Entering March 11 at 37-29, the San Antonio Spurs are clinging to the seventh seed in the Western Conference. The club finds itself staring at the possibility of missing the playoffs, remarkably, for the first time since 1997. It’s been 20 consecutive seasons of postseason basketball in San Antonio, but as the Houston Rockets showed us when their winning streak was snapped at the Raptors on Thursday night, all good things must come to an end.
Or, in this case, should.
Let’s be real for a second. There’s no way on earth that a team coached by Gregg Popovich would go out and cheat the game of basketball by not trying to win at all costs. But understand something here; the last time the Spurs failed to make the playoffs, it led them to Tim Duncan.
With the 2018 NBA Draft considered to be quite deep, it might not be the worst thing in the world for the Spurs to find themselves on the outside looking in once the playoffs began.
Where the team may have a distinct advantage is in Kawhi Leonard, and with him, it’s worth believing that the Spurs could pull off an improbable upset should they get into the playoffs. As teams arrive at the 70 games played mark, ankles are tender and knees are creaky. It’d be difficult to find any significant rotation piece that is at or near 100 percent, and Leonard would likely be laughing in the face of whoever is crossmatched against him.
Having only played nine game so far this season, should Leonard return for the season’s final 12 to 15 games, he would presumably have enough time to get himself back into game shape and find his rhythm heading into the playoffs. If the Spurs were to finish as the seventh or eighth seed, they should be considered a worst case scenario matchup for either the Rockets or the Golden State Warriors.
Mind you, despite his success, Mike D’Antoni is 0-5 against Popovich in the playoffs. There’s probably a reason for that.
Don’t forget, the Spurs were the only team that seemed to have the Warriors on the ropes in Game 1 of the Western Conference Finals. One turn of Leonard’s ankle changed everything, though.
So yes, if there is one team to believe can cause disruption, it’s probably the Spurs. But as currently equipped, are the Spurs truly capable of becoming champions? With Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili relegated to 20-game per minute rotation pieces, should we really believe that 32-year-old LaMarcus Aldridge, 37-year-old Pau Gasol, 31-year-old Rudy Gay and the collection of pieces that include Danny Green, Patty Mills, Kyle Anderson and Dejounte Murray are capable of winning all the marbles?
Perhaps they are, but Tim Duncan isn’t walking through that door, and for that reason, betting on these Spurs is a risky proposition, at best.
If there’s one thing Popovich has done over the years, it’s been making the most of what he’s been given. And if there’s one thing that the scouting staff in San Antonio has done consistently, it’s been hit home runs with the picks they’ve been given.
Here’s something truly remarkable: since the Spurs drafted Tim Duncan first overall in the 1997 NBA Draft, by virtue of their dominance, their own draft pick has never been earlier than 20th overall. What they have done, however, is turn late first round picks and second round picks whose perceived value was quite low into home run talents.
The three most famous examples of this point are Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and George Hill. Ginobili was selected with the 57th overall pick in the 1999 NBA Draft, Parker was selected with the 28th pick in the 2001 NBA Draft and Hill was selected with the 26th pick in the 2008 NBA Draft.
Parker and Ginobili became Hall of Famers and two of the three best players on a perennial contender that was able to win four championships. Hill became such a great player in San Antonio that he was almost immediately believed to the successor to Parker, whose value had increased so much so that the prevailing thought among scouts and agents was that the Spurs would opt to let Parker walk as a free agent.
Instead, in a surprise move, the Spurs opted to trade Hill for a little known commodity who would become the MVP of the 2014 NBA Finals, Kawhi Leonard.
Aside from the obvious winning picks, here are the other notable selections made by the Spurs over the years: John Salmons (26th pick in 2002), Luis Scola (55th pick in 2002), Leandro Barbosa (28th pick in 2003), Beno Udrih (28th pick in 2004), Ian Mahinmi (28th pick in 2005), Tiago Splitter (28th pick in 2007), Goran Dragic (45th pick in 2008) and Cory Joseph (29th pick in 2011).
Although some of those picks may have been made at the behest of other teams (some of them were involved in draft day trades), an important theme in San Antonio has been the maximizing of their draft assets. For example, Salmons was traded on to the Philadelphia 76ers on draft night, but the Spurs got Speedy Claxton in return. Claxton became an important rotation player on the 2003 championship team.
