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John Collins, standing at an undersized 6’10”, has matched up with some of the biggest bodies this league has to offer—like Dwight Howard, Timofey Mozgov, Dirk Nowitzi and Timofey Mozgov—in the first few games of his career. Collins received his first heavy dose on October 9th, when he was tasked with boxing out 7’1″, 255-pound bruiser Marc Gasol. Good luck with that, right? Despite the disadvantage, he snagged eight boards. Shocking to some, but not to those fully aware of his rebounding prowess.

Collins doesn’t just feel as if its his responsibility to rebound—he takes pride in it.

“Of course I take pride in it,” Collins said. “Part of being a great defending team is getting stops and finishing the play with a rebound. It is really important to me. Using my athletic ability regardless of the matchup on the offensive or defensive glass.”

Take a look his draft reports and you’ll find scouts raving about his motor, low post scoring ability and, most importantly, his rebounding. Atlanta has finished in the bottom half of the league in rebounding twice over the last three years—they placed ninth last season primarily due to Dwight Howard’s expertise.

Obviously Howard is gone, but Collins is demonstrating, in his mere 19 minutes per game, that Atlanta has acquired yet another force on the boards.

Last Friday night’s home opener was no different, as he found himself battling with Denver’s 6’10”, 255-pound Nikola Jokic and 6’11”, 255-pound Mason Plumlee on several occasions. Collins scrapped and scrapped all night long until he was able grab eight rebounds. On a night when he shared the floor with Kenneth Faried, another relentless worker on the glass, Collins showed in many instances that he has the same motor.

The rookie grinds on the glass and understands matchups—which explains why he currently sits fourth among rookies with 7.3 rebounds per game and first in offensive rebounds.

“On the offensive end I’m just trying to use my athleticism and quickness to get around,” Collins said. “Either by tip backs or whatever I can force. On the defensive glass its really about boxing out and trying to find a body—or just attacking the ball.”

The most important aspects of rebounding are positioning and anticipation—especially for someone of Collins’ size.

“For me its almost like the more outmatched I am, weight or height, I think for me to just get a body on him will help my teammates get the rebound,” Collins said. If its a guy I know I can box out pretty well, then I’m pretty comfortably, I try to attack it. If its a guy stronger than me or more experienced than me, I try to hit him first. Make sure my guy doesn’t get the rebound.”

Preseason to some may seem boring and meaningless. However, within it lies bits and pieces of winning basketball that originates from chemistry and cohesiveness. Atlanta is one of the younger teams in the league — these games carry plenty of value towards starting the year off playing quality basketball.

As always, defense is the priority under Coach Budenholzer, but breeding fruitful offensive habits are far from an afterthought.

“I feel like we are getting a little bit more into our offense,” said Taurean Prince. “We realize the multiple options we can get out of a lot of sets in a lot of things that we do. I feel like in the first few games we were keeping it simple and trying to get used to each other. But now we are starting to get into the spring of things and how deep we can get. I think we can be hard to guard.”

In Monday’s 100-88 victory over the Memphis Grizzlies, they showed improvement offensively, and it didn’t have to appear in the box score. Yes, they finished shooting 45-percent from the field, but that’s not the sole purpose of this discussion Setting good hard picks and sound ball movement tends to facilitate positive energy that finds good shots. Doing things like trusting a teammate will shift towards his designated area at the right time for an open shot or keep the floor balanced demonstrates reliance and helps sustain fluidity.

When players don’t trust in one another is when the offense tends to stagnate. But, once guys begin to find comfort in their role is when good things begin to happen. These Hawks are headed in that direction and only time will tell if they reach their aspired destination. For the meantime, acknowledge the small victories along the way veteran Kent Bazemore knows all to well and has recognized the progress in just a few games.

“So the first game we played there was a ton of standing and too much thinking,” said Kent Bazemore. “Now I think we are starting to get players moving into the right spot. As you saw tonight with so many assists, we had. We did a good job of passing the ball and making plays for each other. Now we are starting to be a little more fluid offensively and getting shots out of it.”

The offensive system has proven to be conducive to winning over the years. The players, returning and new, must believe not only in the system but each other. Cliche? Not considering how many new faces fill this year’s locker room. Good news is according to DeAndre Bembry concerning off the court comradery– the new are mixing well with the old like a Bruno Mars record.

For a youthful team like Atlanta that will pay off immensely when the flight gets a little rocky later in the season.

