Isaiah Thomas Opens Up About Free Agency
Entering the 2013-14 NBA season, Isaiah Thomas wasn’t sure if he was going to be the starting point guard for the Sacramento Kings. The organization had just underwent a major overhaul, bringing in a new owner (Vivek Ranadivé), general manager (Pete D’Alessandro), head coach (Mike Malone) and potential starting point guard (Greivis Vasquez). Thomas, entering his third season after being the final pick in the 2011 NBA Draft, knew that his future was up in the air.
But Thomas is a fighter, someone who has always found a way to exceed expectations and succeed regardless of the obstacles put in his way. Upon learning that the Kings had acquired Vasquez in a three-team trade with the New Orleans Pelicans and Portland Trail Blazers, Thomas immediately drove to a Seattle gym and put himself through a rigorous workout. This became his daily routine over the summer, and he was determined to return to Sacramento as a much-improved player who could battle to keep his starting job.
When the Kings reconvened for the start of the season, it was clear that Thomas’ hard work had paid off. He thrived off of the bench early in the season and then played so well that Vasquez became expendable. The Kings traded Vasquez to the Toronto Raptors in their blockbuster deal to acquire Rudy Gay. Thomas ended up starting 54 games for the Kings, averaging 21.2 points, 6.8 assists, 3.1 rebounds and 1.2 steals. By the end of the season, Thomas wasn’t just the best floor general in Sacramento, he was one of the most productive point guards in the league. His 20.54 efficiency rating was fourth-best among all NBA point guards, behind only Chris Paul, Russell Westbrook and Stephen Curry.
“It was great, just because the work I put in,” Thomas told Basketball Insiders of his breakout season. “I felt like if I was given an opportunity, I could be one of the top guards in the NBA. I’ve said that before and people kind of looked at me sideways. But I feel like it’s all about opportunity and taking advantage of what people give you. The Sacramento Kings and Mike Malone gave me an opportunity and I just ran with it and did the things that I know how to do.”
Now, after his breakout season, Thomas is entering one of the most important summers of his life. Once the Kings extend a $2,875,131 qualifying offer to him, he’ll become a restricted free agent who is free to meet with other franchises. The Kings can match any offer that he receives, but it will be his first time being able to meet with his teams and explore their offers. The 25-year-old isn’t sure what will happen when he hits the free agency market, but he’s ready for the process.
“I’m just going to approach it with an open mind because I don’t really know what to expect,” Thomas said of free agency. “I’ve never done it and never been a part of it. I’m just going to go in with an open mind. I’ve done the best I could possibly do and I’ve controlled what I can control and that’s by going out there and giving it my all and leaving it on the floor. The rest is in God’s hands. It’s up in the air and I know everything happens for a reason. I’m going to be alright.”
Thomas understands that the NBA is a business, so he’s not sure if he’ll be back with the Kings next year.
“You never know,” Thomas said. “You’ve got to do what’s best for yourself. But at the same time, like I’ve said since day one, I love Sacramento, I love the coaching staff, I love the new ownership. They’ve done nothing but great things for me, but you never know. With this business, anything can happen.”
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Thomas admits that he reads all of the latest NBA rumors and reports on websites like Basketball Insiders and HoopsHype, but he tries not to focus on them too much
“I read the stuff, but it doesn’t bother me because I know the business of basketball,” Thomas said. “I know one guy can say one thing and it’s not even true and it’s around the whole United States; that’s just how it is. That’s why they’re called rumors. I definitely do read it because I like to stay in the loop, but they don’t bother me.”
One team that could be an intriguing option for Thomas is the Los Angeles Lakers. L.A. has just three players under contract for next season (Kobe Bryant, Steve Nash and Robert Sacre), and plenty of cap space to be active in free agency. It’s well-documented that Thomas grew up a diehard fan of the Lakers since his father is from Los Angeles, and he has idolized Bryant since he was a child. When asked what it would mean to sign an offer sheet with the Lakers, Thomas admits that it would be special.
