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NBA Daily: Grading The Offseason – San Antonio Spurs

The Spurs are picking up the pieces from what’s left of the Kawhi Leonard era. Matt John explains how San Antonio’s done since.

Matt John

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Welcome back to Basketball Insiders’ “Grading The Offseason” series, where we go over how each team did this past season as well as evaluate how they did this summer. So far, we’ve covered the lottery teams, the borderline playoff teams and the treadmill teams. Now that we’re approaching the playoff teams, we’re coming up on the upper echelon of the NBA

Today, we’re looking at the team that for over the past two decades has been the golden example of how to run a basketball team – the San Antonio Spurs.

For the first time in ages, San Antonio did not possess an all-time player on its roster. It’s difficult to lose a player as colossal as Kawhi Leonard. That much was made clear in this year’s playoffs. Having a legendary coach can make up for even absence, but even someone as phenomenal as Gregg Popovich can only do so much.

Right now, San Antonio is in a time of transition. This league is still run by the stars who have the most talent. With Kawhi gone, the Spurs don’t have the talent to measure up with that – all apologies to DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge. They do have something they haven’t had the privilege to boast about in ages – a youth movement.

But that’s getting ahead of ourselves.

Overview

As if losing your future first-ballot Hall-of-Famer wasn’t bad enough, the Spurs lost their most promising young player before the season even began. After establishing himself as one of the premier young defenders in the league the previous season, Dejounte Murray went down with an ACL tear in San Antonio’s very first preseason game.

The Spurs did not start out the way they usually do. They played like a team that had virtually lost everything, as they started out 11-14, and that included blowout losses suffered at the hands of Houston, Utah, and Phoenix. After the Lakers handed them their 14th loss, the Spurs turned it around, going 37-20 the rest of the way.

This came from the team slowly building a new identity. Murray was slated to be the Spurs’ starting point guard at the start of the season. With him down and Tony Parker bolting for Charlotte, there was a void to be filled. With not many options to turn to, San Antonio designated DeMar DeRozan as its primary playmaker.

Scoring-wise, DeMar did not replicate the same numbers that he had in Toronto, but he had the best all-around season of his career. He shot his best percentage since his rookie year – 48.1 percent – and put up his best rebounding averages (six) and assist averages (6.2).

He even kept it up when the postseason rolled around. His scoring numbers remained the same, but his efficiency rose considerably – 48.7 percent while putting up his best rebounding numbers in his playoff career – 6.7. For a guy who has a rep for disappearing in the playoffs, DeMar definitely showed up when the Spurs needed him to.

While we’re on the subject, DeRozan deserves a shout-out for the progress he’s made. He definitely has some warts in his game, but in his rise to stardom, the guy’s all-around abilities as a player have developed quite nicely over the years. He didn’t get much All-Star buzz in San Antonio, but they could have done much worse when they traded Kawhi. DeMar may not be in Leonard’s league, but he proved that he could fit with the Spurs.

The season wasn’t all about him, though. The Spurs got an unlikely boost by the upstart sophomore Derrick White. White’s season can be detailed more here, but if you’d like to keep moving along, let’s summarize it like this. The 25-year-old has suddenly emerged as one of the better young two-way guards in the league as he demonstrated that he was capable of running the offense as well as proving himself defensively.

You, of course, can’t talk about the Spurs without talking about the play of LaMarcus Aldridge. The guy proved his breakout season – in a Spurs uniform – was no fluke. He averaged 21/9 on almost 52 percent shooting while having almost two less shot attempts a game.

But enough about who their individual standouts were. You know why this is a time of transition for San Antonio? Well, the Spurs’ calling card in the glory days was their defense. This season, they had the 19th-highest-rated defense in the league by allowing 111.2 points per 100 possessions. That was to be expected when you lose Leonard, Murray, Kyle Anderson and Danny Green all before the season starts. That stat is a little deceptive though.

The defense was bad early on, but when San Antonio got its act together, or when they went on that 37-20 run to end the season, they had the 11th-highest-rated defense allowing 109.3 points per 100 possessions. In that same time, they had the fourth-highest rated offense, scoring 113.5 points per 100 possessions.

They’ve done this despite their refusal to conform to the NBA’s obsession with threes. The Spurs took the lowest volume of threes this season – shooting 25.3 a game while also topping the league in three-point percentage – 39.2 percent. They did this despite the fact that their two top offensive options – DeRozan and Aldridge – shot between 15 to 24 percent from there. When Gregg Popovich is running the show, you don’t ask questions.

