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Spurs muck up flexibility to keep aging team intact

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NBCSports.com’s Dan Feldman is grading every team’s offseason based on where the team stands now relative to its position entering the offseason. A ‘C’ means a team is in similar standing, with notches up or down from there.

The Spurs have an in-his-prime superstar capable of leading a team a championship.

They’re making it much harder for Kawhi Leonard to do so – not just in 2018, but in 2019 and even 2020, as well.

The dream of Chris Paul invigorating a team that might have already peaked? Poof. San Antonio’s Paul pursuit blew up before free agency even began, Paul opting in for a trade to the Rockets. No other star free agent appeared close to joining the Spurs, either.

The backup plan of rolling over cap space to next summer, maybe even having enough to lure two max players to join Leonard? San Antonio didn’t even appear interested.

A a 37-year-old Pau Gasol, who opted out of a $16,197,500 salary when it appeared the Spurs could lure an upgrade with cap space, was rewarded with $39.5 million guaranteed when they struck out. Franchise icon Tony Parker, 35 and injured, stays on the books at his $15,453,126 salary – potentially a complicating factor all along in San Antonio’s ability to clear max cap space for Paul. Even 29-year-old Patty Mills (four years, $50 million) could wind hurting flexibility more than he helps on the court as he ages.

It’s difficult to judge the Spurs, who kept their primary plan – assuming there was one better than this – close to the vest. What if they had a 90% chance of landing Paul and promising Gasol such a large raise in the event Paul signed elsewhere was the only way to get Gasol to opt out? Gasol’s new contract would just be the unfortunate cost of a savvy gamble.

But it seems unlikely Paul was anywhere near that certain. And did Gasol really require such a big raise to opt out and give San Antonio a chance to add talent, especially in such a tight center market?

Making him whole with an identical 2017-18 salary on a one-year contract seemed fair. Adding a second season at $16.8 million is shockingly bad. Guaranteeing $6.7 million of $16 million in 2019-20 is nearly beyond belief.

Plenty of people believe Gasol could be moved next summer if necessary to sign a major free agent, and he could be. But I’d be shocked if it’s at value, and there’s little virtue in signing expensive contracts that will require significant sweeteners attached to be dumped. I’d also be surprised if paying Gasol $16 million 2019-20 is appealing, though it’s not as if paying him $6.7 million not to play is ideal, either.

This is simply an awful contract – maybe one offered out of necessity after bad luck, though I doubt it. Either way, I’m grading the team’s situation change, not the logic that got them there.

The Spurs not only whiffed this summer, whether they have any cap next summer is tied to player options for LaMarcus Aldridge ($22,347,015), Danny Green ($10 million), Rudy Gay ($8,826,300) and Joffrey Lauvergne ($1,656,092). It’ll be fascinating which of those players San Antonio wants to opt in or out.

Gay for the mid-level exception was the big outside signing this year, and he carries name recognition. But he’s 31 and fewer than eight months removed from a torn Achilles. It’d hardly be surprising if the Spurs tap his talent, but I’m skeptical – especially because they need his athleticism.

San Antonio lost a pair of athletic defenders in Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons. Neither seemed to endear himself to Gregg Popovich, but they’ll be missed.

So will Parker, at least to begin the season (probably). Mills had already become San Antonio’s best point guard, and he’ll still have Manu Ginobili (re-signed for two years, $5 million) as a passing/ball-handling crutch. But that leaves other minutes at point guard to No. 29 pick Derrick White or Dejounte Murray, last year’s first-rounder who’s even younger than White. The return of an already-declining Parker won’t necessarily fortify the position, either.

Leonard’s two-way excellence and Popovich’s coaching led a middling supporting cast to 61 wins and a 23-point lead in Game 1 of the Western Conference finals last season. Then, Leonard got hurt, and the wheels fell off in a Warriors sweep. Did Zaza Pachulia undercut a San Antonio championship? Maybe.

But that opportunity is gone, and the Spurs can’t simply recreate it. Retaining the oldest pieces from last year’s squad – the oldest to win a playoff series – won’t ensure another, ideally healthier, crack at Golden State. So much of San Antonio’s roster will decline with age.

The Spurs will probably win a lot of games again. They might even return to the conference finals. Knowing them, White and small-time signees Lauvergne and Brandon Paul will blossom into excellent rotation players.