“It would mean a lot,” Thomas said of receiving an offer sheet from the Lakers. “Not even just the Lakers, but just to have other teams trying to get you, it means you’re wanted. Like I’ve said in interviews before, I just want to be wanted. I want to be wanted for being 5’9 and I want to be wanted for being a scoring point guard. That’s all that I can say. If that’s the Lakers, I’d be happy. If that’s the Kings, then I’d be happy. I just want to be wanted and I want to win.”
As Thomas prepares for free agency on July 1, he’s going to reach out to a number of his veteran friends around the NBA so that he has an idea of what to expect when the circus begins.
“I haven’t [talked to any veterans yet], but I’ll probably reach out to a few guys, especially the older guys that have been through it,” Thomas said. “I’ve been just chilling and trying to relax and not think about it too much.”
One player who Thomas will discuss his decision with is Los Angeles Clippers guard Jamal Crawford, who is his mentor and one of his closest friends. Thomas and Crawford have known each other for years since they grew up in the same area. They even share the same agent, Andy Miller, and Thomas flew to Los Angeles to be in attendance for the ceremony when Crawford won this season’s Sixth Man of the Year award. Crawford is confident that Thomas will be highly coveted this summer and continue to thrive in the NBA.
“Isaiah is someone who has earned everything; he’s never had anything given to him,” Crawford said. “People said he was too small or that he wouldn’t make it to the NBA or that he couldn’t be a young star in the NBA, but he has done it. He’s a guy who is constantly working and constantly asking questions to get better. He has everyone’s respect. I couldn’t be more proud of him, and I know the best is yet to come for him. He’s one of the best free agents on the market this summer.”
As Crawford pointed out, Thomas has only been in the NBA for three seasons and it certainly seems that his best basketball is still ahead of him. Thomas agrees with this sentiment, and says that he feels he could someday be an All-Star in the NBA if he continues to work hard and lands in the right situation.
“I have a lot [of goals],” Thomas said. “I want to be an All-Star; I’ve always said that when given an opportunity, I can showcase that I can play at a very high level and numbers don’t lie. I think the next thing in my career is just winning, and winning takes care of all of the individual success. I know with the numbers that I have, if I lead a team to wins then those accolades will come. I’m just going to continue to work and continue to try to reach my goals and win. … I feel like I’ve gotten a lot of better in the last few years. I was watching actually film of my rookie year a few weeks ago and I was like, ‘I didn’t even look good!’ I felt like I wasn’t even that good. The jump that I’ve made, I think it’s going to happen every year just because of the work I’ve put in. I’m ready for every opportunity that’s thrown at me. I’m ready to show the world that I can play at a high level. This summer, I’m going to keep working too. I’m continuing to work on shooting, but also working on my off-hand passing and learning how to pass through traffic. I just want to keep getting better at being a passer and making my teammates better.”
While Thomas must weigh his free agency options and prepare for whatever happens next, he is happy with his current situation in Sacramento, where he has earned a key role as a significant contributor, gained chemistry with his teammates and grown comfortable with the city.
The Kings only managed to win 28 games last season, but they were competitive on most nights and they have a promising core that features Thomas, Gay, DeMarcus Cousins, Ben McLemore and whoever they select with the No. 8 pick in this draft. With Gay opting into the final year of his contract, it does take away some of Sacramento’s cap flexibility but it does leave open the possibility that the Kings may be able to keep their squad intact next year. If that’s the case, Thomas believes they can make some noise in the Western Conference and possibly qualify for the playoffs.
“Assuming we all come back, I think we can be very talented,” Thomas said of the Kings. “I think a lot of people in the league know how talented we can be. The jump we made this year, it didn’t translate to wins, but we were ahead in almost every game that we played in. We don’t know how to win yet. We have to figure out how to win close games. But I think with this core group of guys, we can better our games and then make it to the playoffs.”
