Saturday Starting Five: Underground storylines before the season tip

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Hey, so, you’re stuck with me on the weekends, so I thought we’d put together something you can count on. Every weekend here at PBT we’ll have the Saturday Starting Five. Five elements, chosen thematically (so I’m not just basically vomiting words onto a screen for you) and brought for discussion about the NBA. Today’s topic? Five underrated storylines as we head towards the season.

The Orlando Motivated Monstrous Machine

A team with Dwight Howard, Vince Carter, Jameer Nelson, Rashard Lewis, and J.J. Redick comes into the season as almost a nondescript non-entity. A team that reached the Finals a year ago enters the season as an afterthought. And a team that annihilated its opponents in the preseason enters without a peep (because it’s preseason). So why is no one talking about the Magic? I’ve already breached this subject elsewhere, but let me sum up: due to the circumstances under which they won the East in 2009, and given the improvements made to the Eastern powers, the window has to be considered shut for the Magic as we know them.

But what if we don’t know them? A particular element of the assessment I made of the team as based on their physical makeup. There was no big signing, no huge trade, no substantial upgrade. Vince Carter got older, Jameer Nelson got Jameer-Nelson-ier, etc. The Magic are the same team they were last season, in terms of their physical makeup. But mentally? That’s where we might see some changes.

Most notably, even having only talked to Dwight Howard briefly this summer, I can tell you there’s something different about him. It’s not the workouts with Hakeem Olajuwon, instead, it’s the way he’s reacted to the hype over the Miami Triad. That level of anger that we constantly seek from LeBron? Howard has it. And with Vince Carter having another year in the system, Ryan Anderson coming into his own, and Stan Van Gundy finally relenting and pushing Rashard Lewis to the three from time to time, it’s entirely possible that this team mentally is ready to come out guns blazing. Then again, coming out guns blazing doesn’t do them much good if they run out of bullets in May. This analogy must either end or include a played-out Arenas reference, so…

The Hard Line Between Fan And Fanatic

Putting LeBron’s return to Cleveland on national television was their second bad idea. Putting it in front of an actual crowd of Cleveland fans was their first. If LeBron’s Twitter escapade showed anything, it’s that there are people out there to which the common rules of decency we all share do not apply. There are those of us out there who simply have no problem with crossing that line between “Okay, the guy used to wear the same color jersey I like and now he doesn’t, and that sucks”  and “I am now going to venture into outright racism, but first let me make a stop in Death Threat Village Boutiques.” This situation is a time bomb, and for some reason, the league is convinced it’s just good television. Even if you think the odds of a Cleveland fan or fans going berserk at the game is infinitely too small to be worried about, why are you exacerbating the situation by marketing it? “Tune in to watch LeBron possibly have a molotov cocktail thrown at his head for switching zip codes!” Cheering and booing is a great part of sport. But the projection that has been emulated by Cleveland fans, blaming James for an array of ills he had nothing to do with is a dangerous element in a highly tense situation.

There’s hate, there’s sincere hate, then there’s whatever nerve James tapped into this summer, be it racial, ethical, cultural, or otherwise. There’s a time bomb and it’s ticking, set to go off when the King returns to Cleveland.

The Top Seed in the West Is Up for Grabs

No, seriously. The Lakers are winning the Western Conference Finals, of that you can be sure of, but the top seed in the West and thereby the best chance to knock off LA? That’s still in the air. The Lakers aren’t just going to coast the second half of the season, they may struggle out of the gate with Kobe Bryant still recovering, Bynum on the shelf, and whatever random injuries they pick up. Dallas, San Antonio, Oklahoma City, Utah, Portland, Denver if Melo sticks around, any of these teams could sneak in and take home court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs. It wouldn’t be that hard to get past LA. It’s getting past everyone else that is the trick.

Again, LA may not win the West’s top seed because they know they don’t have to. Rest is more important than dominance. They no longer have to shoot for 72. The Heat are taking care of that runaway hype machine for them. And while they’re resting their bones, another team may set themselves up to try to have a Game 7 on their floor if push comes to shove. The rest is just prayer.

New Ownership Takes Direction

Ted Leonsis has lists of all the things he’s changing. New Warriors owner Joe Lacob is already making dramatic plans for change in Golden State. The Pistons will be under new ownership from a mogul. And the Hornets? Well, the Hornets are still George Shinn’s and no one is happy about it, least of all Shinn. The Warriors will be interesting from the perspective of whether they can defend at all with Keith Smart at the helm. Alternative approaches might yield some results there, considering the talent they have.

