Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series, where we go over how each team did this past season as well as evaluate how they did this summer. So far, we’ve covered the lottery teams, the borderline playoff teams and the treadmill teams. Now that we’re approaching the playoff teams, we’re coming up on the upper echelon of the NBA
Today, we’re looking at the team that for over the past two decades has been the golden example of how to run a basketball team – the San Antonio Spurs.
For the first time in ages, San Antonio did not possess an all-time player on its roster. It’s difficult to lose a player as colossal as Kawhi Leonard. That much was made clear in this year’s playoffs. Having a legendary coach can make up for even absence, but even someone as phenomenal as Gregg Popovich can only do so much.
Right now, San Antonio is in a time of transition. This league is still run by the stars who have the most talent. With Kawhi gone, the Spurs don’t have the talent to measure up with that – all apologies to DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. They do have something they haven’t had the privilege to boast about in ages – a youth movement.
But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.
As if losing your future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer wasn’t bad enough, the Spurs lost their most promising young player before the season even began. After establishing himself as one of the premier young defenders in the league the previous season, Dejounte Murray went down with an ACL tear in San Antonio’s very first preseason game.
The Spurs did not start out the way they usually do. They played like a team that had virtually lost everything, as they started out 11-14, and that included blowout losses suffered at the hands of Houston, Utah, and Phoenix. After the Lakers handed them their 14th loss, the Spurs turned it around, going 37-20 the rest of the way.
This came from the team slowly building a new identity. Murray was slated to be the Spurs’ starting point guard at the start of the season. With him down and Tony Parker bolting for Charlotte, there was a void to be filled. With not many options to turn to, San Antonio designated DeMar DeRozan as its primary playmaker.
Scoring-wise, DeMar did not replicate the same numbers that he had in Toronto, but he had the best all-around season of his career. He shot his best percentage since his rookie year – 48.1 percent – and put up his best rebounding averages (six) and assist averages (6.2).
He even kept it up when the postseason rolled around. His scoring numbers remained the same, but his efficiency rose considerably – 48.7 percent while putting up his best rebounding numbers in his playoff career – 6.7. For a guy who has a rep for disappearing in the playoffs, DeMar definitely showed up when the Spurs needed him to.
While we’re on the subject, DeRozan deserves a shout-out for the progress he’s made. He definitely has some warts in his game, but in his rise to stardom, the guy’s all-around abilities as a player have developed quite nicely over the years. He didn’t get much All-Star buzz in San Antonio, but they could have done much worse when they traded Kawhi. DeMar may not be in Leonard’s league, but he proved that he could fit with the Spurs.
The season wasn’t all about him, though. The Spurs got an unlikely boost by the upstart sophomore Derrick White. White’s season can be detailed more here, but if you’d like to keep moving along, let’s summarize it like this. The 25-year-old has suddenly emerged as one of the better young two-way guards in the league as he demonstrated that he was capable of running the offense as well as proving himself defensively.
You, of course, can’t talk about the Spurs without talking about the play of LaMarcus Aldridge. The guy proved his breakout season – in a Spurs uniform – was no fluke. He averaged 21/9 on almost 52 percent shooting while having almost two less shot attempts a game.
But enough about who their individual standouts were. You know why this is a time of transition for San Antonio? Well, the Spurs’ calling card in the glory days was their defense. This season, they had the 19th-highest-rated defense in the league by allowing 111.2 points per 100 possessions. That was to be expected when you lose Leonard, Murray, Kyle Anderson and Danny Green all before the season starts. That stat is a little deceptive though.
The defense was bad early on, but when San Antonio got its act together, or when they went on that 37-20 run to end the season, they had the 11th-highest-rated defense allowing 109.3 points per 100 possessions. In that same time, they had the fourth-highest rated offense, scoring 113.5 points per 100 possessions.