The presence of Coach Malone is another reason why Thomas enjoys Sacramento. The point guard and head coach became very close throughout the course of last season. Thomas believes that bond is very important, and he loves that they have a strong relationship.
“Our relationship is great,” Thomas said of his bond with Coach Malone. “Since day one, he kept it 100 percent real with me. In the exit meeting, he said, ‘Man, you turned me into the biggest Isaiah Thomas fan.’ He was the first guy that really let me be me and embraced me for being me. I can’t say enough about him, he’s a guy that knows a lot about basketball and has great knowledge of the game. This whole coaching staff, they do their part. I can honestly say that they do their part and they work so hard. They come in every single day ready to work.”
In several weeks, Thomas will have a better idea of what his future holds. This is the second consecutive summer that he is surrounded by uncertainty, but with a breakout season behind him and the opportunity to secure a lucrative new contract looming, the situation is much more promising this time around.
Blatt Will Face Former Team in NBA Debut
When David Blatt makes his debut as the Cleveland Cavaliers’ new head coach, he’ll be matching up against familiar faces. The Cavaliers will open their 2014-15 preseason against Maccabi Tel Aviv, the team that Blatt just left after four seasons, on October 5 as part of a Euroleague US Tour 2014.
“I couldn’t think of a better-scripted story than starting this new chapter in my life with a friendly game against my Maccabi Tel Aviv family,” Blatt said.
Maccabi Tel Aviv , the reigning Euroleague champions, will also take on the Brooklyn Nets during the Euroleague US Tour on October 7.
With Blatt leaving to take the Cavaliers job, his former assistant Guy Goodes will take over as the team’s head coach. Goodes has been learning under Blatt in recent years, and he’s looking forward to taking on his mentor in this preseason contest.
“It will definitely be an interesting game,” Goodes said. “David obviously knows Maccabi’s playbook inside and out, but the team is geared up to face our friend and mentor and will be coming out there to win. Knowing David, it’s what he would demand of us.”
This will be the fifth time in nine years that Maccabi Tel Aviv represents the Euroleague against an NBA squad during the league’s preseason festivities.
Over the years, Maccabi has played 20 games against NBA clubs, winning five. In 2005, Maccabi became the first European team to beat an NBA squad on its home court by defeating the Toronto Raptors, 105-103, in the Air Canada Center.
Maccabi’s US Tour 2014 will follow two games against national Brazilian champion Flamengo as part of the Intercontinental Cup competition.
NBA Daily: An Elite Generation Takes Aim At The Postseason Greats
Even without LeBron James in the playoffs, there are plenty of historical narratives worth keeping an eye on — from steals to blocks, there’s plenty up for grabs.
When LeBron James missed out on the postseason for the first time in 14 years, he left a massively large hole in the proceedings. After all, James had dragged his squad to the NBA Finals in eight consecutive seasons, dating back to his inaugural season alongside Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh down in Miami.
Without James, in a way, the playoffs seem just a little bit emptier.
But it goes past his hulking status as a legend or his ability to dominate the headlines throughout the work week — literally, his box score is a standstill, collecting dust for once. James already owns more postseason points than anybody in NBA history with 6,911. That’s more than Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, more than Kobe Bryant and more than Michael Jordan — all by the age of 32.
Unsurprisingly, James is also the active leader in nearly every other category as well — games, minutes, field goals, rebounds, assists and steals.
The absence of James and a few notable other leaves the 2018-19 playoffs in an intriguing position in terms of the historical ladder. But since James cannot extend his absurd statistical bounties this spring, here are the players worth watching into the second round and beyond.
Of note, without James, Tony Parker, Dwyane Wade, Udonis Haslem and Dirk Nowitzki on the floor this postseason, Pau Gasol (136) is highest-ranking active games leader. Trailed by Kyle Korver at 133, it’s a small testament to their sticking power in an ever-changing NBA landscape.
