Running with Zaza

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Dear Hawks, Please Rescue Josh Childress

During Atlanta’s loss to the Celtics almost two weeks ago, I felt badly for Joe Johnson when he missed a free throw in the final minute with a chance to tie that game up. Johnson has played well and has been the Hawks’ go-to-guy in the 4th quarter of every close game. However, looking back on that game the next day, I felt ten times worse for poor Josh Childress.

Apparently, the NBA and the powers that be at ESPN thought it would be a great idea to check in with J-Chill during the 2nd quarter. With a crisp, clear telephone connection from somewhere in Greece, the Childress interview interrupted a couple of minutes of game time. (By the way, I hate these interviews in all sports when people are on the telephone or in the booth. The game action goes on and the announcers interview the person during the game action. Terrible.)

ESPN and NBA commissioner David Stern probably thought Childress would come on with some positive feedback about playing in Greece and push forward the NBA’s inexorable agenda of moving towards an actual global league. Instead, Childress sounded miserable, sad, and lonely. He kind of sounds like Simba in The Lion King when he thinks he is responsible for father’s death.

In keeping with the Disney theme, Childress needs to type up a letter admitting that going overseas was a mistake. Then, he should fold that letter up, put it into an empty bottle of ouzo, cork the bottle, and drop the bottle in the Mediterranean Sea. Disney Studios could make another movie sequel of the animated classic The Rescuers and send Bernard and Miss Bianca across the Atlantic to save J-Chill.

Can you imagine the comedic effect of an animated Childress? He would be great drawn really long and skinny, with the big grin, and the great, blown out hair. He could be in an Olympiakos jersey. The Olympiakos owner and Chill’s agent would be the bad guys that are trying to steal some huge diamond or something. They need Chill’s defensive skills and wingspan to beat an elaborate museum security system. For other product placement, he could eat McDonalds, drink Cokes (for the Atlanta connection), and wear some Nike gear.

For Olympiakos, Childress is doing exactly what he did for the Hawks last year. In the tough and competitive Euroleague games, he is averaging about 10 points per game. He probably plays solid defense and rebounds well for his size. He shoots over 50% from the floor, but cannot make a 3-point shot. He probably cannot get his own shot or score clutch baskets in crunch time of games. Give credit to Childress and his agent, he parlayed some limited success as a 6th man last year into a very lucrative contract. But at what damage to Childress’ career?

Here is my advice to Childress: Come back home. Admit you made a mistake. Accept a ride from Miss Bianca and Bernard (Hawks' GM Rick Sund). You can be the role player in the NBA that you always were, but you have to do it for 3 years at $5 million per year. Ask Sund and Coach Woodson to take you back. Coach Woodson will forgive and forget. Last night against the Pacers, he could have played you about 25 minutes. Keep the minutes under 40 for Smooth, Bibby, and Super Joe. Pair you with Mo Evans as a defensive stopper. The Hawks don’t need to make a trade at the deadline to have a great chance to win a playoff series in 2009--just get Childress back for the stretch run.


Joe's Triple Double Powers the Hawks

Most Hawks' fans probably felt and acted just like Coach Woodson and I last night--scared about a trap game, yelling just to make some guys focus, flinching anytime Al 'the Boss' Horford landed funny on a rebound, worried about Smooth having a melt down, wondering if Bibby is going to be a Hawk in two months, frustrated by a lack of effort from some players, puzzled at the horrendous OKC shot selection, and finally relieved that Joe Johnson showed up to carry the Hawks to a victory.

Super Joe continues to make a case for a starting spot on the Eastern Conference All-Star team. He had a triple double last night in the Hawks' win versus the lowly Oklahoma City Thunder. (Aside--this morning I still am flabbergasted by Robert Swift's appearance for the Thunder. He has made a ton of money in the league, but don't you think he would have been served well by some time on a college campus? He has to be high on someone's list of worst first round draft choices in the last 20 years.) Johnson's best quality is his consistency. He brings effort and energy every night. He is playing better than AI, Ray Allen, and Vince Carter. Super Joe passes, plays defense, and rebounds better than any of those guys. He is just a notch below Dwayne Wade as the best shooting guard in the East.


Hawks End Cavs' 11 Game Win Streak

What better way to kick-off an eight game home stand than to beat Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavs. The Hawks arrived back from last night’s victory against Miami at 3 AM this morning. The Cavs were coming off a big win last night as well. Would any of the players have any energy left for tonight’s game? Where would the energy come from?

