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NBA AM: Ranking the Top Young Cores

Which NBA teams have assembled the best young cores? Ben Dowsett ranks the league’s up-and-coming squads.

Ben Dowsett

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Part of the mass appeal of the NBA is its cyclical nature. The postseason begins in a couple weeks, showcasing the league’s elite, but the calendar year has hardly stopped for the 14 teams on the outside looking in. Eliminated teams become free to make personnel moves even as the playoffs wear on, and the ever-vital NBA Draft takes place just days after a champion is finally crowned. Before anyone knows it, eyes will once again be looking ahead to the future.

With that in mind, before we reach playoff time, here’s a nod to the franchises – a few of whom will still be playing in late April – who have put themselves in the best position for sustained runs over the next half-decade or more. Let’s take a look at the top young cores in the NBA.

Our list will stop at five, meaning many potentially qualified situations will be left out. A brief look at some of those who didn’t make the cut (others weren’t even quite worthy of a runner-up list, including groups like Brooklyn and Phoenix who are incredibly devoid of overall future assets).

Honorable Mentions

New Orleans Pelicans: Anthony Davis’ presence alone likely would have qualified the Pels for a top-five spot in these rankings a year ago, but a campaign from hell has set the franchise back. Davis is shut down for the year, trying to finally catch up with maladies plaguing him for years, and New Orleans has been so thoroughly decimated by injuries that assessing them realistically is virtually impossible. Jrue Holiday, another clearly injury-prone player, is their only other young-ish piece with a positive outlook if he can stay on the court, and while Davis’ potential still gets them in the conversation, the prospects are much bleaker than they once looked.

Orlando Magic: The right guys making leaps could easily see the Magic threaten for a spot in the top five on this list next season. In Victor Oladipo, Aaron Gordon, Nikola Vucevic, Mario Hezonja and Elfrid Payton, Orlando has a deep core that will have a chance to blossom together. None is quite a blue-chip superstar in the making, but all five have significant potential, with Gordon and Hezonja’s ceilings still mostly untapped and potentially very high.

Los Angeles Lakers: Putting aside ludicrous team turmoil, the Lakers do have a solid core including D’Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson, Julius Randle and Larry Nance, Jr. A completely untenable organizational situation could shake things up in a hurry, and even if not, Los Angeles will need to add at least one more name to compete with the big boys in terms of core potential.

Philadelphia 76ers: The league’s most rampant tanking has yielded a number of high picks, but only lukewarm results. It’s tough to gauge whether any members of the current roster outside Nerlens Noel, Jahlil Okafor and Joel Embiid are truly part of the long-term core, and each of these guys has their own set of questions. Overseas star Dario Saric may or may not be in the NBA soon. The 76ers have a war chest of picks still upcoming, but until these turn into actual prospects with bright futures, they can’t crack the top five.

New York Knicks: Kristaps Porzingis is a great start, but they have a long way to go. Jerian Grant and Langston Galloway might be the only other worthwhile future pieces on the current team, and neither is exactly blowing anyone away. Whether the Knicks will have the patience to rebuild fully remains to be seen.

Boston Celtics: There’s a temptation to put Boston on the list due to their unmatched stockpile of picks and movable contracts, but this doesn’t really qualify as a “core.” Boston absolutely could acquire a young centerpiece with their assets, but until that time they don’t really qualify. They could just as easily use those picks to add a veteran and speed up their rebuild. With that said, this is a very good team with a terrific head coach in Brad Stevens (as I recently wrote).

Alright, onto the true contenders.

  1. Denver Nuggets

The Nuggets are in something of an interesting place. Their young core is supplemented by three guys in Danilo Gallinari, Wilson Chandler and Kenneth Faried who don’t really fit within the same age timeline, but also have clearly defined roles on the current team. It’s tough to imagine more than one of them playing a major role when this group is truly contending, though, so we’ll consider their young foundation separately.

