Fresh off of a USA-worst seventh-place finish in the FIBA World Cup, Gregg Popovich looks to get back to something he has figured out quite a bit better – the NBA. Year after year this man continues to get things done during the regular season. Whether he’s had all-timers like Tim Duncan and Manu Ginobli, or five associates from Home Depot, Popovich doesn’t miss the playoffs.
In fact, since Popovich took over the franchise in 1997-98, he’s yet to miss the postseason. That run, for what it’s worth, is unprecedented. Many thought that after Duncan retired and Kawhi Leonard demanded a trade that it was over, but still the streak remains alive.
Could this upcoming season quite possibly be one of the worst teams Popovich has ever coached? Certainly. But until he actually missed out on the playoffs it’d be smart to hold off on any criticisms. Let’s dive into the San Antonio Spurs and breakdown just what kind of team we have here.
FIVE GUYS THINK…
It’s funny looking back to see that people started to doubt the Spurs making the playoffs. We all make mistakes, but perhaps we shouldn’t make such a claim when Gregg Popovich is the head of the operation. While DeMar DeRozan had his ups and downs, he still was one of the top mid-range assassins in the league. Despite father time creeping up on him, LaMarcus Aldridge continues to stick to what he does best and delivers on a nightly basis. Mix in those wily veterans with an upstart Derrick White and a returning Dejounte Murray, and San Antonio has a shot to be quite a contender (or spoiler) in the Western Conference. That, plus Patty Mills played out of his mind for Australia in the World Cup!
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Spencer Davies
The Spurs continued rebuild-on-the-fly will be judged more aggressively this season than it was last. Dejounte Murray is set to return following a knee injury that forced him out for the 2018-19 season. And Murray and Derrick White promise to be an exciting and explosive backcourt tandem for years to come – something the Spurs haven’t boasted in a while. Both 2019 first-round picks – Luka Samanic and Keldon Johnson –all project to be nice pros, and the return of their 2018 first-round pick, Lonnie Walker IV, from a 2018 preseason knee injury should also provide an infusion of youth and athleticism. Long story short, the Spurs are well-positioned for the future. But there’s also enough talent on their roster to make some noise in the present. Don’t expect the Spurs to tank or look too far ahead, not with Coach Gregg Popovich at the helm. The Spurs will overperform, per the usual. I expect them to end the season with somewhere around 45 wins, which will be enough to qualify for the playoffs – again.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– Drew Maresca
The Spurs snuck into the playoffs last season as the eighth seed, one of their lowest finishes in the Gregg Popovich era. Even then, they still pushed the No. 1 seed Denver Nuggets to seven games and had a chance to win Game 7. Popovich is still one hell of a coach and can get the most out of whatever roster he’s given. Whatever player he plugs into the rotation becomes a valuable contributor whether that’s Derrick White, Bryn Forbes, or Davis Bertans. And to be honest, DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge isn’t a bad one-two punch. They added some quality free agents in Demarre Carroll and Trey Lyles, and have some interesting young players in Lonnie Walker IV, Dejounte Murray, and Keldon Johnson. With Pop at the helm, this team will always play bigger than the sum of their parts. There’s no reason why the Spurs shouldn’t continue the league’s longest active playoff streak (22 straight appearances).
2nd Place – Southwest Division
– David Yapkowitz
This is the year, right? This is the year the Spurs fall out of the playoff picture for the 5th time in almost five decades. Even in a loaded Western Conference it just seems implausible to count out the Spurs. They still have two bona fide stars in DeMar DeRozan and LaMarcus Aldridge; they have young guys that look like future stars in Lonnie Walker and Dejounte Murray, and despite being hammered for Team USA they still have Gregg Popovich, which has been enough for more years than anyone can count. This has to be the year, right? Maybe, but I am not willing to bet against them, the Spurs are simply better at this than everyone else.
4th Place – Southwest Division
– Steve Kyler
The Spurs did well to add DeMarre Carroll and Trey Lyles to the roster and re-sign Rudy Gay. With those players, along with DeMar DeRozan, LaMarcus Aldrige and hopefully a healthy season for Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Lonnie Walker, the Spurs could find themselves right back in the playoff mix – even in a stacked Western Conference. Others may count the Spurs out this season but I made the decision to stop counting the Spurs out a few years ago and that will not change until Gregg Popovich is no longer San Antonio’s head coach. The Spurs, as currently constructed, don’t have the firepower necessary to make it to the NBA Finals, but no one should be surprised if they are causing mayhem for a Western Conference rival in Round 1 of the 2019-20 postseason.
