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The X-Factors: San Antonio

Spencer Davies continues Basketball Insiders’ X-Factor series by taking a dive into a San Antonio Spurs team with more questions than answers.

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We should always read the fine print.

Approximately a month from now, the NBA is planning to resume its season in Orlando. Whether those visions come to fruition is unknown. With a pandemic and racial injustices sweeping the nation (and the world), members of the NBPA have been making their voices heard. There are ongoing negotiations concerning how the league and its players can use such a global platform to speak up and show solidarity with the Black community without compromising such a crucial period to create real change.

Some players are opposed to coming back to playing since sports is such a trivial aspect, while others are on board to harness its ability to unify. All things considered, the power is in their hands regarding how this is all handled. At the same time, there are long-term financial concerns that could stem from a cancelation as well. It’s not an easy situation to navigate, so we’ll see how things turn out in the coming weeks.

Granted the Association does go ahead with its Disney bubble scenario, we at Basketball Insiders are continuing our X-Factor series by looking at the field of 22 who could participate. We’ve done a good chunk of them thus far, so make sure you check those out. Today, we’re going to look at the San Antonio Spurs, one of the Western Conference teams that has to really make noise in order to break into the postseason for the 23rd consecutive year.

Unfortunately for them, it will be without LaMarcus Aldridge. The veteran big man underwent successful surgery to repair a torn rotator cuff in his right shoulder, leaving him out for the rest of the way. Aldridge made up one half of San Antonio’s top-scoring duo with DeMar DeRozan. His field goal percentage slightly took a hit, but his 38.9 three-point percentage was a career-best. There’s no good in taking away the value of a seasoned veteran in a hunt for the playoffs. Already facing an uphill battle in the race for the eighth seed, the Spurs are going to have to adjust to playing without their seven-time All-Star.

Jakob Poeltl is the only other listed center on the roster. Will he be equipped to handle such a load? Almost certainly not — at least not the way Aldridge plays. Poeltl is more of your traditional big that does the dirty work. He’s got a great frame to set screens and crash the glass. However, his skill set at this time is rather limited to be depended on, especially since he’s only played a hair over 16 minutes per game. We’ll probably see Chimizie Metu pick up some floor time, as well as rookie Luka Samanic, given the situation.

There is a good chance that San Antonio elects to go the small-ball route more often than not. Multi-guard sets won’t necessarily be a bad thing. Derrick White and Dejounte Murray are used to playing together as it is, and that’s one hell of a backcourt combination defensively (if Bryn Forbes doesn’t start). Maybe Trey Lyles will see the floor as a five since his play closest mirrors Aldridge. Even Rudy Gay in the right rotation could be a nice change of pace to speed things up at that position. Whatever way the Spurs mitigate the loss of Aldridge, it’s going to have to be creative.

Perhaps the most obvious X-Factor is DeRozan. We all know that he’s the proverbial head of the snake when it comes to scoring; can he continue to elevate his teammates and play-make the way he has when the opposition keys in on him? He is, after all, a man that loves to rise to the occasion in the biggest moments. Look at the way he’s bounced back from his first season in San Antonio — it’s an impressive line, statistically speaking. He’ll have to keep trusting his teammates to ensure that production carries on. DeRozan is going to be the man again for the first time in a few years, and that’s not an easy task to put on one’s shoulders.

The Spurs’ bench is a key component in their chase. NBA mainstay Patty Mills is a pro’s pro that can erupt for 25 points on any night that he gets hot from deep. Pending on who’s in the first five, Forbes is almost the same way with his jump shot. Veteran swingman Marco Belinelli is always lurking on the perimeter as well.

Do you know who’s capable of a breakout, though? Lonnie Walker. The sophomore wing has displayed plenty of flashes when an opportunity presents itself. As the playing time increases, so do his numbers. He is fearless in attack mode and confident in hoisting triples when he has chances. Let’s not forget about that jaw-dropping athleticism, either. Orlando could be a perfect place for Walker to cap his second season with a bang.