“We have always had the right habits,” said DeAndre Bembry. “Especially the starters like Dewayne Dedmon coming from San Antonio and just playing the right way. Making the right pass. We all get a long with each other. We have no problems off the court. We all know what we need to do in order to be good. But us being cool off the court is where it starts and makes it way towards the court when we play together.”

The 2017-18 NBA GM surveys are out, which means: let the arguments commence. Similar to all-star voting, the survey tends to slight at least one person. This year, that would be Atlanta Hawks Head Coach Mike Budenholzer. The question posed: Which head coach has the best defensive schemes? Budenholzer received no votes.

It was a surprising omission, to say the least, given what Budenholzer has accomplished in just four years as the head coach. Budenholzer’s Hawks teams have averaged a 104.15 defensive rating and have never finished no lower than seventh in opponent points in the paint per game over the last three seasons. His tactics intertwine with the strengths of his players and that in itself should be a respected capability. Paul Millsap not only logged his best career numbers offensively under Budenholzer, but Bud’s system resulted in a 2.9 defensive box plus/minus average for ‘Sap over his four years—he averaged 1.9 in Utah for seven seasons.

The same can be said for a defensive specialist Thabo Sefolosha and sharpshooter Kyle Korver, both of whom recorded their best DBPM in Bud’s system, which involves a heavy dose of ball trapping by the guards/wings. Longtime Hawk Al Horford played six seasons before Budenholzer’s arrival and has always been among the best defensive players at his position. However, he didn’t notch his highest defensive win shares until the 2015-16 season.

The examples are endless, but we can’t ignore how much reputation plays a role in the voting. Gregg Popovich’s mystic is one so strong that it’s plausible his accomplishments are the only reason he came in first over Budenholzer, especially after the two spent 17 years side by side, the former the boss of the latter, on San Antonio’s bench. However, Atlanta’s defensive scheme is as demanding as Popovich’s—or Thibodeau’s, the second place finisher of that GM question—and I can assure you that no player will touch the floor without giving an all-out effort on the defensive side of the ball—just ask any Hawks rookie over the last four years.

Defense comes first and foremost in Atlanta, which has resulted in opponents shooting just 43.8 percent from the field over the last three seasons. Yes, the Hawks did struggle guarding the three-point line last season, but a look at Budenholzer’s entire tenure as Atlanta’s coach and you would see that his average opponent three-point percentage is among the lowest in the league. He’s won at a high level—a 57 percent winning record to be exact—and a lot of that has to do with how attuned his ballclub is on the defensive end. Just nine current coaches have a higher winning percentage than Budenholzer. Out of that group, only two have finished with a top-five defensive rating more than once over the last four seasons—Popovich and Kerr. Only six of those coaches have had longer head coaching experience.

Defense is his staple, and he’s damn good at it. Whenever the Hawks experience a rough stretch of games, I assure you the following practices will be focused on defense, defense, defense—revisiting defensive principles and adjustments, re-examining defensive roles, etc. The lineups may change, but the defensive principles will be the same this season, as it always is—swarming, tricky and suffocating.

 

Philips Arena has rightfully earned the nickname “The Highlight Factory” from all the spectacular plays that have echoed from the arena, all the way down Peachtree Street. I remember, when I was a younger man, watching Dikembe Mutombo deny more potential highlights than I could count. However, recently, it dawned on me just how many Hawks have completed a jaw-dropping, otherworldly poster.

So I decided to come up with the list you see below. Enjoy.

10. Jeff Teague over Kevin Durant

Scene: November 5, 2012, at Chesapeake Energy Arena. Two minutes left in the second quarter.

Jeff Teague: “Easy lane to the basket.”

Kevin Durant: “Oh, its just Jeff Teague. I’m blocking this with ease. This finna be a breeze!”

Jeff Teague:

9. Josh Smith mimics Kobe Bryant and Ricky Davis by flushing one on Steve Nash.

Nash has dished out plenty of L’s in his Hall of Fame career, but we shouldn’t forget his blunders. He meant well, but that doesn’t mean it always ended well. Three posters that I can recall and every one of them ended with a Nash receiving a blocking foul. Good Lord.

 

8. Al Horford skies over Kevin Love (Round 2, Game 3 of the 2016 Playoffs).

Al Horford literally sat on Love’s shoulder; take note of how Love’s teammates didn’t even venture near the crime scene. When you get boomed on you are on your own–that’s the code.

