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NBA Sunday: The Pau Gasol Gamble

With Tim Duncan’s retirement and Gregg Popovich running the show, Pau Gasol will fit in seamlessly with the Spurs.

Moke Hamilton

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In the most Tim Duncan way possible, the greatest power forward of all-time left the game the same exact way he survived within it. Unassuming, unpretentious, meekly and quietly, Tim Duncan’s announcement was delivered via email (just like I had predicted). There would be no season-long retirement tour, no gifts from past competitors and no public softening of the competitive spirit and fire that had many believing that the Spurs would somehow find a way to win the 2016 NBA Finals.

With Duncan stepping out of the picture, all eyes in San Antonio immediately turn to the man who has been employed as his replacement—Pau Gasol.

With Gregg Popovich, LaMarcus Aldridge and Kawhi Leonard pushing forward as the franchise’s key figures, what will become of the mighty legacy of the Spurs?

* * * * * *

Since being selected with the third overall pick of the 2001 NBA Draft, the unassuming Pau Gasol has had a lot to prove. At the time of his drafting, the European big man had not yet earned a reputation across the NBA as being a tough competitor who was willing to bang with some of his bigger and stronger American counterparts.

A quick look at some of Gasol’s European predecessors reads like a “who’s who” of European draft busts: Jérome Moïso, Aleksandar Radojević, Frédéric Weis, Radoslav Nesterovič and Mirsad Türkcan among them. Although Nesterovič did play 12 seasons in the NBA, he was never more than a marginal center who failed to live up to the expectations that were thrust upon him. And when Gasol was drafted in 2001, Dirk Nowitzki was still coming into his own. When it’s all said and done, Nowitzki and Tony Parker will certainly go down as being among the best European players in NBA history, if not the best international players, period. But Parker was selected with the 28th pick in Gasol’s draft class while Nowitzki was selected with the ninth overall pick in 1998.

So, in many ways, when Commissioner David Stern called Pau Gasol’s name as the third overall pick of the 2001 NBA Draft, most people thought that the Vancouver Grizzlies had lost their mind. On the eve of the draft, the Grizzlies and Atlanta Hawks agreed in principle to a trade that would eventually send Shareef Abdur-Rahim and Jamaal Tinsley to the Hawks for a package headlined by the rights to the third overall pick.

At the time, Abdur-Rahim was coming off of his fifth professional season wherein he had amassed some impressive career numbers: 20.8 points, 8.2 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game. He joined Bryant Reeves as being the pillars for the expansion Grizzlies and, unlike Reeves, failed to disappoint. So it was quite surprising to learn that, as the franchise planned its relocation to Memphis, the Grizzlies thought that highly of Gasol to roll the dice on him by dealing away a player who had emerged as a franchise cornerstone and certainly appeared to have superstar potential.

Ultimately, Abdur-Rahim would go on to have a fairly mediocre career. Make no mistake, 13 years in the league is nothing to sneeze at, and neither are career averages of 18.1 points and 7.5 rebounds per game, but Adbur-Rahim’s lack of postseason success and lack of impact leaves a legacy that will be mostly remembered as unfulfilling.

So, the truth is, from day one, Gasol entered the NBA with pressure and expectations thrust upon him. For a long time, he has been wrongly labeled as being soft. Without Gasol, Kobe Bryant’s legacy would have turned out a lot differently because there is no way that Bryant wins championships in 2009 and 2010 without the Spaniard.

Still, through it all, over the course of his 16-years in the NBA, the six All-Star selections, four All-NBA team selections, two championships and Rookie of the Year Award, Gasol always was and always has been a player who simply laced up his sneakers, played his best and loved his teammates.

Go ask Gasol questions about himself and his contributions and he will change the subject. Ask him questions about his gifts on the basketball court and he will shrug his shoulders. Ask him about why he’s being labeled soft and he will raise his eyebrows and tell you that he’s not sure.

All Gasol wants to do is all he has ever done—play at the highest level.

So please, with that in mind, name one player that would have been a more appropriate replacement for Tim Duncan.

