ProBasketballTalk 2013-14 Preview: San Antonio Spurs

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Last season: The Spurs finished with the second best record in the Western Conference, and blew through the playoffs with a 12-2 record (including sweeps against the Lakers in the first round and the Grizzlies in the Conference Finals) before facing the Heat in the NBA Finals.

The series was one for the ages, with both teams playing at an extremely high level for all seven games. San Antonio was poised to win the title in Game 6, when the team held a five-point lead with 28 seconds to play and the league was preparing for their trophy presentation by lining the court with the now-infamous yellow ropes.

We all remember how things finished — Ray Allen hit one of the biggest shots in NBA history to send that game into overtime, and though the Spurs were able to bounce back and compete in Game 7, the Heat ultimately pulled away to become last season’s champions.

Signature highlight from last season: The Spurs wouldn’t have been in position to have a shot at winning the title without this incredibly tough shot from Tony Parker that sealed the team’s Game 1 victory in Miami. Seriously, this was ridiculous.

Key player changes: This is the Spurs we’re talking about, so for a franchise that’s all about longevity and consistency, there wouldn’t be any wholesale roster changes while the team’s best players are still capable of being among the league’s best.

  • IN: Marco Belinelli (most recently of the Bulls) was signed to a two-year deal in free agency, as was Jeff Pendergraph Ayres after playing the last two seasons for the Pacers.
  • OUT: Gary Neal signed with the Bucks after the Spurs rescinded their qualifying offer which would have given them the right to match any offer he received in free agency. DeJuan Blair was out of the Spurs rotation by the end of the season, and signed a one-year deal with the Mavericks. Tracy McGrady, who joined the team late in the year but played no significant role, announced his retirement this summer.

Keys to the Spurs season:

1) Moving past the devastating Finals loss: The first priority for the Spurs as a team is to get over the painful memory of coming so close to an NBA title before ultimately falling short. In the preseason, the team has showed anything but a resiliency and a readiness for the upcoming season.

A preseason return to the scene of the crime against a Heat team playing without LeBron James, and with the Spurs playing their starters regular first half minutes saw them give up 66 points over the first two periods while falling behind by as many as 16 points before halftime.

Add to that Gregg Popovich still talking about how he thinks about the Finals loss every day and still dreams about LeBron and Ray Allen hitting shots, and you have a team-wide mental block that needs to be cleared before San Antonio is ready to focus on the task at hand this season.

2) The development of Kawhi Leonard: Kawhi Leonard is just entering his third NBA season, but all indications are that he’s poised to make the leap to becoming the Spurs’ next star. He has an above-average skill set on both ends of the floor, and fits perfectly into the Tim Duncan mold of being a boring, selfless superstar concerned only with winning from a personality standpoint.

Leonard appeared in just 58 games last season due to dealing with minor injuries, and averaged 11.9 points and 6.0 rebounds in 31.2 minutes per contest. His production increased substantially during the postseason, however, when the averages were 13.5 points and 9.0 rebounds in 36.9 minutes per game, while increasing his field goal percentage from 49.4 to 54.5 percent.

The Spurs will need the more durable version of Leonard they saw in the playoffs, along with an even higher level of production from him in order to preserve the more aging stars during the long grind of the regular season.

3) Can the Spurs’ veterans keep it together one more time: That’s the question we’ve seemingly been asking ourselves every season for the past several years. The Spurs are old, deteriorating, and are no longer capable of keeping up with the game’s younger, more athletic teams — so the story goes. But ask the Miami Heat about that, who were moments away from losing the title to these San Antonio veterans.

That will be what we look for entering this season once more, with players like Duncan and Ginobili needing regular season relief from some of the other players on the roster in order to be healthy enough for a strong run into the postseason. Guys like Tiago Splitter, Danny Green, and Leonard will need to play well enough to keep the team winning while covering for the Spurs’ stars on nights off or extended periods of rest.

Why you should watch: The Spurs haven’t been “boring” for a few seasons now, and offensively, they’re usually quite the opposite. San Antonio was seventh in the league in offensive efficiency and played at the league’s sixth fastest pace a season ago, and with Tony Parker at the helm and Tim Duncan still working wonders in the post, this team can at times be — dare I say it — a joy to watch.

Prediction: A top-four seed in the West, and a potentially deep postseason run. The Spurs are one of those teams that the longer they are allowed to stay in the playoffs, the more difficult they are to beat. If they’re as close to 100 percent as a team as is reasonable by the end of the season, there’s no reason they shouldn’t challenge for the Western Conference crown for a second straight season.

The struggle for San Antonio will be remaining engaged over the long regular season grind just to get back to having that chance.

James Harden throws alley-oop to Chris Paul, pair puts on show at Houston charity event

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What chemistry problem?

There are legitimate questions about how Chris Paul and James Harden will share the backcourt and ball with the Rockets, but none of those were on display on Sunday. That’s when CP3 joined his new teammate in Harden’s charity game (raising money for Harden’s charity, which helps children from single-family homes get a higher education), a kind of pro-am with some names thrown in to draw a crowd.

Harden and CP3 put on a show for the fans.

This is a charity event, not every team is going to defend like this or the Phoenix Suns. It’s going to be harder when the games matter.

But the Rockets are going to be entertaining to watch this season. No doubt.

Tampering is common in the NBA, but proving it is very difficult

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Want proof there is tampering in the NBA: Free agency starts on July 1 at midnight Eastern every year, and every year a number of new contracts for players with new teams are announced at 12:01 a.m. There is no way that a complicated NBA contract — even one where the two sides are both interested and will agree quickly on the price — is negotiated faster than it takes to get an In-N-Out Burger (or Five Guys burger, if you prefer the inferior).

