Dewayne Dedmon

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Three questions the San Antonio Spurs 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: 61-21, advanced to the Western Conference Finals, where Kawhi Leonard rolled an ankle (thank you Zaza Pachulia) and they got swept by the Warriors.

I know what you did last summer: They kept the status quo going. The Spurs re-signed Patty Mills (probably overpaying, but they had to with Tony Parker injured to start the season). Pau Gasol opted out and re-signed, again for maybe more than the market would have given him. The Spurs brought back Manu Ginobili. They signed Rudy Gay, who is coming off an Achilles injury. The losses were solid bench players Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons.

THREE QUESTIONS THE SPURS MUST ANSWER

1) Is Kawhi Leonard healthy, and can he stay that way? We saw in the playoffs last season what happens to this team when Leonard goes down, and it’s not pretty. Leonard is a top five NBA player who is both the focal point of the Spurs offense and the best perimeter defender in the NBA (that’s not just my opinion, the NBA GMs voted him that). The Spurs ask a lot of Leonard and he answered last season with an MVP-level performance.

That’s why it raised a few eyebrows that Leonard is sitting out the preseason to rest his right quadriceps tendinopathy (an inflammation of the tendon just above the kneecap in the thigh), especially after Gregg Popovich said it was something he battled last season. Is Leonard going to miss time at the start of this season because of it? Will it require him getting more rest days during the season?

We know what the Spurs are going to do — defend well, move the ball, not beat themselves. San Antonio is going to have a hard time getting near that 61 win total of a year ago in a loaded West, but without the full Kawhi Leonard treatment they could slide a little further down the board. Nobody is betting on the Spurs to collapse, but did the Rockets and Thunder pass them by?

2) Is playing big the antidote to a league going small? It seems like the entire NBA is going smaller, trying to emulate the Warriors and their death lineup. Cleveland will be starting Kevin Love at the five this season. Houston will play fast and small.

“Golden State is an anomaly, with the group of players they have,” Popovich said last preseason. “And they’re a monster. Definitely the toughest team in the league to guard. But the rest of us poor fools, 29 of us, are kind of a hybrid. Everybody tries to be flexible. Not team is going to be all big or all small. Every game, teams play small for a while, they play big for a while. That’s the way it is. That’s the truth.”

The Spurs zigged when the league zagged — they are a big team that starts Pau Gasol and LaMarcus Aldridge up front and have real size in their defenders such as Leonard or Danny Green. This is not an accident. The Spurs have some versatility, but they want a lineup that can give small lineups trouble and push them around a little. It worked last regular season, and we didn’t get a real chance to see how it would have worked against the Warriors in the playoffs. But as those big men age and get a little slower, will going big still work as well.

3) Can the Spurs bench again be the NBA’s best? Or, to put that another way, what guy we don’t recall them drafting is going to come out of nowhere and impress us this season?

Once again last season the Spurs bench was the best in the NBA, outscoring teams by 8.9 points per 100 possessions over the course of the season. That is a key reason they win 55+ games every season — their bench comes in and executes at a high level, extending leads.

This season that bench will be a little thinner without Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons, two guys who brought real athleticism off the bench. Still they have the legend that is Manu Ginoboili, Rudy Gay (who is playing in the preseason but may be slowed for a bit coming off an Achilles injury), plus guys like Dejounte Murray, Kyle Anderson, Davis Bertans, and now Joffrey Lauvergne. For the Spurs to keep on winning like we expect, Popovich needs to work his magic and turn these guys into one of the league’s most formidable benches. Again.

Five teams with the best shot of knocking off Golden State

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Jeff Van Gundy thinks the Warriors are going to run away with this NBA season.

NBA GMs think the Warriors are going to run away with this NBA season.

One of the things we love about sports is — like life — it rarely follows the script. This NBA season may not either. Maybe the Warriors get challenged — during the regular season, during the Finals, but there will be obstacles in their way. Maybe the Warriors fall. I wouldn’t bet on it, but it’s possible.

If the Warriors are knocked off, who does the deed? Here are the five teams with the best shot of dethroning the champs.

