nurturing guys and forming them into good leaders and things like that,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, it was really easy to transition to summer league, [I’m] really just trying to lead by example, not with just my words.

“And I think playing hard, being a good teammate and doing the right thing –I think those are three things that the Jazz really stand for.”

But his meandering path toward year-long job security wasn’t destined to end up this way — no, not at all.

Selected by the Indiana Pacers in the 2016 NBA Draft with the No. 50 overall pick, Niang was correctly projected as a hard-working, high-IQ contributor that could put up points on almost anybody. Unfortunately, following a low-impact rookie year with the Pacers — and some short stints with their G-League affiliate, the Fort Wayne Mad Ants, as well — Niang was waived the ensuing summer. Shortly thereafter, Niang latched on with the Golden State Warriors, where he participated in training camp and four preseason games — but, again, he was waived before the season began.

With the Santa Cruz Warriors, Niang flat-out dominated the competition for months, up until he grabbed a two-way contract from Utah in January. In total, Niang played in 41 games between Santa Cruz and the Salt Lake City Stars in 2017-18, averaging 19.7 points, 6.7 rebounds, 4.3 assists and 1.1 steals on 45.7 percent from deep over 33.9 minutes per game.

Once attached to Utah’s affiliate franchise, Niang averaged a team-high 22 points per game and finished the campaign as the 13th-best scorer in the G-League. On top of all that, Niang was both an All-Star and honored with a spot on the All-NBA G-League First Team at season’s end.

Although he would ultimately play in just nine games for the deep Western Conference roster, Niang was simply laying important groundwork for the days ahead.

This summer, Niang averaged 16.7 points, 5.7 rebounds and 2.3 assists in three contests during Utah Summer League. Given the golden opening to impress his future would-be-employers, Niang kept things rolling in Sin City and posted similar numbers over five games. On the back of a 20-point, eight-rebound performance early on in Las Vegas, Niang embraced the chance to fight and compete for his team — five full days before the Jazz signed him to a guaranteed deal.

“It was a real physical game, but those are the games you want to play in during summer league,” Niang said. “You want to play in those types of environments, where every possession matters and you gotta make plays down the stretch — and I think we did a really good job doing that.”

Those scrappy aspirations have been a staple of Niang’s since his collegiate days at Iowa State, too. During an ultra-impressive senior year, Niang tallied 20.5 points, 6.2 rebounds and 3.3 assists per game for the Cyclones, leading their roster to 23 wins and an eventual trip to the Sweet Sixteen. That season, Niang took home the 2016 Karl Malone Award as Division-I’s top power forward and finished with 2,228 points, the second-best mark in school history.

Any way you slice it, whether at college or in the G-League, Niang can play, the moment just needs to reveal itself — and maybe it finally has.

Of course, this new contract — one that’s only fully guaranteed in 2018-19 — doesn’t ensure Niang any playing time and he’ll have some stiff competition. Just to get on the court, he’ll need to squeeze minutes from Derrick Favors, Jae Crowder and Joe Ingles — a tough task in head coach Quin Snyder’s defense-first rotation. No matter what his role or obligations end up amounting to, Niang is ready to meet that challenge head-on.

“In the NBA, everyone has a role,” Niang told Basketball Insiders. “So, obviously, things are gonna be peeled back and you’ll have a defined role. My role is just when I get the ball, and if I do, play-make for others or get guys open, defend multiple positions, play multiple positions on offense and knock down open shots.”

Although his past resume certainly speaks for itself, it’ll be up to Niang take his big break even further. But given his efficiency and execution at every other level, there’s little reason to doubt the forward now. Days before they signed Niang, he was asked if Utah was somewhere he could see himself for the foreseeable future — his response was precise and foreboding.

“I’d love to be here — what [the Jazz] stand for is what I’m all about. I’ve had a blast with all these guys and I’d love to keep it going.”

And now, he’ll get at least 82 more games to make his case.

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NBA Daily: The Carmelo Anthony Trade is a Rare Win-Win for All Involved

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation.

Shane Rhodes



The Big Three Era in Oklahoma City came and went rather quickly.

