Monday, October 17, 2016

Hawks Ready to Let Real Games Begin

ORLANDO, Fla. -- In one of the final tune-ups before NBA teams must cut their rosters to 15 players, the Atlanta Hawks got a bounce-back game -- of sorts -- from Tim Hardaway Jr. and a dominating performance from Paul Millsap in his first action of the preseason.

Millsap returned to live basketball for the first time since undergoing a non-surgical procedure to reduce swelling in his knee. He was the only Hawks starter to appear in the game as coach Mike Budenholzer rested Dwight Howard, Kent Bazemore, Kyle Korver and Dennis Schroder. Millsap torched the Magic for 19 points, nine rebounds, seven assists and a game-high +21 in just 19 minutes. Millsap was in midseason form, especially with his passing, as you can see on NBA.com's highlights.

Hardaway meanwhile was the first sub for Atlanta and scored 19 points on 15 shots. He had a key basket down the stretch to help thwart a comeback attempt by the Magic. Coach Frank Vogel used his starters for much of the fourth quarter while Budenholzer countered with mostly reserves. Only Nikola Vucevic was held out of the game for rest, with offseason acquisition Bismack Biyombo filling in at center.

However, Hardaway couldn't match Millsap's efficiency. His -16 was worse than every Hawk except Mike Scott (-18 on 2-for-11 shooting). Hardaway shot 1-for-5 on three pointers which actually raised his preseason percentage. He entered the game shooting 0-for-11 from distance and is now shooting 6.3% on threes and 9-for-45 (20%) from the field. Thus, while Hardaway was inefficient, it was easily his strongest performance of the preseason.

The Hawks are facing tough roster decisions to cut down to the league-maximum of 15 players by Oct. 24. The roster crunch is fueled by curious decisions over the summer. Firstly, the Hawks opted to guarantee Scott's full $3.3 million salary despite the fact that he's facing trial on felony drug charges, stemming from an incident in 2015, that could land him in prison for up to 25 years. Atlanta Journal-Constitution Hawks beat writer Chris Vivlamore reported in July that Scott pleaded not guilty and his case could go to trial in the fall.

If Scott is convicted and unable to play due to jail time, his contract would likely be voided by the NBA and the Hawks could receive some cap relief. However, the Hawks would be left searching for a player to fill Scott's role mid-season. On a positive note, the move by the Hawks to stand by Scott and keep him on the team while his legal issues play out won't go unnoticed by other players, including future free agents.

The other curious decision by the Hawks was to give Euroleague point guard Malcolm Delaney a guaranteed $5 million over two seasons. Delaney sat out the game against the Magic while former Yellow Jacket and Piston Will Bynum started at point for Atlanta. Bynum's +29 in 84 preseason minutes is second only to Bazemore's +32 in 62 minutes. Meanwhile Delaney is -1 in 71 minutes, good for 12th in aggregate plus-minus on the team.

Delaney has a nice pull-up game and is capable of producing spectacular assists but the jury is out on whether he can defend at an NBA level. However, since his contract is fully-guaranteed, it would be difficult for the Hawks to waive him and eat the cap space to keep Bynum, who has clearly outplayed him in the preseason. Bynum scored eight points on 3-for-11 shooting with four assists and zero turnovers in 25 minutes in Orlando.

As a result of the guarantees to Delaney and Scott, the Hawks have 15 players on fully-guaranteed contracts plus Mike Muscala, who is guaranteed about half of his contract for just over $1 million. His contract has a Jan. 10 guarantee date, per Eric Pincus with Basketball Insiders, when the remainder becomes fully-guaranteed if he's still on the roster.

It appears that either Muscala or 7-3 center Edy Tavares will be the odd man out. Budenholzer started Muscala against the Magic, clearly showcasing him before that decision must be made. Facing Biyombo, the Magic's $18 million per season free agent, Muscala acquitted himself well, scoring nine points on 3-for-4 shooting with six rebounds and a +12 that was third on the team and second only to Millsap among the starters. Biyombo scored just seven points on 2-for-7 shooting but dominated for 19 rebounds while racking up five blocked shots. His +6 was second for the Magic only to the +9 of Evan Fournier, who scored 22 points with five rebounds and four assists.

Tavares did not show as well as Muscala. Although Budenholzer went to him down the stretch in the fourth quarter, he scored only two points while missing both shot attempts and recording five rebounds and three blocks. Tavares continues to be plagued by questionable hands and a questionable feel for the game. He looks about a season away from being a season away from contributing reliable rotation minutes to an NBA team. The Hawks simply can't wait for Tavares to catch up to the NBA game. Muscala, with his ability to move the ball and hit threes -- as well as his past history of big moments in the playoffs -- is clearly the better option for a team that is determined to win now.

Serge Ibaka led the Magic with 25 points and added six rebounds and two blocks. Thabo Sefolosha continued his torrid preseason with 15 points on 3-for-4 shooting from 3-point range with four rebounds and two assists. Sefolosha leads the Hawks in preseason percentage from three (75%) on 6-for-8 shooting. Hawks rookie Taurean Prince scored 13 off the bench with five rebounds, three steals and two blocks. He appeared to try to get in the head of Magic forward Mario Hezonja with a steady stream of trash talking. The latter was limited to five points on 1-for-6 shooting while Prince's +16 was second only to Millsap.

The Hawks return home to host the Pelicans Tuesday before wrapping up the preseason in Omaha, Neb. Thursday with a road game against the Bulls. The real games get started Oct. 27th when the Hawks open the regular season at home against the Wizards.

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