The Spurs did as reasonably well as they could have expected to do in their first-year post-Kawhi. They still made the playoffs and came within one win of going on an extended run. Yet Murray’s injury will always be brought up when people ask what this team could have been in 2019.

Offseason

San Antonio wasn’t expected to do much this summer. They didn’t have the cap room to bring in anyone on a max contract. Yet, as we all know, when it’s San Antonio – the team that took empty-calorie scorers like David Lee and Rudy Gay and turned them into valuable rotation players – you don’t underestimate the moves that franchise makes.

First, they got their latest European import, Luka Samanic. Samanic didn’t come into the draft with high expectations. At 19 years old, Samanic is an athletic big from Croatia that doesn’t have the best three-pointer – which won’t be a problem in San Antonio – but he’s fluid and switchable. Being as young as he is, don’t expect him to be played much this coming season.

Knowing the track record of San Antonio’s scouting team, don’t count the kid out. If he is yet another in a long line of foreign player success stories, he may just earn the nickname, “The Other Luka.”

With the pick they received from the Raptors in the Kawhi deal, the Spurs took Keldon Johnson, who fits the three-and-D mold. Judging by the moves they made this summer and Johnson’s age, don’t expect him to get much time either.

San Antonio was in the mood for wings this offseason. First, they signed and traded for DeMarre Carroll. Carroll’s had himself a little bit of a career resurgence in his short time in Brooklyn. That was because, during that time, the Nets didn’t have a whole ton of options – at least his first year there – but Carroll clearly played well enough for the Spurs to invest $20+ million in him.

Next was re-signing Rudy Gay. Gay’s transition to second unit scorer has been heartwarming to watch given his reputation in this league as an ineffective scorer. If there was one coach who could get him to play this way, it was Pop. Clearly, the Spurs felt that he was worth keeping around at good cost, as they gave him a two-year, $28 million deal. Not bad for a guy two years removed from an Achilles injury.

The real story of the offseason came from the Marcus Morris fiasco. The Spurs traded Davis Bertans to put everything in to give Morris the full mid-level exception, which he was set to take…until the Knicks swooped in with a better offer and snatched him up.

As if the Spurs needed more heartbreak.

Teams have gotten left at the altar before. Just ask the Dallas Mavericks. This time, it’s different. The Spurs traded a good rotation player to make room for Morris, who’s an all-around upgrade over Bertans.

(Slightly off topic: What does Washington need Davis Bertans for?)

The real dagger is that they lost two players from this debacle when they could have had at least one of them.

At least Gay and Carroll will be there to make up the difference. Lastly, the Spurs went for the young reclamation project with Trey Lyles. Lyles was productive for Denver until he fell out of their rotation. As long he listens to Coach, his future is in good hands.

PLAYERS IN: DeMarre Carroll, Trey Lyles, Dedric Lawson, Luka Samanic, Keldon Johnson, Quinndary Weatherspoon (two-way)

PLAYERS OUT: Davis Bertans, Dante Cunningham, Donatas Motiejunas, Quincy Pondexter, Ben Moore

What’s Next

The Spurs are not in a bad position. The Kawhi fallout knocked them down, but did not knock them out. They still have a winning formula. The question they have to ask themselves is, where do they go from here?

Right now, the team is at a crossroads. Aldridge and DeRozan are both excellent basketball players, but how much does Aldridge have left in the tank and is DeRozan a long-term factor in San Antonio?

The Spurs have reason to keep Aldridge around. They’ve gotten their money’s worth out of him since they extended his contract. With DeRozan, it’s a little fuzzier. DeRozan deserves all the praise in the world for how he handled being traded to San Antonio, but the Spurs’ promising youth movement could get in the way any of their long-term plans to keep DeMar.

Dejounte Murray will be back and should be eager to capitalize after a lost season. Derrick White should only get better as he gets more time. And don’t sleep on Lonnie Walker IV. The man looked bored at times during the Summer League because he was a man among boys.

If all three of those guys take another step next season, there may not be much reason to keep DeRozan around because they all can play his position.

For now, San Antonio isn’t really regarded as a contender. They should be in the playoff hunt just as they always are. If they are to get back to the elite status they once had both year in and year out, they have to ponder which avenue they should take to get there.

OFFSEASON GRADE: C

Matt John is a staff writer for Basketball Insiders. He is currently a Utah resident, but a Massachusetts native.

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NBA Daily: Examining Michael Porter Jr.’s Ascension

Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. is averaging over 25 points per game and looks like a future All-NBA player. Bobby Krivitsky examines Porter’s ascent and the questions that come with it.

Bobby Krivitsky

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Since Jamal Murray’s season-ending knee injury, Michael Porter Jr. has taken his game to new heights.

