The Utah Jazz find themselves in a curious position headed into the 2018-19 season. They made some of the fewest notable changes of any team in the association this offseason, essentially bringing back the same band plus the addition of first-round draft pick Grayson Allen. At the same time, an already brutal Western Conference got even tougher over the summer. And yet, most projections and predictions have them at least matching last year’s 48-win total, with many expecting them to exceed this and challenge for home court in the first round of the playoffs.
Some of that is due to expected health improvements, while some is also due to projected internal development and some of the best continuity in the league. There are even projection systems and pundits who give the Jazz a real chance to challenge for the third or even second seed out West. Can the team deliver on some of its highest expectations in recent memory?
FIVE GUYS THINK…
The Utah Jazz didn’t grab any major headlines this offseason but they have plenty of reason to be excited and optimistic as we approach the upcoming season. Utah returns all of its core rotation, which features several players who could take another step forward this season. Rudy Gobert seems to improve each season, though injuries have been an issue in the past. Donovan Mitchell was a breakout star last season and should be even better this season. Dante Exum is still just 23 years old and has plenty of room to keep developing. This team has more continuity in its roster than most teams and a quality coach in Quin Snyder to lead the way. However, the Western Conference is as stacked as ever with Golden State still standing strong at the top of the hill. It’s unlikely that Utah can advance out of the Western Conference playoff race but they will certainly put up a good fight against anyone they are matched up against.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
In a league where the elite teams at the top have bent the way we interpret modern basketball, the Utah Jazz are something of a throwback. You can see it in their starting lineup, which succeeds consistently despite their shooting-shy mammoth frontcourt of Rudy Gobert and Derrick Favors. It’s visible in their grinding style of play, one that wears opponents down mentally and physically. Utah’s front office has never wavered in its commitment to this group, as evidenced by a summer where they made virtually no major changes to the roster and will be relying on more of the same to keep them in the upper parts of the West’s playoff conversation.
1st Place – Northwest Division
“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” The Jazz added pretty much nothing to their roster simply because they didn’t have to. Even after losing Gordon Hayward, the Jazz had one of the most resilient seasons in 2017-18. Now that the whole gang is back, plus Grayson Allen, for one more round, the Jazz should expect to take another step forward. Utah now approaches year two in the Donovan Mitchell era, which should bring much optimism given his electric rookie year. The supporting cast he has isn’t very talented, but they all function at a high level together. Because of that, expect more from them. Especially if Dante Exum continues to progress.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Matt John
What a fantastic season the Jazz had last year. Having lost Gordon Hayward going into 2017, nearly everybody chalked them up to miss the playoffs. For the first couple of months, it looked that way—until a rookie emerged into a superstar. Donovan Mitchell will try to capitalize on a sensational first season we’ll never forget. Reigning NBA Defensive Player of the Year Rudy Gobert is poised to continue his interior dominance. Ricky Rubio wants to build on a career-year. Joe Ingles will likely continue his ways of being the ultimate teammate and a top three-point shooter. With all of this said, Utah did what they did a year ago with no expectations. The script is flipped this time around. All eyes are on Quin Snyder and company. They’re undoubtedly a top playoff team, but they might fall just short of a Northwest Division title.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Spencer Davies
How can you not like what the Jazz have built? They are a tough team defensively, they have a dynamic offensive player in Donovan Mitchell who is just scratching the surface, and their role guys are progressing nicely. Utah is a solid team. The problem is they don’t have the firepower to believe they are truly elite, unless someone we didn’t expect emerges. Maybe that’s Dante Exum, maybe that’s rookie Grayson Allen, maybe it’s Jae Crowder. The problem is you don’t know at this point who the next guy is going to be, if they have that guy at all. Being good is nice, but to matter in the West you have to be great, and it’s hard to see the Jazz as great, especially in the Northwest. The Jazz are going to be a tough out every night and that’s a good thing, but they need one more guy to put them in that top tier and it is just not clear who that guy is yet.
2nd Place – Northwest Division
– Steve Kyler
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: Donovan Mitchell
As a rookie, the questions with Mitchell kept becoming grander and greater in scope as the year went on. Could he crack the rotation? Could he be a spark plug off the bench behind guys like Rodney Hood and Ricky Rubio? Could he start? Could he average 15 points a night?