On Thursday, the Thunder reached an agreement to trade Carmelo Anthony and a protected 2022 first-round draft pick to the Atlanta Hawks for guard Dennis Schröder, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN. As part of a three-team deal with the Philadelphia 76ers, the Thunder will also walk away with Timothé Luwawu-Cabarrot while the Hawks and 76ers swap Mike Muscala and Justin Anderson.

It is rare for a trade to be beneficial for all parties, but the Thunder-Hawks-76ers swap has the makings of a win-win-win situation. Just as well, the trade is perhaps even more beneficial for the players involved.

While Anthony may have wanted to stay with Russell Westbrook and Paul George, the trade is more than beneficial for him. After the trade goes through, the Hawks plan to buyout Anthony’s contract and he will reportedly receive the entire $27.9 million he is owed next season. Even better still, Anthony is free to join any team he wants, whether it be the Houston Rockets and friend Chris Paul, the Los Angeles Lakers and friend LeBron James, or elsewhere.

With his money already in hand, Anthony could sign on the cheap as well, making negotiations with any franchise that much easier.

For the Thunder, clearing Anthony’s massive salary from their books was of paramount importance. Staring down a $150 million luxury tax bill, Sam Presti managed to move Anthony and improve the team or, at the very least, make a lateral move depending on how you look at Schröder. Even as they take back the remaining $46.5 million owed to Schröder, the Thunder will save more than $60 million next season alone. That makes the trade worth it for Oklahoma City all by itself.

Still, the move allowed them to fill a need, perhaps more important than the cash savings as they look ahead to next season. Schröder not only fortifies the Thunder bench but the point guard position behind starter Russell Westbrook as well; he is another athletic playmaker that Oklahoma City can play on the wing with confidence. And, after averaging a career-high 19.4 points per game to go along with 6.2 assists last season, Schröder provides the Thunder offense with more firepower to compete against the other top teams in the Western Conference, a necessity if they hope to make a long playoff run.

For Schröder, the move to Oklahoma City is just as beneficial for him as it is for the team. Schröder is no longer the starter (he was unlikely to be the starter in Atlanta with Trae Young in the fold), but he can still make an impact and now he can do so for a contender.

The Hawks, as they should be, are playing the long game here. They acquired Jeremy Lin, an expiring contract, from the Brooklyn Nets earlier this offseason. After drafting Young, their guard surplus afforded them the chance to move Schröder’s deal off their books, netting them a first-round pick in the process and opening up playing time for the Young right away.

While the pick is top-14 protected (the pick becomes two second rounders if it doesn’t convey in 2022, every asset counts as the Hawks will look to add talent through the draft for years to come. With the addition of the Thunder pick, the Hawks now are owed an extra three first-round picks between the 2019 and 2022 drafts, a benefit for the Hawks whether they use those picks or trade them for already established talent. Meanwhile, Anderson, 24, presents another intriguing, and more importantly, young, option alongside the core of Young, Kevin Huerter, John Collins and Taurean Prince.

Anderson will almost certainly receive more playing time in Atlanta as they figure out who and who can’t help the team. His time in Philadelphia was mired by injury and he never had the opportunity to show what he could do. So, whether they use him as an asset in a future trade or plan to keep him on the roster, Anderson, at the very least, will have the opportunity to show what he can do.

For the 76ers, Muscala is essentially insurance for the reneged deal with Nemanja Bjelica. Bjelica agreed to terms on a one-year deal with the team but the stretch-four never signed his contract and backed out of the deal. With him out of the picture along with losing Ersan Ilyasova, Muscala was one of the few remaining options for the 76ers in that specific, stretch-big role.

Muscala doesn’t have the same shooting chops that Bjelica has, but he is younger and might have more upside alongside Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons and co. Last season, Muscala, in addition to career highs in points and rebounds, averaged a career-high 3.2 three-pointers per game and hit 37.1 percent of them. While he likely won’t see the playing time he saw in Atlanta, Muscala should easily slide into a role off the bench for the 76ers. Moving Anderson and Luwawu-Cabarrot clears a logjam on the wing as well and will afford more minutes to Markelle Fultz (when he is ready), T.J. McConnell and rookies Zhaire Smith and Furkan Korkmaz.