Those deals are announced that fast because everything’s already been agreed to through back channels. Same with meetings when a major (or even mediocre) free agent starts talking to teams on July 1. Yet, the NBA rarely investigates, and even more rarely punishes a team for tampering. Why? Because it’s very difficult to prove.

The Lakers are being investigated for tampering with Paul George while he was under contract to the Indiana Pacers, an investigation reportedly started at the request of Pacers’ owner Herb Simon. Teams are not allowed to recruit or entice players under contract. The Lakers have denied any wrongdoing. Lakers president Magic Johnson went on “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” and, with a wink, joked about what he’d tell George if they met this summer, and that ticked Simon off. The Pacers had to trade George, and because everyone around the league knows he more likely than not is a Laker next summer (long before Magic went on TV), his trade value was diminished. The Pacers got back Victor Oladipo and Domantas Sabonis for him the day before free agency opened (although there may have been better offers on the table, and the choice and timing were odd). The Pacers think if there is an agreement in place between the Lakers and George that would have driven down the trade market (because he was a one-year rental, that market was already depressed).

Good luck proving tampering. Unless Magic did something stupid like text George directly, it will be almost impossible to prove.

NBA agents and front offices know how to avoid tampering using “back channels” — not unlike how governments who are public enemies still communicate. Someone, a couple of people removed from the agent/GM, can talk with someone a couple of people removed from the other side and set something up that gets brought back and agreed to. Or, an agent can have one of his other players do some of the work for him — players recruit each other all the time on social media (and off it), and the league doesn’t see that as tampering, unless specifically ordered by a GM/owner. James Harden recruited Chris PaulDraymond Green and other Warriors recruited Kevin Durant, and the league shrugged, but GM Bob Myers could not have done that (or directed the players to do that… again, good luck proving it if you think he did).

There are a few reasons it will be hard to prove the Lakers did anything. First, the Lakers’ GM Rob Pelinka is a former agent and knows how to work the system — he’s not getting caught. Look what another agent told Kevin O’Connor at The Ringer.

“Pelinka for sure knows how to tamper without getting caught,” one agent told me. “Pelinka will do whatever it takes to get players. Magic could easily have done something dumb and got caught for it, though.”

To prove tampering, Magic needs to have left a “paper trail,” which more accurately is a digital trail of texts or emails. But even that can get tricky. If Magic was texting with George’s agent Aaron Mintz that alone proves nothing, he also represents Julius Randle on the Lakers and D'Angelo Russell, who the Lakers traded a week before the George trade. It will take an email or text specifically talking about George for the Lakers to get in trouble, and Magic is smarter than that. Well, we think he is.

The bottom line is tampering is common and almost impossible to prove. Unless Magic screwed up, it will be unprovable here. Maybe the Pacers made their point, maybe Simon feels better, but it’s hard to see how this is going to be tampering.

Joakim Noah talks of “bounce back” year for himself, Knicks

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In a season of disappointments in New York, none was bigger than Joakim Noah.

There was plenty of scoffing around the league in the summer of 2016 when Phil Jackson signed the oft-injured, already declining Noah to a four-year, $72 million contract that was seen as one of the worst of a summer (and it was an ugly summer for contracts). He only played in 46 games, averaging 5.5 points on 49 percent shooting, plus 8.8 rebounds a game in those (and basically being averaged on offense and a step slow defensively). He missed time with a rotator cuff surgery and got a 20-game suspension for testing positive for Androgen (he has 13 of those games left and can’t play until Nov. 13).

Noah realizes how poorly last season went he told the “Truth Barrel’’ podcast, doesn’t think Jackson deserves all the blame, and said his goal is to make it up this season (hat tip The New York Post for the transcription).

“It’s tough, man, because I got a lot of love and respect for Phil,’’ Noah said. “He gave me an opportunity to play back home. Somebody I read all his books as a kid. I was just a big fan and still am. I have a lot of respect for him. It didn’t work out. That sucks. It’s something I have to live with. He believed in me, and I kind of let him down. That’s frustrating. He got a lot of blame that it was his fault. But we didn’t lose all those games because of Phil Jackson…

“I went through a lot of adversity,’’ Noah said. “You go through injuries. I lost my confidence this year. It’s about bouncing back and showing who I am through these tough times. It can really show what you’re made of.”

This is the only attitude Noah should have — look forward, get healthy, and look to right his wrongs next season.

Once he finishes his suspension, Noah likely will come off the bench behind Willy Hernangomez. (The Knicks should spend more time with Kristaps Porzingis at the five, but that’s another discussion.) Noah is going to get his chances, but nothing he has shown the past few seasons should have Knicks’ fans expecting a return to form. Noah has been an average to below-average player for a couple of seasons, he’s not moving the same way, and he’s not getting younger.

Noah can still have a positive impact on this team, he has a role to play, but it has to start with him getting back on the court.

Add Milos Teodosic to long list of stars missing EuroBasket

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The last Olympics in Rio saw a long list of NBA players sitting it out, either due to injuries, concerns about Zika virus, a serious dislike of açaí berries or just choosing to do something else with their time.

Now it looks like EuroBasket is suffering the same fate.

The latest name to come up is Milos Teodosic, who signed this summer with the Clippers, could never get healthy, and is out for Serbia. He joins a long list — Sportando put together a list of NBA players and stars who are out.

More than just one someone is missing, guys such as Ivica Zubac, Mario Hezonja, Paul Zipster, and others are out as well.

Spain, led by Pau Gasol, remain the heavy favorites to win EuroBasket 2017, with Serbia, France, and Lithuania potential contenders. There may be a lot of players missing, but there is still a lot of talent, and when guys are playing for national pride there is plenty of emotion and fire as well.