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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.

Check out top 50 plays from Kevin Garnett’s Hall of Fame career (VIDEO)

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First Kobe Bryant. Then Tim Duncan.

Now Kevin Garnett. The Hall of Fame class in five years is going to be stacked.

But before we move on from Garnett’s announcement this week that he is retiring after 21 years in the NBA, let’s look back at his greatest plays (compiled by the folks at NBA.com). Enjoy this for 11 minutes rather than watching your NFL fantasy team flounder. Again.

D’Angelo Russell said he used to play as Luke Walton on NBA 2K; Stephen Jackson calls that crap

LOS ANGELES, CA - MARCH 30: D'Angelo Russell #1 of the Los Angeles Lakers speaks during a news conference to discuss the controversy with teammate Nick Young before the start of the NBA game against the Miami Heat at Staples Center March 30, 2016, in Los Angeles, California. NOTE TO USER: User expressly acknowledges and agrees that, by downloading and or using the photograph, User is consenting to the terms and conditions of the Getty Images License Agreement. (Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images)
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Did anyone ever fire up NBA 2K9 back in the day, decide to be the soon-to-be-champion Lakers, look at a roster with Kobe Bryant, Pau Gasol, and Lamar Odom then say “I’m going to be Luke Walton”?

D'Angelo Russell says he did.

The Lakers young point guard has praised the new Laker coach at every turn — Russell and Byron Scott did not get along, the point guard is much happier now — and that includes talking about Walton’s playing days to Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report.

“I told him I remember playing with him on (NBA) 2K; I used to always play as him. I’m a fan. I’m definitely a fan. Because he was a point forward. I can’t speak on Elgin Baylor and all those guys, but my era, I know he was a point forward.”

Really? NBA veteran and current analyst Stephen Jackson called Russell out on that.

Jackson has a point.

Report: No, J.R. Smith isn’t talking to Sixers

CLEVELAND, OH -  JUNE 22: J.R. Smith #5 of the Cleveland Cavaliers celebrates with the fans during the Cleveland Cavaliers 2016 championship victory parade and rally on June 22, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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What is with the ridiculous, unrealistic Philadelphia 76ers rumors of late? Last I checked recreational use was not legal in Pennsylvania. Not that the law is stopping anyone.

The latest silliness follows this logic:

This summer the Sixers made runs at veteran guards such as Jamal Crawford and Manu Ginobili (and they forced the Spurs to pay up for the Argentinian to keep him).

The Cleveland Cavaliers and J.R. Smith are in a staring contest, and Smith remains a free agent.

The Sixers have more than $22 million in cap space still.

So…

No. Not happening.

Or, we could have just asked Smith who has said he is not talking to other teams and doesn’t want to play anywhere but Cleveland.

I can get why Sixers management would want to bring a veteran and beloved, hard-working pro such as Ginobili in to lead and mentor a young team. Does Smith bring that same demeanor? I get that Smith in Cleveland has developed his game, and that he has matured and backed off his hard-partying ways (he gets a hall pass for the days after winning a championship), but is Smith the veteran you bring into a young locker room?

Can we move on from the ridiculous in Pennslyvania? Well, probably not until after the election, that is a battleground state.

Paul George says “I’m ready” to challenge LeBron James for supremacy in East

CLEVELAND, OH - FEBRUARY 29: LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers looks for a pass while under pressure from Paul George #13 of the Indiana Pacers during the first half at Quicken Loans Arena on February 29, 2016 in Cleveland, Ohio. 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. Mandatory copyright notice. (Photo by Jason Miller/Getty Images)
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LeBron James is the best basketball player walking the face of the earth. The only guy who could start to challenge that supremacy the past couple of years has been Stephen Curry, and last season’s NBA Finals answered that question for now.

In the Eastern Conference, for years now it has been LeBron James and his team then a step back to everyone else — LeBron has been to six straight NBA Finals, four in Miami and the last two in Cleveland. Most pundits (myself included) think that’s going to be seven in-a-row because the Cavaliers are clear and away the class of the East.

Paul George says he and the Pacers are ready to change that narrative. Here is what he told Michael Lee of The Vertical at Yahoo Sports.

“Honestly, I look at us challenging them. I’ve been in the East and I’ve been No. 1 with LeBron being on a team,” George told The Vertical in a recent telephone interview, harkening back to when the Pacers finished with the best regular-season record in the East in 2013-14, the season before his gruesome Team USA leg injury….

“I’ve always matched up with him like, ‘I know he can do this, I know he can do that,’ ” George told The Vertical about James. “Not in an awe fashion, but it’s more so, ‘I’m not supposed to win these games. This is supposed to be the best dude in the NBA. I’m trying to challenge him. I know what I’m up against.’ Now it’s, ‘I’m ready. I’m ready for you. I’m a veteran. I know you, you know me. Let’s meet here, let’s get this job done.’ I’m prepared. I’ve had time to figure this out. I’ve had time to lick my wounds. I’m ready.”

Good for George — this is exactly what you want an elite competitor and top player to say heading into the season. He sees Everest in front of him, and he wants to climb it.

I’m also higher on the Pacers than most; I think they are a top-four team in the East that can finish top two. They upgraded at the point with Jeff Teague, plus they added the underrated Thaddeus Young (although they will miss Solomon Hill) and depth up front with Al Jefferson. I don’t get Larry Bird pushing Frank Vogel out the door at all, but Nate McMillan is a solid NBA coach to take his place. I think the Pacers are taking a step forward this season, maybe a fairly significant one.

But they’re still not in the Cavaliers’ class.

The East is still Cleveland then everyone else. Last season Toronto won 56 games and had its best season in franchise history, and they were still a step or two below the Cavaliers. No team in the East — not the Raptors, not the Celtics, not the Pacers — are making up those steps. Unless injuries or something else unforeseen brings the Cavaliers back to the pack, the Eastern Conference once again will look like Secretariat at the Belmont.