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NBA AM: Cavaliers Still Alive in Race for Eighth

The Cavaliers are still alive in the race for the East’s eighth seed, and they’re playing well … The Wizards end their five-season playoff drought

Alex Kennedy

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Cavaliers Still Alive in Race for Eighth

It is well documented that the New York Knicks and Atlanta Hawks are battling for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference. After last night’s games, the Knicks and Hawks are tied in the standings and the two teams will continue to compete with one another over the final two weeks of the season.

However, there is one other team that’s still alive in the race for the East’s eighth seed. The Cleveland Cavaliers are just two games back from the Knicks and Hawks, with a game against Atlanta this Friday. The Cavs have won five of their last six games, including victories over the Knicks, Toronto Raptors and Indiana Pacers, and they’re hoping to get some help and be the team that sneaks into the postseason.

“We are still in the hunt,” Dion Waiters said. “We still have a chance. We just have to take full advantage of it. At the end of the day, everybody knows what is at stake. We are coming in here focused and locked in. We just have to go out there and execute.”

“That’s the goal; the goal is to get into the playoffs,” Luol Deng said. “The best thing about it is now that we’re at the end of the season and in the race, guys see what they’re playing for. Every practice, every game, there’s a goal and it’s right there in front of us. Whatever level you’re playing at, it’s always good when everyone is on the same page and has the same goal. And I think these guys are learning from it and really enjoying it. A lot of them haven’t been to the playoffs. We’re all trying to do whatever it takes to make it. For me, it means a lot not only to see them go through it but because I think we deserve it. We’re a way better team in the second half than we were in the beginning of the season, so I just want to see the maturity of this team get rewarded.”

“This is the first time in my career where these games this late in the season are starting to mean something,” Kyrie Irving said. “We are playing against teams that are fighting for spots as well, so it makes the games that much more fun. We go out there and compete. Guys have to step up. These are big-time games coming up.”

“Everyone’s goal is to be a winner and part of being a winner is playing in the postseason,” Tristan Thompson said. “The fun thing about this year is that we put ourselves in a position where these last six games mean something. Now, we just need to go out there and compete and see what happens. …  We’re very confident.”

“There’s nothing tricky that we have to do,” Mike Brown said. “We just have to keep getting ready for the next thing that’s in front of us. Go out and practice hard. Go out and play hard. I think it’s just as simple as that.”

Cleveland is currently 31-45 and this has been a roller coaster season for the team. They’ve dealt with drama, trades, injuries and a front office change among other things. This season has largely been a disappointment considering the team entered the season with playoff aspirations and securing a postseason berth shouldn’t have been this difficult, especially given the state of the Eastern Conference.

However, the Cavs are finally living up to their potential and playing some of their best basketball of the season lately.

“We’ve been playing great basketball,” Waiters said. “We’re keeping the defense on their heels and pushing the ball and hitting the open guy. We’re just having fun out there.”

“We’re doing a good job of enjoying the games and playing together,” Deng said. “Once you start winning, you get a feel for it and start enjoying it more than anything. Then, you start trying to put some more games together. We have a great group of guys who really want to win. Now that we’ve put some games together and learned different ways to win, they’re enjoying it. We’re enjoying it. We’re just trying to stack up more wins.”

“We’ve made strides in the right direction, just moving the ball, making each other better and trusting one another,” Irving said. “We’ve just had a great rhythm.”

Right after Wednesday night’s 21-point victory over the Orlando Magic, the Cavaliers all got on their phones to see whether the Knicks and Hawks had won their games. New York beat the Brooklyn Nets while Atlanta lost to the Chicago Bulls. Cleveland knows they’ll need help in order to realize their postseason goal, so they’ve been paying close attention to the two teams ahead of them in the standings.

“Oh yeah, after our games I’ll go check the scores to see what’s going on around the league,” Waiters said. “I’m focused on them, mainly those two teams. I’ve been checking.”

“New York won by 29 and Atlanta is down seven right now; I’m checking every few minutes,” Thompson said with a laugh. “These games definitely mean a lot.”

On Friday, the Cavaliers play the Hawks. They have to win that game if they want to stay alive in the race for eighth, especially since Atlanta owns the tiebreaker over Cleveland by virtue of winning the season series.

