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.
NBA Daily: Pelicans Might Be Better Off Without DeMarcus Cousins
Without DeMarcus Cousins, Anthony Davis has excelled. It might not be a coincidence.
Forget Kawhi Leonard, the most interesting storyline of this NBA summer is going to be DeMarcus Cousins.
By now, if you’ve wondered whether the New Orleans Pelicans would be better off without the talented big man, you’re certainly not alone.
Just ask the Portland Trail Blazers.
On Saturday, the Pelicans pulled off an improbable sweep of the third-seeded Blazers in the first round of their best-of-seven playoff series. And while the immediate question that comes to mind is what to make of the Blazers, a similar question can be (and should be) asked of the Pelicans.
Without question, Cousins is one of the most gifted big men the NBA has sen in quite some time, but it shouldn’t be lost on any of us that Anthony Davis began to put forth superhuman efforts when Cousins was absent.
Ever heard the saying that too many cooks spoil the brew?
That may be pricisely the case here.
Sure, having good players at your disposal is a problem that most head coach in the league would sign up for, but it takes a special type of player to willingly cede touches and shots in the name of the best interests of the team.
We once had a similar conversation about Russell Westbrook and Kevin Durant, mind you. Those that recognized that Westbrook’s ball dominance and inefficiency took opportunities away from Durant to be the best version of himself once believed that the Oklahoma City Thunder would have been wise to pitch Westbrook to New Orleans back when Chris Paul was still manning their perimeter.
For what it’s worth, with Cousins in the lineup, he averaged 18 shots per game. In the 48 games he played this season, the Pelicans were 27-21. With him in the lineup, Davis shot the ball 17.6 times per game and scored 26.5 points per contest.
In the 34 games the Pelicans played without Cousins, Davis’ shot attempts increased fairly significantly. He got 21.9 attempts per contest and similarly increased his scoring output to 30.2 points per game.
Aside from that, Cousins’ presence in the middle made it a tad more difficult for Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday to have the pace and space they need to be most effective. With both Davis and Cousins, the Pelicans struggled to consistently string together wins. Without Cousins, they improbably became the first team in the Western Conference to advance to the second round.
That Cousins tore his achilles tendon and is just a few months from becoming an unrestricted free agent combine to make him the most interesting man in the NBA.
* * * * * *
With Chris Paul having decided that the grass was probably greener with James Harden and Mike D’Antoni than it was with Doc Rivers and Blake Griffin, the Clippers fulfilled his request to be trade to the Houston Rockets and re-signed Griffin to a five-year max. deal. In doing so, they both gave Griffin a stark reminder of what life in the NBA is like and provided a blueprint for teams to follow when they have a superstar player with whom they believe to have run their course.
The glass half full perspective might be that Davis has simply become a better, healthier, more effective player and that with Cousins, he would have another weapon that could help catapult the Pelicans ever further toward the top of the Western Conference. But the half-empty glass might yield another conclusion.
At the end of the day, although he still hasn’t appeared in a single playoff game, Cousins is regarded as a game-changing talent and is one of the few players available on the free agency market this summer that could justify an annual average salary of $30 million. In all likelihood, the Pelicans will re-sign him for a sum that approaches that, but that doesn’t mean it’s the best move.
In the end, the Clippers traded Griffin for Avery Bradley, Tobias Harris, Boban Marjanovic, a first round pick and a second round pick. All things considered, it was a great haul for the Clippers when you consider that, just a few months prior, they could have lost Griffin as a free agent and gotten nothing in return.
Remarkably, after seeing Griffin dealt to Detroit, in the Western Conference, the Pelicans are on a collision course with the Golden State Warriors. Their health a constant concern, the team will have to deal with the pesky perimeter defense of Holiday and Rondo and versatility and two-way effectiveness of Davis.
Nobody gave New Orleans a chance against Portland, and for sure, not many people are going to believe in their ability to score an upset over the defending champions. But believe it or not, New Orleans has become a different team. And they’ve done so without Cousins.
Indeed, believe it or not, the Clippers gave us a blueprint for what a team should do when it has a superstar who might not be the best long-term fit for their program.
And if the Pelicans were wise, they’d be smart to follow it.
NBA Daily: Rookie Contributors Lifting Playoff Teams
This year’s impressive rookie class has translated their regular season performances to the playoff stage.
