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Cheap Seats: NBA’s Biggest Disappointment

What have been the biggest disappointments of the 2013-14 season? In this week’s Cheap Seats, the Basketball Insiders’ interns discuss.

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Every season, we welcome in a new group of interns and typically their work is done primarily behind the scenes. But now that the current group has been around for awhile, we’re giving them a platform to voice their thoughts on the NBA. Each week, Basketball Insiders’ interns Jesse Blancarte, Cody Taylor and John Zitzler will discuss a topic related to the league in Cheap Seats.

This week, the interns discuss the biggest disappointment of the 2013-14 NBA season.

Derrick Rose’s Injury and Its Effect on the Bulls:

There have been a few disappointments this season. From the struggling New York Knicks, to the slow-starting Brooklyn Nets, to the never-ending injuries, there have been plenty of letdowns for NBA fans. But the most disappointing story centers around Derrick Rose’s latest knee injury, which ended his 2013-14 season, and forced the Chicago Bulls to seek a new path to contention.

On April 28, 2012, Rose tore his ACL in his left knee in a playoff game against the Philadelphia 76ers. It’s a day that Bulls fans look back on with despair. Adding to the pain of losing their franchise player to major injury was the fact that Rose probably should have been resting on the bench since the Bulls had a 12-point lead with roughly a minute and a half left in the game at the time of his injury.

On May 12, 2012, Rose underwent surgery to repair the torn ACL. With ACL tears, a typical recovery time for NBA athletes is commonly between nine months to a year.

By January 2013, reports out of Chicago were that Rose was participating in full contact basketball activities. The Bulls made it clear that Rose’s return date would not be determined until team doctors had cleared him and Rose was mentally ready. The Bulls wanted Rose to come back once he was 100 percent healthy, and not a second sooner. However, on February 13, for the first time, Rose hinted that he may miss the entire season to ensure that he could make a full recovery. Daily speculation ensued as to when Rose would return. Some fans grew angry, believing that Rose was stalling his return and lacked commitment to the team.

By early March it was being reported that doctors had cleared Rose to play, indicating that the young point guard had made a full recovery. Despite Rose participating in practices without restrictions, the former MVP insisted he was not mentally prepared to return. Derrick’s brother, Reggie Rose, made the situation worse when he publicly stated that the Bulls’ decision to not make any significant deals at the trade deadline would play a role in whether Derrick would return for the remainder of the 2012-13 season. Criticism from fans and the media persisted throughout the remainder of the season.

Without Rose, the Bulls advanced to the Eastern Conference Semifinals where they lost to the Miami HEAT. Rose never made his anticipated return and missed the entire season. Even if Rose had been able to play, the Bulls still would have been short-handed as they were missing Luol Deng, and the HEAT would have likely still won the series. Still, for Bulls fans, constant reports of a potential return was the dominant storyline of the season.

Fast forward to October 5, 2013, when Derrick Rose made his return to action against the Indiana Pacers in a preseason game. After waiting 525 days since Rose tore his ACL, Bulls fans would get to watch their franchise player on the court once again. Rose was rusty, putting up 13 points in 20 minutes of playing time. It did not matter though; Rose was healthy and all NBA fans had reason to smile.

On October 16, after scoring 22 points in his first game back in Chicago, Rose said he thought he was even more “explosive” than before his injury, and that he had increased his vertical jump by five inches. Browse YouTube clips of Rose’s best dunks before his injury, and you can see why the thought of him adding five inches to his vertical was a scary thought for the rest of the NBA. Greg Oden, Joel Anthony and Goran Dragic, all past victims of vicious Rose dunks, would certainly agree.

The hype surrounding Rose’s return reached its apex on October 31, when he hit a game-winning floater to beat the Knicks, 82-81, in just the second game of the regular season. Rose was not efficient in that game, going 7-23 from the floor and turning the ball over four times. But it didn’t matter. Rose did what superstars are supposed to do in the NBA, which is to take, and make, the biggest shots in the biggest moments.

»In Related:Six Things to Know About the Chicago Bulls

Unfortunately it would not be long before disaster would strike again. After playing in only 11 games, Rose tore his meniscus in his right knee while playing against the Portland Trail Blazers on November 22. After undergoing surgery, the Bulls announced that Rose would miss the rest of the season.