The answers to all those questions and more proved to be a resounding yes. Mitchell became the first rookie to lead a playoff team in scoring for the year since Carmelo Anthony with the Nuggets over a decade ago, then went toe to toe with Russell Westbrook and Paul George in Utah’s first-round win over the Thunder. He became the first Jazz player, rookie or otherwise, to shoulder a usage load of 29 percent or higher (minimum 500 minutes played) since the great Karl Malone in 2000-01. He’s the Jazz’s answer to the league’s growing emphasis on switching defense, and their go-to when the play breaks down and they need to generate a shot before the clock runs out.
Top Defensive Player: Rudy Gobert
When you’re the league’s reigning Defensive Player of the Year, this category isn’t too tough a call. Gobert is coming off his second straight season leading the NBA in ESPN’s Defensive Real Plus-Minus figure – he’s never finished outside the top-15 in this category since he became a full-time NBA player in his second year. He’s the basis for Utah’s entire defensive strategy, a funneling operation that allows wing defenders to be more aggressive on the perimeter, clog passing lanes and otherwise disrupt things with the knowledge that Gobert is at the rim to clean up mistakes.
Top Playmaker: Ricky Rubio
Rubio averaged by far the fewest assists of his career with the Jazz last year, but that’s a reflection of a scheme, not a player. The Jazz under Quin Snyder emphasize a motion-based system that spreads the playmaking duties around several ball-handlers, and while it took Rubio a few months to get used to it, it eventually clicked and led to a post-All-Star break run that was some of the strongest play of his career. Rubio may not be diming up teammates 10 times a game in Utah, but his effect on the organization and execution of the offense is clear: The Jazz’s assist percentage (the rate of team baskets that drew an assist) dropped from 61.4 percent with him on the floor to 54.8 percent with him on the bench. He could be even more of a force after another full offseason.
Top Clutch Player: Donovan Mitchell
However you define the term “clutch,” Mitchell is clearly that guy for Utah. Using NBA.com’s standard definition – the final five minutes of a game with the score within five points – Mitchell attempted over double the per-minute shots of any other full-season rotation player on the roster. That crazy-high 29 percent usage rate we mentioned earlier? It skyrocketed to 44 percent during these minutes (55 percent in the playoffs!), almost an unfathomable load.
That’s not the only way to think about clutch play, though, at least if you’re liberal about defining it. Consider how reliant the Jazz were on Mitchell to bail them out when the offense stalled, for instance: Donovan attempted more than double the shots in the final four seconds of the shot clock of any other player on the team, per Second Spectrum data. When the Jazz need a bucket, be it in a tight game or just a tight possession, Mitchell is where they turn.
The Unheralded Player: Joe Ingles
As Ingles has gotten a bit of notoriety, including a top-60 finish in the most recent SI Top-100 Players list, this title is at risk of losing its validity to some degree. Still, though, there are plenty of opposing broadcast crews still wondering who the heck this balding Australian guy is as he drops his sixth three-pointer of the night on their team.
Ingles quietly does a little bit of everything for the Jazz. He’s sporting two consecutive finishes in the league’s top five three-point shooters by accuracy, a distinction shared by only Washington’s Otto Porter. Ingles isn’t flashy, but he’s a more than capable pick-and-roll operator with one of the best pass-fakes in the entire league. He’s a jack-of-all-trades defender who spends time on point guards and power forwards alike. And best yet, he’s a grounding presence in a tight Jazz locker room.
Best New Addition: Grayson Allen
Allen wins this one by default – he’s the only actual addition the Jazz made to their 15-man roster who didn’t play for them last year. The front office is incredibly high on Allen, a four-year college prospect who had to adjust his game multiple times at Duke to make room for various talented freshmen. They see him as a light version of Kyle Korver offensively, a guy who can rocket around screens and draw defensive eyes away from guys like Mitchell and Rubio – but who can also put the ball and the floor and run pick-and-roll as a secondary creator. Time will tell if he has the length and lateral speed to defend at a high NBA level, but he’s got sneaky vertical athleticism for his size and already thinks the game really well. It’ll be interesting to see if he can crack consistent rotation minutes for a team that’s deep on the perimeter.
WHO WE LIKE
1. Quin Snyder
Fresh off a second-place finish in the Coach of the Year vote, Snyder has finally begun to draw his due credit around the league for the job he does in Utah. His staff is consistently among the most detailed and prepared in the league, something opposing coaches will happily confirm for you if you ask them. Snyder’s player development skills are also beginning to get recognition – the hiring of former assistant Igor Kokoskov as head coach for a young roster in Phoenix is just one piece of that. Snyder demands a lot from his players, but he puts just as much into the job. He’s a clear asset in Utah.
