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2014-15 San Antonio Spurs Season Preview

After a quiet offseason, the time when the Spurs make their noise is finally here.

Yannis Koutroupis

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For the fifth time since 1999, the San Antonio Spurs won the NBA Championship. They’ve somehow found a way to keep their championship window open despite the masses anticipating it closing for years now. Tim Duncan has proven to be ageless, Gregg Popovich remains at the top of his game as a coach and R.C. Buford continues to put the right pieces around them to keep them in a position to contend.

As the rest of the league raced to try to catch up to the Spurs this offseason, they stood pat, as they should, because they were far and away the best team in the league last season. They’ve set the bar that everyone else is trying to reach, and as the season gets set to start, there appears to be very few teams equipped with what it would take to dethrone them, but only in their best-case scenario.

Basketball Insiders previews the 2014-15 San Antonio Spurs.

Five Guys Think

One of the most underrated stories of the summer, lost in the shuffle of LeBron James’ homecoming and Carmelo Anthony’s big decision, was the fact that San Antonio brought back all the major players that just won a championship together and shamed the two-time defending champion Miami HEAT into disbandment. Assuming those key players can remain healthy, they’re a good bet to finish atop the Western Conference and enjoy yet another deep run in the playoffs. Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobili are apparently ageless, Tony Parker is still among the league’s most underrated players, Kawhi Leonard is on the cusp of stardom and Gregg Popovich is unequivocally the best head coach in the NBA. Who in the world bets against a setup like that?

1st Place – Southwest Division

-Joel Brigham

Every year around this time, the same question is often asked. When will Father Time pay a visit to the San Antonio Spurs? Every year around this time, naturally, predictions are released anticipating a bit of slippage for the Spurs’ aging core. However, every year the group manages to silence skeptics and defy expectations. After adding another Larry O’Brien trophy into the collection last season, maybe it’s time to just go with the flow and enjoy the greatness that’s on full display. Another year, another year of title contention in San Antonio. Bank on it.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Lang Greene

As Kawhi Leonard emerges as the face of the San Antonio Spurs and Tim Duncan begins to think more and more seriously about the prospect of retiring, the immediate future is far from a guarantee for the Spurs. Around them, the Southwest Division seems to have gotten tougher with the upgrades that the Dallas Mavericks have made. This also could be the year that we begin to see the New Orleans Pelicans take flight. At some point, age and attrition has to catch up to the Spurs, especially without adding anyone this past offseason who is certain to crack their rotation. If the Spurs are able to remain healthy, though, another season with the same cast playing the same system should yield some beautiful basketball. As perhaps the best two-way team in the league, even with their health concerns, betting against the Spurs just doesn’t seem wise. At this point, the smart money still has them being one of the final four teams in the conference, at least. And finally, going back-to-back? It certainly isn’t out of the question.

1st place – Southwest Division

–    Moke Hamilton

The Spurs aren’t going anywhere. This is one of the best organizations in sports because they’re a perennial contender and they are a model franchise when it comes to finding and developing talent. The latest example is Finals MVP Kawhi Leonard, who should only continue to improve this year. San Antonio did a good job bringing back Gregg Popovich, Tim Duncan, Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw this summer, while adding Kyle Anderson – one of the most intriguing rookies in this class due to his versatility. This year (and, it seems, every year for all of eternity) the Spurs will be in the mix to win it all. We’ve all learned to never bet against San Antonio, and Leonard could be poised for a monster season to follow up his amazing Finals series.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Alex Kennedy

After making just minor changes two summers ago when they lost in the NBA Finals, you knew the Spurs were going to be quiet this offseason while everyone else tried to put together a team that could compete against them. The Western Conference is going to be tough as always, but every team still appears to be a notch below the Spurs. It’s the Cleveland Cavaliers and Chicago Bulls out East that look like they could be troublesome for them, but that’s a long ways down the line. For years, I’ve been guilty of writing their obituary prematurely and thinking that they’re done as contenders. However, it’s impossible to make that mistake this year. I’m hard pressed to think of a team that is as well-rounded and complete as this year’s Spurs team. Outside of injuries, it’s hard to see anything getting in their way of another championship.