Not far behind that pair is Kevin Durant, who will presumably pass Kevin Garnett, James Worthy and Reggie Miller for 37th all-time in postseason minutes at some point in their series against the Los Angeles Clippers.
Durant’s name, naturally, will be popping up far more than just that.
Field Goals — Kevin Durant
1,265, 20th all-time
1. LeBron James, 2,457
10. Tony Parker, 1,613
14. Dwyane Wade, 1,450
44. Russell Westbrook, 834
48. Stephen Curry, 815
Regardless of how Durant’s championships in Golden State resonates person-to-person, there’s no denying that the 6-foot-9 finisher is a crash course with history. At 30, Durant just continues to rise up the ranks and his free agency decision this summer suddenly looms large. Just as the rest of the categories reflect, these year-after-year deep Warriors runs can do wonders for your postseason standings — but Durant seems willing to give that all up. Still, outside of his first playoff berth in 2009-10, Durant has only failed to splash more than 140 field goals in just one other season.
During the Warriors’ championship-winning run in 2018-19, Durant dropped an absurd 212 buckets on 48.7 percent from the floor. Should he just tally a more human total in this current postseason pace, he’ll be knocking on the door of the top ten. Hell, even if Durant leaves Golden State come July in free agency and his field goals per playoffs revert to a more sustainable number of around 150, it’ll only take another three seasons before he’s challenging the likes of Tim Duncan, Kobe Bryant and Shaquille O’Neal.
Durant is destined for greatness, the only question now is how high he’ll go.
Three-Pointers — Stephen Curry
395, 1st all-time
3. LeBron James, 370
6. Klay Thompson, 308
11. Kevin Durant, 273
14. James Harden, 240
15. Kyle Korver, 237
20. Danny Green, 194
Yeah, so, Curry owns the three-point line already — that’s well-established.
Just last week, Curry became the NBA’s all-time postseason leader in made three-pointers by passing Ray Allen during Game 1 against the Clippers.
Also, relevantly, Stephen Curry is only 31 years-old.
At this rate, his record has a legitimate chance to become untouchable by the time Curry retires. Saying that Curry is a fire-flinging marksman almost states nothing at this point — but what he’s done in the span of four years would’ve been borderline unimaginable 10 years ago. Along with three championships, Curry has tallied 98, 80, 72 and 64 made three-pointers over the previous four postseason runs.
For comparison’s sake, neither Ray Allen nor Reggie Miller ever passed 60 made threes in a single postseason during their Hall of Fame-worthy careers.
Needless to say, the gulf between No. 1 and No. 2 could be unfathomably deep in a few years’ time — if not for the efforts of Klay Thompson, his co-Splash Brother.
Over those same four seasons, Thompson has been nearly as prolific as Curry has been. Knocking down 57, 98, 41 and 67 made three-point totals, Thompson has flown to No. 6 on the charts in no time. Of course, Curry and Thompson benefit from playing close to 20 games each postseason — just as James has for the last decade — but these are prime sharpshooters simply showing off.
Even if Thompson makes a modest 40 three-pointers per postseason this year and next, he’d swiftly pass Allen and James for second on the ladder. Unless proceedings take a surprising twist this summer, Thompson and Curry may have another half-decade of elite play left in Golden State’s backcourt.
Which is to say, basically: Say goodbye to any and all three-point records — both in the regular and postseason — as these two are going to smash them all to pieces — if they haven’t already.
Total Rebounds — Pau Gasol
1,246, 37th all-time
6. LeBron James, 2,122
23. Dirk Nowitzki, 1,446
29. Dwight Howard, 1,315
53. Kevin Durant, 1,025
61. Draymond Green, 942
Gasol has slowed down as of late, but he’s still near the top of the rebounding ladder for now. The Spaniard has been dealing with an ankle injury since he joined the Milwaukee Bucks in March, but he likely won’t feature all that much once he returns either. With Brook Lopez handling most of the center minutes, it’s unlikely that Gasol does too much damage here. He’s on the backend of his career and hasn’t played meaningful postseason minutes since 2016-17, where he tallied 75 rebounds over 365 minutes and 16 games for San Antonio.
