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The Six Things We’re Watching

With no light at the end of the tunnel in sight, Basketball Insiders has compiled three burning questions and three content-focused areas to keep you preoccupied in these strange times.

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Basketball is back!

Well, technically – 16 NBA players will be playing basketball. Online. In a video game. Hey, that still counts, right?

Along with a few shining moments of optimism, the sporting world is slightly less of a barren hellscape than it was a week ago – even though the rest of the planet continues to burn. Sports have often been an escape for many, so sheltering-in-place – ahem, the right thing to do, by the way – is reaching absolute critical mass in terms of daytime boredom.

That said, while the internet is a bottomless pit of sadness, it’s still capable of producing golden moments of light, too – albeit far less frequently and often sandwiched between 800-1,000 tweets from users with egg profile pictures. So, while Basketball Insiders continues to grease the old writing wheels, there’s some other great stuff out there to pay attention to as well.

As it was assigned: Here’s The Six Things We’re Watching right now, alternating between serious considerations and those of a more fun variety.

1. Fun: The NBA 2K20 Tournament

Remember the content goldmine that was Damian Lillard and C.J. McCollum’s Instagram Live? This week, that realm of potential entertainment another considerable step up. Presented by ESPN, a 16-player NBA 2K20 Tournament will be aired on the charter stations. Considering the competitive nature of these professional athletes – and how seriously they take the multi-console game – this event should be a sight for sore eyes all weekend. 

Kevin Durant will open the tournament against Derrick Jones Jr. later tonight, with Deandre Ayton versus Zach LaVine after that. Luckily, it also means that we could see the debut of Durant on the Brooklyn Nets – although in a slightly different context than originally thought. In other matchups, Michael Porter Jr., a guy who regularly clowned on others in 2k, will try to upset Devin Booker, somebody often found on Twitch during his free time.

Beyond that, the trash talk between Patrick Beverley and Hassan Whiteside will be worth tuning in for, assuredly; while stars like Trae Young, Donovan Mitchell and DeMarcus Cousins should spice up the proceedings too. 

And, not for nothing, but when an Esport gets a legitimate shot at an attention-starved mainstream audience, that’s beautiful news.

2. Serious: How will this long break change the salary cap?

Yet, no matter how many virtual dunks are thrown down, there’s still the very real question of how this impacts the bottom line.

Although the ultimate projected impact of the preseason debacle in China was overstated – for now, of course – but with the lost games, revenue and no end in sight, it might do untold damage to the Association. As covered on Basketball Insiders last week, the upcoming free agent crop isn’t the strongest in history but any financial blows would be significant to a sport that had been flying high in popularity as of late.

For prospective free agents, like Glenn Robinson III, that could change the offers during a modified offseason. Hell, right now, the NBA has paid out the next installment of contract agreements, those due on Apr. 1, but have made no guarantees moving forward. Needless to say, the longer this situation goes on, the bigger an impact it’ll have on all sides of the game – both on the court and in the front offices.

3. Fun: The Last Dance

Right now, we all need a good story or two to lean on and ESPN, thankfully, has moved up the release date of The Last Dance, a 10-part Michael Jordan-centered documentary, from June to mid-April. Per the mega-conglomerate itself, this is something worth watching:

“‘The Last Dance’ takes an in-depth look at the Chicago Bulls’ dynasty through the lens of the final championship season in 1997-98. The Bulls allowed an NBA Entertainment crew to follow them around for that entire season, and some of that never-before-seen footage will be in the documentary.”

And perhaps acting as the very sweet cherry atop the world’s already greatest sundae, The Ringer’s Bill Simmons thinks that the sure-fire hit is camp posturing as LeBron James builds more steam in the GOAT conversation.

If the planet is going to be stuck inside for the next three months at least, why not debate Jordan vs. LeBron for the 100,000th time – but this moment with some new fuel on the fire.

Mark your calendars, the first episode airs on Apr. 19.

4. Serious: What happens to the NBA Draft and Offseason?

Unsurprisingly, the NCAA has opted not to extend an extra year of eligibility in the wake of its big tournament getting the axe. While losing March Madness was painful enough, it means there’s no Stephen Curry-like Davidson (and subsequent lottery) rise. There will be no Carsen Edwards or Grant Williams, no Cinderella stories making a name for themselves on the grandest stage. And while that means less fun for all of us at home, it also means that the NBA Draft has been irrevocably altered – but it’s just a snowball effect from there.

