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NBA Season Preview: San Antonio Spurs

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Last season: 50-32, tied with Oklahoma City and Portland for the six seed (or eight seed, depending on how you want to look at it). The Spurs bested the Mavericks in six games in what was a mild first round upset, but were swept aside by the Suns in the next round. That kind of sums up the Spurs season: They were a little better than you thought they were, but they were not in the class of the elite.

Head Coach: Gregg Popovich, who has four rings but if you ask me did his best work at Pomona College back in the day. Fear the Sagehens.

Key Departures: Roger Mason is gone, not sure that qualifies as key, however. Eight of the top nine guys from the Spurs are back so this is the same Spurs you’ve known and loved.

Key Additions: Tiago Splitter is finally here. He has been the best big man in Europe for the last couple of seasons and the Spurs got him to come over at a bargain price ($10 million over three years). He is 6’11”, can protect the rim and has a polished if not spectacular game. He will start as the backup to Antonio McDyess at the spot, but early on look for Splitter to be the guy finishing games with Duncan.

Then there is the Richard Jefferson opt-out and signing. Call me a cynic (because I am) but this had to be a pre-arranged deal. Sure, that would violate all kinds of rules so this was figured out in some way that kept David Stern out of the loop, but there is now way Jefferson opts out of $15 million a year to get a four-year, $40 million deal he did not deserve off last season’s play, just to help out the Spurs finances almost perfectly. If all his off-season work to find his game pays off, this is a good deal. It could be a bad one, but the Spurs front office gets the benefit of the doubt based on track record here.

Also in the door is shooter Gary Neal and James Anderson, both who will play minor roles.

Best case scenario: the Spurs are the charter members of a big club in the West — “if everything goes perfect we could challenge the Lakers in the West.” But that’s the goal.

For that to happen: Well, everything has to go perfect — Tony Parker needs to bounce back from his injury and all the other core players need to stay healthy. Richard Jefferson needs to get his groove back. Duncan needs to be Duncan, maybe even a little more so. Tiago Splitter needs to adjust to the NBA quickly so he can make an impact at the end of games.

Defense is going to be the key — the Spurs were 9th in the NBA in defensive efficiency last season. Which is not bad — top third and all. But the championship Spurs were intimidating defensively, and that meant their nice-but-not-thrilling offense as good enough. What the Spurs lacked is what every team in the no-touch-on-the-perimeter era needs — a big man who can protect the rim. Tony Parker can’t stop Tony Parker with the current rules, he needs an intimidating big behind him.

Splitter needs to be that guy. He needs to adjust to the NBA game fast on the defensive end, be able to be in the lane and close out games by blocking or altering shots.

The other key is for an aging Spurs to stay healthy. Before you email in anger — yes the Spurs have done a good job of getting younger in recent years. George Hill was a great pick, as was DeJuan Blair. Splitter provides a path to being good in the post-Duncan era.

But we are talking contending here, and for that they need Duncan/Parker/Ginobili all healthy and playing well in the playoffs. And we haven’t seen that in a few years. So it’s a concern.

More likely the Spurs will: Get overlooked but be better than everyone remembers. They could be the best of the second tier of the West, even if their record doesn’t show it because Popovich will focus on the playoffs, not regular season wins (like Boston last season).

They will get to the playoffs without much hype then will knock somebody off in the first round. The Spurs know that this is very likely the last year Parker is a Spur — he could even be gone at the trading deadline — and so this will be one last run for this group. They will not go quietly into that good night.

But things will not be knock-off-the-Lakers perfect, either.

Prediction: 52-30, second round playoff exit. Good, but not what they hoped internally. And then the Tony Parker questions really start.

James Harden organizing Rockets pre-camp workout this week

HOUSTON, TEXAS - APRIL 13:  James Harden #13 of the Houston Rockets reacts to a three point shot during the second half of a game against the Sacramento Kings at the Toyota Center on April 13, 2016 in Houston, Texas. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images)
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Last year, James Harden organized a pre-camp workout where Rockets players could get in shape and develop some chemistry. Then the Rockets started the season slowly with Harden not being in good enough shape and the team having chemistry issues.