The answer is playing against Lebron James. He will embarrass you if you are not ready to play. Even on television, and you could feel the energy in the gym. Everyone wants Lebron in 2010 because he electrifies his teammates, the other team’s players, and the fans. A sellout crowd of 19,200 showed up in Philips Arena to see Lebron try to extend the Cavs winning streak. The Atlanta Hawks treated the fans to a great game and a huge home victory.

The Hawks have only lost at home once all year and that was to New Jersey. They are now 8-1. Mike Bibby came out in the first quarter determined to get the team off to a positive start. He succeeded. The Hawks jumped ahead and held the lead after a 31 point quarter. With everyone in Coach Mike Woodson’s rotation making a contribution, the Hawks led the Cavs by nine points at halftime.

I have not watched that many Cavaliers’ games this season. You see highlights of Lebron every night, but I have not watched a whole game. The biggest surprise for me was how disruptive Lebron is on the defensive end of the floor. Despite what you hear from NBA analysts, Lebron has not been known for his defense. I would argue that his focus for most of his five years in the league has been on the offensive end of the court—maybe playing with Team USA this summer has changed his focus a little bit. He was all over the court against the Hawks.

A great example occurred in the middle of the 2nd quarter. There was a loose ball tipped off a rebound from a Hawks’ jump shot. Joe Johnson and Mo Williams went for the ball at about half speed, when Lebron came flying from the baseline and snatched up the loose ball. Lebron moved so much quicker than the two smaller players that it amazed the crowd. It was the kind of awesome, athletic move that made the fans in Philips arena respond with an audible and collective gasp.

In the past two games, the Hawks are pushing the basketball more. With Josh Smith back in the line up, they are a much deeper team and they can play a faster game. During a key 2nd half fast break, there was a loose ball that the Cavs came up with after a scramble. The Cavs’ Moe Williams took a 3 point shot in transition that missed. Bibby snagged the rebound and hit Joe Johnson who passed to Horford for a pretty finger roll lay up. On the transition for the Hawks, the ball never touched the floor with a dribble. The teamwork and solid fundamentals helped the Hawks to a victory in this game.

The 4th quarter was a back and forth duel between Lebron and Joe Johnson. The Cavs’ Delonte West gave Joe Johnson trouble again in this game, but for some reason West did not guard Johnson much in the 4th quarter. That hurt the Cavs as Super Joe not only had 11 points, but he keyed pretty much every other Hawks’ basket. These two stars went at it, but it was the Hawks’ great supporting cast that came through to win the game. Bibby, Horford, Marvin Williams, and Josh Smith made key plays down the stretch to preserve the victory. The Hawks’ are at home for the next two weeks. The fans and the city are energized. If Coach Woodson keeps telling them to push the ball in transition and the team defense continues to execute like it did tonight against Lebron, the Hawks will celebrate the New Year in style with a winning record for the 2008 part of the season.

Here are four quick hitting observations on the state of the Hawks and Cavs:

The Cavs are on this win streak without Zydrunas Ilgauskus, but they need Big Z. The Cavs miss his scoring ability. He is literally a big, big man that sets solid screens and plays great off Lebron. Big Z is the only player on the Cavs other than Lebron that creates mismatches for the opposing team.

Posterization = Optimization. Will Josh Smith ever learn that his athletic ability can not make up for poor foot work? Last night, the Heat jumped out to a quick 11-0 lead against the Hawks, and they still were leading 16-5 when a play happened that might be one of the turning points of the Hawks’ season. Wade drove down the lane and thunder dunked on Josh Smith. (It was the same type of posterization dunk that Wade put on Emeka Okafor of Charlotte earlier in the week.) Smith played much better after that play. Tonight, with about 4 minutes left in the 3rd quarter, Lebron faced up Josh Smith at the top of the key and just bulled past him for a thunderous dunk. J-Smooth was beaten off the dribble by Wally, Lebron, and even Varejao. Hopefully, being posterized every game will make Smooth more focused.

Hawks’ fans have to be excited, because in this game Al Horford was the best big man on the court and Zaza Pachulia was the second best. Zaza and Horford do the little things on the defensive end of the court that are missed by the casual fan. They showed hard on screens, played big in Lebron’s passing lanes, and came to double Lebron if he picked up his dribble. They also came up with tough rebounds and set solid screens on the offensive end.