1st Place – Southwest Division

– Yannis Koutroupis

Top Of The List

Top Offensive Player: Tony Parker. Parker’s scoring average dipped nearly four points from 20.3 in ’12-13 to 16.7 in ’13-14, but that was due more to the health of his surrounding cast and the improvement of guys like Kawhi Leonard, Danny Green and Boris Diaw than any drop off in Parker’s game. Parker remains one of the league’s most difficult covers, and he had an efficient true shooting percentage of .555 with a 25.7 usage percentage and a PER of 19. The improvements he’s made as a jump shooter have made him virtually unguardable. He still prefers the drive over the jump shot, but the 25 threes he hit at a 37 percent clip last year were among the best marks of his career. For someone who used to drive Coach Pop nuts and get benched for his decision making, Pop now has the utmost trust in him and gives him as much freedom as he’s ever given any player.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard. When the San Antonio Spurs traded George Hill for Leonard in the 2011 NBA Draft, a big part of their reasoning was his defensive potential. They felt like he had the tools to be an elite-level perimeter defender, something the franchise had been sorely lacking since the retirement of Bruce Bowen. Fast forward three years ahead and Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich now has the confidence in Leonard to call on him to defend any position one through four. In an era that will largely be remembered by LeBron James’ dominance, no player has proven to be more effective in defending him than Leonard. He was tapped as the Spurs’ next great player after his rookie year by Coach Pop, and that’s the more accurate way to describe him now.

Top Playmaker: Tony Parker. One of the things that makes the Spurs such an efficient and difficult team to defend is that they have several quality playmakers and no matter what combination is on the floor, everyone is a willing passer. In terms of pure court vision and the ability to find make plays for others that the average player doesn’t even think to attempt, Manu Ginobili, Boris Diaw and rookie Kyle Anderson may be the best on the team. However, as the point guard and facilitator of the offense, the top playmaker is Parker. His assists dropped from 7.6 in ’12-13 to 5.7 in ’13-14, but he still led the team in dimes and by virtue of his offensive responsibilities, blazing speed and the ability to break down defenses with regularity, he should lead the team in assists once again in ’14-15.

Top Clutch Player: Tony Parker. This is another one that could go to a number of players. Manu Ginobili has often found himself with the ball in his hands because of his unpredictability and craftiness, while Tim Duncan gets a lot of touches with the game on the line as well, whether it be inside the paint or even beyond the arc in a pinch. However, Parker has become the captain of the offense and is the guy who has earned the right to have things flow through him with the game on the line. At this point in his career, with four championship rings to his credit, Parker has seen it all and done it all. There’s no position he hasn’t been in and while he’s surrounded by other quality options in the clutch, he’s become option number one when it matters most. Just by virtue of Popovich’s approach, though, he will give other guys opportunities in the clutch, especially in the regular season, just for growth and development purposes. When it truly matters, though, a play call designed for Parker to make a play, whether it be pass or shoot, is likely coming.

The Unheralded Player: Tiago Splitter/Boris Diaw. It’s too difficult to gives this honor to either Diaw or Splitter, so we’ll split it among the two of them and call them the co-unheralded players. There were a lot of people calling for the Spurs to let Splitter walk in free agency two summers ago and the Portland Trail Blazers were ready to sign him away if they would have let him, but they matched the Trail Blazers’ offer and were rewarded for their faith in him as he played a critical role in their run to a championship. The same can be said about Diaw, who was basically run off by the Charlotte Hornets. It took him a year to really come into his own and get into shape the way that Pop wanted him to, but Diaw was stellar in the playoffs and in the discussion for Finals MVP. With both being very skilled, unselfish and locked up with new contracts for the next few years, the Spurs have perfect complements to play alongside Tim Duncan and make sure that his work load stays manageable throughout the regular season.