They’re not exactly lacking in that department, to be fair. Savvy drafting and a bit of trade poaching have put GM Tim Connelly in a fantastic position, with pieces at nearly every position: Rookie Emmanuel Mudiay and sophomore Gary Harris in the backcourt, Will Barton (sneakily obtained in the Arron Afflalo trade that also netted Denver a first-round pick) as a swingman of sorts, and a triumvirate of talented young bigs in Nikola Jokic, Jusuf Nurkic and Joffrey Lauvergne. The Nuggets lack that superstar, yes, and it feels unlikely any of these names outside perhaps Mudiay could reach that perch, but they have capable, high-ceiling guys up and down the roster.

They don’t get credit for it for the same reasons as Boston and Philly, but the Nuggets are also incredibly well-positioned draft-wise on top of an already-impressive collection of talent. Denver is a favorite to be in possession of three first-round picks in the 2016 draft as of this writing: Their own (which they have the right to swap with the Knicks, if New York’s is more favorable), Portland’s (will convey unless the Blazers tumble out of the playoffs, which is highly unlikely) and Houston’s (again, assuming the Rockets don’t miss the playoffs).

They’re unlikely to grab a fourth that was possible earlier in the season – a Memphis first-rounder, but that pick becomes only top-five protected in 2017 and 2018, making it possible the Nuggets are owed yet another lottery pick in the near future. They don’t owe anyone a single first-round pick moving forward, and their flexibility might top any team in the league outside of Boston.

They still have to capitalize on that potential, but they have a strong group already in place even if things don’t go perfectly. This could be the last year the Nuggets rank even this low on this list.

  1. Portland Trail Blazers

The Blazers have a similarly deep collection of young talent. Mason Plumlee, Moe Harkless, Meyers Leonard, Allen Crabbe and Noah Vonleh are all in their third NBA season or earlier, each with varying degrees of potential still left.

Where they differ from the Nuggets, though, is in top-end talent. The combination of Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum as core foundational pieces separates Portland from other groups that have similar depth but lack the star power. Even if a couple of the supplementary pieces don’t quite pan out, the Blazers have the cushion of two elite shooters and playmakers to fall back on.

The Blazers also have a ton of cap space available and are a sneakily desirable destination, meaning they could make the leap from up-and-comers to true contenders in a big hurry with one or two signings this summer or thereafter. Their pick situation isn’t as robust as Denver’s, but they don’t owe any further first-rounders after likely sending this year’s mid-teens pick to the Nuggets. This team has made more noise than nearly anyone expected this season, and will be primed to take yet another big step next year if they have a productive summer.

  1. Milwaukee Bucks

We’re likely picking nits from spots two to four, but the Bucks take the middle spot among this group. Giannis Antetokounmpo and Jabari Parker aren’t quite the sure thing Lillard is in Portland, but both are far younger with very high ceilings. Khris Middleton remains only 24 and locked into a long-term deal. John Henson and Michael Carter-Williams both likely have their best years ahead of them, and who knows what rookie Rashad Vaughn, just 19, could turn into.

Ceiling-obsessed folks could easily make a case for placing the Bucks behind only Minnesota for long-term outlook – if Giannis and Jabari check all their boxes, Middleton stays consistent and the rest of the roster fills out, this has the potential of a dominant future core. Both are still very raw at this point, though, and we all know the pitfalls of assuming development in particular areas before it actually takes place.

The 2016-17 season will be huge for parsing out exactly where the Bucks fit on this list for the long run. Antetokounmpo has made large strides this year, but still has work to do as the leader of an offense and the pressure will be on the group as a whole to get back to the postseason after a strange down year.

  1. Utah Jazz

Some might argue Utah’s true ceiling is lower than both of the previous two teams (more on this in a moment), but even if they’re right, what the Jazz have already accomplished combined with a still-growing foundation gets them the nod. The Jazz seem likely to make the 2016 playoffs despite an untimely rash of injuries to multiple starters, and better yet are doing so while fueled entirely by virtually the exact core they expect to compete with in the future.

In Gordon Hayward, Derrick Favors and Rudy Gobert, Utah holds a three-man group clearly capable of competing at a playoff level already – and all 25 or younger. Rodney Hood, Alec Burks and Shelvin Mack have yet to reach 26 years old as well, with plenty of team control in the former two cases. And that doesn’t even count perhaps the team’s two highest-leverage pieces: Rookie Trey Lyles and injured sophomore Dante Exum.

