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Whoa! A feature?? Yes, yes a feature because we’re about to enter a crucial point in the Atlanta Hawks’ season. These next two weeks… these next two weeks could determine whether the Hawks are going to be legitimate contenders for home court advantage (the three and four seeds) or whether they’re going to be in a dogfight with, like, seven other teams all jostling for playoff position, or the playoffs in general.
Let’s look at the upcoming schedule over the next two weeks and we’ll chat more then.
The second night of a back-to-back game usually requires much more production from a bench. The Hawks bench, currently ranked fifth in bench scoring, has been one of the league’s best thus far. In their sixth straight victory they defeated the Milwaukee Bucks 107-100 without the services of Dwight Howard (quad) and Thabo Sefolosha (knee). The starters appeared sluggish and out of sync in the first quarter, shooting just 35 percent from the field, prompting Coach Budenholzer to quickly turn to his backups.
The Hawks began the second quarter trailing 26-21 until a SportsCenter top-10 dunk along the baseline by rookie Taurean Prince jumpstarted a 19-0 run.
“I thought Tauren was great,” Budenholzer said postgame. “Just the physicality he plays with, the aggressiveness he plays with, really gave us a big boost on both ends of the court.”
“That was really nice,” said Mike Muscala of Prince’s dunk. “I was pretty surprised, I did not see that coming. He’s going to be a really good player.”
Picked 12th in this year’s draft, many may have been expecting more appearances this season from Prince. However, with a veteran like Sefolosha that Bud can trust and the sharp shooting Tim Hardaway Jr has displayed, Prince has been forced to remain patient, but ready. He was just that on Wednesday night, logging eight points, five rebounds and two blocks in 19 minutes of action.
“In my opinion the best teacher is experience,” Prince said. ” For me to get out there with the guys. We put in a lot of hard work behind the scenes that people don’t see. I am ready for the opportunity, whatever opportunity I can continue to get, I will continue to take advantage of it.”
The opportunities will be fed to Prince gradually as the season progresses under a Budenholzer that has a tendency to keep young wings on a short leash. Tim Hardaway Jr and Kent Bazemore both are examples of what happens when a organization takes time in laying out a program that makes a concerted effort to truly deduce — to a science — a player’s strengths and weaknesses, along with what steps need to be taken in order for him to maximize his talent.
“Just another testament of the Atlanta Hawks player development system,” said Bazemore on Prince’s play on Wednesday night. “A guy works hard every day and when he gets his name called he’s ready. That’s one of his [Taurean] greatest attributes is he’s fearless, he’s out there chirping, hitting people, finishing above the rim and that’s his game. It’s good when you can get a young fella this early in his career and be that confident.”
Confidence is what got him to the league — it’s part of what drew the Hawks to him and it’s also how he will gain minutes going further. The untapped potential he possesses, along with his high tenacity level, is a coach’s dream, especially to a true teacher of the game like Budenholzer. Prince, like any other rookie, is still grasping schemes, counters and what making the right play at this level entails, but if Wednesday night is any indication, his ascension has only just hit its genesis.
His dunk is a must see, a show stopper and one of the most exciting plays the Hawks have executed this year. But that alone won’t keep him on the floor — playing the Hawks’ brand of basketball will.
“Anybody that comes into our team you kind of have to learn how we play, said Korver. Its not about just having talent and attacking the basket, there’s a method to the madness. He’s got a lot of natural ability and talent. For him, I told him at half time his best play was when he drove to the basket and whipped it to Tim for the shot. I told him that was your best play, not the big awesome dunk that you had, which was incredible. He’s just got to keep feeling how we play and I think that is a great play to go back and review.”
It’s time. After a whole summer of talking and a little bit of action in the preseason, it’s time for Atlanta Hawks basketball — proper. This Thursday, at Philips Arena, the Hawks tip off their season against the Washington Wizards. And let’s be honest, we have no idea how this Hawks team is going to fare this season in the Eastern Conference. We’ll get to why that is in a bit, but first let’s go over what the Hawks did this summer and we’ll take it from there.