Best New Addition: Kyle Anderson. The uniquely versatile UCLA product takes this honor by default as the San Antonio Spurs had a very quiet offseason. Anderson is the only new, fully-guaranteed contract on the books from last year, as the team opted to just re-sign Patty Mills and Boris Diaw while adding a couple of non-guaranteed camp invites during free agency. Anderson is likely to see far more time in the D-League with the Austin Toros than with the Spurs, not so much because the 30th overall selection in the 2014 NBA Draft couldn’t contribute, but because there’s simply not room in the rotation. Once Diaw was re-signed, Anderson’s chances at having anything that resembles a significant role went out the window. If Aron Baynes ends up staying with the team, that’s another spot down the depth chart that Anderson falls. This year is going to be about watching and learning for Anderson, unless an unfortunate string of injuries leads to him being called on out of necessity, or he surprisingly outplays those in front of him.

– Yannis Koutroupis

Who We Like

Kawhi Leonard: There’s something about the bright lights, NBA Finals stage and LeBron James that brings out the best in Kawhi Leonard, the reigning Finals MVP. His rapid development into one of the best small forwards in the game has perfectly coincided with the end of his rookie contract, which can be extended before October 31. The Spurs have a history of taking care of their own and considering how irreplaceable Leonard is, they’d likely prefer to get something done prior to the deadline and avoid going through restricted free agency with him next summer. Leonard would likely fetch a max offer sheet in that scenario and is justified in asking for it now. Traditionally the Spurs have been able to keep their stars at a discount and have only handed out a couple of max contracts. There will probably be some back and forth in negotiations, but because both sides want to work out a deal, it’s safe to say they’ll find a middle ground – and Leonard will walk away with the handsome pay day that he has more than earned.

Gregg Popovich: Even though Phil Jackson still has him more than doubled in total championships, it’s starting to get really hard not to call Popovich the greatest coach of all-time. Two years ago he came within a game of winning the championship, then without any major roster changes, came back and won the championship in convincing fashion this past season. He’s always quick to give all of the credit to the players, but coaching had as much to do with their championship run last year as any single individual did. What makes it even more impressive is that he was able to do it without two of his longtime assistants in Brett Brown and Mike Budenholzer, who earned head coaching jobs with the Philadelphia 76ers and Atlanta Hawks, respectively. Popovich is a living legend in coaching who every coach strives to be like. His impact on his profession will last long after he decides to call it a career.

Tim Duncan: Duncan cemented himself as the greatest power forward to ever play the game years ago. What he’s done since is distance himself from the competition in a manner that may never be matched and put himself in the discussion of greatest players ever. He’s aged as gracefully as any player in league history, and at 38 years of age he remains one of the best players at his position. He’ll forever go down as the ideal franchise player because of his selflessness, work ethic and the way he’s adjusted his game to remain a serious force at an age other greats became a complete non-factor at. Perhaps most impressive of all is the way he’s embraced guys like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and now Kawhi Leonard sharing the spotlight with him. He takes as much joy in their success as he does his own, a quality that cannot be taught.

R.C. Buford: In a day and age when most executives are graded by the major trades or free agent signings they make, Buford has built a dynasty off of elite scouting, patience and internal development. Clashes between management and coaching happen frequently throughout the league, yet the only time you’ve heard of a conflict between Buford and Pop was when Pop suggested that he was ready to maybe just work in the front office, and Buford declined, telling him “I need a coach, not a general manager.” That turned out to be another wise decision in the long line of them that Buford has made at the helm of the Spurs. Without the ability to spend freely or go into the luxury tax, Buford has always found a way to keep the Spurs competitive and he believed in his stars longer than most executives would have. Unfortunately for rival executives with aspirations of following his blueprint, it’s really rare for ownership to display the kind of belief and commitment to his vision that the Spurs’ owners have. He may not garner the same kind of mainstream attention that Duncan or Popovich do, but make no mistake about it, Buford is one of the best to ever hold his position as well.

– Yannis Koutroupis

Strengths

The Spurs are a deep, talented, experienced and unselfish team with great chemistry. You never hear of issues in their locker room because they look at the character of a player before they look at their talent level and make sure they only bring in guys who fit into their system and put the team first. Offensively the Spurs scored 108.2 points per 100 possessions, which ranked sixth in the league, with impressive efficiency (53.7 effective field goal percentage and 57.1 true shooting percentage – both ranked in the top three). Popovich has really opened up the playbook, allowed for more running in transition and given shooters like Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green the green light to fire as they see fit from beyond the arc. Everyone is involved offensively, evident by their league leading 19.1 assists per game. The real reason the Spurs were able to get back to hoisting the Larry O’Brien trophy, though, was their improved defense. They only allowed 100.1 point per 100 possessions, the fourth best mark in the league. Leonard and Tiago Splitter were really key in that aspect. If the Spurs continue to defend at that level, a sixth championship is going to be well within reach.

