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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.

Rajon Rondo on signing with Knicks: ‘The triangle’s not really a good look for me’

Sacramento Kings guard Rajon Rondo, left, saves the ball from going out of bound as New York Knicks center Robin Lopez, right, defends during the second half of an NBA basketball game in Sacramento, Calif., Thursday, Dec. 10, 2015. (AP Photo/Rich Pedroncelli)
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Mike Conley threw the point-guard-needy Knicks a bone, saying he’d consider New York (and everyone else) in free agency.

They better hope that’s more than lip service.

This free-agent class doesn’t run deep, especially at point guard. And the second-best unrestricted point guard – a one-time target – doesn’t sound interested in the Knicks.

Kings guard Rajon Rondo, via Mike Mazzeo of ESPN:

“The triangle’s not really a good look for me, I don’t think,” Rondo said.

“[The] coach. And style of play. The biggest thing for me is the style of play,” he replied before the Kings were destroyed by the Nets, surrendering 18 3-pointers and 55.8 percent shooting in a 128-119 loss. “I wouldn’t want to go to a system where I don’t really have the ball in my hands and they have you stand in the corner and shoot 3s. That’s not my style of play. … The style of play is the biggest thing, and then obviously personnel on the court and coaches.”

This is the drawback of Phil Jackson’s triangle attachment. The Knicks know what they want to do, but that also means they lack the flexibility to acquire players who don’t fit their scheme. To their credit, the Knicks have bent more this season – but not enough to change perception of their methods.

If they want to change Rondo’s mind, they weren’t going about it by flattery.

Just ask former Knicks coach Derek Fisher, who played for Jackson’s Lakers that beat Rondo’s Celtics in the 2010 NBA Finals (and conveniently ignore Boston winning the same Finals matchup two years prior).

Chris Herring of The Wall Street Journal:

Rondo has earned a big raise with a bounce-back season. The Kings will likely pay him, but if not, he’ll have other suitors – likely including the Knicks’ crosstown rivals, the Nets. I doubt this tiff with the Knicks will affect him.

New York, on the other hand, faces grimmer prospects. Conley seems to legitimately enjoy playing for the Grizzlies. After Rondo, the Knicks could make a longshot offer to restricted free agent Jordan Clarkson, but the Lakers would likely match. Then what? Brandon Jennings? He’s alright, but he also might leave New York wishing its system accommodated choosing from a wider pool of players.

Hey, maybe firing Fisher will change Rondo’s perception of the Knicks. Then again, its essentially impossible to see Jackson hiring a coach who won’t run the triangle.

Tony Parker to play with France despite wife’s pregnancy

AP Photo/Michel Spingler
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PARIS (AP) San Antonio Spurs point guard Tony Parker says he has found a deal with his wife that will allow him to take part in France’s Olympic qualifying tournament this summer.

Parker had raised the possibility of missing the tournament from July 4-10 and the Olympics – if France qualified – because of the expected birth of his second son in July.

But Parker told L’Equipe newspaper Monday that he will be available for both events, saying: “I will be at the Olympics if we qualify.”

Parker says his wife is making a “big sacrifice” by letting him go and has warned him he “should better bring a medal back home.”

The Olympic basketball tournament in Rio de Janeiro will be held from Aug. 6-21.

Rumor: Lakers would fire Byron Scott for Luke Walton

Golden State Warriors interim coach Luke Walton, left, walks off the court with Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant after an NBA basketball game in Oakland, Calif., Tuesday, Nov. 24, 2015. The Warriors won 111-77. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
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The Lakers reportedly view the rest of the season as a tryout for Byron Scott.

Unless Warriors assistant Luke Walton wants the job. Then, Scott is out.

So says a notable Lakers rumormonger.

Stephen A. Smith on ESPN LA on Scott:

I’m hearing he’s gone if Luke Walton wants to come in and take the job next season, that if he wants to do that, that obviously they would move beyond the Byron Scott era and bring in Luke Walton, that Luke Walton, however, as much as he loves the Lakers and California, may not find that to be an attractive job unless they position themselves to acquire somebody like a Ben Simmons. That is what I have heard.

I have also heard that it’s very, very possible that Jeanie Buss is going to keep her word and fire her brother Jim Buss – thank the good lord – and that Mitch Kupchak may very well not be safe as well.

How definitive that is remains to be seen. But that is the chatter in NBA circles.

Walton played for the Lakers, and Kobe Bryant still respects him. Though Kobe will retire after the season, his endorsement could still carry weight – especially as it speaks to players’ perception of Walton.

The Golden State assistant impressed while filling in for Steve Kerr as acting head coach. He has already been linked to the Knicks and Suns, and he could get other offers.

If the Lakers keep their top-three-protected first-round pick, they’d have an intriguing job with D'Angelo Russell, Julius Randle, a promising rookie, matching rights for Arenas-provision-limited Jordan Clarkson and tons of cap space. If the Lakers lose their pick, the job would look a lot worse. Either way, staying in California and leading one of the NBA’s premier franchises could appeal to Walton.

It’s this interest that makes me believe Scott’s “tryout” is little more than a courtesy for a former player who helped the Lakers win championships. If they’d fire Scott for Walton, how many other replacements would warrant dumping Scott? My list would be long enough to ensure he gets canned.

As far as Jim Buss, his deadline for turning around the team or losing his job has been a source of contention. But even Jeannie, who gives him less time than he gives himself, said he had until the summer of 2017.

Lakers fans might have to settle for exercising one one of their demons.

Report: Luke Walton and Brian Shaw top Knicks’ candidates to replace Derek Fisher

LOS ANGELES, CA - JUNE 06:  (L-R) Assistant coach Brian Shaw, head coach Phil Jackson and assistant coach Frank Hamblen of the Los Angeles Lakers sit on the bench in the second half against the Boston Celtics Game Two of the 2010 NBA Finals at Staples Center on June 6, 2010 in Los Angeles, 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 Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
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Out: Derek Fisher.

In: Kurt Rambis.

That’s only the first step of the Knicks’ coaching change.

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

Of course, Luke Walton and Brian Shaw – like Fisher and the other top candidate in 2014, Steve Kerr – played for Phil Jackson. The Knicks president has a type, one that includes both good and bad candidates.

The good: Walton. He impressed with his handling of the Warriors in Steve Kerr’s absence. He’s one of the hottest coaches on the market. I have some doubts, given Kerr’s and Golden State’s players’ influence. But Walton has done plenty right to be in this position.

The bad: Shaw. Jackson reportedly preferred Shaw to Fisher two years ago, but Shaw was under contract with the Nuggets. Denver since fired him, because he did a stunningly awful job connecting with his players. Perhaps, he has grown in that area since, though.

It seems inevitable Tom Thibodeau’s name will come up. The former Bulls coach isn’t a Phil Jackson disciple, but he previously worked as a Knicks assistant. Maybe his New York connection will allow Thibodeau to overcome his lack of a Jackson tie.

A direct connection to Jackson clearly puts someone on the fast track for this job.