In: Dwight Howard, Malcolm Delaney
Out: Al Horford, Jeff Teague, Kirk Hinrich,
Drafted: Taurean Prince, DeAndre’ Bembry
For better or for worse?
Al Horford is gone — gone because the Hawks didn’t want to max him (and not even the max as it turned out) for five years and gone because he wasn’t the front office’s top priority. It’s as simple as that. Jeff Teague requested a trade, that was granted and now he resides in Indiana. The two most important positions on the court are, arguably, the point guard and center positions and now the Hawks have to plug in new players into those respective positions. That’s always a concern heading into a new season, especially for a team that preached continuity at the end of the season.
To replace Horford and Teague the Hawks added Dwight Howard and gave the point guard reigns to Dennis Schröder.
I still believe that Schröder is not ready to be a starting point guard in this league. I feel he’s still too erratic and one of those players where he’ll do something and you’ll sit there and think “What the flip was that, Dennis???”. And that happens often too. I also worry about his shooting. One of the better things Teague did last year was shoot 40 % from behind the arc — a team best. Schröder shot 32% from behind the arc. Offensively, Jeff just makes better decisions and is a better offensive player than Dennis. But the one thing Dennis does have going for him is his defense — his defense is absolutely ready for a starting role and he should improve the team at the point guard position from a defensive point of view. I still think it’s too soon though…
The Atlanta Hawks, historically, have had trouble acquiring star power via free agency. And in a summer where Kevin Durant and the Golden State Warriors shook the NBA to its core, Dwight Howard hardly seems to qualify.
But Howard’s return to his hometown—where were first introduced to the 6-foot-10 slender teenage with a Hollywood smile in a no. 12 Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy jersey—couldn’t have come at a better time.
The front office was unable or unwilling to come to terms with Al Horford on a long term deal, and Howard’s signing a three-year deal was good insurance for their franchise cornerstone’s eventual departure to the Boston Celtics. The move lets Atlanta remain competitive now without tying up the cap over a longer period of time.
Now, the Hawks job isn’t done. Paul Millsap and Kyle Korver still remain from the All-star foursome selected to represent Atlanta in New York a year ago. Kent Bazemore played the best basketball of his career this season and will return after signing a four-year $70 million dollar deal, and a confident Dennis Schroder steps into the starting point guard spot. But Atlanta still has a dearth of elite shot creation, and, even if Schroder takes a leap as the starting point guard, there’s still a lack of depth behind him. But perhaps Howard diving hard in pick and rolls can generate more gravity than Horford or Millsap were able to muster working from the elbows.
And though Atlanta already had a quality defense, maybe Howard’s different defensive skill set allows the team to shore up some weaknesses that appeared in the playoffs the past two seasons.
As the 2nd best defensive team in the league, you would be hard pressed to find a glaring weakness. Dwight’s biggest impact defensively will be providing rim protection for a team that ranked 2nd in rim protection field goal percentage holding a opponents to 44.9%. Atlanta also ranked first in blocks, defensive rebounds and field goal percentage defending 2 pointers. However, what we found out against bigger, longer, athletic teams like the Cleveland Cavaliers (swept) and Milwaukee Bucks (1-2 regular season series record) is that Atlanta doesn’t have the athletes to match.
Lebron is unstoppable when he has a full head of steam headed towards the basket, but the lack of size and shot blocking ability is apparent
Frye gets to the pain and because of his length there is no shot any Hawk has to contest.
As an individual, Dwight’s presence on the defensive end is far more imposing than Horford’s or Millsap; so opposing players are certainly more careful attempting a shot around the basket. Last season, when facing the champion Cleveland Cavaliers, Dwight’s defensive field goal percentage contesting shots less than 6 feet was 33.33%(2 games), compared to Al Horford’s 66.7%( 3 games). Watching Tristan Thompson gather several offensive rebounds for 2nd chance points throughout the semifinals was a reminder that Atlanta ranked 18th in that department, another area Howard’s 8.4 defensive rebounds per game will come in handy as opposed to Horford’s 5.5.
