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  • OUT: Gary Neal signed with the Bucks after the Spurs rescinded their qualifying offer which would have given them the right to match any offer he received in free agency.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.

Stephen Curry would love to captain Team Stephen again in 2019

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — Stephen Curry would love to be an NBA All-Star Game captain again next year, especially since the game will be in his hometown of Charlotte.

LeBron James would be OK with someone else taking his place, depending on who the top two vote-getters are, although his draft prowess led to Team LeBron beating Team Stephen 148-145 Sunday night.

And there’s a definite appetite for the NBA to televise the captains’ draft rather than conduct it clandestinely like it was this year.

“Televise it,” said DeMar DeRozan of Team Stephen. “Give the people what they want to see. I think everybody wants to see it. At the end of the day, every single person that gets picked, you are an All-Star, so it doesn’t matter where you really go, so I think televise it.”

Players raved about the new format of having captains draft the teams rather than the traditional format of East vs. West.

And James finally revealed his draft order: Kevin Durant, Anthony Davis, his former Cleveland teammate Kyrie Irving and DeMarcus Cousins, who missed the game due to a season-ending injury.

“I know who I like watching and I had a draft board. I had a process,” James said. “Some of it went according to plan. A couple of them fell through, but I was satisfied and happy with the guys that I got.”

James’ original roster was dramatically altered by injuries to Cousins, John Wall, Kristaps Porzingis and Kevin Love, who all missed the game.

“Even with the four guys that got injured we were able to get four new guys that came in and played well for us.”

James was named the game’s MVP after making the go-ahead, finger-roll layup with 34.5 seconds left and scoring a game-high 29 points.

Where did he hide his draft board?

“Ain’t none of your business. You’re going too far, man,” James said with a laugh.

Curry didn’t divulge his draft order.

“As the draft kind of unfolded, you start to game plan around positions,” he said. “For me, I tried to get the best shooters. It was kind of cool to see both teams come together as me and LeBron were picking. So that part, that vibe of the format and having two guys select from your peers will be a fun show as it unfolds year after year.”

The All-Star draft led to interesting dynamics on court.

Curry chose his Golden State teammates Klay Thompson and Draymond Green, but the trio had to play against Durant. James also chose Oklahoma City duo Westbrook and Paul George to play along with Kyrie Irving, who forced a trade away from James in Cleveland just last summer.

Irving and James had no obvious friction, even laughing and joking on the bench. Neither did Durant and Westbrook, who broke up in 2016 when Durant left Oklahoma City for Golden State.

Durant helped James smother Curry in the final seconds to prevent him from getting off a potential tying shot.

And then there was Toronto’s Dwane Casey coaching Team LeBron against Raptors star DeRozan.

“I think that having the captains and selecting the guys and being able to mix them up gave it a more authentic feel of kind of what us players want to be part of in an All-Star Game,” Irving said.

“It’s great to play with guys in your conference, East-West. But when you get a chance to have Russell Westbrook, Paul George, and you know they’re teammates already, and then you mix them with myself and Kemba (Walker), and LeBron, and you could see the mix and it just worked.”

 

Will Sam Hinkie ever be an NBA GM again?

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The buzz around the NBA is that Sam Hinkie would like to get back in the game. He’s a bright guy who is teaching graduate business classes at Stanford, he’s investing in and helping some startups in the Silicon Valley. Like smart people in every walk of life, NBA GMs have interests outside of just their profession. Hinkie can live a very good life outside the NBA world if he so chooses, but the buzz is he wants back in.

Will a team let him?

Ric Bucher of Bleacher Report asked other executives about the potential of a Hinkie return, in a story about his legacy. There was caution.

One owner of an Eastern Conference team said (Hinkie’s 13-page, esoteric resignation) letter—which was not intended to be shared publicly—damaged Hinkie’s chances of being hired to run a franchise again as much as anything he did while with the Sixers. Still, sources both close to Hinkie and around the league said owners and executives routinely reach out to him for counsel. Several basketball operations vice presidents and owners said they would hire him, but they wouldn’t put him in charge.

