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San Antonio Spurs 2018-19 NBA Season Preview

For the first time in a decade, the San Antonio Spurs will field a team without one of their former NBA champions. Can the Spurs re-make themselves into legit title contenders again? Basketball Insiders takes a look at the San Antonio Spurs in this 2018-19 NBA Season Preview.

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Legacy-wise, the Spurs lost so much this summer. Manu Ginobili, Tony Parker, and Kawhi Leonard, all of whom were among the best Spurs of all time, are now off the team. With the three of them out of the picture,  a historic era of basketball is now behind us. But does that mean this is the end of the Spurs’ relevancy? Not necessarily.

When you look past the legacy aspect of who they lost, the Spurs didn’t have that bad of an off-season. Ginobili and Parker were basically rotation players last season who, at their age, were impressive. Losing them at that stage in their careers isn’t that big of a loss. As for how they resolved that bizarre Kawhi situation, the Spurs may have lost an elite player but at least they got a more than proven commodity back for him in DeMar DeRozan. Plus, who knows where Kawhi’s career goes from here?

No matter what his roster may look like, Coach Gregg Popovich should never be doubted. He’s earned the status of being one of the most brilliant basketball minds of all time. Anyone that tunes into the NBA knows that he can make a playoff team out of just about anything. That is precisely why people should really keep their eye on San Antonio this season. They still have most of the same roster they had last season, but with all they lost this summer, they don’t have nearly the same continuity they once prided themselves on for years. Pop will have to do more shuffling than he’s done in years and possibly more so than he’s ever done as Head Coach.

What does he have to work with this season? Let’s take a gander.

FIVE GUYS THINK

I have predicted the regression of the San Antonio Spurs once or twice over the last couple of years and the team always makes me look foolish for it. However, this might be the year to again predict regression for this proud franchise. Manu Ginobili retired this offseason and Tony Parker has joined up with the Charlotte Hornets. Oh, and Kawhi Leonard and Danny Green were traded to the Toronto Raptors for DeMar DeRozan. I am a fan of DeRozan and am excited to see what he can do under the tutelage of Gregg Popovich. However, DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are going to be tasked with leading this team without the cornerstone players that Popovich has relied on for nearly two decades. I’m cautiously optimistic this team will beat expectations but I still think they are going to experience some serious issues this upcoming season.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Jesse Blancarte

If there was ever a year to finally bet on the Spurs underachieving after what seems like a decade straight of doing more with less, it might be this year. The Kawhi Leonard trade to Toronto wrapped up an unfortunate saga for the franchise, and Manu Ginobili’s retirement more recently left the Spurs without any of the mainstays we’re used to seeing in the black and grey. DeMar DeRozan is no slouch as a trade return for the Spurs, but they’re woefully short on perimeter shooting and lack the wing defense they’ve had in the past. Gregg Popovich is never short on tricks to pull out of his hat, but if he somehow drags this perimeter-deficient bunch to another 50-win season, it’ll be his most deserved Coach of the Year performance yet.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Ben Dowsett

No matter what they lose in the off-season, the Spurs should never be counted out. As long as they have Gregg Popovich calling the shots, the Spurs will always be in the conversation. This season, however, has a unique premise. With Kawhi Leonard, Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili all off the team, the old days are officially gone and in comes a new era. Still, there is plenty of reason to think this team will be fine. DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge should keep things afloat. But, the question is, do they have enough talent and continuity to compete with the league’s elite?

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Matt John

Everything left of the 2014 NBA Championship version of the Spurs is gone, so it’s off and into a new era for Gregg Popovich. He’ll have LaMarcus Aldridge, Pau Gasol, Rudy Gay and Marco Belinelli as his most seasoned veterans to help guide the younger talent on the roster. DeMar DeRozan is going to play with possibly the biggest chip on any player’s shoulder this upcoming year in a San Antonio uniform. Dejounte Murray will be heavily depended on as the orchestrator of the offense as he’s thrust into his most important role to date. It’s hard to picture the postseason without these guys. While many seem to believe their run is over, it will be a cold day in hell when this organization doesn’t play past mid-April.

2nd Place – Southwest Division

– Spencer Davies

The Indiana Pacers went through a similar situation as San Antonio last year when they needed to trade their best player, and like the Pacers this time last year, the Spurs may come out of the situation with not only a star, but a star that might fit better in the big picture. Let’s be real for a minute, in every scenario you’d want Kawhi Leonard because of his tremendous two-way game, but if you have to part ways, DeMar DeRozan isn’t too shabby as a replacement player, mainly because he’s shown year after year that he can add to and improve his game. The big knock on Leonard was his reluctance to be a vocal leader, something DeRozan has proven to be more than capable of being and with Gregg Popovich in his ear can DeRozan become an MVP caliber future of the franchise guy? The smart money would be yes. DeRozan has a long way to go defensively, but it hard not to see him evolving in that area, mainly because of how good the Spurs staff and process has been with other sub-par defenders. There is no question the Spurs are a different team, but as the league trends more to offense, the Spurs may be better equipped to compete in a loaded Western Conference.

3rd Place – Southwest Division

– Steve Kyler

TOP OF THE LIST

Top Offensive Player: LaMarcus Aldridge

DeRozan’s repertoire makes a strong case for him to be the Spurs’ top offensive option. However, Aldridge gets the nod because he has more familiarity in Pop’s system and has proven he can thrive in the Spurs’ offense. Boy, that sounds weird to say remembering where the man was a year ago.

After his numbers took a slight, albeit noticeable hit in his first two years with the Spurs, Aldridge appeared ready to move on from San Antonio. After meeting with Popovich to work out all the kinks, Aldridge changed his mind, got a nice extension and had himself quite the resurgence last season.

With the offense designed more to revolve around him, Aldridge’s scoring numbers went up to 23.2 points a game on 18 shots, while shooting 51 percent from the field. Basically, he put up numbers that re-established him as one of the league’s top offensive big men. Those weren’t just empty numbers either. The Spurs were +6.0 better in net rating offensively with Aldridge on the floor. His statistical output proved that he could fit in Coach Pop’s game plan as the top offensive option.

