What the Spurs should do when the lockout ends…

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This is the next installment of PBT’s series of “What your team should do when the lockout ends.” Today it’s the San Antonio Spurs. You can also read up on the LakersTimberwolves and Mavericks as we start to work our way through all 30 NBA teams.

Last Season: Best team in the NBA until the last night of the season. Signature wins over every contending team. A renaissance year from Manu Ginobili, a return to good for Tony Parker, a quiet vintage year from Tim Duncan. Yes, it was a wonderful year for the Spurs. Right up until the playoffs started. Then it threw itself into the trash can, vomited, and fell asleep in its own wretch. The Spurs were a regular season beast that wilted in the playoffs. It was like the bizarro Spurs. There were signs, though, of the impending collapse. The Spurs’ defense wasn’t their strength, it was their offense that saw them through. And just as San Antonio showed so many teams in their prime, it’s defense that does in those regular season behemoths. The Spurs fell to Memphis in a flurry of interior scoring from Randolph and Gasol, and with Manu Ginobili not at full strength, they couldn’t overcome. Embarrassing, dispiriting, and ominous. So yeah, didn’t exactly end on a high note.

Changes since we last saw the Spurs: The only substantial change for the Spurs came on draft night. For years, George Hill has been the heir apparent to Tony Parker, filling it at point guard and running as shooting guard in a pinch. But the Spurs saw an opportunity and traded Hill to Indiana for the pick that netted them Kawhi Leonard. Other than that, it’s been Tony Parker and Ginobili playing in summer overseas competition and Tim Duncan receding into whatever statue-like state he spends his summers. The Spurs are in a relatively stable condition in terms of the cap, though that’s not a good thing after how their season ended. The extension they granted Richard Jefferson seems particularly concerning.

When the lockout ends, the Spurs need to…  Get back their identity. The Spurs won championships with defense, consistent but plodding offense, discipline, and rebounding. They have drifted too far towards what I refer to as “Matt Bonner Land.” Bonner’s an awesome guy. He’s also a huge defensive liability who can’t rebound and is only on the floor for this excellent three-point shooting. The Spurs need fewer Matt Bonners and more Fabricio Obertos (only healthy). Their focus needs to turn away from offense and back to defense. The offense will be there with the big three plus the supporting cast. But scheming for defense, even if it’s difficult given the specific talent on roster.

DeJuan Blair is facing a must-improve season. He’s a great offensive rebounder and can finish around the basket. He also gets overwhelmed on defense and has little idea of where to fit in on offense. He’s a sledgehammer in a scalpel kit. Richard Jefferson found his role last season, nailing corner threes and working as an auxiliary offensive option. If he were to, you know, not have an absolutely wretched postseason, he might be worth the money he’s owed.

The bigger question for the Spurs may be answering the question of whether they’re through or not. Tony Parker denied saying that the window was closed, but all of the Big Three have been honest and upfront about the short timespan they have left. If making another run is imperative, the Spurs need a makeover, immediately. Otherwise, they’ll just be treading water when the lockout ends, going through the motions.

Birthday boy Karl-Anthony Towns giving Timberwolves even more reason to celebrate

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Tom Thibodeau is gone. Jimmy Butler is gone. Karl-Anthony Towns has taken greater ownership with the Timberwolves.

Towns organizes team-building activities like Topgolf and a halloween party. Towns gives the pump-up speech before each game. Towns communicates more on the floor.

That’s why, Towns said, he didn’t even realize his birthday was approaching until his parents recently reminded him.

“I get caught up in work,” Towns said.

Whether or not Towns actually needed the reminder, let alone for such a flattering reason, his birthday – which is today – got him reflecting. He felt old.

So, Towns mentioned to Timberwolves coach Ryan Saunders that his birthday was around the corner. Saunders had the opposite realization: Towns is turning 24 today. Just 24!

“He’s still young,” Saunders said. “As a coach, that gets me excited.”

Towns is one of the NBA’s special talents – a proven star with room to improve. Picking up the momentum he built last season, Towns appears to be really coming into his own this year.

The center is posting his usual impressive numbers (25.8 points and 12.0 rebounds per game), but his new attitude has stolen the show. He fought Joel Embiid and went face-to-face with Rudy Gay.

Don’t let the antics completely overshadow an impressive basketball story, though. Towns has led Minnesota to a surprising 7-4 start by revamping his game. Most of his shots are coming from beyond the arc, and his 4.2 assists per game are a career high.

By creating spacing and keeping the ball moving, Towns is contributing to a style that lifts all the Timberwolves. Perhaps, nobody has benefited more than Andrew Wiggins, who’s fitting right into this modern look.

The transformation is only the latest chapter for Towns, whose reputation has fluctuated significantly throughout his five-year career. This might explain why he already feels so old:

Minnesota drafted Towns No. 1 in 2015, and he won Rookie of the Year. In the 2016 and 2017 NBA general-manager survey, a plurality of voting executives picked Towns as the player they’d most like to start a team with. In the 2017 survey, Towns also received the most votes for league’s best center (even while getting a couple votes as league’s best power forward).