– Yannis Koutroupis

Weaknesses

You can’t really mention any weaknesses on the Spurs without coming off as nitpicky. They’re a complete team that can play just about any style of basketball. Statistically they were close to middle of the pack with their rebounding rate, but were still in the top half and it certainly wasn’t an issue as they ran into teams in the Western Conference Finals and NBA Finals that played primarily small ball. They are one of the older squads in the league, so there’s injury concerns, but every team, regardless of their age, can be set back by untimely injuries. The Spurs’ age may make them slightly more susceptible to them, though. On the court, they’ve struggled to find backups for Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker that are consistently reliable, but have gotten by just fine with what they have and often just utilize the versatility of Manu Ginobili and Boris Diaw when they’re not getting what they need from whoever is Parker and Leonard’s back up at the time.

– Yannis Koutroupis

The Salary Cap

The Spurs still have their full Mid-Level (5.3 million) and Bi-Annual (2.1 million) Exceptions, but have already committed to 14 guaranteed players.  The team has three partially guaranteed players (Bryce Cotton, JaMychal Green and Josh Davis) fighting for the one remaining roster spot — each with small promises ($50k, $60k and $20k, respectively).  The team has also been linked to free agent forward Michael Beasley.  Aron Baynes remains a restricted free agent, and could take that 15th guaranteed spot if he accepted the Spurs’ $1.1 million qualifying offer – although both he and the Spurs may be looking for a sign and trade instead.  Carrying a championship roster, San Antonio is well below the luxury tax threshold ($76.8 million) with just $67.8 million in guaranteed commitments.  The Spurs also have a $1.5 million traded player exception for Nando De Colo, expiring on 2/20/15.

– Eric Pincus

Dunc’d On

Best Case

64-18

At first blush, it is hard to imagine the Spurs exceeding last year’s mark even if they are firing on all cylinders since Popovich so rarely puts his foot on the gas during the regular season.  Yet it should be remembered that last season’s number one seed was accomplished with myriad injuries throughout the early part of the year.  Parker played only 68 games, Leonard 66, Green 68 and Splitter 59.  Ginobili also played only 68 games, although he so regularly misses time that a higher total for him seems unlikely. But a few more games from those players and the Spurs could conceivably exceed last year’s total, although the injury to Patty Mills that will keep him out much of the year could hurt.

Worst Case

55-27

The Spurs’ depth and system-based success gives them perhaps the lowest floor of any team, as one key injury will affect them less than other good teams.  But age-related declines from Duncan, Ginobili, Diaw and perhaps most importantly Parker could cause the Spurs to take a bit of a step back.

– Nate Duncan

The Burning Question

Will age and/or complacency catch up to the Spurs?

With last year’s team that was the best in the league by a significant margin back intact and geared up for another run, there’s very few things that can get in their way of a third straight Finals appearance and potentially a second-straight championship. Recently, Coach Pop came out and said that he was worried about complacency, a legit concern considering that last year’s team was fueled by their failures from the previous year, where they came so close but ultimately fell in seven games to the Miami HEAT. They’re not going to have that this year, but considering the maturity level, experience and competitiveness of this team, those banking on complacency knocking them off their throne will likely be disappointed. The most pressing issue is their age and the injury concerns that come with it. Their core has a lot of miles on their legs. With an average age of 28 years and two months, the Spurs have the fourth-oldest team in the league (without Kawhi Leonard, Cory Joseph and Kyle Anderson, the Spurs would have the oldest roster in the league by three years). Coach Pop has become magnificent at managing his aging stars’ minutes, even if it costs him money for giving guys a night off, but injuries are a part of the game and sometimes unavoidable. They’re already going to be starting the season without Patty Mills, but should benefit from the fact that most of their roster, outside of Boris Diaw and Tiago Splitter – who played for France and Brazil in the FIBA World Cup, respectively – had a restful summer.