So, in all of that, ask yourselves a simple question… Would the Spurs be better served by qualifying for the playoffs this season? If the playoffs began today and the seeds help, they would be crossmatched against the Warriors in the first round. Although it is still mathematically possible for the team to finish as highly as third, the Spurs have the third most difficult schedule remaining—only the Suns and Pacers will face tougher opponents, according to tankathon.com.
In a draft featuring plenty of impact prospects projected to be selected in the lottery, the Spurs may have improbably experienced injury setbacks to their star player in the right season.
The night is often darkest just before the dawn. And remember, the season before the Spurs ended up with Tim Duncan, their future Hall of Fame cornerstone, David Robinson, had persistent injury issues.
History often repeats itself, and in San Antonio, depending on how things shake out, we may be in the process of becoming witnesses.
NBA Daily: Trade Watch Northwest Division
David Yapkowitz identifies and breaks down the potential trade candidates in the Northwest Division.
We kick off a new series this week at Basketball Insiders. With the Jimmy Butler saga finally over, we’re taking a look at other players in each division who are possible trade candidates.
Some teams have holes in their respective rosters that they need to patch up. Others have contracts that are expiring or just don’t make sense for the team anymore. Some players and teams just need to move on at this point for a variety of reasons. Here’s a look at some of those situations, starting with the Northwest Division.
1. Tyus Jones – Minnesota Timberwolves
There’s an argument to be made that when he actually receives regular playing time, Tyus Jones is the best overall point guard on the Timberwolves’ roster. He’s been the primary backup for Minnesota for the time being with Jeff Teague out with an injury.
However, with Derrick Rose’s reemergence this season, it remains to be seen what happens once Teague returns. It’s no secret that Tom Thibodeau has his preference for veteran guys and Jones has often found himself as the odd man out. The Phoenix Suns, desperate for a point guard, have been rumored to have interest in him.
Jones was apparently close with Butler, if that means anything, and it just seems like his future is elsewhere. If the Timberwolves aren’t going to use him properly, then maybe a split is necessary. Should Minnesota really look to deal him, they probably won’t have any shortage of suitors.
2. Gorgui Dieng – Minnesota Timberwolves
A few years ago, Gorgui Dieng looked like an up and coming prize for Minnesota. He ended up being rewarded with a big contract based off of that. But since then, he’s seen both his playing time and production decrease.
The Timberwolves reportedly tried to include Dieng in possible deals for Butler in order to offload his contract. Obviously that didn’t happen, and Minnesota is locked into his contract for two more seasons after this one.
Backup big man Anthony Tolliver has surpassed Dieng in the rotation at this point as he’s a better fit as a stretch big man in today’s NBA. It’s hard to imagine any team trading for Dieng straight up with that contract but the Timberwolves could try and include him any potential Jones deal.
3. Oklahoma City Thunder – In Need of Outside Shooting
The Oklahoma City Thunder don’t have any bad contracts per se, nor do they have any players that they’re aggressively looking to move on from. They do, however, have a glaring need and that is three-point shooting.
Currently, they’re shooting 30.1 percent from the three-point line as a team. That’s not going to get it done in today’s league if they truly want to be among the Western Conference’s elite. They do have Patrick Patterson reemerging as one of the better stretch fours in the league (38.6 percent), but after that everyone just kind of drops off a bit.
The Thunder could certainly use the addition of another outside shooter as the season goes on. Kyle Korver is rumored to be available although he’s been linked to Philadelphia recently. Perhaps they could put in an inquiry with the Miami HEAT about Wayne Ellington if the HEAT continues to struggle. Either way, unless the guys they already have step up, perimeter shooting will need to be addressed.
4. Meyers Leonard – Portland Trail Blazers
It’s not that Meyers Leonard has been bad for Portland, he’s actually been decent so far this season. But with the contract he has, Portland isn’t getting the value they expected when they entered that deal.
Instead, Zach Collins has supplanted him in the rotation, and Caleb Swanigan is close to doing so as well. Leonard has been mentioned in trade rumors for some time, so perhaps this season is the one where he and the Blazers part ways. His contract is expiring next season so that might be enticing to some teams.
He isn’t a bad player, and there might be a team out there willing to take a chance on an athletic big man who can run the floor and even stretch defenses out to the three-point line. At any rate, it might be time for both parties to go their separate ways.