* * * * * *

Shaquille O’Neal made the low box his office. Back to the basket, O’Neal would catch an entry pass from Kobe Bryant as Derek Fisher would cut across the strong side to set the Triangle into motion. O’Neal commanded attention from all five defenders and ultimately delivered perfect passes to his teammates. There is simply no way that the Shaq-Kobe Lakers ever fulfill their potential without O’Neal becoming a master of the triangle.

The same can be said of Gasol.

With Lamar Odom and Andrew Bynum often playing at his side, the Kobe-Pau Lakers enjoyed a decisive size advantage over the gross majority of their opponents. The main issue with them, however, was that Bynum couldn’t pass as well as Gasol could, while Odom wasn’t nearly as effective at posting up. Almost by default, with his versatile skills, Gasol had to develop into a point forward for the Lakers, and he did so brilliantly.

Perhaps a step slower today, the 36-year-old has made a career out of employing and utilizing a vast skillset that includes the ability to pass better than just about every other center in the league, as well as having an unusually consistent midrange game that beautifully augments his ability to finish in the post and around traffic. Defensively, he always has and always will struggle against other big men who can put the ball on the floor and make him move in space. However, if one tries to post up against Pau Gasol or out-hustle him for a rebound, they are in for a long fight.

Back in 2012-13, Gasol famously clashed with Mike D’Antoni. Gasol’s season-long pouting and public feuding with his head coach yielded the lowest scoring season of his career: 14.6 points per game. At the time, most believed it spelled the end for the 32-year-old Gasol, but back to back seasons as a member of the Chicago Bulls proved otherwise. In the two seasons since his departure from Los Angeles, Gasol gave Tom Thibodeau and Fred Hoiberg magnificent seasons, with each of them resulting in an All-Star berth.

In 2014-15, Gasol averaged 19.4 points, 12.3 rebounds and 2.8 assists, while last season, his 18.7 points and 12.5 rebounds were augmented with an astonishing 4.6 assists per game. As the years have progressed, he has become a more reliable shooter from midrange, evidenced by last season’s conversion rate of 45 percent on shots from further than 10 feet from the basket.

Truth is, after famously clashing with D’Antoni and becoming a punching bag for the frustrations of Kobe Bryant and Lakers fans, Gasol probably felt like he needed a change of scenery. That brought him to Chicago.

After two years there, after witnessing the organization’s handling of Tom Thibodeau and the infighting between Jimmy Butler and Derrick Rose, especially after the Bulls failed to qualify for the 2016 playoffs, Gasol probably wanted to go somewhere that was all about basketball.

Suddenly, an email came; Tim Duncan was gone and the San Antonio Spurs had a hole in the interior. With the same skill set as Tim Duncan, mastery of a motion-heavy offense and a 16-year career that features multiple championships, again, we ask a simple question:

What better fit could there have possibly been for Pau Gasol than the Spurs?

Simple questions often have simple answers. This one was no exception.

* * * * * *

Most of the NBA already has the Golden State Warriors being fitted for their championship rings. It’s worth remembering, though, that it took even the Miami HEAT one year to tinker with their lineup, rotations and egos before they would emerge as champions.

And yes, in 2011, it was Dirk Nowitzki and his Dallas Mavericks that scored the most improbable of upsets over James and his HEAT. The more stable, more consistent franchise emerged the victors.

This coming season, the Spurs will be hoping for a similar result. It might be a long shot, but betting against Gregg Popovich isn’t usually a wise decision. And, whether he reminds you of it or not, in the case of Pau Gasol, over the course of his 16 years in the league, he has proven that you shouldn’t bet against him, either.

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NBA Daily: Surging HEAT Must Overcome Adversity

The Miami HEAT have been hit with a number of injuries at shooting guard. Can they stay hot?

Buddy Grizzard

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The Miami HEAT have surged to fourth in the Eastern Conference on the back of a 14-5 stretch since Dec. 9, including a seven-game win streak that ended with Monday’s 119-111 loss to the Bulls in Chicago. In the loss, shooting guard Tyler Johnson got his legs tangled with Robin Lopez and appeared to suffer a serious injury.

“I was scared,” said HEAT small forward Josh Richardson, who joined his teammates in racing down the court to check on Johnson. “You never want to see a guy, whether it’s on your team or the other team, down like that. I talked to him when he was in here [the locker room] and he said he didn’t know what was up.”