In a season in which point guards have been plagued by injuries (Russell Westbrook, Chris Paul, Deron Williams, Jeremy Lin, Patrick Beverley, Jrue Holiday, Jeff Teague, Steve Nash, Steve Blake, Jordan Farmar, Kemba Walker, Eric Bledsoe, etc.), Rose’s latest injury cuts the deepest. Rose’s injury, compounded by the time he has missed, has changed the course of the franchise. Every point guard listed will return from injury, or already has, and their franchise will continue down the same path it was already on. The Los Angeles Clippers and Oklahoma City Thunder will continue to compete for a championship, and teams like the Phoenix Suns will continue to build around young talent with an eye toward the future. But the Bulls are not the Suns, and this was not supposed to be a rebuilding year for them. Coming into this season, the Bulls were thought to be one of three teams in the East that would compete for the championship, along with the HEAT and Pacers. Instead, the Bulls are now grouped with every other team in the East looking up at the top two teams.

This is especially problematic because in today’s NBA, under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, it is widely believed that if you are not a championship contender, then you should bottom out in hopes of landing a young star in the NBA lottery. Good luck convincing head coach Tom Thibodeau or any of the veterans on the team, such as Joakim Noah, that they should be tanking.

This is, in part, where rumors of a disconnect between Thibodeau and Chicago executives stem from. Under Thibodeau’s defensive principles, the Bulls have the second best defensive rating in the league. But the recent trade of Luol Deng suggests that Chicago’s front office has conceded this season in favor of future flexibility. By trading Deng for Andrew Bynum and then waiving him, the Bulls saved roughly $20 million. But no one can argue that trading Deng for purely financial savings makes the Bulls a better team now. Beyond trading Deng, rumors persist that the Bulls will amnesty veteran Carlos Boozer, who is set to make $16.8 million next season.

»In Related: Chicago Bulls Salary Information

If Chicago does amnesty Boozer, it will leave the Bulls with a roster featuring Rose, Noah, Taj Gibson, Mike Dunleavy Jr., promising rookie Tony Snell and Jimmy Butler, a solid foundation to build around. Interestingly, Yahoo’s Adrian Wojnarowski reported that, “Chicago is much more in play for [Carmelo Anthony] than L.A.” Whether through a trade this season or by signing Anthony over the summer, a pairing of Anthony and a healthy Rose would most likely put Chicago back into contention. This is especially true when you consider that Anthony will add much needed offense, while having to commit himself to a proven team defense under the demanding, yet effective Thibodeau.

Though the Bulls are currently the fifth seed in the East with a 22-21 record, it is very unlikely that they can get past the Pacers and the HEAT. Even if Chicago somehow made it to the Finals without Rose and Deng, they would likely have to defeat the Thunder or Spurs in a seven-game series, which is no easy task. It is unfortunate, but without Rose, this is a lost season in terms of competing for a championship.

While the Bulls have a few paths to quickly reload the team, it is undeniable that Chicago fans, and basketball fans in general, have missed Rose’s aggressive style of play that earned him NBA MVP honors at the age of 22. Moreover, it is disappointing to miss out on two seasons of Rose in his athletic prime, and two seasons in which Chicago could have competed for championships.

»In Related: Could a Carmelo Anthony Trade Benefit Bulls and Knicks?

Don’t count out Rose yet though. Players who have suffered ACL injuries have recently returned with greater success rates than ever before, and while a meniscus tear is unfortunate, it is not a career ending injury. Had Rose undergone another operation, such as a microfracture, there would be significant doubts as to Rose’s long-term prognosis. Fortunately, this is not the case for Rose. But Bulls’ fans will have to keep waiting for Rose’s return. The Bulls, and the NBA, will be much better when he does.

– Jesse Blancarte

J.R. Smith’s Awful Season:

Let’s take a look back to Monday, April 22, 2013 – the day New York Knicks guard J.R. Smith received the 2012-13 NBA Sixth Man of the Year award.

His head coach, Mike Woodson sounded like a proud father, quick to offer praise and admiration for Smith and the year he had put together.

“Couldn’t have happened to a better guy,” Woodson said. “I’m so proud of him, in terms of buying in to what we wanted him to do earlier in the season. And it started this summer. I wasn’t going to start him, coming into this year, and I knew that. And he bought in. He didn’t like it, but he bought in. And it couldn’t have happened to a better person, because he put in the time and he worked his butt off to get to this point, and he got rewarded for it. I’m happy for him.”

Carmelo Anthony touched on the noticeable change in Smiths’ maturity, as Smith had seemingly turned the corner in that department.

“I think there comes a point in time in your life where you’re almost forced to grow up, you’re almost forced to mature. You gotta be willing to want to do those things. I think right now, this season, J.R. has done that,” Anthony said. “I think J.R. was forced to grow up, he was forced to be mature and he was willing to take on that challenge, too.”