“It is not completely in our hands, but if we can control what we have in front of us it puts us in a lot better position,” Spencer Hawes said. “[Friday’s game against Atlanta] is the next one up and is perhaps our biggest game of the season given the circumstances at this point.”

“Friday’s game means a lot to keep us in this race,” Thompson said. “They definitely kicked our butts last time we went out there, so it’s a great challenge for us.”

“They’re all big,” Brown said. “Let’s say if we go and we beat Atlanta, and we lose our next five? Every game we play, because of the position we put ourselves in, is a big game. We have to come and try to play the right way and see if we can get a win.”

Even if the Cavaliers don’t make the playoffs, their players realize that this late-season success is good for the team moving forward. It gives them a taste of the playoff race and can help them going into next season.

“It’ll be disappointing at the end of the day, but we’ll still go into the offseason with a lot of momentum and hopefully be able to start next season strong because of how we’re doing now,” Waiters said. “But it’s up to us to go out there and win these games. That’s all we need to do.”

When asked about Cleveland’s odds of making the postseason, Brown paused and then smiled.

“I don’t know, I’ve never been great when I’ve gone to Vegas,” Brown said. “I don’t try to guess that. I just know that where we are, we’ve got to play good basketball and we’ve got to go try to win. We put ourselves in this hole. The only thing we can do is our part, and have a chance.”

Wizards Are Heading to the Playoffs

The Washington Wizards’ five-season playoff drought is over.

With last night’s win over the Boston Celtics, the Wizards clinched a playoff spot for the first time since the 2007-08 season. The team is currently in the Eastern Conference’s sixth seed with a 39-36 record, which is a huge step forward for the franchise considering they were 117-277 over the last five years.

“It’s great, it’s everything I’ve been waiting for as a point guard,” John Wall said. “I’ve been trying to learn how to lead in this league and become a better player. Also, I think the fans deserve it. The tough times they went through of them booing us and us feeling bad when we weren’t playing good or playing the right way and having the right people around the organization. Those guys in the front office and the coaching staff are doing a great job of building us as players, and we’re trusting in their system and going out there and playing as a group, as one whole team. It means a lot.”

“It feels good, man,” Bradley Beal said. “It’s my second year, so I’m fortunate to be a part of a great group and be a part of this at an early age and it’s a good feeling to me. We still got seven games left in the regular season, but to be able to clinch the playoffs ourselves and get the win outright, it means a lot to us. …  It’s a great group of guys that the front office put together and we stuck together. We’ve been through a lot of ups and downs, a lot of injuries here and there, but ever since the last couple of years, we built it. Now, we have the pieces together and now we’re in the playoffs.”

“It’s huge, going to the playoffs,” Otto Porter said. “We’ve worked hard all year and to get rewarded with the playoffs is huge. It means a lot to this organization, to come out, to get this win, to clinch the playoffs. It’s what we’ve been keying on since the first day we all came together before training camp. This is definitely a big accomplishment for us.”

Wizards head coach Randy Wittman is thrilled that the team is finally having some success after struggling for so many years, and he’s excited for his players to experience the postseason.

“This is five years for me here, and we were in a desperate spot not too long ago,” Wittman said. “When I took over, I just tried to keep telling our guys, Ted [Leonsis] and Ernie [Grunfeld], let’s do this the right way and build this and teach, and one day we’re going to get here. Each year, we kept putting a piece here and there, kept developing, kept maturing. Even with Nene going down missing five, six weeks now, these guys didn’t blink an eye. We had some ups and downs like you always do and we’re still learning the process of what it takes to be a really good team, but I couldn’t be happier for those guys. To be through some of the times that we were in not too long ago and be able to say for guys like John that have never been in the playoffs, I keep trying to tell him the difference of how the arena is, the intensity is, how hard it’s played, how fast it is. It’s going to seem like a whole new game to these guys. I can’t wait for them to see it. I’m just as thrilled too. This is an opportunity for me as a head coach; this is my first time and I’m looking forward to it.”

Wall will make his playoff debut after watching the Wizards land in the lottery for the four seasons of his career. The 23-year-old has had an incredible year, making his first All-Star appearance and postseason appearance several months apart. When asked to compare the two accomplishments, Wall was clear that securing a playoff berth was much more important to him.

