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.
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.
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
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
Where Can Dallas Go From Here?
The Dallas Mavericks have had a bad season, what can they do to turn it around?
The Dallas Mavericks struck gold in 2018 when they secured Slovenian superstar Luka Doncic in the NBA Draft.
Fast forward to 2021 and Doncic has already emerged as one of the best players in the NBA and a borderline perennial MVP candidate. This season, Doncic is averaging 28.5 points, 9.0 assists and 8.4 rebounds per game and was just named as a starter in the All-Star Game for the second time in a row. But Doncic’s success isn’t leading the Mavericks to wins as Dallas holds a mediocre 17-16 record and currently sits 9th in the Western Conference.
Outside of Doncic, the Mavericks lack the scoring needed to push them over the top. Kristaps Porzingis is Dallas’ second-leading scorer, averaging 20.5 points per game, but he has had trouble staying healthy, playing in only 17 games. Porzingis hasn’t been shooting the ball consistently either, shooting only 35 percent from three-point range so far.
Dallas, as a team, needs help with their outside shooting. The Mavericks are 23rd in the NBA in three-point shooting percentage, hitting 35.3 percent of their outside shots on the season. This problem is exacerbated by the fact that Dallas shoots the ninth most three-pointer per game at 37.1 three-point attempts – wilder, ranking ninth in three-pointers attempted rate, 42.7 percent of Dallas’ shots come from beyond the arc.
The defense has also been a thorn in the Mavericks’ side this year. At one point, Porzingis was one of the more dynamic shot blockers and interior defenders in the league, but this season he has taken a step back. Dallas rocks the fifth-worst defensive rating in the NBA of 114.4, only beating out the Washington Wizards, New Orleans Pelicans, Portland Trailblazers and Sacramento Kings. Having the fifth-worst defense isn’t good enough if the Mavericks are serious about competing this year.
One player that might help Dallas in both areas is a former player, current Sacramento Kings’ wing Harrison Barnes. Barnes has had a very productive season in Sacramento, averaging 16.1 points per game on 48.9 field goal percentage and 40 percent from three. At 6-foot-8 and 225 lbs, Barnes has the size to defend elite wing players, often doing a modest job for a very bad defensive. Barnes also is capable of operating as a secondary ball-handler with some limited playmaking abilities that could help diversify the Mavericks’ offense.
Another player rumored to be on the market is Charlotte Hornets guard Terry Rozier. The Hornets have a log jam at the guard position between Rozier, LaMelo Ball and Devonte’ Graham, and Rozier could be a nice fit alongside Doncic in the backcourt. Rozier would immediately improve the Mavericks’ three-point shooting as Scary Terry is knocking down 44.5 percent of his deep hoists. Another benefit of bringing in Rozier is his ability to act as a primary ball-handler, alongside Doncic that would take the pressure off to create a basket every time down the floor. Rozier’s defense does leave a lot to be desired, but he works hard on that end and averages 1.3 steals per game.
Further, two big men known to be on the trade block are Atlanta Hawks forward John Collins and Cleveland Cavaliers center Andre Drummond. In his fourth season, Collins has taken another step forward on both ends of the court, averaging 17.4 points on an ultra-efficient 62.2 true shooting percentage. Collins has also improved as a defender since he first entered the league and is now making a much more positive impact on defense.
This improvement is evident by his defensive rating of 111.7, more than two whole points lower than the Hawks’ team defensive rating of 113.8, per NBA.com. Collins does have some drawbacks though, chief among them is that he’ll hit restricted free agency this offseason in time for a massive payday.
Drummond has sat out since the Cavaliers started looking for a partner, and Dallas presents an exciting option for the 27-year-old center. Drummond is a monster on the glass, averaging 13.5 rebounds per game this season – a number that is actually the lowest he’s put up since 2014-15. For Drummond to fit on this team and help them win games, he’d have to cut back his scoring attempts dramatically.
Drummond’s 17.5 points per game look nice, but when paired with a 50 percent true shooting, it’s much less appealing. However, the potential rim protection and rebounding may be worth the risk of his lackluster offensive numbers – best of all, the asking price should be low too.
A roadblock to acquiring anyone for Dallas is their lack of assets to give back in a trade. The Mavericks don’t own their 2021 or 2023 first-round draft picks, which leaves them only able to trade a first-round pick at the earliest for 2025. Dallas isn’t loaded with prospects to ship away either. Any of the 2020 draft picks would provide some value, but not enough to get a deal done for a significant difference-maker.
Dallas has their generational talent, but they need to build a roster around him if they expect to succeed and lock down a potential-laden future together.
Anthony Edwards Showing Promising Progression
Anthony Edwards has been a highlight reel every single night but his poor shooting has gotten a lot of attention as well. Chad Smith details why there should be no cause for concern regarding the future of the top overall draft pick.
There is a lot of pressure that comes with being selected number one overall in the NBA Draft. This is especially true in today’s game, where the top pick is expected to have an immediate impact. Often times when a player is the top pick, they are instantly the most talented player on their team, or at least have the most potential.