These latter two make any conversation about ceilings interesting when comparing the Jazz alongside their rivals on this list. Exum might have the widest outcome range of any player named in this piece; his floor might not even be a backup point guard, while a true ceiling could see him among the game’s most valuable two-way guards – particularly defensively. Lyles is the exact sort of playmaking four the league is falling quickly in love with, a guy who could define the team’s flexibility between small and big lineups if he develops in the right ways (he’s already a bona fide stretch big at 20 years old).

Tack those two onto what the team already has going for them, and their best possible outcomes suddenly start to compare favorably with others above. A starting five of Exum-Hood-Hayward-Favors-Gobert was already succeeding last season. If supplemented by solid development from guys like Lyles, Burks and Mack, plus perhaps one or two savvy signings, why couldn’t this group reach huge heights? Like both teams directly behind them, the 2016-17 season will be a make-or-break year for their prospects.

  1. Minnesota Timberwolves

The top spot is far and away the easiest on this list. The Wolves, stocked with the most exciting prospect in nearly a half decade and a reasonably impressive group behind him, stand head and shoulders above the rest of the league for future potential.

Karl-Anthony Towns drives the wagon, of course. The first overall pick in 2015 is arguably already one of the top 25 players in the entire league, and is likely the most untradeable asset under 26 the league has seen in quite some time. His otherworldly skill set will make him a good fit with virtually any combination of players the Wolves place around him, making their drafting situation moving forward as simple as finding the best players available. He’s the only guy mentioned in this list (outside Davis in honorable mention) who could win multiple MVP awards without league-wide shock.

Opinions vary on the rest of the core, but even the lowest possible estimations are still carried over the finish line by Towns’ vast potential. Andrew Wiggins, 21, has been disappointing in some areas and hopeful in others; he at least can be a high-quality second or third option. Zach LaVine has made some real strides near the end of this season, with so much physical talent still left to harness. Whether Ricky Rubio still counts as part of the core probably depends on who you talk to, as does his value. Shabazz Muhammad and Gorgui Dieng may not be sure-thing future pieces, but are developing well enough to stay in supporting roles if the chips fall correctly. Should Rubio end up elsewhere, the Wolves have Tyus Jones in place to man the point.

Even if a few of these pieces disappoint in the long run, Towns coming anywhere remotely close to his ceiling makes this team an automatic contender once he enters his prime. They’ll add another high lottery pick this upcoming draft, and don’t owe any major picks of their own. Rivals out West had better hope they don’t strike gold in the 2016 draft. Towns and the rest of this core paired with another true blue-chip guy would make Minnesota even more terrifying. The sky seems the limit for this group.

Ben Dowsett is a Deputy Editor and in-depth basketball analyst based in Salt Lake City. He covers the Jazz on a credentialed basis for Basketball Insiders, and has previously appeared in the Sports Illustrated and TrueHoop Networks. He can be found on Twitter at @Ben_Dowsett.

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NBA Daily: Darius Adams, Around The World In Seven Years

CBA superstar Darius Adams talks to Basketball Insiders about dominating in China, playing with Andray Blatche and trying to prove himself.

Ben Nadeau

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Darius Adams is just like every other professional basketball player.

Every year, he works hard, tries to improve and be the best teammate possible. One day, Adams would like to earn his first-ever NBA contract, but after seven long years, he’s always fallen just short. Adams is just like you and me too — forever chasing his dreams even when the outlook is at its bleakest. But Adams’ worldwide journey has taken him from Indianapolis to China and nearly everywhere in between.

Now with a chunk of money saved up, Adams is ready to bet on himself and finally make this at-home ambition come true. Ahead lies a summer of grueling workouts and undetermined futures, but eventually, you learn to stop betting against Adams. From Los Prados to Laboral Kutxa Baskonia, Adams has made a habit of proving the naysayers wrong. As if dropping 38 points per game in China wasn’t difficult enough — Adams still must undergo his toughest challenge yet: Changing the mind of an NBA front office.

