San Antonio Spurs Tim Duncan works with the ball against Golden State Warriors Carl Landry during the first half of their NBA basketball game in Oakland

PBT Playoff Preview: San Antonio Spurs vs. Golden State Warriors

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SEASON RECORDS

San Antonio: 58-24, two seed in the West

Golden State: 47-35, six seed in the West

PLAYOFF RECORDS

San Antonio: Swept the Los Angeles Lakers 4-0

Golden State: Beat the Denver Nuggets 4-2

SEASON SERIES

The teams split the series, with both teams winning their two home games. In both Spurs’ losses, they were on the second night of a back to back including their second to last game of the season where Tim Duncan, Tony Parker, and Manu Ginobili all sat out. In one of the Warriors two losses, Stephen Curry didn’t play with ankle injury.

KEY INJURIES

On the Warriors’ side, David Lee is still hobbled by his torn hip flexor. And while he saw some game action in game 6 versus the Nuggets, even Mark Jackson acknowledged that was more for inspiration than as a real weapon. Lee’s not expected to play a significant role this series.

For the Spurs, Tiago Splitter is sidelined with a bad ankle and may return mid-way through this series. Boris Diaw is also still out after having a cyst removed from his spine, but the original 3-4 week timeline for his return means he could potentially return this round if everything goes as planned.

OFFENSE/DEFENSE RANKINGS (points per 100 possession) – PLAYOFFS ONLY

San Antonio: Offense 111.0 (1st in the post season), Defense 90.6 (1st in the post season)

Golden State: Offense 107.7 (5th in the post season), Defense 102.4 (9th in the post season)

THREE KEYS TO THE SERIES:

Can Stephen Curry stay hot?: There’s no denying the damage Curry did against the Nuggets. He created his own shot from behind the arc, took the ball to the rim when defenders tried to take away his jumper, and made plays for teammates when Denver committed extra defenders to slowing him down. The Nuggets, however, didn’t have a great perimeter defender to throw on Curry after deploying Andre Iguodala on Klay Thompson and Jarrett Jack.

Will the Spurs make the same mistake by putting Tony Parker on Curry while Danny Green and Kawhi Leonard guard the Warriors’ other perimeter threats? The answer to this question will play a major role in how much space Curry has to operate on the perimeter and the quality of the shots he has available to him. If Green and Leonard spend most of their time chasing Curry, they can do a better job using length to contest his jumpshot an bother his handle when he works in isolation. But if Parker is put on an island or asked to defend through multiple picks, Curry may just start the second round where he ended the first: lighting it up.

Andrew Bogut’s defense: While Curry may be the most important Warrior on offense, Bogut is clearly that player on defense. Against the Nuggets there wasn’t an interior threat to occupy the big Australian and he used that freedom to blow up pick and rolls and contest shots at the rim. Against the Spurs, though, Bogut will have his hands full defending Tim Duncan in the post while also having to provide help defense against a motion heavy attack that moves the ball to the open man expertly.

Bogut will not only need to defend Duncan without fouling, but will need to do so from the post all the way out to 18 feet where Timmy can effectively hit the spot up jumper. Further, he’ll need to wall off Parker and Manu Ginobili when they work in isolation and out of the pick and roll to deter shots at the rim. If Bogut can do all these things for heavy minutes, he could turn the tip the balance of the series. If he can’t, the Spurs’ machine will gain momentum and roll over a Dubs’ defense that simply doesn’t have the man power to defend all over the floor without their defensive ace of a big man.

The Spurs front court players not named Duncan: Against the Lakers, you’d have thought the Spurs’ front court would have been severely tested matching up with Pau Gasol and Dwight Howard. However, due to the Lakers dearth of guard talent the Spurs simply crowded the paint and made life awful for the Lakers’ big man duo. Taking this same defensive approach this series isn’t possible against a Warriors’ team who has so much perimeter firepower. And while the Warriors don’t have the post up talent the Lakers do, Carl Landry and Bogut aren’t slouches down low. Add in Harrison Barnes and Draymond Green as a small ball power forwards, and that’s a nice foursome who can hurt a defense in a variety of ways.

