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Knicks’ Future Not as Bleak as it Appears

Amid panic in New York, the Knicks still have a clear path to future contention, writes Tommy Beer.

Tommy Beer

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Take a deep breath, Knicks fans. Perhaps try a few Zen-Master approved relaxation techniques?

Yes, it’s true that yet another Knicks season is slipping away. The Knickerbockers have seemingly nosedived from playoff contender to laughingstock/afterthought in a New York minute. Just a few weeks ago, they were 14-10 and had NYC buzzing. But, alas, here we are, in an all too familiar scenario for New York basketball fans: Their favorite team slumping through a soul-snatching losing streak on the court, while chaos envelops the organization off the floor.

While it is undeniably gloomy in Gotham right now, it could be argued that the future is not as dark and dreary as it might seem.

The Knicks may not be as far away from developing into a competitive, winning team as some might suggest. Many in and around New York have buried the team and are destroying Phil Jackson for what they view as an unmitigated failure of epic proportions. One prominent New York radio personality even claimed that Phil Jackson has been a worse GM than Isiah Thomas. Seriously.

Again, deep breath everybody. Let’s take a step back here and look at the bigger picture. There are reasons for optimism. Seriously. Let’s start at the ground floor.

The most important part of building an NBA team truly capable of competing at the highest level is finding a legitimate franchise player. Without at least one elite-level superstar, you have almost no chance to rise above the pack. Going back in history, how many teams have won a title, or even advanced to the Finals, without a top-10 player? There are very, very few teams able to claim such a distinction. Thus, getting your hands on a legit superstar is the most important piece to the puzzle.

This is why any discussion of a potentially bright Knicks future begins with Kristaps Porzingis.

There is no denying that Phil Jackson has made some bad trades. He also should not have given Carmelo Anthony max money, in addition to everything else Melo asked for, including the 15-percent trade kicker the much-discussed no-trade clause that has dominated headlines in NYC recently.

With that said, by far and away the most important decision Phil has made during his tenure with the Knicks occurred on June 25, 2015. That was the date of the 2015 NBA Draft. Despite New York slipping to fourth in the draft lottery, Phil needed to hit a home run with that pick to save the Knicks. He smacked a grand slam.

Porzingis is nursing an Achilles injury right now, but assuming it’s simply a minor ailment without any long-term ramifications, the sky truly is the limit for this kid. Too often we nonchalantly throw around cliches such as “unimaginable upside.” But sometimes the talent is so unique and the player so special, these banal platitudes actually apply. There are any number of statistics to choose from to highlight just how incredible the start to Porzingis’ career has been.

Porzingis has played a total of 108 games in his NBA career thus far. He has blocked 207 shots and knocked down 157 3-pointers. No only is he the first player in NBA history with more than 200 rejections and 150 treys this early in his career, but putting those stats in context helps to highlight their absurdity.

Porzingis has hit the same exact number of 3-pointers in his first 108 career games as Ray Allen did in Allen’s first 108 career contests. KP has more made treys than all-time great shooters such as James Harden, Michael Redd and Chauncey Billups to this point in their careers. In addition, he has blocked more shots in his first 108 games than Yao Ming (201) and Dwight Howard (175) did in their first 108 games.

This season, despite being only 21 years of age, he is averaging 20.5 points and 7.8 rebounds per game and is also on pace to become the first player in league history to average over two three-pointers and two blocks per game.

However, stats and numbers are just one reason why those that have watched him up close are so high on Porzingis. He is incredibly humble for a young kid rising to stardom in the biggest city in the world. He is confident, yet not cocky. He is aggressive and assertive, but a willing passer and a well-liked teammate. In short, he is the type of player and the type of person you want to build a franchise around.

You get the idea. He doesn’t turn 22 until next August and is still growing into his body and figuring out how to play in the NBA, but Porzingis has the potential to be a perennial All-NBA player and MVP candidate in the near future. It is also important to note that the league’s new CBA greatly increases the odds that KP will re-sign with the Knicks when that time comes.

Porzingis is the backbone of the franchise, the foundation on which the Knicks future rests. The dream of finding a player like Porzingis is why teams tank. The Knicks already have their main building block. The first and most crucial piece is in place. Now it’s incumbent upon Phil Jackson and company to creatively flesh out the roster around him.

Which brings us to another reason for Knicks fans to hold out hope for the future: For the first time in a very long time, the Knickerbockers own the rights to all of their future first round picks. This is why favorably comparing Isiah Thomas’ track record to Phil Jackson is nonsensical. Thomas bankrupted the Knicks’ future by giving away unprotected first round picks as if they were Snickers bars on Halloween. Jackson has been vigilant in protecting the Knicks draft picks (Phil has also done a decent job of protecting New York’s future cap space – more on that in a minute). Draft picks are incredibly valuable in today’s NBA, as rookie-scale contracts represent the greatest value available under the league’s collective bargaining agreement.

The Knicks owning the rights to their own 2017 first-rounder also softens the blow of the current 2016-17 campaign going off the rails. The worse the Knicks play this season, and the more games they lose, the better odds they have of landing a high lottery pick. In addition, their poor record prevents the team from foolishly giving up future assets in a needless chase for the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference.

