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NBA PM: Injuries Give Spurs Reserves Opportunity to Shine

San Antonio’s reserves are stepping up as key players go down with injuries, writes James Blancarte.

James Blancarte

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The San Antonio Spurs are currently battling the Golden State Warriors in the Western Conference Finals. The Spurs led Game 1 by as many as 25 points and seemed poised to take a crucial game on Golden State’s home court. San Antonio was being led by Kawhi Leonard, who has continued to display MVP-worthy dominance on both sides of the floor in the playoffs. Unfortunately, Leonard went down after tweaking his ankle not once, but twice in the third quarter of Sunday’s game before sitting the remainder of the contest, which had a huge impact on the outcome of the game.

Defeating the Houston Rockets and making it to the Western Conference Finals was quite an accomplishment. In addition to the ankle sprain to Leonard (originally suffered against the Rockets), the Spurs had to overcome a ruptured quad tendon to starting point guard Tony Parker as well. Since Parker went down, the Spurs have relied on a couple of key reserves. The production from these reserves will be even more critical if Leonard is forced to miss significant time. Despite the disappointing loss in Game 1, the early returns have been positive so far for San Antonio. Let’s take a look:

Jonathan Simmons

With the injuries to both Parker and Leonard, the impact of Jonathon Simmons has been crucial for the Spurs. For casual fans of the NBA, Simmons is a relatively unknown player pulled from deep within the Spurs’ system. For many diehard Spurs fans and Texas natives, Simmons’ recent success is not such a surprise.

Simmons spent his college career playing for various schools in Texas, culminating with his one-year stay at the University of Houston. Despite going undrafted in the 2012 NBA Draft, Simmons tried out and earned a spot on the Austin Toros (the Spurs NBA Development League Team) in September 2013. In 2015, the Spurs called Simmons up from the D-League. In his two seasons with the Spurs, Simmons has averaged 16.6 minutes per game and 6.1 points per game. He even started two games his rookie season and eight games this season.

Getting to this point has not been easy for Simmons, who spoke in 2016 about tryouts, the NBA D-League and eventually making it to the NBA with the Spurs.

“It was a grind,” Simmons stated. “I enjoyed every bit of it, don’t take any part of it for granted. It definitely humbled me along the way. I’m enjoying this part even more.”

In the five games since Parker went down, Simmons has scored 13.2 points on 47.3 percent shooting, including 1.4 steals in 25.2 minutes per game. While increasing his playing time and production, Simmons posted a +8.2 net rating and 55.1 true shooting percentage. He is shooting well, defending effectively against both guards and forwards and is proving himself a more than capable backup for San Antonio. If Leonard is to miss any significant time, Simmons will need to be at his absolute best to help fill that massive void. San Antonio’s offense runs primarily through Leonard and he often shuts down the opponent’s best offensive player. Without Leonard, Simmons will be asked to help take on some of those responsibilities — an almost impossible task but one he seems ready to take on.

Patty Mills

While the rise of Simmons has been a welcome surprise to many, what guard Patty Mills has done has been much more expected. Once Parker went down, the Spurs immediately leaned on Mills, a career-backup to Parker, to take the starting role and produce.

Mills is now key to the Spurs’ success and played in all but 11 minutes of Sunday’s game. Although he did not shoot well, going 1-8 in the game, Mills came up with what could have been the play of the game.

The Spurs were down three with 33 seconds remaining when Mills rushed Warriors guard Klay Thompson and simply ripped the ball out of his hands. Thompson immediately fouled Mills putting him on the line where he hit both free throws and brought the Spurs within one. This lightning-quick turn of events gave the Spurs a shot to take back the lead in a game that had been slipping away since Leonard went down in the third quarter.

Unlike Simmons, a home-grown product of Texas, count Mills as one of the Spurs’ successful investments in overseas talent. The 55th pick of the 2009 NBA Draft out of Australia, Mills has continued a slower ascent within the organization. Now in his eighth season, Mills started a career-high eight games this season and had never started more than three before this season. Furthermore, Mills had never started a playoff game in his career until now. In the last two seasons, his playing time had peaked at 20.5 and 21.0 minutes per game, respectively.