2nd Place – Southwest Division
FROM THE CAP GUY
The Spurs are one of many hard-capped teams this season. San Antonio triggered the hard $138.9 million spending limit by acquiring DeMarre Carroll in a sign and trade with the Brooklyn Nets. At roughly $123.8 million in guaranteed salary, the team shouldn’t have any issues, given they’re still below the league’s $132.6 million luxury tax threshold.
San Antonio still has $3.8 million of its Mid-Level Exception available, although the roster already has 15 guaranteed players.
Before November, the team needs to decide on Derrick White and Lonnie Walker’s rookie-scale options. Dejounte Murray and Jakob Poeltl are eligible for extensions until the start of the season. The Spurs could have significant cap room next summer, over $60 million, but that number drops considerably if DeMar DeRozan opts in and the franchise holds onto LaMarcus Aldridge, whose $24 million for 2020-21 is only $7 million guaranteed.
– Eric Pincus
TOP OF THE LIST
Top Offensive Player: DeMar DeRozan
Does he still struggle from three? Yes. In today’s NBA, that’s the last thing you want from your biggest offensive threat. Despite his lack of range, DeMar still gets buckets. He has one of the better mid-range games in the league. He’s also solid at finishing at the rim. And speaking on his lack of range, he is very self-aware and won’t take shots he isn’t confident in. In fact, last year he took just 0.6 three-pointers per game, the lowest mark since his rookie season.
He finished last season shooting 67.4 percent within five feet of the hoop, a higher mark than the team’s center LaMarcus Aldridge. This was his first season away from Toronto, but his scoring didn’t really slip too much despite him playing in a completely different system.
Obviously, offense is as much about passing as it is about shooting. DeRozan led the team with 6.2 assists per game, over two assists greater than the next guy. He has great handles, runs the offense fluidly, and has gotten much better at involving the rest of the team. His 6.2 assists per night are a career-high.
DeMar entering his year 30 season isn’t quite yet on the decline, but it feels as if his prime has passed. Regardless of what we’ve seen on the court, DeRozan could be in for a pretty big season. He now has an entire year under his belt with the Spurs and could use that comfort to put up some big numbers under Popovich’s system.
Top Defensive Player: Dejounte Murray
Murray missed all of the 2018-19 season with a knee injury. In his last full season with the Spurs, he had a 98.7 defensive rating, good for fourth on the team. Now, that is normally a stat that is heavily dependent on the team, but Murray was much of the reason that the Spurs had such a good defensive team that season – and largely why they slipped to 20th in the league this past season with his absence.
Dejounte has great length for a guard and is incredibly quick. His lateral speed allows him to stay in front of just about every guard in the NBA. And above all, he has high-level defensive instincts, especially for such a young player.
In his last full season, he averaged 1.2 steals per game on just over 21 minutes of action per night.
It’s true, there isn’t too much tape to go off of for Murray, and it’s definitely up in the air how he’ll return after an ACL tear. But if he returns to the form he had before he hurt his knee, the sky is the limit for his defensive abilities.
Top Playmaker: DeMar DeRozan
Not only will DeMar be San Antonio’s premier scorer this upcoming season, but he will also be their top playmaker. This was touched on during the top offensive player segment, but DeRozan led the team in assists last season and there is zero indication that he won’t do it again. And maybe by even a larger margin.
DeMar led the team in assist percentage last year at 27.7 percent. He also led the team in usage percentage, at 27.7 percent. These statistics show that the offense essentially ran through DeRozan and that any success they have can be pointed back to him.
Top Clutch Player: LaMarcus Aldridge
Aldridge is the de-facto vet on this Spurs roster and with that comes the responsibility of taking late-game shots. Last season, he led the team in games played in clutch situations and had a shooting percentage of 51.7 percent.
Aldridge is incredibly smooth around the rim and his height coupled with his fade-away makes his mid-range shots almost unguardable. This comes in handy when the clock is winding down and San Antonio needs a bucket. DeRozan is the go-to scorer but other teams know this and often put their best defender on him or even double him up at times. This makes Aldridge the next logical choice, as all you need to do is give him the ball and let him go to work.