At 33, there will be questions as to how much time LaMarcus has left as an elite offensive option. Luckily, he’s on a team that should get the most out of him while he’s still in his prime.

Top Defensive Player: Dejounte Murray

With Leonard, Danny Green and Kyle Anderson all gone, Dejounte Murray is the obvious choice for the Spurs’ top defender. His 6-foot-5 inch height combined with his absurd 6-foot-10 wingspan made him an all-around menace on the defensive end last season.

His efforts showed themselves through advanced metrics. Murray’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus at 3.60 led all point guards and was ninth overall among all players. Keep in mind that players who usually are at the top of Defensive Real Plus-Minus are mostly bigs and occasionally wings. Murray is the only point guard in the top ten, and the next point guard after him is Tyus Jones, who was No. 27 at 2.40.

San Antonio’s defense was also much better with Murray as their net rating defensively was +7.8 better with him on the floor. That topped the Spurs’ roster for guys who played at least 1000 minutes.

Murray’s efforts did not go unnoticed, as he was named to the NBA All-defensive second team in just his second year. His role is bound to expand even more for the Spurs this season. Luckily for them, he’ll be more than ready to do his part on defense.

Top Playmaker: The entire team

Sounds odd doesn’t it? At the same time, it’s not exactly a surprise either given the Spurs’ reputation for unselfish basketball. Seriously though, there really isn’t a top playmaker on this team because if you look at the stats last year, the assists numbers were pretty spread out among the players. Tony Parker led the Spurs in assists per game with 3.5. When you factor in per-36 stats, Parker had a distinguished lead, but now he’s gone. Those who came after him are so even with each other that it’s impossible to say who will be the top playmaker.

This is a good thing. It’s clear cut evidence that the Spurs run a system that everyone follows with precision. There’s no particular stand out as a playmaker because everyone plays as one unit at all times. Maybe somebody will eventually stand out, but for now, the team itself is the top playmaker.

Top Clutch Player: DeMar DeRozan

Aldridge may be the Spurs’ best offensive option, but DeRozan should be their go-to guy. DeRozan has a track record for hitting clutch shots in the regular season. He isn’t necessarily automatic but, at the very least, when the game is on the line, DeRozan is never afraid and doesn’t back down. He’s never even afraid to go for the highlight reel in crunchtime either. Seriously, last season he won a game off a buzzer-beating dunk.

DeRozan’s stats in the clutch last season are fine for a player of his caliber. In 41 games that featured clutch-time minutes, DeRozan averaged 4.2 points on 44.5 percent shooting, including 33.3 percent from distance in 3.9 minutes on average. The truth is, when teams are playing in crunchtime against DeRozan, they strategize to stop him primarily.

Unfortunately that track record doesn’t hold up well in the playoffs. Hopefully now that he has Coach Pop to guide him, DeRozan’s clutch play can finally translate when the stakes are much higher.

The Unheralded Player: Rudy Gay

Adding Gay to the Spurs’ roster sparked a lot of skepticism last year because of his reputation as a selfish chucker and his inability to be an effective player on a good team. Expectations for Gay were quite low, especially since he was coming off of a devastating Achilles injury. Gay was by no means spectacular. His averages of 11.5 points, 9.4 field goals attempted and 31.5 percent from three on 21.6 minutes of action are among some of the lowest since his rookie season. Despite that, Gay proved himself to be a productive player on a good team, which is something he hasn’t really done since his days with the Grizzlies.

Another reason why he gets the nod here is because now that it’s almost been two years since he tore his Achilles, he optimistically could regain more of his form. The man is only 32 years old! Also, when you take into account all that the Spurs lost, Gay should expect a more prominent role on the team. Add in his year of experience playing under Pop, and this should be a good year for Rudy Gay.

It may sound odd to say, but San Antonio should be excited for Round Two of Gay and DeRozan.

Best New Addition: DeMar DeRozan

This is an obvious choice for three reasons.

1. The Spurs’ offense was pedestrian last season. Their offensive rating of 107.9 points per 100 possessions was good for 17th in the league. Adding one of the league’s best scorers should be just what the doctor ordered.

2. As evidenced by their diverse playmaking, the Spurs hope to implement DeMar in their pass-heavy offense. Luckily for them, DeRozan made great strides in his passing game last season. His 5.2 assists per game was the highest average of his career and is high enough for them to believe that he should fit seamlessly in their offense.

3. Even without Kawhi, the Spurs managed to win 47 games and snag a playoff spot in a tough Western Conference. Now they basically add one of last season’s MVP candidates to their squad. It would be shocking if they don’t add several wins from DeRozan alone.

-Matt John

WHO WE LIKE

1. Gregg Popovich

Enough has already been said about Coach Pop so let’s just leave it at this. Besides LeBron James, there isn’t another figure currently in basketball who is as reliable and consistent as Gregg Popovich. The man is simply a basketball guru. As long as he runs the plays, his team will always be in the conversation no matter what he has to work with. People can doubt the Spurs. They can’t doubt Pop.

2. Pau Gasol

The man deserves league-wide respect. Even at 37, the future Hall-of-Famer is still chugging away. In his eighteenth year in the NBA, Pau averaged a solid 10.1 points, eight rebounds and 3.1 assists for a winning team. Better yet, he’s added a three-point shot to his skill set, shooting 35.8 percent on 1.6 attempts a game last season. Most impressive of all, Gasol has proven himself to be a positive contributor on defense despite his reputation as a defensive liability. The Spurs’ defense was +2.2 in net rating defensively with Gasol on the floor, and his individual defensive rating was an adequate 102. He should be expected to decline more this season, but Pau Gasol should be revered for both his perseverance and his adaptability.

3. Patty Mills

A shout-out needs to be made for the now longest-tenured Spur on the team. Mills has been both a good soldier and one of the league’s best backup point guards since he joined San Antonio in 2011. The Spurs were +4.7 in net rating offensively with Mills on the floor, which was second on the team after LaMarcus Aldridge. In other words, he was doing exactly what a backup point guard should do. On a team that lost a good chunk of its identity this summer, Mills is one of the few remaining remnants from the Duncan-Parker-Ginobili days. As Pop figures out who deserve minutes, he still has a dependable option in Mills.

