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