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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: The Lakers’ Path Back to the NBA Finals

In the wake of Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Bobby Krivitsky examines the Los Angeles Lakers’ path back to the NBA Finals.

Bobby Krivitsky

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It’s been 15 games since a high ankle sprain sidelined LeBron James. 

With the Western Conference standings congested as ever and Anthony Davis already out due to a right calf strain and a re-aggravation of his right Achilles tendinosis, the Los Angeles Lakers faced the threat of a fall that might have led to their participation in the NBA’s new play-in tournament.

Though they’ve gone just 7-8, the Lakers have fought admirably in the absence of their two stars and, as a result, their drop in the standings has been rather painless, falling from third at the time of James’ injury to now fifth in the West.

The primary reason the Lakers have been able to tread water without their two stars is they’ve remained stingy on defense. Since James’ injury, they have the fourth-best defensive rating in the league. That’s despite facing four teams who rank in the top five in offensive rating and six of the categories’ top-10 members.

Right now, the Lakers are 2.5 games ahead of the sixth-seeded Portland Trail Blazers, with a 4.5-game cushion between them and the Dallas Mavericks, who are seventh in the conference. That should be a large enough gap to keep Los Angeles out of the play-in tournament, but the two teams are going to converge for a two-game series starting Thursday. For the Lakers, getting swept would re-open the possibility of having to compete in the play-in tournament.

Fortunately for them, even splitting that series would make it unlikely the Mavericks finish ahead of the Lakers in the standings. And help might be on the way for the Lakers: Davis may soon rejoin the lineup, per ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski, meaning there’s a distinct possibility he’s active for at least one of those two matchups. As for James, he’s on track to return in three weeks.

While Los Angeles’ stars are getting closer to making their returns, the Denver Nuggets got dealt a more severe blow when Jamal Murray tore his ACL in a recent game against the Golden State Warriors. Denver is 10-2 since acquiring Aaron Gordon at the trade deadline and looked the part of a legitimate title contender prior to Murray’s injury. 

Denver is fourth in the West, 1.5 games ahead of Los Angeles. But even if the Nuggets have home-court advantage, they’re the preferable opening-round opponent, not just for Los Angeles, but any team with a legitimate chance at the fourth or fifth seed.

Fortunately for the Lakers, that’s the place in the Western Conference pecking order where they’re most likely to finish this season. So long as the Nuggets don’t freefall in Murray’s absence, Los Angeles will likely start the playoffs against an opponent that’s gone from having the potential to present the greatest challenge to the defending champions’ quest to get back to the Finals to becoming a desirable first-round matchup.

After that, the Lakers may have to get past the Utah Jazz and or the Los Angeles Clippers to make a return trip to the NBA Finals. The former has the best record in the league this season, but locking horns with the defending champions in a best of seven series is a far more challenging and potentially rewarding proving ground.

The Jazz have a deep, reliable rotation, they have the best net rating in the NBA, they’re in the top five in points for and against per 100 possessions, and they’re attempting the most threes per game, but also rank in the top five in three-point shooting percentage. However, the Lakers would have the two best players in a series against Utah. Usually, an opponent doesn’t overcome that disadvantage.  

As for the Clippers, Rajon Rondo has quickly proven to be an impactful acquisition. Los Angeles is seven and one with him in the lineup, generating the highest net rating in the league during that span. Last season, the Lakers saw first-hand how impactful playoff Rondo can be. Now, the Clippers are hoping he can bring structure to their offense, something they sorely lacked last postseason and was at the forefront of them blowing a 3-1 series lead over the Nuggets. Doing so would go a long way towards maximizing the production of a team that has the talent to hoist the Larry O’Brien Trophy for the first time in franchise history.

