Don’t look now, but the Spurs are good

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With all the talk about the Celtics, the Lakers, the Hornets, and the Heat going on right now, it’s pretty easy not to notice that the 8-1 San Antonio Spurs have the league’s second-best record. The Spurs haven’t had a very tough schedule, of course, and didn’t have a signature win on their record until last weekend’s thrashing of the Oklahoma City Thunder.

Still, the story of the Spurs’ early success isn’t just about the fact that they’ve been winning games — it’s how they’ve been winning them that’s really interesting. The Spurs have been winning by scoring buckets at a breakneck pace, and they’ve pushed the ball more while relying on the aging Tim Duncan less and less.

Traditionally, San Antonio basketball has been built around three pillars — defense, methodical play, and Tim Duncan. But this season, the Spurs have been running and gunning. The Spurs aren’t a bad defensive team — they’re currently 8th in the league in defensive efficiency, mostly thanks to Duncan — but defense hasn’t been their main strength so far. Instead, it’s been the offense that’s carried the team. The Spurs are 5th in the league in offensive efficiency and 3rd in points per game, with Tony Parker, Manu Ginobili, and Richard Jefferson all off to blistering starts.

Even though none of those three players are getting any younger, the Spurs are still longer, more athletic, and more skilled on the perimeter than most teams are, and they’ve taken advantage of that by pushing the ball more than they ever have before. In 2007-08, the Spurs were 28th in pace factor. In 08-09, they were 27th. Last season, they were 20th. This year, the Spurs are currently playing at the sixth-fastest pace in the league — they play a full 2.6 possessions “faster” per game than the Suns (who rank 14th in pace factor) do, to give you some context.

Even though Duncan is still vital to the Spurs’ success, especially on defense, and the Spurs’ youth movement hasn’t really been blossoming (George Hill, Tiago Splitter, and DeJuan Blair are all off to slow starts), the Spurs’ early success has to be heartening for Spurs fans wondering what life will be like as Duncan gets closer and closer to the twilight years of his career. If the Spurs can keep playing the way they have, they’ll be a dangerous playoff team. If taking the load off Duncan in the regular season allows him to play like the Tim Duncan we’ve all come to know come playoff time, watch out.

After hip surgery, Isaiah Thomas not 100 percent for start of Denver training camp

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Isaiah Thomas didn’t want to have surgery at first — he was coming up on a contract summer and the point guard who was fifth in the MVP voting just two seasons ago wanted to prove he was still the same guy. That he deserved to get paid. But after missing the start of the season in Cleveland with a torn labrum in his hip, getting traded to the Lakers, never being himself and being a below average player last season, Thomas decided to get the surgery on his hip last April. He eventually signed a minimum contract with the Denver Nuggets.

He is still not 100 percent at the start of training camp, coach Mark Malone said on Altitude TV, via Chris Dempsey. Sam Amick adds that it may be a while before we see Thomas in action.

That has the Nuggets adding to their training camp roster in the short term.

The Nuggets are a team looking to make a playoff push this season (and if Paul Millsap can stay healthy and improve the team’s defense they should make it, even in the brutal West). Thomas — a healthy Thomas — boosting the Denver bench is part of that. However, Thomas is the poster child for why one doesn’t play through injuries or rush back on the court, there is potential long-term damage that is hard on the body and can be hard on the wallet.

Denver can wait, and if Thomas can be Thomas whenever he gets back, it could be a good fit in Denver.

Lonzo Ball will not be cleared for 5-on-5 at start of Lakers’ training camp

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Lonzo Ball called having surgery on his knee this summer a “last option” — he had a PRP injection first — but ultimately didn’t have a choice. He’s spent a lot of his summer on recovery from his surgery, a partial removal of his meniscus.

When training camp opens, Ball will not be cleared to go 5-on-5, Lakers’ coach Luke Walton said on the Lakers’ cable station in Los Angeles, reports Mike Bresnahan.

Ball has been working on conditioning and getting stronger this summer, plus has undoubtedly tweaked his shot. However, it takes time to recover from a knee operation, and the Lakers have no reason to rush him back.