But before you can know where Adams is going, it’s just as important to understand where he’s been.

*****

Darius Adams got a late start to basketball. He never played AAU, the so-called holy grail for teenage prospects, and told me that he learned the game by watching streetball in Decatur, Illinois. So by the time he fell in love with basketball, Adams was forced to take alternate routes to the top. He spent two years in the NJCAA with Lincoln College, a small, private liberal arts school approximately 33 miles away from home. During that second season, Adams averaged 18.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 4.1 assists and 2.2 steals per game on 44 percent shooting from the floor — but it wasn’t enough to make the jump to a Division-I school.

After transferring to the University of Indianapolis, Adams continued to improve in each successive campaign. As a senior, he topped out with a 41-point effort against Illinois at Springfield and tallied 23.2 points and 5.7 rebounds per game. Nevertheless, Adams still went undrafted in 2011, officially setting off a globe-spanning adventure that would make Phileas Fogg blush.

From China to Ukraine, Adams has played in seven different countries in as many years, also adding stops in Venezuela, Dominican Republic, France, Germany and Spain along the way. Adams may have turned 29 years-old this week, but he’s never considered giving up his dreams of playing in the NBA.

“That’s the goal, that’s always been my motivation,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “I just played my hardest and kept progressing, that was my thing — I didn’t want to be content with: ‘OK, you’re playing pro.’ I want to play at the highest level, I feel like I have the talent to play at the highest level.

“At the end of the day, I just need that opportunity.”

Opportunity is a word that has come to define Adams in many ways.

Beyond that, it’s something that has constantly eluded him, even as he began winning in bigger and better leagues. Despite all his international successes, including a EuroLeague Final Four appearance and a CBA championship, Adams has been unable to turn that into an NBA contract. As far as he can tell, it’s a matter of both perception and timing.

The perception of overseas athletes, particularly those that compete in China, has always been a hot-button issue. For as long as Americans have played in the CBA, there’s an unspoken expectation that they should dominate. Generalizations abound, if you’re from the United States and not dominating in China, there’s a low chance of earning an NBA deal. But sometimes, even topping the CBA charts still isn’t enough. This season, Adams averaged a league-leading 38.7 points and added 8.4 assists (2nd-best), 6.8 rebounds and 2.5 steals (3rd-best) per contest for good measure. On one hand, there’s the stat-padding, empty type of scoring and then there’s this: Absolute annihilation.

But those misconceptions about Chinese basketball often remain an unforgiving roadblock for many. Heck, even Adams had them before he signed with the Xinjiang Flying Tigers two years ago.

“It’s different, my perception was that there would be a lot of short guys that couldn’t play,” Adams said. “Actually, I was probably one of the shortest guys out there, as far as basketball players, and they got skills. They don’t get tired and they’re going to guard you tough, maybe they’re not as skilled as [Americans] are — but they got heart.

“I thought it was going to be easy, but they impressed me.”

And although Adams experienced his fallacies in real-time, he’s still waiting for the rest of the NBA to catch up.

Of course, Adams wasn’t the only American to tear up the CBA this season. Three other Americans, Brandon Jennings, Jonathan Gibson and MarShon Brooks, earned NBA deals this month. That trio of players all put up gaudy statistical lines as well, but none nearly as high as Adams’. Then there’s the case of Stephon Marbury, a former NBA All-Star that moved to China back in 2010, transforming his fringe-status career into a rejuvenated international icon. Marbury’s off-the-court philanthropy and three CBA championships speak for themselves, but Adams is often left wondering why it can’t work the other way around.

“You start questioning yourself, like: ‘What’s the reason why you’re not getting this opportunity?’” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Some of the teams [I’ve worked out for] come back and say, ‘Well, he hasn’t had NBA experience.’ But when am I going to get my NBA experience if I never get my chance?”

*****

The other frustrating factor for players like Adams to navigate is timing — and as he put it, timing is everything.