“This is bigger than that, I told ya’ll that,” Wall said. “All-Star is my own separate goal and what I wanted to accomplish for myself, but everything I do is for the team first. I wouldn’t be able to be an All-Star and have these individual accolades without those guys, a great group of teammates. Everything I do I put my teammates’ first and my coaching staff [first]. This is what everybody wanted as a group.”

Even though the Wizards have clinched a playoff spot, their final seven games are still important because they haven’t determined their seed yet. Washington could still climb to the fifth seed (they’re just a game and a half back from the Brooklyn Nets) or slide to the seventh seed (they’re only two games up on the Charlotte Bobcats). The team understands this and is remaining focused despite this achievement.

“I mean, you celebrate tonight and get ready to go on the road and win another game,” Wall said. “That’s the main thing for me, trying to finish the season as strong as possible and prepare ourselves for a great playoff seed.”

“We want to finish strong,” Porter said. “We don’t want to rest these next couple of games just because we are in the playoffs. We want to finish out feeling good about ourselves going into the playoffs.”

If the playoffs started today, the Wizards would take on the Toronto Raptors in the first round of the playoffs.

Alex Kennedy is the Managing Editor of Basketball Insiders and this is his 10th season covering the NBA. He is a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: Looking At The 2018 Draft Class By Tiers

The NBA Draft is a hard thing to predict, especially when it comes to draft order and individual team needs, Basketball Insiders publisher Steve Kyler takes a look at how this draft looks in tiers.

Steve Kyler

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Looking At The 2018 Draft In Tiers

While Mock Drafts are an easy way to look at how the NBA Draft might play out, what they do no do is give a sense of what a specific player might be as a player at the next level. With that in mind, we’re going to take a look at how some of the notable NBA draft prospects project.

It’s important to point out that situation and circumstance often impact how a player develops, even more so than almost any other variable.

So while the goal here is to give a sense of how some NBA teams and insiders see a draft prospect’s likely potential, it is by no means meant to suggest that a player can’t break out of his projection and become more or sometimes less than his he was thought to be.

Every draft class has examples of players projected to be one thing that turns out to be something else entirely, so these projections are not meant to be some kind of final empirical judgment or to imply a specific draft position, as each team may value prospects differently.

So, with that in mind, let’s look at the 2018 NBA Draft in Tiers.

The Potential Future All-Stars

DeAndre Ayton – Arizona – C – 7’0″ – 245 lbs – 20 yrs
Luka Doncic – Real Madrid – SG – 6’7″ – 218 lbs – 19 yrs
Michael Porter Jr – Missouri – SF/PF – 6’10” – 216 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Stars, But Likely High-Level Starters

Jaren Jackson Jr. – Michigan State – PF – 6’10” – 225 lbs – 19 yrs
Marvin Bagley III – Duke – PF – 6’11” – 220 lbs – 19 yrs
Wendell Carter – Duke – PF – 6’10” – 257 lbs – 19 yrs
Mohamed Bamba – Texas – C – 7’0″ – 216 lbs – 20 yrs
Collin Sexton – Alabama – PG – 6’2″ – 184 lbs – 19 yrs
Mikal Bridges – Villanova – SG/SF – 6’7″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Robert Williams – Texas A&M – C – 6’9″ – 235 lbs – 21 yrs
Miles Bridges – Michigan State – SF/PF – 6’7″ – 230 lbs – 20 yrs
Dzanan Musa – Cedevita – SF – 6′ 9″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Shai Gilgeous-Alexander – Kentucky – SG – 6′ 6″ – 181 lbs – 20 yrs
Trae Young – Oklahoma – PG – 6’2″ – 180 lbs – 20 yrs

Maybe Starters, But Surely Rotation Players

Kevin Knox – Kentucky – SF – 6’9″ – 206 lbs – 19 yrs
Troy Brown – Oregon – SG – 6’6″ – 210 lbs – 19 yrs
Khyri Thomas – Creighton – SG – 6′ 3″ – 210 lbs – 22 yrs
Zhaire Smith – Texas Tech – SG – 6′ 5″ – 195 lbs – 19 yrs
Rodions Kurucs – FC Barcelona B – SF – 6′ 9″ – 220 lbs – 20 yrs
Aaron Holiday – UCLA – PG – 6′ 1″ – 185 lbs – 22 yrs
Jacob Evans – Cincinnati – SF – 6′ 6″ – 210 lbs – 21 yrs
De’Anthony Melton – USC – PG – 6’4″ – 190 lbs – 20 yrs

