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Once Again, Role Players Prop Up Spurs’ Stars

The significant, if unheralded, contributions of the Spurs’ role players have been a staple of San Antonio’s greatness since 1999.

Tommy Beer



The San Antonio Spurs won Game 1 of the 2014 NBA Finals on Thursday night, yet hardly anybody is talking about them today.

Sports talk radio and social media are definitely buzzing, but it seems all the discussion is centered on LeBron James’ cramps and the lack of air-conditioning inside the AT&T Center.

Still, the Spurs are used to this sort of treatment. Despite being the most dominant and consistently successful franchise in all of professional sports over the past two decades, somehow San Antonio continues to fly under the radar.

The Spurs’ accomplishments dating back to the late 1990s are legendary at this point. They certainly aren’t the flashiest franchise, and although their old-school approach appeals to many basketball purists, it doesn’t draw as many viewers on national broadcasts. The small-town Spurs may not increase ratings, but they do win basketball games. Since Tim Duncan landed in San Antonio, the Spurs have won more games than any team in any of the four major North American sports.

And of course Duncan, and his longtime coach Gregg Popovich, are the cornerstones of this unprecedented San Antonio success story. In fact, per the Elias Sports Bureau, Duncan (who finished with 21 points and 10 boards in Game 1) became only the third player since the NBA introduced the shot clock in 1954 to have a 20-and-10 Finals game in which he made at least 90 percent of his shots from the floor, joining Wilt Chamberlain and Bill Russell.

However, another indispensable key to their triumphs has been successfully surrounding Duncan, their once-in-a-generation big man, with complementary role players perfectly suited to surround the team’s superstar.

General manager R.C. Buford and Popovich were way ahead of the curve when it comes to importing European talent. Constantly finishing near the top of the standings resulted in the Spurs drafting late in the first round. However, Buford and Pop overcame this impediment by miraculously finding diamonds in the rough year after year. They selected Manu Ginobili with the 57th overall pick in the 1999 draft. In 2001, they nabbed Tony Parker with the final pick in the first round. San Antonio selected Luis Scola 55th the following year, and Leandro Barbosa with the second-to-last pick of the first round in 2003. They drafted their starting center, Tiago Splitter, from the 28th spot in 2007.

However, the draft hasn’t been the only way the Spurs’ front office has rounded out the roster. Popovich and Buford’s track record on signing affordable free agents has been stellar as well. This dates all the way back to their first title in 1999. Duncan and David Robinson were obviously the focal points of that first title team, but the role players certainly chipped in when needed. Mario Elie, 35 at the time, was signed prior to that 1999 season and was the team’s third-leading scorer during the 1999 Finals. Avery Johnson was a career journeyman when San Antonio signed him for $600,000. Jaren Jackson had played for eight different NBA teams, and numerous other CBA teams, before the Spurs brought him into the fold for the league minimum ($270,000). Jackson scored 17 points and hit five three-pointers in the Spurs’ Game 1 win over the New York Knicks.

Prior to their 2003 championship, the Spurs took a chance on a former second-round pick drafted out of Butler Community College, Stephen Jackson, who had been waived by two teams before San Antonio signed him. Jackson was the team’s third-leading scorer during the 2003 postseason. The best perimeter defender on that 2003 championship squad was Bruce Bowen, who had bounced around the league after being undrafted out of Cal-State Fullerton.

In 2007, the Spurs started undrafted Fabricio Oberto at center. Robert Horry and Michael Finely, both in their mid-30s and past their primes, contributed important minutes off the bench.

Here we are in 2014, and Pop and Buford are still up to their old tricks. Duncan was sensational in Game 1. As was Ginobili, who became just the third player ever to record 15 points, 10 assists and five rebounds while playing fewer than 35 minutes in a Finals game, joining Scottie Pippen and Magic Johnson, per Elias.

However, Boris Diaw’s contributions were also vital to the Spurs’ victory on Thursday night. Despite scoring just two points, Diaw was  an incredible, game-high +30. Diaw was incredibly efficient on the offensive end of the floor and effective defensively as well. He finished with 10 rebounds and six assists.

And in the fourth quarter of Game 1, Danny Green took over, scoring 11 of his 13 points in the final period.

Green is another former second-round pick that the Spurs scooped off the scrap heap. San Antonio signed Green for slightly more than the minimum after he had been waived the Cleveland Cavaliers. Diaw is also a player that San Antonio took a chance on, but has found a home playing for Popovich.

