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Jahlil Okafor On Rookie Season, Trade Rumors

Sixers center Jahlil Okafor discusses his rookie season, trade rumors, frustration with losses and more.

Alex Kennedy

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Around this time last year, Jahlil Okafor had just led Duke to the national championship and was on the verge of being selected with the No. 3 overall pick in the 2015 NBA Draft. He would go on to join the Philadelphia 76ers, emerging as a potential franchise cornerstone and then becoming the team’s go-to option on offense once the 2015-16 NBA season started.

These days, Okafor has seen his name surface in trade rumors, he’s been on the receiving end of criticism, he’s rehabbing his right knee after undergoing surgery for a small meniscus tear and Philadelphia’s 10-72 record makes this by far the least successful basketball season of his life.

The 20-year-old has certainly seen better days.

However, Okafor had an effective rookie campaign despite Philadelphia’s struggles. He averaged 17.5 points, seven rebounds, 1.2 blocks and 1.2 assists (while shooting 50.8 percent from the field). These are very similar to his college numbers – 17.3 points, 8.5 rebounds, 1.4 blocks and 1.3 assists (while shooting 66.4 percent from the field) – which were often praised. And it’s important to remember that Okafor was largely drafted so high because of his potential, which remains largely untapped given his age and development.

Still, Okafor ranked second among all rookies in points per game, third among rookies in rebounds per game and fourth among rookies in blocks per game. It’s also worth noting that Okafor was playing some of his best basketball right before his injury, averaging 20.3 points per game on 63.4 percent from the field in the six games after the All-Star break.

He made the All-Rookie First Team and showed glimpses of brilliance throughout the season, reminding everyone why he was the top high school recruit in the nation just two years back and a top-three pick 12 months ago.

“I think I learned a ton – about myself, about the NBA and just how everything works,” Okafor told Basketball Insiders. “I think I continue to learn every day, but I definitely learned a lot throughout this year.

“Now, I’m just focused on rehabbing. I had the surgery on my knee about 12 weeks ago and the physicians have basically just told me take my time and take it slow. My knee feels really good, but the people in my circle and the Sixers are just trying to make sure that I don’t try to rush back. I’m confident though because my knee feels good.”

Without question, dealing with the 72 losses was the hardest part of this season for Okafor. He had 18 times as many losses during his rookie campaign as he did during his lone collegiate season at Duke, so it was certainly an adjustment for him.

“I think anybody who is a top pick knows they’re going to go to a losing team; the reason any team gets a top pick is because they didn’t do so well the year before,” Okafor said. “So when I got picked up by the Sixers, I talked to Coach K (Mike Krzyzewski) about what I should expect so it wasn’t anything I was shocked about. Of course I thought we’d do better than we did, but I wasn’t expecting to make the playoffs or anything like that.”

Losing 72 games is obviously hard for any competitor, but even more so for someone who hasn’t really lost much throughout their life. That describes Okafor, and the people who are close to the big man said that he had to learn how to deal with that level of failure since the scoreboard had typically been his friend prior to being drafted.

“He’s been a winner his entire life,” Duke assistant coach Jon Scheyer said. “In third grade, he won the AAU national championship; his AAU teams were always one of the best. In high school, he won a state championship. In college, he goes 35-4 and was the leading scorer on our national championship team as a freshman. He has three gold medals. He’s a guy who isn’t used to losing. And, obviously, losing isn’t fun. So he had to deal with losing more games this year than he had lost in his entire life. A lot of players don’t go through that to that magnitude. I thought he did a good job of staying positive and controlling what he could control.”

“He’s won at every level, whether it’s high school or AAU or college or USA Basketball, so I think it was a different year for him,” said close friend (and former Duke teammate) Quinn Cook, who said he speaks to Okafor daily. “But he’s always positive. He’s a people person, who was always with his teammates; he has a great relationship with his teammates there in Philadelphia. And I know his mindset was on winning. It wasn’t about scoring or making himself look good, he was always most concerned about winning. Whenever they would get a win, he’d be extremely happy. Then, if they would lose, he’d try to remain positive and look for bright spots.”

There were times when Okafor let his frustration get the best of him, such as when he was involved in an altercation with a heckler (which resulted in a two-game suspension levied by the Sixers).

Two silver linings that Okafor tried to focus on throughout the tough season were the supportive fans and the fact that he was getting the opportunity to develop his game by playing big minutes.

“Being with the Sixers is special because there’s such a passionate fan base here,” Okafor said. “That was a big positive for me this year, and it motivated me because I want to do well for the city. It’s great to walk around Philly and see that everyone is so passionate. They really want me to do well, and that means a lot. On top of that, with us being so young, I was able to play a lot of minutes and develop a lot of different things. Some rookies don’t get the opportunity that I got on the floor. Those were the biggest positives for me.”

Another positive Okafor pointed out was the fact that the team became a close-knit group. As Cook mentioned, Okafor was constantly around his teammates and enjoyed their company off the court. Okafor felt that the team progressively jelled as the season moved on too.

“I think [our chemistry] got better every day,” Okafor said. “Obviously we had some bad games, but we also had some really good games. We’re all really good friends off of the floor, so that makes it easier when you’re trying to figure things out on the floor. Ish Smith came in December and it was great to jell with him. He’s a very good point guard and it was a lot of fun when he joined the team.