They’ve done this despite their refusal to conform to the NBA’s obsession with threes. The Spurs took the lowest volume of threes this season – shooting 25.3 a game while also topping the league in three-point percentage – 39.2 percent. They did this despite the fact that their two top offensive options – DeRozan and Aldridge – shot between 15 to 24 percent from there. When Gregg Popovich is running the show, you don’t ask questions.
The Spurs did as reasonably well as they could have expected to do in their first-year post-Kawhi. They still made the playoffs and came within one win of going on an extended run. Yet Murray’s injury will always be brought up when people ask what this team could have been in 2019.
San Antonio wasn’t expected to do much this summer. They didn’t have the cap room to bring in anyone on a max contract. Yet, as we all know, when it’s San Antonio – the team that took empty-calorie scorers like David Lee and Rudy Gay and turned them into valuable rotation players – you don’t underestimate the moves that franchise makes.
First, they got their latest European import, Luka Samanic. Samanic didn’t come into the draft with high expectations. At 19 years old, Samanic is an athletic big from Croatia that doesn’t have the best three-pointer – which won’t be a problem in San Antonio – but he’s fluid and switchable. Being as young as he is, don’t expect him to be played much this coming season.
Knowing the track record of San Antonio’s scouting team, don’t count the kid out. If he is yet another in a long line of foreign player success stories, he may just earn the nickname, “The Other Luka.”
With the pick they received from the Raptors in the Kawhi deal, the Spurs took Keldon Johnson, who fits the three-and-D mold. Judging by the moves they made this summer and Johnson’s age, don’t expect him to get much time either.
San Antonio was in the mood for wings this offseason. First, they signed and traded for DeMarre Carroll. Carroll’s had himself a little bit of a career resurgence in his short time in Brooklyn. That was because, during that time, the Nets didn’t have a whole ton of options – at least his first year there – but Carroll clearly played well enough for the Spurs to invest $20+ million in him.
Next was re-signing Rudy Gay. Gay’s transition to second unit scorer has been heartwarming to watch given his reputation in this league as an ineffective scorer. If there was one coach who could get him to play this way, it was Pop. Clearly, the Spurs felt that he was worth keeping around at good cost, as they gave him a two-year, $28 million deal. Not bad for a guy two years removed from an Achilles injury.
The real story of the offseason came from the Marcus Morris fiasco. The Spurs traded Davis Bertans to put everything in to give Morris the full mid-level exception, which he was set to take…until the Knicks swooped in with a better offer and snatched him up.
As if the Spurs needed more heartbreak.
Teams have gotten left at the altar before. Just ask the Dallas Mavericks. This time, it’s different. The Spurs traded a good rotation player to make room for Morris, who’s an all-around upgrade over Bertans.
(Slightly off topic: What does Washington need Davis Bertans for?)
The real dagger is that they lost two players from this debacle when they could have had at least one of them.
At least Gay and Carroll will be there to make up the difference. Lastly, the Spurs went for the young reclamation project with Trey Lyles. Lyles was productive for Denver until he fell out of their rotation. As long he listens to Coach, his future is in good hands.
PLAYERS IN: DeMarre Carroll, Trey Lyles, Dedric Lawson, Luka Samanic, Keldon Johnson, Quinndary Weatherspoon (two-way)
PLAYERS OUT: Davis Bertans, Dante Cunningham, Donatas Motiejunas, Quincy Pondexter, Ben Moore
The Spurs are not in a bad position. The Kawhi fallout knocked them down, but did not knock them out. They still have a winning formula. The question they have to ask themselves is, where do they go from here?
Right now, the team is at a crossroads. Aldridge and DeRozan are both excellent basketball players, but how much does Aldridge have left in the tank and is DeRozan a long-term factor in San Antonio?
The Spurs have reason to keep Aldridge around. They’ve gotten their money’s worth out of him since they extended his contract. With DeRozan, it’s a little fuzzier. DeRozan deserves all the praise in the world for how he handled being traded to San Antonio, but the Spurs’ promising youth movement could get in the way any of their long-term plans to keep DeMar.