Coach Erik Spoelstra told pool reporters after the game that X-rays were negative. It was initially feared to be a knee injury, but Spoelstra said the knee is okay and the ankle is the area of concern. Ira Winderman of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel tweeted that an MRI was not deemed necessary and Johnson will be listed as doubtful for Wednesday’s game in Milwaukee.

Meanwhile, the HEAT is facing a serious shortage at shooting guard, having lost Dion Waiters to season-ending knee surgery, Rodney McGruder to a left tibia stress fracture that will likely keep him out until February, and now Johnson. Miami has applied for a $5.5 million disabled player exception after losing Waiters, according to the Sun-Sentinel. HEAT power forward James Johnson said the team will be looking for other players to step up.

“I think it’s the next guy’s gonna step up like we always do,” said Johnson. “As we have guys going down we also have guys getting back and getting back in their groove [like] Justise Winslow. Hopefully, it’s going to give another guy a chance to emerge on this team or in this league.”

Johnson added that the loss to Chicago came against a hot team and the HEAT didn’t have the right mental approach or defensive communication to slow them down.

“Our communication was lacking tonight,” said Johnson. “I think our brains rested tonight and that’s not like us. Tilt your hat to Chicago. They’re shooting the hell out the ball. They didn’t let us come back.”

Richardson echoed the theme of communication and the inability to counter a hot-shooting team.

“We weren’t communicating very well and we were not giving them enough static on the three-point line,” said Richardson. “They’ve been the number one three-point shooting team in the league for like 20 games now. They ran some good actions that we were not reacting right to.”

Spoelstra referred to a turnover-riddled close to the first half as “disgusting” basketball and agreed that the defense let his team down.

“I don’t know what our record is in HEAT franchise history when we give up 120-plus,” said Spoelstra. “I would guess that it’s probably not pretty good.”

The good news for Miami is that it can try a combination of Richardson and Winslow at the wings, while Wayne Ellington has been shooting the leather off the ball from three this season (40.5 percent on over seven attempts per game). The HEAT is the latest team to attempt to defy history by making a serious run without a superstar player. To make that a reality and remain in the upper half of the East’s playoff bracket, Miami will have to personify the “next man up” credo.

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NBA Daily: Is It Time To Cash Out On Kemba Walker?

Should the Hornets get serious about trading Kemba Walker or risk losing him in 2019 for next to nothing?

Steve Kyler

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Is It Time To Sell?

Every professional sports team at some point has to decide when its time to cash out, especially if they have a star player heading towards free agency. The Charlotte Hornets are a team teetering on this decision with star guard Kemba Walker.

Now, let’s be honest for a moment. The Hornets are getting nothing of meaningful value in a trade for Walker if they decided to put him on the trade market—that’s something that will drive part of the decision. Check out these UK sports books with free bets!

The other part of the decision is evaluating the marketplace. This is where Charlotte may have an advantage that’s easy to overlook, which is the ability to massively overpay.

Looking ahead to the cap situations for the NBA in the summer of 2019, there doesn’t appear to be a lot worth getting excited over. While it’s possible someone unexpected goes into cap clearing mode to get space, the teams that project to have space in 2019 also project to have space in 2018, meaning some of that 2019 money could get spent in July and change the landscape even more.

But for the sake of discussion, let’s assume most of the 2019 cap space teams swing and miss on anything meaningful this summer and have flexibility the following summer. Not only will Walker be a name to watch, but guys like Boston’s Kyrie Irving, Minnesota’s Jimmy Butler, Golden State’s Klay Thompson, Dallas’ Harrison Barnes, Detroit’s Tobias Harris, San Antonio’s Kawhi Leonard and Cleveland’s Kevin Love can all hit unrestricted free agency.

That’s a pretty respectable free agent class.

While most of those names will likely stay where they are, especially if their teams shower them with full max contracts as most would expect, there are a few names that might make the market interesting.

The wrinkle in all of it is the teams projected to have space. Based on what’s guaranteed today, the top of the 2019 cap space board starts with the LA Clippers.