“Everyone was close though. It was a fun season. Yes, we were losing, but we’re a bunch of young guys who are living our dream so we still had fun.”

Not so fun was the slew of criticism that Okafor faced throughout the year. Some understandably stemmed from his off-court actions and he certainly can’t let hecklers or instigators get under his skin and give them the reaction they so desperately want. Even though Okafor turned only 20 years old in December, he is the face of a franchise and must carry himself that way. With that said, a lot of the criticism seemed to be in reaction to the Sixers’ record (which doesn’t fall solely on Okafor, by any means) or based on how his fellow rookies were performing. But those kind of doubters come with being an up-and-coming player in the NBA, which is something he is learning.

“As I’m watching these playoffs, I’m just realizing that winning cures everything,” Okafor said. “Obviously, we lost a lot, so with that being said, I’m going to be criticized a lot. But, look, I watched Golden State lose a few games and I saw some fans and reporters criticizing Steph Curry. LeBron James loses and then he gets criticized a lot. When you lose, you get criticized. And I’m obviously nowhere near as good as those guys, so I wouldn’t expect any less criticism for me.”

Cook heard the criticism of his friend, and was perhaps even more annoyed by it than Okafor.

“It bothers me,” Cook said. “I know he sees what people are saying about him and he knows what’s going on, but he’s always positive. He doesn’t let those things affect him. He’s just staying positive and being a professional about everything.”

Okafor finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting behind Karl-Anthony Towns (who received every first-place vote), Kristaps Porzingis, Nikola Jokic and Devin Booker. While some players may have taken this as a slight and used it as motivation, Okafor said that he doesn’t need any extra fuel for his fire and actually said he sees where the panel was coming from with their votes.

“I understood it. We were losing a lot and I didn’t play the last 23 games, so it was understandable,” Okafor said of the Rookie of the Year voting. “I was fortunate to make the All-Rookie First Team, so that was good for me and for Philadelphia. I know people in the city were excited. I’ve always been someone who is self-motivated though [so I don’t need to use that]. Of course there’s been some people who want to doubt and criticize me. Either way, I’m just going to work hard every day and get better.”

The first thing that the aforementioned critics typically bring up about Okafor is his defense. For some time, that has been the knock on Jahlil’s game and understandably so since it’s his biggest weakness. He has always been a terrific offensive player who is skilled beyond his years when it comes to post moves and footwork, but he didn’t defend at a high level. At Duke, the coaching staff had him carry so much of the offensive load that he wasn’t asked to do very much on the other end (to conserve his energy), so they built a strong defense around him.

Now, he is being asked to do much more defensively and must step up to the challenge. He knows this, but also believes he made strides on the defensive end throughout his rookie campaign.

“I think I’ve learned a lot; I’m getting used to defending NBA big men,” Okafor said. “I’m getting used to defending the pick-and-roll when you’re playing against a really good point guard and a really good big man. The coaches have told me that they’re happy with the way that I’m developing and I am as well.”

Many high-level players entered the league as sub-par defenders and later significantly improved once they put in the time and effort (and took advantage of NBA resources), and Okafor has the potential to do the same.

Okafor said that the toughest players to match-up against throughout his first NBA season were Pau Gasol (who was one of his favorite players growing up), DeMarcus Cousins, Andre Drummond and DeAndre Jordan. Scheyer, who watched Okafor closely throughout the season, noticed significant defensive progress from his former player.

“He’s such a gifted scorer naturally, but I thought he made great strides on the defensive end,” Coach Scheyer said. “I saw consistent effort on that end, and that’s something that people tried to pick on about him. I thought defensively he improved throughout the year, with his ball-screen defense, help-side defense and all that. … He loves the work. He wants to develop, and he loves the game so he’s always trying to get better. He’s constantly doing what’s necessary to take that next step in his game.”

Cook saw significant development from Okafor over the last year as well.

“He looked very athletic to me this year,” Cook said. “People don’t give him credit for his athleticism, but I thought he was in great shape – especially for a 19-year-old who’s the face of the franchise and playing an NBA schedule for the first time. He handled that very well. His free throw shooting got way better too. I think he was able to show his outside touch a little bit more as well. I think at Duke, he didn’t really get the chance to show his elbow moves or mid-range jumper because it was just so easy for him to score backing down at the basket. I think he showed some more of those things this year. Most importantly, I think he showed he can carry a franchise.”

Cook is right about Okafor showing his elbow moves. In fact, Okafor finished the season ranked fifth among players averaging 30 or more minutes in points per game from the elbows – trailing only Anthony Davis, Marc Gasol, Blake Griffin and Chris Bosh. He also had the seventh-best point percentage from the elbows among qualified players – behind only Darren Collison, Andrew Wiggins, Kevin Durant, J.R. Smith, Jae Crowder and Serge Ibaka. It’s clear that Okafor’s offensive arsenal, which already included a vast array of post moves, is continuing to expand.

Sometimes, it can be difficult for rookies to earn the respect of NBA veterans, but Okafor’s ability to score the basketball warranted double teams and made life hard for opposing players.