San Antonio probably deserves the benefit of the doubt, but I’m grading what I see: A good team with a young superstar stagnating rather than building him a championship-caliber supporting cast – and inhibiting its ability to do so in future years.

Offseason grade: D

Three questions the New York Knicks must answer this season

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The NBC/ProBasketballTalk season previews will ask the questions each of the 30 NBA teams must answer this season to make their season a success. We are looking at one team a day until the start of the season, and it begins with a look back at the team’s offseason moves.

Last season: 31-51, missed the playoffs. Again.

I know what you did last summer: Last weekend, the Carmelo Anthony era came to an end in New York as he was traded to Oklahoma City for Enes Kanter and Doug McDermott (plus a high second-round pick). The Carmelo era came to an end because former team president Phil Jackson poisoned that well, but that and a stupid pissing match with Kristaps Porzingis cost Jackson his job this summer as well. A new front office of Steve Mills and Scott Perry then went out and overpaid for Tim Hardaway Jr., bringing him back to NYC (after the Hawks did the work of developing him). The Knicks also revamped the point guard spot letting Derrick Rose walk and adding Jarrett Jack (free agent) Frank Ntilikina (No. 8 draft pick), and Ramon Sessions (free agent).

THREE QUESTIONS THE KNICKS MUST ANSWER:

1) Kristaps Porzingis, are you ready to lead a team?
Anthony was traded for one primary reason… well two primary reasons: He wanted out, and the Knicks wanted to turn the page and make this entirely Porzingis’ team, getting him out of ‘Melo’s shadow. Well, they got their wish, now it falls to Porzingis to prove he is ready to lead a team — and I don’t mean Latvia in EuroBasket (where he played well, but it’s not the same thing).

Redo the 2015 draft and Porzingis goes second (behind Karl-Anthony Towns), but that is based as much on potential for who he can be as what he has shown for far — and he has shown plenty. Porzingis has all the tools to be an All-NBA player — he can space the floor as a three-point shooter, he’s tougher than people think and can score inside, he’s athletic and can protect the rim — but now he has to put it all together in one improved package. He’s the man, the Knicks are his team, he has to make the plays. And do it consistently. Anthony isn’t isn’t there to stop the ball and jack up shots, particularly in crunch time, now everything should run through KP. He can score, but he needs to improve his passing and playmaking (because they don’t have the point guards to do it this season).

Another part of this is the Knicks need Porzingis to evolve into an elite defender. (Phil Jackson had hoped Joakim Noah would fill that role, paid him $72 million despite injuries and a declining game, and Noah has not been healthy and is the shell of his old self when he was. That contract is now an anchor.) Porzingis has shown some rim-protecting skills, but they need more than a couple blocks from him now, he must quarterback the defense.

Asking Porzingis to be an All-NBA player this season may be a little much (although he should get close), but he should make the All-Star team in a depleted East. If not, the Knicks have bigger issues.

2) Is Tim Hardaway Jr. ready for his turn in the spotlight? The Knicks needed more perimeter scoring, and they went to an old friend — Tim Hardaway Jr. The former Knick had gone to Atlanta and developed under Mike Budenholzer into a quality rotation player who can hit threes (35.7 percent last season), defend on the perimeter, and he had the promise of getting even better at age 25. The Knicks believed in that promise, but to get the restricted free agent they knew they had to come in big. They did, paying $71 million over four years to get him, far more than anyone else was bidding. Even the Hawks walked away. It was one of the more head-shaking contracts of the summer.

Hardaway will get the chance to prove those who questioned his contract wrong. He’s going to get opportunities, he’s going to get touches, and he should put up more than the 14.5 points a game he did last season. Can he remain efficient when taking on a bigger load? Can he and Porzingis develop chemistry? Hardaway got paid, now he has to prove the Knicks didn’t overvalue him.

3) Freed from the triangle, can Jeff Hornacek get a young team to buy into his style? The answer to that question may start with another question: What is Jeff Hornacek’s style? He would be quick to say it is up-tempo, with plenty of ball movement and certainly more three-point shooting.