Yes, San Antonio hit the jackpot when they won the lottery and the right to select Duncan. However, the reason the Spurs have been able to continually sustain their incredible success is due in large part to the organization’s remarkable ability to surround their star with the perfect pieces. This is all the more astonishing considering the restraints placed upon teams during this era of the salary cap. The Spurs have done a miraculous finding diamonds in the rough, as Duncan is the only lottery pick on their roster.

If the Spurs do end up winning three more games and capturing a fifth NBA championship, we will all likely spend the majority of our time after the series debating the legacy of LeBron James and whether or not the Miami HEAT will stick together for another season, as opposed to the accomplishments of the Spurs. Nevertheless, it’s probably safe to assume that doesn’t bother Buford, Pop and company all that much. After all, that just means fewer distractions, as they will soon start focusing on preparing for the draft and figuring out ways to affordably re-tool their roster this offseason.



Tommy Beer is a Senior NBA Analyst and the Fantasy Sports Editor of Basketball Insiders, having covered the NBA for the last nine seasons.


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NBA Daily: Jonathan Isaac Proving to be Key Part of Orlando’s Future

Basketball Insiders spoke with Jonathan Isaac about his rookie season, injuries, areas to improve on, his faith and more.

James Blancarte



On January 13, the Orlando Magic were eliminated from playoff contention. This date served as a formality as the team has known for quite some time that any postseason hopes had long since sailed. The Magic started the year off on a winning note and held an 8-4 record in early November. However, the team lost their next nine games and never really recovered.

Many factors play a role in a young but talented team like the Magic having another season end like this. Injuries to franchise cornerstone Aaron Gordon as well as forward Evan Fournier and forward Jonathan Isaac magnified the team’s issues.

Isaac, a rookie selected sixth overall in the first round of the 2017 NBA Draft, started the season off reasonably well. On November 10, in 21 minutes of action, he registered an 11-point, six-rebound, one-assist, one-steal, two-block all-around effort against the Phoenix Suns to help the Magic get to that 8-4 record. Isaac then suffered an ankle injury midway through his next game and wouldn’t play again until December 17, by which time the team was already 11-20 with athe season quickly going sideways. From November until March, Isaac would only play in three games until finally returning to consistent action in the month of March with the season all but decided.

Basketball Insiders spoke to Isaac recently to discuss how he has pushed through this season, staying healthy, his impressive skill set and more.

“I’ve had a lot of time off from being injured so, I think my body is holding up fine along with how much I’ve played. I haven’t played a full season,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders “I feel good. I feel good.”

Isaac talked about what part of his game he feels strongly about and has improved on.

“I think defensively,” Isaac said. “I didn’t expect myself to make strides defensively like I have. I’ve been able to just be able to just do different things and help this team defensively and I didn’t expect that coming in so, that would be the one thing.”

Magic Head Coach Frank Vogel was effusive in his praise of Isaac’s defense and also focused on the rookie’s great defensive potential.

“His defense is out of this world. I mean it’s really something else,” Vogel said. “Just watch him play and everybody’s getting a taste of it right now. They haven’t seen him a whole lot but he’s an elite defender right now at 20-years old and the sky’s the limit for what he can be on that end of the floor.

While Isaac hasn’t logged a huge number of minutes on the floor this season, he has impressed in his limited action. As Coach Vogel stated, anyone who has taken the time to watch Isaac play this season has noticed his ability to guard other big men and his overall defensive impact.

“I think I’ve been able to do a good job on most of the people that I’ve had to guard,” Isaac said.

Missing Isaac’s defense impact and overall contributions partially explains why the Magic cooled off after their hot start. However, with the playoffs no longer an option, younger players like Isaac now have the opportunity to play with less attention and pressure. While it can be argued that the Magic aren’t really playing for anything, the truth is these late-season games can be an opportunity to develop these younger players and determine what to work on during the offseason.

There is more to Isaac than just basketball, however. Isaac discussed other parts of his life that are important to him, including religion and his faith.

“[M]y faith in Jesus is something that I put a lot of emphasis on,” Isaac told Basketball Insiders. “It’s a part of me.”

Isaac did not hesitate to credit his faith when asked if it helped him push through his injuries.