4. Jakob Poeltl

Plenty have said it already and it needs to be repeated: Jakob Poeltl was a sneaky good acquisition by San Antonio. He’s a fantastic energy big whose only in his third year in the league and now has Gregg Popovich to learn from. It’s not just what he brings to the table. It’s how timely acquiring him right now is for the Spurs. Pau Gasol will do what he can, but his further decline is inevitable. Should his impact continue to dwindle, Poeltl can pick up the slack. Poeltl shouldn’t have too lofty of expectations, but he should help keep the Spurs on course.

5. The Spurs’ handling of Kawhi Leonard

It’s rare to see a team that has a proven method and track record like the Spurs have their best player turn his back on them. It’s also rare to see a team get good value for a disgruntled star in a situation like that. The Spurs could have waited out the situation hoping Leonard would change his mind or they could have started a rebuild. Instead, they went for the best player offered to them so they could try and continue competing in the Western Conference playoff race. DeMar DeRozan by himself was an impressive haul all things considered. With him on board, the Spurs will still be in the playoff conversation. Hats off to Spurs management for making the best of a serious predicament.

-Matt John

STRENGTHS

Coach Pop. No questions asked. Their key ingredient to their success has been and still is Pop. Besides him though, the Spurs now have two of the league’s top scorers in LaMarcus Aldridge and DeMar DeRozan. In them, San Antonio has two guys who they can go to when the going gets tough and who should make the offense more dynamic. Also, an underrated strength the Spurs have is their youth. Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl are talented young players to groom, and there’s been a fair amount of chatter surrounding Lonnie Walker IV. This may not be Pop’s most talented roster, but it’s far from average.

-Matt John

WEAKNESSES

Pairing DeRozan with Aldridge will give the Spurs two of the league’s top scorers, but it might be a challenge to run the offense through them since neither are reliable floor spacers. Much has been brought up about the Spurs losing Ginobili, Parker and Leonard, but what about Danny Green and Kyle Anderson? Anderson and Green played big roles for the Spurs, producing their third-best defensive rating last season at 104.8 points allowed per 100 possessions. Losing them could spell disaster for San Antonio on the defensive end.

-Matt John

THE BURNING QUESTION

Do the Spurs still have what it takes to compete in the west?

Again, the Spurs did a fantastic job in how they handled their fallout with Kawhi. Getting someone as good as DeRozan for a disgruntled player that was leaving one way or another is impressive, epecially when you consider that Kawhi may leave Toronto after this season. But DeMar DeRozan isn’t in the same league as a fully healthy Kawhi Leonard, and he likely never will be. He’s never been a solid defender and he has a long history of failing to step up in the playoffs. If he does his disappearing act again when and if the Spurs make the playoffs, that doesn’t leave them in a promising spot going forward. This is especially the case because the Warriors and the Rockets aren’t going anywhere anytime soon, and more challengers in the west are knocking on the door.

-Matt John

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NBA

NBA Daily: Ranking The Small Forwards

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ positional ranking series by taking a look at the top small forwards in the game.

Spencer Davies

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Well, folks, it’s April and sports remain at a standstill, meaning that the NBA is still waiting to figure out when it will be feasible to either resume play or move ahead with the offseason. So while that’s happening and players are participating in video game tournaments or spreading the word of social distancing, we at Basketball Insiders have decided to spark a positional ranking series, sure enough, to garner some healthy discussion about the elite of the elite in the Association.

Ben Nadeau kicked us off on Tuesday by not only breaking down statistical areas but also facial hair and fun facts about the top shooting guards. Drew Maresca continued with a system based on individual numbers and impact on the team via net ratings when discussing the best power forwards. My strategy will be kind of a smorgasbord of sorts, counting what I’ve personally seen in my coverage of the league — no points system, really.

My draw was small forwards, a position that’s kind of been altered due to the rise of the point forward and playmaking twos. There’s an overlap of all kinds when you look at how teams construct rotations. It all depends on what the head coach’s beliefs are and where the respective players are put in lineups. You can look at size or you can look at abilities, depending on your view of the situation. Point being, the definition of small forward has been pretty subjective as of late.

For example, I would’ve listed Paul George as a three, however, Ben decided to throw him in on his list because he’s technically the starting shooting guard for the Los Angeles Clippers. Jayson Tatum is one who is clearly on the come-up as one of the top forwards in the league, yet Drew put him — as well as the reigning MVP Giannis Antetokounmpo — as a four because that’s how the Boston Celtics choose to use him in certain combinations.

Injuries can also play a major factor, so we’re not going to leave those players out because they didn’t make an impact on this current season. We know what their capabilities are and that can’t go unnoticed despite the “what have you don’t for me lately” crowd.

So enough babbling on my part, let’s get to it, shall we?

8) DeMar DeRozan, San Antonio Spurs

To be as consistent of an offensive threat that DeMar DeRozan has been for the past decade is *not* easy. The way he plays the game is a throwback, somebody that backs you down on the block and turns around with a fadeaway. He’s looking to draw fouls on his way to the tin. He loves a good 15-footer on the baseline, at the nail or at the corners on the key. The Spurs haven’t put together winning basketball this year, unfortunately, but pointing the finger solely at DeRozan would be foolish — especially with his annual statistics backing up his impact.

7) Zach LaVine, Chicago Bulls

Zach LaVine is “the guy” in the Windy City. He’s the most consistent player that the Chicago Bulls have and is a scoring machine. All of a sudden, he’s launching eight threes per game and cashing in on 38 percent of those tries. For a guy who came into the league with crazy athleticism, LaVine’s known for much more than that these days. And while he may not fit the mold of a three, he certainly could start at that position for a number of teams.

6) Brandon Ingram, New Orleans Pelicans

A first-time All-Star this year, Brandon Ingram is turning heads going into free agency — although in all likelihood, he’ll be staying with the New Orleans Pelicans. He’s continued the upward trajectory that he really started to find toward the end of last season with the Lakers, which was abruptly ended due to a blood clot in his arm.