Finally, there’s the leader of the Spurs. We all know him as Gregg Popovich — a five-time NBA champion and three-time Coach of the Year. The question here is whether or not he’ll be on the sidelines to guide his players. Along with Houston Rockets head coach Mike D’Antoni and New Orleans Pelicans head coach Alvin Gentry, he is in the advanced age group of coaches who could be considered more high-risk in contracting the coronavirus. If he participates, what ways will he have to adjust his strategy? Will he advise from afar and give the opportunity to his assistants such as Becky Hammon and Tim Duncan? Will he take a chance and be hands-on?

These are questions that we don’t know the answer to yet. You don’t want to halt the development of your rising upstarts, nor do you want to mail it in and finish on a sour note. And yet, you don’t want to cause any kind of harm to yourself or others. It’s not an easy conundrum to fix.

San Antonio does not have an easy road ahead. The team is stuck in a position of uncertainty in more ways than one, and it will have to answer questions on the fly if the organization wants to extend that untouchable playoff streak.

Spencer Davies is a Deputy Editor and a Senior NBA Writer based in Cleveland in his third year with Basketball Insiders. Covering the league and the Cavaliers for the past five seasons, his bylines have appeared on Bleacher Report, FOX Sports and HoopsHype.

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Mavericks are expected to pick up Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option

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Per ESPN’s Tim MacMahon, the Dallas Mavericks are planning to pick up center Willie Cauley-Stein’s $4.1 million option for the 2021-22 NBA season. The deadline is tomorrow. Last season, in 53 games played, the seven-foot big man averaged 5.3 points and 4.5 rebounds per game. The sixth-year player also shot 63.2 percent from the field last season.

On July 8, 2019, Cauley-Stein signed a two-year, $4.46 million contract with the Golden State Warriors. Then, on January 25, 2020, Cauley-Stein was traded to the Mavericks for a 2020 second-round pick. If everything goes smoothly, the 27-year-old center is set to earn $4.1 million next season. The 2015 sixth overall pick’s contract consumes less than three percent of the team’s total salary cap.

This news comes right after Dallas received center Moses Brown from the Boston Celtics. Brown is a seven-foot-two, 2019 undrafted player out of UCLA. In 2021, Brown was named to the All-NBA G League First Team and All-Defensive Team. On March 28, 2021, the 21-year-old center signed a four-year, $6.8 million contract with the Thunder.

However, on June 18, 2021, the Oklahoma City Thunder traded Brown, Al Horford, and a 2023 second-round pick to the Celtics for Kemba Walker, a 2021 first-round pick, and a 2025 second-round pick. With Boston, Brown was set to earn $1,701,593 next season. Of course, the Mavs’ organization is finalizing a trade to send Josh Richardson to the Celtics as well. In other news, today is Mavs’ owner Mark Cuban’s 63rd birthday.

Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 luxury tax totals, the Mavs’ current luxury tax space is $52,326,531. The 2021 NBA salary cap maximum is $112,414,000. Their current cap space is $27,595,632. Cauley-Stein’s contract is recognized as a club option, not a player option or guaranteed money. Richardson’s deadline is also tomorrow, so because he is getting traded to Boston, the team will not collect his $11,615,328 player option.

Plus, Jalen Brunson’s deadline is also August 1st. His guaranteed value is $1,802,057. Leading into the 2021-22 season, Kristaps Porzingis has the highest cap figure on the team, which is an amount worth $31,650,600, consuming 22.73 percent of the team’s total salary cap. At the moment, Porzingis is a popular name in trade rumor articles. Bettors and NBA analysts are predicting a possible trade to the Brooklyn Nets, Sacramento Kings, or Philadelphia 76ers.

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Lakers Need More Than Big Three

The Lakers have their “big three” after trading for Russell Westbrook but is he the right fit in Los Angeles? The former MVP has had an incredible career but he may not be the point guard the Lakers desperately need.

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The Los Angeles Lakers have formed their three-headed monster as they pursue the franchise’s 18th championship next season. Just as the NBA Draft was getting started, the Lakers completed a deal with the Washington Wizards that landed them the 2016-17 league MVP, Russell Westbrook.

