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.

51Q: How quickly will the Lakers’ young core progress?

Los Angeles Lakers' D'Angelo Russell, left, poses with with Jordan Clarkson (6) during the team's NBA basketball media day in El Segundo, Calif., Monday, Sept. 26, 2016. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)
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We continue PBT’s 2016-17 NBA preview series, 51 Questions. For the past few weeks, and through the start of the NBA season, we tackle 51 questions we cannot wait to see answered during the upcoming NBA season. We will delve into one almost every day between now and the start of the season.

D'Angelo Russell, Jordan Clarkson and Julius Randle placed somewhere between promising and good for their ages last season.

None of that is to say plain “good.”

When Russell, Clarkson and Randle shared the court, the Lakers scored fewer points per possession than the NBA’s worst offense and allowed more points per possession than the league’s worst defense. In all, those units got outscored by a dreadful 16.0 points per 100 possessions. A teenage Brandon Ingram, the draft’s No. 2 pick, is unlikely to swing fortunes quickly.

Ingram (19), Russell (20), Randle (21) and Clarkson (24) carry significant value, but little of it is tied to their ability to produce right now. When will that change?

It’s important to acknowledge reality of the present before setting expectations for the future.

Here’s how each core piece ranked in ESPN’s Real Plus-Minus last season:

  • Russell: 69th among 82 point guards
  • Clarkson: 119th among 175 guards
  • Randle: 90th among 93 power forwards

Russell ranked in just the 36th percentile in points per possession when finishing a play as pick-and-roll ball-handler. With Russell guarding, his man shot 47%.

Clarkson’s man shot even better, 48%. Not limited to defense, Clarkson has yet to turn any skill in his all-around game into a major asset.

For all the hype about his ball-handling and passing, Randle turned the ball over more than he assisted baskets last season. He also blocked fewer shots than Jeremy Lamb, a shooting guard who played more than 1,000 fewer minutes.

Ingram is a skinny teenager. Like most rookies, he’ll face growing pains as he jumps to the NBA.

These players have a long way to go – and that’s fine. Time is on their side.

The Thunder once went 23-59 with Kevin Durant and Russell Westbrook. LeBron James missed the playoffs his first two seasons. Even Michael Jordan spent his first three years on losing teams.

Simply, young teams rarely win in the NBA. At least a modicum of experience is crucial.

But don’t assume these young Lakers are destined for success.

At one point, Charlotte thought it had something with Emeka Okafor (No. 2 pick, Rookie of the Year in 2005), Raymond Felton (No. 5 pick, All-Rookie second team in 2006) and Adam Morrison (No. 3 pick, All-Rookie second team in 2007).

Drafting highly touted players who produce immediately doesn’t guarantee long-term success.

If the Lakers look at the bigger picture, they’ll monitor their young core’s development and proceed as they gain more information. They won’t overreact to the most likely outcome: another losing season.

It could be another year or two or even three until Russell, Clarkson, Ingram and Randle ascend into playoff contention. As long as they show progress, that’s OK. Those four should be graded on a curve for their age.

The Lakers might be in a good place if they don’t get in their own way. But with a fan base accustomed to championship contention and a front office on a self-imposed deadline to advance in the playoffs, do you trust he Lakers to remain patient?

DeMarre Carroll considers this his first season with Raptors

TORONTO, ON - MAY 15:  DeMarre Carroll #5 of the Toronto Raptors dribbles the ball in the first half of Game Seven of the Eastern Conference Quarterfinals against the Miami Heat during the 2016 NBA Playoffs at the Air Canada Centre on May 15, 2016 in Toronto, Ontario, Canada.  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 Vaughn Ridley/Getty Images)
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BURNABY, British Columbia (AP) — DeMarre Carroll is ready to start over.

A prized free-agent acquisition for the Toronto Raptors last year, Carroll played only 26 regular-season games because of a right knee injury that had to be surgically repaired in January.

The small forward worked hard to rejoin the club in time for Toronto’s run to the NBA’s Eastern Conference finals, but wasn’t the same player the Raptors signed to be difference-maker from the Atlanta Hawks.

And while not yet 100 percent after a month of rest followed by a strenuous summer of rehabilitation, Carroll is looking forward to hitting the reset button.

“I look at it as basically my first season (with Toronto),” the 30-year-old Carroll said as the Raptors opened training camp this week. “A new season, a new beginning. I’ve just got to come in and get back to playing DeMarre Carroll basketball when I’m healthy.”

Apart from locking up DeMar DeRozan to a long-term contract and bringing in Jared Sullinger, the Raptors had a relatively quiet break.

However, finally having a healthy Carroll would be a major bonus for a club looking to take the next step.

