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Don’t look now, but the Spurs are good

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With all the talk about the Celtics, the Lakers, the Hornets, and the Heat going on right now, it’s pretty easy not to notice that the 8-1 San Antonio Spurs have the league’s second-best record. The Spurs haven’t had a very tough schedule, of course, and didn’t have a signature win on their record until last weekend’s thrashing of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Still, the story of the Spurs’ early success isn’t just about the fact that they’ve been winning games — it’s how they’ve been winning them that’s really interesting. The Spurs have been winning by scoring buckets at a breakneck pace, and they’ve pushed the ball more while relying on the aging Tim Duncan less and less.

Traditionally, San Antonio basketball has been built around three pillars — defense, methodical play, and Tim Duncan. But this season, the Spurs have been running and gunning. The Spurs aren’t a bad defensive team — they’re currently 8th in the league in defensive efficiency, mostly thanks to Duncan — but defense hasn’t been their main strength so far. Instead, it’s been the offense that’s carried the team. The Spurs are 5th in the league in offensive efficiency and 3rd in points per game, with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Richard Jefferson all off to blistering starts.

Even though none of those three players are getting any younger, the Spurs are still longer, more athletic, and more skilled on the perimeter than most teams are, and they’ve taken advantage of that by pushing the ball more than they ever have before. In 2007-08, the Spurs were 28th in pace factor. In 08-09, they were 27th. Last season, they were 20th. This year, the Spurs are currently playing at the sixth-fastest pace in the league — they play a full 2.6 possessions “faster” per game than the Suns (who rank 14th in pace factor) do, to give you some context.

Even though Duncan is still vital to the Spurs’ success, especially on defense, and the Spurs’ youth movement hasn’t really been blossoming (George Hill, Tiago Splitter, and DeJuan Blair are all off to slow starts), the Spurs’ early success has to be heartening for Spurs fans wondering what life will be like as Duncan gets closer and closer to the twilight years of his career. If the Spurs can keep playing the way they have, they’ll be a dangerous playoff team. If taking the load off Duncan in the regular season allows him to play like the Tim Duncan we’ve all come to know come playoff time, watch out.

Report: Kobe Bryant’s agent, Rob Pelinka, leads list of Lakers’ GM candidates

ANAHEIM, CA - MARCH 26:  Agent Rob Pelinka talks with Kobe Bryant during the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament West Regional Final at Honda Center on March 26, 2016 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Harry How/Getty Images)
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Magic Johnson is now the Lakers’ President of Basketball Operations, and he has said his first call will be to Kobe Bryant.

Maybe that’s just to get the number of Kobe’s agent, Rob Pelinka.

Ramona Shelburne of ESPN:

Kevin Ding of Bleacher Report:

Marc Stein of ESPN:

Sam Amick of USA Today:

Pelinka is still an agent, and Arn Tellem is a former agent who now works for the Pistons. Agents are becoming trendier picks for front-office jobs since Warriors general manager Bob Myers blazed the trail.

If the Lakers are willing to spend big, Neil Olshey — who previously worked in Los Angeles with the Clippers — would be a good choice. A large salary could pull him from Portland.

Kevin Pritchard or Peter Dinwiddie could be fine if the Lakers aren’t willing to make a mega-offer good enough to lure a sitting general manager. Chris Grant might bring baggage.

As Johnson has acknowledged, he needs a general manager more savvy in the nuances of the salary cap. Any of these names would qualify. It’s about finding the very best person for the job, because Johnson needs all the help he can get.

Report: Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak tried to save their jobs by trading for DeMarcus Cousins

SACRAMENTO, CA - DECEMBER 12:  DeMarcus Cousins #15 of the Sacramento Kings in action against the Los Angeles Lakers at Golden 1 Center on December 12, 2016 in Sacramento, 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 Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
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The Lakers reportedly refused to include Brandon Ingram in a trade for DeMarcus Cousinsat least until it was too late.

The Kings traded Cousins to the Pelicans, and Magic Johnson’s takeover of the Lakers’ front office ousted Jim Buss and Mitch Kupchak.

Related?

Sam Amick of USA Today:

I like Ingram, but I value Cousins more. Ingram has shown only flashes of reaching stardom, which, to be fair, is all you can reasonably ask of the 19-year-old. Cousins is a guaranteed star, because he already is one.

From the moment he declared his intention to get the job, it seemed Johnson would run the front office. But the timing — two days before the trade deadline — is a little curious. If Jeanie Buss were set on hiring him, she should have done it weeks ago to let him get systems running before the deadline. If she were unsure, perhaps Jim Buss and Kupchak failing to deal for Cousins was the final straw.

There’s a reasonable case the Lakers were right to hold Ingram over Cousins. Look what Sacramento got for Cousins. NBA teams clearly didn’t think so highly of him.

But if Jim Buss were willing to trade Ingram for Cousins and failed to get the trigger pulled, that speaks to larger issues in process. And that, more than anything, explained why Jim Buss needed to go.

The Lakers might not have shook up their front office today for the right reasons, but it can still work out for them.

Lakers name Magic Johnson President of Basketball Operations

LOS ANGELES, CA - APRIL 15:  Magic Johnson attends a ceremony honoring Jackie Robinson before the game between the San Francisco Giants and the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on April 15, 2016 in Los Angeles, California.  All players are wearing #42 in honor of Jackie Robinson Day. (Photo by Lisa Blumenfeld/Getty Images)
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Magic Johnson essentially publicly anointed himself in charge of the Lakers’ front office.