“I only played him once, but he is always in attack mode,” Utah Jazz center Rudy Gobert said of Okafor. “Even if you block him twice, you know he is coming back at you.”

“Offensively, I just thought he kept getting better and better,” Coach Scheyer added. “He had games where he was very efficient, even though he was being double-teamed as a rookie. The double-teams say a lot about how talented he is as an offensive player.”

Next year, it may be tougher for defenders to double-team him since the team will add reinforcements in the coming months. New general manager Bryan Colangelo is hoping to accelerate the rebuilding process, which means the Sixers could be active in free agency. Philly also used the No. 1 overall pick in the draft on Ben Simmons, and seems poised to get recent lottery picks Joel Embiid and Dario Saric on the floor for the first time.

As far as Embiid’s progress goes, Okafor believes he’ll be ready to play next year.

“He looks hungry and motivated,” Okafor said of Embiid. “He’s obviously been criticized for some stuff that happened to him that he can’t control. I don’t like the criticism. But I see that he’s working extremely hard and, as far as I can tell, he’s ready to play next season.”

Which brings us to the trade rumors that have been making headlines. Because the Sixers have so much talent in their frontcourt and numerous holes elsewhere, trade speculation has been rampant.

Rumors have indicated that the Sixers have explored trading Okafor, with the Boston Celtics often being mentioned as a possible suitor. The two teams reportedly discussed a potential Okafor deal at the deadline and talks could resurface at some point this summer, especially since Boston has so many attractive assets that could entice the Sixers. Nerlens Noel has also been mentioned as a possible trade chip – perhaps because the two big men haven’t played very well when they’ve shared the court. Colangelo recently admitted that trade talks with other teams have taken place and that the centers have been discussed.

“I would just simply tell you that there’s been conversations and there’s been a lot of interest expressed in some of the players that we have, but nothing that’s made enough sense to pull the trigger on,” Colangelo told NBA.com. “We’ve talked about the five position in particular.”

When asked about the trade rumors, Okafor stated that he can’t tune them out completely. In this day and age, information spreads quickly and it’s very hard to ignore these things.

“Well, of course you hear it,” Okafor said of trade rumors. “You hear it because of people texting you and asking you and all of that stuff. There were trade rumors involving me throughout the season. Then, at the All-Star break, there were some more trade rumors. So I talked to my head coach, Brett Brown, and he just told me that as long as I’m in the NBA, that’s going to be part of my life. I try to block it out, but being an NBA player, it’s just something you have to deal with.”

Okafor spent this past season learning what it’s like to be an NBA player, experiencing both the good and the bad. His rookie season wasn’t always easy or enjoyable, but there were plenty of lessons to take away from the campaign, which should help Okafor and the Sixers in the long run.

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 Sunday: It’s All On Westbrook Now

With Paul George and Carmelo joining Russell Westbrook, the Thunder are the most interesting team in the NBA, writes Moke Hamilton.

Moke Hamilton

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The Oklahoma City Thunder just might be the most interesting team in basketball.

Sorry, LeBron.

As recently as 10 days ago, sources familiar with the thinking of the New York Knicks front office floated the potential of the Knicks waiting out a potential Carmelo deal until December. Now, of course, we know that Anthony wanted no part of beginning the season in New York, so much so that he let it be known that he would be willing to accept a trade to either the Cleveland Cavaliers or the Oklahoma City Thunder.

The Anthony era is officially over in New York City, and in its wake is what many consider to have been the most entertaining offseason in NBA history. Considering the star players that changed teams, it’s difficult to argue.

But what makes the Anthony trade even more interesting is the fact that he now finds himself teamed with Russell Westbrook—one of the most polarizing players in the NBA today.

* * * * * *

It now seems like a lifetime ago, but Russell Westbrook’s potential to be great has always been in question. We quietly wondered whether he was superior to Derrick Rose and once wondered whether the Thunder should have tried to package him and move him in exchange for Chris Paul back when the point guard was being moved on from New Orleans.

Over the years, many have opined that Westbrook was the NBA version of a bucking bronco and that the failure of both Scott Brooks and Billy Donovan to tame him cost the Thunder Kevin Durant.

While there may be some truth there, Westbrook at least temporarily silenced his critics with his performance last season. He admirably led the Thunder to 47 wins and became the first player in 55 years to average a triple-double for an entire season. Neither of those facts, nor the fact that Westbrook was named the Most Valuable Player of the 2016-17 season, was met with any sort of universal acceptance of Westbrook being a truly “valuable” player. Some believe that Westbrook is a truly special player who galvanizes his teammates with a willingness to win only seen by the likes of the Allen Iversons and Kobe Bryants of the world while others think that he’s a selfish gunslinger who longs for the spotlight.

Any number of advanced metrics could reasonably lead one to the conclusion that Westbrook’s accomplishing of the single-season triple-double average was a result of an incredibly high usage rate and a conscious pursuit that was in the forefront of both his and his teammates’ mind.