»In Related: New York Knicks Salary Cap Information

Smith thanked his teammates and coaching staff for their patience.

“I’ve been known to make so many mistakes I haven’t been making recently,” said Smith, thanking his veteran teammates and Woodson for helping him. “Just keeping my head, mentally on the court and off the court.”

Smith was able to parlay his strong season into a three-year contract with the Knicks worth just under $18 million.  The Knicks re-signed Smith, showing confidence that he could be the bench scorer they needed for years to come.

Unexpectedly, just after the contract was signed, Smith would require knee surgery.  The Knicks claimed to be aware of this prior to Smith signing the extension, but just based on the timeline it is easy to speculate that Smith wanted to ink a new deal before going under the knife and risking his health.  Injuries happen, that is part of being a professional athlete, and Smith needed to do what was best for his long-term health.  The injury required that Smith spend the offseason rehabilitating, unable to spend time out on the court working on his game. He didn’t play any basketball until October.

In September of 2013, about a month and a half prior to start of the season, Smith was notified that he must serve a five-game suspension for violation of the NBA’s anti-drug program.  Smith spoke publicly for the first time since the incident on media day; he was very apologetic and was quoted in the New York Post expressing his remorse.

“The worst thing is I feel I let my teammates and coach down,’’ Smith said. “I let Mr. Dolan down. I’m looking to move forward from it. As soon as I’m able to play, I’m hoping to have a good season.’’

Smith has never been known as the most righteous of characters – he has been arrested and has served suspensions in the past – so this incident didn’t come as a total surprise.  The risk with Smith has always been whether his production would outweigh his antics.  Smith went into the season behind the eight ball in that regard, but if he was able to produce at or near the level of last season it seemed all would be forgiven.

Smith may have had a tumultuous offseason but the on-court expectations remained the same.  Smith was signed to provide a scoring punch and to give the Knicks another consistent scoring threat to complement Anthony.  Smith played in his first game back from the suspension against the San Antonio Spurs and got off to a very poor start, shooting 1-9 from the field and scoring only five points as the Knicks were trounced by the Spurs.  Unfortunately, that poor performance would be a sign of things to come.  Granted this was his first game back from knee surgery so it was expected that Smith may be a little rusty and might start the season off slow. And he sure did. Smith put together an undeniably bad first month of the season.  He shot just under 33 percent from the field while scoring 11.7 points per game.  For a guy expected to provide a lift off the bench, he was doing the exact opposite.  Shooting so poorly, he alone made it very difficult for any offensive group he was part to play efficient basketball.  He was singlehandedly anchoring down the Knicks offense.  The Knicks struggled mightily in November, not exclusively due to Smith’s poor performance, but it certainly played a factor in the team’s 2-11 record for the month.

The next month wasn’t much of an improvement for Smith or the Knicks.  At the end of December, the Knicks had only managed nine wins in 30 games and finished the month off with back-to-back losses against division foe Toronto.  Smith was able to marginally increase his production from his pitiful November, his field goal percentage up to 34.5 and his points per game up to just over 12.  He was trending in the right direction as the season progressed, but these were still very disappointing numbers for the reigning Sixth Man of the Year.

What happened in the next couple of weeks can be described as something straight out of the The Onion. On January 8, 2014, Smith was fined $50,000 for “recurring instances of unsportsmanlike conduct.” Or, to be more specific, Smith was fined for multiple instances in which he attempted to untie his opponents’ shoelaces during the course of play.  His childish behavior was the last thing the Knicks needed being in the middle of a fight to salvage their season.  Coach Woodson spoke to ESPN New York 98.7 FM on Smith’s actions.

“I’ve always said I don’t condone things that I know you shouldn’t do,” Woodson said. “No, I’m not happy about this. He was warned, he comes back and he makes the same mistake, it’s not right. … It’s unacceptable. It really is. It’s unprofessional. That’s the only word I can use. … You can’t do that. You just cannot do it. … At the end of the day, he’s got to grow up. These things have got to stop.”

Smith had severely regressed from the maturity level that he just last April was being commended for.  Smith did offer an apology via his Twitter account, “Huge apologies to my team, to the league [and] most of all you the fans.”

You have to ask yourself at what point do Smith’s apologies start to ring hollow? How many times can a guy make selfish mistakes that negatively impact his team and their goals and still be believed as remorseful?

»In Related: Should the Knicks Trade Carmelo Anthony?

Not surprisingly, his relationship with Woodson has begun to sour.  On January 15,2014, it was reported that Smith arrived late for a team meeting the day before so that night when the Knicks played the Charlotte Bobcats, Smith did not see one minute of action.  This was the second time over a four-game stretch that Smith had recorded a DNP-Coach Decision in the box score.  Woodson spoke again to ESPN 98.7 FM about his growing frustration with Smith.