– Yannis Koutroupis

Yannis Koutroupis is Basketball Insiders' Managing Site Editor and Senior Writer. He has been covering the NBA and NCAA for seven years.

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Second Half NBA Story lines

With the All-Star break in the rearview, here are the key storylines to keep an eye on for the home stretch of the season.

Dennis Chambers

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The long winter has ended.

Ok, not really. But the break after All-Star weekend has finally come to a halt, and the second half of the NBA season is ready to get underway.

Each team has around 25 games remaining on the schedule. February is in its last week, and March and April will truly define how the May schedule aligns. The first leg of this season provided more than enough entertainment, combating the narrative that the regular season is a bit of a bore nowadays.

Because of some unexpected turns through the 50-plus games already played, this final stretch that will bring the regular season to a close should be more than entertaining for the fans that think the NBA season is just a six-month placeholder for the inevitable.

So, as we get ready to bounce back into action Thursday night, let’s focus on what needs to be monitored down the homestretch.

Houston Rockets can make the Finals

When the Golden State Warriors signed Kevin Durant, a narrative swept across the league that everyone not in the Bay area should just wave the white flag. Game over.

After dropping just one game through the entire postseason last year, completely decimating LeBron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers in the Finals, the assumptions were proved correct.

But things may be different this year.

The Houston Rockets are trying to end the Warriors’ Durant-Era dynasty before it starts. After trading for Chris Paul in the offseason, the Rockets are in a legitimate position to pose a threat to Golden State.

At the moment, the Rockets have the best offense in the NBA. But, not just for this season, for every season. Their efficiency is revolutionary and unprecedented. Their defense is improved, too. Ranking 18th in defensive rating last season, Houston is eighth this season, and proving to be competent enough on that end to get a few stops of their own against the Warriors. In fact, Houston has won two of the three meetings between the two Western Conference powerhouses so far this season.

For all of the damage Houston put on the league pre-All-Star break, and even leaping Golden State in the standings, the oddsmakers are taking notice.

Take a look at how drastically the Rockets’ odds at contending for a title have changed from the summer to present day. According to this odds tracker on Sports Betting Dime, Houston has almost entered the same realm as Golden State in the bettors’ mind.

Postseason basketball is a different beast, and Durant and Steph Curry are as formidable a tandem as any (not to mention their supporting cast), but the growing pile of statistics that says Houston has more than a puncher’s chance is becoming hard to ignore.

These last 25 or so games will be telling as to if the Rockets are truly a team that can go shot-for-shot with the mighty Warriors.

LeBron’s new teammates

The trade deadline in Cleveland was basically a mass upheaval of the roster the Cavaliers had struggled with for the first four months of the season.

Isaiah Thomas, Dwyane Wade, Jae Crowder, Iman Shumpert, Derrick Rose and Channing Frye were all shipped from The Land in hopes to bring LeBron James new players that could help him back to his eighth straight Finals appearance.

So far, so good.

The return that brought George Hill, Rodney Hood, Jordan Clarkson and Larry Nance Jr., into wine and gold gave the Cavaliers a much-needed boost heading into the All-Star break. Since the trade, Cleveland has won three straight games, the last two including a blowout victory against the Boston Celtics, and a road win in Oklahoma City.

But, before the roster turnovers, the Cavaliers were one of the league’s worst defensive units. Their lack of consistent effort on a nightly basis was beginning to spread doubt in the basketball minds across the league that the team would be equipped enough to beat the Celtics or Toronto Raptors in the postseason.

Coming out of the break, the Cavaliers will take on another playoff contender in the Washington Wizards. Another strong showing from the new-look Cavs could further the belief that the team is now in a better position to make their way to a fourth straight Finals.

As the regular season comes to its final stages, close eyes will be kept on Hood, Hill, Nance and Clarkson. They’re the key to any real postseason success Cleveland hopes to have. We know LeBron will be there at the end, at this point, and it’s worth watching to see if it teammates can join him.

Tight Playoff Races

For all the talk that surrounds the lack of disparity and entertainment around the league, the playoff races in both conferences appear to be coming down to the wire.