With Mills as the replacement, the Spurs have divided ball handling responsibilities amongst a few players with a good amount of success. In the eight games leading up to and including Parker’s injury, the Spurs averaged 18 assists a game. Since the injury, the Spurs are averaging 24.2 assists per game. Additionally, since Parker’s injury, Mills is scoring 12.8 points, 4.2 assists, 1.4 steals in 33.2 minutes per game as the starter — a significant leap from the 21.7 minutes a game he averaged in the first round.

Head Coach Gregg Popovich (sort of) spoke about Mill’s production and value.

“I don’t want to talk too much about Patty Mills because the more I say good the more we’re gonna have to pay him [in free agency],” Popovich joked.

Mills has his limitations, but he has filled in admirably for the Spurs up this point.

Dejounte Murray

Point guard Dejounte Murray is still a few months shy of his 21st birthday. Yet, like the players above, Murray is already proof of the success of San Antonio’s player development program. Although his impact has been relatively minor this season, Murray actually started eight of the 38 games he has played in. Many teams would not trust a rookie to play any sort of significant minutes during the season, let alone start. Count this maneuver by the Spurs coaching staff as one that has paid off this postseason.

The time spent in the NBA D-League (15 games with the Austin Toros) helped to ensure him the opportunity to get more playing time, develop and have the chance to be productive and remain in game shape during the season. Murray showed a positive attitude earlier in the season when asked about a possible D-League assignment.

“If they want me to go down there and play, I don’t have a problem going there to play,” Murray stated.

Now, less than a year later, Murray finds himself thrust into the spotlight in the Western Conference Finals. Since Parker’s injury, Murray has played in four of five games and averaged 17.8 minutes per game. Although his contributions don’t match those of the players above, receiving any reliable contributions from a first-year player in this situation must be considered a net positive. In these games, Murray is averaging 6.8 points, 2.5 assists, one steal and has a plus-minus of 9.3.

And yet, to those who know him, Murray’s success is not such a surprise. Spurs veteran Manu Ginobili spoke highly of Murray and his future potential earlier in the season.

“[Murray] has talent,” Manu Ginobili stated. “He has ball skills. He has athleticism. When you have those few things, and then you listen and want to get better, then if you get all [the other)] things together, your career is on the way up. He has a very bright future. He knows that. We all know that.”

James Blancarte is a writer for Basketball Insiders. He is also an Attorney based in Los Angeles, California.

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NBA

NBA Daily: Spurs Enter New Territory After Moving Parker To Reserve Role

The San Antonio Spurs are seemingly entering a new phase as Tony Parker has been moved to a reserve role.

James Blancarte

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San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg made a significant change to his rotation earlier this week. On Sunday, January 21 Popovich placed guard Dejounte Murray into the starting lineup in place of Tony Parker. The Spurs went on to lose the game at home to the Indiana Pacers. The result was the same as a losing effort in Friday’s matchup against the Toronto Raptors in Toronto.

The San Antonio Spurs came into the 2017-18 hoping to bounce back from last year’s playoffs where the team suffered injuries to Kawhi Leonard and Parker and eventually lost to the Golden State Warriors. This season started off with the Spurs surviving without Leonard and Parker as the two continued to rehab from lingering injuries. As of now, Leonard is once again taking time off to rehabilitate after playing in nine games while Parker has been able to stay healthy so far. Unfortunately, being healthy enough to play doesn’t make up for the inevitable decline that comes with age and injuries.

On the season, Parker is averaging a career low in minutes (21.6), assists (4.0) and points (8.2), as well as free throws made and attempted per game. His usage rate, player efficiency rating (PER) and shooting percentages are also all at or around career lows. It’s hard to argue against the notion that Parker, at 35 years old with 17 years of pro basketball under his belt, is in the twilight of his impressive career.

Parker has acknowledged his demotion but seems to be handling it like a true professional.

“[Popovich] told me he thought it was time, and I was like, ‘no problem.’ Just like Manu [Ginobili], just like Pau [Gasol], you know that day is going to come,” Parker said recently. .

Before Sunday’s game, Parker had started 1151 of 1164 games played, all with the Spurs of course.