Unless there’s an injury, Gasol can reasonably snag a few spot-minute rebounds here and there to pass Kevin McHale (1,253) and Dan Issel (1,255) for 35th all-time. If the Bucks reach the Eastern Conference Finals, there’s certainly a chance Gasol could pass Artis Gilmore this postseason, but don’t expect much fanfare in either case.
Elsewhere, much like Thompson, the Warriors’ length four-year chases have sent Draymond Green skyrocketing up the standings too. Green has put up 166, 190, 135 and 180 tallies over that interval, so another run like that would place him around Kobe Bryant and Michael Jordan in the low 40s for the most all-time postseason rebounds. For a second-round selection, Green’s contributions have already left an indelible dent in NBA history with no foreseeable end in sight.
Assists — Chris Paul
815, 25th all-time
3. LeBron James, 1,687
5. Tony Parker, 1,143
13. Rajon Rondo, 981
20. Dwyane Wade, 870
31. Russell Westbrook, 746
41. James Harden, 597
42. Draymond Green, 593
43. Stephen Curry, 592
51. Kevin Durant, 518
This list is popping with recent activity, full of vibrant playmakers and game-changing court visionaries. James, Parker, Rondo and Wade decorate the top of the ladder, however, the next generation is approaching fast.
Paul, who deserves to be in the conversation for the best point guard of all-time, sports a career playoff average of 8.8 assists over 93 games. Of course, his numbers have taken a slight hit since he joined up with the ball-dominant James Harden but Paul can leapfrog a bevy of legends this postseason alone.
If the Houston Rockets play in 15 games again and Paul averages five or so assists in that stretch, he’d finish on par with Clyde Drexler at No. 19 all-time. In matching Drexler, Paul would pass John Havlicek, Manu Ginobili, Chauncey Billups, Julius Erving and Dwyane Wade — so, obviously, that’s not bad company to keep at all.
Paul’s ability to reach even higher will depend on his health and role next to Harden, but his Hall of Fame legacy is already cemented without question.
Steals — Chris Paul
201, 24th all-time
1. LeBron James, 419
14. Dwyane Wade, 273
24-T. Rajon Rondo, 201
30. James Harden, 181
31. Russell Westbrook, 180
35. Andre Iguodala, 174
40. Draymond Green, 169
45. Stephen Curry, 160
48. Kawhi Leonard, 149
Paul’s aforementioned legacy is furthered thanks to his long-time ball-swiping prowesses — today, the 33-year-old finds himself on the verge of joining another elite group. During the Rockets’ Western Conference Finals run in 2017-18, Paul snagged 30 steals. If Paul were able to replicate those totals for the remainder of this postseason and all of the next, he’d have enough to pass Karl Malone for No. 16 all-time in postseason thefts. Again, Paul’s recent injury history makes it a tough area to predict — but as long as he’s playing, his team has a chance to win.
The presence of Andre Iguodala is an exemplification of his impressive career too, particularly so given his recent multi-round trips as a member of the Warriors. Iguodala, 35, has only missed the postseason once since 2007 — albeit playing in just one series clips typically — but he’s been a springtime staple this era. Over Golden State’s historic four-year journey, Iguodala has snatched away totals of 25, 29, 14 and 21 steals, respectively.
If he were to manage another 20 or so this postseason, he’d rank close to the top 25 in postseason steals — all in all, a fantastic achievement for the well-liked veteran.