Truth be told, deep down inside, Westbrook probably wanted to win the MVP award as soon as Durant let it be known that he was taking his talents to Oakland. Even leading up to the announcement, many had opined that Westbrook’s reckless abandon and undisciplined play helped the Thunder yield the 3-1 series lead they held over the Warriors in the 2016 Western Conference Finals, and if the Thunder simply managed to win that series, everything would have been different.

Instead, Durant’s decision to leave was seen as a rebuke to Westbrook, who he is as a player and his style of basketball. At the time, the implication was that Durant didn’t think he could win with Westbrook. For someone as fiery and fierce as he, Durant’s decision to bolt and the subsequent questioning as to the reasons why was the quintessential poking of a bear with a stick.

In the end, Westbrook roared.

No matter what happens from here, a part of Westbrook’s legacy will be that he averaged a triple-double for an entire season and he was named the Most Valuable Player the year after the one who was deemed to be his Batman abandoned him.

But now, as Westbrook enters his 10th NBA season, the question that will be answered this coming season is whether or not his demons have been exorcised.

* * * * * *

Indeed, the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder will be the most interesting team in basketball.

One could easily argue that they are best equipped to topple the mighty Golden State Warriors. With Paul George and Carmelo Anthony joining Russell Westbrook, scoring should be relatively easy. The Thunder ranked 11th in the league in scoring last season and 16th in offensive efficiency—both should improve.

Defensively, with Andre Roberson, Jerami Grant, Patrick Patterson and Steven Adams joining Westbrook and George, the Thunder have a few players that will battle defensively. The thought of slowing down two of the three of Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant and Klay Thompson is something that the Thunder can at least deem to be possible. With the newfound scoring prowess the team should expect to have, declaring them to have a puncher’s chance against the Warriors is reasonable.

Aside from the obvious pleasure of imagining a battle between the two teams, what makes the Thunder the most interesting team this coming season is the fact that it simply cannot be known whether and to what extent Westbrook will be willing to yield touches and shot opportunities to Anthony and George. Last season, Westbrook average 24 shots attempts per game.

In “clutch” situations, which is defined as the final five minutes of a game that’s within five or fewer points, Westbrook attempt 184 shots. Tied for second were DeMarcus Cousins and Isaiah Thomas, both of whom had 134 such shots attempts. In other words, Westbrook took 37 percent more clutch shots than the players who tied for second-most.

In other words, Westbrook was the alpha and omega of everything the Thunder did and, more importantly, what they believed they could be. Whether or not he still believes it necessary for him to dominate the ball the way he did last season will go a long way toward determining the success of the team’s new triumvirate.

And believe it or not, the way that Westbrook conducts himself and plays with the ball (or chooses to play without it) will probably answer the question as to whether or not Durant’s decision to leave Oklahoma City has affected his mental approach to the game, and the extent to which he defers shots and opportunities to his teammates.

Without question, that’s what it will take to keep Anthony and George happy.

* * * * * *

In all likelihood, the Golden State Warriors are on their way to being the NBA’s next dynasty. But if the Roman Empire and Ming Dynasty ended, so too will that of Golden State.

Not many people pay attention to the nuances of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, but with the repeater tax penalties that were implemented, one could reasonably expect that the reign of the Warriors, at least as we currently know them, may be short-lived.

By virtue of Stephen Curry’s monstrous $201 million extension and the club’s re-signing of Kevin Durant and Andre Iguodala, the Warriors are looking at a luxury tax bill of about $43 million for the 2017-18 season. With Durant potentially opting out of his current contract next summer, the Warriors will likely be faced with the prospect of having to dole out new contracts for Durant, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green in 2018, 2019 and 2020, respectively.

With $30 million annual salaries the norm in today’s NBA, unless each of the aforementioned three are willing to take substantial pay cuts, re-signing each of them at their fair market value, with the repeater tax penalties, could cost the Warriors over $500 million in luxury tax payments for just the 2018-19, 2019-20 and 2020-2021 seasons alone.

Even if the Warriors do manage to win the next two championships, the sheer economics of keeping the team intact make it seem that the team’s re-signing of Klay Thompson is improbable unless both Durant (next summer, if he opts out) and Thompson (in 2019) agree to take far below their fair market value in subsequent contracts.

At this point, though, it’s reasonable to think that the NBA’s repeater tax and the economics of keeping the team intact means that this current iteration of Warriors may only be together for two more seasons.

If Westbrook (28 years old), George (27 years old) and Anthony (33 years old) were to stay together and have some pieces added around them, whether it be this season or either of the following two, one could effectively argue that of all teams in the NBA, they appear best equipped to assume the throne.

Of course, nothing is guaranteed—not even the partnership of the trio in Oklahoma City.

In the end, above all else, that’s probably what makes the Thunder the more interesting than anybody else.

Collectively, their team seems to have so much potential, but with Westbrook not having signed the $207 million extension tendered to him by the Thunder, George’s known desire to relocate to Los Angeles after this coming season and Anthony’s friendship with both Chris Paul and LeBron James, the three may represent the best trio of mercenaries ever assembled.

With each of the three having something to play for, and each of the three holding options over their 2018-19 seasons, the partnership between Westbrook, George and Anthony may never mature to the point where they are actually able to accomplish something great.

In some ways, the 2017-18 Oklahoma City Thunder is a shotgun wedding, but the participants could conceivably end up living happily ever after.

