Zaza Pachulia

Associated Prerss

Three questions the San Antonio Spurs must answer this season

5 Comments

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.

Zaza Pachulia on Warriors: “I think we’re going to be even better this year”

Getty Images
7 Comments

Jeff Van Gundy said it out loud, but most NBA observers were already thinking it: The race for the 2018 NBA title is over, just give it to Golden State.

It’s not just that the core of a team that has won 67 games last season and the NBA title last season is back, it’s that they will be even better this season than a year ago. That’s what Warriors starting center Zaza Pachulia told Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News.

“I think we’re going to be even better this year with the confidence, the trust factor and knowing for ourselves we won a championship with that team, with that personalities on the team and the chemistry we have,” Pachulia said. “We can be even better with the focus we have with better details in how to improve…

“We got Nick Young. We got Omri Casspi. We got Jordan Bell,” Pachulia answered.”

Pachulia is right.

There are a couple of reasons for this, and Pachulia hit on them.

First, there is the comfort level factor. Remember last season, the Warriors didn’t exactly stumble out of the gate, but when challenged and put into close games it took them a while to figure things out. Around Christmas Steve Kerr told Stephen Curry to start being himself and not deferring to Kevin Durant so much, and with that the team found an equilibrium. Now they have that — and a ton of confidence — from Day 1.

Second, as Pachulia mentioned, the Warriors made some good off-season acquisitions. I’m particularly high on Casspi, who has played well when not asked to do too much or create too much. Plus, he has ridiculous shooting range which will fit right in with what the Warriors like to do. Look for his minutes to climb as the season moves along.

I’m not sure the Warriors will get or chase 73 wins again, they don’t necessarily want to focus on it, plus the West is very deep this year so they will pick up a few more losses to quality teams on a hot night along the way.

But no team is beating a healthy Warriors squad in a seven-game series. Sorry Houston, sorry Cleveland, you’re very good, but the bar is set ridiculously high.

Warriors’ Zaza Pachulia may miss Eurobasket with ankle injury

Getty Images
4 Comments

When the Golden State Warriors won the title last June, Zaza Pachulia walked around the court with the Georgian flag draped around his shoulders. He’s a man proud of his nation, and he was excited to represent them this summer in EuroBasket (after his government awarded him the Order of Honor after winning the title).

But it looks like you can add Pachulia to the insanely long list of guys out for the European championships. Pachulia has suffered an ankle injury, and while it’s not serious enough to slow him in Golden State’s training camp in a month, it could be keeping off the Georgian team for the tournament, according to his coach.

A final decision will come over the weekend.

Here’s a partial list of the players missing this EuroBasket: Giannis Antetokounmpo, Rudy Gobert, Marc Gasol, Nikola Jokic, Danilo Gallinari, Enes Kanter, Marcin Gortat Ersan Ilyasova, Omar Asik, Andrea Bargnani, Nicolas Batum, Tony Parker, Serge Ibaka, Nikola Mirotic, and Sergio Llull. That is just the tip of the iceberg.

We’ll still be watching, but some of the drama has been sucked out of the event.

Kevin Durant gifted Warriors an absurdly good offseason

Ronald Martinez/Getty Images
3 Comments

I’m 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 Warriors’ 2016 offseason sent shockwaves through the league, sparking questions about competitive balance and whether the entire system required reform. Think about that for a moment. The Warriors’ summer of 2016 was so incredible, it became a referendum on the NBA itself.

We didn’t even fully understand how incredible it was until this summer.

Forget the attention and pressure. Ignore industry-specific factors, like who beat whom in the playoffs. The Warriors wooed Kevin Durant with many of the same reasons we choose jobs – pay, work environment, location. Durant picked a max salary from one of the NBA’s most successful teams in the trendy Bay Area. It was a reasonable decision.

Golden State followed that with an unreasonably good 2017 offseason.

The Warriors impressed Durant so much, they didn’t even need to pay the max to keep him.

Everything fell into place from there for Golden State, which secured its place as a budding dynasty. The defending champions enter next season even stronger.

Durant’s discount from his max salary ($34,682,550) to the Non-Bird Exception ($31,848,120) allowed the Warriors to retain Andre Iguodala‘s and Shaun Livingston‘s Bird Rights. Durant’s discount from the Non-Bird Exception to his actual salary ($25 million) effectively serves as a wealth transfer from the millionaire player to the team’s billionaire owners. His $6,848,120 concession, based on the current roster, will save Golden State more than $30 million in salary and luxury tax.