The Unheralded Player: Patty Mills
This recognition could go to a handful of different players, but no one embodies the traditional Spurs’ mentality quite like Patty Mills.
He checks all the traditional Popovich Spurs’ boxes. International player? Check. Relentless on defense? Check. Does what he’s asked? Check. Ultimate team player? Check.
But in all seriousness, Mills is a great player that often doesn’t get enough credit. He plays at full-throttle every time he is on the court, acting as a menace on defense and a sharpshooter on offense. He took 4.9 three-point attempts per game last year and knocked down 39.4 percent of them.
He’s the ideal bench guy, brings quite a few different tools onto the second unit, and has the ability to go on a heater from three better than about any player in the NBA. He’s embodied everything you’d want in a Popovich player since joining the Spurs eight seasons ago and will continue to leave his mark on the court for at least the foreseeable future.
Best New Addition: DeMarre Carroll
The only man that obviously fits this designation, Carroll will be a huge help for San Antonio this year. Coming off a season where he scored 11.1 points and notched 5.2 rebounds per game, DeMarre brings multiple skills to the table.
He’s a career 36 percent from three, so that should help San Antonio’s three-point game which is very efficient, but super low volume.
Carroll brings quite a bit of size and versatility to San Antonio’s roster and is quite the workhorse on defense. Popovich will be able to plug him into multiple positions and his tenacity on D will certainly bolster the Spurs unit that struggled on that end last season.
Look for Carroll to make an immediate impact on both offense and defense. He’s the ideal type of player for the Spurs’ system and should fit in quite nicely.
– Jordan Hicks
WHO WE LIKE
1. Gregg Popovich
He’s still one of the best coaches in today’s NBA and when it comes down to it might be considered one of the greatest of all time. He hasn’t quite adapted to the modern era, but so far it hasn’t seemed to matter. If you would have given their roster last year to any other coach in the NBA it’s unlikely they even make the playoffs.
Popovich year-after-year churns out wins at an incredible rate and this year shouldn’t be any different. The West as a whole got better, but so did the Spurs. They didn’t lose anyone important and should be much better with Murray back, Carroll on the roster, and a more assimilated DeMar.
2. The Backcourt
While DeMar is the only name that flashes, the Spurs have a really nice backcourt.
Bryn Forbes, Dejounte Murray, Derrick White, and Patty Mills round out a stellar group of guards that all contain unique skills. And outside of DeMar, they’re all high-level defenders.
DeMar will likely be the biggest threat on offense this upcoming season, barring a surprising rise from White or Murray, but each of these guys will help the Spurs win. Every one of these players would get significant minutes on almost every roster in the league. Look for this group to be a force in the West this season.
3. Rudy Gay
Bringing back Gay will prove to be a huge plus for the Spurs this season. Outside of DeRozan and Aldridge, he was the next biggest threat on offense. Against certain teams, he was often San Antonio’s best bet to get points when needed. He’s big, he has the ability to create his own shot, and he’s actually fit quite nicely into the Spurs’ system.
A major bright spot from last season? Gay knocked down a career-best 40.2 percent of his threes. Another surprising stat? He pulled down a career-best 6.8 rebounds. These alone show that Rudy isn’t necessarily slowing down, so while he’s getting older and less athletic than he once was, he’s clearly finding ways to still bring value to the court.
4. Lonnie Walker IV
The Spurs’ first-round selection from last season has looked really strong this offseason. He’s long, super athletic, and still rocks a PR-worthy haircut. He is really young, so he has lots to learn, but he looks ready to make an impact this season.
– Jordan Hicks
The biggest thing the Spurs have had going for them all these years is the fact that they play team basketball. No one in the league does it better. With the roster they’re bringing into the upcoming season, we have little reason to believe they won’t keep playing in the system.
Led by Gregg Popovich himself, the Spurs employ a system that is hyper-fluid on offense, and incredibly tenacious on defense. They move the ball really well, usually get the shot they want, and always give their best effort.
– Jordan Hicks
Like mentioned earlier, they still haven’t adapted to the modern NBA era. They shot the least amount of three-pointers per game last season, but oddly enough had the highest percentage. It seemed to work out just fine, but eventually, the game will catch up to them.