In the wake of Murray’s ACL tear in mid-April, Porter’s playing time has gone from 30.6 minutes per contest to 35.7, while his shots per game have risen from 12.6 per game to 16.5. The increased responsibility has fueled his ascent. He’s knocking down 56.3 percent of those attempts. He’s taking 8.2 threes per game and making a blistering 50 percent of them. As a result, Porter’s gone from averaging 17.5 points per game to 25.1. He’s also grabbing 6.1 rebounds and blocking almost one shot per contest.

At the time of Murray’s injury, the Denver Nuggets were in fourth place in the Western Conference. They remain there now, 9-4 in his absence, and they boast the eighth-highest net rating in the NBA.

The only way for the Nuggets to fall from fourth would be if they lost their four remaining games and the Dallas Mavericks won their final five contests because the Mavericks have the tiebreaker since they won the season series. On the more realistic end of the spectrum, Denver sits just 1.5 games back of the Los Angeles Clippers, who occupy the third seed in the West. The Nuggets won their season series against the Clippers, meaning they’d finish in third if the two teams ended the regular season with the same record.

There’s a bevy of questions surrounding Porter’s recent play that need to be asked but cannot get answered at the moment. That starts with whether this is anything more than a hot streak. While it’s impossible to say definitively, it’s reasonable to believe Porter can consistently and efficiently produce about 25 points per game. He was the second-ranked high school prospect in 2017 and entered his freshman year at Missouri firmly in the mix for the top pick in the 2018 NBA draft. That was thanks in large part to his offensive prowess as a 6-10 wing with a smooth shot that’s nearly impossible to block because of the elevation he gets when he shoots. 

A back injury cost him all but 53 minutes of his collegiate career and caused him to fall to the 14th pick in the draft. He ended up in an ideal landing spot, going to a well-run organization that’s also well aware of its barren track record luring star players looking to change teams, making it vital for the Nuggets to hit on their draft picks. 

Porter’s first year in the NBA was exclusively dedicated to the rehab process and doing everything possible to ensure he can have a long, healthy and productive career. Last season, finally getting a chance to play, he showed off the tantalizing talent that made him a top prospect but only took seven shots per game while trying to fit in alongside Nikola Jokic, Murray, Paul Millsap and Jerami Grant.

More experience, including battling against the Los Angeles Lakers in the Western Conference Finals, an offseason, albeit a truncated one, to prepare for a more substantial role with Grant joining the Detroit Pistons and Millsap turning 36 this year, helped propel Porter. 

But for the Nuggets, before Murray’s injury, the perception was that even though they weren’t the favorites to come out of the Western Conference, they were a legitimate title contender. How far can they go if Porter’s consistently contributing about 25 points and over six rebounds per game while effectively playing the role of a second star alongside Jokic? 

It seems fair to cross Denver off the list of title contenders. But, if Porter continues to capably play the role of a second star alongside Jokic when doing so becomes more challenging in the postseason, the Nuggets can advance past a team like the Mavericks or Portland Trail Blazers. And at a minimum, they’d have the ability to make life difficult for whoever they had to face in the second round of the playoffs.

Unfortunately, the timing of Murray’s ACL tear, which happened in mid-April, means there’s a legitimate possibility he misses all of next season. Denver’s increased reliance on Porter is already allowing a young player with All-NBA potential to take on a role that’s closer to the one he’s assumed his whole life before making it to the sport’s highest level. If the Nuggets are counting on him to be the second-best player on a highly competitive team in the Western Conference next season, it’ll be fascinating to see what heights he reaches and how far they’re able to go as a team.

Theoretically, Porter’s growth could make it difficult for Denver to reacclimate Murray. But given Jokic’s unselfish style of play, there’s room for both of them to be satisfied by the volume of shots they’re getting. Unfortunately, the Nuggets have to wait, potentially another season, but Jokic is 26-years-old, Murray 24, Porter 22. When Denver has their Big Three back together, they could be far more potent while still being able to enjoy a lengthy run as legitimate title contenders.

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NBA Daily: D’Angelo Russell Back on Track

D’Angelo Russell lost much of the 2020-21 season to injury. Drew Maresca explains why his return will surprise people around the league.

Drew Maresca

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D’Angelo Russell was traded to the Minnesota Timberwolves last February, just before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down the entire season. But we’ve yet to see what Russell can really do in Minnesota.

The Timberwolves acquired Russell in late February in exchange for a future first-round pick – which transitions this season if they pick later than third – a 2021 second-round pick and Andrew Wiggins.