5. Tyler Lydon – Denver Nuggets
The writing was on the wall when the Nuggets declined Tyler Lydon’s third-year option prior to the start of the season. He’ll be an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
He suffered an unfortunate injury early in his career and just hasn’t been given an opportunity to prove his worth as an NBA player. He played well in the G-League last season and has promise as a stretch big man. It’s just obvious that it won’t be realized in Denver.
He’s worth taking chance on for a team looking to add intriguing, youngish talent – especially since it shouldn’t cost too much to acquire him in a deal.
As the season progresses, there will be other situations around the division that might emerge on the trade front. But, as of now, these are arguably some of the most active situations to keep an eye on.
Tip-ins and Treys from Around the NBA
The Butler Has Arrived in Philly
If you’re a Sixers fan you have to be thrilled that their perennial number one picks, borne of spectacular franchise failure, are finally bearing fruit. Joel Embiid has more than lived up to his lofty billing and is averaging over 28 points per game this season while Ben Simmons is emerging as a young superstar in his own right. Although the jury is still out on Markelle Fultz, it appears that he is beginning to assimilate and trying to contribute to his team’s fortunes. But this group of young guns needed a bona fide All-Star veteran to add a maturity component that the team has been missing and they found the perfect complement in Jimmy Butler.
As we all know, Butler was a disgruntled member of the Minnesota Timberwolves and, at age 29, saw his window to compete for a championship in his prime dwindling by the day. Minnesota understood they had two chances of signing Butler after this season, slim and none, and Slim just left town. Although he has been called everything from feisty to irascible, Butler brings a passion that either turns teammates off or makes them better. It’s a fair assumption that his brand of swagger will have a positive effect on younger players which is why the Philly brass believes he will bring a championship conclusion to The Process.
Of course, it was regrettable that the 76ers had to deal young talent in Robert Covington and Dario Saric but if Philadelphia can lock up Butler to a long-term deal then it will be worth trade. However, if the four-time All-Star decides that the City of Brotherly Love is not his favorite place then it will be a costly one-year rental. Nevertheless, Butler brings the Sixers closer to the NBA Finals if the young blood buys into who he is and what he brings to the table. That question will begin to be answered when he dons a 76ers jersey for the first time on Wednesday night in Orlando.
Sun Setting on Melo in Houston
Carmelo Anthony was brought to Houston as an experienced veteran with enough gas left in the tank to serve in a capacity that is foreign to the 10-time NBA All-Star – role player. But the Houston Rockets have underperformed and underachieved this season as they sit in mid-November as a sub .500 club, a monumental fall from grace after a 65-win campaign last year. After a dismal 1-of-11 shooting night from the field that garnered all of two points in Houston’s 98-80 loss to Oklahoma City, Melo has been a DNP the last two games and it appears that this marriage is headed for an early divorce.
Anthony’s reps are reportedly reaching out to other clubs to see if there will be a taker for the 34-year-old’s services but as of this point, no one is answering the phone. The wheels have come off the wagon and the dynamic in the Western Conference is changing as the best online sportsbooks are dealing the surging Denver Nuggets as 4 ½ point home favorites over the Rockets on Tuesday night. To highlight how far the mighty have fallen, last February these teams met in Mile High and it was Houston that was favored by four and they did not disappoint their backers as they covered the number in a 119-114 victory.
Perhaps it’s just early season jitters for the Rockets and no one would be surprised if James Harden and the boys went on a prolonged winning streak. But right now they are just another struggling group looking to get on the right side of the standings. Whether Carmelo Anthony will be part of that resurgence, if it does indeed occur, is anyone’s guess.
NBA Daily: A Little Bit Of Trouble In Paradise
Even with all their success, the Warriors’ most recent incident may suggest that there’s something ugly going on internally, writes Matt John.
It’s tragic to see an all-time team crumble from within.
When an empire falls because of its own hubris, it’s dead forever. Teams like the Shaquille O’Neal-Kobe Bryant Lakers are a prime example of a fallen empire because of such. As the Lakers won titles year after year, the tension between the two of them became so palpable that their egos surpassed their talent, infecting their play on the court.
It was a shame that the dysfunction came to a head in 2004 because the Lakers had arguably their most talented team in the Shaq/Kobe era that year. Even with all the drama behind the scenes, they still made the NBA finals. We’ll never know for sure what could have been with the 2003-04 Lakers. What we do know was that everything blew up after that season because their superstars couldn’t stand each other anymore.