The Swing For The Fence Prospects – AKA Boom-Or-Bust

Lonnie Walker – Miami – SG – 6’4″ – 206 lbs – 20 yrs
Mitchell Robinson – Chalmette HS – C – 7′ 0″ – 223 lbs – 20 yrs
Anfernee Simons – IMG Academy – SG – 6′ 5″ – 177 lbs – 19 yrs
Jontay Porter – Missouri – C – 6′ 11″ – 240 lbs – 19 yrs
Lindell Wigginton – Iowa State – PG – 6′ 2″ – 185 lbs – 20 yrs
Bruce Brown – Miami – SG – 6’5″ – 191 lbs – 22 yrs
Isaac Bonga – Skyliners (Germany) – SF/SG – 6’9″ – 203 lbs – 19 yrs
Hamidou Diallo – Kentucky – SG – 6’5″ – 197 lbs – 20 yrs

Players not listed are simply draft prospects that could be drafted, but don’t project clearly into any of these tiers.

If you are looking for a specific player, check out the Basketball Insiders Top 100 Prospects list, this listing is updated weekly.

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NBA Daily: Darius Adams, Around The World In Seven Years

CBA superstar Darius Adams talks to Basketball Insiders about dominating in China, playing with Andray Blatche and trying to prove himself.

Ben Nadeau

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Darius Adams is just like every other professional basketball player.

Every year, he works hard, tries to improve and be the best teammate possible. One day, Adams would like to earn his first-ever NBA contract, but after seven long years, he’s always fallen just short. Adams is just like you and me too — forever chasing his dreams even when the outlook is at its bleakest. But Adams’ worldwide journey has taken him from Indianapolis to China and nearly everywhere in between.

Now with a chunk of money saved up, Adams is ready to bet on himself and finally make this at-home ambition come true. Ahead lies a summer of grueling workouts and undetermined futures, but eventually, you learn to stop betting against Adams. From Los Prados to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, Adams has made a habit of proving the naysayers wrong. As if dropping 38 points per game in China wasn’t difficult enough — Adams still must undergo his toughest challenge yet: Changing the mind of an NBA front office.

But before you can know where Adams is going, it’s just as important to understand where he’s been.

*****

Darius Adams got a late start to basketball. He never played AAU, the so-called holy grail for teenage prospects, and told me that he learned the game by watching streetball in Decatur, Illinois. So by the time he fell in love with basketball, Adams was forced to take alternate routes to the top. He spent two years in the NJCAA with Lincoln College, a small, private liberal arts school approximately 33 miles away from home. During that second season, Adams averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game on 44 percent shooting from the floor — but it wasn’t enough to make the jump to a Division-I school.

After transferring to the University of Indianapolis, Adams continued to improve in each successive campaign. As a senior, he topped out with a 41-point effort against Illinois at Springfield and tallied 23.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Nevertheless, Adams still went undrafted in 2011, officially setting off a globe-spanning adventure that would make Phileas Fogg blush.

From China to Ukraine, Adams has played in seven different countries in as many years, also adding stops in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, France, Germany and Spain along the way. Adams may have turned 29 years-old this week, but he’s never considered giving up his dreams of playing in the NBA.

“That’s the goal, that’s always been my motivation,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “I just played my hardest and kept progressing, that was my thing — I didn’t want to be content with: ‘OK, you’re playing pro.’ I want to play at the highest level, I feel like I have the talent to play at the highest level.

“At the end of the day, I just need that opportunity.”

Opportunity is a word that has come to define Adams in many ways.

Beyond that, it’s something that has constantly eluded him, even as he began winning in bigger and better leagues. Despite all his international successes, including a EuroLeague Final Four appearance and a CBA championship, Adams has been unable to turn that into an NBA contract. As far as he can tell, it’s a matter of both perception and timing.