1) The Cleveland Cavaliers. They top the list for two reasons. First, they are the best team in the East, they are likely to reach the Finals, and that gives them the best shot at the Warriors (who could be beat up and worn down after at least two tough series just to get out of the West). The other reason is LeBron James. He remains the best player on the planet (I will listen to your Kevin Durant arguments but still choose LeBron). He raises his game, and the games of everyone around him, in the playoffs. However, for the Cavaliers to have a real shot at the Warriors a lot of things need to come together. Most importantly, as a team they need to defend better. Isaiah Thomas needs to return and get back to close to 90% of his last-year self. The Jae Crowder/Kevin Love starting front line needs to work. The Derrick Rose, Tristan Thompson, and either Dwyane Wade or J.R. Smith bench rotation (however it shakes out to be) has to give the team quality bench play. Things have to go just about perfectly, but because they likely will get their chance in the Finals the Cavaliers have the best shot at dethroning the Warriors.

2) The Houston Rockets. The Rockets had the second-ranked offense in the NBA last season, and they got there with a style of play that can hang with the Warriors. Throw Chris Paul into the mix — once he and James Harden develop some on-court chemistry — and the Rockets are the one team that can score with Golden State. The challenge will be on defense, which was pedestrian last season. CP3 certainly improves the defense out top, plus GM Daryl Morey added quality veteran wing defenders such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute to the roster. Those wings are all about matching up with the Warriors firepower. On paper, Houston may be the team best positioned to beat the Warriors, but we need to see all of it work over the course of a season before we give them much hope.

3) The Oklahoma City Thunder. Like the Rockets, if this team comes together maybe they have a shot at the Warriors. For the Thunder, everything starts on defense — they were 10th in the NBA last season, they brought back their core guys (Andre Roberson and Steven Adams), and they added an excellent wing defender in Paul George. Nobody stops the Warriors, but the Thunder have the players to make them work more for their points. On offense, if George and Russell Westbrook can integrate with Carmelo Anthony and figure out how to make the needed sacrifices and play well off each other — making this team a Top 10 offensive squad, too — they have a shot. We need to see the team in action, but maybe.

4) The San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs had the best defense in the NBA last season, and they have an MVP-level player in Kawhi Leonard. We know how this is going to go, the Spurs are going to defend, execute and make plays. Pau Gasol will impress. They will miss the depth that Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons brought, but they added the scoring punch of Rudy Gay off the bench (once he gets healthy), plus we know Gregg Popovich will throw guys we don’t know out there and they will shine. What we know is the Spurs will not beat themselves, and because of that for years the Spurs have set the bar in the West. They will be that again, but the Warriors and maybe another team or two can clear that bar.

5) The Boston Celtics. I think Boston will be a bigger threat next season and beyond, but maybe things come together faster than expected. Plus, they are in the East, so get past the Cavaliers and they get to take a swing at the Warriors. The Celtics have quality players all over the floor, Kyrie Irving at the point, Gordon Hayward on the wing, and Al Horford in the paint, plus good role players such as Marcus Smart, Jaylen Brown, and now Jayson Tatum. Boston also has one of the best coaches in the league in Brad Stevens, who will put Irving in better situations than he has seen in the past. The question in Boston is defense — they are not going to be terrible, but after trading away Avery Bradley and Jae Crowder this summer they will not be as good. Can the Celtics get enough stops to stick on this list?

After Kyrie Irving trade, here are five biggest threats to Warriors

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Let’s be honest: The blockbuster Kyrie Irving trade to the Boston Celtics likely means the NBA Finals goes five games instead of four.

The Golden State Warriors can be that good. They won 67 games last season with the NBA’s top offense and second-ranked defense, now they have been in the system for a year as a unit, know each other better, and made some good offseason additions. The Warriors will be better. And they still have Stephen Curry, Kevin Durant, Draymond Green, and Klay Thompson. The Warriors are the clear favorites to repeat as NBA champions.

But life rarely follows the script. So who are the biggest threats to the Warriors? Here are the top five.

