NBA season preview: San Antonio Spurs

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Last Season: A classic, and what we’ve largely come to expect from these Spurs over the last five years — achieving regular season success, making a dent in the playoffs, but ultimately falling short of a title.

San Antonio finished tied for the league’s best record, then swept its way through the first two rounds of the playoffs — building an 18-game winning streak in the process — before being dropped by the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals.

Key Departures: None.

Key Additions: The Spurs continue to be the model franchise in terms of bringing in international players, and French guard Nando de Colo — who the team actually drafted back in 2009 — is already paying dividends in the preseason.

Three keys to the Spurs season: 

1) The San Antonio Spurs are now known for their offense: It’s true. The Spurs led the league in offensive efficiency last season at a blistering 108.5 points per 100 possessions — and 1.4 points ahead of the team in second in that category, the explosive Oklahoma City Thunder. Even more surprising was how they did it — without a 20 points per game scorer, and with just four players averaging in double figures. No regression can be tolerated if the expectation is to remain in the top tier of the Western Conference.

2) Is Kawhi Leonard as good as Gregg Popovich thinks he is? Popovich is one of the best coaches in the league, but one with a hard-nosed reputation that doesn’t include a history of heaping undeserved praise on his players. When it comes to Leonard, however, Pop had no problem telling the world he believes that the player entering just his second NBA season will be the face of the team and a star in the future.

Leonard played well for the Spurs in his rookie season, but did his damage on the defensive end of the floor; 10 of his teammates posted higher points-per-game scoring averages than Leonard’s 7.9, in a balanced San Antonio offense that was the league’s best. If Leonard progresses toward showing the rest of us the star potential that Popovich already sees in him, the Spurs could be even better than last year.

3) Championship or bust: This may seem like an unfair expectation to place on San Antonio, especially when you consider they’re playing in a conference that features a newly-stacked Lakers team, along with a Thunder squad that had little trouble with them in the playoffs a season ago. But when you look at just how consistently Gregg Popovich is able to put together a team that competes near the top of the standings, it’s only natural to want to see them progress to the next level.

What Spurs fans should fear: That the team is already squeezing as much as it can out of its existing roster of talent. If that’s the case, that’s fine — there’s nothing wrong with being one of the top four teams in the entire league. But if the ceiling has been hit, there’s no room there for the team to make that leap back into the championship conversation.

Prediction: It wouldn’t be a surprise to see the Spurs at or very near the top of the regular season standings once again. All the key rotation players are back, and Popovich should have them playing to potential earlier than a Lakers team with large new pieces to try to fit together. San Antonio is going to be very tough to deal with all year long, and if there’s something left once the postseason begins — along with a renewed commitment to defense — the Spurs could be right there at the end, playing for a spot in the Finals once again.

Watch Stephen Curry’s mother Sonya hit underhand half-court shot

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Sonya Curry wins the game of H-O-R-S-E.

It’s all things Curry at All-Star weekend in Charlotte. Father Dell Demps has his number hanging from the rafters in the Spectrum Center (and is now the Hornets’ broadcast color commentator). Stephen Curry is coming home and will play in the big game, his brother Seth Curry will go up against him in the three-point contest.

And the shot of the weekend may go to Sonya Curry, who drained an underhand half-courter to win a family shootout at the unveiling of a refurbished at a community center in Charlotte during All-Star weekend.

Sonya may have the shot of the weekend. I’d say no way Stephen can hit that shot, but I think we all know better.

 

Russell Westbrook doesn’t sound enthused about being All-Star teammate of Joel Embiid

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CHARLOTTE – Is Russell Westbrook cool with Joel Embiid? “F— no,” Westbrook famously said.

Embiid committed a hard foul on Westbrook in the Thunder’s win over the 76ers last month, and Westbrook wasn’t letting it go.

Giannis Antetokounmpo said he wanted to pick both players in the All-Star draft, help them resolve their conflict. Instead, Westbrook and Embiid both wound up on LeBron James‘ All-Star team.

Rob Perez of The Action Network:

Embiid:

I don’t care. To me, the whole situation is fine. Who cares? I’m willing to do whatever, but when we get on the court as opponents, I don’t care. I don’t like him. I don’t like anybody, anybody else. But if we’re on the same team, I’m willing to work it out.

Westbrook:

Next question, champ.

A couple years ago, Westbrook-Kevin Durant was the big intra-All-Star-team rivalry. But they still connected on an alley-oop during the game.

I bet Westbrook and Embiid will connect just fine on the court tomorrow. Still, I’ll be watching those two closely.

Anthony Davis: “I never said Boston wasn’t on my list”

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. — If anyone came into All-Star weekend expecting some clarity on Anthony Davis’ situation and where he will play next, they came away sadly disappointed.

Saturday, Davis made things even murkier by throwing the door open to more possiblities.

First, Davis was asked about the leaked list of his preferred destinations — Lakers, Knicks, Bucks, Clippers — and if that was accurate.

“That list that came out, it’s between my agent and the Pelicans,” Davis said, but then added:

“It’s true.”

That list never included Boston, which now is one of the front-runners to be able to trade for him.

“They are on my list, I never said Boston wasn’t on my list,” Davis said.

So, is Boston on your list?

“I never said they wasn’t on my list,” he reiterated.

It went around like that in a circle for a while. When asked about the Knicks being on his list specifically he praised them.