 

7. Paul Millsap over John Henson

Trillsap sent Henson back to UNC with this banger. Made the kid re-enroll with a double major and a full-time job just to forget his past life. What a shame.

 

6.  Bradley Beal meet Mike Scott–Mike Scott meet Bradley Beal.

Dominique said it best here: “What are you doing?” And to Beal’s credit, he did the right thing—just at the wrong time.

5. More Mike Scott, this time on Ian Mahinmi’s head.

 

4. Dominique Wilkins over everybody

 

3. Not a poster, but Spud Webb’s dunk against Magic & the Lakers deserves praise. Truly astonishing.

 

2.  Josh Smith dunks on Serge Ibaka

 

1. Dominique double clutched off two feet, while contorting his body mid air and finished with authority. Greatness.

 

 

Pace, pace and more pace would describe the new style Mike Budenholzer wants his ballclub to showcase. A new offense with a young roster also means more mistakes—especially in the early part of preseason. In the first half of their first preseason game with the Miami Heat, the Hawks accumulated 11 ill-advised turnovers, but cleaned up in the second half with just five. Dennis Schroder and Dewayne Dedmon lead the way with 12 points apiece, followed by Marco Belinelli with 10 and the rookie John Collins posting a near double-double with nine points and 15 rebounds.

There is a good chance you may be asking yourself: “What’s new with the offense?” It’s simple—the Hawks have now installed a 5-out motion offense into their system. It is a positionless offense that relies on spacing the floor and a set of rules that determine one’s movements and actions. This offense caters to the strengths of an athletic team like Atlanta by opening up more lanes to the basket for Dennis Schroder, Kent Bazemore and others. Ball movement is essential to the success of this style of offense, but that has always been a part of Budenholzer’s primary teaching since he arrived in Atlanta and therefore his message shouldn’t cause any confusion.

 

 

A first look at this offense on Sunday night yielded a positive result: more urgency and tempo earlier in the shot clock. Budenholzer’s troops have been instructed to scan the defense and attack without hesitation. The responsibilities for the guards have grown substantially this season—especially Schroder—with the departure of Paul Millsap and his reliability, offensively, in the post. It appears that Schroder—and every other ball handler on the team—is instructed to act early in the shot clock, either by penetrating off a pick-and-roll or off a handoff from a big man.

Schroder dominated the ball most of his time on the floor (and will most of the season) and drew the majority of Miami’s focus. Despite the fact that, in theory, the 5-out offense should keep multiple bodies off of Schroder, opening up the floor for shooters, the Hawks didn’t convert with much efficiency.

GM Travis Schlenk has routinely spoken about the merits of flexibility and positionless basketball over the offseason. By installing this offense, Budenholzer shows he’s on board with Schlenk’s vision and willing to cater to the strengths of his players.

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Next Game: October 4th at Cleveland Cavaliers, 7:00PM EST

Follow me on Twitter for Atlanta Hawks coverage: @YeboahNBA

 Friday morning the Atlanta Hawks formally introduced Travis Schlenk as both their general manager and head of basketball operations. Schlenk, the 41-year old from Selden, Kansas is the 17th general manager in Hawks history and arrives after playing a key role as assistant general manager over the last five years in shaping what is now the most dominant team in the NBA — the Golden State Warriors.
 “Where Golden State is right now taking seven years, said Schlenk. “It is not a quick process and it takes time. The way you get there is by maintaining your flexibility, accumulating assets and developing your own talent. We have, in Coach Bud and his staff, a great group of coaches who’ve have done a great job historically of developing talents. So we are in great shape there. We have 11 draft picks coming up in the future, so we have flexibility and assets there. We are actually in a better place right now than Golden State was when I started there.”

With just eight players under contract set to return next season, there is either optimism or pessimism permeating down Peachtree Street and all throughout Atlanta. The decision to keep Paul Millsap during this past season sparked déjà vu for some after the front office tandem of Mike Budenholzer and GM Wes Wilcox elected to take a gamble and hold on to Al Horford after the trade deadline last year. Ultimately it cost Atlanta as they lost him to eastern conference rivals the Boston Celtics.

Fast-forward to now and Atlanta has yet again another big offseason decision to make. Their top scoring leader over the past three seasons and one of the most versatile forwards the league has to offer is set for free agency.

“Paul is a 4-time All-star and arguably the best player on this team, probably is the best player on this team, so that is going to be a priority, said Schlenk. For me right now I’ve got to get with Coach Budenholzer and his staff and my front office staff. Over the next three weeks, we have to hammer out a plan for the future. Paul is certainly going to be a priority.”