The Hawks and Cavs challenge every shot. All game long, players were running at jump shooters. This effort happens when your best players are playing hard on the defensive end. Lebron was flying all over the court and he was running through screens. For the Hawks, Bibby was down inside trying to block Varejao’s shot! He was boxing out Ben Wallace. Marvin was rebounding and playing tough defense against Lebron. The bigs for both teams were showing hard on ball screens. Defense is about effort and the effort was definitely in evidence tonight.


Artest Leads Rockets to Win over Hawks

What makes the NBA so fun to watch is that teams are playing at a high level every night. The intensity and physical play in the second half of this game almost reached a playoff type level. Blocked shots, dunks, steals, hustle plays, and hard fouls characterized this game. Just check out tonight’s highlight of the Rockets' Luis Scola diving into the bench for a loose ball!

Playing the second night of back to back games, the Rockets figured to start slowly against the Hawks. With two days of practice, the rested Hawks were coming off a tough road loss on Saturday to the Mavericks. This game could have been one where the Hawks jump ahead early, and a tired Rockets team without Tracy McGrady plays lackadaisically and gives the game to Atlanta. The exact opposite happened in tonight’s game. The Rockets stormed out to a 27-16 lead after the first quarter. After another terrible start, the Hawks fought back and led by 8 points with about six minutes to play, but Ron Artest and Yao Ming took over the game in the last five minutes to lead Houston to a huge 92-84 win.

Ron Artest is not one of these NBA players that put up huge statistical numbers. At this point in their careers, I actually like his game better than McGrady’s. In fact, some of the plays he makes and the intangibles he brings to the game are not measured by statistics. Basically, he took over this game in the last five minutes, but the best Artest moment happened in the 4th quarter after a Yao Ming basket and a Hawks’ timeout. As the Rockets players walked over to the bench, Artest grabbed the five guys on the court and quickly huddled them up. Who knows what he said, but his gesture said, “Let’s stick together as a team and win this game with toughness down the stretch.” Coaches always talk about the leadership of glue guys like Artest; and this quick huddle is a perfect example of what that term means.

Here is a quick synopsis of Artest’s 4th quarter. With the Hawks up two points, he buried a 3 point shot from the right wing in front of the Rockets’ bench. He beat his man off the dribble and dished to Yao for a lay up. Then, Artest took a long rebound and went coast-to-coast and finished with a sweet left hand lay up over Mike Bibby. After a Hawks’ timeout, Artest read the offensive set, left Joe Johnson, and doubled Al Horford in the corner. Horford was forced to call another time-out or commit a turnover. Then, with the Rockets pulling ahead, he partially blocked a jump shot from Joe Johnson. Finally, with the Hawks pressuring full court, he took the inbounds pass, cleared everyone out, and forced Joe Johnson to foul him as he brought the basketball up the court. Artest is a fundamentally sound player and his whole array of skills was on display in tonight’s game.

In simple terms, the Rockets are quicker and play better team defense. Scola’s energy permeates through the whole team. How many times did he show out hard on the Hawks’ high pick and roll play? Von Wafer, Aaron Brooks, Carl Landry, and Shane Battier play hard and know their roles. The Rockets out rebounded the Hawks 57 to 40. It is hard to remember the Hawks getting any 2nd chance points or loose balls. Acie Law, Mo Evans, and Flip Murray looked disinterested. The Hawks are not a young team trying to learn to win. Except for Horford and Law, these players are veterans. Dominique Wilkins, the Hawk’s color analyst, kept saying how impressive it was that the team was able to play hard and get back into the game. Much respect to Dominique, I could not disagree more. With higher expectations for this team, playing close on the road or playing hard and losing is not good enough any more.

Coach Woodson has some decisions to make. Defensive adjustments have to be made quicker. Yao was a force of nature in this game. The Hawks did not double immediately when he caught the ball in the post. It looked like they were waiting for Yao to dribble the basketball and then bring the double team. That is too late. Yao’s post moves are too polished. Zaza and the Boss (Horford) can not handle him one on one. He finished the game with 24 points and 19 rebounds. He also controlled the lane on the defensive end of the court. Also, Coach Woodson is going to have to decide on a late game rotation. Marvin Williams has disappeared with the return of Josh Smith. In the 4th quarter, Smith looked upset on the bench. Rafer Alston of the Rockets hit a huge 3 point shot in crunch time when Mike Bibby went under a ball screen. Who can get the job done at the end of the game? The Rockets had their answer tonight with Artest and Yao Ming.