1) The Houston Rockets. Houston won 55 games last season with the NBA’s second-ranked offense and a style of play that can hang with the Warriors — then they added Chris Paul to the mix. Plus GM Daryl Morey added quality veteran wing defenders such as P.J. Tucker and Luc Mbah a Moute, guys picked up in part to match up with the Warriors firepower. On paper, Houston is the NBA’s second best team and the one best poised to challenge the Warriors. It’s fair to wonder if Chris Paul and James Harden can share the backcourt and the ball — and if they can find a tempo that works for them — but coach Mike D’Antoni isn’t worried. It’s also fair to question if this team can be good enough defensively, even though they added good defenders. Still, the Rockets are a threat and a contender.

2) The Cleveland Cavaliers. The reason they are here is not the trade, it’s LeBron James. He remains the best player on the planet (although Durant is close). But the trade helps. In terms of pure offensive production, Isaiah Thomas matched or even bested Irving last season, IT is an All-NBA player for a reason. Also, the Cavaliers pick up the kind of “3&D” wing they have desperately needed in Jae Crowder. And if another player they really want/need comes available, they have assets in Ante Zizic and that Brooklyn first round pick to get him. Cleveland gets this spot because they are the clear favorite to win the East again, and if they are back in the Finals they have a shot despite an aging roster. The Cavs have beaten the Warriors in the Finals before.

3) The Boston Celtics. Admittedly, there is a bit of a drop off after those first two. I see Boston as more of a threat in two seasons (2018-19) and beyond, but after this trade they have quality players at key positions — Irving at the point, Gordon Hayward on the wing, and Al Horford in the paint. Boston also has one of the best coaches in the league in Brad Stevens, who will put Irving in better situations (so long as Irving buys in and doesn’t just force isolation action, as he did at times in Cleveland). What Boston needs is guys like Jaylen Brown and Jayson Tatum to develop, and Marcus Smart to step up, to become real contenders. They also need to show they can defend, they traded away some of their best defenders this summer. That and a stronger defensive presence in the paint. All that said, Boston has a legitimate shot to beat Cleveland and come out of the East, and if they reach the Finals, then the Celtics at least have a puncher’s chance against the Warriors.

4) The San Antonio Spurs. The Spurs won 55 games last season, had the best defense in the NBA, and with Kawhi Leonard they have their own superstar. The Spurs are going to execute and make plays. They will miss the depth that Dewayne Dedmon and Jonathon Simmons brought, but they added the scoring punch of Rudy Gay off the bench. What we know is the Spurs will not beat themselves, that they will be in the hunt, and we should know by now not to sleep on them.

5) The Oklahoma City Thunder. I think this is a dark horse contender. What we know is that the Thunder should be a top five defensive team — they were 10th in the NBA last season, they brought back their core guys (Andre Roberson and Steven Adams are key here), and they added an excellent wing defender to the mix in Paul George. The Thunder will get stops. If George and Russell Westbrook can figure out how to play well together on the offensive end — last season the Thunder were middle of the pack offensively with the Westbrook show — and get in the top 10, they become a team that could surprise some people.

Hawks commit more earnestly to rebuild, but enough?

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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 Hawks were pretty good without a clear path forward.

Now, they’re pretty bad without a clear path forward.

Luckily for them – and despite their best efforts – they might be bad enough.

Atlanta continued its descent from its 60-win peak two years ago by losing its two best players. The Hawks let Paul Millsap leave for the Nuggets and traded Dwight Howard to the Hornets in what could be described as a salary rearrangement more than a salary dump.

After multiple half-measures toward rebuilding – refusing to offer Al Horford the max, trading Jeff Teague and Kyle Korver for first-round picks – Atlanta finally committed.

Kind of.

The Hawks hedged against full-on tanking by signing Dewayne Dedmon and Ersan Ilyasova. Those two big men – Dedmon in his prime, Ilyasova close enough to it – supply enough hustle and basketball intelligence to sabotage a proper tank. Coach Mike Budenholzer, whose teams tend to exceed the sum of their parts, won’t help Atlanta bottom out.

I can see breaking up a team with a playoff chance to torpedo high into the lottery. The Hawks aren’t doing that – not purposefully, at least. It appears they’re trying to remain credibly competitive, which could only undermine their rebuild.