Ingram’s willingness to be the aggressor has been the primary reason for this ascension. He’s been putting on a clinic in a career season as a three-point shooter (38.7 percent on 6.3 attempts per game), while taking responsibility as the first option in Alvin Gentry’s offense, with Zion Williamson being groomed to share those touches. That’s quite a duo moving forward if you ask me.

5) Khris Middleton, Milwaukee Bucks

Khris Middleton’s evolution into an All-Star player has been a joy to watch because it’s been a steady rise. He hasn’t stopped growing. When you’re touted as a 3-and-D guy, it kind of puts you in a box, especially in the sense of contract talk. However, he didn’t allow that to happen and has exploded out of that box with authority, earning a well-deserved payday prior to this season.

Under Milwaukee Bucks head coach Mike Budenholzer, Middleton has been able to expand his game while employing what brought him to the dance at the same time. He’s lethal from both the perimeter and inside it as a jump shooter (51.8 percent from 10-to-16 feet, 53.8 percent from 16 feet to the arc), is reliable as a secondary playmaker and displays tenacity as an individual defender.

It’s not as if Middleton came out of nowhere. He’s not some overnight sensation or a one-hit wonder. He just kept grinding and working on his game, and the results have come from it. That, in and of itself, should be why he deserves respect from everybody.

4) Jimmy Butler, Miami HEAT

Jimmy Butler’s desire to win is what makes him so special. He’s a refuse-to-lose type of player and will stop at nothing to ensure victory for his team. With him as the *technical* No. 1 option, the Miami HEAT have benefited. He’s gotten everybody around him involved while simultaneously knowing when he needs to score. If you need evidence, see Kendrick Nunn and Duncan Robinson, who have become household names just like that.

Aside from his outside shooting taking a hit this year, Butler’s efficiency has improved tremendously — he’s averaging the fewest amount of shot attempts he’s had since 2013-14. His straight-to-the-point demeanor on the hardwood has elevated his game since he entered the league, and it’s been well received in South Beach as opposed to the way things went for the Minnesota Timberwolves.

The man they call Jimmy Buckets craves the pressure and the big shot. He salivates at the opportunity to get a key stop in crunch time. He loves to be a mentor to his guys. That’s what makes Butler so fun to watch, for me — his attitude.

3) Kevin Durant, Brooklyn Nets

The basketball world needs Kevin Durant back. Forget the outside noise and just go back to watch him make magic happen on the floor — there may not be a smoother player in the NBA. We’re all anxiously waiting to see what the new-look Brooklyn Nets look like with him and Kyrie Irving paired together.

Durant’s game is an unorthodox meeting of in-your-face and finesse. He finds crevices and navigates his way to the paint with his slick handles. As soon as he sees defenders take one step back, BOOM, he’ll pull up from wherever he is at that moment. When he’s guarding you, it’s like a real-life Doc-Ock is swarming because his ridiculous length feels as if he has more than two arms. Most dangerous of all? His clutch gene. I’ve seen it live at the NBA Finals, where he put the Cavaliers away with two daggers from basically the same exact spot in nearly identical scenarios in back-to-back years.

Talk about the skills for a “small forward” who is, in essence, a seven-footer and you’ve discovered a man who has broken basketball — in a good way. And while he’ll already go down as one of the best to ever play the game, something tells me KD is going to come back with a vengeance next season. Scary thought.

2) Kawhi Leonard, Los Angeles Clippers

Ah yes, the Fun Guy. There aren’t not many like Kawhi left in sports. He comes into work, clocks in and clocks out. No focus on “flash” and little emotion on the court. There’s a very old-school feel to his tendencies: hard-nosed, physical, deliberate. He thrives in the mid-range and can attack you in a straight line drive to get to the bucket. His other nickname is the Klaw because of his massive hands, the same hands that deflect, steal and block opponents who try to sneak by him.

When he was traded to the Toronto Raptors last summer, Kawhi got back to work and ultimately helped lead the franchise to its first NBA title. It’s easy to forget exactly how good somebody is when they’re out of the picture with an injury as he was at the end of his time with the San Antonio Spurs. He’s back home in Los Angeles now along with Paul George, where the stars truly reside nowadays on both sides at Staples Center.

As far as what he’s done this season, Kawhi is one of three players in the Association with usage above 32 percent, so he’s *heavily* depended on to guide the Clippers in the right direction. Judging by the team’s 44-20 record, his improved vision and consistent scoring output, so far, so good.

1) LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers

Surprise, surprise…not. It seems pretty pointless to discuss the piles upon piles of awards and accolades LeBron has earned over his historic 17-year career. Everybody knows about them, and even the most casual and laid-back fans of sports understand the magnitude he has on the world as a whole. When it comes to the hardcore NBA enthusiasts, it’s essentially split down the middle between whether or not he’s the greatest to ever play the game in comparison to Michael Jordan.

Unlike many of my colleagues, comparisons don’t suit my style. I appreciate greatness and can’t stand pitting the likes of two iconic superstars against one another. It’s simply unfathomable for somebody to believe LeBron isn’t great at this game, as it is for MJ. I know it’s fun to envision and debate, but let’s get away from that, please. It’s been around for way too long and just getting old at this point, if you ask me (or maybe I’ve become the old man yelling at a cloud).

Anyways, the fusion of magnetism, power, unselfishness, athleticism and headiness — and the sustainability of those qualities — makes up for a Megatron-like presence (MegaBron? No offense, Calvin Johnson) on the floor that can rarely be stopped. There are so many intricacies within LeBron’s game that it’s hard to know where to start regarding a full-on breakdown of what he brings to the table. His mind is almost robotic in the way he can pinpoint plays in a game at exact moments and run through them verbatim. You’ll realize that when you speak to his teammates, past or present, in any scenario.

While covering the Cleveland Cavaliers in their last two Eastern Conference championship seasons before his decision to head west in the summer of 2018, LeBron specifically mentioned watching film of Kyle Korver and where the veteran sharpshooter liked to catch the ball, with seams or without. To be able to process that in the moment during actual games and deliver that preference spot-on is nothing short of amazing — and he did it. LeBron’s continued to make the game easier on his teammates with the ball in his hands, too. He has always successfully found ways to adapt. Watch the playoffs from that year and you’ll get a stern reminder of his capabilities (or just, you know, pay attention to the age-defying season he’s having with the Lakers).