Hawks' Bailout Plan? See Mike Bibby

Over the last couple of days, I have been taking another look at the 2007 NBA draft. During that draft, I wanted GM Billy Knight to take a point guard first and then a big man with the #11 pick. Maybe, pick a Mike Conley and Spencer Hawes combination. Knight went in another direction and took Al Horford and Acie Law. With some hindsight, it would have been one of the great drafts of the last ten years if Knight would have taken Rodney Stuckey with the 11th pick instead of Law; but the Horford pick has set the tone for this franchise. Horford’s stellar play last season (he should have been 2008 Rookie of the Year) raised expectations enough that the Atlanta Spirit Group signed off on the trade for Mike Bibby. Getting Mike Bibby has set the stage for the Hawks to become a respectable team this season, and possibly a great team over the next five years.

Something special must have happened to Billy Knight on Valentine’s Day last year. He must have had a great meal in Buckhead or called Bibby’s father and asked him about Mike’s health. You have to give him credit for stealing Bibby from the Kings. On February 16, the Hawks traded Shelden Williams, Anthony Johnson, Tyronn Lue, Lorenzen Wright, and a 2008 second-round draft pick to Sacramento for Mike Bibby. With the 42nd pick, the Kings drafted Sean Singletary and then traded him to Houston with Ron Artest for Bobby Jackson and some loose change. The Rockets promptly traded Singletary to the Phoenix Suns for D.J. Strawberry. At this point, no players selected after Singletary really have made an impact in the NBA. Is Bibby really worth five players? Yes, with these five guys, you could have kicked in Salim Stoudamire, Mario West, and a hamburger franchise and still came out ahead.

Although the Hawks have had some injuries and adversity, they are 11-6. This team is in better shape than a bunch of other teams. Bibby is a big reason why. He is a veteran presence that is providing a quiet leadership for this team. His 3 point shooting has been invaluable and the great shooting has spread like a good plague to some teammates. The Hawks are leading the NBA in 3 point percentage shooting. Last night against Memphis, Bibby was clutch in the 4th quarter. He is not afraid to take and make big shots. He also has been more of a playmaker and assist man than I thought he could be this year. He is healthy and has been able to penetrate and beat his man, because everybody is flying out to challenge the jump shot. Okay, I have been railing about his defense all year. It is true that Bibby has trouble guarding the elite point guards, but how many of those are there in the Association? Six? You don’t think that the Miami Heat would not kill for Bibby right now. Yeah, they are playing Chris Quinn in the 4th quarter with the game on the line.

If Bibby stays healthy, the Hawks are in good shape. He is only 30 years old, but has been in the NBA since 1998. His body is pretty old. The Hawks will make the playoffs. The drop off to Acie Law and Flip Murray is like dropping off a cliff. Flip Murray could run the point, but he does not want to--he is a score and shoot first guy. Acie is serviceable. Here is the dilemma for GM Rick Sund. Keep Bibby, have a great year, maybe win a playoff series, and lose him in free agency; or on the other hand, trade Bibby to a contender for a proven point guard with another skill set, a high draft pick, or a couple of up and coming role players. In February or March, Bibby might be worth a 1st round draft pick to a team like the Lakers, Jazz, or Spurs.

I want Sund to keep Bibby and make a run this year. If Bibby walks, Sund can use that money on the free agent market. The problem is if you let him go for nothing, who knows if the ASG is going let you use part of Bibby’s money to sign someone. They might just pocket the playoff profits. I have not looked at the salaries, but what if the Lakers offered Sasha Vulacic and Luke Walton for Bibby. That is the kind of deal that will be hard for Sund to pass up. You can then move Walton or Marvin Williams for a point guard of the future.

Bibby is the key to the Hawks’ season and to the future of the franchise. The team is solid and good if not great. The Hawks can beat anyone on any given night this season. I cannot wait until the NBA season really starts to heat up after the New Year. And, I have not even starting thinking about how the Hawks’ can clear enough cap space to sign Dwayne Wade in 2010.

Here is something you might not know about Mike Bibby:

The Hawks’ #10 has a MLB pedigree. Bibby’s uncle, Jim Bibby, was a professional baseball player with 111 major league victories. He was an important pitcher for the “We Are Family” Pittsburgh Pirates of 1979 and a National League All-Star selection in 1980. Bibby threw a no hitter in 1973 as a member of the Texas Rangers. In maybe a more amazing game against your Atlanta Braves in 1981, Bibby gave up a lead off single and then proceeded to retire the next 27 batters in order—as close to a perfect game as you can pitch.