This was not the case for Anthony Edwards and the Minnesota Timberwolves.
Karl-Anthony Towns is still the face of the franchise. And, as many highlight plays and rim-destroying dunks that Edwards provides, he is still a raw talent with a lot to learn. To his credit, Edwards not only is well aware of and acknowledges that fact, but has the work ethic and maturity needed to fulfill his potential.
The former Georgia Bulldog is still just 19-years-old, but he has the physical tools to do what a lot of players in the league cannot. He does an excellent job of leveraging his size, speed and quickness to get wherever he wants to on the floor. His rebounding and defense have already improved just 35 games into the season. The glaring weakness in his game is shooting efficiency, which every scouting report on him around the league has written in all caps with red ink.
Edwards is shooting 37 percent overall from the floor, 31 percent from beyond the arc and 80 percent from the free-throw line. The latter indicates that he has the touch but the accuracy just isn’t there from long range. On average, Edwards takes 14 shot attempts per game and six of them are of the three-point variety. Nearly half of his shot attempts come from the three-point line because he is typically wide open, which plays right into the hands of the defense.
Whenever Edwards makes a big shot, he immediately tries to make another one. He’ll figure out the composure part as we go along.
— Jon Krawczynski (@JonKrawczynski) February 25, 2021
Once Edwards gets a grasp of how the game is played and what the defense is trying to do to him, a light will go off in his head. The old saying goes “take what the defense gives you” but it is also important to recognize your own strengths and weaknesses. Based on his work ethic and desire to improve his game, it is only a matter of time before he figures it out.
The numbers show that Edwards is already evolving in other areas of the game. After blocking just two total shots in the month of January, the rookie recorded 12 blocks in February. His 3.2 rebounds per game in January rose to 5.1 last month and his assist average went from 1.9 to 3.3 per game.
Minnesota owns the worst record in the league, but help is on the way. The Timberwolves fired head coach Ryan Saunders after their 7-24 start to the season. Minutes after the news broke, the team already had their new man: Chris Finch, one of the NBA’s top assistant coaches for quite some time. More importantly, Finch has a long history with Gersson Rosas and a solid track record of molding talented young players.
Finch worked with a young Nikola Jokic when he was with the Denver Nuggets and helped develop Anthony Davis when he worked for the New Orleans Pelicans. He joined the Toronto Raptors coaching staff this season and molded Chris Boucher into one of the top candidates for the Most Improved Player Award; it wouldn’t be the first time he pushed a player into the award, either, as he helped Brandon Ingram win the award during the 2019-20 season.
One other notable thing that Finch did while in New Orleans is fix Lonzo Ball’s jump shot. He started with the mechanics. Instead of Ball bringing the ball up from the side of his hip, Finch was able to get him to bring it up in the middle of his body. He also worked with the young guard on his shot selection, both of which have paid large dividends this season.
There will be plenty of tools for Finch to incorporate into his plans to resurrect one of the league’s worst offenses. Along with Towns and Edwards, the Timberwolves have been getting fantastic production from Malik Beasley, who just received a 12-game suspension. Ricky Rubio has been filling in nicely as former All-Star D’Angelo Russell is out with a knee injury. Jarred Vanderbilt, Jarrett Culver, Josh Okogie and rookie Jaden McDaniels are all part of the young nucleus that Finch inherits as well.
Before the coaching change, the Timberwolves scored just 1.15 points per possession on cuts and 0.86 points per possession off of screen plays, per Cleaning The Glass. Both of these ranked bottom five in the league. Finch loves to incorporate off-ball screens and cuts to the basket so this should give them a nice boost, especially with excellent cutters like Edwards and Okogie.
Despite the typical rookie efficiency issues, Edwards has been contributing in other ways. Using his elite athleticism to get to the rim provides Minnesota a multitude of positive outcomes. Edwards can either finish at the rim, create space for others to get open shots, or get fouled and collect points at the free-throw line, being the excellent free-throw shooter that he is.
It is easy to see that Edwards has the desire to win; he cares about winning and the team’s success overall. After their game against the Raptors, all anyone wanted to talk about was his incredible dunk over Yuta Watanabe. Edwards didn’t miss a beat though. “I don’t care about the dunk,” he said. “I couldn’t make shots.” Edwards did not dwell on the moment either, leaving the podium and heading back out onto the court to get more shots up.
There is a long history of guys in this league that have struggled with efficiency, then became decent or above-average shooters. It’s all about hard work, dedication, and repetition. Edwards has all of the ingredients needed to improve that part of his game. That is just one piece of the puzzle in Minnesota but one that could finally steer this franchise in the right direction.
NBA Most Valuable Player Watch – March 1
With the All-Star break on the horizon, Tristan Tucker updates the MVP ladder, with two former MVP winners picking up steam in recent weeks.
In a typical year, it’s rare to see more than two players in serious contention for the MVP award midway through the season. But, as everyone knows all too well, this is no normal NBA season, with three players alternating between the top three spots on what seems like a daily basis.