There’s a reason more-and-more teams keep increasing the number of threes they get up per game because the more you shoot, the more your chances you have of making them. It seems elementary, but threes are worth more than twos, so the more you make, the more points you’ll score. Not to mention, you can draw up so many different types of plays to get open looks from beyond-the-arc. The Spurs have survived thus far, but need to modernize their offense if they want to find championship-level success.
– Jordan Hicks
THE BURNING QUESTION
Do the Spurs still have what it takes to make the playoffs in the somehow-better-than-last-year West?
Honestly, until someone takes their spot, there’s little reason to believe they won’t be back. They’ve now made the playoffs 22 years in a row and have continued to do so even though their original core is now gone.
Popovich is absolutely up for the G.O.A.T. debate and there’s a reason for it. Until the Spurs don’t make the playoffs, it’s safe to assume that they will.
– Jordan Hicks
NBA Daily: Can the Hawks Keep Up Their Strong Play?
Drew Maresca analyzes the Atlanta Hawks strong play and looks ahead at how they’ll fare in the final 16 games of the season.
This season’s condensed schedule has resulted in less time to assess teams and the transactions they made at the trade deadline or in the buyout market. So it’s understandable if you wrote off the Atlanta Hawks as the bust of 2020-21 – but make no mistake about it, the Hawks are surging.
As alluded to above, Atlanta began the year slowly. They started off 11-16. Trae Young played relatively well through that stretch, averaging 26.6 points, 9.3 assists per game and shooting 37.1% on three-point attempts – but the results just weren’t there.
And while you can debate if Young was a catalyst for or a victim of his team’s poor start, he bore the brunt of it. After he was named an All-Star in the 2019-20 season, he was left off the team this season, as the narrative around him has shifted to that of someone hunting for fouls who could be hurting the game more than he’s helping it.
Surprisingly, Atlanta decided to keep its core group together, opting to hang onto John Collins despite his butting heads on offensive philosophy with coach Lloyd Pierce and Young, separately. According to The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner and Sam Amick, Collins voiced displeasure in a January film session over the timing of certain shot attempts and a needed to get settled into offensive sets more quickly.
Rather than succumb to the trade rumors, the Hawks decided that Pierce was at fault and or lost the locker room. Per The Athletic’s Chris Kirschner, Sam Amick and David Aldridge, Young, Cam Reddish and other Hawks were reportedly on board with a potential change and so a move was made.
At the time it appeared shortsighted. But in hindsight, it was exactly what the Hawks needed.
While there are still questions to be answered around Collins and his long-term fit in Atlanta, especially since he’ll become a restricted free agent this Summer and little progress was made in negotiations last offseason, the Hawks are 16-6 under interim head coach Nate McMillian.
In fairness to Pierce, the Hawks are just beginning to get healthy. Danilo Gallinari and 2020 lottery pick Onyeka Okongwu recently returned from injuries, with the former playing a key role, averaging 13.4 points on 40.7% shooting from deep; Gallinari is back on the mend, though, with foot soreness.
But the Hawks were also without guard Bogdan Bogdanovic from mid-January until early March. And they are still without Reddish and De’Andre Hunter, both of whom are instrumental to the Hawks success.
Still, the Hawks have pushed through. Lou Williams, who was added via trade for Rajon Rondo at the deadline, should definitely help. Williams is a walking bucket and he’s matched his Clippers output through nine games with Atlanta (12 points, 3.5 assists and 2.0 rebounds per game.)
A significant result of their strong play is that Atlanta is currently tied for fourth in the Eastern Conference, meaning that the Hawks could realistically secure home-court for the first-round of the playoffs. But before the Hawks do so, there are some questions that need to be answered.
First up, how do the Hawks manage their rotation when they haven’t even seen lots of combinations of their best players on the floor together?
When healthy, the Hawks are incredibly deep. There are the presumed starters: Young, Bogdanovic, Kevin Huerter, Gallinari and Capela. And there’s the bench: Collins, Gallinari, Reddish, Hunter, Williams, Solomon Hill and Okongwu.
Remember, McMillian has only been the coach since March 2, Williams was just added in late March and Hunter hasn’t played since late January.
Coach McMillian has been around long enough to know that 12-man rotations simply don’t work in the playoffs. Unfortunately for the Hawks, they haven’t had nearly enough time to land on a starting lineup, let alone which players work best together.
Atlanta has just 16 games remaining to figure it out. And they can’t waste a single game.