“I would say definitely,” Isaac said. “Especially with getting injured so early in the season and being out for 40 games. That’s a lot on somebody’s mental capacity and then just staying positive, staying joyful in times where joy doesn’t seem like it’s the right emotion to have. And I definitely [attribute] that to my faith.”

Looking forward, both Vogel and Isaac discussed the future and what the young big man can improve on.

“Offensively, he’s grown in confidence, he’s gained so he’s going to give us a big lift and our future’s bright with him,” Vogel stated.

Isaac gave a hint of his offseason training plans when asked what he looks forward to working on.

“I would say consistency with my jump shot. Really working on my three-ball and I would say ball-handling,” Isaac stated.

When asked if there was anything more he wanted to add, Isaac simply smiled and said, “Oh no, I think I got to get to church right now,” as the team prepared to play later that evening.

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Tyronn Lue’s Health Concerns Latest Bump In The Road For Cavaliers

Spencer Davies outlines Tyronn Lue’s decision to take a leave of absence to deal with health issues and covers the reaction around the NBA.

Spencer Davies



The win-loss record is not where they want it to be.

The performances have not been up to par with what they expect.

With that said, one thing is for certain: There is no other team that will have been more battle tested going into the playoffs than the Cleveland Cavaliers.

Day after day and week after week, there’s always something going on with the team. Between in-house arguments, on-court miscommunication, roster turnover, and more, it has been one giant roller coaster of a season.

Monday morning, another twist was added to the ride. In a statement released by the Cavaliers organization, Tyronn Lue and general manager Koby Altman announced that the head coach would be taking a leave of absence to address his health:

“After many conversations with our doctors and Koby and much thought given to what is best for the team and my health, I need to step back from coaching for the time being and focus on trying to establish a stronger and healthier foundation from which to coach for the rest of the season.

“I have had chest pains and other troubling symptoms, compounded by a loss of sleep, throughout the year. Despite a battery of tests, there have been no conclusions as to what the exact issue is. While I have tried to work through it, the last thing I want is for it to affect the team.

“I am going to use this time to focus on a prescribed routine and medication, which has previously been difficult to start in the midst of a season. My goal is to come out of it a stronger and healthier version of myself so I can continue to lead this team to the Championship we are all working towards. I greatly appreciate Dan Gilbert, Koby Altman, our medical team and the organization’s support throughout.”

There were multiple instances where Lue either missed part of a half or an entire game this season. The symptoms are definitely not to be taken lightly. According to a report by ESPN’s Adrian Wojnarowski and Dave McMenamin, Lue attempted to return to the bench Saturday night in Chicago but the team didn’t allow him to. Evidently, Lue was “coughing up blood” some nights.

Seeing it first hand after postgame press conferences, Lue was visibly exhausted and stress could likely be playing a part. He’s been fighting through the tough times the team has been going through and avoided stepping away twice this season.

Charlotte Hornets head coach Steve Clifford had his own battle with health problems earlier this season and temporarily left the team for those reasons. He has attempted to reach out to Lue, a friend and former player of his.

Other head coaches around the league—Joe Prunty, Steve Kerr, and Luke Walton—have all gone to bat for Lue when discussing the rigors of an NBA schedule and the toll it takes.

Altman supports the decision for Lue to get to the bottom of what’s going on.

“We know how difficult these circumstances are for Coach Lue and we support him totally in this focused approach to addressing his health issues,” he said.

LeBron James is glad that Lue is going to take some time to get better.

“Obviously, health is the most important with everything in life,” James said Monday after shootaround. “Not surprised by it at all. I knew he was struggling, but he was never not himself. He was just dealing with it the best way he could, but he was never not himself when he was around.

“It doesn’t matter what’s going on here. We play a great sport, our coaches get to coach a great sport, and you guys get to cover a great sports. But health is most important right now and that’s what our coach is doing right now and we’re all in favor for it.”

The latest piece of news is a blow to the already injury-ridden Cleveland group. Assistant coach Larry Drew will take over duties until Lue returns.

The good news for the Cavaliers is that Kevin Love can potentially return to the mix as soon as Monday night against Milwaukee.

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NBA Daily: Calderón’s Late NBA Start

Jose Calderón might be the only player in the league who didn’t grow up dreaming of playing in the NBA.

Joel Brigham



There are a lot of different ways to get to the NBA, but most of them involve lifelong scouting and an unceasing dream to play in the world’s premier basketball league.