2. Derrick Favors
Favors deserves real praise for the way he’s accepted multiple changes in roles since Rudy Gobert’s ascent to among the league’s dominant centers, and he got a bit of a reward this offseason with a nice two-year deal from the Jazz (second year non-guaranteed). The deal is great for both sides – Favors gets a nice bump for a year or two, then can re-enter the market while still in his late 20s. The Jazz, meanwhile, have the ability to get off Favors’ contract in just a year if they can land a big fish on the 2019 free agency market. If not, though, they can simply retain him as a starting power forward and arguably the league’s best backup center. He’s a consistent presence on the floor who serves as an excellent insurance policy in case Gobert struggles with injuries.
3. Dante Exum
Another guy who got rewarded over the offseason was Exum, who’s been plagued by two extremely unfortunate injuries but retains the trust of the Jazz front office regardless. The young Aussie showed flashes of his defensive potential late last year, including some elite-level defense on James Harden and other top ball-handlers. Utah paid a bit of a premium on his three-year deal, but they did so with the assumption that this is still far from a finished product. He projects as a third guard behind Mitchell and Rubio, but has the size to play some three at times and could see a lot more court time if his offensive game becomes just a bit more consistent.
4. The 4s
The Jazz quietly have one of the strongest groups of power forwards in the league, one that includes a great deal of versatility. They’ll start with their twin towers combo of Favors and Gobert, a duo that’s continued to crush most teams even despite the league’s emphasis on spacing. Favors will mostly play backup center after those early first- and third-quarter stints, but Snyder will then have his choice of Jae Crowder or Thabo Sefolosha – the former coming off a strange season where he lacked a lot of his usual preparation after the death of his mother and multiple trades, the latter recovering from an MCL injury while also returning from a drug suspension.
The Jazz have consistently dominated playing these wing types at four next to Gobert, and they may be able to downsize even further and play guys like Joe Ingles or Royce O’Neale there (O’Neale deserved to make this list on his own, but there’s only so much space). And watch out for newcomer Georges Niang, who spent much of last season with the SLC Stars in the G-League. Niang doesn’t jump out of the gym, but he’s a savvy and skilled guy who can really stretch the floor.
5. Dennis Lindsey and Co.
The Jazz’s coaching staff has begun to receive plaudits for the work it does, and the same can be said about the front office. Helmed by GM Dennis Lindsey, Jazz brass has secured a number of big wins over recent years: Trading for Donovan Mitchell, hiring Quin Snyder and moving up in the draft to select Rudy Gobert chief among them.
What really separates them, though, is their work around the margins. Look at a guy like Royce O’Neale, who Lindsey and his group signed as an undrafted 24-year-old free agent a year ago – by the end of the year, he was a vital rotation piece who might be the team’s best overall perimeter defender. Imagine how much a team like Houston could have used O’Neale when their seven-man rotation was running out of steam against the Warriors in the conference finals; that one more capable wing body could have done wonders. The Lindsey track record is filled with those kinds of moves, from Joe Ingles (cut by the Clippers) to guys like Sefolosha and Ekpe Udoh.
The Jazz have a number of strengths, but everything starts with their continuity. Few teams will be as comfortable with each other from the jump as this group, which returns every guy from last year’s end-of-season rotation. Linked to this is the defense, which is obviously a strength due to personnel like Gobert first and foremost, but also adds up to a sum greater than its parts due to this familiarity.
Depth is another clear strength for the Jazz. Snyder ran 11-deep at times last season, and that was with a few injuries and before adding a rookie in Grayson Allen who looks like he could be capable of bench minutes at least. There will be real competition for playing time in Utah, often among guys who could walk into rotation spots on many other teams.
The Jazz finished almost exactly league average last season for points scored per-possession, so this isn’t necessarily a weakness in a vacuum, but it’s certainly a concern for the heights this team hopes to reach. In particular, Utah has had issues with teams that emphasize a lot of switching in their defenses – since the departure of Gordon Hayward (and even before then, honestly), they’ve been a bit short on guys who can consistently win the one-on-one mismatches you get from those defenses. Mitchell quickly became that guy as a rookie – can he improve his efficiency on these plays a bit? Can others, such as Exum or Alec Burks, help shoulder some of that load?