So, now the Warriors are more equipped to win and turn a bigger profit.

Stephen Curry re-signed on a five-year super-max deal, and he didn’t even get a player option. Golden Sate signed the NBA’s two best free agents, and the only drama was over just how team-friendly their contracts would be. At least Curry got every last dollar.

The Warriors also signed Nick Young (taxpayer mid-level exception) and Omri Casspi (minimum) – luxuries for a team already running circles around the rest of the league. Young has become a 3-point specialist who tries defensively, and he’ll provide excessive firepower in limited minutes behind Klay Thompson. A combo forward, Casspi fits well in the small-ball lineups Golden State has popularized.

Zaza Pachulia (Non-Bird Exception), David West (minimum) and JaVale McGee (minimum) re-signed. A formidable big-man rotation for less than most teams spend on a single moderately helpful center. The Warriors are just operating in a different world than everyone else.

Case in point, Jordan Bell. The Warriors paid the Bulls a record $3.5 million for the No. 38 pick to get Bell, a versatile defender who’s perfectly cast as Draymond Green‘s understudy. But because drafted players can count less toward the tax, signing a rookie free agent to a minimum deal instead of acquiring Bell would’ve cost Golden State $2,131,243 more in luxury tax. Deduct that from the $3.5 million and consider Bell’s talent, and it’s a clear win for Golden State.

The Warriors just keep getting all those moves, big and small, right.

The repeater tax and raises for Thompson and Green loom. Guaranteeing the 33-year-old Iguodala $48 million and 31-year-old Livingston $18 million limits flexibility. Teams don’t remain elite forever.

But Golden State is riding its wave – on and off the court – higher than maybe any team ever.

Offseason grade: A

Kevin Durant on pay cut: “It’s my money… I can do what the hell I want with it”

Getty Images
22 Comments

Kevin Durant told the Golden State Warriors he was going to save a little money this summer — then he saved them nearly $10 million, taking a pay cut from what he made last season ($1.5 million less) when he could have gotten a raise. It was all in the name of keeping a title team together while letting Stephen Curry, Andre Iguodala, and others get paid.

Durant took some criticism for this, mostly because there are people still bitter he joined the Warriors the year before. (If you say rings are the most important factor in a player’s legacy, then criticize him for going to the team where he’s most likely to win a ring, then sacrificing to keep that team together, you are a hypocrite.)

Durant addressed his pay cut in an interview with Anthony Slater for The Athletic Bay Area (which has put together a heck of a staff and is worth subscribing to).

DURANT: Well, I’m a smart guy and I want to keep this thing going and looking at Andre and Shaun (Livingston) and Steph (Curry) — they all should make the most money that they can make and get what they deserve. Because they were all underpaid and I knew at some point they’d want to get what they deserve. So I just took a step back and let the chips fall where they may. Then I took it in my hands. I wanted to keep the team together and I thought it was going to help the ownership bring all the guys back. And on top of that, it’s my money. It’s my decision. I can do what the hell I want with it.

Q: Were you surprised by some of the blowback?

DURANT: They only (criticized) it because it’s the Warriors and it’s me and they love to hate anything we do right now. A lot of players have (taken pay-cuts). It wasn’t that I wanted the praise. I’ve learned from Tim Duncan and Dirk Nowitzki and how it has helped them over the years and I thought, if they did it, why can’t I? Why shouldn’t I sacrifice? People wanted the money to break us up and I didn’t want that to happen.

Isn’t taking less and prioritizing winning what we want athletes to do? Yes, he makes a lot off his shoe deal (and winning rings will help raise his and his shoe’s profile), but there’s a mindset among many elite players to squeeze every dollar they can get out of ownership. Durant didn’t.

Durant could have opted out and gotten a contract starting at $34.7 million a year, but had said from the start he wouldn’t do that, he would save the team some money. It was expected he would take the max 20 percent raise the Warriors could give him off his old contract, which would have been at $31.6 million next season.

Instead, he signed a two-year, $53 million deal and will take a pay cut this year down to $25 million. That cap space allowed the Warriors to keep its core together — Andre Iguodala, Shaun Livingston, and Zaza Pachulia will be back, and the team added players such as Nick Young and Omri Casspi. The Warriors should be improved next season, better than the 67-win, NBA champion they just were. Durant’s sacrifice was part of that.

And if you don’t like it, he doesn’t care.