In the West, the 10th-seed Utah Jazz is just two and a half games behind the 5th-seed Oklahoma City Thunder. In between the two clubs, Denver, Portland, New Orleans and the L.A. Clippers are all clawing for spots in the postseason.

Over their last 10 games, every team besides the Thunder is at least .500. The Jazz have won 11 straight games, the Clippers are 7-3 and surging, Denver is hoping to return Paul Millsap to their lineup soon, the Trail Blazers have the luxury of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum and while the Pelicans have lost DeMarcus Cousins, their three straight wins suggest they’re learning to live without Boogie.

That’s six teams fighting fiercely for four playoff spots. Each is deserving and well-equipped enough to make it to the postseason happen.

The West isn’t the only conference with a wild bunch at the bottom of the playoff standings. The Eastern Conference contenders also find themselves in the midst of a playoff battle post-All-Star break.

Just outside of the playoff picture at the moment, the Detroit Pistons, with new star Blake Griffin, are just four and a half games behind the 5th-seeded Indiana Pacers. Philadelphia, Miami and Milwaukee are all also vying for their spot in the playoffs.

At the moment, the Miami HEAT seems to be on the verge of being the odd man out, losing two straight before the break and seven of their last 10 games. As the Pistons begin to find new life with Griffin, they could bump Miami right out of the picture if their slide continues as games pick back up.

With a limited number of games remaining, each of these teams in both conferences cannot afford to fall into a rut. Coming down to the final weeks of the season, watching the playoff carousel develop will be entertaining and worthwhile.

In the blink of an eye, the 2017-18 regular season is almost over. Be sure to keep an eye on these unfolding storylines as the league charges towards playoff basketball.

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NBA Daily: Larry Nance Jr. Is Ready To Move On

At All-Star Weekend, Larry Nance Jr. talked about moving on from being traded, Dr. J and the love that Los Angeles still has for him.

Ben Nadeau

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At the end of the day, the NBA is a business and Larry Nance Jr. found that out the hard way when the Los Angeles Lakers traded him and Jordan Clarkson for Isaiah Thomas, Channing Frye and the Cleveland Cavaliers’ 2018 first-rounder just a few weeks ago.

Naturally, Nance was due back at the Staples Center nine days later to compete in the league’s annual slam dunk contest. Although he would finish second to the Utah Jazz’s Donovan Mitchell, Nance was frequently reminded just how many fans he still has out on the West Coast.

“It’s either one of two responses,” Nance said over the weekend. “Either people don’t understand how a trade works and they ask me why I left, or, you know: ‘Larry, we miss you, come back in free agency’ and stuff like that. So, either way, they’re kinda on my side — I mean, I’m still a little bit of purple and gold.”

Over his first three seasons, Nance had become a familiar contributor for the Lakers, using his rim-rocking athleticism to carve out a steady role under two different head coaches. Before he was moved to the Cavaliers, Nance was on pace to set career-highs in points (8.6), rebounds (6.8) and steals (1.4). This statistical rise also comes in the midst of his field goal percentage jumping all the way up to 59.3 percent — a mark that would rank him fifth-highest in the NBA if he qualified.* Given the noteworthy change of scenery, his current average of 3.6 field goals per game could grow as well.

But as the Lakers prepare for a potentially crucial offseason, the front office remained committed to shedding salary ahead of free agency, where they may or may not chase the likes of LeBron James, Paul George or DeMarcus Cousins. In just three short years, Nance had quickly become a fan favorite as a jaw-dropping in-game dunker and an improving prospect on a cheap rookie contract, so his involvement at the deadline may have come as a surprise to many as it was for him.

“It’s been a week, so, no, it’s still kinda like: ‘Jeez, I gotta pick up and move right now,’” Nance said. “So, no, I’m not fully adjusted, I’m not, for a lack of a better term, over it. But it’s still fresh in my mind, it’s something that is still kind of shocking.”

Nance, for his worries, is now a key member of the James-led Cavaliers, a franchise that has won 11 more games than the Lakers and sits in third place in the Eastern Conference. While the Cavaliers will likely have to go through the Boston Celtics or Toronto Raptors to reach their fourth consecutive NBA Finals, James himself has reached the championship series every year since the 2009-10 postseason. With the Cavaliers’ maniacal mid-season reboot — which also brought in Rodney Hood, George Hill and the aforementioned Clarkson — they could be poised for an encore performance.