The perception of overseas athletes, particularly those that compete in China, has always been a hot-button issue. For as long as Americans have played in the CBA, there’s an unspoken expectation that they should dominate. Generalizations abound, if you’re from the United States and not dominating in China, there’s a low chance of earning an NBA deal. But sometimes, even topping the CBA charts still isn’t enough. This season, Adams averaged a league-leading 38.7 points and added 8.4 assists (2nd-best), 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals (3rd-best) per contest for good measure. On one hand, there’s the stat-padding, empty type of scoring and then there’s this: Absolute annihilation.

But those misconceptions about Chinese basketball often remain an unforgiving roadblock for many. Heck, even Adams had them before he signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers two years ago.

“It’s different, my perception was that there would be a lot of short guys that couldn’t play,” Adams said. “Actually, I was probably one of the shortest guys out there, as far as basketball players, and they got skills. They don’t get tired and they’re going to guard you tough, maybe they’re not as skilled as [Americans] are — but they got heart.

“I thought it was going to be easy, but they impressed me.”

And although Adams experienced his fallacies in real-time, he’s still waiting for the rest of the NBA to catch up.

Of course, Adams wasn’t the only American to tear up the CBA this season. Three other Americans, Brandon Jennings, Jonathan Gibson and MarShon Brooks, earned NBA deals this month. That trio of players all put up gaudy statistical lines as well, but none nearly as high as Adams’. Then there’s the case of Stephon Marbury, a former NBA All-Star that moved to China back in 2010, transforming his fringe-status career into a rejuvenated international icon. Marbury’s off-the-court philanthropy and three CBA championships speak for themselves, but Adams is often left wondering why it can’t work the other way around.

“You start questioning yourself, like: ‘What’s the reason why you’re not getting this opportunity?’” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Some of the teams [I’ve worked out for] come back and say, ‘Well, he hasn’t had NBA experience.’ But when am I going to get my NBA experience if I never get my chance?”

*****

The other frustrating factor for players like Adams to navigate is timing — and as he put it, timing is everything.

To his credit, Adams has never shied away from a challenge or attempted to outmaneuver anybody on this long-winding journey. When he goes to workouts, Adams tells franchises that he’d be more than happy to go against their top guys — however, whenever, or whatever it takes. He’s impressed during private workouts before, but his most recent chance came just as Adams was getting ready to fly back to China for another season. Timing, again, had failed him.

Between workouts too late in the offseason or contracts that needed to be honored, the timing just hasn’t quite worked out for Adams. And it’s not for a lack of trying either — Adams has played two years of summer league (one with the Nets, one with the Mavericks), initially tried his hand at the D-League in 2011 and spends every offseason carefully deciding where to go next.

But when he made the all-important choice to jump from Spain to China in 2016, it wasn’t without a plan.

“Honestly, when I left Spain, I was nervous to go to China because the fans were like, ‘You’re gonna hurt your career, basketball is not as good [there] as it is in Europe,’” Adams said. “So I had that in the back in my mind. Me and my agent had a plan that I’d go to China — the CBA season is way shorter than the European leagues — and then I’d come back in six, seven months and hopefully get on a roster before the end of the season.”

It’s difficult to measure the merits of a big-time scorer overseas, particularly so in China, but Adams has now undoubtedly smashed through his ceiling. For a kid that once started out at a tiny college in Illinois, Adams followed up his Finals MVP-winning campaign in 2016-17 by nearly averaging a 40-point double-double this year. And although he challenged himself to diversify his game between those back-to-back Chinese seasons, he never once thought he would do… well, that.

“I didn’t go into the season wanting to be the leading scorer, I just wanted to win games and another championship,” Adams said. “We had a lot of adversity this season because my teammate, Andray Blatche, got injured early and the offensive role changed to me. Going against double-teams, triple-teams, that was the challenging part, because I knew my team needed me. Dealing with the adversity, it was challenging — but if you put me up to the test, I’m always going to prove myself.”

Although Andray Blatche isn’t a name heard often these days, he’s certainly well-remembered for his time in the NBA. Over his nine-year career, Blatche played for the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets before heading overseas to China in 2014. While he, too, was part of the winning squad that brought the Flying Tigers their first-ever championship in 2017, Adams has also used the 6-foot-11 power forward like a soundboard. Frequently peppering him with questions about life in the NBA, Adams has nothing but adoration for Blatche, whom he now considers a close friend.