Tristan Thompson out hustles entire Hawks frontcourt using his instincts and leaping ability. Two attributes Dwight uses when rebounding the ball.
Dwight howard rebounding activity
Budenholzer will have to tweak the scheme just a tad bit in order to fully capitalize off of Dwight’s strengths by not allowing him too far away from the basket as Horford might off been at times. Now not saying Howard doesn’t have the capability to cover a guard off a pick n roll for a couple seconds, but it’s not exactly his comfort zone. Luckily for him he will be playing with a supporting cast that is instructed to wreak havoc on the perimeter in order to reduce easy driving lanes to the rim. Nevertheless, Howard is one of the best erasers in this league and has been for quiet some time.
Howard protecting the rim
The former three-time Defensive Player of the Year leaves an offense first, second, and then defense third mentality in Houston for one of the best defensive coaches in the league.
The Hawks finished in the top three in defensive rating over the past two seasons. What Budenholzer has done is highly impressive, given the lack of size and rebounding capabilities on the roster, and now he has a game-changing player with the ability to shore up both of those deficiencies. Atlanta has sorely missed that imposing presence anchoring the defense, sort of similar to what Tyson Chandler meant to those Dallas Maverick teams.
Al Horford and Paul Millsap did all they could in conjunction with a perimeter group who swarmed ball handlers with pressure defense to speed offenses up and out of their comfort zone, but they still lacked great size on the frontline. Howard is a rim protecting presence who should allow defenders to scramble less, maintain the integrity of their rotations, and clean the glass.
Another important note is that due to Budenholzer’s all hands on deck philosophy, he should be able to keep Howard’s minutes in check.
Over the past couple seasons Dwight has not looked like the Superman we saw in Orlando, and much of that can be attributed to injuries (knees and back) and poor coaching philosophies he was forced to endure. However, he is not absolved of blame. Defense is all about effort and he looked disengaged at times last season. The injuries are something Atlanta is taking a risk on, but the mental stability is much more concerning. Howard discussed the situation in Houston on Inside the NBA on TNT during the playoffs.
“As a big, sometimes you want to feel a part of what’s going on,” Howard said on TNT. “If I could bring the ball up the court, shoot threes, go between the legs and do all that stuff, that would be great. But I have to rely on my teammates to get the ball. Now, there have been times where I’ve been upset and I’ve taken myself out of games in situations, and that’s on me. I have to grow to be a better player at that.”
Howard played 71 games and the entire first round, so the issue as much a mental block as physical. He averaged just 13.7 points per game, the second lowest of his career, on just 8.5 field goals a game, on a team that took 7,392 regular season threes during his tenure.
He now joins a philosophy that believes in ball movement and has shown they don’t mind playing through their bigs as Atlanta averaged the most post touches last season with 19.8 a game—two factors I’m sure played a large part in his decision. Howard will certainly find much more comfort playing with a willing passer in Dennis Schroder, especially in pick and roll situations, which will force defenses into a tough circumstance with shooters like Korver and Bazemore spotting up.
Howard in Pick and Roll
Howard rolling to rim
Schroder is much more prone to use picks to create better looks for his own scoring options. Last year he ranked third in frequency of using the pick and roll with a 54% rating, two spots above Chris Paul, and having five of his 11 points per game come from that play type. At this point in his career he is not threat to defenses shooting the ball and typically uses the likes of Millsap and Horford’s offensive prowess to his advantage. During Wednesday’s press conference Howard stated that Dennis reminds him “of a bigger Rondo.” And said that the pick and roll game with both of them will be hard to defend.