If this is the year the battle of LA takes place in the postseason, it figures to be a slugfest. Still, the Clippers have their doubters after last year’s meltdown in the playoffs. There’s also a large contingency who are skeptical about how far the Jazz can go in the postseason, given their lack of a top-tier superstar. Despite the validity of those concerns, both teams can beat the Lakers in a best of seven series. That no longer appears to be the case for the Nuggets, which is a shame for them and people who want to see the best possible matchups in the playoffs. But Murray’s injury, as unfortunate an occurrence as it is, makes it easier for the Lakers to get through the gauntlet that is the Western Conference and have a chance to claim an 18th championship, which would break their tie with the Boston Celtics for the most titles in NBA history.

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NBA AM: The Play-In Game – West

With the season winding down, Ariel Pacheco takes a look at how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Western Conference.

Ariel Pacheco

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With the regular season’s end in sight, teams are making their last push to make the playoffs in what has been a condensed season. But the new play-in tournament is providing more teams than ever a chance at a coveted playoff spot.

Here is what the new play-in tournament will look like: Teams that finish with the Nos 7 and 8 seeds will face off against each other. The winner of this game will be No. 7. The Nos. 9 and 10 seeds will also play and the winner will play the loser of the first game. The winner of this game will be the No. 8 seed. 

The play-in tournament provides intrigue and adds pressure on teams in both conferences to finish in the top six and avoid the play-in altogether. The Western Conference, in particular, is shaping up to have a rather exciting finish. There are a number of teams who could find themselves fighting for their playoff lives in this year’s tournament – all below in tiers.

Teams Likely To Avoid Play-In

Portland Trail Blazers (32-24)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 11

The Trail Blazers are currently the sixth seed in the West meaning, for now, they are safe from the play-in tournament. However, they are just two games above the Mavericks from possibly dropping down a place. They’re the team most likely to secure that sixth seed because they have more talent than the teams below them – hello, Dame – and they also have an elite offense. However, the defensive concerns are very real and if they were to slip, it would likely be because of their struggles on that side of the ball.

Likely Play-In Teams

Dallas Mavericks

Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 5
Games Against West: 8

On paper, the Mavs have a really easy schedule as the season winds down. They have just five games against teams over .500 and two against the Los Angeles Lakers, who may be without their two stars for those games. However, they are just 10-12 this season against sub .500 teams and are coming off a disappointing loss to the Sacramento Kings. There’s still a pretty good chance they get the sixth seed and avoid the play-in, but it also wouldn’t be surprising to see them in it as well.

Memphis Grizzlies
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 7
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 12

The Grizzlies are often overlooked, but they are about as well-coached as any other team in the NBA. It is likely they will be in the play-in game, but don’t be surprised if they are able to sneak into the sixth seed. They lost last year’s play-in game in the Bubble to the Blazers, so they do have experience in this type of setting. They may be getting Jaren Jackson Jr. back soon which should help. 

Golden State Warriors
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 9
Games Against Teams Over .500: 6
Games Against West: 13

The Warriors are getting just other-worldly performances from Stephen Curry on an almost nightly basis at this point. However, they continue to struggle to win games, in large part due to the struggles when he sits on the bench. Their schedule is pretty light to close the season, which bolsters their chances. The talent on this team isn’t great, but Curry’s play should be enough to get them in the play-in tournament. 

San Antonio Spurs
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 12
Games Against West: 7

The Spurs have struggled of late, especially after the All-Star break. Their defense has dropped off badly, but if there’s any reason to be positive, it’s that they are still coached by Gregg Popovich and their young guys continue to show improvement. They have been really good on the road this season and a majority of their games are on the road. It won’t be easy, but the Spurs should find themselves in the play-in tournament.

Outside Looking In

New Orleans Pelicans
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 6
Games Against Teams Over .500: 9
Games Against West: 11

The Pelicans have been hit with the injury bug of late, but their inconsistent play this season continues to be a huge problem. Their defense continues to bleed three-pointers and while point Zion Williamson has worked, there just isn’t enough shooting to maximize him just yet. It seems unlikely the Pelicans make a late-season run to the play-in game.