And that brings us to a second challenge: while it is nearly impossible for the Hawks to overtake the 3rd-place Milwaukee Bucks, Atlanta is far from guaranteed the fourth seed. As previously mentioned they are tied with the Celtics, meaning they could just as easily find themselves in the fifth spot. And while the Hawks have the tenth-easiest remaining schedule, according to Tankathon.com, the Celtics possess the eleventh-easiest. And the Celtics are surging, too, having won seven of their last 10 contests.
But it’s not just Boston. the New York Knicks, Miami HEAT and Charlotte Hornets are all within striking distance, too. While Charlotte and New York have their own challenges ahead that make them less-than-likely to pass Atlanta, Miami’s fate is closely aligned with that of Victor Oladipo and his recently reinjured knee. If Oladipo returns quickly with little to no effects, the HEAT could surpass be problematic for the Hawks and a number of other Eastern Conference opponents.
And if you’re really cynical, you can focus on who Atlanta has beaten in its time under McMillan. Over the course of the 22 games in which McMillian has been interim head coach, 11 of the team’s 16 wins have come against sub-.500 opponents – and another three were against teams that are exactly .500.
Looked at differently, the McMillian-led Hawks have defeated just two winning teams, one of which was against the Anthony Davis-less Lakers in a contest in which LeBron James exited after just 11 minutes due to injury.
So kudos to Atlanta for turning around a season that easily could have went sideways. But there is much left for the Hawks, an untested team who’s beaten mostly teams that they should, to prove.
NBA PM: Defensive Player of the Year Watch
It’s clear at this point in the season that Rudy Gobert should be the Defensive Player of the Year. But is there any way another player could unseat him for the award?
The seventh edition of The Defensive Player of the Year Watch for Basketball Insiders is here! In this week’s ranking, there’s not much change beyond the addition of the formerly-injured Philadelphia 76ers star, Joel Embiid. It’s impossible to leave him off of this list and it should come as no surprise if he ends the year as both a contender for this award as MVP. Sure, he’d have to outplay Rudy Gobert, but he’s only a streak of lockdown games away.
As the last full month of games for the NBA season gets underway, it’s time to see who else’s elite defensive play has kept them in the running.
1. Rudy Gobert (Previous: 1)
The Utah Jazz center has been the clear frontrunner for a third career Defensive Player of the Year award, as well as his third in the last four seasons. There is no denying the fact that the Stifle Tower has been the focal point of the defense throughout their unprecedented run with the best record in the NBA. When Gobert is on the floor, it’s going to be hard for an opposing player to get an uncontested shot around the rim, and his presence is a factor night-in and night-out.
Coming off a strong month of March where he averaged 3.5 blocks per game, the Frenchman has tailed off a bit, averaging only 1.6 blocks per game midway through April. While this recent downward trend isn’t lessening his case, Gobert still holds the No. 2 spot with 2.8 blocks per game.
Diving deeper into the numbers is where Gobert really shines, however. His defensive rating is 102.3 this season, second to only Jazz teammate Mike Conley, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also finds himself third in defensive win shares with 0.166. It’s clear that Gobert is the leading candidate for another DPotY, even the likely winner barring any significant setbacks to his season.
Even the center is our clear frontrunner, Ben Simmons may say otherwise.
Ben Simmons comments on his Defensive Player of the Year race against Rudy Gobert: “I scored 42 points on him in Utah, and apparently I’m not a scorer.”
— Legion Hoops (@LegionHoops) April 13, 2021
2. Joel Embiid (Previous: N/A)
Returning from a left knee bone bruise, the 7-foot center has gotten right back to the elite level few others can match. In a matchup against the Oklahoma City Thunder, Embiid showed the NBA that he is back and out for blood. Over 27 minutes, Embiid totaled 27 points, 10 rebounds, 4 assists and 4 blocks. The star took over in a short amount of time as the 76ers trounced the Thunder 117-93 – but his defensive impact should not be taken for granted.
Stacking up against the rest of the league, Embiid ranks in the top five in three major defensive categories: defensive win shares, defensive rating and blocks per game. Embiid is just behind Julius Randle in the defensive win shares statistic with 0.149, good enough for fifth in the NBA, per NBA Advanced Stats. In defensive rating, Embiid is also fifth with a rating of 104.6, just .1 off Marc Gasol.