Hopefully, for Rockets’ fan this year is different — once again Harden is organizing a camp, reports, Fox 26 in Houston. And Harden is working to show what a great teammate he is.

For the second consecutive year Houston Rockets guard James Harden has organized a players-only minicamp scheduled for next week.

“James is doing everything,” said Corey Brewer, Rockets guard/forward. “He is showing he wants to be a leader. He’s the franchise player. He signed the extension. So it’s his team, and he’s doing all the right things to do what we need to do to have a chance to win championships.”

Harden’s plan is to hold the minicamp in Miami. However, the potential of bad weather hitting South Florida may cause the Rockets players to work in a different city.

Nearly every team does one of these, and how much good they do depends on who you ask. Teams that go deep in the playoffs have these camps, teams that disappoint and never make the playoffs have these camps. It certainly never hurts to get some voluntary team workouts in before the coaches take over at the end of September, and good on Harden for organizing it.

Just don’t read too much into any team doing this.

Top 10 NBA plays of last season by position (video)

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Which position – point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward or center – produced the best highlights last season?

Watch this video to find out and be glad the positional revolution didn’t reduce it fewer highlights.

Ohio farm commemorates Cavaliers championship with corn mazes (photo)

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 19:  LeBron James #23, Kevin Love #0, and J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrate after defeating the Golden State Warriors 93-89 in Game 7 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 19, 2016 in Oakland, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using this photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement.  (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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Could you find your way out of LeBron James‘ head?

Now, you can find out.

An Ohio farm has created three corn mazes – one featuring LeBron’s head, one that says Believeland and one with a Larry O’Brien Trophy – to commemorate the Cavaliers 2016 NBA title:

This is a championship-level corn maze. 🏆🌽 Thanks for the love, @maplesidefarms! #OneForTheLand #Believeland

A photo posted by Cleveland Cavaliers (@cavs) on

College coaches vote UConn’s Kevin Ollie best-suited/most likely to make NBA jump

DES MOINES, IA - MARCH 17:  head coach Kevin Ollie of the Connecticut Huskies reacts on the sideline in the first half against the Colorado Buffaloes during the first round of the 2016 NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament at Wells Fargo Arena on March 17, 2016 in Des Moines, Iowa.  (Photo by Jonathan Daniel/Getty Images)
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Kevin Ollie made himself one of the NBA’s hottest coaching prospects by leading UConn to the 2014 NCAA title.

He has since resisted NBA overtures, including from the Lakers in 2014 and Thunder last year.

But his peers don’t expect Ollie’s hesitance to last.

Gary Parrish and Matt Norlander of CBSSPorts.com asked more than 110 college coaches, “Which active college coach is best suited and most likely to next jump to the NBA?” The results:

Coach, college Percentage

Kevin Ollie, UConn 20 percent

Bill Self, Kansas 17 percent

John Calipari, Kentucky 16 percent

Jay Wright, Villanova 16 percent

Shaka Smart, Texas 9 percent

Tony Bennett, Virginia 8 percent

Note: Other coaches who received at least three or more votes: Sean Miller (Arizona), Larry Krystkowiak (Utah) and Avery Johnson (Alabama).

Keep in mind 80% of responds didn’t answer Ollie. But he’s still makes sense atop the leaderboard.

Ollie isn’t the typical college-to-NBA coach, and Brad Stevens and Billy Donovan – and maybe eventually Fred Hoiberg – are changing that perception, anyway. Not is Ollie showing his basketball acumen at Connecticut, his 13-year NBA career suggests he can translate his style to the next level.

Of course, Calipari always comes up on these lists. He coaches more future NBA stars than anyone, and he loves the attention that comes with the perception NBA teams are chasing him. But he has the best job in college basketball at Kentucky, so luring him will be difficult.

Self and Wright, the other coaches who got at least 10% of the vote, come up from time to time in NBA rumors. But it never seems to be anything that goes anywhere.