Blocks — Serge Ibaka
255, 10th all-time
14. Dwight Howard, 234
15. Pau Gasol, 233
16. LeBron James, 232
25. Dwyane Wade, 175
35. Kevin Durant, 156
37. Draymond Green, 152
44. Al Horford, 138
Saving the best for last is Serge Ibaka, the NBA’s active leader in postseason blocks. That’s right: Not James, not Gasol, not Howard — Serge Ibaka. The 6-foot-10 brick wall has slowed down from his elite days in Oklahoma City, but he’s still consistently climbing the historical ladder. Ibaka hasn’t missed the playoffs since his rookie year in 2008 and he’s featured in 10-plus games in every postseason since 2009. Back in the Thunder’s heyday, Ibaka swatted away a whopping 52, 59, 33 and 42 shots over a four-year period.
North of the border, Ibaka’s postseason tallies have been far more muted — still, he’s got plenty of gas left in the tank. With Toronto looking like an Eastern Conference Finals contender, Ibaka has a real chance of reaching 20 blocks this time around. Should Ibaka do so, he’d be right on the tail of Kevin McHale and Julius Erving for ninth and eighth all-time in playoff blocks. Although Ibaka is extremely unlikely to reach the Hall of Fame himself, his place as one of basketball’s best shot blockers is practically set in stone.
James’ departure — along with the massive holes left by Nowitzki and Wade — have given this postseason a completely different feel. But even if onlookers can’t watch LeBron further many of his categorical leads, there are plenty of other narratives worth paying attention to. Given Curry and Thompson’s elite long-distance shooting, Paul’s high-ranking steals and assists totals and Durant’s overall dominance, that means that every game — whether in the first round or the Finals — has historical implications.
Which NBA legend will be passed next? Kobe Bryant? Michael Jordan? With this group of stat-stuffing future Hall of Famers, almost nothing is off the table.
NBA Daily: Is Now the Time for the Houston Rockets?
Houston pushed the Golden State Warriors to the brink last year. Shane Rhodes analyzes whether the Rockets are now ready to advance to the NBA Finals.
In what may be the best eventual series of the postseason, the Houston Rockets and Golden State Warriors are expected to go head-to-head in the second round.
Both teams are almost certainly looking forward to their postseason rematch — to show which team is truly dominant over the other. Both the Rockets and Warriors, for the most part, have made easy work of their first-round adversaries; while the Utah Jazz and Los Angeles Clippers, respectively, may play hard, neither have the personnel to contend with the NBA’s most talented teams. Meanwhile, both Houston and Golden State have subjected the NBA to a season-long offensive clinic, and their postseason performance thus far has shown that neither team has lost much, if any steam.
But, over the last few seasons, the Rockets have had one goal (beyond the obvious Larry O’Brien Trophy), one obsession: unseating the Warriors dynasty.
“It’s the only thing we think about,” General Manager Daryl Morey said last season. They were meticulously built to defeat the beast that Golden State has become in recent years.
And now, Houston may have its best chance to topple a giant.
While some may argue otherwise, the Rockets are a better team than they were a season ago. Not only are they healthy — Chris Paul was lost to injury in the midst of their Conference Finals series last season — but their defense is better. Even James Harden, voted Most Valuable Player a season ago and in line for another this season, has significantly improved, both as an offensive weapon and as a defender.
Houston went through multiple regular season stretches that were rife with injuries. Paul missed 17 straight games midseason, while Clint Capela missed 15 of his own around the same time. But now, there are no major injuries, and the Rockets are actively trying to avoid them: P.J. Tucker and Eric Gordon, amid two blowouts, have seen their time on the court dip from a season ago, while Paul is on pace to finish with a career low in postseason minutes player per game (30).
A dose of early season adversity seems to have hardened the Rockets mindset quite a bit as well; while they were somewhat carried by Harden’s historic offensive effort, it put the roster in a position where they needed to grind out some ugly wins on the defensive end and it has made them better in the long run. Tucker, an already versatile defensive weapon, has proved even more capable this season while Capela and Paul are their usual stout selves.