If Embiid can raise these numbers more in line with Gobert, he may be able to steal the award. Think about it. Giannis Antetokoumpo was able to win the award after an unbelievable season in which he won the MVP – why can’t Embiid do it too?
3. Myles Turner (Previous: 2)
If not for the elite defensive play from Gobert and Embiid, Turner would be the de facto leader in the race. After being a rumored name on the trade market this past offseason, the decision to keep Turner in the fold has paid off for the Indiana Pacers. The league leader in blocks has managed to put together a great season on defense but the Pacers, and specifically Turner himself, have been hurt by injuries.
Where things stand right now, Turner has a sizeable lead in blocks per game with 3.5, 0.7 more than Rudy Gobert. It’s looking more and more likely by the day that Turner will once again be the leader in blocks in the NBA, a feat he also achieved in 2018-19.
While this is an outstanding feat for the young center, it won’t be enough to get him this coveted award – there’s always next season though.
4. Mike Conley (Previous: 3)
The Jazz floor general has made his impact felt this season on both ends of the floor following a down season. Many had written off Conley and bashed the Jazz for the trade as he just didn’t look like the same player, but he has completely turned that around. Needless to say, without Conley, it’s hard to imagine the Jazz having the success they have had this season. Together, Conley and Gobert have been a nightmare for opposing offenses as they constantly apply pressure to the ball.
But the advanced statistics are what truly put Conley’s season in perspective. In the defensive rating category, Conley has been the league leader for some time now. While it has fluctuated throughout the season, he has still managed to keep an incredible 100.9 defensive rating, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks second in DWS with 0.171, just .02 off the league leader, LeBron James. Conley has also been very efficient in stealing the ball as he is tied for seventh with 1.3 steals per game.
If a guard were deserving enough for this award it would be Conley, but due to the play of the guys ahead of him, it doesn’t look like he will have the strength to win it.
5. Giannis Antetokounmpo (Previous: 4)
The Greek Freak has a had very underrated season on defense, if not overall. He hasn’t been the topic of the MVP conversation as he was the past two seasons, but his defensive presence in the paint is undeniable.
Antetokounmpo has averaged a stellar 1.1 steals and 1.3 blocks per game, all thanks to those incredible athletic abilities and length. He also ranks seventh in defensive win shares with a DWS of 0.139, per NBA Advanced Stats. His defensive rating of 106.6 also ranks in the top 15.
While the Bucks have looked like a contender out of the Eastern Conference this season – their franchise cornerstone won’t be named the winner of any awards this year.
Honorable Mention: Jimmy Butler (Previous: 5)
The leader of the Miami HEAT is putting together another elite defensive season. Currently, he is the league leader in steals per game with 2.1, a lead he has held steady for weeks now. Butler ranks seventh in defensive rating with a mark of 105.4, per NBA Advanced Stats. He also ranks sixth with a DWS of 0.148. But if the HEAT surge through the last stretch of the season, Butler could earn more consideration for this prestigious award.
As the last full month of the regular season takes off, it has been clear that the Utah Jazz have the frontrunner for the DPotY award – plus another major runner-up contender to boot.
Will anyone else be able to top Gobert’s defensive output this season? It doesn’t seem likely, but anything is possible in this crazy, ever-changing landscape.
NBA Daily: Is Mitchell Robinson’s Injury a Blessing in Disguise?
Drew Maresca explores what Mitchell Robinson’s injury means to the New York Knicks — this season and beyond.
The New York Knicks are right in the middle of a playoff push. They are currently in the eighth spot in the Eastern Conference and they appear to be in good shape to at least qualify for the play-in tournament, 6.5 games ahead of the 11th seeded Toronto Raptors.
The Knicks have remained in the playoff picture despite starting center, Mitchell Robinson, missing 23 of the team’s 55 games.
Most recently, Robinson exited a March 27 contest against the Milwaukee Bucks in the first quarter with a broken foot. Including the March 27 game against Milwaukee, New York has won five of their last 10 games without Robinson.
As recently as last season, Robinson was viewed as the team’s answer at center – and, along with RJ Barrett, the team’s only long-term building blocks. This take has aged badly given the progress made by Julius Randle and the success had by rookie Immanuel Quickley (and to a lesser degree, Obi Toppin.)
But in celebrating the team’s present, it’s fair to question their future – does New York’s success without Robinson mean he’s expendable?