The deal sent Kentavious Caldwell-Pope, Kyle Kuzma, Montrezl Harrell and the 21st overall pick in this year’s draft to Washington, paving the way for Westbrook to join fellow superstars LeBron James and Anthony Davis. While the Lakers added a dynamic point guard, not everyone is sold on the idea that the Lakers are the team to beat in the loaded Western Conference.

Over the past several weeks, the Lakers were rumored to be seeking perimeter shooting. Some reports had Los Angeles linked to guys like Chris Paul, Buddy Hield and DeMar DeRozan. When the dust settled, it was Washington that made the deal as Westbrook informed the front office that he preferred the Lakers as a destination.

The move is a homecoming of sorts, as Westbrook grew up in the area and spent two seasons playing at UCLA, leading the Bruins to the 2008 Final Four. He had a solid 2020-21 season, averaging 22.2 points, 11.5 rebounds, and 11.7 assists per game for the Wizards, who earned the No. 8 seed in the playoffs.

Oddly enough, this is the third straight offseason in which the 9-time All-Star has been traded. After leaving Oklahoma City, Westbrook was not able to find postseason success in Houston or Washington. Will that now change in Los Angeles?

For all of his accomplishments, Westbrook’s legacy has been defined by his play during the regular season. This past season, the point guard passed Oscar Robertson for the most triple-doubles in the history of the game. Out of his 184 triple-doubles, only 12 have come in the playoffs. By comparison, Magic Johnson has the most playoff career triple-doubles with 30, and James is next with 28. Now all three will have played for the Lakers during their careers.

The thing about triple-doubles (and this is especially the case with Westbrook) is that they don’t always translate to wins. They clearly help the team overall but some would argue that a more balanced attack is tougher to stop. History has shown that having a “big three” is almost a requirement to be considered a legitimate championship contender, but this trio in Los Angeles doesn’t exactly fit together like many of those others.

As talented and valuable as Westbrook has been over the course of his career, he needs to have the ball to be effective. His poor perimeter shooting has been the big hiccup in his game, and that is something that this Lakers team desperately needs. The problem isn’t that any of these three won’t share the ball. In fact, they had already discussed checking their egos even before this trade went down.

Westbrook has never had a problem sharing the ball. He was able to co-exist with Durant in Oklahoma City, Harden in Houston and Beal in Washington. The difference in this scenario is that he will be occupying the same space as James and Davis. The concern is efficiency. Out of 34 players to average at least 20 points per game over the last four seasons, Westbrook ranked 33rd in true shooting percentage.

When James drives to the rim or when Davis is facing a double-team inside, how confident will they be in passing out to Westbrook for a three-pointer? Better yet, how patient will they be if the shot isn’t falling? We have already seen what happened with Danny Green and Caldwell-Pope.

Now that the Lakers have assembled their trio of stars, many fans are hopeful to witness an NBA Finals matchup where James and the Lakers meet Kevin Durant, James Harden, Kyrie Irving and the Brooklyn Nets. As juicy as that series would be, the Western Conference is a gauntlet. There is no guarantee that the Lakers will make it there.

What helps their path is that the crosstown rival Clippers will likely be without Kawhi Leonard next season. The Denver Nuggets will be without Jamal Murray and the Golden State Warriors might not be the Warriors from four years ago. There is also uncertainty surrounding Damian Lillard and the Portland Trail Blazers and some potential roster changeup with the Utah Jazz.

Considering all of the top-tier point guard talent available in free agency this summer, the Lakers may have been better off trying to do a sign-and-trade. Such a scenario would have hard-capped them but after this deal, they are just $12.6 million below the hard cap with just five players on the roster. Putting together a deal for Hield is still possible, but the Lakers will have to get creative. Adding a third team to this trade, in particular, is one way to accomplish that. Again, it is possible but it will be complicated.

