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NBA Free Agency Winners and Losers

With the bulk of transactions behind us, let’s look at the winners and losers in free agency.

Jesse Blancarte

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The bulk of this offseason’s free agency moves are now behind us, so we can take a look at which teams did the best and worst job.

Winners:

Golden State Warriors

When a franchise that just won 73 regular season games in a single season, that was within arm’s reach of winning the championship after winning it the previous season, that features a roster with the reigning league MVP, two other all-NBA caliber players, an elite wing-defender, plenty of rotation depth and a top-notch head coach adds Kevin Durant in free agency, without question that franchise falls into the winner’s category.

There isn’t a ton to dissect here. The Warriors already had Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson, Draymond Green and Andre Iguodala on the roster and add a generational talent in Durant. They had to let players like Harrison Barnes, Andrew Bogut, Festus Ezeli, Leoandro Barbosa and Marresse Speights go, but replaced them with some solid veterans like Zaza Pachulia and David West.

This isn’t just a collection of raw talent either. The Warriors play some of the most cohesive, inclusive basketball of any team in the NBA. Durant steps right in and fills the gap that Barnes left behind. While Durant has made a living in isolation over his career, he should benefit from the pass-happy, screen-heavy, free-flowing style of play that Coach Steve Kerr runs. This team was already crazy good and it just got even better. Oh, and by stealing Durant away, the Warriors simultaneously gutted their biggest challengers in the Western Conference. Talk about icing on the cake.

Utah Jazz

There isn’t a single team that can match the Warriors’ talent on paper. But, if you had to pick a team that could give the Warriors some problems based on personnel, the Jazz is a pretty good bet.

This offseason, the Jazz traded the rights to Taurean Prince (the 12th overall pick in this year’s Draft) to the Atlanta Hawks for George Hill from Indiana Pacers (who received Jeff Teague from the Hawks), traded the rights to Olivier Hanlan (41st overall pick in the 2015 Draft) to the San Antonio Spurs for Boris Diaw and a 2022 second-rounder and signed Joe Johnson to a two-year, $21.5 million contract.

In making these moves, the Jazz have added a strong defender and veteran at the point guard position in George, a versatile forward in Diaw and a veteran wing who can still score from anywhere on the court in Johnson. Add these veterans to a team that features a dominant defensive duo in the front court in Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, along with a star-wing in Gordon Hayward, and the Jazz suddenly have a versatile roster that can go big and punish teams for playing small-ball.

Our Ben Dowsett broke down Utah’s bolstered roster versatility earlier this month. This is part of what he said about the Jazz’s new flexibility:

The Jazz can run space-heavy offensive units with the length to switch a ton on defense – think Hill-Hood-Hayward-Johnson-Gobert/Favors – just as easily as they can strangle teams with groups featuring Hill and/or Exum (a borderline elite defender as a rookie), one or two of the bigger wings and the towering Favors-Gobert duo. The Jazz now have four relatively like-sized perimeter players who create gravity from deep (Hill, Hood, Hayward, Johnson), two playmaking bigs in Lyles and Diaw, and two rolling, rebounding and rim protecting giants up front. They have the length to go “small” without actually playing smaller guys, and the shooting to put as much combined size on the floor as the league has seen in recent years. One can’t ask for much more flexibility.

To be clear, the Jazz, just like every other team, does not have the level of collective talent that Golden State does. However, with a versatile roster, they should have a decent shot at giving the Warriors some problems in their matchups.

Boston Celtics

The Celtics were one of the most ambitious teams this offseason. General manager Danny Ainge has a treasure chest of tradable assets and was looking to trade for or sign star players like Jimmy Butler, Kevin Durant and Al Horford. Ainge ultimately missed out on Butler and Durant, but adds a top-notch two-way big man in Horford.

Horford, age 30, fills a big hole in the Celtics’ roster. Kelly Olynyk and Amir Johnson are fine players, but neither is a top-level big men. Horford can plug in at starting center while adding rim protection, the versatility to guard mobile big man, as well as an effective assortment of shooting and post-moves on offense.

Horford probably doesn’t vault the Celtics into the NBA’s elite-tier of teams, but he does move the needle significantly. The Celtics now have a stud at center and plenty of assets and flexibility to use moving forward. Adding Durant and Horford would have been a grand slam, but hitting a homerun is perfectly fine too.