The 2020-21 season has been challenging for Robinson, who already missed 15 games earlier this year with a broken right hand. Somewhat miraculously, the Knicks have continued their strong play without Robinson In total, New York is 13-11 without Robinson and just 15-16 with him.
The timing of the injury is apropos.
The Knicks and Robinson were expected to engage in contract discussions this offseason. They still have some time to figure out a path forward, but the injury makes an otherwise straightforward contract negotiation trickier. The Knicks possess a team option for Robinson in 2021-22 for $1.8 million, which is significantly below market value for a player of Robinson’s stature.
Robinson is averaging 8.3 points, 8.1 rebounds and (a career-low) 1.5 blocks per game. He’s also averaging a career-high 27.5 minutes per game, due — in part — to his ability to avoid fouls. Robinson averaged 3.2 fouls per game last season, fouling out of seven games. He’s down to 2.8 personal fouls per game this year and hasn’t fouled out of a single contest.
A long-term agreement appeared likely between the Knicks and Robinson prior to his (presumably) season-ending foot injury. Similarly skilled, albeit more polished, players have signed significant deals in the recent past. Clint Capella signed a 5 year/$90 million deal in 2018, which is higher than what most expected Robinson to fetch — but it probably would have been referenced in negotiations.
Following the injury, a smaller deal is likely — if at all. The Knicks will probably still pick up Robinson’s option, but they could either trade him or let him play out next season without an extension. And while the Knicks must decide if they’d like to prioritize Robinson, Robinson must decide how much of a discount, if any, he’s willing to accept from New York (or anyone.) Robinson just signed with his sixth NBA agent (Thad Foucher of the Wasserman Group) and he’s expected to chase some of the money he missed out on by skipping the 2018 NBA Draft Combine and falling into the second round.
But Robinson shouldn’t push too hard in negotiations as the Knicks can just as easily turn to someone on their current roster as his replacement — and it would cost them far less in guaranteed money.
Enter Nerlens Noel. Noel has been a pleasant surprise for president Leon Rose and Knicks’ fans alike. He’s averaging 5 points, 6.3 rebounds and 2.1 blocks per game on the season; but he’s come off the bench for much of it, receiving just 23.1 minutes per game.
But even in limited time, Noel has had a major impact on the team’s defensive. He’s first in the NBA in defensive plus-minus (3.3), second in the percentage of the team’s blocked two-point field goal attempts (8.9%) and third in defensive win share (2.7).
And he’s been even better in Robinson’s absence. In his last 10 games, Noel is averaging 5.4 points, 7.4 rebounds and 2.7 blocks in 26.1 minutes per game.
Noel signed in New York for just one year/$5 million this past offseason. While that is cheap relative to other starting-caliber centers, he’s not doing anything he hasn’t done in the past. Noel is averaging fewer points, assists and steals per game while securing more blocks and essentially the same number of rebounds. So, if teams knew what Noel could do entering 2020-21, why would they pay him more next season for the same output? Unfortunately, free agency is a fickle beast and there’s no rhyme or reason as to why teams weren’t interested in like Noel last year — but the Knicks will likely have the upper hand in negotiations.
Ultimately, the Knicks’ desire to keep Noel shouldn’t influence their preference to re-sign Robinson. Remember, Robinson set the single-season record for field goal percentage last season (74.2%) and he averages greater than two blockers per game over his career. He’s an elite lob target, and he closes out on shooters better than just about anyone in the league.
Contract negotiations are a zero-sum game in which one party wins at the expense of the other. Robinson and the Knicks should enter into negotiations delicately. Robinson probably feels owed given his cumulative salary relative to his past performance, and the Knicks were probably hoping for a more concrete body of work, leading to more certainty around an offer.
The reality is that Robinson has struggled with injuries — this year and in previous seasons — and his game hasn’t developed significantly since his rookie season. He is also a very unique talent who should get even better with more time under coach Thibodeau.
So for the best possible outcome, all parties must concede.
The Knicks are best with both Robinson and Noel. As much as Robinson’s injury will hinder how far New York can go this season, it can be key in their future. If Robinson and Noel are amenable to the idea of returning at a slight discount, it can ensure their defensive excellence continues — and if it’s at the right number(s), it should allow for considerable financial flexibility to continue maneuvering.
And the Knicks haven’t been savvy maneuverers in a long time.