To his credit, Adams has never shied away from a challenge or attempted to outmaneuver anybody on this long-winding journey. When he goes to workouts, Adams tells franchises that he’d be more than happy to go against their top guys — however, whenever, or whatever it takes. He’s impressed during private workouts before, but his most recent chance came just as Adams was getting ready to fly back to China for another season. Timing, again, had failed him.

Between workouts too late in the offseason or contracts that needed to be honored, the timing just hasn’t quite worked out for Adams. And it’s not for a lack of trying either — Adams has played two years of summer league (one with the Nets, one with the Mavericks), initially tried his hand at the D-League in 2011 and spends every offseason carefully deciding where to go next.

But when he made the all-important choice to jump from Spain to China in 2016, it wasn’t without a plan.

“Honestly, when I left Spain, I was nervous to go to China because the fans were like, ‘You’re gonna hurt your career, basketball is not as good [there] as it is in Europe,’” Adams said. “So I had that in the back in my mind. Me and my agent had a plan that I’d go to China — the CBA season is way shorter than the European leagues — and then I’d come back in six, seven months and hopefully get on a roster before the end of the season.”

It’s difficult to measure the merits of a big-time scorer overseas, particularly so in China, but Adams has now undoubtedly smashed through his ceiling. For a kid that once started out at a tiny college in Illinois, Adams followed up his Finals MVP-winning campaign in 2016-17 by nearly averaging a 40-point double-double this year. And although he challenged himself to diversify his game between those back-to-back Chinese seasons, he never once thought he would do… well, that.

“I didn’t go into the season wanting to be the leading scorer, I just wanted to win games and another championship,” Adams said. “We had a lot of adversity this season because my teammate, Andray Blatche, got injured early and the offensive role changed to me. Going against double-teams, triple-teams, that was the challenging part, because I knew my team needed me. Dealing with the adversity, it was challenging — but if you put me up to the test, I’m always going to prove myself.”

Although Andray Blatche isn’t a name heard often these days, he’s certainly well-remembered for his time in the NBA. Over his nine-year career, Blatche played for the Washington Wizards and Brooklyn Nets before heading overseas to China in 2014. While he, too, was part of the winning squad that brought the Flying Tigers their first-ever championship in 2017, Adams has also used the 6-foot-11 power forward like a soundboard. Frequently peppering him with questions about life in the NBA, Adams has nothing but adoration for Blatche, whom he now considers a close friend.

“I asked him what it was like to play with DWill, KG, how were the locker rooms, what were the practices like — but he also helped me see different things on the court,” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “Or, like, OK, I might be frustrated and in a bad place, he’d be like, ‘OK, D, you gotta let it go, you’re the leader of the team’ and things like that. Whenever I was down, he was there — he helped me out with being in China, adjusting to the food, where to go, he treated me like a little brother, actually.”

In order to make that second season in China count, Adams decided to focus on his untapped playmaking side, increasing his assist tally from 5.9 to that aforementioned 8.4 per game. For a while, he even thought that might’ve been why he hadn’t earned a 10-day contract yet, so into the grinder it went. Additionally, Adams dared himself to become a locker room leader, the kind of vocal, lead-by-example veteran that any franchise would value.

If the jaw-dropping statistics weren’t going to pave his path to the NBA, Adams was convinced he could find another way to grab front office attention.

“Right now, I’m already developed and can help [teams] win,” Adams said. “I haven’t reached my peak, I can still learn new things and keep progressing the same way. I’m already starting higher in the learning curve [than most young players] — but I’m also a good leader. I can be a scorer, I can be a defensive guy, I got all those qualities — I’m not just a one-dimensional player, I can help.”

*****

But as his season drew to a close in March (the sixth-seeded Flying Tigers were knocked out in the quarterfinals) Adams was, once again, without an NBA contract. In what Adams is now deeming one of the most important summers of his life, he’s going all-in on himself. Previously, Adams couldn’t ignore those lucrative million-dollar-plus deals, he had a family to look out for, after all. To him, it was a risk that he couldn’t take until this very moment. Sure, he could hit the G-League again — although he tried out for two teams, the Iowa Energy and Canton Charge, after going undrafted and was not selected — but there’s little money in that method.