“I asked him what it was like to play with DWill, KG, how were the locker rooms, what were the practices like — but he also helped me see different things on the court,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Or, like, OK, I might be frustrated and in a bad place, he’d be like, ‘OK, D, you gotta let it go, you’re the leader of the team’ and things like that. Whenever I was down, he was there — he helped me out with being in China, adjusting to the food, where to go, he treated me like a little brother, actually.”

In order to make that second season in China count, Adams decided to focus on his untapped playmaking side, increasing his assist tally from 5.9 to that aforementioned 8.4 per game. For a while, he even thought that might’ve been why he hadn’t earned a 10-day contract yet, so into the grinder it went. Additionally, Adams dared himself to become a locker room leader, the kind of vocal, lead-by-example veteran that any franchise would value.

If the jaw-dropping statistics weren’t going to pave his path to the NBA, Adams was convinced he could find another way to grab front office attention.

“Right now, I’m already developed and can help [teams] win,” Adams said. “I haven’t reached my peak, I can still learn new things and keep progressing the same way. I’m already starting higher in the learning curve [than most young players] — but I’m also a good leader. I can be a scorer, I can be a defensive guy, I got all those qualities — I’m not just a one-dimensional player, I can help.”

*****

But as his season drew to a close in March (the sixth-seeded Flying Tigers were knocked out in the quarterfinals) Adams was, once again, without an NBA contract. In what Adams is now deeming one of the most important summers of his life, he’s going all-in on himself. Previously, Adams couldn’t ignore those lucrative million-dollar-plus deals, he had a family to look out for, after all. To him, it was a risk that he couldn’t take until this very moment. Sure, he could hit the G-League again — although he tried out for two teams, the Iowa Energy and Canton Charge, after going undrafted and was not selected — but there’s little money in that method.

Granted, Adams has always been motivated and hungry, but he’s got an extra push this time around.

“I’m going to all these different countries, I’m playing in their country — so why can’t play in my country?” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “If I’m one of the top players, how come I can’t get an opportunity in my country? Staying home, so my family can see me. My family has never seen me play overseas, only videos. You see all these other stories, like the guy that just played for the Lakers [Andre Ingram] — it took him ten years! It shows you to just never give up — all you need is an opportunity.

“I always tell my mom, my family, my kids that this year is gonna be the year. I’m gonna get my opportunity and I’mma be playing at home — daddy’s gonna be playing at home.”

Adams has always been a late bloomer — he’s forever the product of a once-raw teenager with no AAU experience. He’ll always be the barely 6-foot point guard that jumped into the NCJAA, quickly validated himself and then excelled in Division-II as well. But if you’re looking for a reason to disparage Adams’ hopes and dreams, you need not look further than this. How could somebody with those glaring blemishes ever play at the NBA level and against the best the sport has to offer?

Lest you forget, however, Adams is also the guy that will never stop fighting or believing in himself. Adams is the one that averaged 18 points in Ukraine and Germany and didn’t settle. The higher he climbed, the better he got. When he aced the test in France, he went to Spain and then got all of this. When Adams needed to adapt and change his game depending on the surrounding roster or culture — he did that too. But most importantly, Adams is tired of playing from behind and tired of missing his young family’s most key moments.

And now, with a whole offseason ahead of him, Adams is ready to do something about it once and for all.

“I’m staying prepared for whenever they have an opportunity, I’m betting on myself this whole summer and really taking a chance,” Adams said. “This year, I have enough saved up to really bet on myself. So, the goal is to just go to these workouts, get in front of these guys and show ‘em what I can do.

“That’s all I’ve ever needed, I don’t want anybody to just hand over a contract — I want to prove myself. I feel like I can make an impact — if you don’t think so, put me up against your guys and I’ll prove it.”

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NBA Daily: This Might Be the Spurs’ Final Stand

The bizarre Kawhi Leonard situation won’t resolve itself cleanly, which means the Spurs may have to pull the plug, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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“All good things must come to an end.” – Chaucer in 1374

If there is one team that has been the closest to replicating the Boston Celtics’ dynasty from the Bill Russell days, it has been the San Antonio Spurs. Over the past two decades, the Spurs have established a consistent model of winning thanks to Hall of Fame talent, legendary coaching and other-worldly scouting.