Dejounte Murray will be back and should be eager to capitalize after a lost season. Derrick White should only get better as he gets more time. And don’t sleep on Lonnie Walker IV. The man looked bored at times during the Summer League because he was a man among boys.
If all three of those guys take another step next season, there may not be much reason to keep DeRozan around because they all can play his position.
For now, San Antonio isn’t really regarded as a contender. They should be in the playoff hunt just as they always are. If they are to get back to the elite status they once had both year in and year out, they have to ponder which avenue they should take to get there.
OFFSEASON GRADE: C
NBA PM: What Brooklyn Needs At The Deadline
The Brooklyn Nets are rightfully among the favorites to win the NBA championship. Garrett Brooks takes a look at what the Nets need at the deadline to give themselves the best chance to win it all.
As they’ve acclimated to one another, the Brooklyn Nets are finding their groove on both ends of the floor recently. While that’s bad news for the rest of the NBA, there are still things the Nets need to address before making their eventual playoff run.
Winning regular-season games is one thing, winning playoff series is a whole different animal. We know the Nets have offensive firepower like few teams in the history of the NBA. Their big three of Kevin Durant, James Harden and Kyrie Irving can carry them to regular-season success.
If they want to maximize their chances to win a title, though, they have more moves to make to fill out the roster.
Another Frontcourt Option
The Nets have to be pleased with what they’re getting from Jeff Green in small ball lineups at the five, as well as the recent emergence of Bruce Brown too. That’s going to be a trend for this team moving forward, as it should be.
Still, there’s a lack of depth on the roster in terms of capable defensive big men that needs to be addressed before an eventual run at an NBA Championship. This is especially true because of the teams they could face on their way to a title, such as the Milwaukee Bucks, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Lakers. Simply put, beating those teams four out of seven games with a big man rotation consisting of DeAndre Jordan and Jeff Green is just highly unlikely.
Green is a great weapon to use at the five but is far too undersized to be counted on in any given playoff series. He’ll get picked on by opposing bigs with offensive skillsets if he’s asked to play all the minutes that Jordan isn’t on the floor. While Brown has been great in his own right, asking him to defend Nikola Jokic, Brook Lopez, Marc Gasol and beyond is just too big an ask.
Jordan is not the player he once was but is still a difference-maker in the right situation. Additionally, it would be ideal to add another big that has a different skill set than Jordan in order to increase the options head coach Steve Nash has with his lineups.
With a rim runner in Jordan and small ball fives in Green and Brown, the Nets need to target a versatile big man to add to the mix. Floor spacing would be ideal but isn’t necessary if they bring in someone that can make a big enough impact on the defensive end.
The ideal target will bring two key attributes to the team: The first is rim protection when called upon. The Nets don’t have a long list of strong perimeter defenders, so extra help at the rim would be much-needed. This doesn’t necessarily have to be a shot-blocker as it can also be a smart defender that mainly relies on successfully contesting shots under the rim.
Second, and perhaps most importantly, the center they target needs to be capable of switching on the defensive end. One way the Nets like to cover themselves defensively is by going switch-heavy for stretches. This allows them to play the passing lanes aggressively and often forces the opponent out of their offensive rhythm. The more capable their big men are when it comes to switching, the better this strategy will work.
Kevin Durant’s versatility on the defensive end allows the Nets to search for somebody that excels in defending multiple positions even if they may not be great as the last line of defense. Durant is a strong help defender and has the length to make things difficult at the rim. This ability is proven by the 1.8 blocks he averaged during the 2017-18 season with the Golden State Warriors.
Durant can be the help side defender when asked, but how often can he be asked to bang in the post defensively? The answer is not often.
It’s important that any addition to the frontcourt can hold their own in the post against players such as Joel Embiid or Bam Adebayo. But the harsh reality is that the Nets likely won’t have the luxury to be picky with the type of big man they add. It’ll be hard to find a player that can defend most bigs and switch on most positions throughout a game.