Granted, Adams has always been motivated and hungry, but he’s got an extra push this time around.

“I’m going to all these different countries, I’m playing in their country — so why can’t play in my country?” Adams told Basketball Insiders. “If I’m one of the top players, how come I can’t get an opportunity in my country? Staying home, so my family can see me. My family has never seen me play overseas, only videos. You see all these other stories, like the guy that just played for the Lakers [Andre Ingram] — it took him ten years! It shows you to just never give up — all you need is an opportunity.

“I always tell my mom, my family, my kids that this year is gonna be the year. I’m gonna get my opportunity and I’mma be playing at home — daddy’s gonna be playing at home.”

Adams has always been a late bloomer — he’s forever the product of a once-raw teenager with no AAU experience. He’ll always be the barely 6-foot point guard that jumped into the NCJAA, quickly validated himself and then excelled in Division-II as well. But if you’re looking for a reason to disparage Adams’ hopes and dreams, you need not look further than this. How could somebody with those glaring blemishes ever play at the NBA level and against the best the sport has to offer?

Lest you forget, however, Adams is also the guy that will never stop fighting or believing in himself. Adams is the one that averaged 18 points in Ukraine and Germany and didn’t settle. The higher he climbed, the better he got. When he aced the test in France, he went to Spain and then got all of this. When Adams needed to adapt and change his game depending on the surrounding roster or culture — he did that too. But most importantly, Adams is tired of playing from behind and tired of missing his young family’s most key moments.

And now, with a whole offseason ahead of him, Adams is ready to do something about it once and for all.

“I’m staying prepared for whenever they have an opportunity, I’m betting on myself this whole summer and really taking a chance,” Adams said. “This year, I have enough saved up to really bet on myself. So, the goal is to just go to these workouts, get in front of these guys and show ‘em what I can do.

“That’s all I’ve ever needed, I don’t want anybody to just hand over a contract — I want to prove myself. I feel like I can make an impact — if you don’t think so, put me up against your guys and I’ll prove it.”

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NBA Daily: This Might Be the Spurs’ Final Stand

The bizarre Kawhi Leonard situation won’t resolve itself cleanly, which means the Spurs may have to pull the plug, writes Matt John.

Matt John

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“All good things must come to an end.” – Chaucer in 1374

If there is one team that has been the closest to replicating the Boston Celtics’ dynasty from the Bill Russell days, it has been the San Antonio Spurs. Over the past two decades, the Spurs have established a consistent model of winning thanks to Hall of Fame talent, legendary coaching and other-worldly scouting.

The only other team in the entire world of sports that has rivaled the Spurs’ prolonged success in the 21st century has been the New England Patriots. However, much like the Patriots, there have been more and more reports recently of dysfunction behind the scenes, with superstar Kawhi Leonard front and center to all of it. If things really are as bad as they appear to be, then Kawhi’s days as a Spur are numbered, and by the same token, so are the Spurs’ days of contention.

No one knows what exactly is going on with Leonard at the moment. There have been reports that, physically, the two-time Defensive Player of the Year is fully capable of returning to the floor, but he chooses not to. Now, his rehab is expected to sideline him for the entirety of the playoffs. Leonard technically isn’t doing anything against the rules, but his actions have made both his team and the league take notice.

Leonard and the Spurs could hypothetically reconcile and put this all behind them, but given all that’s happened throughout the course of the season, that ship seems to have sailed a long time ago. Through the duration of the season, Kawhi’s teammates have called him out, his coach has been steadfastly candid when asked about what’s going on, and now, players around the league are already predicting who his next team will be.

This all spells out a potentially ugly divorce between the Spurs and their franchise player.

So, the Spurs’ obvious next move would be to trade Kawhi for as much value as they can get this off-season. Unfortunately, given the circumstances, the Spurs won’t be able to acquire nearly as much value for Kawhi now as they could have in years’ past. It is true that when Leonard is 100 percent healthy, he is one of the league’s best players. But this bizarre situation, along with his player option after next season, has demolished his trade value.