“I think it is a privilege to wear a uniform in this league,” Woodson said. “There’s only 30 teams. There’s [only] so many players on each team. I think every player has a responsibility and has to be held accountable for what they do on a ballclub.”

Smith has since worked his way back into the line-up and has been playing consistent minutes as of late.

It’s hard to believe how poorly this season has played out for Smith.  A player who has been able to score in the NBA since the first day he stepped foot onto the court, his talent is undeniable but it is becoming increasingly more evident that he is a me-first player who refuses to consider the affects his actions may have on his team.  In all fairness, it would be much easier to look the other way if he wasn’t putting up near career-worse numbers in almost every statistical category.  For the season, Smith is averaging 12.2 points, three assists and 4.2 rebounds, with a PER of 11.2.  The number that sticks out most is that Smith is shooting only 37.8 percent from field, a career-low and absolutely unacceptable for a player who was brought in to score.  Smith is not a defensive stopper, he is not a great passer and he is an average rebounder.   Add to that, this season he is an extremely inefficient scorer that has repeatedly made mistakes and supplied distractions for his struggling team.

To call Smiths’ season anything other than a massive disappointment would be a lie.  When you read the quotes from last April, it seemed that everything had finally clicked and that he understood what it meant to be a professional.  For whatever reason, Smith has taken a huge step backwards, his production is miserable and his behavior just as bad.  It has come to the point where you wonder if it is even worth it for the Knicks to keep Smith on their roster (there have been rumblings that the Knicks may look to move Smith).  The surprising surgery, the early season suspension, the shoe-lace untying incidents and most of all his all poor production have all been ingredients that have led to arguably his worst season as a pro.

– John Zitzler

Cleveland Cavaliers Not Living Up to Expectations

The Cleveland Cavaliers shocked many draft experts last summer when they drafted Anthony Bennett with the number one overall pick. It was a move that they hoped would help them make a run toward the playoffs, but instead has many critics describing the pick as a bust.

While half of a season is far too early to label a draft pick as a bust, Bennett’s season isn’t exactly giving the Cavs a reason to be excited for his future. He’s currently averaging just 2.8 points and 2.4 rebounds per game. Bennett’s work ethic has been described as questionable, so it may be no surprise that it took him 33 games to score in double digits.

Work ethic aside, the Cavs haven’t exactly done themselves any favors with Bennett. In his breakout performance on Tuesday, Bennett played 33 minutes, well above his season average of 10 minutes per game. The team should explore more options on how to get Bennett in the game more, and should seriously consider sending him down to the Development League to allow him to regain some of his confidence.

»In Related: Cleveland Cavaliers Salary Information

The Cavs brought in Andrew Bynum in an attempt to help them advance to the postseason and to help resurrect Bynum’s career. The team got the short end of that deal after they traded Bynum to the Bulls after getting just 26 games out of him. Prior to the trade, Bynum was suspended for conduct detrimental to the team after becoming a negative influence on the Cavs. Bynum stated publicly early in the season that he lost his joy for the game, which he continued to battle for the duration of his stay in Cleveland.

In return for Bynum, the Cavaliers received Luol Deng in hopes of trying to win now. Since adding Deng 10 games ago, the Cavs are 4-6 and stand at 16-29, good for 11th in the East. Even though Deng is averaging 15.6 points per game with the Cavs, there is still room to improve on how head coach Mike Brown utilizes him. Brown is neglecting to set up plays that allow Deng to move around and cut toward the basket, arguably the best thing he does.

»In Related: Kyrie Irving’s Uncertain Future

Although the Cavaliers have a much healthier and improved team this season, their record doesn’t reflect it. Anderson Varejao missed the majority of last season with a blood clot and Kyrie Irving missed 25 games due to injury; they have missed four games combined this season. The Cavs also signed Jarrett Jack from Golden State, but are still averaging 96 points per game, the same amount they averaged en route to 24 wins last season.

The Cavs are just three games back of the final playoff spot in the East, but given their additions to the team through the draft, trades and free agency, they should definitely be competing for a much higher seed than just the eighth seed.

– Cody Taylor

What has been the biggest disappointment of the 2013-14 NBA season? Leave your thoughts in the comment section.

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NBA

Now What? – Portland Trail Blazers

From Neil Olshey’s top choice to replace Terry Stotts to whether they should trade CJ McCollum and who they might get for him, Bobby Krivitsky examines what’s next for the Portland Trail Blazers as they work to convince Damian Lillard to stay.