“It’s a great franchise. Playing in, obviously, the Garden, the city,” Davis said, but then he pivoted to a theme he stuck with all day. “But Milwaukee was on that list too. It doesn’t matter about big market, small market. It’s about winning for me.”

Later, on NBA TV, Davis said all 29 other NBA teams were on his list, which felt like him trying to cover himself after his earlier comments. Rather than coming into media day Saturday with a prepared set answer for the inevitable trade questions, Davis seemed to wing it. He was open, but also did muddied the waters.

“I’m just keeping it real, to be honest,” Davis said. “I knew that’s all you guys (the assembled media) wanted to talk about. I just stated how I feel, stated my intentions, and we’ll go on from there.”

One thing Davis was clear about, saying it multiple times through the day, was that winning was his priority — over market size, money, or anything else.

“I don’t know how long I’m going to get to play the game, I want to be able to win. No matter where it is. I have no preferred destination,” Davis said. “I just felt it was time for me to move forward, take charge of my career, and try to win.”

That winning wasn’t happening in New Orleans, which is why a few weeks before the trade deadline his agent, Rich Paul, reached out to the Pelicans, told them Davis would not re-sign with the team and gave them a list of preferred destinations. Paul then leaked the trade request to the media, which both got Davis fined and turned the entire thing into a full-on circus.

Every move Davis makes now is scrutinized as media and fans try to read the tea leaves of his intentions. He’s also been booed by his hometown fans, the first real negativity he has faced in his career.

“That doesn’t bother me,” Davis said. “I have a great team around me making sure I’m fine, always checking on me, there to support me. There’s only a handful of people whose opinions matter to me.”

He also just avoids NBA Twitter.

“The biggest thing, especially nowadays, is social media. I stay off social media, nobody’s opinion (there) matters to me,” Davis said.

The scrutiny even extends to All-Star weekend in Charlotte. For Sunday’s game, LeBron James drafted a team full of potential free agents — Davis, Kevin Durant, Klay Thompson, Kyrie Irving, Kawhi Leonard — which led to jokes even on the All-Star draft show about tampering. How much are the players talking about their futures with each other?

“Zero,” Davis said. “All that tampering stuff that comes out in the media, nobody really talks about that. At least not to me… When I’m around we talk about games more than anything. We talk about how it’s hard to play in Denver, the air up there, things like that.”

Davis said his plan is to play in the All-Star Game despite leaving the last game before the break with what has been diagnosed as a shoulder contusion, although he will see how he feels on Sunday.

Beyond that, the plan the rest of the season is much the same.

“My intent is to play, to continue to play. And that’s it…

“My job is to play these final 20-something games in New Orleans, then we’ll see where it goes from there,” Davis said.

Mike Conley returns to All-Star Weekend 11 years later, but still not as All-Star

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CHARLOTTE – Mike Conley arrived about 15 minutes late to his press conference this morning. He said arena personnel initially didn’t allow him in, forcing him to go around until someone let him through.

It’s the story of his career and getting to All-Star.

“Just going to make me go around in circles until one day letting me in, right?” Conley said.

The Grizzlies point guard is widely recognized as the best active player never to be an All-Star. But Conley – who will compete in the Skills Challenge tonight – is back at All-Star Weekend for the first time since his rookie year, when he played in the 2008 Rookie Challenge.

Back then, Conley was still hyped as the No. 4 pick in the 2007 draft. He figured the Rookie Challenge would be just the start of many trips to All-Star Weekend. But he didn’t progress in his second season enough to get picked for even the sophomore team in the Rookie Challenge.

“It was tough,” Conley said. “The first year you get invited, you feel like you’re doing good things. The second year, you don’t get invited, and it’s frustrating.”

“But stuff like that helped drive you a little bit, helped give you that motivation to put yourself out there again and hopefully one day you’ll be coming back as an All-Star.”

Time is running out.

Conley will be in his 13th season next year. Nobody has ever made their first All-Star game that late in their career. Kyle Korver (2015 Hawks), Tyson Chandler (2013 Knicks) and Vlade Divac (2001 Kings) first became All-Stars in their 12th seasons.

So, Conley made his way to Charlotte for the Skills Challenge this year. He fondly recalls his dad – Mike Conley Sr., an Olympic gold-medal triple jumper – taking him to events as a kid and getting pictures with him and famous people. Conley said he has already gotten pictures this weekend of his children with Fabolous, Russell Westbrook and Chris Paul.

The vacation also timed up well for Conley, who was subject of numerous rumors before last week’s trade deadline. Memphis traded Marc Gasol to the Raptors but kept Conley.

“I just needed a break from all the hoopla and trade rumors and trade talks, and just get away, get my family out here, try to have fun with these guys and experience something other than reading Twitter and Instagram about where I’m going to be at next, “Conley said.

Conley called All-Star Weekend “a big party” and said he particularly appreciated the camaraderie with fellow players. Even in a crowd of stars, Conley stands out.

“The players really respect me and every one of them, like, ‘Man, I can’t believe you haven’t been an All-Star. You should be one. You should have been one this year,'” Conley said. “It’s the same thing over and over. But it’s cool to know they at least recognize it.”

Is there something special about being known as the best player in the game who hasn’t been an All-Star?

“I’d rather have just been an All-Star,” Conley said.