Manu Ginobili, Tim Duncan, Tony Parker

Five reasons these are not last year’s Spurs, they are contenders

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Last season, the Spurs won 61 games, went into the playoffs as the top seed thought of as contenders, then got unceremoniously bounced in the first round because they could not handle the big, athletic front line of the Memphis Grizzlies.

This season, the Spurs are again entering the playoffs as the top seed and are talked about as contenders. They again face a first-round opponent with a big front line — the Utah Jazz — and some think the same thing will happen again.

The Spurs may not make the NBA finals, but they are real contenders this year. Here are five reasons this year is different than last.

1) Manu Ginobili is healthy. Ginobili is what turns the Spurs offense from “good” to “best in the NBA” and he was out last season but is back healthy this season. (The entire city of San Antonio just knocked on wood.) What makes him so dangerous is that can take whatever the defense gives — he can knock down threes, drive the lane (left or right), is solid from the midrange, plays well in transition and… you get the point. He also shoots well in the clutch. This is the guy that makes the Spurs special and he is back this year.

2) Tony Parker is playing the best ball of his career. He should be in the MVP discussion this year. Not saying he should win it (that’s LeBron James) but Parker should be in the conversation. Parker leads the Spurs in scoring (18.3 points per game, a number he stepped up when Ginobili was out) and is also at a career high in assists — when he is on the floor he assists on 40 percent of his teammates baskets. Parker gets an offense based on cuts and off-ball movement going, he is at the heart of their rapid ball movement side to side. He simply is better this season than last.

3) San Antonio depth and athleticism — this is a team. This was the knock on them since 2004 — they were old and no longer athletic enough to play with the elite teams in the league. But that’s not the case anymore, they have rookie Kawhi Leonard, they bring in youth with DeJuan Blair, Danny Green and Gary Neal, plus Tiago Splitter has taken a step forward and given them a solid big man to put in the middle. Combine that with a shooter like Matt Bonner (plus they have Stephen Jackson now) and they can throw a lot of different matchups at you. The amazing part is how little drop off there is in execution from the first to second unit.

The turning point for the Spurs may have come at the end of January this season when the starters were getting smoked by Dallas and when the bench made a comeback Popovich rode them all the way through into the overtime. And lost. But since then this team has rallied as a unit and the depth has been part of that.

4) Tim Duncan found the fountain of youth down by the Riverwalk. Tim Duncan never has been bad, but he had seemed to take a step back in recent years from great to solid. He was always fundamentally sound, but he seemed older and a step slow. Since the All-Star break he has seemed a threat again. Maybe that is him getting better looks thanks to the Spurs fantastic ball movement, but whatever it is it is working. And if Duncan is on the Spurs are on.

5) These Jazz are not those Grizzlies. This Utah team is playing well and we’ve all fallen in love around the NBA blogosphere with their big lineup of Al Jefferson, Paul Millsap and Derrick Favors together. No doubt, that lineup is good — but it is not as good as the level the Grizzlies were playing at last year. Zach Randolph was probably the best single player in the first round last year, he was a force of nature. I like Jefferson, but his ceiling is not that high. These Jazz also don’t defend like those Grizzlies did.

It is possible the Spurs will see the Grizzlies again in the second round. And that would be a fun matchup. But the Grizzlies are going to find out these Spurs are a lot better now than those ones they knocked off last year. These Spurs are legitimate contenders.

Brandon Ingram with the steal, slam (VIDEO)

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Very little has gone right for the Lakers of late. They have dropped five in a row. Around Los Angeles, the talk has gone from “this team could make the playoffs” after a 10-10 start to “they need to tank and try to keep the pick” after going 5-21 since. (The Lakers pick this draft is top-three protected, if it’s outside that it goes to the Sixers. The Lakers currently have the fourth worst record in the NBA.)

The Lakers young players look… young. D'Angelo Russell admitted he just started trying to follow a game-day routine, then said Tuesday night he didn’t focus and deserved to be benched down the stretch. Brandon Ingram shows flashes, he’s smart and sees the game, but he’s still physically pushed around.

But those flashes, like the steal and dunk above are fun.

Lakers fans, welcome to the process. This is what rebuilding is like. It’s a roller coaster, you just hope the trajectory generally remains up.

Rumor: Is Cleveland done making moves?

SACRAMENTO, CA - JANUARY 13:  Kyle Korver #26 of the Cleveland Cavaliers shoots over Arron Afflalo #40 of the Sacramento Kings at Golden 1 Center on January 13, 2017 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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LeBron James has made it clear he wants the Cavaliers to add a veteran point guard to the mix. Cavs GM David Griffin has talked about wanting to add playmakers to the roster.

The Cavaliers made a savvy move picking up Kyle Korver recently, he brings shooting and some high IQ play to the table. But was that it? Does Cleveland have another trade to pull off?

ESPN’s Brian Windhorst is about as connected as they come with the Cavaliers organization and he said on ESPN Cleveland radio not to bet on seeing another move.

Windhorst is right, in terms of players the Cavaliers don’t have much to move — James Jones? Kay Felder — and they don’t have a first-round pick to move until 2021. The buyout market may be something to watch, but a solid playmaker or point guard may be hard to come by.