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The Portland Trail Blazers’ search for a new head coach has not gotten off to a smooth start. Less than 24 hours after Damian Lillard made it known Jason Kidd was his top preference to replace Terry Stotts, Kidd withdrew his name from the running.

According to Shams Charania of The Athletic, Los Angeles Clippers assistant coach Chauncey Billups, San Antonio Spurs assistant Becky Hammon, University of South Carolina and USA Women’s coach Dawn Staley, Brooklyn Nets assistant Mike D’Antoni, and Spurs executive Brent Barry are among Portland’s top candidates.

It’s vital that throughout this process, the Trail Blazers respect Lillard’s opinions. That doesn’t mean they have to hire one of their franchise player’s top choices, but if what he has to say isn’t holding the proper weight, it could fracture the relationship. According to NBA reporter Sean Highkin, Billups, who has a good relationship with Lillard, is Olshey’s preferred candidate.

Speaking of Olshey, in an attempt to deflect blame, he took an unnecessary parting shot at Stotts during his exit interview following the Trail Blazers getting eliminated by a depleted Denver Nuggets team in six games. 

He also said not to expect many changes to the Trail Blazers roster.

To put it mildly, it’s in poor taste for Olshey to show prospective head coaching candidates they shouldn’t expect him to have their back if the situation turns sour. On top of that and the uncertainty regarding whether Lillard will ask to get traded this summer, those interviewing for this position shouldn’t anticipate many roster changes despite Portland’s first-round exit, which marked the fourth time that’s happened in the last five years.

There’s also the possibility the amount of roster turnover is small but significant. To that effect, it may be time for Portland to break up its potent backcourt of Lillard and CJ McCollum. The latter can still play at a high level, as evidenced by him averaging 23.1 points, 4.7 assists, 3.9 rebounds, and only 1.4 turnovers per game during the regular season. He then produced 20.7 points, six rebounds and 4.3 dimes per contest in the six-game series against the Nuggets.

However, the Trail Blazers have struggled to overcome their lack of balance between their offensive proficiency and defensive shortcomings. McCollum turns 30-years-old in September, and while there may not be a dip in his performance, it’s hard to believe now is when Portland will start experiencing more postseason success, especially if Olshey’s telling the truth about minimal changes to the roster.

Trading McCollum for someone who can help make the team more dynamic while flanking Lillard as the team’s second-best player could lead to lengthier stays in the playoffs. Two names that come to mind are Ben Simmons and Brandon Ingram. The former is again experiencing postseason struggles, which could prompt Philadelphia 76ers president of basketball operations, Daryl Morey, to reconstruct the team’s roster around Joel Embiid. The Sixers’ top-two players remain a clunky fit without a more reliable closer. However, Simmons is a three-time All-Star, he recently got named to the All-Defensive First Team for the second time in his career, and he’s an elite floor general when pushing the tempo. Simmons could also form a potent pick-and-roll partnership with Lillard, including when he turns to one of his most reliable scoring methods in the half-court, faking the handoff, then darting to the rim.

As for Ingram, an All-Star in 2020, this season, he averaged 23.8 points, 4.9 rebounds and 4.9 assists per game while converting 38.1 percent of the 6.1 shots he attempted from beyond the arc, which is reflective of his growth as a three-point shooter. He’s far from a lockdown defender, but at 6-foot-8 with a 7-foot-3 wingspan, he’s more versatile on that end than McCollum.

The other decision the Trail Blazers have to make is much easier; whether to re-sign Norman Powell. The former Toronto Raptor quickly acclimated to his new team after Portland acquired him at the trade deadline in exchange for a package centered around Gary Trent. Powell averaged 17 points per game in 27 regular-season contests with the Trail Blazers and maintained that production during the playoffs. It’s a safe bet he won’t exercise his $11.6 million player option. At his exit interview, Olshey reiterated the franchise’s desire to work out a new contract with Powell, saying they “made the Norman Powell trade hoping that he’d be a part of the future.”

As the Trail Blazers work to make sure one of the most loyal athletes in sports doesn’t decide it’s time for him to take his talents elsewhere, it starts with hiring the right head coach. In regards to their roster, the challenge is figuring out how to add upgrades while handcuffed. Portland doesn’t have a first-round pick this year due to the trade to get Robert Covington. They also lack cap space and players who hold great value on the trade market. Parting with McCollum is a choice that could backfire; it’s also possible Lillard voices his opposition to such a move, in which case, the return would have to be better than expected to go through with that decision. Otherwise, the Trail Blazers’ path to improvement centers around making the difficult choice to trade a fan favorite in the hopes that becoming a better-balanced team translates to more success in the playoffs.