As for Harden, who has looked to be in the best shape of his career, he has become even more valuable for the Rockets than he was a season ago. He has proven a stout defender, both on the perimeter and in the post, en route to career-high two steals per game (good for second in the NBA this season).
Offensively, his shot volume has increased dramatically, but he has remained surprisingly efficient, shooting 36.8% and 44.2% from three and the field, respectively, on 13.2 threes (a career high) and 24.5 shots per game (also a career high). But he has developed more than his three-point stroke. While Harden has made art of the stepback three, he has improved on his ability to draw fouls; Harden was the first since Allen Iverson in the 2005-06 regular season to average at least nine free throws made and 11 free throw attempts per game (again, both career highs for Harden). While he is often criticized for his style of play, he has used it to put the Rockets in a position to win big games time and time again.
What may be the best news for Houston, however, is that, through two games, Harden has averaged his lowest postseason minutes played since he was in Oklahoma City. Harden, as have the Rockets in recent years, has tended to run out of gas come postseason time — an entire season playing as physical as he does would leave anyone drained. So, the quicker the Jazz are dealt with, and the more rest the Rockets are afforded, the better.
It could certainly prove a fool’s errand to predict the Warriors demise, but there are causes for concern this postseason.
DeMarcus Cousins, who played a major role with the team upon his return this season, is likely out for the postseason after he tore a quad muscle. Not only does his absence remove one of the Warriors’ biggest chess pieces, but it gives other teams a matchup they can exploit. Even hobbled, Cousins would have been a superior option to Andrew Bogut, Kevon Looney or Jordan Bell.
The team recently sustained a historically bad loss to the Los Angeles Clippers, who overcame a 31-point deficit to steal a game at Oracle Arena, as well. While Golden State punched back — and punched back hard — in the next game, it goes to show that any team, even the Warriors, are prone to take their foot off the gas when they feel comfortable.
And, perhaps the biggest distraction this Warriors group has faced, the future of Kevin Durant has hung like a dark cloud over the team for much of the season.
Now don’t take this the wrong way — short of Durant, Stephen Curry, Klay Thompson and Draymond Green calling it quits after the Clippers series, the Warriors will be far from a pushover. But, they appear to be vulnerable, for the first time in a long time.
The Rockets already had them on the ropes last season. If they can take advantage now, Houston may very well find themselves in the NBA Finals come June.
NBA Daily: The Spurs’ Reign is Alive and Well
The promise from some of the Spurs’ young talent has shown that the rumors of San Antonio’s death were greatly exaggerated, writes Matt John.
It’s time for what is called a mea culpa.
Around this time last year, this writer wrote an article detailing why it appeared the Spurs’ dynasty was approaching its demise. Manu Ginobili was on his way to retirement, Tony Parker was not the player he once was, and Kawhi Leonard appeared on his way out. After being predictably defeated in five games by Golden State in the first round and losing the aforementioned players the following offseason, it seemed like the end of a glorious era.
But it wasn’t. The Spurs’ dynasty is far from dead. San Antonio may not have the same household name on the roster like a Duncan or Leonard or a Robinson as of now. What they do have presently is a promising foundation of talent that should keep the team in the conversation for the next 5-10 years.
That much is clear when you see the All-Star caliber players that they have in their arsenal. LaMarcus Aldridge put up yet another fantastic stat line for the Spurs, averaging a near 20/10 on 52 percent shooting despite having fewer touches than last season. Even at 33, Aldridge continues to prove that he’s still one of the most offensively polished bigs in the game.
Then there’s DeMar DeRozan. The Spurs have embraced DeMar’s natural mid-range game while also helping him succeed more in other areas than he ever has before. DeRozan put up his most efficient field goal percentage – 48.1 – since his rookie season, and averaged career-highs in both rebounds (6) and assists (6.2) per game. He may not have made the all-star team, but this season was DeRozan’s best as an all-around player.