Sacramento Kings

Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: 8
Games Against Teams Over .500: 8
Games Against West: 14

The Kings are the least likely team to make the play-in tournament. Their defense is still problematic and they just recently ended their 9-game losing streak. It’ll take a huge late-season push and the Kings just haven’t shown that they are capable of putting it all together for a long enough stretch. 

The play-in tournament adds a new layer of competition that will bring excitement at the end of the season. Be sure to check out how the play-in tournament is shaping up in the Eastern Conference.

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NBA

NBA Daily: The Play-In Game — East

With the play-in tournament just around the corner, Matt John previews who in the Eastern Conference might qualify for it.

Matt John

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It’s official: we’re entering the regular season’s endgame. Every game from here on out will have much bigger consequences, a statement even truer in 2021 than perhaps any other season thanks to the NBA’s new play-in tournament.

If you’re not familiar, the play-in tournament will consist of two matchups within each conference. The seventh and eighth seeds of both conferences will face off against one another, while the ninth and 10th seeds shall do the same. The winner of the seven-eight matchup will take their conference’s seventh seed, while the winner of the nine-10 game will face the aforementioned match’s loser for the eighth and final spot in the postseason. It’ll serve as a nice appetizer before the playoffs get underway.

So, now that we have 15 games left give or take, it’s time to get a full scope of who we’re most likely to see in this year’s play-in, starting with the Eastern Conference. There’s really no need to go over teams that have all but clinched their playoff spots like Philadelphia, Brooklyn, or Milwaukee. Just like there’s no need to mention teams that are way too out of a reach for a playoff spot like Detroit and Orlando.

But that does leave ten teams in the Eastern Conference that we could potentially see in the play-in. At first glance, it would sound ridiculous to say that Boston and Cleveland could be in the play-in seeing how they are separated by ten and a half games, but Boston is only two and a half games ahead of Miami for that seventh seed while Cleveland is only three games behind Chicago for the tenth seed.

The best way to evaluate is to divide these into tiers. One for playoff teams who are likely to avoid the play-in, one for teams that are most likely to be in the play-in, and those that are likely to miss out on the play-in.

Likely to Avoid

Atlanta Hawks (30-26)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Six
Games Against East: 13

Replacing Lloyd Pierce with Nate McMillan proved to be a genius move by Atlanta’s front office, as the Hawks have won 16 of their last 23 games. They may have had that stretch where they lost four of five, but that was on a West Coast Trip. Seeing how almost 75 percent of their remaining games will be at home, it’s hard to see Atlanta collapsing. They may be decimated by injuries right now, but the schedule seems a little too easy for them to blow this.

Boston Celtics (31-26)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Four
Games Against East: 10

Much like Atlanta, Boston’s really hit their stride over the past few weeks. Getting healthy and making a few roster changes have helped them rediscover the team that started out so well at the beginning of the season. It’s hard seeing Boston folding down the stretch primarily because they won’t be facing too many strong opponents from here until the regular season’s end. Given their recent strong play, don’t expect an appearance at the play-in tournament.

Likely Play-In Teams

New York Knicks (30-27)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: Six

Give credit where credit is due. The Knickerbockers are not going away. They’ve stayed the course when many thought this was going to be another wasted year for them. They’ve given no reason to indicate that they’re stopping now. The reason they’re not as sure of a thing as Atlanta or Boston is because, over this last stretch, they’re going to face off against several Western Conference contenders looking for the highest seeding possible. As tough as that’s going to be, the Knicks are going to make each one of them earn those wins, guaranteed.

Miami HEAT (28-28)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East: 11

It’s been difficult to get a read on the reigning Eastern Conference champions. They go on stretches that basically even out each other. After starting out 11-17, they win 12 of their next 13, then follow that up by losing their next six games, then win six of their next seven, then finally and most recently, they lose their next three games. No one really knows what Miami’s ceiling is right now. Odds are, the HEAT will probably be in the play-in. It’s just a matter of where. Also, why have we still not gotten any updates on Victor Oladipo?