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Now What? – Golden State Warriors

The past two seasons have been incredibly difficult for the Golden State Warriors. While they are eager to return to their winning ways, their path back to championship contention could take some time – if it happens at all.

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For the better part of a decade, the Golden State Warriors were the darling of the league. After three championships and five consecutive trips to the NBA Finals, the Warriors fell off the horse. Injuries to their star players and the departure of Kevin Durant left the franchise in a state of despair. Now that they have picked up the pieces, they are ready to get back to being championship contenders.

Nothing in life is that easy though, especially when so many other teams have improved and accumulated their own star power. With another brutal injury to Klay Thompson, an aging Stephen Curry and a devastating injury to their prized rookie James Wiseman, the path back to greatness doesn’t look so golden after all.

The Curry show was in full effect this past season, as the two-time MVP dazzled fans with his play on the way to winning the scoring title. The 33-year old is ready to share the load with his teammates but it could be a rocky start for them as they try to shake the rust off as they battle in the loaded Western Conference.

Several key items must be examined before the Warriors can go back to being a championship-caliber team.

Strengths

Everything the Warriors do rests on the shoulders of Curry, who was spectacular once again this season. The seven-time All-Star earned his second scoring title this year in an epic duel with Bradley Beal. The first time he did so was the 2015-16 season when Golden State won a record 73 games in the regular season but fell short in Game 7 of the Finals against the Cleveland Cavaliers. This year was quite different, as they finished 9th in the Western Conference with a 39-33 record.

A healthy Curry is incredibly important but a healthy Thompson is crucial to their success. After missing two full seasons due to two significant injuries, his return to the court is everything to this team. When at 100 percent, the Warriors have the best backcourt in the league but it will take Thompson some time to ease into things and to clear the mental and physical hurdles associated with his return to play.

Draymond Green reminded everyone of his value and his impact on the game. The former Defensive Player of the Year demonstrated that he is still arguably the best defender in the league, capable of guarding multiple positions. His passing and ability to get guys open have always been his greatest strengths. His impact might not be the same if he were playing for the Orlando Magic but he is the perfect fit alongside Curry and Thompson.

Outside of their core three players, one other person to keep in mind is head coach Steve Kerr. With Rick Carlisle’s resignation yesterday, Kerr now becomes the third-longest tenured head coach in the league behind Gregg Popovich and Erik Spoelstra.

Even with a constantly changing roster, Kerr was able to guide this team to the Play-In Tournament. They were able to finish the regular season with the fifth-best defensive rating in the league, and while much of the credit goes to Kerr and Green, Andrew Wiggins deserves some praise as well.

Known as a defensive liability for most of his career, Wiggins finally took pride in his defense this season. He has always had the tools with his length and quickness, but his energy and effort always seemed to be lacking. Whether or not Kerr and the staff challenged him before the season, the fact is he made a major stride in that area, which ultimately helped the team win many close games. If he continues that heading into next season, it will go a long way in getting them back into the mix.

Weaknesses

One major weakness for Golden State this year was rebounding. They ranked 22nd in the league overall and dead last in the offensive variety of that category. This is not a product of playing small ball or just a lack of size in general. The Warriors were notorious for not boxing out and being out-hustled on the glass. The second-chance opportunities for their opponents to score often killed them in close games. This is something that must be addressed both in free agency and with the current players on the roster.

Another area of weakness that can be solved this offseason is the lack of veterans on the roster. Aside from their top four players, nearly everyone on the roster has three years or less of experience. The good news is that many of these guys seem to have some potential. Damion Lee, Juan Toscano-Anderson, Jordan Poole, Eric Paschall and Mychal Mulder all played a lot of minutes for the Warriors. Sharing the floor with Curry and Green will ultimately help them achieve their goal of becoming a key contributor for this team.

Turnovers were another trouble spot for this team, as they committed 15 per game during the regular season. Only four teams averaged more per game but the Warriors were often dealing with new young players that didn’t have the experience to negate many of those. They also committed 21.6 fouls per game, which was the second-most in the league trailing only the Washington Wizards. Those are two areas that will need to be cleaned up, regardless of who is or isn’t on the floor.

Opportunities

The Warriors will be back in the lottery for next month’s NBA Draft but they likely won’t have a top pick as they did a year ago. They should still be able to acquire some talent that can help them right now, either on the floor or in a future deal. With Thompson and Wiseman still easing their way back, and impending free agents of their own, it will be important for whomever Golden State selects to be ready to contribute immediately.