Popovich was asked specifically if the plan was either to start Murray at point guard moving forward or if this switch in the lineup was a part of some kind of injury management program for Parker. Never known for being overly loquacious, Popovich responded with little detail or insight.

“We’ll see,” Popovich stated.

In the starting lineup, Murray logged eight points, four assists, seven rebounds, three steals and one block in nearly 28 minutes of action. Murray had previously started before Parker returned from injury earlier this season but eventually relinquished that spot to career reserve guard Patty Mills.

Parker also spoke of the benefit of coming off the bench and potentially mentoring Murray’s growth in his new presumed role as the starter.

“If Pop [Coach Popovich] sees something that is good for the team, I will try to do my best,” Parker said. “I will support Pop’s decision and I will try to help DJ [Murray] as best as I can and try to be the best I can in the second unit with Manu [Ginobili] and Patty [Mills].”

If nothing else, this move will allow the Spurs to see if Parker can be more effective in limited minutes against opposing bench units. Additionally, Parker will hopefully benefit from playing alongside his longtime running mate, Ginobli.

Parker’s willingness to mentor Murray may come as a relief to Spurs fans watching the ongoing dismantling of San Antonio’s former Big-3, which began with the retirement of future Hall-of-Famer, Tim Duncan. At 6-foot-5, Murray benefits from greater size and athleticism than Parker, although Murray failed to keep the starting job when given an opportunity earlier this season. Coach Popovich gave another straightforward answer when asked which areas he thinks Murray can improve in.

“He’s 21-years-old,” Popovich declared. “He can improve in all areas.”

After asking for a trade in the offseason, the Spurs have benefited from focusing their offense around LaMarcus Aldridge, who is having a bounce-back campaign. However, Leonard is now out indefinitely and the Minnesota Timberwolves have now caught the Spurs in the standings. The pressure is on for this resilient Spurs team, which has again managed to beat the odds despite an injured and aging roster.

Parker became a starter for the Spurs at age 19 and never looked back. Now all eyes are on Murray to see how well he performs in his second stint with the starters at a crucial point in the season.

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Sources: Milwaukee Bucks Fire Coach Jason Kidd

Basketball Insiders

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The Milwaukee Bucks have fired coach Jason Kidd, sources ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski.

Source: Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN

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Defensive Player Of The Year Watch – 1/22/17

Spencer Davies checks into the DPOY race with his latest list of candidates.

Spencer Davies

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It’s a new year and Basketball Insiders is continuing its Defensive Player of the Year watch with sample sizes widening and new players emerging in the conversation.

There were a couple of names knocked out of the list, but that gives more of a spotlight to those who have really stepped up since our last edition ran on December 29. Without further ado, let’s get into it.

 6. Hassan Whiteside

After missing nearly a month of action with a knee injury, Whiteside has returned with a vengeance. The Miami HEAT were already a good defensive team before he came back, but he’s really bolstered that reputation even further. Since Dec. 26, the 7-foot center has recorded eight multi-block games. In five of those, he had at least four swats, including a six-rejection performance in a win at Milwaukee. Overall in ESPN’s Defensive Real-Plus Minus, Whiteside owns by far the best rating at 4.73. “Agent Block” is back and daring all comers to try him.

5. Anthony Davis

Slowly but surely, the New Orleans Pelicans are creeping away from the bottom of the league in defensive rating. Once ranked in the bottom five a few weeks ago, they’ve shot up to 18th in the league (108.4) rather quickly. While that’s not the most impressive statistic to provide, the obvious reason for their improved standing on that end of the floor is Davis. He’s been an absolute workhorse for Alvin Gentry in the restricted area as an elite rim protector, with a heavy responsibility and a ton of minutes. Without him on the floor, the Pels are allowing 8.9 more points per 100 possessions, which puts Davis in the 96th percentile according to Cleaning The Glass.

4. Josh Richardson

Notice there are two members of the HEAT on this list. It’s because they are on fire right now, no pun intended, so it’s about time they received some love in the conversation for DPOY. Whiteside was addressed first, but if we’re talking about a greater sample size with consistent evidence, Richardson fits the bill. Opponents are attempting over 11 shots per game against him, yet are only making 38.9 percent of those tries. That’s the lowest conversion rate in the league with a minimum of 10 attempts.