At 35 years old, LeBron is playing at an MVP level, as healthy and engaged as he’s ever been. He’s always said Father Time is undefeated, but that man has yet to put The King away.

Honorable Mention: Tobias Harris, Philadelphia 76ers; Kelly Oubre Jr., Phoenix Suns

That was fun, wasn’t it? As I wrote this piece, it turned into something completely different than I had initially thought. That’s the beauty of what we do right now. We can be creative in different ways and take an unconventional approach to these.

Again, small forwards weren’t an easy draw, but the eight players listed here more than deserve their due at being the best to do it at their position.

Stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for more of our positional ranking series!

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NBA Daily: Ranking The Power Forwards

Drew Maresca continues Basketball Insiders’ positional ranking series, picking the league’s best power forwards. Will anyone challenge Giannis Antetokounmpo?

Drew Maresca

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The 2019-20 NBA season was supposed to be winding down. We were supposed to be only a week or so away from the start of the 2020 NBA Playoffs. Instead, we’re self-quarantining with the only basketball-related content to look forward to being ESPN’s The Last Dance documentary, which follows the late ’90s Michael Jordan-led Chicago Bulls.

To fill the void created by the COVID-19 shutdown, Basketball Insiders is busy churning out new content. Our latest endeavor involved our rankings of the best players at each position – and this writer drew the short straw. So let’s pick out the very best power forwards in the game today.

It’s important to note that due to the rise of small-ball and the ever-increasing value of the three-point shot, the power forward position has changed more than any other. Gone are the days of bully ball and the bruising power forward. But what remains is far more aesthetically pleasing –  a more skilled and versatile breed of players who defends guards in pick-and-rolls, handles the ball and shoots three-pointers. We’re not saying power forwards are better now than ever before, but it’s hard to picture power forwards of the past defending the elite stretch fours of today.

But given the rise of positionless basketball, it’s more difficult than ever to identify power forwards – some look like wings and others are built like centers. So we simply went with the distinctions made by teams. Further, as is usually the case in league-wide rankings, we made our decisions based partially on statistics, and partially on the eye-test.

Needless to say, there are lots of great power forwards currently on NBA rosters who won’t appear in the list below. Injuries and opportunities played a major role, too. Therefore, we aren’t claiming these are the eight best power forwards alive; but instead, that the following is a list of the eight best power forwards in the 2019-20 season.

Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks

Antetokounmpo is the obvious first choice. In fact, the only aspect up for debate is if he can really qualify as a power forward. Remember, the Bucks used him as their starting point guard in 2016-17.  But since the Bucks presently list him as one, we’ll call him the best power forward of 2019-20.

The defending NBA MVP was in the middle of another MVP-caliber season. He averaged 29.6 points per game in 2019-20 with a league-leading 31.6 PER. He’s still just 25 years old and is just beginning to learn to shoot the three-ball –30.6% on 4.8 three-point attempts per game, up from 25.6% on 2.8 attempts last year.

Antetokounmpo’s drive to win sets him apart from the players listed below. Yes, he’s versatile. Yes, he attacks the basket like few before him. But the improvements he’s made each year weren’t predestined. He put in the work. And he did so because he wants to win that badly.

Antetokounmpo built himself into one of the very best players in the world, and it’s not really open for debate.

Statistics – 9.5 out of 10

Net effect – 9.5 out of 10

Overall score – 9.5 out of 10

Anthony Davis, Las Angeles Lakers

Like many great power forwards before him, Davis finds himself classified as a center more often than he’d like – but we really don’t care how he self-identifies. Davis is an exceptionally versatile player who can defend the rim (2.4 blocks per game), shoot the three-ball (33.5% on 3.5 attempts per game), swallow up rebounds (9.4 per game) and do pretty much anything else you’d like him to do.

His past is impressive – Davis is a three-time All-NBA and three-time All-Defensive player – but the 27-year-old was showing no signs of letting up. He took home two player-of-the-week awards in 2019-20, and he would have been a top-two MVP candidate had it not been for his teammate, LeBron James. Unfortunately, it appears unlikely that we’ll see exactly how far Davis and James could lead the Lakers.

Passing Antetokounmpo as the league’s best power forward is unlikely, especially for someone who isn’t even their team’s best player – but Davis is the ying to Antetokounmpo’s yang. Statistically, it won’t appear close. But in a head-to-head match-up, Antetokounmpo will have his work cut out for him (assuming he’s tasked with defending Davis).

Statistics – 8.5 out of 10

Net effect – 8.5 out of 10

Overall score – 8.5 out of 10

Pascal Siakam, Toronto Raptors

Siakam’s coming out party was last season. But even still, Siakam was a leader for the 2019-20  Most Improved Player award – he’d made THAT much progress, again.

Only this season, the training wheels were off. Last year, Siakam was the Robin to Kawhi Leonard’s Batman. This season, Batman was nowhere to be found. And yet, Siakam and the Raptors kept pace. Sure, the 2018-19 team won the 2019 NBA Championship, but the 2019-20 Raptors had the second-best record in the Eastern Conference – and the third-best record in the entire league.

And much of Toronto’s success can be attributed to Siakam’s strong play. He averaged 23.6 points, 7.5 rebounds and 3.6 assists. Oh, and he’s an elite wing defender.

The 26-year-old appears ready to take on the responsibility of leading a contender. But we’ve seen players better than Siakam struggle to lead their respective teams to the playoffs. He currently has the help he needs; will Toronto ensure that remains the case? If so, Siakam’s star will continue to rise for at least the next few seasons.

Statistics – 7.5 out of 10

Net effect – 9 out of 10

Overall score – 8.25 out of 10

Jayson Tatum, Boston Celtics

Tatum is as smooth as Italian leather. He’s grown into an incredibly adept scorer, averaging 23.6 points in 2019-20 – making him the leading scorer on the third-best team in the Eastern Conference. The 22-year-old also averaged 7.1 rebounds and 2.9 assists per game, and he’s a supremely underrated defender. Oh, and he shot a hair below 40% on 7.1 three-point attempts per game this season – making him the best marksman on this list.