The Warriors only have two hitting free agency players this summer, in Kelly Oubre Jr and Kent Bazemore. Despite his roller-coaster season, Oubre is seeking around $20 million annually, which the Warriors simply cannot afford. He won’t be needed as much this season with Thompson eventually reclaiming his starting role. Golden State won’t have much to spend but they should be able to find what they are looking for in free agency.

Only six players are under contract after next season, which could open the door for some of the younger players should they carve out a role for themselves. Seven players are set to be on expiring contracts heading into next season. Curry is one of them, as his salary for next season is just under $46 million. The other six players have a combined salary of around $14 million. This will give Golden State some flexibility in terms of trades next season.

Threats

Obviously, the largest threat that looms over this franchise is another setback for Thompson or another injury to one of their other stars. The same can be said for every organization but the way things have transpired for this team over the last two years makes it even more critical. Curry is not getting any younger and while he has reaffirmed his desire to stay with the Warriors, he will be a free agent after next season. If the future looks cloudy at all, it could be in his best interest to explore other options.

Thompson will turn 32 next season and his comeback will be closely monitored around the league. While being a prolific shooter himself, he has much more to offer on the defensive side of the ball than Curry. Earning All-Defensive honors during the 2018-19 season, Thompson has always been an elite-level defender, especially on the perimeter. He uses his feet well to stay in front of his man while not getting his hands in the danger zone against crafty offensive players like James Harden and Trae Young.

While the focus from the outside will be on his offensive game, the key to Golden State’s return to the top-tier will depend on how well he plays on the other side of the ball. Coming off of two devastating injuries, will he still be able to lock down players on the perimeter at his age? Only time will tell, but everyone in this organization will be holding their breath every time he is on the floor.

One thing that Golden State has going for them is the culture they have created. The environment between the players, coaching staff and the front office is a good one. Everyone appears to be on the same page and there is never any panic. The continuity and chemistry they have with each other can be utilized to their advantage over less tenured teams.

The other thing that threatens their future is out of their hands. The Western Conference is oozing with talent. That is nothing new, but the way they are set up doesn’t bode well for Golden State. Playoff teams are loaded with young star players, who will only get better as time marches on.

Donovan Mitchell, Devin Booker, Nikola Jokic, Michael Porter Jr, Jamal Murray, Kawhi Leonard, Luka Doncic, Damian Lillard, Anthony Davis, Ja Morant, Jaren Jackson Jr, Zion Williamson, De’Aaron Fox, Karl-Anthony Towns, Anthony Edwards and Shai Gilgeous-Alexander. These are just a handful of names that reside in the Western Conference.

A return to glory would be a wonderful story for this organization, but it won’t be easy. Knowing how this group is wired, they wouldn’t have it any other way.

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NBA

Now What? – San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are down right now. Matt John examines how out they are and how they can get back in in the latest installment of Now What?

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Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ Now What? Series. If you aren’t fully caught up, feel free to read some of our most recent installments such as Indiana and Minnesota first. Today, we take a look at the San Antonio Spurs. Oh, how the mighty have fallen. The Spurs have missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season, which sounds inconceivable after all they’ve accomplished.

It’s not like the Spurs routinely won the championship year after year, but they were always in the title discussion for what seemed like an eternity. To know that they’re currently not there anymore blows the mind. Granted this large infusion of talented youth has overshadowed San Antonio’s fall from grace, but the postseason doesn’t feel the same without them. So, where are the Spurs at now if they’re not among the NBA’s titans?

Strengths

This comes when you have DeMar DeRozan as the offensive focal point, but, the Spurs drew free throws at a pretty excellent rate this season. They averaged 22 a game, which was good enough to tie for 11th overall in the league according to Basketball-Reference. Admittingly, that’s grasping at straws because not a whole lot about their offense was impressive this season. But this is the strengths section so we won’t dwell on that just yet.

Another strength is that their youth is coming along somewhat. Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Keldon Johnson, and Lonnie Walker IV all took a step forward scoring-wise with bigger roles.

Murray
2019-20: 10.9 points a game
2020-21: 15.7

White:
2019-20: 11.3
2020-21: 15.4

Johnson:
2019-20: 9.1
2020-21: 12.8

Walker:
2019-20: 6.4
2020-21: 11.2

That came at the expense of their field goal efficiency but, again, we’re not going to dwell on weaknesses here. Better yet, progress in all areas takes time.

Lastly, among all that went wrong with the Kawhi trade, Jakob Poeltl has evolved into one of the league’s most effective rim protectors. Opponents’ field goal percentage around the rim dropped by 11.6 percent when he protected the rim this year. So it made sense when they started him at the five full-time over LaMarcus Aldridge.