 

Millsap arrived in Atlanta along with Mike Budenholzer four years ago. The pair has successfully made the playoffs each season. During this time frame, they notched a #1 Eastern Conference seed in 2015 as well as a top-six defensive rating over the last three seasons. All this, and yet sustained success without a trophy to show for it doesn’t mean anything in the end.

Schlenk on the other hand values the consistency the organization has maintained over the years and space they now have to make possibilities a reality.

“For 10 years in a row, this franchise has been in the playoffs. Most of the time when guys take a job at my level their inheriting a bad team. I am inheriting a good team with a nice foundation that has some flexibility and that’s what we will look to maintain. As we get to a position where a trade or acquisition comes available for a superstar we will be in position to do that.”


“Superstar” — the response hastily and repeatedly heard with regards to what it will take for the Hawks to finally sip champagne. It is a rhetorical question to ask in all honesty. Aside from Dennis Schroder, and the developing Taurean Prince there aren’t many hybrid roster assets. Moreover, Atlanta’s draft choices have not panned out over the years — and without the ability to attract big free agents the team struggles to become a legitimate threat to the King from Akron.

In order for a drastic shift in expectations and trajectory, Atlanta will have to become much more aggressive making moves to acquire big talent. They have done well-shedding contracts over the past two seasons despite signing the hometown kid Dwight Howard to a three-year $70 million deal last summer. They currently have just $62,399,872 in team payrolls on their books — fifth lowest in the league.

Schlenk enters into an organization that has stayed clear of paying the NBA’s tax luxury since the 2002–2003 season — Jason Terry was just a third-year player. Yes, different ownership at the time, but nothing has changed in their efforts when it comes to watching the bottom line. Maybe it has cost them championships, maybe it hasn’t — even though the 2004 Pistons did win a title with just the 17th highest payroll — times have changed and biting the bullet may not seem so bad as the Cleveland Cavaliers did for their 2016 championship that cost them $54 million in luxury taxes.

Championships cost money.

“I don’t think it makes sense for a franchise to go into the tax unless you are competing for a championship, said Schlenk. “Being fiscally responsible with these gentleman’s money that’s not right. But if we are where we make a move its going to put us in tax by a few million dollars, but give us a better chance to win a championship. That’s when I will go to bat and knock on Tony’s door and say this is something we need to do because it will get us to where we want to go.”

A successful style of basketball arrived in Atlanta along with Mike Budenhozer in 2013. However, taking on the president of basketball operations position after Danny Ferry’s departure in 2015 appeared to be one job too many for Budenholzer. The team has taken a step back the last two seasons (eliminated in the semi-finals in 2016 and the first round this season) and ownership ultimately felt an individual with Schlenk’s team building knowledge and vigor was needed.

“We have tried to win every year, said Owner Tony Ressler. “There is no doubt that over the past two years what we’ve seen, and what I’ve said, is the goal is how do we make better decisions and how do we have more firepower in the front office. With a comfort level that we can get to the next level. We feel that Travis absolutely has that understanding and has seen it firsthand. As we learned in our reference checks, Travis understands every part and does the work. Understanding players, recruiting players and understanding what makes a franchise player-friendly. All of these are critically important for us.”

Friday marked the beginning of a new era in Atlanta Hawks basketball with hopes Schlenk can provide an innovative process towards becoming a powerhouse for a organization that has not reached an NBA Finals since 1961. Not only a powerhouse, but an attractive destination for years to come in a city desperately waiting for prosperity. Not an easy task, but he’s seen this before and played a pivotal role in the turnaround.

What a year it was covering this year’s Atlanta Hawks team. The acquisition of Dwight Howard jump started the summer with a jolt of excitement. The Southwest Atlanta Christian Academy alum came aboard with hopes to bring a championship to his hometown.

Instead, he ended the season sitting on the bench as his teammates clawed back from a 19 point deficit, only to come up short in game 6 versus the Wizards. That wasn’t the first time this season he sat during a crucial run, and the first year of the Howard experiment can be deemed a failure.

“ It doesn’t matter about matchups, said Howard in his exit interview. “ I want to play. I don’t care who is out there. I want to give the best for my team and the city. That is why I came here. So it is upsetting when you want to get out there and play. You work hard for something and you watch it being taken from you, not the coach taking it — but Washington taking the opportunity of us moving to the next round.”

