Kawhi Leonard

NBA season preview: San Antonio Spurs

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Last Season: A classic, and what we’ve largely come to expect from these Spurs over the last five years — achieving regular season success, making a dent in the playoffs, but ultimately falling short of a title.

San Antonio finished tied for the league’s best record, then swept its way through the first two rounds of the playoffs — building an 18-game winning streak in the process — before being dropped by the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

Key Departures: None.

Key Additions: The Spurs continue to be the model franchise in terms of bringing in international players, and French guard Nando de Colo — who the team actually drafted back in 2009 — is already paying dividends in the preseason.

Three keys to the Spurs season: 

1) The San Antonio Spurs are now known for their offense: It’s true. The Spurs led the league in offensive efficiency last season at a blistering 108.5 points per 100 possessions — and 1.4 points ahead of the team in second in that category, the explosive Oklahoma City Thunder. Even more surprising was how they did it — without a 20 points per game scorer, and with just four players averaging in double figures. No regression can be tolerated if the expectation is to remain in the top tier of the Western Conference.

2) Is Kawhi Leonard as good as Gregg Popovich thinks he is? Popovich is one of the best coaches in the league, but one with a hard-nosed reputation that doesn’t include a history of heaping undeserved praise on his players. When it comes to Leonard, however, Pop had no problem telling the world he believes that the player entering just his second NBA season will be the face of the team and a star in the future.

Leonard played well for the Spurs in his rookie season, but did his damage on the defensive end of the floor; 10 of his teammates posted higher points-per-game scoring averages than Leonard’s 7.9, in a balanced San Antonio offense that was the league’s best. If Leonard progresses toward showing the rest of us the star potential that Popovich already sees in him, the Spurs could be even better than last year.

3) Championship or bust: This may seem like an unfair expectation to place on San Antonio, especially when you consider they’re playing in a conference that features a newly-stacked Lakers team, along with a Thunder squad that had little trouble with them in the playoffs a season ago. But when you look at just how consistently Gregg Popovich is able to put together a team that competes near the top of the standings, it’s only natural to want to see them progress to the next level.

What Spurs fans should fear: That the team is already squeezing as much as it can out of its existing roster of talent. If that’s the case, that’s fine — there’s nothing wrong with being one of the top four teams in the entire league. But if the ceiling has been hit, there’s no room there for the team to make that leap back into the championship conversation.

Prediction: It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Spurs at or very near the top of the regular season standings once again. All the key rotation players are back, and Popovich should have them playing to potential earlier than a Lakers team with large new pieces to try to fit together. San Antonio is going to be very tough to deal with all year long, and if there’s something left once the postseason begins — along with a renewed commitment to defense — the Spurs could be right there at the end, playing for a spot in the Finals once again.

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)
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.