One area that could help in terms of picking the low-hanging offensive fruit is transition, where the Jazz haven’t been quite aggressive enough in recent seasons. Per Cleaning the Glass, they were the sixth-most efficient team in the league last year on the break, scoring a robust 125.7 points per play – but they ran in transition just 19th-most in the league on a per-possession basis. Running more might lead to a slight decrease in that efficiency number, but we’re still talking about possessions that are far more valuable than the standard halfcourt look. It’s understandable that Snyder wants to control the tempo of the game and grind teams down, and there’s a limit to how much teams can run when you think about conditioning, but it’s still something Utah could prioritize a bit more.
THE BURNING QUESTION
Is this Jazz core a year away from true title contention, or are they still missing a major piece?
We’re going big-picture with this one. With apologies to Jazz fans everywhere (and the fans of at least 26 other teams, most likely), their chances of winning the title this season are slim to none while this version of the Warriors remains intact. But that doesn’t mean this year is meaningless, even without a freak event like an injury in the Bay.
This is a chance to assess this core against the other elite teams in the league. It’s a chance to see how much more development guys like Mitchell, Exum and even Gobert have in them. If they’re close enough to the Warriors and Rockets of the league by season’s end, Lindsey and his team could reasonably conclude that moderate offseason moves in 2019 (plus more internal development) will be enough to push them into true title contention pending events in Oakland. If not, the front office will have a clearer idea of what they need to do or add to help bridge that gap. There are numerous smaller questions about this team, such as whether they can get home court in the first round and whether they can make the second round for the third year straight, but this is the broadest one in regard to the franchise’s future.
NBA Daily: The Memphis Grizzlies’ Young Core Rises
The Memphis Grizzlies have built one of the most exciting young teams in the NBA – and it won’t be long before they’re competing at the top of the Western Conference.
Needless to say, the NBA is flush with some exciting young rosters. Trae Young’s Atlanta Hawks, Luka Doncic’s Dallas Mavericks and Zion Williamson’s New Orleans Pelicans are bursting at the seams with talent and, in short order, have sparked discussions as to which team might be basketball’s next big thing.
While each of those teams excites in their own, unique way, it’s the Memphis Grizzlies that stand out from the rest of the pack.
The Grizzlies are led by Ja Morant, their sophomore star point guard out of Murray State. As a rookie, Morant proved he was one of the NBA’s brightest up-and-comers, but he’s taken it to another level this season. While he missed time with an ankle injury, Morant has averaged 22.6 points and 7.0 assists per game on 53.2 percent shooting. Morant is also first in the NBA in fast-break points per game, averaging 5.8 per game.
The bright hooper hasn’t had the hype that someone like Young did early on in the season, but there’s a case to be made that Morant is just as promising as the Hawks’ star guard. Per 48 minutes, Morant is averaging 37.1 points and 11.5 assists versus Young at 33.6 points and 13.1 assists per game. While not a perfect comparison given the former’s smaller sample size in 2020-21, it does show that Morant is absolutely in the discussion for the best young guard in the league.
The Grizzlies already have their cornerstone of the future, but what separates them from the rest of the NBA’s fascinating teams is the organization’s ability to acquire talented role players. Five of the Grizzlies’ top seven scorers are players the Grizzlies drafted in the last four seasons; better, four of them were players selected in the previous two.
Memphis only has two players older than 30, Gorgui Dieng and Tim Frazier, the latter of which has played just 33 minutes this season. That number jumps to three with players 28-years-and-older by adding Jonas Valanciunas to the list.
Lead amongst those role players is the Grizzlies’ second-leading scorer Dillon Brooks, the 45th overall selection for Memphis in 2017. Brooks is putting up 15.2 points per game in his fourth season in the NBA despite not shooting the ball well, just 36.9 percent from the field and 30.5 percent from three-point range. Brooks has never shot below 35 percent from three or 40 percent from the field in his career, so it stands to reason his percentages will increase by the end of the year and, with it, his entire scoring output.
Elsewhere, Brandon Clarke, a second-year forward out of Gonzaga, is one of Memphis’ five players averaging over 10 points per game this year, putting up 13.2 points and 6.8 rebounds per game. While his scoring numbers are substantial, Clarke’s value comes on the defensive end – much like the two Grizzlies’ rookies, Desmond Bane and Xavier Tillman.