On paper, Towns delivered. He made his first All-Star and All-NBA teams the following season. He also reached the playoffs for the first time.

But Thibodeau and Butler butted heads with Towns, who never showed the hard edge those former Bulls tried to coax from him. After trading Butler, Minnesota went right back to losing.

In the 2018 and 2019 surveys, no general manager picked Towns to start a team with. Only a few picked him as best center.

Now, the landscape has shifted again. Anthony Davis spends a lot of time at power forward. Joel Embiid doesn’t stay as healthy. Nikola Jokic has fallen way off.

Towns is the early frontrunner for All-NBA first-team center.

“Everybody takes big steps in their growth at different times,” Saunders said, “and I think we’re seeing that from Karl.”

Towns can’t take anything for granted, and neither can the Timberwolves. But he at least has a good chance for vindication after his preseason playoff talk.

The way Towns has implemented more 3-point shooting into his game is particularly impressive. His 9.0 attempts per game lead NBA bigs, and he’s converting more than 40%. But floating on the perimeter was once a sign Towns was being too passive. Now, Towns is finding the right balance between spotting up beyond the arc and playing aggressively.

That’s in part his own mentality changing, in part his teammates’ mentality changing. Gone are the days when Towns could be an afterthought outside the paint.

“The ball is always going to find KAT,” Timberwolves guard Josh Okogie said. “He’s the center of our offense.”

Towns’ defensive intensity still comes and goes. He still must prove himself in the playoffs, and that usually requires trials and tribulations he hasn’t yet experienced.

But at age 24, Towns is finally/already showing something special.

DeAndre’ Bembry gets ejected for taunting Ricky Rubio, continued talking (video)

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The Hawks are rapidly changing. General manager Travis Schlenk took over just two years ago and has already turned over nearly the entire roster. Only DeAndre’ Bembry remains as an inherited player.

It’s not an easy situation for Bembry, who’s headed toward free agency next summer. He’s playing for a team with a lead executive who never chose him. Bembry can’t count on any team investing in him.

That’s the context in which Bembry got ejected from Atlanta’s loss to the Suns last night. He blocked Ricky Rubio‘s shot, taunted the Phoenix guard, got a technical foul, kept talking and got another technical foul.

The ejection seems pretty weak, but Bembry left himself vulnerable to the techs.

Hawks rookie Cameron Reddish also got ejected for multiple flagrant fouls.

Eric Bledsoe apparently bothered Bulls with post-buzzer dunk (video)

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Eric Bledsoe doesn’t care about the rules – written or unwritten.

As the buzzer sounded in the Bucks’ 124-115 win over the Bulls yesterday, Bledsoe dunked then hung on the rim. The basket came after time expired and didn’t count.

Bulls forward Thaddeus Young and coach Jim Boylen confronted Bledsoe on the court:

Young, via K.C. Johnson of NBC Sports Chicago:

“We all know what it is,” Young said. “They had the game won. There are some things you just don’t do at the end of games just out of common courtesy. We’ll move on. It is what it is. It happened. We just have to be ready when we play them in four or five days. We gotta be ready to get a win.”

“That’s with any team that cares about the morals and principles of the game,” Young said. “If we did that and the score was the opposite, they’d say the same thing. It is what it is. We just gotta be ready in four or five days. We gotta get a win. That’s the only way we can follow it back up now.”

Usually, I’d say: If you don’t like it, stop it. But that doesn’t really apply for a post-game dunk. There’s no defense after the buzzer.

Still, I’m not outraged by Bledsoe’s dunk. I bet, aside from Bulls partisans, most people aren’t (though plenty could work themselves into a tizzy if they desire). Some of Chicago’s bitterness probably stemmed from losing and allowing Bledsoe to score 31 points on 12-of-12 shooting inside the arc.

If the Bulls want to use this as motivation, more power to them. They should. Young, whose professionalism appears exemplary, is an ideal messenger.

But Boylen, who wouldn’t comment on this to the media, can’t claim the moral high ground.

Magic reveal orange uniforms

(Stephen M. Dowell/Orlando Sentinel/Tribune News Service via Getty Images
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It’s already difficult enough to flip on an NBA game and quickly determine which team is which. The home team could be wearing any color, so the same is true of road teams. Each team has had so many alternate jerseys in recent years. It’s disorienting.

Now, the Magic – whose primary colors have always been and remain blue, black, white and gray – might be wearing orange?

At least Orlando, because of the fruit (and, I guess, if you want to stretch it, sunshine), has a real connection to orange. That’s why these are the “orange uniforms,” even though they’re mostly gray.

I just beg of the powers that be: Please don’t have the Magic wear these against the Suns. I’ll never figure out which team is which.