These days, teams don’t give up valuable assets for star players if there’s a risk that said star player could leave the team after only one year. Teams saw what happened to the Lakers after the Dwight Howard trade blew up in their face, and they saw how crippled the Nets became after they gave away the farm for Paul Pierce among other Celtics that they acquired. If a superstar whose contract is potentially expiring goes on the market, teams will lowball in trade discussions for him.

Case in point: last summer, pretty much everyone agreed that the Thunder acquired Paul George for peanuts when they traded Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him. That may have worked out for the best for Indiana, but that was sheer luck because Oladipo’s and Sabonis’ value was much lower than it is now. Kawhi could fetch a half decent player and maybe a late-lottery pick given his reputation, but that would probably not fill the large void that he would leave behind.

It’s for that reason that the Spurs’ reign may be coming to an end. If they trade Kawhi this summer, they’re not going to get equal value for him, which means they won’t be able to remain among the best in the Western Conference. It’s quite a shame, because Leonard’s apparent fall-out with the Spurs has overshadowed one of the better under-the-radar stories in the league: The Spurs’ perseverance.

The fact that the Spurs still made the playoffs in the Western Conference, which required 47 wins this season, is remarkable. Thanks in large part to LaMarcus Aldridge’s rejuvenation, who has averaged his best numbers as a Spur this season by far, and Coach Pop’s brilliance among other reasons, the Spurs have kept the ball rolling without Kawhi. Alas, without him, the team is firmly not in the title discussion, and the Spurs can’t do much about it.

The Spurs could ride it out by keeping the rest of the core together along with what they would bring back for Leonard, but there wouldn’t be much point. Guys as impactful Leonard are not easily replaceable in this league, and the Spurs’ competition in the West will be as strong as ever next season. As unappealing as it might sound, the Spurs may have to just start over.

That wouldn’t necessarily be the worst thing in the world. Aldridge’s phenomenal season has probably skyrocketed his trade value, so the Spurs would get a good haul for him. The Spurs aren’t in a bad salary cap situation either. Besides Pau Gasol, the team doesn’t have any bad contracts. Tony Parker’s deal is up after this season while Rudy Gay and Danny Green have player options, but both are likely to opt-in given the lack of money on the open market this summer. The team even has some intriguing young talent, such as Dejounte Murray and Bryn Forbes. Re-building wouldn’t be the worst option for San Antonio.

With all of that considered, it would still be very disappointing to see such a glorious era end so anticlimactically. Kawhi Leonard was supposed to lead the new era of Spurs basketball, but now it looks like he may be the Spurs’ undoing, which they may have no choice now but to accept.

Many were looking forward to San Antonio’s demise, but for a team that has remained in the title discussion since the days of President Clinton, the Spurs didn’t deserve an ending like this.

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Thibodeau Takes Big Gamble by Putting Ball in Derrick Rose’s Hands

Basketball Insiders takes a look at Tom Thibodeau’s decision to heavily feature Derrick Rose in Game 1 against Houston.

James Blancarte

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The Minnesota Timberwolves are in the playoffs after an exciting victory over Denver Nuggets in their regular season finale. Despite barely slipping into the postseason, the Timberwolves are no pushovers. In Game 1, they put pressure on the Houston Rockets in a game that was close down the stretch.

“This isn’t your normal eighth seed, they got a couple of All-Stars that are pretty good down there. Well coached, we know how tough it was going to be,” Rockets superstar James Harden said after the game, speaking of the Timberwolves.

The Timberwolves have been buoyed all season by the strong play of Karl-Anthony Towns and the leadership of Jimmy Butler, both All-Stars and the first for the franchise since Kevin Love in 2013-14. In addition, the team continues to be encouraged by the continued growth of forward Andrew Wiggins.

So, why exactly are the Timberwolves relying on backup guard and former Chicago Bulls player Derrick Rose so much? It was no surprise when rumors began to circulate late in the season that Timberwolves head coach Tom Thibodeau had interest in acquiring Rose after an unsuccessful brief stint with the Cleveland Cavaliers. In nine games with the Timberwolves this season, Rose put up a career lows of 5.8 points, 1.2 assists and .7 rebounds (12.4 minutes per game). Per 36, this translated to 16.7 points, 3.5 assists and 1.9 rebounds, all at or around career lows. In addition, his PER, true shooting and assist percentages were at or around career lows adding up to an unimpressive showing.