This past NBA season had the luxury of an incredibly entertaining and high-powered rookie class. Every other day it seemed like the feats of either Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Lauri Markkanen, Dennis Smith Jr., Kyle Kuzma, or Ben Simmons were dominating the discussion about how advanced the league’s crop of newbies appeared to be.
As a result, the 2017-18 Rookie of the Year race was a much more heated discussion than the year before.
With the impressive campaign these NBA freshmen put together, it should come as no surprise that on the on bright stage of playoff basketball, three of the aforementioned crop are helping lead their team’s in tight first-round battles.
Donovan Mitchell has been the leading scorer for the Utah Jazz through two games in their series against the Oklahoma City Thunder. Jayson Tatum is stepping up for the Boston Celtics to help fill in the void of Kyrie Irving as they take on the Milwaukee Bucks. Ben Simmons is nearly averaging a triple-double through three games for the Philadelphia 76ers in their matchup with the Miami HEAT.
Lottery pick talents are expected in today’s NBA to come in and have some level of impact for their clubs. Usually, they play the role as a foundational building block that shows flashes of promise with an expected up-and-down first season. While these three playoff contributors haven’t been perfect all year long, under the pressure of the postseason, they’ve stepped up their play and appear to be avoiding the learning curve.
With that, let’s highlight further what Mitchell, Tatum, and Simmons have been able to do thus far in the postseason.
Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz
All season long Mitchell threw the entire scoring load of Salt Lake City on his back for the Jazz and helped carry them to a 5-seed in the Western Conference when early season projections suggested they should head towards in the wake of Rudy Gobert’s injury.
However, the 13th pick out of Louisville had no intentions of missing out on the postseason. And from the looks of his production so far, who can blame him?
Through the first two games of the Jazz-Thunder series, Mitchell yet again placed his name in the same breath as Michael Jordan. Mitchell’s 55 points in his first two playoff games broke Jordan’s record of 53 for most points scored by a rookie guard in that scenario.
Mitchell’s 27 points in Game 1 and 28 points in Game 2 led the Jazz to even the series and steal home court advantage from the Thunder. While he hasn’t been responsible for setting up the team’s offense, tallying just five assists through those two games, Mitchell is fulfilling the role of Gordon Hayward as the team’s primary scorer.
In a series against a team that features the likes of Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and Carmelo Anthony, Utah needs Mitchell to go out there and get as many buckets as he possibly can.
So far, he appears to be welcoming the challenge.
Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics
When it was announced that Kyrie Irving would be lost for the entire postseason due to injury, the Boston Celtics’ hold on the 2-seed seemed a lot less intimidating than it once was in the Eastern Conference.
However, three games into the first round series against the Bucks, the Celtics hold a 2-1 lead. A lot part of that has to do with the role Tatum has been able to step in and play right away with the Celtics down their main scorer and playmaker.
Throughout the first three games of the series, Tatum 12.3 points, 7.3 rebounds, 2.3 assists, and 2.3 steals. The third overall pick in the 2017 draft started the series off with 19 points, 10 rebounds, and three steals to help Boston start off the matchup with a 1-0 lead.
At just 20 years old, Tatum is matching his age number with his usage percentage thus far against Milwaukee. For some perspective, Jaylen Brown managed just 12 minutes a night for the Celtics last season as a rookie when the playoffs rolled around.
Granted, injuries and missing players are helping in Tatum being on the court as much as he has, but the rookie is earning his time out there on the court.
Ben Simmons, Philadelphia 76ers
The perceived frontrunner for Rookie of the Year, Ben Simmons has taken control in his first ever playoff series.
For starters, Simmons is averaging nearly a triple double over his first three games against the HEAT; 20 points, 10 rebounds, and 9.7 assists.
On top of his triple double ways, Simmons has upped arguably his biggest weakness so far in the playoffs, shooting 75 percent from the charity stripe. During the regular season, Simmons struggled from the line, hitting only 56 percent of his attempts.
With the offensive prowess of Simmons obvious, it’s the job he’s doing on the defensive end of the court against an aggressive and tough Miami squad that’s elevating his play to the next level.
Simmons’ ability to switch all over the defensive end of the court has placed his responsibilities from Goran Dragic to Justise Winslow to James Johnson, and seemingly everywhere in between.
Now with Joel Embiid back in the fold for the Sixers and Simmons, the rookie point guard has his defensive partner on the floor to help ease the workload on that end. A two-way performance each night will be imperative for Simmons in helping lead the young Sixers past the experienced HEAT team.