Given their lack of assets remaining, the Nets will need to target what they can afford on the market.
Names to keep an eye on: Thaddeus Young, Chicago Bulls; JaVale McGee, Cleveland Cavaliers; P.J. Tucker, Houston Rockets.
Depth At The Point Guard Position
With James Harden leading the way as the point guard and Kyrie Irving very capable of handling the offensive load as well, this is an easy need to overlook. Unfortunately, the Nets can’t afford to do that as the trade deadline approaches. If they can’t acquire a traditional point guard for depth, they’ll need to address it on the buyout market.
After Harden, Irving and Durant, the Nets’ core rotation does very little in terms of playmaking. In fact, DeAndre Jordan ranks next among players in the rotation for assists per game. The big three can certainly carry the load when it comes to getting players involved, but the Nets could use another veteran that’ll get their offense good looks.
Most notably, this type of move would aid them in finishing the regular season without riding their stars too hard – which they’ve already done. That versatility would be a great asset to Nash and his coaching staff in both the regular season and playoffs.
That’s without mentioning the always-existent possibility of injury or potentially-required quarantine. It’s always best to have depth and options, and that’s truer than ever in the current NBA landscape. The ideal addition would be a natural distributor capable of knocking down an open shot and holding his own on the defensive end of the floor.
That may seem like a tough sell, but it’s certainly a skill set that will be available for the right price. The Nets would do well in targeting a player that is underperforming due to circumstance. It’s fair to assume a lot of players would benefit from playing in the kind of environment the Nets are currently constructing.
Names to keep an eye on: Austin Rivers, New York Knicks; Quinn Cook, Free Agent; George Hill, Oklahoma City Thunder.
If the Nets can address these two needs they’ll be as well-rounded as any team. The added versatility and flexibility would make them that much stronger come the playoffs. While they’re finding some excellent, wonderful regular season successes, the postseason is a different beast – and the Nets, plus a rookie head coach, will need to learn how to adapt on-the-fly.
General manager Sean Marks is never truly done molding his rosters – and Spencer Dinwiddie may even be available, according to Ian Begley of SNY – so what the Nets run with today certainly isn’t final.
We know what the big three are capable of – now it’s time for the roster to be rounded out for their best chance to succeed.
Bruce Brown Thriving As Nets’ Small Ball Center
Brooklyn has thrived with Bruce Brown playing minutes as a small ball center – and what started out as an experiment may just change the Nets’ championship aspirations for the better.
The Brooklyn Nets’ trade for James Harden has proven to be worth it so far. However, their depth and size were seriously hurt as a result of the deal – so the Nets have been forced to get creative with the limited options they have.
Enter: Bruce Brown.
Standing at a meager 6-foot-4, Brown may be the Nets’ best option at center against certain matchups. DeAndre Jordan, the starting center now that Jarrett Allen is in Cleveland, has seen his defensive capabilities decline rather drastically since his time in Lob City. He is still an elite alley-oop threat but has some lapses with effort levels. Reggie Perry is a rookie who was the 57th overall pick isn’t ready for a heavy load of minutes just yet. Nic Claxton has shown promise but has played in just two games due to injury.
In a win against the Golden State Warriors on Feb. 13, Brown started at center with Jordan out to injury. He finished the game with 18 points and 7 rebounds. It wasn’t the first time this season Brown spent time at the center position, but it was reflective of his ever-changing role on this Nets team.
Brown arrived this past offseason and came thought as more of a point guard. Now that the Nets have three of the best playmakers in the NBA, his role has shifted. He is practically never counted on to initiate the offense – instead, he has become the guy who does the dirty work. Think of him as the Nets’ version of Draymond Green.