Others believe Hinkie and The Process weren’t given a full trial, and that he didn’t do anything wrong as much as the league turned on him.

“They clearly changed the rules on Sam,” the longtime front office executive said. “That wasn’t all on him. If he lasts five more months, maybe it all looks different and he is given credit for what they’re doing now.”…

“Once you stockpiled all those talented players, was Sam capable of flipping the switch and becoming a real GM?” the second Western Conference GM asked. “Because you don’t hire the demolitionist to do the remodel. Those are two different jobs with two different skill sets.”

Hinkie gamed the system in Philadelphia — with ownership’s blessing, at first. Until the pressure from the league and other owners, and the weight of the losses, became too much. Jerry Colangelo came in and the writing was on the wall for Hinkie and “The Process.” Every team has “tanked” to improve draft position and gain financial flexibility at some point, but nobody was as naked and extreme in their ambitions as Hinkie’s 76ers. Most Sixers fans seemed to get it, but other owners didn’t like what it said about the business of the NBA.

The Process also worked — Joel Embiid, Ben Simmons, Markelle Fultz (who has yet to play but will make a difference) have the Sixers as an on-the-rise team that makes the playoffs this year. Whether they get there depends on Embiid’s health and if the right players can be put around them, but he started a process that works.

At some point, I expect a team will give Hinkie another shot, a team near the bottom of the standings in a smaller market with an owner ready to gamble. It may be, as the one executive suggested, Hinkie in some kind of executive role setting the tone while another “GM” handles the day-to-day and relationships, but I expect Hinkie will get his shot. He learned some lessons the first time around, and his model in Philly is not one size fits all (especially with the draft lottery changes that kick in for 2019).  But he deserves another turn in the big chair somewhere.

Donovan Mitchell: I was at LeBron James’ Decision

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Donovan Mitchell has turned heads with the Jazz then made the most of his All-Star stage, winning the dunk contest.

But that wasn’t the first time he neared the spotlight.

Mitchell explained how he attended The Decision, LeBron James‘ 2010 free-agency TV special, where he announced he’d sign with the Heat.

Mitchell, via Dan Devine of Yahoo Sports:

“I was there, when he had The Decision,” Mitchell explained. “So that would probably be the biggest one.”

Like, there there?

“It was in Greenwich, Conn., and I went to school in Greenwich [at Greenwich Country Day School],” he said. “So, as a big LeBron fan in the sixth grade, I forced my mom to let me go. I wanted him to go to Miami. I wanted him to get his first ring.”

Young Donovan was glad to see one of his favorite players chart a course for a more successful future. Not everybody at the Greenwich Boys & Girls Club shared his enthusiasm.

“The people there who were Knicks fans … they weren’t too happy about it,” Mitchell said. “I almost got hit in the head with a Snapple bottle because they were just throwing stuff around outside. It was cool. I was just celebrating, so it was pretty cool.”

What a cool bit of happenstance.

Damian Lillard’s goal in meeting with Trail Blazers owner Paul Allen: ‘Spark that urgency’

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Alleviating Paul Allen’s fear, Damian Lillard didn’t request a trade in his requested meeting with the Trail Blazers owner.

So, what did Lillard want to accomplish?

Lillard, in an interview with Rachel Nichols of ESPN:

It was just me showing urgency, spark that urgency, figure out, “OK, what do we have to do?” We’re a five, six seed. What do we got to do to make the jump? If you don’t have a line of communication with people who can make the changes or the people who can make impact for things happening for the better, then you’re just going out there playing.

Paralyzed by a huge payroll, the Trail Blazers have been going the opposite direction. They dumped Allen Crabbe and Noah Vonleh in their last two significant trades. Portland could let Ed Davis and Shabazz Napier walk in free agency this summer. Luxury-tax concerns aren’t vanishing. Evan Turner‘s, Maurice Harkless’ and Meyers Leonard‘s are major obstacles to upgrading the roster.

The Trail Blazers could be stuck.

That’d be rough news for Lillard, who’s already 27. I understand why he’s trying to push the envelope. His prime is ticking down.

I’m just not sure Portland can help him accomplish his championship-contention goals anytime soon, as hard as he presses.