There is also the Spurs’ well-oiled rotation full of players who know their roles. Patty Mills, Marco Belinelli, Davis Bertans, Bryn Forbes and Jakob Poeltl all do their thing. Who would have guessed that Rudy Gay – a player who had a reputation for putting up empty stats – has been an effective backup wing for San Antonio? Yet another example in a long line of evidence that Gregg Popovich can make do with anyone in the NBA.
But this isn’t about the star veterans or the role players that the Spurs have molded. This is about the young talent who should be able to keep the Spurs in contender status. First, there’s Derrick White.
If you hadn’t heard of Derrick White leading up to the playoffs, you’ve probably heard of him by now.
White has exploded on the national stage since the playoffs began, averaging 23 points on 68 percent shooting from the field despite shooting only 23 percent from three, with his most recent scoring outburst against Denver being the standout, putting up 36 points on 71.4 percent shooting from the field. His performance has easily made him this postseasons breakout star.
Then again, if you’ve been paying attention to the Spurs all season then you’ve probably known about White all along.
After losing Tony Parker to free agency and Dejounte Murray to injury, many wondered where the Spurs were going to turn to run the point. Sure they had Patty Mills but he fit snugly in the second unit. White didn’t get the call immediately, but when he did, the Spurs threw him to the wolves.
White was thrust into the starting lineup when they inserted him into the rotation. White wasn’t awful when he got those minutes, but he wasn’t exactly lighting the world on fire. His first two months into the season, White averaged 6.3 points on 43/30/80 splits. But then January came.
White tore it up in January, putting up 15.3 points on 60/47/75 splits while putting up 4.2 rebounds and nearly four assists per game. By doing this, it appeared Derrick was more than just a player to use in case of emergency. Both the Spurs and White were on the right track before a heel injury knocked him out for a few weeks. While he came back sooner than expected, Derrick was never able to replicate his play from January.
Now, it appears White has his mojo back, and at the absolute perfect time too.
And it’s not just about his contributions on offense. Defensively, White has proven to be pretty pesky. Derrick ranks behind only Chris Paul in Defensive Real Plus-Minus at 1.59. The Spurs defense is also a minus-3.8 defensively when White is on the floor, third among active rotational players behind only Poeltl and Gay.
Nobody’s saying that White is a franchise player, but the 24-year-old has excelled in his expanded role for San Antonio. If he’s to keep the franchise relevant as they transition away from the Kawhi Leonard era, he’ll need as much help from other young starlets as he can.
Enter Dejounte Murray
Murray was originally believed to be the Spurs’ prized young prospect when the season began. Murray was a jack-of-all-trades point guard for San Antonio. At 6-foot-6, he was a tenacious defender – he made the All-NBA Defensive 2nd Team last year in just his second year – and was aggressive on the boards, corralling 5.7 rebounds per game.
Dejounte was believed to be pretty raw offensively given his youth, but with a bigger role on the team, many believed there was more for him to build off of. That was until he tore his ACL during a pre-season game. After losing Kawhi, Danny Green, and Kyle Anderson, the Spurs’ defense could not afford to lose its expected best player on the defensive end.
The Spurs clearly managed to do fine without him, but their defensive rating dropped all the way down to 111.2, which ranked 19th in the league. Had Murray been able to play, that rating probably would have gone up as well as where the Spurs were seeded.
With his body type and the Spurs’ love for versatility, Murray should be a welcome addition to the team next year when he comes back healthy. After the expectations that were placed on him, Dejounte should be extra motivated to show the world that he is part of the Spurs’ next generation of young talent.
Now that he has another young piece to play off of, both he and White should give San Antonio a strong two-way backcourt that the team hasn’t seen in all its years of glory. These two may very well bring the Spurs back to the promised land. Just not in the way that previous Spurs have done so.
Many believed that the Spurs were finished after they traded one of its all-time players in Kawhi. We should have known better knowing what Pop can do.
Should Murray and White pan out, the Spurs’ expiration may not be brought up again until the 2030’s.