Meanwhile the Spurs are thin up front with Splitter and Diaw ailing, leaving only Duncan, DeJuan Blair, and Matt Bonner as regular rotation players at power forward and center. Duncan, of course, is a defensive monster and will be fine with whatever match up he’s tasked with. But can Bonner or Blair deal with Landry in the post? Can they out muscle Festus Ezili on the offensive glass? Can they hedge and recover back to the perimeter when Green and Barnes are hovering around arc looking to shoot open jumpers or slide with them when they attack off the dribble? Maybe the Spurs end up going small in this series, but even that may cause some issues as Stephen Jackson was released before the playoffs and Tracy McGrady is fresh off a first round that only saw him get garbage minutes in the clinching game.

OUTLOOK

The Spurs weren’t tested in the first round and will have had nearly a week off since by the time this series starts on Monday. Meanwhile the Warriors are riding the wave of winning a hard fought series, having sharpened their game and found combinations of players to step up when needed most. That said, while rust might play a factor at the start of game one,  I also expect the Spurs’ extra preparation to show up from the outset of the series.

The Spurs’ offense is a well oiled machine and asking the Warriors to slow it down consistently is asking a bit too much. Look for Parker and Ginobili to have success against perimeter defenders who aren’t known for locking down their opponents. Both Parker and Ginobili have the ability to get into the paint and when they do they will create the types open looks Green, Gary Neal, Leonard, and Bonner thrive on.

Also look for Duncan to continue his strong play from round one against Andrew Bogut and Festus Ezeli. Timmy has found the range on his jumper and has proven that when defenders try to close out on him he still has the ability to put the ball on the floor and either finish at the rim or draw fouls when attacking. If he can keep the Warriors’ bigs off balance in the manner he did the Lakers’, he can give his team an offensive diversity that is difficult to match up with.

It’s not like the Warriors are helpless here, though. They have the type of shooting and overall talent to give the Spurs issues, especially if they can get into the open court and play offense before the defense is fully set. If Curry and Jack can push the tempo and create open looks for themselves and Thompson while the Spurs are in scramble mode, they can hit enough shots to keep them in games. Furthermore, Landry offers a unique match up issue for the Spurs especially when he’s flanked by shooters. If he can score in the post against Bonner and Blair when both team’s second units are in the game, the Spurs may have to double team to slow him down and that will only create open looks for Golden State’s outside shooters.

The Warriors’ main issue, however, is that they seem to struggle mightily when playing in San Antonio. They’ve not won in the Spurs’ arena during the Tim Duncan era and that doesn’t bode well for them in a series in which the other team has home court advantage. Of course many of those losses have little to do with the current version of the Dubs, but the fact remains that the you can’t expect the Spurs to beat themselves and simply give away a game through poor decision making or erratic play. No, the Warriors will have to out execute them down the stretch and based off what we saw towards the end of the Nuggets series, I don’t see that happening.

PREDICTION

Maybe the Warriors get hot for a game or two, potentially even stealing a game in San Antonio. But, the Spurs discipline on both sides of the ball will wear the Warriors down over the course of the series. And while Mark Jackson was very good in making adjustments to out-coach George Karl, I don’t see him doing the same to Gregg Popovich. Spurs in 6.

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)
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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.

Lakers’ Lou Williams provides smooth scoring, trade intrigue

DALLAS, TX - JANUARY 22:  Louis Williams #23 of the Los Angeles Lakers at American Airlines Center on January 22, 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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Lou Williams declared for the 2005 NBA draft out of high school and proclaimed, “The second round is not an option.”

He was drafted with the 15th pick of the second round.

“I used to have to run through everybody,” Williams said. “Now, I don’t feel like I do. Just trying to outsmart guys.”

The last guard drafted directly out of high school, Williams has quietly refined his game. His athleticism has declined with age, but gone too is a recklessness to his play. He largely makes the plays he can and doesn’t try to make the ones he can’t.

Williams is the Lakers’ best player. As a result, he’s also one of the league’s bigger trade chips as Thursday’s trade deadline approaches.