Now, the Lakers are actually giving him the job.

Lakers release:

Los Angeles Lakers Governor Jeanie Buss announced today that the team has named Earvin “Magic” Johnson as President of Basketball Operations. In addition, General Manager Mitch Kupchak has been relieved of his duties, effective immediately. Furthermore, Jim Buss will no longer hold his role as Lakers Executive Vice President of Basketball Operations.

“Today I took a series of actions I believe will return the Lakers to the heights Dr. Jerry Buss demanded and our fans rightly expect,” Jeanie Buss said. “Effective immediately, Earvin Johnson will be in charge of all basketball operations and will report directly to me. Our search for a new General Manager to work with Earvin and Coach Luke Walton is well underway and we hope to announce a new General Manager in short order. Together, Earvin, Luke and our new General Manager will establish the foundation for the next generation of Los Angeles Lakers greatness.”

“It’s a dream come true to return to the Lakers as President of Basketball Operations working closely with Jeanie Buss and the Buss family,” said Earvin “Magic” Johnson. “Since 1979, I’ve been a part of the Laker Nation and I’m passionate about this organization. I will do everything I can to build a winning culture on and off the court. We have a great coach in Luke Walton and good young players. We will work tirelessly to return our Los Angeles Lakers to NBA champions.”

Jeanie Buss added, “I took these actions today to achieve one goal: Everyone associated with the Lakers will now be pulling in the same direction, the direction established by Earvin and myself. We are determined to get back to competing to win NBA championships again.”

Regarding Mitch Kupchak, Jeanie Buss stated, “We are grateful for the many contributions Mitch has made to the Lakers over the years and we wish him all the best.”

With regard to fellow owner and brother, Jim Buss, Ms. Buss said, “Jim loves the Lakers. Although he will no longer be responsible for basketball personnel decisions, he is an owner of this team and we share the same goal: returning the Lakers to the level of greatness our father demanded. Our fans deserve no less.”

In addition to the changes made within the basketball department, the Lakers also announced they have parted ways with John Black who had been the Lakers Vice President of Public Relations. Chief Operating Officer Tim Harris will immediately begin a search for a replacement. Jeanie Buss added, “We thank John for his many years of service.”

This closes an ugly chapter in which Jeannie Buss named Johnson as an advisor, and then he went about publicly trashing Jim Buss and Kupchack while evaluating them for her and clamoring for their front-office power.

Now, the real work begins. And that doesn’t mean calling Kobe Bryant.

Johnson inherits a team with plenty of young talent: D'Angelo Russell, Brandon Ingram, Julius Randle, Jordan Clarkson, Larry Nance Jr. and Ivica Zubac. That’s a great starting point.

But the Lakers also face significant hurdles back to the top.

They lose their 2017 and 2019 first-round picks if their 2017 first-round pick doesn’t land in the top three. The Lakers have the NBA’s third-worst record. In the past, Johnson has expressed an affinity for tanking.

The Lakers also have the burdensome contracts of Luol Deng and Timofey Mozgov. Those make it tough to clear cap space to sign a star.

At least they can trade Lou Williams, who’s having a special season. The deadline is Thursday, so Johnson must hit the ground running.

These conditions are the effects of Jim Buss’ misguided pledge to jolt the Lakers back to contending. Their shortsighted moves and even bigger dreams backfired so spectacularly, they backed into several high draft picks — and at least chose well. While Kupchak’s overall tenure was positive, his approach had grown stale.

The Lakers needed a change in management. I’m just not convinced Johnson was the solution.

Would they have hired him if he didn’t play for them? Probably not. Does his playing experience with the Lakers specifically, as opposed to any team, better prepare him for this job? Probably not.

But even if Johnson were hired for the wrong reasons, he can still succeed.

He thrived in business after retirement by putting the right people around him, and he can do that here. Johnson obviously knows basketball, but managing a roster and all the salary-cap complexities is a different animal. He needs staff, including a general manager, more familiar with that.

Johnson will be the franchise’s new smiling face. But, for this to truly work, Johnson will have to build a winner the old-fashioned way: With savvy drafting, trading and signing.

Reports: Bulls telling teams they won’t trade Jimmy Butler

Chicago Bulls guard/forward Jimmy Butler, top, shoots over Toronto Raptors guard Kyle Lowry during the overtime of an NBA basketball game Saturday, Jan. 7, 2017, in Chicago. The Bulls won 123-118 in overtime. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh
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The Bulls reportedly weren’t making Jimmy Butler available for a trade last month.

As the trade deadline approaches, it seems that hasn’t changed.

K.C. Johnson of the Chicago Tribune:

Brian Windhorst of ESPN:

The teams that talked to the Chicago Bulls today were told, “Just about everybody on our roster is available, but Jimmy Butler is not.”

The Bulls are not obliged to stand by that, and there’s no indication they’ve assured Butler anything. If they’re offered a package more valuable than Butler, they’ll trade him.

But that’s a lot of value.

Butler is playing like a superstar, 27 and locked up for two more seasons after this one. Not many teams have the assets to trade for someone like that.

Plus, Chicago could use the designated-veteran-player rule to re-sign him. No other team would hold that advantage if it trades for him.

So, Butler is probably valued more by the Bulls than any other team. But if another team with significant assets makes a suitable offer, I doubt Butler remains unavailable.