“A big difference,” DeRozan said. “It was tough for us last year to figure out ways to play without him. Even when he was playing early on he was hurt (and) even when came back he wasn’t his full self and we still managed to make history.

“To have him back at the start of camp, start of preseason, to be able to implement him fully is going to give us everything that we’ve been searching for.”

The 6-foot-8, 215-pound Carroll only returned to the court for live action last week, and said his offseason regimen included making sure all the proper steps were taken to ensure his knee is ready for the season.

“We took a hard approach about it and we did it the right way,” said Carroll, who took a month off after the playoffs in hopes of reducing the swelling. “Last season it was more of a rush, trying to get me back. We didn’t go through the whole thing we needed to go through to get the knee to where it needs to be. I feel that we’re on the right track.”

Carroll, who averaged 11.4 points and 4.7 rebounds last season, came through the first two days of camp unscathed for the Raptors, who open their exhibition schedule on Saturday at Vancouver’s Rogers Arena against the Golden State Warriors.

“(The team) has talked about bringing me along slowly, not trying to kill myself in pre-season,” Carroll said. “Just be ready and healthy for the first game of the season.”

Raptors coach Dwane Casey said Carroll’s presence on the floor, including his ability to hit from three, helps create openings on a team that is thin at small forward.

“Really gives us the spacing that we need with Kyle (Lowry) and DeMar handling the ball, attacking of the dribble,” Casey said. “That’s what we need from him, his spacing and his defensive presence. He did a great job accepting that role last year. He takes us from a good team to a pretty good team when he does that.”

For his part, Carroll said the mental side of the injury was tough, but something he forced himself to push through.

“You’ve got to stay strong, especially in this league. Nobody’s going to feel sorry for you,” he said. “It can be draining to keep on going through the same thing, having the same setbacks. But I’m happy right now because I haven’t had any setbacks. I’ve just got to look at the positives and keep trying to work towards the future.”

ESPN’s new NBA contract lowers value of Disney stock

ANAHEIM, CA - JUNE 22:  In this handout image provided by Disney, Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant (L) celebrates the Lakers' NBA championship with Goofy at Disneyland on June 22, 2010 in Anaheim, California.  (Photo by Paul Hiffmeyer/Disney via Getty Images)
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ESPN and Turner signed new national TV contracts worth $24 billion over nine years, a huge revenue increase triggering a corresponding salary-cap rise.

That wasn’t the only consequence of the deal.

Richard Morgan of the New York Post:

Drexel Hamilton analyst Tony Wible downgraded Disney stock on Monday in response to “a massive increase in NBA costs” for ESPN.

Disney’s deal to televise NBA games, with its increase in step-up costs over last year, could shave as much as 5 percent off pre-tax profits.

This isn’t necessarily bad for Disney-owned ESPN. It just shows how much more favorable the old national TV deals were for the TV networks.

The NBA is now getting a fair share of the money – which, if you’re the one paying the money, isn’t as good as paying a bargain rate.

Serge Ibaka says he wants to stay with Magic forever, and they want him long-term

Serge Ibaka jokes around while posing for a photo holding a plastic Flamingo during Orlando Magic's NBA basketball media day, Monday, Sept. 26, 2016, in Orlando, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
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The Magic took a major risk trading for Serge Ibaka, who’s heading into unrestricted free agency next summer. Rather than have Victor Oladipo (who’ll be a restricted free agent) and the No. 11 pick (who’s on a four-year contract), Orlando could come away empty-handed within a year if Ibaka leaves.

So far, everyone is saying the right things.

Ibaka, via Josh Robbins of the Orlando Sentinel:

“I’m looking to stay here to play forever — for [as] many, many years as possible,” Serge Ibaka said during the Magic’s media day.

“I’m not really worried about my contract year or my long-term,” Ibaka said.

“One of the things I learned playing on a good team is when the team wins, when you make the playoffs, everybody looks good. So that’s what will be my focus right now, because if we win and make the playoffs, everything will take care of itself.”

Magic general manager Rob Hennigan, via Robbins:

“We certainly traded for Serge thinking long-term, and that’s our expectation,” Magic general manager Rob Hennigan said.

I’d be surprised if the Magic and Ibaka didn’t discuss the parameters of his next contract, with the Thunder’s permission, before making the trade. But the Collective Bargaining Agreement prevents any binding unofficial arrangements, so nothing is set in stone.

Ibaka is already talking about making the playoffs, and that would go a long way toward convincing him to stay in Orlando. But what if the Magic miss the postseason, a distinct possibility? How keen will Ibaka be on returning then?

He’ll have other suitors – unless he has a down year. Then, how badly will Orlando want him back?

That Ibaka and the Magic are entering the season with the stated intention of a long-term arrangement means something. But it means only so much.