Tatum’s ceiling is almost impossible to define. He’s incredibly skilled at converting tough shots, and he’s a better ball handler than some point guards. He’s definitely the most “small ball” four we’ve mentioned thus far; but at 6-foot-8 and with a 6-foot-11 wingspan, Tatum can stay with just about any power forwards in the association.

Tatum and Siakam are essentially interchangeable. We gave the edge to Siakam as he is clearly the Raptors’ best player, whereas Tatum played alongside Kemba Walker this season, who could be perceived as the Celtics best player.

Statistics – 7.5 out of 10

Net effect – 8.5 out of 10

Overall score – 8 out of 10

Kristaps Porzingis, Dallas Mavericks 

Like Davis, Porzingis falls into the “isn’t he a center?” category. And like Davis, his 9.5 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game support that argument. What’s more, Porzingis’s 7-foot-3 frame REALLY confuse matters.

But the unicorn is more than just a lanky big man. Porzingis was the first player in NBA history to convert 300+ three-pointers and 400+ blocks in less than 200 career games. And he’s a 35.7% career three-point shooter. But Porzingis does more than shoot. He’s also a skilled big man who can put the ball on the floor and jump over equally tall defenders.

His return from a February 2018 knee injury was uncertain, but he looked better recently than he did before being suffering a left ACL tear. After a slow start to 2019-20, Porzingis averaged 24.5 points, 10.8 rebounds, 2.6 assists and 2.4 blocks per game in February and March (14 games). He might’ve ranked even higher on this list had he put up those numbers all season.

Statistics – 7.5 out of 10

Net effect – 8 out of 10

Overall score – 7.75 out of 10

Bam Adebayo, Miami HEAT

Adebayo’s breakout season was one of the worst kept secrets in NBA history. When the HEAT agreed to send Meyers Leonard to Portland in the Jimmy Butler trade, it was a clear sign that leadership in South Beach felt like they already had their big man of the future.

The HEAT may have known about Adebayo’s versatility prior to this season, but there wasn’t much tape to prove it – the third-year pro hadn’t averaged more than nine points per game in either of his first two seasons in the NBA. Well that’s no longer the case. Adebayo averaged 16.2 points and 10.5 rebounds per game to go along with 5.1 assists and 1.3 blocks. He’s what you’d call a stat stuffer. He’s a uniquely versatile big man whose athleticism enables him to block shots floating far above the rim, collect the loose ball, initiate the break and finish it with a lob pass to one of his teammates.

But Adebayo’s game has one massive hole – he’s a sub-par midrange shooter (23.5%), and he’s awful from beyond the arc (7.7%). But if Adebayo becomes a serviceable shooter, he’ll have a skillset like few others before him.

Statistics – 7.5 out of 10

Net effect – 7.5 out of 10

Overall score – 7.5 out of 10

John Collins, Atlanta Hawks

Collins is a hard player to gauge. The Hawks underperformed preseason projections, and Trae Young’s usage was so high that it began to overshadow his teammates.  But Collin’s PER was so impressive that we couldn’t rank him lower than seventh. He posed a 23.5 PER in 2019-20, good for third-best of any power forward in the entire league.

Collins had a great individual 2019-20 season, averaging 21.6 points, 10.1 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game, while shooting 40% on 3.6 three-point attempts per game.

Collins rolls off screens exceptionally well and he has excellent hands to catch passes in traffic. He also finishes around the rim, catches lobs with relative ease and generates lots of free throws thanks to his activity and motor. It will be interesting to see how his role develops alongside Young and the up-and-coming Hawks.

Statistics – 7.5 out of 10

Net effect – 6.5 out of 10

Overall score – 7 out of 10

Jaren Jackson Jr., Memphis Grizzlies

Ranking the top seven power forwards was relatively easy. The eighth spot was harder. Ultimately, we went with the eye test.

If Porzingis is the unicorn, then Jackson Jr. is version 2.0. Of the players on this list, only Davis (6.2%) and Porzingis (5.6%) blocked a higher percentage of field goal attempts while on the floor; Jackson Jr. blocked 5% of all field goal attempts while in the game. And he has a knack for getting himself back in defensive position and capitalizing on his length after being pushed off of his spot.

But Jackson does a whole lot more than just defend. His overall feel for the game looks even better than Porzingis’s, as he shot 39.7% on an impressive 6.3 attempts three-point attempts per game. In total, Jackson Jr. averaged 16.9 points per game while giving the Grizzlies a little bit of everything. He possesses great footwork in the post and the ability to score with both hands around the rim.

While his game is already impressive, Jackson Jr. has the most room left to grow of anyone on this list. And that’s probably the most impressive thing anyone can say about the second-year pro from Michigan State.

Statistics – 7 out of 10

Net effect – 7 out of 10

Overall score – 7 out of 10

Honorable mention: Domantas Sabonis, Indiana Pacers; Paul Millsap, Denver Nuggets; Kevin Love, Cleveland Cavaliers; Aaron Gordon, Orlando Magic; Danilo Gallinari, Oklahoma City Thunder; LaMarcus Aldridge, San Antonio Spurs

Modern power forwards are far from the burly enforcers of the 80s and 90s. The present-day power forward must still collect rebounds and set screes, but they are also expected to dribble, pass and shoot. The range of size and skill within the position makes for a number of enticing matchups. With the possibility of watching Porzingis vs. Davis, Adebayo vs. Antetokounmpo, and Tatum vs. Siakam, can you blame us for being impatient to get back to basketball?

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NBA

NBA Daily: Ranking The Shooting Guards

Ben Nadeau kicks off a set of April rankings by tackling the shooting guards. Can anybody take James Harden down?

Ben Nadeau

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It’s April and, let’s face it, the world is starved for basketball-related content.

Less than a week ago, this space included the admittance of imaginary one-on-one rules and a wholehearted recommendation for a video game tournament. Literally, seriously, honestly: Anything to scratch that itch. And speaking of the aforementioned itches, it must be poison ivy season because the content rash is calling out once more – this time in the form of rankings lists. Generally speaking, these are often relegated into calendars during the sweaty days of August – perhaps even September should the mood feel right – but in April? That’s borderline unheard of.