But New Orleans bears watching. If Shinn gets more desperate to sell the team, he may look to drop the value. Which would mean, you know, trading a superstar. Like Chris Paul. Oops. Meanwhile a new ownership group in Detroit may look at the salaries, then look at Joe Dumars, then look at the salaries, then look at Joe Dumars, and then things could get awkward.

Ownership changes create instability. The question will be how much, in a year that promises to be unstable regardless.

Exceptional Exceptions

There’s nothing in the NBA that can make up for the loss of a superstar. Back in the days of league-determined compensation, Cleveland and Toronto would have received picks, and, well… okay, that’s the thing. Riley managed to gut that team so completely to rebuild it they couldn’t even be punished with compensation. But the one thing those teams did get back is a big ol’ massive trade exception. Which is going to allow them to go in a few directions.

The most attractive one is to pick up  a monstrous expiring contract as part of  a multi-team trade that can net them picks, young players, and let them dump off the rest of their teams. These two squads need a clean slate, as painful as that is for fans, and this is the best way to go about it. When February rolls around, don’t be surprised if two teams that got rolled in free agency are heavy in discussions.

Duncan-less Spurs eager for another run at NBA postseason

San Antonio Spurs guard Tony Parker (9), of France, talks with forward Kawhi Leonard during the second half of the team's preseason NBA basketball game against the Houston Rockets, Friday, Oct. 21, 2016, in San Antonio. (AP Photo/Darren Abate)
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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — The San Antonio Spurs responded to their most successful regular season in franchise history with the greatest turnover in Gregg Popovich’s two decades with the team.

Tim Duncan’s retirement played a large role in the reconstruction, but so did losing in six games to Oklahoma City in the Western Conference semifinals.

Duncan is gone along with veterans Boris Diaw, Matt Bonner and late-season additions Andre Miller and Kevin Martin. While San Antonio added another veteran in Pau Gasol, they also brought in a lot of youth and athleticism as they prepared for life without Duncan, the power forward who led the franchise to five NBA titles in 19 seasons.

“Right now we don’t know what we’re going to miss on the floor because we haven’t been through the season yet,” Spurs forward Kawhi Leonard said. “(But) just knowing he’s not here, his personality isn’t here. Jokes that he makes during practice, that’s the things I’m missing right now.”

Duncan will be with the team occasionally as an unofficial assistant coach, but San Antonio is placing the team squarely in Leonard’s hands. The 6-foot-7 forward finished second in MVP balloting after averaging a career-high 21.2 points and 6.8 rebounds last season. He also was named Defensive Player of the Year for the second straight season.

After spending his first five seasons adding a pull-up jumper and honing his 3-point shooting, Leonard spent this offseason working on something else: “Just becoming a leader. Just making sure I know what’s going on on the floor at every position. Just getting ready to get my mentality of just leading the group this year.”

Leonard’s evolution as a leader should be aided by Gasol. The 17-year veteran won two NBA championships while with the Los Angeles Lakers.

“One thing that makes me feel a little better with (Duncan’s) loss is Pau Gasol,” Popovich said. “He is a very intelligent man and he understands how to play and he’s played for a lot of good people. That’s going to help us in that loss, but having said that, it will take time to get all the new guys to understanding exactly how we play and who goes with whom.”

Gasol averaged 16.5 points and 11.0 rebounds for Chicago last season while earning his sixth All-Star appearance. Duncan averaged 8.6 points and 7.3 rebounds in the final season of a Hall of Fame career.

Gasol’s numbers will likely drop this season, though, as San Antonio will continue to develop around Leonard and LaMarcus Aldridge.

“It starts with me and L.A. first,” Leonard said. “If we win a championship, it’s going to be up to us to lead the group.”

The duo earned All-Star berths last season while leading San Antonio to a franchise-record 67 victories. But the Spurs dropped four of five games to the Thunder in the West semifinals and San Antonio knew changes were needed. The Spurs drafted 6-foot-5 point guard Dejounte Murray and brought in 2011 second-round pick Davis Bertans at forward along with signing 7-foot center Dewayne Dedmon along with David Lee.

Some other things to know about the Spurs, who open the season Tuesday night at Golden State:


Aldridge struggled to fit into the team’s offense in the first half of last season, but closed strongly to lead the team in rebounding and finish second in scoring. He said he was not bothered by reports San Antonio was willing to trade him.