Atlanta is rebuilding around Dennis Schroder, John Collins, Taurean Prince and DeAndre’ Bembry. The Hawks also have all their own first-rounders plus protected first-rounders from the Rockets, Timberwolves, and Cavaliers. But the Houston pick is the only one of those extras that can ever land in the top 10, and that’s just top-three protected this season, a season in which the Rockets project to pick in the low 20s.

Simply, this is not an encouraging asset pool to begin a rebuild with. Atlanta would benefit greatly from a high 2018 pick.

The Hawks just don’t seem interested enough in securing one.

They also lost Tim Hardaway Jr. and Thabo Sefolosha in free agency. Like the 32-year-old Millsap, the 33-year-old Sefolosha had no place on a team mostly rebuilding. The 25-year-old Hardaway could have fit into the next era or even as a trade chip, but not on the four-year, $71 million offer sheet the Knicks signed him to. Though Atlanta wisely passed on matching, it’s a shame to lose an asset for nothing.

That’s really the story of the Hawks’ descent. Millsap, Horford, Sefolosha and DeMarre Carroll all walked in free agency. Atlanta was always reluctant to trade those players for value while it could.

I’m trying to grade only this offseason, not prior decisions. General manager Travis Schlenk took over this offseason, and he has the runway for a patient rebuild.

The Hawks wisely got a first-rounder for taking and buying out Jamal Crawford. Could they have found similar deals rather than signing Dedmon and Ilyasova? Could they have signed younger players instead?

The Hawks might hope they can trade Dedmon (two years, $12.3 million) and Ilyasova (one-year, $6 million) for even greater value, but that comes with complications. Dedmon has a $6.3 million player option for next season, so if his deal goes south, Atlanta is on the hook for another year. (If it goes well, Dedmon will become an unrestricted free agent and – fitting the theme – could just leave.) As a returning player on a one-year contract, Ilyasova can veto any trade.

If the Hawks had re-signed Millsap (and maybe Sefolosha, too), they could have made a decent case to return to the playoffs in the lowly Eastern Conference. Atlanta has the NBA’s second-longest active playoff streak, 10 seasons. That isn’t nothing, and continuing it would have been fine.

If the Hawks tried to return to the playoffs and failed, they would have ended up in a similar position to where they are now – somewhere in the lottery, but not necessarily high in it. They could have even traded Millsap – whose Denver deal guarantees him just $61 million over two years – for value.

If the future is murky either way, I’d rather be better in the interim.

Perhaps, Atlanta just tired of losing in the first or second round (though ownership and management has recently changed). That would have been the team’s likely ceiling if it re-signed Millsap.

But I just don’t see winning about 30 games as more pleasurable than reaching the playoffs, even with an early-round exit. A 30-win season doesn’t bring enough value in the draft to offset the difference.

Here’s the good news: The Hawks’ hedging probably didn’t go far enough. They might be downright terrible, anyway – positioning them to draft the elite young talent they badly need to galvanize their rebuild.

This was a D+ effort that stumbled into a slightly more favorable position – i.e., a team that struggles more than it expects.

Offseason grade: C-

Hawks waive Diamond Stone, who had guaranteed contract

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When Diamond Stone entered the NBA draft a year ago, he looked like a first-round pick.

Now, the Hawks are paying him to go away.

The No. 40 pick last year, Stone signed a two-year guaranteed contract with the Clippers. After acquiring Stone in a trade, Atlanta is willing to eat his $1,312,611 salary.

Hawks:

Atlanta never necessarily wanted Stone. The Clippers had to deal him (and Jamal Crawford) to match Danilo Gallinari‘s salary in a sign-and-trade. The Hawks got a first-round pick for taking the unwanted players, bought out Crawford and have now dropped Stone.

Atlanta also has enough centers with Dewayne Dedmon, John Collins, Mike Muscala and Miles Plumlee.

But the timing is curious.

As long they’re paying Stone anyway, why not bring him to training camp and assess his value further? It’d cost the same amount to waive him in October. Stone is limited by his lack of explosiveness and mobility, but he has some interior skills. At just 20, he still could develop into a useful NBA player.

Do the Hawks have other moves lined up to fill their 20-man offseason roster? Was this a favor to Stone to give him a head-start on finding his next team?