Pelicans Role Players are Key to Success
The supporting cast in New Orleans is a big part of their playoff surge, writes David Yapkowitz.
The New Orleans Pelicans have taken a commanding 3-0 lead in their first-round playoff series again the Portland Trail Blazers. While surprising to some, the Pelicans only finished one game behind the Blazers in the standings. The Pelicans have the best player in the series in Anthony Davis and the defensive duo of Rajon Rondo and Jrue Holiday have stifled Portland’s backcourt.
The truth is, the Pelicans have been a good team all season long. A lot of attention and recognition has been given to Davis, Rondo and Holiday this season and playoffs, and rightfully so. But New Orleans wouldn’t be where they are without the important contributions of some of their role players.
Take E’Twaun Moore, for example. Moore bounced around the NBA early in his career, with stops in Boston, Orlando and Chicago before finding long-term stability contract wise with the Pelicans. He’s primarily been a bench player with them before this season, his second in New Orleans, his first as a full-time starter.
He’s given the Pelicans a huge boost, especially from the three-point line. He’s put up 12.5 points per game on 50.8 percent shooting from the field, both career-highs. He’s shooting 42.5 percent from three-point range.
“I think it’s just our style of play,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “We play fast and open. Coach [Gentry] gives us a lot of freedom, a lot of confidence. That’s why my game is up, my shooting is up.”
It’s not just offensively though. Moore has always been one of the more underrated defensive guards in the league. Paired up alongside Rondo and Holiday, the trio form a solid wing defensive unit. They’re a big reason for Portland’s offensive struggles.
Moore is the type of role player that every playoff contender needs to succeed. He knows that his role may change from game to game. Some nights he may be asked to score a little more. Other nights his defense is going to be called upon. Whatever it may be, he’s always ready to do what’s asked of him.
“I bring the energy. I bring a spark,” Moore told Basketball Insiders. “It’s knocking down shots, playing defense, getting out in transition. Just trying to be a spark.”
The Pelicans bench has also been a huge factor all season long. Their depth took a major hit early in the season with the injury to Solomon Hill. Hill has since returned to the lineup, but his absence paved the way for other players such as Darius Miller to step up.
This is Miller’s second stint with the Pelicans after spending two years overseas. Drafted 46th overall in 2012, he didn’t play much his first three years in the NBA. In 2014, he was cut by the Pelicans only about a month into the season. This year was different, he was thrown into the rotation from the get-go.
“This is a huge opportunity,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I just come in and try to work every day, try to get better every day. My teammates have done a great job of putting me in situations where I can be successful.”
Miller has given the Pelicans a capable stretch four in the second unit who can slide over to small forward if need be. He’s averaging a career-best 7.8 points per game, the most out of any of New Orleans’ reserves. He’s their best three-point shooter off the bench, connecting on 41.1 percent of his long-range attempts.
While he acknowledges that he’s enjoying his best season yet as an NBA player, he’s quick to praise his teammates for allowing him to flourish.
“I just try to bring a spark off the bench. I come in and try to knock some shots down,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “My teammates do a great job of finding me when I’m open, I just try and knock down shots and compete.”
Sometimes time away from the NBA helps players grow and mature. The NBA game is fast paced and it can take awhile to get used to it. While some players have begun to use the G-League as a means of preparing for the league, Miller took an alternate route of heading to Germany.
For him, it’s a big reason why he’s been able to make an easier transition back to the NBA. His contract for next season is non-guaranteed, but he’s probably done enough to warrant the Pelicans keeping him around. He’s a much different and much-improved player. If not, he’s sure to draw interest from other teams.
“It was a lot to learn for me personally,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I had to learn a lot of different things like how to take care of my body, how to manage my time, a whole bunch of stuff like that. The time overseas really helped me to mature and grow up and learn a few things.”
These Pelicans have most certainly turned quite a few heads since the playoffs began. We shouldn’t deal too much with hypotheticals, but it’s interesting to wonder what this team’s ceiling would’ve been had DeMarcus Cousins not been lost for the season due to injury.
This is a confident bunch, however. They’ve beaten both the Golden State Warriors and Houston Rockets during the regular season. They’ve already shattered a lot of expert predictions with their performance in the first-round. The Pelicans feel like they can hang with anyone out West.
“As far as we want to go,” Miller told Basketball Insiders. “I feel like we’ve competed with all the best teams in the league this whole season. We just got to come out, stay focused and do what we do.”