Charlotte Hornets

The Hornets entered the offseason with a lot of decisions to make. In the end, the Hornets let Courtney Lee, Al Jefferson and Jeremy Lin go to other teams while retaining Nicolas Batum and Marvin Williams. They also added Ramon Sessions, Roy Hibbert and Brian Roberts.

Keeping Batum is a big deal considering his age, versatility and still improving game. Batum may not be a superstar, but he’s the kind of player who makes a team better in more ways than can easily be quantified. Add in the fact that we still don’t know how good he and Michael Kidd-Gilchrist can be together and there’s a lot of reason to like the roster the Hornets are developing. In fact, let’s all take a moment to get excited about Kidd-Gilchrist’s eventual return to NBA action. He is a tenacious defender, improving offensive player and should be a dynamic complement to Batum on the wing.

Williams shot over 40 percent from three last year and has found his niche as a valuable stretch-four. Hibbert has fallen off the map, but has a chance to rebuild his image as a defensive stalwart under Steve Clifford. The Hornets may not have had the best overall offseason, but they took care of their main priorities without losing sight of their long-term outlook.

Losers:

Oklahoma City Thunder

It’s hard to not feel bad for the Oklahoma City Thunder and its fans. Seriously, this team was finally scratching the surface of how good it could be last postseason after years of fans and critics criticizing their inability to consistently extract optimal output from their talented roster.

Klay Thompson’s three-point barrage (11-of-18) helped the Warriors force a Game 7 against the Thunder, who ultimately lost after being up in the series 3-1. Thompson’s performance, in part, led to Durant’s decision to leave the Thunder and team up with the star-studded Warriors. Again, it’s hard to not feel bad for the Thunder.

However, Thunder general manager Sam Presti did bring in some nice talent by trading Serge Ibaka to the Orlando Magic for Victor Oladipo, Ersan Ilyasova and the rights to Donatas Sabonis (11th overall pick in this year’s Draft). Getting a player like Oladipo, who will be under team control for several years, as well as Ilyasova and Sabonis is a pretty nice haul for a player who is on an expiring deal and whose defensive impact had steadily waned in recent seasons. Though they will likely lose Dion Waiters to another team after Oklahoma City rescinded their qualifying offer, allowing him to become an unrestricted free agent.

Losing Durant is a major blow (to say the least) for the Thunder and could lead to Russell Westbrook leaving town after this upcoming season as an unrestricted free agent. If any front office could successfully navigate a situation like this, the Thunder’s can.

Los Angeles Lakers

Not so long ago, the Lakers were the league’s most desirable franchise. However, after putting together some historically bad seasons, missing out on major free agents, dealing with internal strife in the front office and saying farewell to Kobe Bryant, this once proud franchise has been knocked down a peg or two.

Proof of this is the fact that Durant declined the invitation to meet with the Lakers to discuss the possibility of joining them as a free agent. It’s one thing to meet with a superstar and to be told ‘Thanks, but no thanks.’ It’s another thing to not even be given the opportunity to meet and discuss the possibility of making a deal.

Instead of getting a star player like Durant or a rising talent like Hassan Whiteside, the Lakers threw down big money on Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Deng and Mozgov are still both decently productive players and nice veterans to add to the locker room. However, $136,000,000 is a lot of money to commit to Deng and Mozgov over four years. Yes, the cap spiked and that changes the way we assess the value of contracts these days. It doesn’t matter—that’s still a lot of money. Even signing Tarik Black to a two-year, partially-guaranteed $12.8 million contract is a pretty hefty investment when guys like Hibbert, Speights and Ezeli are earning only slighter more, or less per year.

Having said all of that, adding Luke Walton on as coach, re-signing Jordan Clarkson to a four-year, $50 million contract and drafting Brandon Ingram are nice moves that help the rebuilding process in L.A. With a good core of young talent and a bright head coach, the Lakers are slowly but surely heading toward a better future. But again, $136,000,000 is a lot of money for two aging veterans whose best days are likely behind them.

