ATLANTA -- “16-2,” DeMarre Carroll said.
The Atlanta starters had waxed the reserves in the intrasquad scrimmage during practice on Friday, which wouldn’t be a revelation, except that it’s far less common than you’d think. As he made note of the margin, Carroll pointed to the scoreboard in the Hawks’ practice gym.
“The bench usually takes care of us in practice,” Carroll said. “Ask Elton [Brand] about it. He pushes them -- and he always brags about it. But today the energy [among the starters] was so high. It was amazing.”
To a man, each Hawk who spoke on Friday emphasized the intensity level during the workout. The declarations weren’t statements of pride -- players 1 through 5 should beat players 6 through 10 -- so much as acknowledgements that it felt good to ready themselves for some games with serious table stakes. For the better part of a month, the Hawks have been locked into the No. 1 seed in the Eastern Conference. Though they’d never insult fans who paid their hard-earned shekels to watch professional basketball, getting through the back end of their schedule was an exercise in mild indifference, especially coming down off the adrenaline of an improbable midseason run, a winner’s remix of the Nuggets’ “1-2-3 ... six weeks!”
“It does feel like we have not played a meaningful game in a long time,” Kyle Korver said. “It feels that way. But we had a great practice today. Guys had super-high energy. We’re ready to go.”
Their opponents are the 38-44 Brooklyn Nets, at least to most. To the Hawks, they’re the gift that keeps on giving. On July 2, 2012, one week into general manager Danny Ferry’s tenure, the Hawks traded Joe Johnson and the nearly $90 million remaining on his contract to Brooklyn for a trove of expiring contracts, a first-round pick, a second-round pick and the right to swap picks in 2014 and 2015. The deal created a trade exception for Atlanta, as well. John Hollinger broke down the trade the morning after, and had this to say:
“With two landmark moves in a period of hours Monday that wiped nearly $90 million off the payroll, the Hawks went from a franchise that considered losing in the second round of the playoffs to be the pinnacle of human achievement to being one that could matter -- I mean really, truly matter -- for the first time since Dominique Wilkins was making nightly highlight films.”
The Hawks now really, truly matter and the foundation of that relevance is the dividends of the Johnson trade. The Hawks used that exception to acquire Korver from Chicago. The payroll flexibility created by the deal enabled the Hawks to sign Paul Millsap, to retain Korver when his contract expired the following summer, to make a reasonable offer to Jeff Teague that wouldn’t cramp their style and to bolster the roster with a nice complement of reserves.
The Nets can’t begrudge the Hawks that, but having to fork over their draft pick this summer to a flourishing team while they creep closer to old age can’t be an affirming experience. The Hawks, meanwhile, have the pleasure of enjoying their best season in franchise history and still picking in the top half of the draft.
The Hawks are the anti-Nets, a franchise that values long-range planning and constructing a roster with purpose. Korver and Carroll might not be complete players, but they’re so perfectly suited to the system in Atlanta that you can imagine the “Korver-Carroll” wing tandem becoming a league model: Throw an elite defender who can shoot a little bit and an elite shooter who can defend a little bit out at the 2 and the 3, and you’re set. They’re also considerably cheaper than Johnson, a prolific isolation threat who nevertheless constricts an offense. The Nets didn’t care. For them, building a team comes from the accumulation of individual talent. For the Hawks, it comes from the adoption of collective principles.
All that sounds precious, but the Hawks rode that ethic to 60 wins. For nearly six months, they’ve been the NBA’s fair-haired child, one who defied 100-1 preseason title odds and the September dust-ups with owner Bruce Levenson and Ferry to close up the top seed in late March. But the moment they take the court at Philips Arena late on Sunday afternoon, the Hawks officially calibrate their expectations. Their regular season was a real achievement, and there probably hasn’t been a full appreciation. But a Southeast Division Champs banner is still a lousy return on 60 wins, even if it looks pretty in contrast to the woeful fortunes of the Nets.