In a perfect world, the Lakers could have worked with Toronto on a sign-and-trade for Kyle Lowry. Even though Lowry is older than Westbrook, the current window for Los Angeles to win with this group is closing fast. Lowry would be cheaper and a much better fit overall. His durability, toughness, defense and high basketball IQ would pay dividends for the Lakers. Adding in the fact that he is a much better shooter, one has to wonder why the Lakers wouldn’t pursue this route instead.

Westbrook is still going to help this team. He is a tremendous asset for them in the regular season, especially when James is on the bench or unable to play. Having another floor general on the court to generate offense is something they have not had since James arrived. If Los Angeles can land some above-average shooting to the roster, Westbrook could flourish in this role.

With James sliding to the power forward position and Davis playing more at center, the key for Los Angeles will be to surround these guys with shooters. The Lakers ranked 21st in three-point percentage and 25th in makes last season. Expect the organization to be busy when free agency starts next week. Targets will include guys like Duncan Robinson, JJ Redick, Norman Powell, Evan Fournier, Doug McDermott, Bryn Forbes, Patrick Mills, Reggie Bullock, Kendrick Nunn and Alec Burks.

Obviously, the Lakers are counting on their individual talent and figuring out the rest later. It likely means the end for Dennis Schröder. Can Alex Caruso fit in and where does this leave Talen Horton-Tucker? The rest of the roster is in limbo, but the star players and the front office both feel confident that they will land the other pieces that they need to raise another banner next summer.

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Jazz offering Mike Conley $75 million over next three years

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According to veteran NBA reporter Marc Stein, the Utah Jazz are preparing to offer point guard Mike Conley a three-year, $75 million contract to remain with the team. Of course, the exact amount is a ballpark figure. Stein stated, “Utah has made retaining Mike Conley its top priority, league sources say, and is preparing a three-year offer said to be in the $75 million range.” The 14-year NBA veteran is a significant piece to the Jazz’s championship window, playing alongside superstar teammates, such as center Rudy Gobert and guard Donovan Mitchell. He helped the Jazz finish their regular season with the league’s best record of 52-20 (.722).

Utah went on to defeat the Memphis Grizzlies in five games in the first round of the playoffs. Though, the team lost four games to two in the conference semifinals against the Los Angeles Clippers. In the 2020-21 NBA season, Conley averaged 16.2 points, 3.5 rebounds, and six assists per game in 51 games started. Then, in the postseason, he averaged 15.3 points, 3.5 rebounds, and 7.7 assists per game. The 33-year-old also shot 44.4 percent from the field in the regular season. Last season, the 2007 fourth overall pick earned his first NBA All-Star selection.

On July 6, 2019, the Grizzlies traded Conley to the Jazz for Grayson Allen, Darius Bazley, Jae Crowder, Kyle Korver, and a 2020 first-round pick. Furthermore, the Jazz can still trade Bojan Bogdanovic and Joe Ingles this offseason, if they wanted to improve their current salary cap situation. Referencing Spotrac’s 2021-22 cap holds, Mike Conley’s cap figure is $39,344,900. Cap holds are for pending free agents. Conley earned $34,504,132 last season.

The team’s current luxury tax space is $11,173,027. In addition to the aforementioned cap figures, Mitchell and Gobert have a combined cap figure worth 51.34 percent of the team’s total salary cap. These two players’ contracts alone are consuming a huge chunk of the team’s cap. Plus, on November 23, 2020, Mitchell signed a contract extension with Utah. He is set to earn $28,103,550 next season. On December 20, 2020, Gobert signed a five-year, $205 million extension with the organization. He will earn $35,344,828 next season and $38,172,414 in the 2022-23 season.

However, if the team were to still trade Bogdanovic and possibly Ingles as well, this would clear up an additional 25.68 percent of the team’s salary cap. Bogdanovic’s future guaranteed cash amount total is $19,343,000. They are contributing role players who play together well with the team’s big three, but re-signing the most valuable players is the team’s main objective this offseason. Jazz general manager Justin Zanik might contemplate trading role players who are not worth their asking price. Competitive teams in both conferences have to trim the fat at some point.

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