Whether they do or not may ultimately depend on the reigning league MVP.

I don’t know about you, but I certainly think that storyline is much more interesting than watching LeBron James win the Eastern Conference for the eighth straight year.

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San Antonio Spurs 2017-18 Season Preview

The Spurs brought their band back and added Rudy Gay. Will it be enough to win the Southwest again?

Basketball Insiders

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After cruising through last season to the second seed in the Western Conference, the San Antonio Spurs’ championship hopes were ended when Kawhi Leonard suffered a playoff-ending ankle injury in the Western Conference Finals.

Now, the Spurs look to gather themselves and attempt to knock off the Golden State Warriors this season. Most of the team is back for another run, with a few changes here and there. Can this group compete for a sixth championship in the Gregg Popovich era?

Let’s take an early look at the 2017-18 Spurs season.

FIVE GUYS THINK

While the rest of the Western Conference powerhouses were adding star players and key talents to their arsenal in an attempt to knock the Golden State Warriors off of their high horse, the San Antonio Spurs held their ground.

Aside from bringing in Rudy Gay, the same old Spurs captained by the stoic looks of Gregg Popovich and Kawhi Leonard will enter this season looking to do what every team last season failed miserably at; beat the Warriors.

Unfortunately for San Antonio, the road to that seemingly impossible task looks a whole lot bumpier this season. With no real upgrades across the board for their squad, this may not be the year the Spurs have a chance at title number six under Coach Pop. But don’t expect the NBA’s pillar of sustained excellence to go down without a fight.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Dennis Chambers

Nothing has happened over the course of the last four months to suggest that the San Antonio Spurs won’t be every bit as formidable as they’ve always been. Manu Ginobili is back. The team re-signed Patty Mills and Pau Gasol, while adding Rudy Gay to the rotation for some more scoring. Kawhi Leonard is a top-five player in the league, and it’s not like Tony Parker and LaMarcus Aldridge have been completely siphoned of their usefulness. This still is an incredibly good, incredibly deep team that still has Gregg Popovich as a coach. They’ll be a top-four seed in the Western Conference, as has become their custom.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Joel Brigham

Re-signing Pau Gasol and nabbing Rudy Gay were the splashiest moves the Spurs made this past summer, but at this point, nobody should doubt them or their ability to seemingly overachieve.

If Tony Parker isn’t able to return to pre-injury form quickly, it could threaten the Spurs and their ability to win the Southwest Division, but I think I’ve seen enough from the combination of Patty Mills and Dejounte Murray to believe that they’ll be able to hold the fort in his absence. Plus, we can rest assured of at least two guys on Popovich’s roster will reveal to the world that they are studs.

I’m sad that Jonathon Simmons will be wearing a new uniform next season, but am happy for him and the fact that he was able to turn his opportunity with the Spurs into a three-year, $20 million contract with the Orlando Magic.

It’s fairly easy to see the Rockets finding a way to outlast the Spurs and take the division crown, but with their compromised depth and the Spurs being the Spurs, at this point, I’m still betting on Popovich and Kawhi Leonard.

1st place — Southwest Division

— Moke Hamilton

Is this finally the year the Spurs take the small step back many have been predicting from them for half a decade? It could be, but you won’t see that pick coming from this pen until we’ve at least seen it happen once. The Spurs stood pat this offseason other than the acquisition of Rudy Gay – unless they have more moves up their sleeve, it seems as though they’ll look to challenge the Warriors with roughly the same kind of roster. They’ll rack up wins all season against inferior competition, as per usual, and the big questions will arise come spring time. To this eye, Kawhi Leonard is one of the best MVP bets available on the board.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Ben Dowsett

Between the issues at point guard, Rudy Gay’s recovery from an Achilles tear, Pau Gasol’s age and the loss of Jonathon Simmons, I’m a bit concerned about the San Antonio Spurs heading into this season. I fully understand that the Spurs will likely find a variety of ways to be as competitive as ever this upcoming season, but this roster just feels outmatched by other elite teams in the league at this point. The defense should still be formidable, Kawhi Leonard may be even better with another season under his belt and LaMarcus Aldridge could bounce back and become more of a focal point for the team. But, as of now, it feels as though the Spurs are a step behind the Houston Rockets and even further behind the Golden State Warriors.

2nd place — Southwest Division

— Jesse Blancarte

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

One name that will be a constant on this list: Kawhi Leonard. He is among the best players in the NBA and leads the Spurs on both ends of the floor night in and night out.

Leonard averaged a career-high 25.5 points, 5.8 rebounds, 3.5 assists and 1.8 steals per game last season. Although he finished third in the Most Valuable Player award voting and third in the Defensive Player of the Year award voting, he had a case to win both awards.

He can attack a defense in a variety of ways. He can knock down the outside shot, drive to the basket and finish through contact and is one of the league’s best scorers in the pick and roll. Leonard also ranked third in the NBA in PER at 27.6.

Most Spurs fans will remember the 43 points he scored against the Memphis Grizzlies in the playoffs while knocking down seven three-pointers or the six consecutive games he had in January in which he scored at least 30 points.