On this list of shooting guards, there is an MVP, many All-Stars, some freakishly-good scorers and, in all likelihood, a fair share of future Hall-of-Famers. Putting them in order after 60-plus games of basketball feels a tad bit underwhelming – and you’ve probably got your own unshakable opinions at this point of the year – so we’re ranking them with three extra criteria in mind:

A. The best fun fact on their Wikipedia page
B. By facial hair
C. Is their coolest nickname objectively cool?

With that said, and on a 1-to-10 scale, it’s time to dive in and chat about the NBA’s very best shooting guards, their top achievements and whether or not they’ve known Nelly for 20 years.

1. James Harden, Houston Rockets

In any true-to-the-genre ranking, James Harden would be the undisputed champion because of his other-worldly scoring ability, playmaking chops and influence on the game of basketball as a whole. Back in 2017-18, Harden took home a well-deserved MVP award by notching 30.4 points per game and somehow followed that up with 36.1 during the next season and didn’t win – thus launching a widely-casted net on narratives and whether or not the NBA media succumbs to them.

Aside from leading the league in points per game for three consecutive seasons, Harden has also done so in assists once as well (11.2, 2016-17) and hasn’t missed an All-Star Game in almost a decade.

Before the season began, ESPN’s Kirk Goldsberry reported that Harden, 30, is already the NBA’s all-time leader in unassisted three-pointers, a downright insane footnote, and, of course, there’s the 30-plus points streak over 32 consecutive games in 2018-19. By Harden’s standards – which, in case you’re living under a rock, are now firmly in the best-shooting-guard-of-all-time territory – this shortened campaign fell on the slightly disappointing side but no Western Conference team wanted to face him in the postseason.

On the fun fact front, Harden became the first player in NBA history to score 30 or more points against all 29 teams in a single season – a list that topped out with two 60-point efforts for good measure. Without much discussion either, Harden’s facial hair is marketable, recognizable and the face, literally, of a candy spin-off – the beard is untouchable magic.

WFF: 8 | FH: 10 | COOL: 7
TOTAL: 25

2. Bradley Beal, Washington Wizards

Bradley Beal is a bad dude… but if an All-Star shooting guard averages 30 points per game in Washington, does anybody hear it? Snubbed from the big midseason exhibition, Beal has toiled away with the Wizards and continued to grow exponentially in each passing season. At 30.5 points per game, Beal only trails Harden in that category and, of note, doesn’t have a Hall of Fame-worthy partner in Russell Westbrook to pry away the constant defensive pressure either. Cooler, the 26-year-old sharpshooter was coming in hot toward the top 50 for most made three-pointers in NBA history (60 away) and has shown zero signs of slowing down.

Thanks to Beal’s daily heroics, Washington found themselves in 9th place for the Eastern Conference – 24-40, sure, but 9th nonetheless – a consideration made even more notable by noting the Wizards’ fourth and fifth-highest scoring leaders on the year: Jordan McRae, who was moved at the trade deadline, and Isaiah Thomas, who was moved at the trade deadline. If not for Harden, a historic, one-of-a-kind player, Beal would lay serious claim to the league’s best shooting guard title. And although his facial hair is nothing to write home about, Beal’s Wikipedia Factoid is.

Nelly – yes, that Nelly – used to walk Beal to school. Of the nicknames listed for Beal on Basketball Reference, it’s quite the smattering: Real Deal, Big Panda, Blue Magic, Brad. While the latter bunch doesn’t bring much to the table, Real Deal, then often followed by Beal, is a quality nickname. Who doesn’t love a good rhyme? Real Deal Beal, nearly nickname bliss.

WFF: 10 | FH: 4 | COOL: 8
TOTAL: 22

3. Paul George, Los Angeles Clippers

Year after year, Paul George continues to be one of the NBA’s most consistently underrated. Despite top-three finishes in both MVP and DPotY in 2018-19, George is hardly ever mentioned in the same breath as LeBron James, Kawhi Leonard or Giannis Antetokounmpo. Still, that hasn’t stopped George from crushing opponents on either side of the ball – a reliable, healthy leader since he began to ascend the league-wide rankings in 2013. Teamed up with Leonard, George and the Clippers were poised for big things and a potential LA-LA conference finals looked tastier than almost any other playoff series out there.

George has averaged over 20 points in six consecutive seasons – barring the year that must-not-be-named – and led the league in steals (2.2) last year. Back in 2013, George recorded his first-ever career playoff triple-double – 23 points, 11 rebounds and 12 assists – and it was Indiana’s first since Mark Jackson notched one during the 1998 postseason. It’s not exactly the Most Fun of all Fun Facts – yet, being the first to do something since an NBA legend did it is undeniably cool.

The PG-13 moniker may sell jerseys and tickets, but not my heart. Clever, sure, but inspirational? Deadly? Fear-inspiring? That’s a question better suited for every underwhelming PG-13 horror movie out there – but for a future Hall-of-Famer, however, it could be better.

WFF: 7 | FH: 7 | COOL: 7
TOTAL: 21

4. Jrue Holiday, New Orleans Pelicans

Like George, Holiday remains in the running for the basketball’s most underappreciated title. Dependable and heady, New Orleans’ long-term leader has reached back-to-back All-NBA Defensive Teams, opted to stay post-Anthony Davis and, at the age of 29, is having another career-year. At 21.2 points, 5.1 rebounds, 7.7 assists and 1.6 steals per game, the stat-stuffing Holiday is an on-ball menace, while pairing excellently with Lonzo Ball thus far. Although the addition of Zion Williamson, complete with a late-season surge, may not ultimately find its own conclusion, Holiday’s veteran presence and timely contributions steered the ship until the generational talent could make his debut.

One might mistakenly believe that Holiday’s fun fact would involve his brothers – Justin and Aaron – and that the trio shared the court in late December, the first time in NBA history, but that’d be incorrect. Instead, Holiday is married to the USWNT’s Lauren Holiday, formerly Cheney, and the two met at a UCLA game in 2013 – when Lauren accidentally mistook him for Darren Collison. The rest, eventually, was history. Since Holiday broke into the team in 2007, the USWNT has won two Olympic gold medals, took silver in the 2011 Women’s World Cup and then, of course, got revenge with a first-place finish four years later.