The Clippers currently have just Blake Griffin and Danilo Gallinari under contract going into 2019. They will have qualifying offers on Milos Teodosic and Sam Dekker, but that’s about it. If the Clippers play their cards right, they could be looking at what could be close to $48 million in usable cap space, making them the biggest threat to poach a player because of the LA marketplace. It should be noted, though, that DeAndre Jordan’s situation will have an impact here.

The Chicago Bulls come in second on the 2019 cap space list with just $35.77 million in cap commitments. The problem for the Bulls is they are going to have to start paying their young guys, most notably Zach LaVine. That’s won’t stop the Bulls from getting to cap space, it’s simply a variable the Bulls have to address this summer that could get expensive.

The Philadelphia 76ers could come in third on the 2019 cap space list, although it seems the 76ers may go all in this summer on re-signing guard J.J. Redick and a swing at a big fish or two. If the 76ers miss, they still have an extension for Ben Simmons to consider, but that shouldn’t impact the ability to get to meaningful space.

For the Hornets, those three situations have to be a little scary, as all of themff something Charlotte can’t offer – big markets and rosters (save maybe the Clippers) with potentially higher upside.

The next group of cap space markets might get to real salary cap room, but its more likely they spend this summer like say the Houston Rockets or are equal to less desirable situations like Sacramento (similar), Dallas (has Dennis Smith Jr), Atlanta (similar) or Phoenix (likely drafts a point guard).

That brings us back to the Hornets decision making process.

If the Hornets put Walker on the market, historically, teams get pennies on the dollar for high-level players headed to free agency. If traded, its more likely than not that Walker hits free agency and goes shopping. That’s the scary part of trading for an expiring contract unless you get the player early enough for him to grow attached to the situation, most players explore options. That tends to drive down the potential return.

The Hornets can also start extension discussions with Walker and his camp this summer and it seems more likely than not the Hornets will pay Walker the full max allowed under the collective bargaining agreement, which could be a deal north of $150 million and he could ink that in July.

It’s possible that someone offers the Hornets the moon for Walker. That has happened in the past. The Celtics gave the Cavaliers a pretty solid return for Irving, a player the Cavaliers had to trade. So it’s not out of the question real offers come in, especially with the NBA trade deadline approaching, but what’s far more likely is the Hornets wait out this season and try to extend Walker this summer.

League sources at the G-League Showcase last week, doubted that any traction could be had on Walker while admitting he’s a name to watch, despite however unlikely a trade seemed today.

The challenge for the Hornets isn’t as simple as cashing out of Walker, not just because the return will be low, but also because where would the franchise go from here?

It’s easy to say re-build through the draft, but glance around the NBA today – how many of those rebuild through the draft situations are yielding competitive teams? How many of them have been rebuilding for five years or more?

Rebuilding through the draft is a painfully slow and frustrating process that usually costs you a coach or two and typically a new front office. Rebuilding through the draft is time consuming and usually very expensive.

It’s easier to rebuild around a star already in place and the fact that Walker himself laughs off the notion of him being anywhere but Charlotte is at least a good sign and the Hornets have some time before they have to really make a decision.

At some point, Charlotte has to decide when to cash out. For the Hornets, the time to make that decision on Walker might be the February 8 trade deadline. It might also be July 1, when they’ll know whether Walker would sign a max contract extension.

If he won’t commit then, the Hornets have their answer and can use the summer to try an extract a package similar to what the Cavaliers got for Irving.

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Cavs Woes Reason For Concern, But Not Dismissal

Spencer Davies takes a look at the Cavs’ issues and why we shouldn’t count them out just yet.

Spencer Davies

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The Cleveland Cavaliers are the classic case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.

When they’re on, they look like the defending three-time Eastern Conference Champions. When they’re off, they look like an old team that’s worn down and, at times, disinterested—and it gets ugly.

Take this past three weeks for example. After going on a tear of 18 wins in 19 games, the Cavs have dropped eight of 11 and are falling fast. Two of those three victories in that stretch were decided by four points or less against bottom-of-the-barrel teams in the East.

So what happened? For one, the schedule got significantly tougher. Beyond just the level of competition, Cleveland has been on the road for a long while. Nine of the games in this recent down period have been away games. The only time they’ve been home was for a quick second in mid-December and a short stay for New Years.