Bane and Tillman were picked between 30-35th overall, and through a handful of games, both have well exceeded their draft slots. Bane is averaging 8.6 points per game on crazy efficient shooting percentages of 47.1/48.9/77.8. Beyond that, Tillman has shown his worth on both ends of the ball too, averaging 8.6 points, 3.9 rebounds, 1.6 steals and 1.3 blocks per game. This doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of the Grizzlies’ talented young core which includes two ultra-talented youngsters who have yet to play this season.
Jaren Jackson Jr. may be the Grizzlies’ second-best player behind Morant; last year, he averaged 17.4 points, 4.6 rebounds and 1.6 blocks per game on 46.9/39.4/74.7 shooting splits. Winslow hasn’t played since early on in the 2019-20 season with the Miami HEAT, before being traded to Memphis at the deadline for Andre Iguodala. During his last full season, Winslow averaged 12.6 points, 5.4 rebounds and 4.3 assists per game on 43.3/37.5/62.8 shooting splits, making him a valuable wing player that the Grizzlies have just waiting on the bench.
Of course, Memphis is one of the youngest teams in the NBA with an average age of 24.3, second-youngest in the league, and have dealt with significant injury problems early on this season. Despite this, the Grizzlies are one of the best defensive units in the league, holding a defensive rating of 106.66, second-best league-wide. The Memphis offense has struggled so far this year, but a major reason why is because of Morant’s injury.
When Morant plays, the Grizzlies’ offensive numbers are much improved. With Morant on the floor, they’ve got an offensive rating of 115.4, which would be the sixth-best mark in the NBA. Without him on the floor, their offensive rating drops to 103.8, good for second-worst. Given that Morant has missed more than half the Grizzlies’ games this year, it’s no wonder their offensive rating is a 105.66 on the season.
Ultimately, this has left the Grizzlies with a record of 7-6, putting them at the eighth seed in the Western Conference and right in the hunt for the playoffs.
The scary thing is that the Grizzlies are only going to get better. Morant and Jackson Jr. are both 21-years-old, Tillman and Bane are 22 and Brooks, Winslow and Clarke are 24. The entirety of the core is young, while their two best players are hardly old enough to buy alcohol. Even though the Grizzlies are young, they’ve already shown themselves to be one of the league’s best defenses and possess the tools to improve their offense in-house.
Come the end of the season, the Grizzlies will be a real playoff contender – and with such a young roster, it’s only a matter of time before Memphis is competing for more than just the backend of the playoffs.
NBA Daily: Reggie Jackson Staying Ready for the Clippers
Reggie Jackson hasn’t had much opportunity with the Los Angeles Clippers this season. Still, he’s ready for whenever the team may need him.
There’s an old saying: “if you stay ready, you don’t have to get ready.” That saying would certainly apply to Reggie Jackson this season.
Jackson, who joined the Los Angeles Clippers last season after he was bought out by the Detroit Pistons, re-upped with team on a one-year deal. A once-promising young guard that the Pistons pried away from the Oklahoma City Thunder in 2015 with a five-year, $80 million contract, his time in Detroit was unfortunately marred by injuries and inconsistency.
Still, he was coveted on the buyout market. When Jackson arrived in Los Angeles, the prevailing thought was that he would provide the Clippers with extra guard depth and an additional ball-handler and solid playmaker off the bench. They even had competition from the Los Angeles Lakers for his services.
And, for the most part, Jackson did just that in his 17 regular-season games — including the Orlando bubble seeding games — that he suited up with the Clippers. He put up 9.5 points per game and 3.2 assists while shooting 45.3 percent from the field and 41.3 percent from three-point range.
But the playoffs were a different story. Inconsistency reared its ugly head and Jackson’s numbers dropped to 4.9 points and 0.9 assists while his field goal percentage dipped to 43.8 percent. The Clippers as a whole were inconsistent, especially in their second-round loss to the Denver Nuggets, and it was unsure if Jackson would be back with the team for the 2020-21 season.
He did come back, although it looked as if this year he was going to have some competition at the backup point guard spot with second-year guard Terance Mann. When the season began, new head coach Tyronn Lue alternated between the two from game-to-game, but eventually settled on a rotation that didn’t necessarily include either of them.
For a young player like Mann, finding yourself out of the rotation might seem like necessary growing pains as your career is in its infancy. But, for a vet like Jackson, it can be tough. Lue admitted as much in a recent call with media.