Sidenote: For those keeping score at home, the Timberwolves currently have the third-worst record in the league with five games remaining. It would behoove Minnesota to lose as many of their remaining games as possible to keep their 2021 pick. If the pick does not transition this season, it becomes unrestricted in 2020.

Trying to turn an owed pick into an unprotected future first is usually the wrong move; but in this instance, it’s better to keep the high first-rounder this year with an understanding that your 2022 pick will probably fall in or around the middle of the lottery.

The thinking around the deal was that Minnesota could qualify for the playoffs as soon as this season by swapping Wiggins’ contract for a young, talented lead guard in Russell. It has not played out as planned.

COVID resulted in a play stoppage shortly after the deal, robbing Russell of the opportunity to ramp up with his new team. When the NBA returned to finish the 2019-20 season, the Timberwolves failed to qualify for bubble play – and considering the US was still battling a global pandemic, Russell couldn’t easily practice with his new teammates and/or coaches.

The 2020-21 season began weirdly, too. The NBA proceeded with an abbreviated training camp and preseason. And while this impacted all teams, Russell was additionally hindered by the decision.

Ready or not, the season began. In 2020-21, Russell is averaging a near-career low in minutes per game (28.2) across just 36 games. He’s tallying 19.1 points per game on 43.6% shooting and a career-best 38.8% on three-point attempts. He’s also he’s posting a near career-best assist-to-turnover ratio (5.7 to 2.8).

Despite Russell’s contributions, the Timberwolves have failed to meet expectations. Far from the playoff squad they hoped to be, Minnesota is in contention for the top pick in this year’s draft. So what has gone wrong in Minneapolis?

Russell’s setbacks are fairly obvious. In addition to the lack of preparation with his teammates and coaches, Russell was diagnosed with a “loose body” in his knee, requiring arthroscopic knee surgery in February. As a result, he missed 27 consecutive games. Russell returned on April 5, but head coach Chris Finch revealed that he’d been on a minutes restriction until just recently.

Minnesota is clearly being cautious with Russell. Upon closer review, Russell has been restricted to under 30 minutes per game in all of his first 10 games back. Since then, Russell is averaging 31 minutes per game including an encouraging 37 minutes on May 5 in a four-point loss to Memphis.

Since returning from knee surgery, Russell is averaging 27 minutes per game across 16 games. Despite starting 19 of the team’s first 20 games, he hadn’t started in any game since returning – until Wednesday.

On the whole, Russell’s impact is about the same as it was prior to the injury, which should be encouraging to Timberwolves’ fans. He’s scoring slightly less (18.8 points since returning vs. 19.3 prior), shooting better from the field (44.9% since returning vs 42.6%% prior) and has been just slightly worse from three-point range (37.4% since vs. 39.9 prior). He’s dishing out more assists per game (6.5 since vs. 5.1 prior), too, and he posted three double-digit assist games in his last five contents – a feat achieved only once all season prior to his last five games.

Despite playing more and dropping more dimes, there’s still room to improve. Looking back to his career-bests, Russell averaged 23.1 points per game in 2019-20 in 33 games with Golden State (23.6) and 12 games with Minnesota (21.7).

But his most impactful season came in 2018-19 with the Brooklyn Nets. That season, Russell averaged 21.1 points and 7.0 assists per game, leading the Nets to the playoffs and earning his first trip to the All-Star game. He looked incredibly comfortable, playing with supreme confidence and flashing the ability to lead a playoff team.

At his best, Russell is a dynamic playmaker. The beauty of Russell is that he can also play off the ball. He has a quick release on his jumper and impressive range. His game is not predicated on athleticism, meaning he should stay at his peak for longer than guys like De’Aaron Fox and Ja Morant.

And while he’s been in the league for what feels like ever (six seasons), Russell just turned 25 approximately two months ago. Granted, comparing anyone to Steph Curry is unwise, but Curry wasn’t Steph Curry yet at 25. Former MVP Steve Nash hadn’t yet averaged double-digits (points) at 25. Twenty-five is also an inflection point for Damian Lillard and Russell Westbrook. And the list goes on.

To be fair, Russell was drafted at 19 so he’s more acclimated to the league at this age than most, but his game will continue expanding nonetheless. He’ll develop trickier moves, become stronger and grow his shooting range. And a good deal of that growth should be evident as soon as next season since he’ll be fully healed from knee surgery and have a full offseason and training camp to finally work with teammates and coaches.

So while Minnesota’s 2020-21 season was incredibly bleak, their future is quite bright – and much of it has to do with the presence of Russell.

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NBA AM: Is This It for Indiana?

Following their major drop-off, Matt John explains why the Pacers trying to get back to where they were may not be the best decision.