Nearly a decade-and-a-half later, we must now ask ourselves: Are we seeing the same thing happen to the Golden State Warriors?
If we’re basing this entirely off the incident that happened both during and after the Warriors and the Clippers squared off on Monday night, then absolutely not.
For those of you who don’t know, multiple Warriors – including Kevin Durant – got heated at Draymond Green after his attempt to be the hero at the end of regulation led to him losing the basketball as time expired. This forced the game into overtime, where the Warriors eventually lost. It was a rather questionable decision on Green’s part because, with all due respect to the three-time NBA All-Star, he had more reliable closers in both Durant and Klay Thompson to pass the ball to and he neglected them.
One thing should be made clear: Occurrences like these are pretty common. Teammates get in fights all the time, and not necessarily because they hate the others’ guts. They get into these little confrontations usually for the love of the game. Emotions understandably ran high after Green tried and failed to be the man as time expired. Certain things were brought up that are definitely worth going over, but this could easily be swept under the rug in a matter of weeks.
However, rumors of a potential Warriors’ self-combustion go all the way back to last June. After Golden State won its second consecutive title and third in the last four years, David West had this to say that caught our attention.
Warriors forward David West says there was a lot going on behind the scenes that people will be shocked about when it comes out.
— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpearsESPN) June 9, 2018
“Y’all got no clue. No clue. That tells you about this team that nothing came out,” David West said https://t.co/VkrrVYX86o
— Marc J. Spears (@MarcJSpearsESPN) June 9, 2018
Perhaps not everything was peachy in the Bay Area. West was calling it quits, so there was no need for him to hold anything back. Still, since he wouldn’t elaborate, all he said at that time could be dismissed as mere gossip.
What we had then was smoke. Now we have fire.
Something that’s also got people’s ears burning has been Durant’s caginess surrounding his upcoming free agency this summer. We can’t take that as proof of discord because it doesn’t prove a thing. Everything surrounding Durant’s silence in regards to his future is purely speculative.
Or, it was.
As Durant and Green had their confrontation in the locker room, Green reportedly brought up Durant’s impending free agency this summer. That is very telling of what might be on the Warriors’ minds, or at the very least, Green’s. It’s bothering him that he does not know what Durant plans are this summer. While Green may not be the most likable player in the league, his concerns are understandable. The uncertainty of a team’s long-term future can easily rattle any players’ mind. Just ask Cleveland.
Green could have made a better case for himself had he not reportedly called Durant an expletive name repeatedly. No matter what conclusions you may draw from this, the fact also remains that -after they got all the dirty laundry out – Green was suspended for one game.
Before all of this happened, all of the talks about the Warriors’ possible breakup was a bunch of hot air. Now, we have confirmation that things have gotten a little uneasy.
It’s also a possibility that this one little quarrel is as bad as it gets. Perhaps Green just had to get his concerns about Durant out in the open, and the two of them will cleanly resolve their issues. If this winds up being the height of the tension in Golden State, then this entire matter will be irrelevant as the Warriors pursue their third consecutive championship.
It also sounds impossible that a team that talented that has experienced that much success in the last several years would get sick of playing together. Some may think that what happened with O’Neal and Bryant was just an anomaly, but in recent years, we’ve seen a few elite players opt to leave their original teams in spite of their success.
Just a few months ago, Kawhi Leonard decided he didn’t want to be the face of arguably the league’s most well-run franchise anymore. The year before that, Kyrie Irving was fed up with being the Robin to LeBron James’ Batman despite a championship and two other finals appearances. Should it be mentioned that King James himself left his two previous teams after making the NBA Finals four consecutive times with both of them? Maybe what we’re seeing from this is that success does not always breed happiness and/or loyalty.
Getting back to the Warriors, say this is the first in a long line of public incidents that will compel Durant to leave. That doesn’t mean the end for Golden State. They still have the Splash Brothers, as well as Green. Managing the team without Durant wouldn’t be easy, but they won over 70 games without him three years ago. They’d probably still be a good enough team that it wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world if he left.
That is, of course, going off the notion that Durant is leaving this summer, which is by no means set in stone. As cliche as it sounds, we can only wait to see if things get worse from here for the Warriors.
But if things are actually as rocky as they appear, imagine what they could be like when DeMarcus Cousins comes back.