Chicago Bulls

Asserting that the Bulls are losers in free agency may draw some ire considering they added Dwyane Wade and Rajon Rondo as free agents. Wade is one of the greatest shooting guards of all-time and Rondo is one of the best passers in the league. However, Wade’s past his prime and has a less than ideal injury history and Rondo has struggled in recent seasons and is always a concern in the locker room.

These issues are exacerbated by the fact that Wade and Rondo would form arguably the worst shooting backcourt in the entire NBA considering Wade and Rondo have shot below 30 percent from three-point range in their respective careers. Additionally, Wade and Rondo are ball-dominant guards, which may be a problem considering star forward Jimmy Butler also needs the ball in his hands. Each of these three players has strong personalities and will have to set their respective egos aside to make this dynamic work.

Fortunately for Chicago they do have a nice crop of young talent on the team in players like Bobby Portis, Nikola Mirotic, Doug McDermott, Jerian Grant, Cristiano Felicio and Denzel Valentine, and added a good center in Robin Lopez in the Derrick Rose trade. Additionally, adding Wade and Rondo doesn’t jeopardize the team’s future flexibility. Nevertheless, the Bulls have added two strong personalities to a team that suffered issues in the locker room last season. One way or another, this will be an interesting season in Chicago.

San Antonio Spurs

After 19 years in the NBA, Tim Duncan decided to call it a career. Losing Duncan is a sad thing for NBA fans and even tougher for those in and around the Spurs organization. While the Spurs did manage to land Pau Gasol to offset the loss of Duncan, at age 36, it’s hard to see how Gasol helps the Spurs get past the Warriors in the Western Conference.

The issue for San Antonio is that by failing to land Durant, losing Duncan and not bringing in a significant boost in talent, they remain more than a step behind the Warriors in the Western Conference with an aging roster. The same logic can be applied to the Los Angeles Clippers, who also missed out on Durant and had to settle for re-signing their own free agents while adding depth on the fringes of their roster. However, in the Clippers’ case, they kept most of their key pieces and got value signings in Brandon Bass and Speights. Unfortunately for both of these teams, not being able to take a step forward in free agency constitutes a loss considering how much better the rival Warriors became by signing Durant.

This Spurs roster has nice pieces in LaMarcus Aldridge, Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green. But players like Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili and Gasol are in their mid-30s and it’s hard to see how they can match against the prime-year athletes in the Bay. However, if there is any coach that could find out a way to maximize his roster’s talent and the formula for stopping the Warriors, it’s Gregg Popovich.

Washington Wizards

The Wizards spent the last two seasons or so preparing to make a strong run at Durant in free agency. Despite their careful planning, the Wizards didn’t even get a meeting with Durant.

Instead, the Wizards brought in some decent big men in Ian Mahinmi (four-year, $62 million), Andrew Nicholson (four-year, $26 million contract, player option in final season) and Jason Smith (three-year, $15.7 million contract, player option in final season). They also reportedly agreed to re-sign Bradley Beal to a five-year, $127.2 million contract.

The Wizards still have a good crop of young talent to build this team around and a new coach in Scott Brooks to lead the way. But failing to get a meeting from Durant, who grew up in Washington D.C., is a punch to the gut for a team that had the talent (John Wall, Bradley Beal) and flexibility to make a viable pitch. It also doesn’t help that Durant seemed to take a less than veiled swipe at the team in his letter on The Players’ Tribune announcing his decision to join Warriors: “I’m from Washington, D.C. originally, but Oklahoma City truly raised me. It taught me so much about family as well as what it means to be a man.”

Jesse Blancarte is a Deputy Editor for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney and a member of the Professional Basketball Writers Association.

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NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises

The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.

Zach Dupont

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Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.

While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.

The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.

The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.

The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.

Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.

Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.

Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.

Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.

Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.

Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.

When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.

Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.

The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.

Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.

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NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers

Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.

David Yapkowitz

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There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.

Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.

Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.

And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.

But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.

He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.

For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.

“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”

“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”

To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.

And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.

Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.

In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.

“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”

“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”

Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.

He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.

“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”

With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.

“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”

For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.

Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.

“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”

And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio

Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.

Chad Smith

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Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.

Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.

Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginóbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.

It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.

The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.

And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.

Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.

As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.

Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.

While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.

Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.

White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.

Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.

The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.

Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.

Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.

Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.

Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.

And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.

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