Matt John

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Remember when, following the maligned trade of Paul George, the sky was the limit for the Indiana Pacers? The 2017-18 Pacers were one of the best stories in the NBA that season because they made their opponents work for their victories, and they put on a spectacle every night.

It’s hard to believe that all transpired three whole years ago. When Cleveland eliminated Indiana in a very tight first-round series, I asked if having the exciting season that they did – when many thought it would turn out the opposite – was going to benefit them in the long run. Three years later, this happens.

We were getting plenty of smoke about the Pacers’ drama behind-the-scenes beforehand, and now, we have seen the fire firsthand. More and more reports indicate that the crap has hit the fan. Indiana has seemingly already had enough of Nate Bjorkgren in only his first year as his coach. When you see the results they’ve had this season compared to the last three, it’s not hard to see why.

The Pacers have routinely found themselves in the 4-5 playoff matchup for the last three years. Sadly, despite their fight – and, to be fair, they had pretty awful injury luck the past two postseasons – they haven’t been able to get over the hump in the first round. They may not have been in the elite tier, but they weren’t slouches either. So, seeing them not only fail to take the next step but look more and more likely for the play-in is as discouraging as it gets. Especially after they started the season 6-2.

If these reports about the tensions between the players and Bjorkgren are real, then this has already become a lost season for the Pacers. It’s too late in the season to make any major personnel changes. At this point, their best route is just to cut their losses and wait until this summer to think over what the next move is.

In that case, let’s take a deep breath. This has been a weird season for everyone. Every aspect minus the playoffs has been shorter than usual since last October. Everything was shortened from the offseason to the regular season. Oh, and COVID-19 has played a role as the season has turned out, although COVID-19 has probably been the least of Indy’s problems. Let’s think about what next season would look like for Indiana.

TJ Warren comes back with a clean bill of health. Caris Levert gets more acquainted with the team and how they run. Who knows? Maybe they finally resolve the Myles Turner-Domantas Sabonis situation once and for all. A new coach can come aboard to steady the ship, and it already looks like they have an idea for who that’s going to be

Should they run it back, there’s a solid chance they can get back to where they were before. But that’s sort of the problem to begin with. Even if this recent Pacers’ season turns out to be just a negative outlier, their ceiling isn’t all too high anyway. A team that consists of Warren, Domantas Sabonis, Malcolm Brogdon, and Caris Levert as their core four is a solid playoff team. Having Turner, Doug McDermott, TJ McConnell, Jeremy Lamb, and the Holiday brothers rounds out a solid playoff team. Anyone who takes a good look at this roster knows that this roster is a good one. It’s not great though.

Just to be clear, Indiana has plenty of ingredients for a championship team. They just don’t have the main one: The franchise player. Once upon a time, it looked like that may have been Oladipo, but a cruel twist of fate took that all away. This isn’t a shot at any of the quality players they have on their roster, but think of it this way.

For the next couple of years, they’re going to go up against Kevin Durant, James Harden, and Kyrie Irving. All of whom are on the same team. For potentially even longer, they’ll be going up against the likes of Giannis Antetoukounmpo, Joel Embiid, and Jayson Tatum. With the roster they have, they could make a series interesting against any one of those teams. However, it’s a rule of thumb in the NBA that the team with the best player usually wins the series. Not to mention, they’d have to beat most of the teams those players play for to go on a substantial playoff run. That’s a pretty tall order.

There’s no joy in talking about the Pacers like this because they have built this overachieving underdog from nothing more than shrewd executive work. They turned a disgruntled and expiring Paul George into Oladipo and Sabonis. Both of whom have since become two-time all-stars (and counting). They then managed to turn an expiring and hobbled Oladipo – who had no plans to return to Indiana – into the electric Levert. They also pretty much stole Brogdon and Warren away while paying very little for either of them.

That is fantastic work. The only hangup is that, as of now, it just doesn’t seem like it will be enough. But, doubt and skepticism are things Indiana’s had thrown their way consistently since 2017. Many thought their approach to trading Paul George would blow up in their face, and since then, they’ve done everything in their power to make everyone eat their words.

Kevin Pritchard’s got his work cut out for him this summer. This season will hopefully turn out to be nothing more than performance ruined by both the wrong coaching hire and an unusual season that produced negatively skewed results. But at this point, Pritchard’s upcoming course of action this summer shouldn’t be about getting his team back to where they were, but deciding whether he can get them a step or two further than that by adding more to what they have or starting over completely.

Indiana’s had a rough go of it in this COVID-shortened season, but their disappointing play may have little to no bearing on where they go from here.

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