First-year starter Dennis Schroder took advantage of his opening round matchup against All-NBA point guard John Wall — as he did against several elite point guards throughout the year — validating that the organization made the right decision when they handed him the keys over Jeff Teague. Paul Millsap’s free agency talk dominated and overshadowed much of his big-time all-star performances, as if his game needed further neglect on the national stage. However, to the credit of head coach and team president Mike Budenholzer, it never seemed to become a distraction.

Whether it was Millsap’s free agency, Schroder and Howard’s argument in the third quarter versus the Warriors during a live possession or Schroder’s late arrival from All-Star break due visa issues — the team remained positive and focused.

In the last four seasons under Budenholzer none of his teams were more inconsistent, erratic and perplexing than this 2016–2017 ballclub. The hot 9–2 start occurred so early it now qualifies as a mirage. By the end of December they were a more realistic 16–16. At that time they had a win over the Cleveland Cavaliers (and would later win the season series 3–1), but suffered losses against the Orlando Magic, Los Angeles Lakers and Phoenix Suns.

The month of January was very telling in terms of just how unsettled they were. Starting on the 13th until March 6th they never notched a winning streak more than two games. Win one, lose the next, win another, lose the next, identity crises at its finest.

Kent Bazemore expressed the same sentiment to me after asking him about the team’s issues following a 131–120 loss in December to the Orlando Magic that dropped their record to 12–13.

“This is a very deep team and we have a lot of guys who can play so it’s all about finding that rhythm as a unit”, Bazemore said. “We’ve had glimpses of both units doing well. The bench started off the season doing well, then the starters got going, so it’s a lot going on and not enough consistency. But we are not going to get it back all at once and we are still trying to figure out who we are.”

The lows were pretty damn low and can be summed up in a moment I personally witnessed covering the Brooklyn Nets routing on March 26th that handed the Hawks their seventh loss in a row. A fan casually strolled down from his seat into the credentialed media seating, nachos and soda in hand, and took a seat with the rest of us. Clearly he’d come to the conclusion at that time that the Hawks didn’t care, so why should he? Security never approached the gentleman or redirected him back to his original seating. He just sat there, apathetic, disinterested, scarfing down some nachos.

Their identity never seemed to take shape and why a large portion of the season Budenholzer experimented with several lineups during games looking for a spark on a team ranked in the bottom half of the league in scoring. Millsap spent plenty time at the five, Bazemore took over point guard duties at times and even Kyle Korver played power forward occasionally. Compound that with a defense that poorly defended the three-point line in today’s NBA and well you’ve put yourself in a tough spot.

Those spots ranged from out of playoff contention momentarily midway through the season to losing 9 out of 11 games (with Millsap and Bazemore missing games due to injury) down the stretch that put their playoff hopes in jeopardy and having to wait until the 79th game to breath a sigh of relief.

Schroder struggled limiting turnovers, Howard hurt the defense by staying in the paint during pick-and-roll situations and Bazemore’s $70 million contract seemed to cause him to press. The list goes on and on, but nuzzled in it all were some of the most thrilling moments in Hawks history. The 26 point deficient at the start of the fourth quarter comeback victory versus Cleveland on April 9th, the overtime upset over the San Antonio Spurs and of course who can forget what took place on January 29th — the quadruple overtime victory over the New York Knicks — just the 11th time in NBA history.

The game lasted four hours as people stood by the exit doors with one foot in the arena one foot out not able to tear themselves away from what was taken place.

Rookie Taurean Prince and pending restricted free agent Tim Hardaway Jr. also provided optimism and excitement throughout a treacherous seven months. Prince took advantage of Bazemore and Sefolosha’s injuries by showcasing his versatility and therefore cementing his spot in the starting lineup. Hardaway deserved Most Improved Player consideration after turning his 2015–2016 woes into a distant memory by becoming the team’s scoring spark they severely needed especially after Kyle Korver was dealt.

In the end this team surpassed many preseason predictions that slotted them for a low seeding at best. Another franchise-alternating free agency awaits them in the coming months, but as far as 2016–2017 went they were willing to fight no matter how steep the odds — despite being ill-equipped with the necessary firepower.

“This group was a fighting group,” said Paul Millsap after game 6 loss. “With the ups and downs we had, we found a way to fight and compete. We shut down a lot of naysayers. We had a lot of people that said we weren’t going to make the playoffs. We just ran into a team that was hot, the Wizards were hot. I like this team and the fight in this team.”