That, of course, begs another question: Can he run that system without a good point guard? The Knicks drafted Frank Ntilikina, and he shows promise, but he is an 18-year-old raw rookie about to make a massive leap in the level of competition he faces. Don’t expect too much from him this season. Journeyman Ramon Sessions is probably the best playmaker on the roster. If needed, Ron Baker is there at the guard spot (another guy the Knicks dramatically overpaid this summer using the room exception).

The Knicks were middle of the pack team offensively last season (18th in points per possession), playing through the strange on-again off-again triangle hybrid offense they used. Freed from that, the Knicks need to be better on that end, with Hardaway providing the outside to Porzingis’ inside. That has to start with the players being unleashed to shoot the three ball, the Knicks were bottom 10 in the NBA last season in threes attempted and three-point shooting percentage, Hardaway has to lead a turnaround in that category.

The biggest question facing the Knicks (or at least 1A tied with do they get any point guard play?) is can they get enough stops? The Knicks were 26th in the NBA in defense last season, and swapping out ‘Melo for Enes Kanter isn’t going to improve things. Porzingis can be a rim protector, but he has to do more and quarterback the defense. Hardaway needs to lead an improvement the defense on the perimeter. Hornacek will talk about coaching offense, but getting this team to buy into a defensive plan may be the biggest key to him keeping his job.

It’s going to be a long season in New York, even in a down East, this is not a playoff team. But Knicks fans want to see steps forward, they want hope. And that starts with this becoming Porzingis’ team.

This is why Shaq says he knows Kobe respects him (VIDEO)

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Do Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant hang out these days? Probably not.

But do the to respect each other? The answer, apparently, is yes.

During an interview for Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network, O’Neal said he knows that Kobe respects him because of a certain play. That play?

Prepare yourself for this one Portland Trail Blazers fans: it’s the famous alley-oop with 41 seconds left from Game 7 of the 2000 Western Conference Finals that put the Lakers up by six points.

That play was the exclamation point on an impressive fourth quarter, one in which the Blazers went hilariously ice cold from the field while the Lakers made up a huge deficit.

Here’s how Shaq tells the story:

Game 7. We’re down. I’m telling Kobe ‘Hey man, I’m open’.

[And Kobe responded with] I got you.

He crosses up Scottie Pippen, and he catches eye contact with me like, ‘OK this is the one you wanted.’

He throws it up super, super, super high. I have to go up and get it and throw it down. Puts us up by five [it was six] and I know we’re going to win, we’re going to the Finals.

If you go back to the footage after we win [the game] who jumps in my arms? Kobe Bryant.

Meanwhile, a 12-year-old Dane Carbaugh’s heart still aches from that game.

Carmelo Anthony lands in OKC, gets greeted by fans at airport (VIDEO)

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Carmelo Anthony is now a member of the Oklahoma City thunder.

Man that is still really weird to type.

But this has been an insane offseason, and nevertheless the former New York Knicks forward is now a teammate of Russell Westbrook and Paul George.

We are not sure how these teammates are going to play together next season given their propensity for high-usage play, but we are definitely all ready to watch it very soon.

Meanwhile, Anthony was greeted by fans in Oklahoma at the airport after arriving to be with the team.

Via Twitter:

Do you think this will get Carmelo to stay in OKC?

Guess we will just have to find out.

Cavaliers are frontrunners, but where will Dwyane Wade land?

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Dwyane Wade and the Chicago Bulls reached a buyout agreement — he will take an $8 million haircut to become a free agent. Not that we should feel bad for Wade, I wish someone would pay me $15 million to go away.

The next question: Where will Wade play this season?

The smart money is on Cleveland, but it’s not that simple. Adrian Wojnarowski of ESPN got the ball rolling, but others chimed in.

OKC is an interesting option on the court, if their ownership group is willing to eat a little more tax to make it happen (the Thunder would pay about $24 million, based on their current payroll). Alex Kennedy of Hoopshype shed a little more light on that and other options.

It’s probably going to be the Cavaliers — his good friend LeBron James is there, they are the best team in the East so a trip to the Finals (and a shot at a ring) are very possible, and he could start for them. That’s probably enough to get the deal done.

Expect Wade to take a little time with this decision. Veterans are not big fans of training camps, he may be willing to miss a little, spend some time with the family, listen to pitches, then choose Cleveland where he wants to play this season.