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.

Nets hire Pablo Prigioni as assistant coach, Tiago Splitter as scout

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NEW YORK (AP) — The Brooklyn Nets have hired former NBA player and Argentine guard Pablo Prigioni as an assistant coach.

The Nets also announced Tuesday that former Spurs center Tiago Splitter was hired as a pro scout.

Prigioni spent most of his professional career in Spain and won a bronze medal with Argentina in the 2008 Olympics before coming to the New York Knicks in 2012 as a 35-year-old rookie. He spent four years in the NBA with the Knicks, Rockets and Clippers.

Splitter helped San Antonio win the 2014 NBA championship before spending the final two seasons of his seven-year career with Atlanta and Philadelphia. The Nets said Splitter, who also played for Brazil’s national team, will have added duties related to player on-court development.

 

Celtics to get Marcus Smart back for Game 5 Tuesday

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It’s a series that has hinged on defense — Boston has played it well for the majority of five games, bottling up Milwaukee in the halfcourt. The Bucks only played it with real energy at home (and only for about six of the eight quarters the last two games) but when they do they have overwhelmed the Celtics, then converted turnovers and missed shots into transition and early clock opportunities the other way.

For Game 5 Tuesday night, Boston gets its best perimeter defender back — Marcus Smart. He has been out since before the playoffs following thumb surgery last March.

Stevens, via NBC Sports Boston:

“He hasn’t played in six weeks, so it’s hard to say how much (time he will get) but will certainly play,” Stevens said. Stevens said there would not be a minutes restriction on him, but added that the fourth-year guard wasn’t going to play 35 minutes.

Smart is a very good perimeter defender who is very physical and usually assigned to the other team’s best guard (or wing, depending upon the matchup). When Smart was on the court this season, the Celtics allowed less than a point per possession and were 3.6 points per 100 better defensively than when he sat.

Smart likely will get time against Eric Bledsoe and Kris Middleton of the Bucks. Just his presence brings needed depth to the Celtics in what is a critical Game 5 in a series tied 2-2.

Report: Pelicans have discussed offering DeMarcus Cousins less than max over two to three years

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Last month, Anthony Davis said he heard DeMarcus Cousins planned to re-sign with the Pelicans. Cousins was out a torn Achilles, and New Orleans was rolling with Davis playing more center. But New Orleans’ ceiling looked higher with Cousins, and Davis made clear he wanted to keep Cousins – in itself a big deal. More important than keeping Cousins is keeping Davis, which requires keeping Davis happy.

Then, the Pelicans swept the Trail Blazers, becoming the lowest seed to sweep a first-round series.

Is everyone still sure Cousins warrants a max contract, which projects to be worth about $176 million over five years?

Zach Lowe of ESPN:

The Pelicans have broached internally the idea of offering Cousins a two- or three-year deal at less than the max, per sources familiar with the discussions. I would not expect that to go over well with Cousins’ camp. But the Pelicans have the dual leverage of winning without Cousins and a tepid market for him.

Only a half-dozen or so teams have max-level space this season, and most won’t pursue Cousins at that level, sources say.

I wouldn’t be surprised if the Pelicans leaked this to test the waters. Word will get back to Cousins, and they can gauge how strenuously he objects. If they want, they can deny ever considering this and try to avoid offending Cousins.

But New Orleans has leverage.

It will be a tight market. Many of the teams with significant cap space are young and rebuilding, and they won’t want Cousins’ attitude. Even teams ready to win might not bring him into the locker room. Returning from a torn Achilles – hard for any player – will be especially difficult for the 6-foot-11, 270-pound Cousins.

That said, Cousins has leverage on the Pelicans, too. He’s extremely talented, and players that talented are hard to come by. New Orleans would still essentially be capped out if he walked, left with only the mid-level exception to replace him. Cousins and Davis play well together, and Davis – who can become an unrestricted free agent in 2020 – wants Cousins around.

Confronted with a similar situation with Jrue Holiday last summer – capped out and no mechanism to adequately replace him – the Pelicans spent big. But Holiday wasn’t hurt and didn’t have any fit concerns with Davis.

For New Orleans, it’s clearly worth securing the 27-year-old Cousins for the next couple years. The upside is too high. But, especially given the injury, guaranteeing him money into his 30s is undesirable.

On the flip side, Cousins should want long-term security. This might be his last chance to get it.

So, maybe both the Pelicans and Cousins can meet in the middle. But finding that point is never simple.

Judge grills Suge Knight – facing murder charge – on NBA-champion pick (Rockets)

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Suge Knight is facing a murder, threat and robbery charges in three separate cases.

The former rap mogul was in court yesterday to set a trial date for the murder charge.

Marisa Gerber of the Los Angeles Times:

A few minutes later, during a separate hearing in the criminal threats proceeding, another judge asked Knight to return to his courtroom in May. The judge then turned to Knight, asking who he thought would win the NBA playoffs.

“At this time…” Knight said, before the judge cut him off, saying he wanted a once-and-for-all answer.

“Houston,” Knight responded.

“Alright, Houston. Good pick,” the judge said.

Knight smiled.

What?