Schroder to Horford
Howard may not be the midrange shooter that Horford was for Atlanta, but he certainly is just as effective rolling to the rim awaiting a pass from a point guard. Even with the lack of touches he this past season, Howard still shot 60% as a roll man during it all. If you have watched him long enough you understand that he’s quiet comfortable in pick and rolls, but the real questions lie in the post. We were all optimistic when he walked into los Angeles to work with all time leading scorer Kareem Abdul Jabaar, but that soon faded after he battled a bad back all season long and never quiet got in sync with Mike Dantoni. He then heads to Houston where 3-time NBA champion Kevin Mchale and the masterful footwork teachings of Hakeem Olajuwon’s awaited him, but that too never manifested.
So for Atlanta, barring any vast improvement in his low post scoring ability, Dwight is already one of the top offensive rebounders in the league, which can be a source for points, but he will be most successful in Atlanta’s offense stationed closer to the basket (he shot 69.6% from less than 5 feet last season) feeding off the playmaking ability from his teammates, rather if it’s a drive and dish or off a pick and roll. Budenholzer will still need to call his number for post ups, but idea is not to exhaust him too much by demanding he create his own offense majority of the time. Although the playing style was not in his favor last year, just 244 of his 976 points came from post ups.
Another luxury Howard now has is that this scheme also encourages interior passing between its bigs to create easier scoring opportunities—a similar scheme is currently ran on the Los Angles Clippers between Blake Griffin and Deandre Jordan whenever they play two-man game from a hi-low or pick and roll setting. Millsap is a better floor spacer than Griffin, and close enough of as a passer.
Here we see a series of clips showing Blake Griffins passing abilities in the Hi-Lo situations.
Dwight did share time on the floor with a passing forward in Josh Smith; and Hi-Lo situations is something he’s shown no problem excelling in like Deandre Jordan.
Millsap to Horford
Howard is now 30 years old with a history of injuries and enough drama to fill a Netflix series. The Hawks, on the court, have been a stable franchise in recent years in search of a catalyst to hit a higher ceiling. Beginning a new chapter, Howard will now wear #8 in hopes that a return to his Atlanta roots will be just what his career needed. Recently, Howard spoke with the Atlanta Journal–Constitution about the ultimate goal in Atlanta and his motivation preparing for next season.
“I want to do whatever I can to bring a championship home,” Howard said Tuesday, “I know it’s not going to be easy. I’ve worked extremely hard this summer, every summer. I’m very motivated. I’m really ticked off about last season. I’m looking forward to coming back with a different mentality.”
Feature Image: Source: Kevin C. Cox/Getty Images North America)
There’s one thing I love about the NBA: when the action on the court finally ends, the NBA keeps going. And it comes thick and fast too. Game 7 of The Finals took place on June 19th, the NBA Draft just took place last Thursday (June 23rd) and now we’re about to head into the free agency period, beginning July 1st.
In free agency, you’re always treading in murky waters, but more so than ever this summer. Why? The salary cap is set to rise from $70 million to a whopping $94 million, with the salary floor (the figure of expenditure that teams have to reach) reportedly believed to be $84 million. Most teams are set to have at least $20 million in cap space, so teams are going to be throwing money left, right, and center.
It’s going to be fascinating to see how it all plays out, but what about for the Hawks? What’s their situation heading into free agency?
“What we have, we hold”?
The Hawks’ summer — just as it was last year — is set to be a very busy one. Franchise cornerstone Al Horford is an unrestricted free agent for the first time in his career, while Kent Bazemore is also hitting the market off the heels of his best season in the NBA. We’ll get to the Hawks’ other free agents later, but it’s all about Horford and Bazemore.
Let’s start with Horford, Atlanta’s cornerstone, and I have some things to say to his naysayers.
Look, I’ll be the first to admit that Al is not the greatest rebounding center out there. And I get it, Hassan Whiteside is a better rebounder, but if you think Hassan Whiteside is a better player — more so the idea that the Hawks are better off with Whiteside than they are with Horford — then you’re out of your mind.
General question I like to ask when it comes to free agency: is there a player available on the market who is better than the player you’re considering letting go? In this case, the answer is no. As an overall package, there is NO CENTER better than Al Horford on the market this summer. None. Continue Reading…