The only other team in the entire world of sports that has rivaled the Spurs’ prolonged success in the 21st century has been the New England Patriots. However, much like the Patriots, there have been more and more reports recently of dysfunction behind the scenes, with superstar Kawhi Leonard front and center to all of it. If things really are as bad as they appear to be, then Kawhi’s days as a Spur are numbered, and by the same token, so are the Spurs’ days of contention.

No one knows what exactly is going on with Leonard at the moment. There have been reports that, physically, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is fully capable of returning to the floor, but he chooses not to. Now, his rehab is expected to sideline him for the entirety of the playoffs. Leonard technically isn’t doing anything against the rules, but his actions have made both his team and the league take notice.

Leonard and the Spurs could hypothetically reconcile and put this all behind them, but given all that’s happened throughout the course of the season, that ship seems to have sailed a long time ago. Through the duration of the season, Kawhi’s teammates have called him out, his coach has been steadfastly candid when asked about what’s going on, and now, players around the league are already predicting who his next team will be.

This all spells out a potentially ugly divorce between the Spurs and their franchise player.

So, the Spurs’ obvious next move would be to trade Kawhi for as much value as they can get this off-season. Unfortunately, given the circumstances, the Spurs won’t be able to acquire nearly as much value for Kawhi now as they could have in years’ past. It is true that when Leonard is 100 percent healthy, he is one of the league’s best players. But this bizarre situation, along with his player option after next season, has demolished his trade value.

These days, teams don’t give up valuable assets for star players if there’s a risk that said star player could leave the team after only one year. Teams saw what happened to the Lakers after the Dwight Howard trade blew up in their face, and they saw how crippled the Nets became after they gave away the farm for Paul Pierce among other Celtics that they acquired. If a superstar whose contract is potentially expiring goes on the market, teams will lowball in trade discussions for him.

Case in point: last summer, pretty much everyone agreed that the Thunder acquired Paul George for peanuts when they traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. That may have worked out for the best for Indiana, but that was sheer luck because Oladipo’s and Sabonis’ value was much lower than it is now. Kawhi could fetch a half decent player and maybe a late-lottery pick given his reputation, but that would probably not fill the large void that he would leave behind.

It’s for that reason that the Spurs’ reign may be coming to an end. If they trade Kawhi this summer, they’re not going to get equal value for him, which means they won’t be able to remain among the best in the Western Conference. It’s quite a shame, because Leonard’s apparent fall-out with the Spurs has overshadowed one of the better under-the-radar stories in the league: The Spurs’ perseverance.

The fact that the Spurs still made the playoffs in the Western Conference, which required 47 wins this season, is remarkable. Thanks in large part to LaMarcus Aldridge’s rejuvenation, who has averaged his best numbers as a Spur this season by far, and Coach Pop’s brilliance among other reasons, the Spurs have kept the ball rolling without Kawhi. Alas, without him, the team is firmly not in the title discussion, and the Spurs can’t do much about it.

The Spurs could ride it out by keeping the rest of the core together along with what they would bring back for Leonard, but there wouldn’t be much point. Guys as impactful Leonard are not easily replaceable in this league, and the Spurs’ competition in the West will be as strong as ever next season. As unappealing as it might sound, the Spurs may have to just start over.

That wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing in the world. Aldridge’s phenomenal season has probably skyrocketed his trade value, so the Spurs would get a good haul for him. The Spurs aren’t in a bad salary cap situation either. Besides Pau Gasol, the team doesn’t have any bad contracts. Tony Parker’s deal is up after this season while Rudy Gay and Danny Green have player options, but both are likely to opt-in given the lack of money on the open market this summer. The team even has some intriguing young talent, such as Dejounte Murray and Bryn Forbes. Re-building wouldn’t be the worst option for San Antonio.

With all of that considered, it would still be very disappointing to see such a glorious era end so anticlimactically. Kawhi Leonard was supposed to lead the new era of Spurs basketball, but now it looks like he may be the Spurs’ undoing, which they may have no choice now but to accept.

Many were looking forward to San Antonio’s demise, but for a team that has remained in the title discussion since the days of President Clinton, the Spurs didn’t deserve an ending like this.

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