He leads the Lakers with 18.6 points per game, and they come in just 24.2 minutes per game. He makes that time count with a historic combination of volume and efficiency.

Both his usage percentage (30.6) and true shooting percentage (60.9) lead the team. The only regularly-used players to produce full seasons with a usage percentage of at least 30 and a true shooting percentage of at least 60 are or will be Hall of Famers:

Harden (again), Isaiah Thomas and Kawhi Leonard are also on pace to do it this year. All three were All-Stars.

Williams flies under the radar, because he usually comes off the bench for Los Angeles — though that offers special opportunity for recognition later in the season.

Already a Sixth Man of the Year winner (2015 with the Raptors), Williams leads eligible players in win shares this season:

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Williams and Dwight Powell (Mavericks) are the only reserves leading their teams in win shares.

In fact, Williams has been so much better than his teammates, he could maintain his team lead even if traded. His 5.1 win shares rank well ahead of the 3.3 by Nick Young (another trade candidate) and 2.2 by Larry Nance Jr.

But there’s still a relatively high likelihood he gets moved. The Lakers are focusing more on player development, and the 30-year-old Williams could help a team ready to win now.

He’s locked in for a bargain $7 million next season. So, his more-than-just-a-rental status could help the Lakers land a first-round pick.

“I just go out and play,” Williams said. “I let the powers make deals or if they don’t.”

There’s a patience in Williams’ game that has developed in recent years. He attributes some of it to a torn ACL in 2013. No longer as quick, the pick-and-roll ace has been forced to play smarter.

Williams has mostly eliminated long 2s from his game, getting more shots at the rim, 3-pointers and free throws. His craftiness fits the modern game.

But there are still concerns about how he’ll translate to a better team.

He’s a defensive liability, and his size limits paths to reliability on that end. Not only is he 6-foot-1, he often needs to play shooting guard because his playmaking for others is only so-so for a point guard.

But as poor as he’s been defensively (400th of 450 players in defensive real plus-minus), he has been even better offensively (13th in offensive real plus-minus behind only All-Stars and Nikola Jokic). Still, he relies heavily on drawing fouls, and his tricks might not be so effective during a playoff series with plenty of time to scout him.

There are risks in acquiring Williams. But getting another player having a special season — like, say, Jimmy Butler — would be tremendously more costly. As long as a team has a plan to accentuate Williams’ strengths and hide his weaknesses, he might be one of the best bargains on the trade market.

Paul George says he’s not motivated by opportunity to earn higher max

Eastern Conference forward Paul George of the Indiana Pacers (13) reacts during the second half of the NBA All-Star basketball game in New Orleans, Sunday, Feb. 19, 2017. (AP Photo/Max Becherer)
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NEW ORLEANS — The Pacers have already granted a standing max offer to Paul George.

So, if he wants to stay in Indiana, his potential paths look relatively straightforward:

If he makes an All-NBA team this season, he can sign a designated-veteran-player extension that would kick in in 2018-19 and projects be worth about $209 million over five years (about $42 million annually).

If he doesn’t make an All-NBA team this season, he can wait to sign and try again to make one next season. If he does, he can sign a new contract in 2018 that would be worth the same $209 million or so over the same five-year period.

I think it’s this simple: If he becomes eligible to become a designated veteran player, he’ll sign then. If not, 2018 free agency projects to offer a choice of about $179 million over five years (about $36 million annually) to re-sign or about $133 million over four years (about $33 million annually) to sign elsewhere — a more difficult decision.

George says he’s not thinking about earning the higher max.

“You want to be one of the best,” George said. “And that’s the only motivation. You want to be All-NBA. That’s what you strive for. That’s what you want to play for, to be recognized as one of the league’s best players.”

That’s no small challenge for George, who was one of 12 All-Star forwards this year, joining:

With only six All-NBA forward spots, George faces long odds this season — and no easy path next season.

But at least eligibility for the higher max coincides with one of his goals.

“It’s nice. It’s nice,” George said. “But that’s not the motivation you want to play for”