“(Popovich is) a pretty direct person and this organization is first-class, so if that was the issue, I would have known way before the media knew,” Aldridge said. “So, I wasn’t worried about it at all.”


Point guard Tony Parker suffered a drop in scoring for his third straight season, which is a product of the team’s evolution rather than any decline in his game. The 6-foot-2 guard averaged 11.9 points last season, but he had a career-low 1.8 turnovers per game and shot 49 percent from the field. It was the third time in four seasons that Parker has shot 49 percent or better from the field. He also shot 42 percent on 3-pointers, marking the second straight season he has shot over 40 percent on 3s. Fellow veteran Manu Ginobili said he will not decide if this his last season until after it’s done.


After averaging 7.9 points and shooting 47 percent on 3-pointers in 15 games for Baskonia in the Euroleague last season, Bertans is averaging 5.4 points and shooting 31 percent on 3-pointers in five preseason games for the Spurs. He has astounded his teammates with his leaping ability especially after right ACL surgery twice in the past three years.

“I think in the second ACL they put something special in there,” Bertans said.


Dedmon is expected to be one of the team’s primary frontcourt reserves if he can stay on the court. The 7-footer has struggled with foul trouble in his career, averaging 2.1 fouls in just 13.1 minutes per game. He is averaging 3.2 fouls in five preseason games, including fouling out in 22 minutes in San Antonio’s preseason opener against Phoenix.


Gasol has stepping into Duncan’s spot in numerous ways, not just in the starting lineup. Gasol has taken Duncan’s spot standing next to Parker and Ginobili during the national anthem and is also handling tip-off duties.

Damian Lillard’s goal for season: Win MVP

Portland Trail Blazers guard Damian Lillard (0) poses for a photograph during NBA basketball media day in Portland, Ore., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Steve Dykes)
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When the PBT staff made our predictions for MVP you saw some expected names — LeBron James, James Harden — and a smart pick off some people’s radar in Kawhi Leonard. Russell Westbrook was discussed as someone with a chance.

What about Damian Lillard? You know, the hip-hop star.

Lillard told a Jay Allen of Portland area Fox Sports Radio that’s his goal.

Lillard averaged 25.1 points and 6.8 assists per game last season, he is unquestionably a dynamic offensive force — he has a great pull up jumper and he can get to the rim and finish. Plus, he’s just entertaining to watch.

But MVP? That’s going to take more than numbers.

Portland won 44 games last season. The MVP almost always goes to the best player on a top two or three seed, meaning a team winning around 55 games or more. For Portland to add 10 wins or so and get Lillard noticed in the MVP race is going to be about defense — Portland was bottom 10 last season in defense and they need to be at least middle of the pack this time around. Which comes back to Lillard on some level, he’s often an overmatched defender and he can lose focus on that end. He’s gotten better over the years, but Lillard is going to have to lift up the Blazers defense, not just offense, to get in the MVP discussion.

I’m skeptical (of Lillard’s chances and the Trail Blazers taking a step forward), but we all underestimated Portland last season, too.

LeBron James says he can still win MVP with reduced workload, cites Stephen Curry

OAKLAND, CA - JUNE 02:  LeBron James #23 of the Cleveland Cavaliers with the ball against Stephen Curry #30 of the Golden State Warriors in the fourth quarter in Game 1 of the 2016 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 2, 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 Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
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The door is open for LeBron James to win a legacy-altering fifth MVP.

But his Cavaliers could also win another championship, leaving Cleveland coach Tyronn Lue planning to limit LeBron’s minutes in preparation of a long playoff run.

LeBron, via Dave McMenamin of ESPN

“No,” James said Saturday when asked if he was concerned that planned rest could affect his MVP case. “Because Steph played 31 minutes a game and he won the MVP.”

“Well, I’ve never set into a season saying I want to win MVP,” he said. “I’ve always thought of the season saying I want to be MVP for my team and it’s resulted in me getting four of them. So I’ve been available, for the most part, every night and I’ve been available on both sides of the floor. I’ve been healthy.

Curry won 2015 MVP while playing 32.7 minutes per game, the fewest by any MVP. He played 34.2 minutes per game last season, third-fewest by an MVP – ahead of just himself and 1978 Bill Walton, who played 33.3 minutes per game.

To contrast, LeBron has set career lows the last two seasons with 36.1 and 35.6 minutes per game. So, LeBron could get a reduced workload and still play more than Curry did.

But Curry, to some degree is an anomaly. He often sat late in games with his Warriors on the right side of blowouts. The Cavs aren’t good enough regularly rest LeBron as much in those situations.