As you can probably tell, the Spurs don’t boast any notable strengths. Fortunately for them, they don’t boast any glaring weaknesses either.

Weaknesses

Despite NBA offenses being centered around the three, the Spurs still refuse to fully embrace this. According to Basketball-Reference, they ranked dead-last in threes attempted on a nightly basis (28.4) which has been the case for the last few years. This will probably change *if* DeMar DeRozan changes teams this summer. Should that be the case, San Antonio will probably have to be more reliant on taking threes.

Unfortunately, the days of Davis Bertans and Danny Green are long gone. In the past, the Spurs’ made up for their lack of three-point attempts with incredible efficiency. Not anymore. Of all their rotation players, only two of them shot over 36 percent from three – Patty Mills and Rudy Gay – both of whom, much like DeRozan, are best-suited playing for teams competing right now.

The lack of attempts and efficiency in that department played a major role in the Spurs’ 21st-ranked offensive rating this season. If the defense held its own, maybe the Spurs’ issues offensively could have been mitigated a tad, but nope. San Antonio’s defense fell all the way that they tied for 17th overall in defensive rating (112.8) according to Basketball-Reference. That’s not bad enough to be considered a weakness – it’s average – but these are such off-putting numbers for a team coached by Gregg Popovich.

Whether DeRozan stays or not, the Spurs must become more inventive to boost their offense again.

Opportunities

San Antonio’s opportunities are limited, to say the least. Unless they shock the world with their low lottery odds, they probably won’t get an upfront special talent.

So where does that leave them? Well, reading the tea leaves, DeMar DeRozan seemingly has no interest in spending the rest of his prime with the Spurs. In the grand scheme of things, that’s probably what’s best for both sides. All of San Antonio’s best players are 26 and younger. At 31 years old, DeRozan’s talents are probably best used on a team that’s ready to win now.

Besides, with him gone, that gives their youngsters more room to stretch their legs. Dejounte Murray is a jack-of-all-trades oversized point guard who made NBA All-defense his rookie year. Derrick White’s scoring went up once he saw an increase in minutes and usage. Lonnie Walker IV has had his promising stretches. Then there’s Keldon Johnson.

Johnson was a bubble boy wonder last year. Even if it was brief, he showed a promising three-ball, a bag of tricks in iso, and energetic defense. Many thought perhaps the Spurs had another bright star in their midst. That played a role in giving him some unfair expectations coming in. Much like other individual players this season, Johnson may have benefited enough from the bubble’s atmosphere that not taking another step forward in a COVID-shortened should have been foreseeable.

That doesn’t mean his potential does not intrigue anymore. Much like Murray and White, all it may take is time for him to reach it. If taking two steps forward requires taking one step back first, why not?

Threats

Usually, when writing these, we’re required to highlight each team’s strengths and weaknesses. In San Antonio’s case, that’s precisely their problem right now. Nothing about them, good or bad, is truly remarkable. They’ve been reduced to being the NBA’s quintessentially average ball club. They’ve entered the paradox of being too good to be “bad” and too bad to be “good”.

A core of Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, Lonnie Walker IV, Keldon Johnson, and Jakob Poeltl is a solid one to have. No one’s denying the raw potential that some of them have. At the same time, do any of these guys project to be anything special? For years, a Kawhi-type or a Duncan-type or a Robinson-type led the charge on the Spurs’ title hopes. As of right now, none of the players on this roster has that trajectory.

What they have to ask themselves is how do they, at the very least, get back to owning a timeshare in the postseason as they did for over two decades? Sadly, there’s no quick fix for them. They metaphorically won the lottery when they traded for Kawhi Leonard on draft night and literally won the lottery when they drafted Tim Duncan and David Robinson.

The threat to San Antonio is not the lack of talent itself. It’s how they can get more.

To some, San Antonio’s downfall is a welcome change of pace seeing how long they were at the top. Honestly, it’s sad that their reign ended as prematurely as it did because Kawhi wanted other things. It only got worse the following year when they sacrificed Davis Bertans to make room for Marcus Morris before Morris reneged on their agreement.

They’re not completely bankrupt of young talent. But when you compare any of their young players to the likes of Luka Doncic, Jayson Tatum, or Zion Williamson, do any of them bring the same excitement as those three? Coach Pops has worked too many miracles to count, but much like any elite player, he needs help.

So their options are to either see how their young core turns out or start from scratch for the first time since the eighties. They’re good enough to give this young team a shot for now, but their immediate future is uncertain in the Alamo.

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