If there’s no draft until the season ends, then when do workouts happen? If there are no workouts, what do these prospects do in the meantime? If there’s no Big Dance, then is the prospect pool more or less set? And if we’ve had no season, which means a delayed draft, then, certainly, there’s no offseason and free agency until then either – and that last one might cause conniptions.

After consecutive action-packed and surprise-worthy summers, this one – if it even falls remotely close to the warmer months at this point, really – is setting up to be a reset and refresh more than anything else.

In our free agent guides, there’s not an overwhelming amount of star power out there, nor will many athletes on options risk cushy salaries in a post-pandemic landscape. Will the draft be a footnote in a hectic offseason? What about summer leagues and training camps? Is there a reality where the 2020-21 season is shortened or altered too?

While we don’t know a whole lot about actually finishing this campaign, the longer this pause goes on, the tougher the questions will be about moving forward, too.

5. Fun: Podcasts Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop

In lieu of a frequent content calendar, Steve Kyler, our publisher and fearless leader, has been hittin’ the ‘casts hard.

There’s this story-filled one with veteran John Henson. For another player’s take, there’s Shane Larkin, an overseas superstar. Or, if you’re looking for something fresh, try his chat with Tyler Relph, an elite trainer. 

Cody Toppert. Josh Oppenheimer. Ryan Pannone. The list goes on and on – and will continue to do so – because we are content machines and every bit helps as the globe tries to persevere.

6. Serious: Will the remainder of the season be shortened? 

Could the NBA run a shortened season from one venue with quicker postseason series? According to Marc Berman of the New York Post, “nothing is off the table.” On one hand, that’s significant news as the league seems willing to do whatever it takes to crown a champion. Ultimately, that’s grand for those running on basketball fumes these days – but it must be asked: At what cost?

No fans? No home-court advantage? No heightened drama of long, drawn-out series? The locations rumored to be in the running for such an event are Las Vegas, Orlando, Atlantic City, Hawaii, Louisville and the Bahamas. While the league appears to be unwilling to drop series down to winner-takes-all status — such as the NFL playoffs, for example — shorter options like best-of-three face-offs may be the most logical.

If this is the type of decision that needs to happen – then, sure, the show must go on. To guarantee that the rest of the basketball calendar moves along on schedule and the 2020-21 season can move ahead (mostly) on time, then this is an option that must be considered. The financial implications, too, must be deafening in order for the NBA to debate over handicapping their massively-popular product like this.

Either way, such a choice will likely not be made until we effectively flatten the curve as a collection population, so small potatoes — stay inside!

Bonus: Fun + Serious: The Rules of BenBall

When I was a child, I frequently created games for myself – honestly, we probably all did. 

This was not for a lack of nearby friendships or an unpopular status at school – but because I had an active imagination and a need to gamify everything. As a senior in college, my roommates and I spent over $50 at a CVS to invent an indoor board game. And, after all, I am the proud owner of a BFA that basically amounts to fiction writing and reading books, so, it should come as no surprise that I got my creative start by concocting solo sports activities to avoid doing math homework.

Far back as I can remember, I’ve played BenBall and now, for the first time, I’m putting the rules in writing so that you can fabricate your own competitive atmosphere during these stay-at-home quarantines. In all likelihood, pickup basketball has already been banned by your local government and, in some harsher situations, rims have even been taken down.

But the best part of BenBall is that you don’t need anybody else to play – all you need is a hoop, a ball and your very lovely self. 

Now, I must stay this first: It wasn’t always called BenBall. In fact, for a solid decade, it had no name at all. If you asked my mother what the name was, she’d likely just sigh at the memory of all the half-finished paper brackets found tucked underneath rocks or windshields to aid on those particularly blustery days in Maine. 

“I swear to God,” she used to say. “If you don’t bring in that paper before I have to scrape it off wet pavement, I will disown you.”

BenBall only became BenBall in 2016 and only after my old co-workers began to tease me for asking them to play a game that always seemed to take a dramatic turn just as I was about to lose. I never once changed the rules – and never, ever to win a game – but as the sole proprietor of the challenge, I always saw their point-of-view. Even if they were just being sore losers. 