With the All-Star break nearly here, it’s time to take a look at how the MVP race is shaping up at the halfway point of the season.
1. Joel Embiid, Philadelphia 76ers (Previous: 1)
Embiid is at the top of his game right now, averaging 31.5 points, 13.2 rebounds and 4.7 assists per game in the time since Basketball Insiders’ last ladder update. In that span, Embiid is shooting 47.2 percent from downtown, with a 50-point performance against the Chicago Bulls and a 42-point performance against the Cleveland Cavaliers.
Even more impressive, the 76ers are outscoring opponents by 18.8 points when Embiid is on the floor, which ranks in the 100th percentile of the NBA. That kind of production is literally unmatched, which should give Embiid a clear edge in the MVP race.
Philadelphia is a far more up-and-down team now than they were to begin the year, but Embiid’s continued growth has the 76ers with legitimate title hopes just five years removed from a 10-72 season.
2. Nikola Jokic, Denver Nuggets (Previous: 3)
In the last two weeks, Jokic embarked on an amazing stretch, averaging 27.3 points, 8.9 rebounds, 7.9 assists and 2.1 steals per game while shooting 56.7 percent from the floor and 55.2 percent from deep. While the Nuggets are still searching for answers to their season, Jokic is doing everything in his power to keep them in the playoff picture.
If Jokic’s play this year was combined with Denver’s 2019-20 record, there’s little doubt that he would be leading the MVP race. However, a lack of consistency (with some embarrassing losses to the Washington Wizards and the injury-riddled Atlanta Hawks) has kept Jokic from outright claiming the top spot.
3. LeBron James, Los Angeles Lakers (Previous: 2)
James’ case for MVP has stagnated over the last two weeks, with the Lakers losing four-straight in that span. It’s hurt his case, but that isn’t to say that his on-court production hasn’t been ridiculously impressive, averaging 25.4 points, 8.6 rebounds and 7.3 assists per game in the last two weeks.
The Lakers are 14.5 points better when James is on the court and it’s evident to see that “The King” is keeping the Lakers afloat in spite of an injury to co-star Anthony Davis. That being said, James is going to need to cut back on games like those played during the team’s four-game losing streak; he committed eight turnovers against Washington and was a minus-20 against the Utah Jazz.
4. Stephen Curry, Golden State Warriors (Previous: 6)
Curry had an incredible February, especially closer to the beginning of the month. On the month, Curry averaged 32.1 points per game while shooting 41.9 percent on 12.8 attempts from three per game. That kind of production is reminiscent of his play in 2016, when he was unanimously awarded MVP.
Curry’s February numbers would have looked even more impressive if it weren’t for mediocre showings against the Miami HEAT, Indiana Pacers and Lakers. But the fact that Curry missed 30 threes combined in those games and still finished shooting better than nearly everyone else in the league is a testament to just how rare of a talent Curry is.
5. Damian Lillard, Portland Trail Blazers (Previous: Not Ranked)
With injuries to CJ McCollum and Jusuf Nurkic, it seemed as if the already struggling Portland Trail Blazers were doomed to fade out of the playoff picture. Despite four straight losses, Lillard is carrying Portland with all of his might to a potential postseason berth, with the Blazers sitting at 18-14.
Over the span of two weeks, Lillard’s been on another planet, averaging 32.2 points and 10.8 assists per game while averaging 13 threes and making 37.2 percent of them. Take a second to think of the names that are starting next to Lillard: Gary Trent Jr., Enes Kanter, Robert Covington and Derrick Jones Jr. Trent and Kanter are playing well, but it’s hard to believe that that lineup is currently the sixth seed in the Western Conference.
6. Giannis Antetokounmpo, Milwaukee Bucks (Previous: NR)
The competition at the bottom of the ladder is getting tighter with each passing week, with Kawhi Leonard and Luka Doncic each making promising cases while the HEAT’s Jimmy Butler has been a triple-double machine. But the selection here, at least this week, is Giannis Antetokounmpo, fresh off a game against the Los Angeles Clippers in which he put up 36 points, 14 rebounds and 5 assists.
In the last six games, the Bucks have put together a five-game win streak, with Antetokounmpo averaging 33.6 points, 13 rebounds, 6.4 assists, 1.7 steals and 1.7 blocks per game. “The Greek Freak’s” per game numbers have soared as Milwaukee’s overall success has grown, with his numbers inching closer to that of his MVP seasons. His success was even recognized around the league, with Antetokounmpo most recently named Eastern Conference Player of the Week.
While Antetokounmpo has a lot of work to do to make up lost ground in the MVP race, the Bucks’ recent play should have him among the top vote-getters despite some likely voter fatigue.
The period after the All-Star break is when teams buckle down and commit to playoff runs, separating the pretenders from the contenders. The feeling here is that the same will happen with the MVP race and that one true leader of the pack will soon emerge. Be sure to stay tuned to Basketball Insiders for the next MVP ladder!