It’s not that voters care directly about minutes. But the less LeBron plays, the lower his per-game averages will be and the less Cleveland will win. Those factors matter significantly.

LeBron can overcome that. He’s darned good, and there could be a push to reward him after the last two Finals have shown he’s still better than Curry when it matters most.

Playing fewer minutes per game won’t eliminate LeBron from the MVP race, not even close. But it will – and should – hurt his case. After all, MVP should reward the player who does the most to help his team win. MVP-caliber players don’t significantly help while sitting on the bench.

Russell Westbrook, Thunder prepare for life without Kevin Durant

DALLAS, TX - OCTOBER 11:  Russell Westbrook #0 of the Oklahoma City Thunder during a preseason game at American Airlines Center on October 11, 2016 in Dallas, Texas.  (Photo by Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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OKLAHOMA CITY (AP) — Maybe life after Kevin Durant won’t be so bad for the Thunder.

After the longtime face of the franchise left for Golden State, crestfallen Oklahoma City fans were worried it was just a matter of time before the team’s co-star, Russell Westbrook, would follow suit. In a move that shocked many, Westbrook re-signed with Oklahoma City. The former scoring champion and two-time All-Star MVP’s return gives the team hope.

New faces such as shooting guard Victor Oladipo and forward Domantas Sabonis, both acquired in the deal that sent Serge Ibaka to Orlando, might take some time to fit in. Westbrook believes the team is talented enough to succeed if it is focused and the new pieces blend with the old ones who helped the Thunder reach the Western Conference Finals last season.

“Just play hard, man,” Westbrook said. “I don’t know, win or lose. The only thing I know is that as long as we play hard, we give ourselves an opportunity to win.”

Westbrook could post historic numbers. He averaged 23.5 points, 10.4 assists and 7.8 rebounds last season and had 18 triple-doubles, the most since Magic Johnson had 18 during the 1981-82 season. Without Durant, more of that could be on the way.

Sabonis, a rookie out of Gonzaga who played for Lithuania’s Olympic team, played with the starters throughout the preseason. Oladipo averaged 15.9 points and 4.0 assists in three years with Orlando. He joins Westbrook to form arguably the most athletic backcourt tandem in the NBA.

“Defensively, I think we can be the best defensive backcourt in the league because we can do different things with our size and using our length and our speed,” Westbrook said.

Here are some things to watch for the Thunder:

Steven Adams

The 7-footer from New Zealand was already a top-notch defender and rebounder before stepping up his offense and averaging 10.1 points during the playoffs last season. In his final two preseason games, he scored 20 points against Minnesota and 17 points against Denver. He could be a breakout star.

“I think we’ve had an opportunity these last two nights (against Minnesota and Denver) how good he is around the basket, how smart he has become and how much of a presence he is in the middle,” Westbrook said.

Enes Kanter

The natural expectation was that Ibaka’s departure would prompt coach Billy Donovan to move Kanter, who finished third in balloting for the league’s sixth-man award last season, into the starting lineup. Instead, Donovan started Sabonis throughout the preseason. Perhaps Donovan knows best – Sabonis showed he can hang with the starters, and Kanter averaged 17.8 points and 9.4 rebounds while shooting 61.7 percent in the preseason.


Oklahoma City’s defense could slip with Ibaka in Orlando. Sabonis has great potential, but he’s young, and NBA defense takes some time to learn. Donovan said Sabonis has caught on quickly, but there still could be a dip early because Ibaka’s level of play is difficult to replace – he was a three-time first-team All-NBA defender and a two-time blocks leader.


The Thunder added several foreign players to the roster who will add depth – Spain’s Alex Abrines, France’s Joffrey Lauvergne and Turkey’s Ersan Ilyasova. Donovan said he likes the maturity foreign players add to a team. Abrines played for Spain’s national team that earned bronze medals at the Olympics. Lauvergne played for France in Rio.


Andre Roberson has shifted from the starting shooting guard to starting small forward. That means the Thunder still have Roberson’s dynamic athletic ability, defensive prowess and nose for the ball on the boards in the lineup. He was a liability on offense in the past, but he started becoming more of a factor on offense during the playoffs last season.

“I think he feels more comfortable and confident offensively,” Donovan said. “He’s put forth effort in that area. It’s just him continuing to grow offensively and trying to put him in situations where he slashes to the basket and he can cut and he can get out in transition and he can take his open corner threes.”

Follow Cliff Brunt on Twitter (at)CliffBruntAP