“It was a hard conversation for me because I thought he had been playing well,” Lue said, “but we couldn’t play all the guys, we knew that coming into the season.”
“He took it well. I think when you’re a veteran, when you’re a pro, when you want to win you do whatever it takes to try to win. I just told him to stay ready, it’s a long season with Covid, with injuries and things like that, you got to be ready.”
To Jackson’s credit, he’s done just that and stayed ready for when his next opportunity should arise.
And, luckily for him, it came maybe a bit sooner than expected.
Last Friday against the Sacramento Kings, the Clippers found themselves without both Patrick Beverley and Lou Williams. And, so, Jackson found himself in the starting lineup.
In the win against the Kings, Jackson finished with 11 points, 4 rebounds and 3 assists, shot 50 percent from long-range and even threw down a dunk in traffic. After the game, he joked that his teammates had been teasing him for not dunking and for being 30 years old. That moment made him feel like he was younger again.
“It feels good, especially at 30. Seeing the open lane and having a chance to attack,” Jackson said. “I’ve had an injury-plagued career these past few years, I just feel like I’m getting my legs back under me and feel somewhat 20 again, it felt great to go out there to get a dunk.”
“I’m just glad to get it in there. I got a little nervous.”
Before being told he was going to be out of the rotation, Jackson had strung together some solid games off the bench as Lue was experimenting with the lineup. In the Clippers Dec 29 win over the Minnesota Timberwolves, Jackson had perhaps his best game of the season with 11 points, 4 rebounds, 4 assists, 4 steals and a block.
He followed that up with another strong performance in a win against a good Portland Trail Blazers team with 11 points, 2 assists and 66.7 percent shooting from the field including 50 percent from downtown. Jackson understands that some nights he might not see any playing time while other nights he may be called upon to provide a spark.
“I just want to be ready, I’m just trying to stay ready for anything and whenever my name is called this year,” he said. “I just try to manage the point guard like a quarterback, on wins. There’s things I can improve on, things I could be better at. For the most part I just want to find a way to help my team get a win.”
With the return of Beverley, Jackson only played 13 minutes off the bench in the Clippers most recent game against the Indiana Pacers. Still, he figures to be a regular in the rotation with Williams still day-to-day and Lue has liked what he’s seen from him in these recent wins.
“He’s a point guard, he did a good job with catch and shoot, distributing the basketball, but also running the team,” Lue said. “That’s what we expect him to do. I’m happy for Reggie, staying ready and being a professional.”
For Jackson, one of the things that have helped him the most this season is having two championship-caliber point guards on the sideline in Lue and assistant coach Chauncey Billups, as well as assistants Larry Drew and Kenny Atkinson who were solid point guards in their playing days, too.
Although he’s a veteran, he’s always trying to learn and always trying to improve and he feels like this is the best group for him to learn from.
“They’re helping me day-in and day-out. Having a slew of point guards and great minds at the helm is just helping me with my maturation and seeing the game,” Jackson said. “Having somebody to bounce ideas off of steadily, I think it’s working really well right now. I’m just fortunate to have their minds and try to pick their brains as much as possible. I know I’ve been doing this 10 years but to have those guys in my corner, they’ve forgotten more basketball than I know. I always try to soak it up.”
And if Jackson can continue to refine his game — to pick up what he can as he picks the brains of Lue, Billups and the others — and stay ready, he just might come up big for Los Angeles when they need him most.
NBA Daily: Youth Fueling San Antonio
Gregg Popovich has typically relied heavily on his veteran players. Now, he has a cast of young talent that is fueling a Spurs resurgence. Chad Smith puts the spotlight on the rising stars in San Antonio.
Last season was strange for everyone, but especially San Antonio Spurs head coach Gregg Popovich. It was the first time in his 25-year tenure that his team missed the playoffs. Heck, it was the first time his team ever finished with a losing record since he took the job in 1996. But, in spite of that season and the fact that Popovich will turn 72 next week, his motivation and excitement are still there.
Popovich has done it and seen it all during his time on the bench. From winning five NBA titles to coaching countless Hall of Fame players along the way. His list of accomplishments is endless, but the coaching job he is doing this year might just rank right near the top.
Most teams around the league are either primarily comprised of young and inexperienced players or made up mostly of veterans who know how to manage the game. You won’t find many that have a nice mixture of both, let alone having the talent that the Spurs seem to have. Their roster doesn’t have an All-Time great player, either; you won’t find a Tim Duncan, David Robinson, Manu Ginóbili or Tony Parker here. They have a great veteran duo, to be fair — both DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge are capable of playing at a high level — but neither can be asked to carry a team at this stage of their respective careers.