Leonard has long been known to be a lockdown defender, but it’s possible his offense is nearly just as good as his defense, which is why he’s one f the best overall players in the league.

Top Defensive Player: Kawhi Leonard

As a two-time Defensive Player of the Year, it shouldn’t be surprising to see Leonard listed as the team’s best defender.

Leonard is tasked with guarding the best players in the league on any given night and he has proven to have more success than others in doing so. He has long arms, great athleticism and seemingly never gives up on any play.

It’s perhaps most impressive that Leonard can guard virtually any position on the floor. He can be matched up with the game’s fastest players on one night and then be asked to guard some of the biggest players on other nights. Whether it’s matching up against John Wall or Kevin Durant, Leonard can lock up just about anyone and has a legitimate case to be the best NBA’s best defender.

He ranked eighth in defensive rating (101.5), sixth in defensive win shares (4.7) and seventh in steals (1.8 per game). He had a legitimate case to win DPOY for a third consecutive year, but was voted third, instead.

Top Playmaker: Tony Parker

While his best years may be behind him, Parker is still a key playmaker for the Spurs. Sure, Leonard is the team’s best player and responsible for carrying the offense load each night, but Parker is still the point guard and is often the one initiating the offense.

Parker has proven to be a great penetrator over his 16 years in the NBA and can make a great pass to find an open man as well. His 4.5 assists per game last season led the Spurs as a unit. Parker simply knows how to feed the team’s key offensive players – especially in the post.

He may not be ready to play until January after tearing his quad in the postseason, but he’ll surely be a welcomed addition to the team once he’s healthy again.

Top Clutch Player: Kawhi Leonard

As Leonard proved to be the team’s top clutch player, he was also one of the best clutch players in the NBA.

The NBA defines clutch stats as the final five minutes of a game when a team is either ahead or behind by five points. Leonard ranked 13th in the NBA with 136 total points last season in those situations and shot 40 percent (38-of-95) from the field.

Leonard had an incredible clutch sequence back in March against the Houston Rockets. James Harden converted on one of two free-throw attempts to give the Rockets a 108-107 lead with 39.7 seconds left in the game. Leonard then brought the ball down the court, dribbled to his left and pulled up to drain a three-pointer to give the Spurs a two-point lead with 25.4 seconds left. Just seconds later, Leonard blocked a shot by Harden at the rim to seal the victory.

He also hit a game-winning shot against the Washington Wizards in December. He’s proven to be among the best in the league in these clutch situations and it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see him add a few more game-winning shots to his collection this season.

The Unheralded Player:  Danny Green

Leonard often dominates the headlines when discussing this Spurs team and rightfully so. Even after Leonard, most will talk about LaMarcus Aldridge, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili. Each player brings something to the table and are key contributors for this team.

One player that is often overlooked is Green. His stats last season weren’t flashy: 7.3 points and 3.3 rebounds per game while shooting 37 percent from three-point range.

But Green is still a key piece to this team. His shooting creates spacing to allow guys like Aldridge and Pau Gasol room to work and he is still among the best defenders in the league after earning All-Defensive Second Team honors last season.

He came up with some big plays down the stretch to help the Spurs to a 3-2 series lead over the Rockets in the playoffs last year. It might be easy to overlook him, but it’s clear that Green is more than just what appears on the stat sheet.

Best New Addition: Rudy Gay

Gay leaves what he described as “basketball hell” with the Sacramento Kings and joins one of the best organizations in the league.

Signing Gay has the potential to be one of the best free agency steals of the summer after adding him on a two-year, $17.2 million deal. He holds an 18.4 points per game mark over his 11 seasons in the NBA. While he may not put up numbers like that this season, he still figures to be another quality scorer for the team.

He reportedly met with the Spurs, Warriors and Thunder in free agency and ultimately decided to sign with the Spurs. With Parker out for the first few months of the season, Gay will take the pressure off of Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge on the offensive end.

Of course, health is a huge question mark with Gay as he’s just one year removed from an Achilles’ heel injury that limited him to just 30 games last season with the Kings. If he can stay healthy, he’ll be a huge addition to the second unit as a player that can still get buckets.

— Cody Taylor

WHO WE LIKE

1. Gregg Popovich

Popovich has guided the Spurs to the playoffs in 20 of his 21 seasons on the job. It’s a pretty remarkable feat, but the Spurs have become a team expected to compete for a championship each year while under his watch.

The Spurs have won five championships during his tenure and he has won three Coach of the Year awards to back that up. It remains to be seen just how much longer Popovich has left as coach, but it has been proven that the Spurs will be among the league’s best as long as he’s still there.

2. LaMarcus Aldridge

As the Spurs’ No. 2 man behind Leonard, Aldridge has had a solid two season run in San Antonio. Rumors regarding his happiness with that role aside, Aldridge still has plenty to offer the Spurs.

While some teams opt to move away from the mid-range shot, Aldridge is still shooting it and shooting it well. The Spurs have developed ways to get him clean shots and he’s knocking them down. Aldridge ranked fourth in the NBA last season with 3.3 made shots from mid-range per game while connecting on 41.2 percent of them.