As it stands, this trade made sense for all parties involved, and that alone is reason enough to consider it a win all around. While things could certainly change and hindsight is 20/20, this deal is beneficial for all three teams right now and could positively impact all three squads both next season and beyond.

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NBA Daily: Grayson Allen Ready for NBA Challenge

Making it in the NBA alone is quite an impressive feat, which is why Grayson Allen is doing the best he can to prepare for the big stage.

Matt John



Grayson Allen may not be the most hyped-up prospect to come out of this year’s draft, but he is one of the more experienced rookies coming into the league this season.

Allen spent four years learning under the tutelage of Coach K at Duke University while also playing with the likes of Brandon Ingram, Jayson Tatum, and Marvin Bagley III. He’s been through it all at the collegiate level, but he knows that if he’s going to make it in the pros, he’s going to have to adapt as quickly as possible.

“I have to set the tone for myself where I have to know playing in the NBA as a rookie, guys are going to be physical with you,” Allen said. “They’re going to come at you, they’re going to test you and see what you got. You’re gonna get beat. You’re gonna fail, but you gotta come right back at ‘em the next time.”

Since debuting in the summer league, Allen’s been the perfect storm for the Jazz. His shooting numbers have not been encouraging, but his numbers across the board have shown how impactful a player he can be. These have been his stat lines in both the Salt Lake and Las Vegas summer leagues.

July 2 vs. San Antonio: 11 points on 4/16 shooting including 2/6 from three, eight rebounds, seven assists
July 5 vs. Atlanta: 9 points on 2/13 shooting including 0/2 from three, six rebounds, eight assists
July 7 vs. Portland: 16 points on 6/17 shooting including 2/9 from three, six rebounds, six assists
July 19 vs. Miami: 17 points on 7/17 shooting including ⅕ from three, seven rebounds, three assists

Maybe it’s been the dry climate, or maybe it’s been the high Utah elevation that has caused Allen’s struggles shooting-wise, but the fact that his all-around game has shined despite his shooting woes should excite the Jazz. After his summer league play, Allen says the biggest adjustment he’s had to make offensively is acclimating himself with the pace of the game.

“Offensively, it’s a lot easier when you slow down,” Allen said. “I’m starting to see the space of the floor a lot better and finding the open guys. There’s still a few plays out there where I think I got a little antsy but it’s human nature and I’m trying to fight it right now. As a rookie playing in his first couple of games, I’m trying to fight that and play under control.”

On the other side of the ball, Allen says the biggest adjustment is the increased level of physicality in the pros.

“Defensively, it’s physical,” Allen said. “You gotta fight guys. You gotta get through screens. I mean, the bigs, they really set great screens, so you gotta be able to fight through that… If you’re tired on defense, they’ll find you.”

Allen knows that he needs to commit if he’s going to make it in the NBA, which requires eliminating all bad habits. In order to eliminate any habit that Allen has, which in his case is fatigue at the moment, Allen believes that he needs to be more mindful of himself when he’s physically drained.

“I try to be really self-aware of my habits when I get tired out there,” Allen said. “On defense, I have a habit when I’m tired, I stand up and my feet are flat. On offense, I’m not ready for the shot… I try to be really self-aware of that stuff so that in practice or in August, September, October, leading up to the regular season, I can have good habits when I’m tired because we got a short leash as a rookie. You don’t have many mistakes to make.”

In Utah, Allen will be playing for a team that exceeded all expectation last year and has a much higher bar to reach this season. He believes the summer the league should serve him well as he fights for minutes in the Jazz’ rotation.

“I’m joining a playoff team, so I gotta carve out a role with the guys they already have,” Allen said. “When I’m playing in summer league, I’m trying to play the right way. Don’t take too many tough shots, find the right guy, make the right pass.- Because when you come and play for Quin Snyder, that’s what he’s gonna want. He’s just gonna want you to play the right way.”

When Adam Silver announced that Utah was taking Allen with the 21st overall pick, the general masses laughed due to Utah, a state with a white-bread reputation, took a white player. Given that Allen just played four years of basketball at one of the best college basketball programs in the nation and will be starting his career playing for one of the most well-run organizations in the league, he may be the one laughing when it’s all over.

In other words, Grayson Allen playing in Utah could be quite the trip.

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