Their daughter, Jrue as well, has some seriously-tight shoes to fill down the road.

WFF: 10 | FH: 4 | COOL: 5
TOTAL: 19

5. Devin Booker, Phoenix Suns

Booker is part of the generation’s new school: Icy cool from the arc, but even cooler off-the-court. The Suns’ franchise cornerstone appears to only be scratching the surface of his true potential lately, but the 23-year-old finally reached his first-ever All-Star Game before the shutdown. His elite scoring ability makes Booker a nightmare for opposing defenses and it’s legitimately exciting to imagine a playoff-ready roster around the playmaker. Three years earlier, Booker hung 70 points on the Boston Celtics on the road, becoming the youngest player ever to score 60-plus, and quickly smashed many other age-related records in his path as well.

To wit, Booker is already signed up on a maximum contract worth $158 million with Phoenix and was on course to repeat his incredible 2018-19 – 26 points, 4.1 rebounds, 6.6 assists per game – but on even better efficiencies.

Admittedly, Book is not the greatest nickname, nor does his facial hair strike fear into the opponent’s heart… but his icebreaker contribution certainly would. Back on Jan. 2, 2016, when Booker was just 19 years old, he scored 21 points in a loss to the Sacramento Kings. For a superstar that now regularly drops 40, half that as a rookie seems skippable at first sight. But the only people to score more than that at his age: Kobe Bryant, Tracy McGrady, Dwight Howard, LeBron James and Kevin Durant – all bonafide locks for the Hall of Fame.

Not bad company, not at all.

WFF: 9 | FH: 3 | COOL: 5
TOTAL: 17

6. Donovan Mitchell, Utah Jazz

After going at No. 13 overall three years ago, Mitchell continues to take the NBA scene by storm. Mitchell, a cool, calm and collected rim-rattler, was the franchise cornerstone that Utah so desperately needed to fall into their laps. Although their campaign hadn’t gone exactly to plan so far in 2019-20, Mitchell was having a career-year with 24.2 points, 4.4 rebounds and 4.2 assists per game. A fierce competitor, the 23-year-old is often ready to tear down the hoop with every electric dunk or go-ahead bucket. Always ready to attack the paint, Mitchell’s rapid-fire footwork and above-average jump shot keep defenders guessing – and generally to no avail.

Best of all, Mitchell may be young, but he, without a doubt, sports the best nickname of the shooting guard bunch – Spida – and these days, the first-time All-Star seems destined for greatness. Likewise, in 2018, Mitchell revealed that he was at LeBron James’ famous Boys and Girls Club ceremony. Mitchell, he says, wanted James to head to Miami and get his first championship ring. A decade later, he’s not only competing on the same level as James – but Mitchell is absolutely holding his own.

WFF: 5 | FH: 2 | COOL: 10 
TOTAL: 17

7. CJ McCollum, Portland Trail Blazers

Every superhero needs a sidekick.

And sure, maybe McCollum isn’t as prolific as Damian Lillard, but this is a deadeye marksman that puts the shooting in shooting guard. At 22.5 points per game, McCollum was nearing a career-high in that category, playing his part to keep the Trail Blazers in a tight postseason picture in spite of vast roster injuries. In fact, the 28-year-old had knocked down three or more three-pointers in 34 of Portland’s 62 games thus far, providing half the firepower in one of the NBA’s most dynamic backcourt partnerships.

Via Lehigh, McCollum took the road less traveled to the NBA, even opting to return to college for his senior year – even though he already ranked high on most draft boards. Noting his passion for Journalism and Sports Broadcasting, two facets of McCollum’s off-the-court persona today, the three-point destroyer stayed in school when 99 percent of the world would’ve taken the money. Oh, if that wasn’t enough, dropping 50 points – joining Brandon Roy, Andre Miller, Clyde Drexler, Damon Stoudamire, Geoff Petrie and Lillard in Blazers’ franchise history to do so – isn’t a minor accomplishment either. While McCollum is docked for having no remarkable nickname but makes up for it with an often fantastic mustache and goatee combo and his love for learning – both on and off the court.

WFF: 9 | FH: 5 | COOL: 1
TOTAL: 15

8. Victor Oladipo, Indiana Pacers

Although the campaign was halted before Oladipo could truly shake off the rust, the warning signs were certainly there: The All-Star guard was back, baby.

After a gruesome injury ended Oladipo’s rise into stardom over a year ago, questions of his eventual return – and if he’d even be the same player again – remained and lingered ominously on the surface. Thankfully, the 6-foot-4 bucket-scoring machine had the Pacers looking like a fearful postseason matchup as the calendar turned to March. During Indiana’s final game pre-quarantine, he dropped 27 points on 5-for-7 from three-point range – Boston, Philadelphia, Toronto, it doesn’t matter: Nobody wants to go toe-to-toe with a hungry (and healthy) Oladipo.

To round out our foray into fun facts, unsurprisingly, Oladipo has already managed to reach mainstream recognition as a singer, his passionate side hustle. In 2018, the 27-year-old released his first-ever album, V.O., and has been featured at the NBA All-Star Game and on The Masked Singer – so if this whole basketball thing doesn’t work out, Dipo will be juuuuuuuuust fine.

WFF: 7 | FH: 1 | COOL: 6
TOTAL: 14

Honorable Mentions: Caris LeVert, Jaylen Brown, Gary Harris, Buddy Hield

In the end, the new-fangled criteria didn’t change too much on the sliding scale, but Harden’s greatness was too powerful to ignore. While Beal, George and others may lay claim to the throne, the shooting guard position brings a ton of confidence and consistency to the sport – top to bottom, it’s a list of absolute competitors and tide-changing athletes. It remains to be seen if this season will resume safely and effectively at some point, but, if it does, these eight sharpshooters can pull their weight (and then some) in a big way.

For more quarantine-ready content, stay tuned to Basketball Insiders’ feed, we’ve got you covered.

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