The Spurs will continue to count on Aldridge to help Leonard carry the offensive load and it looks as though he’ll continue to deliver.

3. Dejounte Murray

As a rookie, Murray showed a lot of promise. Now, the Spurs will really get a good idea what they have with him as he figures to transition into a bigger role in his second year.

With Parker out for the first few months of the season, Murray projects to play more minutes in his place. It could be a welcomed sign for the team in order to get Murray more comfortable playing big minutes. He played sparingly during the regular season last season, but was asked to step in for Parker after he went down with his quad injury.

If Murray can continue to progress, it should be fun to see how he improves and if he’ll be a major factor this season for the Spurs. Popovich showed a lot of confidence in him by playing him big minutes in the playoffs and that should in turn help Murray and his confidence.

Murray has been in the gym working out with the likes of Leonard and Ginobili so we expect to see a big second year from him.

4. Manu Ginobili

We love the fact that Ginobili is back for a 16th season in the NBA. It almost wouldn’t feel like a Spurs season without Ginobili on the court making amazing passes, making defenders miss with his signature left-handed drive or hitting clutch shots.

While he may have averaged a career-low 7.5 points per game last season, he still has value to this Spurs team. He still has enough juice in the tank to put up a 21-spot in the playoffs (See: Game 3 of the Western Conference Finals) and even have a clutch block on James Harden.

— Cody Taylor

SALARY CAP 101

The Spurs stayed over the NBA’s $99.1 million salary cap this summer, using their Mid-Level Exception on Rudy Gay (locking in a hard cap at $125.3 million). San Antonio isn’t close to the limit, comfortably under the luxury tax threshold of $119.3 million. If needed, the team should be able to use their available $3.3 million Bi-Annual Exception to add another free agent to the roster.

Kyle Anderson is eligible for an extension before the start of the season. The Spurs also must decide on Dejounte Murray’s 2018-19 team option before November. Next summer, San Antonio may be able to get to about $40 million under a $102 million salary cap, but that assumes LaMarcus Aldridge, Danny Green, Rudy Gay and Joffrey Lauvergne all opt out of their contracts.

— Eric Pincus

STRENGTHS

For a team that has made the playoffs in 20 consecutive seasons, there are understandably not many holes on this team. The team has the playoff experience needed to make a deep run, and had it not been for an injury to Leonard, the team may have challenged the Warriors for a spot in the NBA Finals. It also helps that they have arguably one of the best players in the league that can impact a game equally on both ends of the floor.

— Cody Taylor

WEAKNESSES

Although Tony Parker’s best basketball is behind him, his loss will still impact the team’s point guard position. Patty Mills has proven to be a solid fill-in for Parker, but after that there are questions. It appears as though Dejounte Murray will start at point guard with Mills off of the bench. Can Murray develop into a capable starter? That will be a question the team will need to know as soon as possible.

Of course, having Leonard on the court helps, but will the team be able to duplicate its top defense from a season ago? They lost Jonathon Simmons in free agency to the Orlando Magic and Dewayne Dedmon is now a member of the Atlanta Hawks. Simmons was among the team’s best perimeter defenders and Dedmon helped control the paint inside. It may not necessarily be a weakness just yet, but a situation worth monitoring.

— Cody Taylor

THE BURNING QUESTION:

Can the Spurs make it past the Warriors in the playoffs this season?

It’s a question each team in the Western Conference is asking this season. Obviously, some teams have a better chance than others to pull off an upset against the Warriors, but can the Spurs make it past them? They certainly started off well against the Warriors in Game 1 of last season’s Western Conference Finals, but an injury to Leonard ended their hopes in that game. Even with a healthy Leonard, it remains to be seen how the Spurs would fare against the Dubs in a seven-game series and we’re not quite ready to say the Spurs would be able to knock off the defending champs given just how stacked the Warriors are.

— Cody Taylor

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NBA

NBA Saturday: Early Season Storylines To Keep An Eye On

This summer produced several NBA storylines heading into this season. Here are a few that will dominate the early news cycle.

Dennis Chambers

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It’s that time of year again, folks. The NBA season is back.

On Monday, most teams around the league will hold their media day availability, and the teams that don’t will be opening their doors to reporters in the days that follow. After what seemed like an incredibly short offseason due to all of the madness that took place throughout the Association this summer, the league as a whole is ready to get back into the swing of things.

With the aforementioned crazy summer, the NBA experienced a fresh new set of storylines heading into this season. Some are set in stone, some are still developing, but all look to be a whole new level of interesting for a league that people generally complain about the regular season being too boring.

As basketball season gets set to tip off, let’s take a look at some of the stories that are going to be dominating the news cycle for this year.

Golden State Dominance

Two years ago, the Golden State Warriors won 73 games. You know how that team’s story ends. So, in light of their shortcomings, the 73-win Warriors added Kevin Durant. You know how that team’s story ends, too.

Well, here we are. Year two of the Durant Warriors, fresh off of a world championship with no clear signs of slowing down. Durant actually took less money than what he could’ve signed for just so Golden State could keep the core guys like Andre Iguodala and Shaun Livingston around in the Bay Area. When your best player is taking less money to keep key bench guys on the squad, chances are you’re going to be in the running for a title that next season.