If the season ended today, New York would have the 12th overall selection in what is widely considered a loaded draft. There are a number of extremely talented players projected to be available for teams sitting in the back half of the lottery, including a handful of top-tier point guard prospects.

The Knicks also have two second-round picks in the 2017 draft, as they own the rights to Houston and Chicago’s second-rounders. This is relatively uncharted waters for this franchise. Amazingly, the Knicks haven’t made a pick in both the first and second rounds of any draft since 2005, when they selected Channing Frye with the eighth overall pick and Dijon Thompson at 54. The last time New York used their own first and second round picks in the same draft was 2003 (Mike Sweetney and Slavko Vranes).

The 2017 draft kicks off a very important summer for Phil Jackson and his team. The Knicks have to hit on their pick at the end of June, as well make a big splash in free agency once July arrives.

The salary cap for the 2017-18 season is projected to land at $102 million. The Knicks currently have approximately $75.4 million in guaranteed salary on the books for the 2017-18. That number does not include cap holds and non-guaranteed money in contracts for players such as Marshall Plumlee and Maurice Ndour. The biggest cap hold on the roster belongs to Derrick Rose, at nearly $29 million. Assuming they renounce their rights to Rose (which they definitely should do), as well as Brandon Jennings ($6 million) and Sasha Vujacic ($1 million), the Knicks would be looking at roughly $25 million in cap space to work with this summer. Coincidentally, a max contract for a player with six-plus years experience will start at around $25.5 million.

The Knicks primary focus next summer should be landing an elite point guard. Rose has put up good offensive stats, but he has used a ton of possessions to do so (his usage rate of 26.3 is second only to Anthony). More importantly, he has been a sieve on the defensive end of the floor. The Knicks inability to stop point guard penetration over the last few seasons has been absolutely crippling. The one-year Rose experiment has not yielded positive results. It’s time for the Knicks to move on.

Fortunately, there are a plethora of quality point guards set to hit the open market this summer. Steph Curry, Chris Paul, Kyle Lowry, George Hill, Jrue Holiday and Jeff Teague are among the names that will be up for grabs. (It should also be noted that Serbia, Miloš Teodosić, who is currently playing for CSKA Moscow of the VTB United League, will also be a free agent this summer.)

Chris Paul could play a huge role in changing the direction of a wayward organization and transform the Knicks into a respectable team overnight. Would he consider leaving the ultra-competitive West to come East and join his buddy Melo in New York? A lineup featuring CP3, Courtney Lee, Melo, Porzingis and Joakim Noah would be interesting.

George Hill, who has had trouble staying healthy this season but has played superbly when he’s been on the floor, would also represent a significant upgrade. Jrue Holiday is 26 years of age and just entering his prime.

In the past, the Knicks have had a very difficult time convincing stars to sign in New York, but does the presence of Porzingis change that? One would think having the chance to run with KP in his prime would be enticing to any point guard.

And looking a bit further down the line, the Knicks currently have only $39 million in guaranteed salaries locked in for the 2018-19 season. While the Joakim Noah contract certainly doesn’t look good at the moment, the fact that it is the single worst contract on the team’s ledger is somewhat encouraging. Noah has been playing better of late (he’s averaging 11.3 rebounds over New York’s last 13 games), and with the cap rising, he will account for 17 percent of the Knicks’ total salary next season. That’s not an unimaginable price to pay for a player that leads his team in rebounding, plays hard every possession and is a positive influence in the locker room.

Furthermore, the Knicks have some terrific value contracts on the books. Kyle O’Quinn is set to make just $4.1 million next season, while Mindaugas Kuzminskas will earn only $3.0 million. And the Knicks have Guillermo “Willy” Hernangomez locked in at an incredible discount. Hernangomez will make $1.4 million, $1.6 million and $1.7 million over the next three seasons. To have quality role players making less than three percent of the salary cap is extraordinarily valuable in today’s NBA.

It is also important to note that the Knicks have a coach that has shifted them away from the antiquated and inefficient Triangle Offense, towards a more progressive and modern offensive approach. Jeff Hornacek has had an up-and-down start to his Knicks experience, but there are some positives to take away from his first few months as Knicks coach. In addition to updating the offense, Hornacek has shown a willingness to bench high-paid players when he deems it necessary. He drastically limited Noah’s minutes early on this season when Noah was struggling, which gave O’Quinn and Hernangomez an opportunity to shine. And in Monday afternoon’s matchup against Atlanta, Hornacek sent starter Courtney Lee to the bench in favor of undrafted rookie Ron Baker. In that same game, Kuzminskas also made his first career start and played a team-high 37 minutes.

Last but not least, Hornacek has stated that he will likely play Porzingis at center, with Carmelo Anthony at power forward, when KP is healthy enough to suit up. This is important because it is something both Anthony and Knicks coaches were hesitant to embrace last season. Porzingis’ natural position is as a stretch five, as it will allow him to fully take advantage of his remarkably unique skill set.

All things considered, while there is undeniably plenty for Knicks supporters to be depressed about, there is also reason to believe that future will be considerably brighter. No one is suggesting that the present picture is rosy or that New York is on a can’t-miss path towards creating a contender. No, there is still plenty of work to be done. But the upshot here is that it is possible.

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

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NBA Daily: 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.

Zach Dupont

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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.

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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.

David Yapkowitz

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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.

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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.

Chad Smith

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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.

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.

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