Cleveland Cavaliers guard José Calderón didn’t really have either of those things.

“I never even thought of the NBA when I was a kid,” Calderón told Basketball Insiders. “I grew up in a small town in Spain, and I played basketball because my dad played and I loved it. I was having fun, always playing with the older guys because I was good at that age, but I never really even thought about playing any sort of professional basketball.”

Having grown up in Villanueva de la Serena, Spain, Calderón watched his father play for Doncel La Serena, which was his hometown team as a child. He was something of a prodigy, having attended practices and games with his father from a young age, and as burgeoning teenager he left home to play professionally for the lower-level Vitoria-Gasteiz team.

“They wanted to sign me at 13 years old, and we didn’t even know that they could sign people that young,” Calderón remembers. “So I did that, and I tried to get better. I tried to advance into the older clubs, but I never really did think about the NBA at all, honestly.”

That changed as he got older, though, especially after Spain finished 5th in the 2002 FIBA World Championship and Calderón started to get some stateside recognition.

“After that summer, [my agent and I] got a call from Milwaukee asking about my situation, and asked would I think about coming to play over here. It was sort of a let’s-see-what-happens sort of situation, but I couldn’t at that time because I was under contract. That was the first time I was really approached.”

As his teammates from the Spanish National Team made their way to the NBA, Calderón grew increasingly intrigued.

“Pau Gasol obviously opened a lot of doors for us,” he said. “Raul Lopez came, too. I was just playing basketball, though. I didn’t know anything about scouts. Later, when we started to get the calls from Toronto, I started to realize how possible it really was. That’s when I thought, ‘Hey, why not?’”

Despite being eligible for a few drafts in a row, Calderón never did get drafted, which was fine by him. Growing up the way he did, Calderón never had any dreams of his hearing his name called by Commissioner Stern, so playing his way through most of his deal with TAU Vitoria was no big deal for him. He could take or leave the NBA.

“Not getting drafted was the perfect situation for me,” he said. “In my satiation, coming from Europe, I was already playing professionally for a good team and making some good money. That was perfect for me at the time, and I was happy to be a free agent at 23, choosing where I was going to sign instead of going in the second round and having to play for one team.”

He signed with the Raptors in 2005 since they were the most aggressive in recruiting him to the NBA. As a 23-year-old rookie, he wasn’t overwhelmed physically the way a lot of rookies are, but he did find his new league challenging in other ways.

“The hardest part was just having to start over,” he said. “You start over from zero. It doesn’t matter if the other players know you or don’t, you have to prove yourself all over again. You could be the MVP of Europe, but to get respect in the NBA you have to gain it on the court.”

The talent differential was immediately noticeable, as well.

“There are so many guys out there that are better than you. It’s not just like a guy or two; there are six, seven guys on the floor any given time that are better than you.”

That meant making some changes in the way that Calderón played. He was asked to do a lot more offensively for his EuroLeague team. Playing with so many talented scorers completely changed his approach.

“I went from taking 20 shots a game to doing something else, and as a point guard in the NBA I had to approach that point guard role even more, to make those guys respect my game, to make them want to play with me. I had to be able to pass the ball, to do something different from all the other players, so I became a fast-first point guard to make sure we always played as a team. That’s how I get to where I am as a professional.”

Now 36 years old, Calderón is one of the league’s oldest players, making it easy for him to look back at where he came from to transform into the player he is today.

“I’ve grown so much, but I was lucky to be given the opportunity,” he said. “When you arrive from Europe, whether you’re good or bad, it doesn’t always matter if you don’t have the opportunity. Toronto gave me the opportunity to play 20 minutes a night, and that’s a lot. I made a lot of mistakes, but they let me play through those mistakes. All those little things added up for me, and I learned a lot.”

He owns two silver medals and a bronze in the three Olympics he’s participated in over the course of his career, as well as gold medals in FIBA World Cup and EuroBasket, but he’s never won an NBA championship. Joining up with LeBron James improves those odds, but that’s the thing that would really put an exclamation point on an excellent career.

Calderón could have stayed in Spain and been fine. He jokes that while the NBA has been very good to him, he and his family could have stayed in Europe and he could have made good money playing basketball there. He’s been happy with his career, though, however unorthodox his journey here, and he hopes his most prestigious accolades are yet to come.

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