The only question about the Cavaliers roster is this: How does it match up with Golden State? Barring a major catastrophe, the Cavaliers are coming out of the East, but can they beat the Warriors four out of seven? The MLK Day blowout was not an indicator one way or the other, the Cavs mailed that game in, but there certainly are questions about the potential Finals matchup. One more playmaker would help the Cavs, I just don’t know where he comes from.

Report: Pelicans explored Dwight Howard trade before Hawks pulled him off table

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 07:  Dwight Howard #8 of the Atlanta Hawks at American Airlines Center on January 7, 2017 in Dallas, Texas.  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 Ronald Martinez/Getty Images)
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Who are the Pelicans? They look like a movie where the writer, director, and studio suits all had very different versions of the film in mind, and the result is a jumbled mess. Think “Suicide Squad.”

There are a lot of questions about the roster and style of this team, but at the heart of all of it is this: Do they play Anthony Davis at the four or the five? They are better with him at the five but keep spending money on bigs to push him to the four.

They considered doing it again in the past month, reports Zach Lowe at ESPN (in an article that brilliantly lays out the quandary in New Orleans).

But they haven’t committed to staying small, and sticking Davis at center. They worry about the physical toll it would take, and fretted after Davis picked up two quick fouls jostling with Dwight Howard two weeks ago. In the days that followed, Atlanta and New Orleans had exploratory talks about possible Howard trades before the Hawks pulled everyone off the market, according to several league sources. It is unclear how interested New Orleans was, and there was not unanimous support within the team for acquiring Howard.

Dwight Howard? He’s played better this season and finally is staying within himself in Atlanta, but why would the Pelicans want him and that contract next to Davis? To be fair, these kinds of conversations happen a lot in the NBA and most don’t go anywhere. Still, this one is perplexing. It’s the opposite of the style they had success with this season. It’s back to the confused push-and-pull within that franchise.

Maybe this goes to having Saints people oversee the basketball side and thinking, like the NFL, you can rebuild on the fly quickly with smart fifth round picks and a couple free agents. The NBA doesn’t work that way (and there aren’t fifth round picks, although the second round serves that purpose). The Pelicans should have tanked in recent years. If the Pelicans brought in Alvin Gentry to run a more Warriors-style offense, then give him the players to do it. Davis is a foundational piece and will be a stud in any system, maybe Holiday can work in that free-flowing, fast-decision style with shooting everywhere, and after that… I don’t know.

Bottom line, if the Pelicans brought in Alvin Gentry to run a more Warriors-style offense, then give him the players to do it. Davis is a foundational piece and will be a stud in any system, maybe Holiday can work in that free-flowing, fast-decision style with shooting everywhere, and after that… I don’t know.

But the indecision and hodgepodge of a roster in New Orleans leaves it in the same place as always, and that is squandering one of the game’s best players.

Video Breakdown: What is Hammer action? An explainer

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Hammer action — sometimes referred to as a Hammer play or a Hammer set — was made ubiquitous in the modern NBA by the San Antonio Spurs. It’s really not as complicated as it sounds to identify, and it’s got two main principles.

First, the Hammer part of any set is a back screen to setup a cut by a wing player around the arc to the corner (or sometimes on a flare to the wing).

Second, the Hammer always happens away from the ball side of a play. It’s a weak side action, and typically anything happening with the ball on the strong side at the beginning of the play is purposeful distraction.

You can learn all about the Hammer by watching this week’s NBA Glossary video above, or by reading the text version down below.

The Diagram

Here we have a set where the ball is on the right side of the floor, with one post high and one low. The Hammer action happens on the weak side of the court between the shooting guard and the center:

The small forward is going to start the pick and roll with the power forward going to the right side. Meanwhile, the center is going to set the back screen on the left left side of the floor. This is our Hammer action, and the shooting guard will run off that screen to the corner.

Once the play starts and the small forward gets to the baseline, he passes it out to the guard, who shoots the corner three.

Let’s take a look at it in action and how the Spurs mix it into different looking plays.

Here they have the ball at the arc on the right side of the floor. Kawhi Leonard is coming through the paint to receive a pass off the screen.

Meanwhile, Patty Mills is the player that’s going to run off a hammer screen here on the left elbow.

The ball is passed, and with Kawhi dribbling toward the arc, the trap is set, and the Hammer action commences.

The defender turns his head, and Mills runs toward the baseline unimpeded to take the jumper.

In this example, we have the pick and roll to the right side. The hammer action is going to happen between the guard and the post on the weak side.

As the pick and roll is run, the Hammer screen is set.

Notice San Antonio has cleverly positioned Tony Parker at the top of the arc, and when LaMarcus Aldridge pops out, it’s up to Parker’s defender to stunt over to help.

This makes Danny Green’s defender slide over to help cover Parker, basically leaving Green unguarded in the corner.

Aldridge sees this, and passes the ball to Parker for the quick rotation over to Green.

That’s the basics of the Hammer play. It’s nothing super complicated, but it shows you how spacing and exploitation of defensive tendencies can be programmed into an NBA offense.