Thibodeau, formerly the Bulls head coach, is well known to place trust in former Bulls players. He engineered a trade for Butler and the signing of Taj Gibson in the offseason. In the Timberwolves first playoff game, Rose played 24 minutes (nearly double his regular season average) and scored 16 points on 50 percent shooting to go along with four assists and two rebounds, far above his season averages.

Rose didn’t just cover backup type minutes either as he was inserted into key stretches in the third and fourth quarters as the game went down the stretch. He scored on a catch and shoot three-pointer, on the break, out of the pick and roll, off the dribble, while cutting to the basket and moved the ball around in key spots for other players.

Thibodeau mentioned Rose briefly and spoke positively of his contributions.

“I thought Derrick gave us a good lift off of the bench,” Thibodeau said.

Speaking to the media. Rose related this key stretch to his previous playoff experiences with the Bulls.

“I remember the playoff games when we played against Miami and the only thing you want to do is stay close until the fourth quarter. Or if you get the lead before then, sustain it and try to make it larger for the bench and for your team,” Rose said.

Unfortunately, not everything was so sunny for Rose who has a penchant for taking difficult shots. He sported a -6.1 net rating for the game, indicating his play may have been detrimental to the team. To end the second quater, he missed a 21-foot step back jump shot in isolation. He also turned the ball over to end the third quarter with his team down one leading to a three-point play for Harden. This resulted in the Timberwolves going down four to start the fourth. Rose’s play contributed to the end of quarter difficulties, which Thibodeau touched on after the game.

“We didn’t finish quarters the way we would have liked,” Thibodeau said.

For the game, Rose’s usage percentage was a whopping 30.8 percent, showing that at this stage of his career, he still insists on controlling the ball. For reference, this is in line with his career playoff numbers. Besides Rose’s rookie year, his lowest playoff usage percentage was 29.1 percent, putting this in line with his postseason career. Of course, Rose isn’t close to the player he used to be after numerous injuries. This high usage can also come at the expense of key Timberwolves players. For comparison, Butler had a 15.6 percent usage and Towns a 14.2 percent usage.

In addition, Rose talked about the role he sees for himself as a key defender matching up with MVP favorite Harden.

“I’m doing the best I can. He’s MVP right now. My job is just to irritate him, try to get under his skin, pick him up full court but at the same time just compete. That’s all I’m doing out there,” Rose said.

Rose is not a noted defensive stopper and having him also attempt to slow James down is a risky proposition when combined with his high usage on offense. Rose’s play also comes at the expense of those who might play in his place. Third-year backup point guard Tyus Jones played all 82 games this season with a drastically lower usage percentage. Unlike Rose and starting point guard Jeff Teague, Jones can be successful playing off the ball. While Rose showed poise in this first playoff game, Jones might have served as a better complement to a team with two stand-out wings and a big man who ideally should be leading the team in usage instead. Basketball Insiders spoke to Jones before the Rose acquisition where he explained why he thought he could contribute more this year.

“This being my third year, I think I’m starting to settle more into the NBA game a little bit more. Things are starting to slow down for me,” Jones stated and while explaining how he saw his role on the team. “Just trying to do whatever is needed out of me, whatever coach needs I’m willing to fulfill that role.”

Jones did play seven minutes this game and actually found Rose on the break who converted a contested lay-up. In this game, both Teague and Rose had difficulty finding Towns in the post. The Rockets focused on Towns, sending both double teams and aggressive switching. The switches, at times, presented mismatches down low that the Timberwolves’ guards weren’t always able to capitalize on.

Going forward, Thibodeau put the onus on Towns, stating that he would have to be able to adjust. All signs point to Thibodeau continuing to trust Rose and putting him in this key position. Rose can put up numbers, as he did on Sunday, but it’s not clear that he’s actually helping Minnesota in a series where they need all the help they can get.

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