Since he was acquired by Cleveland, Nance and the Cavaliers are 3-0 and, just like that, much of the lingering narrative has been reversed. As the Cavaliers look to further stabilize their season, Nance figures to play a large part down the stretch, particularly so as All-Star Kevin Love continues to rehab from a broken hand.

Still, Nance knows that the Cavaliers will certainly face some speed bumps along the way.

“It’s a learning process, obviously we started out super fast, but there will be a learning process,” Nance stated. “Just like there is with every team and every new group, so we’ll figure it out and we’ll get past it [for the] playoffs.”

But before he makes his first-ever postseason appearance, Nance returned to Los Angeles in an attempt to capture a slam dunk title, something his father — Larry Nance Sr. — did in the inaugural competition way back in 1984. In that contest, the older Nance famously upset Julius Erving and Dominique Wilkins to take home the crown in a nine-person field. On Saturday, Nance paid homage by changing into a retro Phoenix Suns uniform to execute his father’s signature dunk — the rock-the-cradle throwdown that won it all 34 years ago.

“For me, [his highlights were] like normal kid Sesame Street or Barney or something. I was watching his clips when I was growing up, so, yeah, I see it all the time,” Nance recalled.

But when asked what he remembers the most about those distant memories, the second generation son decidedly kept it in the family.

“The fact that he beat Dr. J,” Nance said. “Dr. J is normally thought of as almost like the dunk inventor, kinda brought the dunk contest back — but, really, [I remember] my dad.”

Although Nance couldn’t replicate his father’s success in the contest, his emphatic, springy dunks indicated that the 6-foot-9 skywalker could be an event staple for years to come. In one of the best dunks all night, Nance pulled off the rare double tap — a jam so technically difficult, that he immediately told the judges to look at the jumbotron to make sure they understood what exactly he had just pulled off.

Nance, for his original acrobatics, earned a perfect score of 50.

Earlier that day, Nance discussed the difficulty in standing out amongst a field of explosive guards.

“I think the guys that are taller and longer have a different skill-set than smaller guys,” Nance said. “Obviously, if the smaller guys do something, it looks super impressive because they got to jump a little bit higher, or it looks like they got to jump higher.

“There are ways for bigger guys to look good and I think I’ve got that hammered out.”

For now, Nance doesn’t know if he’ll return to the dunk contest next season after his narrow two-point loss to Mitchell. Instead, Nance wants to focus on helping the Cavaliers in their hunt for the conference’s top seed and, of course, with James, anything is possible. But it’s fair to say that Nance, who nearly pulled down a double-double (13 points, nine rebounds) in his second game with Cleveland, has gone from a rebuild to a legitimate contender in a flash.

“At the same time, I can’t wait for all this to be done with so I can just get back to learning how to gel and mesh with my new team,” Nance said.

From the West Coast to the Midwest, Nance is clearly ready to make some waves once again.

* * * * * *

*To qualify, a player must be on pace for 300 made field goals. As of today, Nance is on pace for 252.6.

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Updating the Buyout Market: Who Could Still Become Available?

Shanes Rhodes examines the buyout market to see which players could soon be joining playoff contenders.

Shane Rhodes

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While it may not be as exciting as the NBA Trade Deadline, another important date is approaching for NBA teams: the Playoff Eligibility Waiver Deadline.

March 1 is the final day players can be bought out or waived and still be eligible to play in the postseason should they sign with another team. As teams continue to fine-tune their rosters, plenty of eyes will be on the waiver wire and buyout market looking for players that can make an impact.

So who could still become available?

Joakim Noah, New York Knicks

This seems almost too obvious.

The relationship between Joakim Noah and the New York Knicks hasn’t been a pleasant one. Noah, who signed a four-year, $72 million contract in 2016, has done next to nothing this season after an underwhelming debut season in New York and has averaged just 5.7 minutes per game.

After an altercation between himself and Knicks head coach Jeff Hornacek at practice, Noah isn’t expected to return to the team. At this point, the best thing for both sides seems likely a clean break; there is no reason to keep that cloud over the Knicks locker room for the remainder of the season.