Battling injuries a season ago, Richardson has played in all 46 games for Miami this year. While it’s been a team effort, he is the heart and soul of Erik Spoelstra’s defense, taking on the most difficult assignments each game. For that reason, he deserves long overdue recognition on this list.

3. Kevin Durant

This isn’t a case where Durant is slipping because of his performances. He’s only ranked third this time around because of the job others have done outside of him. The Golden State Warriors are still a juggernaut on both sides of the court. He’s still a top-notch individual defender. The numbers don’t suggest otherwise and the eye test certainly confirms it.

In isolation situations, Durant is allowing only 0.53 points per possession, which is second in the NBA to only Tony Snell. When it comes to crunch time, he’s always locking up. In fourth quarters, he is limiting the competition to shooting less than 30 percent—and his defended field goal percentage and field goal percentage discrepancy is the best in the league at -17.2. He’s got as good of a chance as anybody to take home DPOY.

2. Joel Embiid

Everybody loves to focus on the off-court antics and hilarities that come with Embiid, but the man deserves his due when it comes to his reputation in the NBA as a truly dominant big. The Philadelphia 76ers have won seven out of their last eight games and it has started on the defensive end of the floor.

Take the games against Boston, for example. Al Horford is a crucial part of the Celtics offense and has had problems getting going against the 23-year-old. In the 22 minutes per game, he’s been on the floor along with him, Horford has been held to below 30 percent from the field on an average of nine attempts. With Embiid off, he’s converted nearly 73 percent of his tries.

Another matchup you can examine is with Andre Drummond. The two have had their fair share of words with each other, but Embiid’s had the edge one-on-one. Similar to Horford, the Detroit Pistons big man has had a rough time against him. Embiid has limited Drummond to under 38 percent on five attempts per game in an average of over 23 minutes on the floor together. When he’s not playing, Drummond has had close to a 78 percent success rate.

Regarding centers, Embiid ranks second in ESPN’s DRPM and fifth in Basketball Reference’s Defensive Box Plus-Minus. Citing Cleaning The Glass, the Sixers are allowing 10 more points per 100 possessions when he’s sitting, which slots Embiid into the 97th percentile.

He’s altering shots. He’s blocking shots. He’s forcing kick outs. And that’s a big reason why the NBA gave Embiid its Eastern Conference Player of the Week honors. Trust The Process.

1. Paul George

Basketball Insiders was well represented this past Saturday in Cleveland when the Oklahoma City Thunder decimated the Cavaliers in their own building. The focus was on the “OK3” exposing a terrible defense, but the real story in this game was how in-tune and sound George was on both ends of the court. He was sizzling shooting the basketball, but perhaps more defining was shutting down LeBron James on a day that was supposed to belong to him.

Any time 23 got the ball to try and get the Cavs going, George was there. He suffocated him with pressure, forcing James into bad decisions and contested shots. The talk of the day was the 30,000-point mark, but PG-13 had other ideas.

“I was hopeful that it took two games for him to get to that,” George said after the 148-124 win at Quicken Loans Arena. “I actually didn’t know that stat until right before coming into [Saturday]. They told me he needed 25 to go to 30,000. I’ve been a part of a lot of those baskets that he’s had, so that’s an achievement or milestone I didn’t want to be a part of.”

Thunder teammate Steven Adams spoke to his prowess on that end of the floor.

“He’s a really good defender man,” Adams said. “It was like a perfect matchup, honestly. He played LeBron really well in terms of our system and what we want him doing. He did an amazing job there.”

Oklahoma City head coach Billy Donovan is a huge fan as well.

“He really I think puts forth good effort,” Donovan said pre-game. “He’s long, smart. He’s disruptive. He’s got good feet. He’s a physical defender. He’s hard to shoot over. Certainly, with he and Andre [Roberson] on the wings, that’s certainly bolstered our defense.”

That was one performance, but it’s obvious how much George brings to the table as one of the toughest guys to score on in this league. He’s got a league-leading 188 deflections and is tied with Eric Bledsoe at the top of the NBA with 2.2 steals per game.

Recently, the Thunder have allowed 91 points at most in three of their last four games. They are also in the top three allowing just 104.7 points per 100 possessions and George has been a huge part of that.

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