Now the small ball option at center, Brown’s strengths have been accentuated. Offensively, he has become a screen-setter and roll man, thus forming chemistry with James Harden, and has played his way into a crucial part of the rotation. Brown’s minutes at the beginning of the season were sporadic and included four DNP’s. Now he’s an invaluable piece to the Nets’ puzzle.
When teams trap or double James Harden or Kyrie Irving, Brown is often the outlet. He catches the ball in the middle of the floor, turns and has options available to him. Able to attack the basket or make the right pass to an open guy, Brown’s decision-making has been a positive for Brooklyn.
Defensively, Brown is one of the few Nets players who is a consistent positive on that end. He can guard multiple positions due to his strength and often defends the opposing team’s best players. While his height will never allow for him to be a full-time center, being an option for coach Steve Nash to plug in for small ball lineups is a game-changer.
“Bruce is remarkable, I mean, I believe he mostly played point guard last year and he’s playing – what do you want to call him our center?” Said Steve Nash, per Newsday. “He’s picking and rolling and finishing with two bigs in the lane. His willingness and ability to do that is remarkable.”
Really, that’s what has been most impressive. Brown is playing a role he has never been asked to do in the NBA and thriving. He scored a career-high 29 points against the Sacramento Kings on Feb. 23. That night, he straight-up shared minutes with Jordan, which speaks to his versatility. Wherever the Nets have needed him this season, Brown has been willing and able.
Brown’s counting stats won’t jump off a stat sheet. He’s averaging just 7.7 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. He’s also shooting just 22.2 percent from the three-point line but he’s made a living around the basket. A look at his shot chart shows how little he operates from outside the restricted area – and due to the attention his superstar teammates garner, he usually gets open looks right near the rim.
He’s also often being guarded by opposing team’s big men. In a matchup against the Los Angeles Lakers, former defensive player of the year Marc Gasol guarded Brown to start the game. The role of the small ball center is not as rare as it used to be, but Bruce Brown may be the smallest guy in terms of height to fill the role. To wit, Draymond Green is 6-foot-6 and PJ Tucker is 6-foot-5.
The Nets traded for Brown this past offseason in what looks to have been an absolute steal of a deal, giving up just Dzanan Musa and a second-round pick. Given that the inconsistent Musa is now playing overseas, it was a trade that is already providing dividends.
But, at the end of the day, there are championship expectations in Brooklyn. While the Nets certainly have the star power to beat just about anybody, role-players who thrive in their role can often swing a game or a series come playoff time. So far, more so than nearly any other player outside of the big three, Brown’s ability to fit in wherever needed has changed the contender’s long-term outlook in a positive way.
NBA Daily: What Should the Raptors Do at the Trade Deadline?
The Toronto Raptors are surging. Bobby Krivitsky examines whether they’ve been good enough to keep their current core intact or if they should take a different approach at the trade deadline.
After losing eight of their first 10 games to start the season, the Toronto Raptors have won 14 of their last 23 matchups, surging to fifth in the Eastern Conference.
The Raptors had to quickly recharge during a truncated offseason, get acclimated to a new setting and adjust to Aron Baynes and Chris Boucher stepping into the void left by the departures of Marc Gasol and Serge Ibaka. Despite all of that, they’re scoring the 10th-most points per 100 possessions, are 13th in defensive rating and have the ninth-best net rating in the NBA.
Through Toronto’s ups and downs this season, they’ve been able to count on Fred VanVleet. After signing a four-year, $85 million contract to remain with the Raptors, the fifth-year guard from Wichita State has once again taken his game to a higher level. He’s averaging 20 points, 6.7 assists and 4.5 rebounds — all career-bests — and eighth in the NBA with 1.7 steals per contest. It’s discomforting to imagine where this team would be if he had left.