Noah may not help a playoff contender, but he should certainly be available come the end of the season.

Arron Afflalo, Orlando Magic

Arron Afflalo isn’t the player he once was. But he can still help any contender in need of some shooting.

Afflalo is averaging a career-low 12.9 minutes per game with the Orlando Magic this season. He is playing for just over $2 million so a buyout wouldn’t be hard to come by if he went asking and he can still shoot the basketball. A career 38.6 percent shooter from long distance, Afflalo can certainly get it done beyond the arc for a team looking to add some shooting or some depth on the wing. He doesn’t add the perimeter defense he could earlier in his career, but he could contribute in certain situations.

Vince Carter, Sacramento Kings

Vince Carter was signed by the Sacramento Kings last offseason to play limited minutes off the bench while providing a mentor for the Sacramento Kings up-and-coming players. And Carter may very well enjoy that role.

But, to a degree, the old man can still ball — certainly enough to help a contender.

Carter is 41-years-old, there is no getting around his age, but he can still provide some solid minutes off the bench. Playing 17.1 minutes per night across 38 games this season, Carter has averaged five points, 2.2 rebounds and 1.3 assists while shooting 35.3 percent from three-point range. Combining all of that with his playoff experience and the quality of leadership he brings to the table, Carter may be an ideal addition for a contender looking to make a deep playoff run.

Zach Randolph, Sacramento Kings

Like Carter, Zach Randolph was brought in by the Kings to contribute solid minutes off the bench while also filling in as a mentor to the young roster. Unlike Carter, however, Randolph has played much of the season in a starting role — something that is likely to change as the season winds down.

Randolph has averaged 14.6 points, seven rebounds and 2.1 assists in 25.6 minutes per game; quality numbers that any team would be happy to take on. But, in the midst of a rebuild, the Kings should not be taking minutes away from Willie Cauley-Stein, Skal Labissiere and (eventually) Harry Giles in order to keep Randolph on the floor.

As he proved last season, Randolph can excel in a sixth-man role and would likely occupy a top bench spot with a team looking to add rebounding, scoring or just a big to their rotation down the stretch.

Wesley Matthews, Dallas Mavericks

Wesley Matthews remains one of the most underrated players in the NBA. He provides positional versatility on the floor and is a solid player on both sides of the ball.

So, with Mark Cuban all but saying the Mavericks will not be trying to win for the remainder of the season, Matthews is likely poised for a minutes dip and seems like an obvious buyout candidate. Matthews, who has a player option for next season, has averaged 12.9 points, 3.2 rebounds, 2.8 assists and 1.2 steals this season across 34.1 minutes per game this season.

If Cuban is true to his word, both parties would be better served parting ways; the Mavericks can attempt to lose as many games as possible while Matthews can latch on to a team looking to win a title. It’s a win-win.

Isaiah Thomas, Los Angeles Lakers

Isaiah Thomas’ three-game stint with the Los Angeles Lakers before the All-Star break looked much like his short tenure with the Cleveland Cavaliers: up-and-down. Thomas shined in his Laker debut, putting up 25 points and six assists in just over 30 minutes.

He then followed that up with three points and two assists, and seven points along with five assists in his second and third games with the team, respectively.

Thomas needs time to get himself right before he can start playing his best basketball. Re-establishing his value is likely his top priority.

But will he be willing to come off the bench for a team that won’t be making the postseason?

With Lonzo Ball close to returning, Thomas will likely move to the Laker bench. Adamant in recent years that he is a starting guard in the NBA, Thomas may be more inclined to take on that role for a team poised to make a deep playoff run — there is no shortage of teams that would be willing to add Thomas’ potential scoring prowess while simultaneously setting himself up for a contract and, potentially, a starting role somewhere next season.

Other Names to Look Out For: Channing Frye, Shabazz Muhammed, Kosta Koufos

There are still plenty of players that can make an impact for playoff-bound teams should they reach a buyout with their current squads. And, as the Postseason Eligibility Waiver Deadline approaches, plenty of teams out of the running will move quickly in order to provide their guys an opportunity to find their way to a contender.

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