So, without further ado, here’s how BenBall works:

  • BenBall is played to 21, with a twist rebuttal period at the end.
  • Optional: Create a bracket of your favorite teams or players – this is what 13-year-old Ben did with fervor when a friend/brother/father was not in the immediate vicinity. (*) 
  • First, find the three-point line; if your court or driveway does not have one, designate a spot.
  • You, in insolation, will be playing on behalf of both teams. This means that you must be impartial and not consciously or unconsciously miss shots to influence results. BenBall is an unbiased competition, please, treat it as such.
  • A turn begins by taking a three-pointer from anywhere behind the arc, a make is worth two points. 
    • If the first shot is converted, you will shoot another three-pointer. In fact, you will shoot three-pointers until you miss once.
  • Upon the miss, you must chase down the rebound and shoot from wherever that location is. (^)
    • If this basket is made, it’s worth one point and your turn is over. 
    • If the ball bounces back out to the three-point line, that shot would be good for two points and then your turn is over.
    • You may not get points for tipping in a rebound on your second shot. If you miss your second shot, too bad – your turn is over.
  • If the ball takes a bad skip off a rock or an ill-placed car, you may – like Monopoly – play by altered house rules. For example, at the Nadeau household, you were allowed to toss yourself a one-bounce alley-oop from anywhere during the second shot stage to salvage a point. ($)
  • Once your turn is over, tally your points and begin your foray as the opposite and opposing player. 
    • Yes, in a way, you’re playing unguarded 1-on-1 with yourself, but we’re taking what we can get here.
  • Continue until a player reaches 21 and then freeze.
  • At which point, the losing player – whether real or imaginary – gets a rebuttal opportunity by shooting three-pointers to catch up.
    • They must, within a regular BenBall possession, close the deficit to within two points.
    • If they make a three-pointer, they’re awarded two points and another shot.
    • If they miss, their possession (and thusly, the game) is over unless their rebound allows them a second three-point attempt. If that shot is good, they continue in their rebuttal phase.
  • If the losing player gets within two points of the winning player, their turn immediately ends and the game resumes normally.
  • Play until somebody is up by more than three points in the post-rebuttal phase.

*As a child, I loved putting Richard Jefferson up against Paul Pierce, Carmelo Anthony versus Kevin Garnett, etc. Typically, in my brackets, division battles would flow into conference-wide showdowns and the Finals, if I ever made it that far, would feature an East-West matchup. Should you feel less imaginative during the bracket-making process, just filling it in with the most recent postseason seeds is an effective time-saver.

^If that’s under the hoop for a lay-up, congrats! If it’s behind in the garden behind the hoop (sorry, mom), well, you’re out of luck. If it gets stuck under a car, you must shoot from your back in an adjacent location.

$ This was particularly helpful because launching a 40-foot bomb from behind the hoop and in the neighbor’s lawn was a fool’s errand.

Of course, this game can be played with your isolated significant others – but given the circumstances, a little mental creativity never hurts either.

In the end, we wish nothing but the best of luck out there, readers. If you’re got rule changes to BenBall, please tweet them at me, I’d love to hear them. I’ve been playing a version of this game for over a decade now but it is not a refined, untouchable contest by any means. However, this is a foolproof way to squash those ants in your pants, get a workout and maybe even earn a favorite player that much-deserved ring.

It’s still impossible to tell where this NBA season will end up – both in 2020 and beyond – but there’s plenty of content, questions and solo-sided games to keep you preoccupied. As always, keep it tuned to Basketball Insiders for more excellent content like this and, as a final reminder, stay home – although, admittedly, a short venture into the driveway for some BenBall is perfectly reasonable too.

Ben Nadeau is a Seattle-based writer in his third year with Basketball Insiders. For five seasons, he covered the Brooklyn Nets for The Brooklyn Game.

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NBA

Now What? – Portland Trail Blazers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Now What? – Golden State Warriors

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

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

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

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

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

Strengths

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weaknesses

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

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

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

Opportunities

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

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

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

Threats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Now What? – San Antonio Spurs

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

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

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

Strengths

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Weaknesses

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

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

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

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

Opportunities

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

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

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

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

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

Threats

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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