Then there’s Pascal Siakam, who’s finally shaken off a rough second-round series against the Boston Celtics last postseason and thawed from an icy start to his 2020-21 campaign. Siakam is averaging 20.1 points, 7.5 rebounds, 4.8 assists, and 1.2 steals per game. One of the main reasons for his turnaround has been Siakam’s growth as a facilitator: those 4.8 assists represent a career-best. And, with the Raptors shifting more towards small-ball, Siakam is thriving working off a screen from guards, spotting where the defense is vulnerable and taking advantage of it.
Another crucial component of Siakam’s improvement is him playing with more energy on the defensive end. Effort can only take a defender so far, but when that individual is 6-foot-9 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan and has the strength, quickness and intelligence to guard positions one-through-five for varying amounts of time, doing so can have a significant impact on the outcome of the game.
While Siakam’s production has more of an impact on the Raptors’ ceiling than any other player on the team, Kyle Lowry, alongside VanVleet, establishes Toronto’s floor. Lowry, who turns 35 in March, is averaging 18 points, 6.5 assists, 5.5 rebounds, and 1.2 steals per game this season. He remains the heart and soul of the team. That makes it even more impressive that, despite losing him to a thumb injury during a Feb. 16 matchup against the Milwaukee Bucks, Toronto went on to win that night and again two days later, stretching their winning streak to four games (including a victory over the Philadelphia 76ers).
One major change stemming from the Raptors playing small more often is Norman Powell entering the starting lineup. He’s started his last 17 games and is averaging a team-high 21.8 points, 3.8 rebounds and 1.4 steals. During that stretch, the sharpshooting Powell is also knocking down 44.4 percent of his 6.4 threes per game and shooting 51.2 percent from the floor. Toronto has won 10 of those 17 games.
Powell gives the Raptors more offensive firepower, allows them to play faster and, when they don’t have a traditional center on the floor, has made it easier for them to switch on defense. It’s an adjustment that’s worked so well for Toronto, even in Lowry’s absence, Baynes came off the bench while DeAndre’ Bembry joined the starting lineup.
So, with the Raptors finding their footing and the March 25 trade deadline inching closer, what’s Toronto’s best course of action? That decision revolves around their plan with Lowry.
Lowry, whose $30 million deal is set to expire after the season, is interested in playing at least two more seasons at a similar value, per Keith Pompey of the Philadelphia Inquirer. Are the Raptors willing to meet those demands, paving the way for the franchise icon to spend the remainder of his career with them? Secondly, the Raptors aren’t a title contender right now, which could lead to the two sides working together to send Lowry to a team meeting that criteria by the trade deadline, which also happens to be his 35th birthday.
If it comes to that, Pompey listed the 76ers, Miami HEAT and Los Angeles Clippers as Lowry’s preferred destinations, noting the North Philadelphia native would like to return to his roots. For the Raptors to go through with trading the six-time All-Star, it would likely take multiple first-round picks and promising young players along with any contracts included for salary-matching purposes to be expiring after this season.
Considering Toronto’s current place in the NBA’s hierarchy, if Lowry intends to leave for a title contender or the Raptors aren’t willing to meet his contractual demands, it’s clear what they should do at the deadline. Trading Lowry isn’t going to net Toronto the return necessary to vault them into the league’s top tier, but it would still figure to serve them better in the long term, even though the Raptors’ resurgence suggests if he’s still on the team after Mar. 25th, they’re once again going to be a difficult out in the playoffs, and they could go as far as the Eastern Conference Finals.
If they want to play the long game, it would also make sense for them to trade Powell, who has an $11.6 million player option he’s likely to decline in the offseason. Granted, he’ll be 28 next season, so it’s not as if re-signing him would be short-sighted.
There’s nothing wrong with preserving the possibility Lowry never dons another team’s jersey — and parting with a franchise icon is never easy. But trading Lowry may be the best bet for the franchise’s future, while it would neither change the fact that the team will someday retire his jersey, nor would it take away from his legacy. In fact, doing right by him and giving Lowry another opportunity to compete for a title may just be the best parting gift the Raptors could give him while also strengthening their own long-term outlook.