You’ve got to think about how that affects a psyche, not only from an on-court standpoint but also in regard to spending time with loved ones and family. LeBron James brought attention to his own homesickness on Christmas Day while he was in the Bay Area instead of in Northeast Ohio to celebrate the holidays. If it gets to him, you know it’s got to get to the other players as well. These guys are human beings with lives, and the rigors of travel can wear differently on people. Luckily for them, seven of their next nine games will be at Quicken Loans Arena.

With that being said, everybody in the NBA goes through it, so it’s no excuse for how flat the Cavs have been. Anybody on the team will tell you that, too. However, when you’re figuring out rotations and re-implementing players who had injuries, it’s not easy. This is exactly why nobody should envy Tyronn Lue.

He’s being asked to make room in his rotations and adjust on the fly as Cleveland gets guys back. When they went on that month-long run, the reason they had success was that the second unit really clicked. Dwyane Wade found his niche as the maestro of the bench bunch along with any mixture of Kyle Korver, Jeff Green, Cedi Osman, Channing Frye, and Jae Crowder. Lue had found the perfect group to spell LeBron James and company.

But then, Tristan Thompson came back and, with all due respect, it messed with their flow. The spacing is no longer there for Wade or Green to penetrate because the paint is clogged. It makes it easier on opposing defenses to just stick to Korver because there aren’t any other threatening shooters on the floor (besides Osman, maybe). Worst of all, the change basically kicked Frye—who has a plus-14 net rating, according to Cleaning The Glass—out of the rotation completely.

Deciding who plays and when is a tough job. Derrick Rose is set to come back soon. Iman Shumpert is coming along as well. Lue likes a 10-man rotation, but there are at least 12 players who deserve to be on that court. We already know Rose is expected to commandeer the second unit in Wade’s absence on back-to-backs. As for if Shumpert remains in Cleveland, who knows? It’ll be interesting to keep an eye on how this situation is managed moving forward.

Isaiah Thomas, on the other hand, is somebody the Cavs have been waiting on to return since the season started. Despite LeBron being LeBron and Kevin Love having as great of an offensive year as he’s ever had on the team, the starting unit lacks an extra punch. Thomas can be that shot in the arm, and he proved that in his debut at home against Portland and on the road in Orlando. There are two snags that both he and the team are going to hit before the 29-year-old returns to his All-Star form: 1) He’s got to get his legs under him to regain the consistency in his game and 2) His teammates are going to have to adjust to playing with him.

These are not easy things to do. Remember, aside from Jae Crowder, there is nobody on Cleveland’s roster that has played with Thomas before. Add in that he’s trying to re-discover his own game and that makes for a pretty bumpy road, at least out of the gate.

Start here—put Thompson in the starting lineup. As poor of a fit he’s been on the bench, he has shown promising signs of a developing chemistry with Thomas. It’s only been four games, but he loves having a partner in the pick-and-roll game. That’s clearly where you’ll get the most production out of him and how he can thrive. He’ll provide hustle, second chance opportunities, and a semi-decent big that can at least bother some of the competition’s drives to the basket. Sliding Love over to the four might change his game a little bit, but you can still get him going in the post before giving him chances as a shooter to work him outside-in.

The resulting effect helps the second unit as well. They’ll get one of either J.R. Smith or Crowder, depending on who would be relegated there. Both of those guys can use a spark to get them going. Because of Crowder’s familiarity with Thomas, let’s say Smith gets kicked out. Maybe that gets him out of the funk he’s in? It also allows for Frye, who hasn’t seen more than 20 minutes in a game since December 4, to get re-acclimated to a group he truly helped on both ends of the floor earlier in the year.

Outside of the need to make a move at the deadline, the Cavs can figure this out. It’s understood that they’re the fourth-worst defensive team in the NBA, but they’ve gone through these kinds of ruts at this time of year, specifically since LeBron came back. There might not be statistical evidence backing up the claim of any improvement, but the track record speaks for itself.

The panic button is being hit, but pump the brakes a bit. This isn’t anything new. The pieces are a little different and things look as bad as they ever have, but in the end, the result will likely be the same.

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