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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.

Jeanie Buss on Phil Jackson: “He’s committed to New York for many years”

Los Angeles Lakers owner Jeanie Buss, left, sits next to Phil Jackson, right, president of the New York Knicks, during the first half of an NBA basketball game between the Knicks and the Detroit Pistons on Wednesday, April 15, 2015, in New York. (AP Photo/Frank Franklin II)
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There were good reasons Luke Walton wanted five fully-committed years from the Lakers on his coaching contract. The Lakers’ current front office doesn’t exactly project stability, Luke wanted some insurance.

The most commonly mentioned front office scenario for Los Angeles is that next summer Jim Buss steps aside after another rough season for the Lakers, and in the summer of 2017 — when he has an out in his New York deal — Jeanie Buss brings in Phil Jackson to take over the Lakers basketball side and save the franchise.

Who says no to that? Well to start, Buss. Here is what she said on ESPN Radio with Ramona Shelburne and Michelle Beadle:

“No,” Buss said, “To visit, yes..but in terms of basketball, he’s committed to New York for many years. He’s building something there. He has a mission, he’s on that journey to get the team back to where he believes it can be and it will be. He’s a former Knick…he loves New York, he loves the fans, he wants to make them proud. In terms of the Lakers, we have a front office. They’re putting together a team…they have a vision. I’m excited to see what the future holds for us. So, to answer your question….no, there’s no plans for Phil to come back here.”

On one hand, what else is Buss going to say? “Sure, I plan to force my brother out of power and bring in my fiance to run the team next summer, it’s all very Shakespearean isn’t it?”

That said, I do tend to believe her (at least that there is not a master plan), and if I were a Laker fan I’d be okay with this. The Knicks have gotten better under Jackson and did draft Kristaps Porzingis, but Jackson also hired Derek Fisher, and was wed to the triangle until that was forced out of his hands and he hired Jeff Hornacek as coach. Now comes Jackson’s biggest test as the guy in the big chair because there is some serious roster work to do with the Knicks (starting with finding a point guard who can play up-tempo). Jackson has kept owner James Dolan at arm’s length from basketball decisions, which is worth every penny he is getting paid, but he’s not been brilliant.

If and when Jim Buss moves out of basketball operations, the Lakers will have options as one of the premier GM jobs in the NBA. They likely can do better than Jackson.

Pau Gasol considering skipping Olympics because of Zika

INDIANAPOLIS, INDIANA - MARCH 29:  Pau Gasol #16 of the Chicago Bulls watches the action during the game against the Indiana Pacers at Bankers Life Fieldhouse on March 29, 2016 in Indianapolis, Indiana. 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 Andy Lyons/Getty Images)
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MADRID (AP) — Pau Gasol is considering not playing at the Olympics because of the Zika virus.

The Spanish basketball player said Monday there is too much uncertainty about the situation in Brazil and anyone going to Rio de Janeiro for the games should “think about” whether it’s worth the risk.

The Chicago Bulls player said other Spanish athletes have also expressed their concerns about the virus and are also considering skipping the games.

“It wouldn’t surprise me to see some athletes deciding not to participate in the games to avoid putting their health and the health of their families at risk,” Gasol said, adding that he was among the athletes making such considerations.

“I’m thinking about (whether or not to go),” he said. “Just like every athlete, or any other person considering going to Rio, should be thinking about it.”

Without giving names, Gasol said he talked to other athletes who told him they may not participate in the games.

“Some of these athletes are planning to have children in the near future and this could affect them, it could affect the health of their kids and their wives,” he said at an event for one of his sponsors in Madrid. “Their health should come first.”

Brazil has been badly hit by Zika, the mosquito-borne virus linked to severe birth defects and possible neurological problems in adults.

Gasol said officials involved in the games must come forward with “more clear information” about the risks athletes could be facing if they decide to compete in Rio.

“I hope the national Olympic committees and the health organizations can be as clear as possible about the risks in Brazil so athletes can decide whether or not to take risks,” he said. “I don’t think we’ve been told enough about it.”

Gasol mentioned the call from 150 health specialists to consider postponing or moving the Aug. 5-21 Olympics, something the World Health Organization rejected last week.

“We need to understand the seriousness of the situation,” Gasol said. “Even though there are some soothing words being said, we know that there are different opinions about the subject.”

Gasol said he is being proactive and has been trying to gather as much information as possible about the virus and the risks it could pose for himself and his family. He said he has contacted experts in the area to try to know more about the virus.

“I feel responsible to know more about the situation and to inform everyone about it,” he said. “It’s important to talk openly about this. It’s a very delicate situation.”

Gasol helped Spain win the silver medal at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympics.

Tales Azzoni on Twitter: http://twitter.com/tazzoni. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/tales-azzoni

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue on Warriors-Thunder Game 7: ‘We just want the winner’

TORONTO, ON - MAY 23:  Tyronn Lue of the Cleveland Cavaliers reacts in the second half against the Toronto Raptors in game four of the Eastern Conference Finals during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 23, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada. 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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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LeBron James didn’t get his wish – Dwyane Wade and the Heat – for the Eastern Conference finals.

In advance of tonight’s Warriors-Thunder Game 7, his coach isn’t specifying a preferred NBA Finals opponent.

Cavaliers coach Tyronn Lue, via Chris Fedor of Cleveland.com:

“We just want the winner,” Lue said. “Just whoever wins. We’re preparing for both and after tonight we will get a chance to see who we finally play.”

This seems like the wrong approach. I’d rather face the loser. That team is likely more beatable. Alas, it doesn’t work that way. Lue is accepting the inevitable.

The Warriors would probably be the tougher matchup. They’ve been the better team all season and would put Kyrie Irving and Kevin Love into a ton of pick-and-rolls. It’s a great offensive matchup for Stephen Curry. But beating Golden State – the defending champions with a 73-9 record – would bring greater glory and personal redemption to LeBron, who clearly views the Warriors as an outlier.

The Thunder would be no pushovers, but Cleveland would have a better chance of winning. Even with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook, Oklahoma City just hasn’t played as well as Golden State over a long stretch.

This is obviously a discussion only for fun. The Cavs have no say in their Finals opponent. The Warriors and Thunder will decide that tonight.

Report: Lakers ‘aren’t that high’ on DeMar DeRozan

TORONTO, ON - DECEMBER 07:  DeMar DeRozan #10 of the Toronto Raptors is fouled by Robert Sacre #50 of the Los Angeles Lakers during an NBA game at the Air Canada Centre on December 07, 2015 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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DeMar DeRozan sounds like he wants to re-sign with the Raptors, and Toronto wants him back.

But what about those Lakers rumors?

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report, via Noah Coslov of Bleacher Report Radio:

I’m breaking up with you.

No, I’m breaking up with you first.