If you can see the progress the Minnesota Timberwolves are making as they plummet to the second-worst record in the NBA then you can hear Flip Saunders say he doesn’t want to make winning a priority right now and understand what he means.
The Timberwolves have young talent. Not “assets” or hoarded draft picks or upcoming cap space that might or might not be used. Their hope is tangible, not calculated. It only requires a belief that players can stay healthy and improve, not a wish that free agents bite on contract bids.
They don’t have warring factions within the organization, because Saunders is the coach and the general manager and a part owner. As he says, “I just go in the bathroom and talk to myself and we’re in good shape.”
“It’s a lot easier for me right now being the coach and being the position I’m in than it would be if we had a different coach,” Saunders said. “If we had other coaches, they’d be trying to win every game – and what I mean by that is, we’re trying to win every game, but we’re not going to sacrifice the development of a [Andrew] Wiggins and a [Zach] LaVine and play a 32-year-old veteran who might not be around next year.”
He didn’t outright say that winning games would also decrease their chances of landing one of the top two picks in the draft, but that’s more of an NBA issue than a T-Wolves problem. Minnesota – much like the Lakers – is a product of a system that makes it wiser to use games to evaluate younger players rather than rely on experienced guys to secure victories. The Timberwolves are also like the Lakers in that injuries destroyed any possibility of a playoff run.
But the Timberwolves have a clearer path back to contention. They have the likely rookie of the year. “If you look at Wiggins over the course of the whole season and everything else, there’s not a choice there,” Saunders said of the award. They had four players in the Rising Stars Challenge at All-Star Weekend -- Wiggins, LaVine, Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng -- meaning almost 25 percent of the top first- and second-year players in the NBA are in Minnesota.
They have half a roster’s worth of players on rookie scale contracts, which means that in 2016-17 they could have Wiggins, LaVine, Anthony Bennett, Muhammad, Adrean Payne and Dieng on the payroll for a total of about $23 million. That’s six viable players for what the Nets paid Joe Johnson this year. They could add Duke’s Jahlil Okafor or Kentucky’s Karl-Anthony Towns in the draft.
“We do have something to hold on,” Saunders said. “Those guys have got to bet better. We know that we’ve got to develop those guys they’ve got to get better. Zach and Wiggins have got to get stronger from a physical standpoint. We’ve got to add pieces to that, we have to have another good draft. But I believe that our fans understand. We’ve got pieces. We’ve got guys that we know are going to be good. It’s just a matter of how long it’s going to take.”
For Wiggins, it’s looking like it won’t take long. He’s finishing strong, averaging 26 points and six rebounds in the first five games of April. He told Saunders in a recent conversation that he’s sick of losing. He’s not at the point where he can singlehandedly deliver victories, but he’s showing the right mentality. Down double-digits late against the Lakers on Friday night, he pushed a ball upcourt and kept going until he threw down a suprising – and angry – dunk. On Minnesota’s next possession he snatched an offensive rebound and got fouled on the way back up. He shot 16 free throws in the game (and made 15 of them), indicative of an aggressive mindset.
“I’m just trying to execute, get teammates involved and finish off plays,” Wiggins said.
Suanders wants Wiggins to develop a superstar mindset.
“If you want to become good you have to have a player, your main guy – whether it’s a Harden, whether it’s a Curry, whether it’s a LeBron James -- someone like that has to put the ball in their hands and you have confidence they can make a play for themselves, they can either get fouled or they can make a play for their teammates,” Saunders said. “ Wiggins, we’ve given him more responsibility to do to that. And with the responsibility, he’s accepted that and he’s played pretty well.”
Wiggins is averaging 17 points, 4.5 rebounds and 2 assists on the season. Almost 40 percent of his shots come near the rim, and he’s the only rookie in the top 20 in points in the paint.
It’s not too hard to imagine Wiggins getting even better. It sure is easier than imagining what other teams will do with their picks and cap space.