Now, just because the Warriors were so dominant last season doesn’t mean the rest of the league is laying down. The Houston Rockets made a move to pair Chris Paul with James Harden, Jimmy Butler is in Minnesota with Andrew Wiggins and Karl-Anthony Towns, Paul George (and as of today, Carmelo Anthony) joined Russell Westbrook in Oklahoma City, and Kyrie Irving and Gordon Hayward moved to Boston. Elite players seemed to swap jerseys this summer at an eye-opening rate, in theory, to position themselves for the opportunity to one day take down the empire out in California.

What makes this unfolding story so interesting is, will it be enough? Will all of these new-look teams with new star players be able to make Golden State sweat, or will they just steamroll everyone like they did last year?

Only time will tell for certain, but the smart money is still on the Warriors.

LeBron James and Kyrie Irving

Raise your hand if you guessed Kyrie Irving would be the starting point guard for the Boston Celtics on opening night this season. If you raised your hand, you’re a liar.

Shortly following Irving and LeBron James’ third season, and their third consecutive trip to the NBA Finals, the point guard dropped a bombshell on just about every person in the basketball community when news broke that he was demanding a trade from the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Three years of living in King James’ shadow proved to be too much for Irving, and he spoke publicly about wanting to have his own team, to be able to do his own thing. Not many players, if any at all, had so publicly looked for a divorce from arguably the greatest player of this generation. Boiled down to its core, the move by Irving was a statement that sometimes regardless of how great a player he is, James just isn’t everybody’s cup of tea.

To make things even more interesting, the Cavaliers shipped Irving right to the team they had just beaten in the Eastern Conference Finals. Irving in Beantown to start the 2017-18 NBA season, what a time.

And because the NBA is a perfect blend of consistent chaos, the Cavs and Celtics will have to wait a whopping zero days before facing off against each other in their newest forms.

That’s right. Opening night, Oct. 17, at Quicken Loans Arena. In a perfect world, James will switch onto Irving in a defensive matchup and the place will go wild. With how perfect the NBA’s insanity has been over the past few months, that doesn’t seem like too much to ask.

 

Lonzo Ball

It’s almost unbelievable how much impact a rookie point guard who hasn’t stepped foot on an NBA floor for a meaningful minute can dominate the news headlines.

I’d be willing to wager, however, that most rookie point guards don’t have a dad like Lonzo Ball does.

When you mix up the Big Baller Brand, Lonzo’s incredible passing skills, LaVar’s big mouth, and the Los Angeles market you get a whole bunch of interest. Everyone and their mother will be monitoring each step of Lonzo’s rookie season. Some will be wishing him success, others will be hoping he fails, but everyone will be watching. In fact, Lonzo is expected to generate so much coverage through the media that USA Today launched a wire service site strictly dedicated to the coverage of the Lakers rookie point guard, dubbed “LonzoWire.”

Say what you will about LaVar, but man can that guy market his son.

The Lakers, now run by Magic Johnson and Rob Pelinka, have made some moves to better the franchise for this season. Trading for Brook Lopez and signing Kentavious Caldwell-Pope to pair with young core members Lonzo, Brandon Ingram, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle makes for an interesting team heading into this season.

While playoff basketball won’t likely be in the cards for Los Angeles this season, the conversation around the team will have you thinking Kobe Bryant came out of retirement and suited up.

Philadelphia 76ers Health Concerns

If you’ve grown accustomed to trusting The Process, there’s a good chance you’ve had to explain the severity of certain injuries to a fellow basketball fan.

After multiple injuries to heralded prospects, the stars seem to be aligning in Philadelphia for the 76ers and their crop of young talent. Ben Simmons is at what appears to be full strength after head coach Brett Brown told media Wednesday he’s been participating in 5-on-5 drills and has been “dominating the gym.” Markelle Fultz seems to be recovered from rolling his ankle in Summer League play.

But the question about franchise center Joel Embiid’s health — who showed more than a few flashes of brilliance during his 31 games last season –is still very much alive. After suffering a meniscus injury that ended his season last winter, Embiid is still yet to be cleared for 5-on-5 play.

As Embiid goes, the Sixers will go. Simmons and Fultz could potentially turn into game-changers one day, but as far as the basketball world knows, Embiid is already at that level when healthy. For a team with playoff aspirations in a weakened Eastern Conference, they’ll need at the very least 55 games from their franchise big man to pull themselves out of the lottery for the first time in six years.

With the captivating personality Embiid possesses, he’s the picture perfect media darling. Every tweet Embiid sends out goes viral in minutes, and his post game dancing antics never fail to make for a hilarious video.

For every bit of promise the Sixers ooze heading into this season, there will be a dark cloud of skepticism that hovers over them until proven otherwise. That intrigue in itself, not even counting how fun a Simmons-Fultz-Embiid trio could be, will be enough to have people following along closely.

Granted, these aren’t all of the storylines that will dominate the NBA this season. That’s the best part. New drama will almost assuredly pop up on a regular basis as the season begins to get itself into mid-season form, and there were be a whole new bag of goodies for the fans to digest.

If this past summer is any indication for how this NBA season will go, not many people will be calling the regular season boring this time around.

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