It is Popovich’s job to take those ingredients and cook up something special. And it’s here where his and San Antonio’s player development abilities shine through.
The 2019 NBA Draft was oozing with talent at the top with guys like Zion Williamson, Ja Morant, and RJ Barret taking the spotlight. And while no one wants to miss out on the postseason, their down year could have been a blessing in disguise for Spurs, who have long had a knack for plucking hidden gems in the first round. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White and Keldon Johnson were all drafted by the Spurs as the 29th overall selection.
And this season, while White has only played one game because of an injury, it has been the duo of Murray and Johnson that has been the spark for a reinvigorated San Antonio.
Murray, in particular, is finally having the breakout season that many envisioned. He has improved his scoring average by five points per game and is posting career-high averages in rebounds, assists and free throw percentage. Not only is he hitting the free throws, but Murray is also getting to the line more often instead of settling for mid-range jumpers.
As good as Murray has played thus far, it has been Johnson’s emergence that has been turning heads around the league.
Not many players from the loaded 2019 draft have busted onto the scene in their second year quite like Johnson has. After appearing in just 17 games last season, the former Kentucky product has elevated his game to new heights. So far this season he is averaging 14 points and seven rebounds while starting every game for San Antonio.
While his minutes and shot attempts have greatly increased in his new role, Johnson has maintained an efficiency that has allowed him to blossom. The Spurs desperately need some floor spacing, as they rank in the bottom five of the league in terms of three-point shot attempts; Johnson’s ability to shoot both vital to their strong start and has been heavily relied upon with guys like DeRozan, Murray and Aldridge all making their living in the mid-range area.
Johnson also has the tools and intelligence to make a major impact on the defensive end of the floor. His large frame allows him to guard bigger players and take contact, while his length and athleticism make him a great closeout defender. Popovich has relied on him heavily in their games where they’ve had to face the likes of LeBron James, Christian Wood, Pascal Siakam and former Spur Kawhi Leonard.
White’s prolonged absence has opened the door for another youngster, Lonnie Walker, who has flourished with the opportunity. There is a reason San Antonio took him with the 18th overall pick a few years ago and, now, he seems to be putting it all together. His scoring and efficiency have drastically improved, while his patience and understanding of what is happening on the floor seem more apparent.
Trick now for Lonnie Walker is to stay aggressive even after DeRozan comes back. "He doesn’t lack for anyone repeating that to him," Pop said. "There are like nine coaches, and we are all saying the same thing to him. We are trying to make it a habit – take no prisoners."
— Tom Orsborn (@tom_orsborn) January 13, 2021
Walker has always had elite-level athleticism, but he has worked on his jump shot and finishing ability at the rim. He has been one of their best scoring options this season, capable of putting up 20 points or more on any given night. Walker and Popovich have given much of the credit to Murray’s leadership.
The 24-year-old point guard seems to be establishing himself as the leader of this team. His patience running the offense and finding teammates in half-court sets has been crucial. Their transition game has been thriving as well, with their young guys getting downhill and putting pressure on defenders. They rank in the top-five in terms of drives per game, as Popovich has emphasized the importance of getting to the rim and creating open shots for others.
Another statistic that Popovich has to be thrilled with speaks volumes about the growth of his backcourt: the Spurs turn the ball over less than any other team in the league. In fact, they are the only team that commits fewer than 10 turnovers per game.
Confidence plays a major role in how well a player develops. And it appears as though Popovich has instilled confidence in Murray and Walker, which has enabled them to take off. Johnson’s confidence was evident last season, where he erupted in his final games at the bubble in Orlando.
Just as he has injected confidence into his young guys, Popovich has channeled patience and better decision-making into DeRozan as well. No longer is he forcing up shots and shying away from the three-point line. It may have taken a bit longer than many expected, but Popovich may have molded DeRozan into the best version of himself.
Whether attacking their talented trio of young players or a veteran like DeRozan, Aldridge or Patty Mills, San Antonio is going to be a tough team to keep down or put away. The Western Conference is stacked once again but, while they may roster the same names as last season, this Spurs team is vastly different.
And, if they continue to grow and trust one another, there could be another playoff run on the horizon for Popovich and San Antonio.