Charlotte Hornets (27-28)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Eight
Games Against East: 13

What’s happened to the Hornets over the past few weeks is just straight up not fair. If LaMelo Ball and Gordon Hayward were playing, they’d solidly be in the same tier as Boston and Atlanta. With their squad fully healthy, Charlotte’s a playoff team, but being down their two best players definitely takes them down a peg. They deserve props that they haven’t rolled over since losing those two, but sadly they’re nowhere near as good as they were with their whole squad. Their schedule is easy enough that it shouldn’t knock them out of the play-in. If LaMelo and Hayward are back by then, then it’s hard not seeing the Hornets get into the postseason.

Indiana Pacers (26-29)
Games Left: 17
Home Games Left: 11
Games Against Teams Over .500: Seven
Games Against East Teams: 11

It hasn’t been talked about enough how injuries have really shaken up Indiana’s season. TJ Warren’s foot injury was a substantial season-long setback and Caris Levert’s cancer, as miraculous of a story as that was, was another prolonged absence. Overall, Indiana’s injuries have led to a rather underachieving season compared to past results. Luckily their schedule for the rest of the season shouldn’t be too tough, so making the play-in seems realistic.

Outside Looking In

*One of these teams will get the play-in as the 10th seed.

Toronto Raptors (23-34)
Games Left: 15
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: Seven

That’s right, the same Raptors, who only weeks ago were in serious talks to trade Kyle Lowry to the highest bidder, have suddenly found themselves in the fight for the final spot for the play-in. It’s not that they’ve suddenly turned it all around. It’s that the competition is too weak for them to bow out completely. Their schedule may allow them to go all-in on the tank, but maybe one last hurrah with the franchise’s greatest player isn’t the worst way to go.

Chicago Bulls (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Seven
Games Against Teams Over .500: Nine
Games Against East Teams: 16

Good news: Nikola Vucevic looks like he’s fitting in splendidly. Bad news: The team has been on a downward spiral since his (and others) acquisition. Chicago has only won four of their last 13 games since the trade deadline and their remaining schedule is not going to be a breeze. On paper, they should be a shoo-in for the 10th seed, but the roster holes right now appear to be too glaring for Chicago to take the next step. If they don’t at the very least make the play-in, that’s not going to be a good look after all the moves they made.

Washington Wizards (23-33)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Eight
Games Against Teams Over .500: Five
Games Against East Teams: 10

Remember when Washington was one of the worst teams in the league record-wise? And how they managed to only slightly improve themselves over the course of the season? Well, apparently that was enough to get them into the conversation for the play-in because, lo and behold, they’re now tied with Chicago for that 10th seed. It gets better too. They only face two tough challenges from here on out – Lakers and Bucks – but after that, it’s honestly easy enough that they might be the favorite to get that last play-in spot.

Cleveland Cavaliers (20-36)
Games Left: 16
Home Games Left: Nine
Games Against Teams over .500: Six
Games Against East Teams: 12

This sounds the most ludicrous seeing how the Cavs are currently the East’s 13th seed, but being three games behind Chicago while facing only six teams over .500 gives them a fighting chance. If the Cavaliers are actually able to get the play-in, that’s a big stepping stone for their future. It’s an accomplishment to build off of in an era with no LeBron James to speak of, which they haven’t been able to do since Friends was on the air.

As you can see, the play-in has, in a way, brought a new dimension to the NBA season. In any previous season (excluding the last one) no one would bat an eye at the 10 through 13 seeds. Their season at this point would be all but done and no one would care, but because of the possibility of going to a play-in tournament, teams suddenly have the chance to make something of what usually would have been a lost season.

Some teams may get annoyed by it because their time is coming to a close and there’s no need to delay the inevitable. For others, the play-in signifies that it could just be the beginning.

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