The Starting Five: Atlanta fans slow to warm to red-hot Hawks

A 13-game winning streak has Atlanta atop the Eastern Conference standings at 34-8.

Dale Zanine/Dale Zanine-USA TODAY Sports

While Joel Embiid continues his alleged quest to identify the best purveyor of cheese steak in Philly, let’s investigate some issues around the NBA.

The obvious feel-good story of this season’s opening half has been authored by the Atlanta Hawks.

Second-year coach Mike Budenholzer’s team — winners of 13 games in a row, 27 of their last 29 and 15 of their last 16 on the road — sits atop the Eastern Conference standings at a gaudy 34-8.

The Hawks’ ascension has occurred at both ends of the floor, with an offensive-efficiency hike from 18th in the league last season to fifth now, and a defensive improvement from 14th to fifth.

One area Atlanta will have to work through is finishing defensive possessions; the Hawks — who were outrebounded by 19 in Monday’s game with the Detroit Pistons — are a measly 18th in defensive rebounding efficiency.

They did, however, manage to beat Detroit on the scoreboard.

Although their first-half strength of schedule sits at 27th, the last 19-game run includes victories over the Mavericks, Bulls (twice), Clippers (twice), Cavaliers (twice), Rockets, Grizzlies, Trail Blazers, Raptors and sizzling Pistons (twice).

Unfortunately, the lack of interest in their hometown that generated questions about marketing tactics — and considerable off-season controversy — has continued.

The Hawks currently rank 26th among NBA teams in attendance.

Derrick Rose (right) says communication issues are at the root of the Bulls’ struggles.

Following Monday’s loss to the Cleveland Cavaliers, Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose offered some colorful language while attempting to explain why his team is struggling.

"I think communication is huge," the usually soft-spoken Rose said. "We’re quiet when we’re out there, and it’s leading to them getting easy baskets. We got to give a better effort. It seems like we’re not even competing, and it’s f—ing irritating."

With Joakim Noah missing the last two games — and most of one game prior to those — the anticipated Eastern Conference contenders have lost six of their last eight games.

Based on the influx of talent — including the return to health of the suddenly loquacious Rose — the Bulls were supposed to be much better than 27-16 at this point. The additions of Pau Gasol and Nikola Mirotic certainly have boosted Chicago’s scoring punch, while two-guard Jimmy Butler has hiked his offensive productivity at an almost alarming rate.

With these weapons available, the Bulls’ offensive efficiency has jumped from 28th among NBA teams last season (102.5 points per 100 possessions) to a very respectable ninth (108.4).

But that increase has been mirrored on the other end of the floor.

Noah, of course, is the defensive anchor for Coach Tom Thibodeau’s pack-line style, and his absence removes the team’s top on-court communicator. But even with him in the lineup, the historically nasty Bulls defense had slipped to 14th among NBA teams in efficiency (105.9 points per 100 possessions) after finishing second (100.5) last season.

The rebuilding Timberwolves are quite pleased with how Love-for-Wiggins is working out for them.

A few months ago, "Love for Wiggins" was a trade-related headline.

Now it represents what most NBA observers are lobbing at Andrew Wiggins, the rising rookie of the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Wiggins seemingly has been on everyone’s radar as the "next" for several years. And it’s not exactly a revelation when the top overall pick in the draft begins to show signs of excellence.

But the gravity (something Wiggins seems to oppose) of the Cavaliers predicament — giving up potential greatness for a LeBron James playmate who supposedly fits better with The King — makes the kid a natural for this category.

So do his recent numbers:

Including Saturday’s 31-point eruption in a victory at Denver, Wiggins has scored 20 or more points 10 times over the last 13 games. He’s averaging 21.3 in that span and is shooting slightly better than 50 percent from the field, including 45.9 percent (17 of 37) from what was supposed to be the dreaded 3-point range.

No matter how many teams he’s linked to in trade rumors, Goran Dragic is unlikely to be shipped out of Phoenix any time soon.

To understand just how easy it would be for the Phoenix Suns to move their most popular player, all that’s required is an interview with an out-of-town reporter.

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As one of the most easygoing players in the NBA, Goran Dragic will answer all inquiries politely. And with agent Bill Duffy making sure his players do nothing to alienate any portion of the market, Dragic will have something nice to say regarding any team a reporter attempts to associate him with.

How about the Washington Generals? Goran probably hasn’t heard of ’em but probably would love to play for them if you ask and certain variables work out.

So while we wait for Dragic to opt out of the last year of his current contract, helpful media members will attempt to either imagine interesting trade partners or reasonable free-agent destinations.

By the way, considering how fond the Suns and Dragic are of each other — and with the salary cap expected to rise — it’s doubtful he’ll end up anywhere else.

This season’s first meeting between LeBron James and Kevin Durant comes Sunday afternoon in Cleveland.

Although the teams involved have been hovering around .500 lately, Sunday’s intersection between Oklahoma City and Cleveland will be among the most compelling this season.

In one corner — small forward, specifically — we have Thunder superstar Kevin Durant.

The other will be occupied by LeBron James, whose recent return from "just-chillin’ mode" has put the Cavaliers back on track in the Eastern Conference.

What makes this matchup relentlessly enjoyable to watch is the likelihood that Durant and James will be guarding each other for large portions of the game.

And when this battle within an overall skirmish features a ball reversal, we’ll see OKC’s Russell Westbrook and Kyrie Irving of the Cavaliers attempting to preserve point-guard bragging rights.

With so much talent on the floor, we’ll give the edge to the team that executes with more precision than the other.

For the record, LeBron’s teams are 14-4 against Durant’s teams from Seattle and OKC.

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