 

Things have changed this season for Ball and all of the Lakers’ young core. With LeBron James in-house, Los Angeles is a win-now team and all the young Lakers need to prove they can contribute to that today, there is now more patience for slow development. Ball needs to prove he can play well off the ball (he did that at UCLA) and that he has become more of a scoring threat, both with his jumper and finishing around the rim. His ability to move the rock and play at pace can fit with LeBron and the Lakers’ game, but the Lakers are not going to wait around while that slowly develops. It’s sink or swim time, especially for Ball with Rajon Rondo on the roster and Josh Hart looking all-world at Summer League.

PBT Podcast: Can anyone beat the Golden State Warriors?

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Can any team beat the two-time defending champion Golden State Warriors this season?

It could happen, although the Warriors will need to participate in their own downfall, one way or another — an injury to Stephen Curry or Kevin Durant, the lack of regular season focus finally catching up with them, or maybe they become too focused on free agency the next summer. But just how likely is any of that to happen?

Mark Medina of the San Jose Mercury News, and host of the Planet Dubs podcast, joins us to break down how Steve Kerr will work to keep that downfall from happening, how he will keep this team focused, what DeMarcus Cousins means to the roster, and what it will take for the Warriors to three-peat — and what can trip them up.

As always, you can check out the podcast below, listen and subscribe via iTunes at ApplePodcasts.com/PBTonNBC, subscribe via the fantastic Stitcher app, check us out on Google play, or check out the NBC Sports Podcast homepage and archive at Art19.

Brett Brown on Ben Simmons: ‘His jump shot’s not going to define him’

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) Ben Simmons and Markelle Fultz are expected this season to join Philadelphia’s Big Three.

No, not as franchise cornerstones – the No. 1 draft picks were already part of that trio with All-Star center Joel Embiid.

But as long-distance shooters, Simmons and Fultz went 0 for the season on 3s; Simmons, the NBA rookie of the year, missed all 11 attempts and Fultz went 0 for 1 from 3-point range.

Sixers coach Brett Brown said both players have put in the work needed on their jumpers, though neither player will ever become defined by his work beyond the arc. Brown said Fultz took about 150,000 shots this summer under the tutelage of trainer Drew Hanlen. Simmons has worked with his brother, Liam, a former college basketball assistant coach, at 3s and shooting from the elbow.

Simmons attempted just one 3 in the postseason and he’ll have to establish some sort of long-range jumper to become a serious all-around threat in the NBA.

“His jump shot’s not going to define him,” Brown said Tuesday. “At some point, it will sure help. But I have aspirations, ambitions for him where I want him to feature on an all-defensive team. I personally want to post him more. I look forward to using him as a screener and giving Markelle the ball and let him roll out of it, that Blake Griffin-sort of half-roll and go to dunk.”

Simmons also needed work on his free throws: He made 191 of 341 for just 56 percent.

“Imagine if he can score one more point, it translates to like three to five more wins,” Brown said. “When I look at how you’re going to do that, that’s one way that interests me, let’s just get him more free throws. Can you finish, can you be a better free-throw shooter than you were in the regular season? He has to be.”

Fultz, the No. 1 pick of the 2017 draft, is bordering on bust territory after just one season. His rookie year was derailed by a mysterious shoulder injury, a broken shot and confidence issues. He played the first four games, missed 68 games because of injury, and then was benched in the playoffs against the Celtics. The most baffling moment came when he refused to answer questions about his shoulder, simply staring blankly ahead and rubbing his head.

Fultz struggled with his mechanics when he did play, and his shooting form was widely mocked around the NBA. No one in the organization could pinpoint when Fultz’s form went awry, though he started experiencing soreness shortly after he was drafted.

Brown said he was part of a “Team Markelle” formed this summer to help get the 20-year-old back on track.

“When I see him now come back into our gym, you look at his swagger, his cocky side, his mojo, he’s seeking shots,” Brown said. “He really is not bashful. When I look at the actual form, there are times, from a posture standpoint, he’s a little bit backward. When you look at him rising up, or getting the ball in his shot pocket, sometimes his head will go back and he’ll play more in a fade-type fundamental that we want to try and correct.”

But if Simmons can’t shoot and Fultz can’t shoot, then how are they going to play together on a Sixers team that won 52 games last season?

“At (some) point of the game, is it the start, is it ending, those two guys will play together,” Brown said. “There’s zero doubt we’ll go through some growing pains as everyone expects and should expect.”

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