The Extra Pass: Behind San Antonio’s hot start and Monday’s recaps

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At least in the standings, the San Antonio Spurs are as good as they’ve ever been.

By walloping the New Orleans Pelicans on Monday, San Antonio tied their franchise best for a start to the season. The Spurs are 13-1 now and winners of 11 straight games.

What can you say? I ran out of adjectives to describe the Spurs about, oh, four years ago. They know who they are, and you know who they are.

If it’s possible, though, the Spurs have been almost more…Spurs-ish this season. Here’s a look at the numbers behind their hot start:

1. No Spurs player is averaging over 30 minutes a game right now.

I’m not sure if any team has done that over an entire season, but the Grizzlies came close in 2004, with only Pau Gasol averaging over 30 minutes a game. If you find a team that hasn’t had a single player average over 30 minutes a game, drop it in the comments and I’ll name you the Extra Pass commenter of the week or something equally free.

While you’d expect Parker to get over 30 minutes a game by season’s end, it’s still incredible that a 13-1 team is barely using their best players.

2. San Antonio’s net rating (offensive rating of points per 100 possessions minus defensive rating) is 13.9. The fourth best team in that category is the Houston Rockets. They have a net rating of 6.4.

Maybe we need to bust out some 1984 newspeak for the Spurs. They’re doubleplus good! San Antonio’s point differential is +12.1 on the season, and they’re the only team in double-digits in that category this year.

3. The Spurs lead the league in defensive rebounding percentage. Tim Duncan is having his worst rebounding year of his career so far.

The Spurs have been rolling with Duncan stuck in neutral. Duncan is shooting an uncharacteristic 38.9 percent, and per 36 minutes he’s averaging career lows in points per game, rebounds per game and free throw attempts per game. He’s been pretty bad, all things told, and it doesn’t matter.

Kawhi Leonard is quietly filling in the cracks for the Spurs. Duncan isn’t cleaning the defensive glass as well, so Leonard is rebounding at a career-high rate. Manu Ginobili’s scoring is down, so Leonard’s is up.

And he’s doing all of that while not saying a word or showing any ounce of emotion. Have you ever seen Kawhi Leonard’s teeth? You have not.

When the time comes for the Spurs to turn a new leaf, Leonard will be perfect as the new face of the franchise. Very clearly, though, that time isn’t upon us yet.

—D.J. Foster

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Celtics 96, Bobcats 86: This was an ugly game with some fairly sizable swings, and the Celtics managed to be the ones still standing when all was said and done. Each team held a lead of double digits at one point in this one, but Boston maintained control throughout the fourth to come away with the victory. Jordan Crawford had the big night for the Celtics, finishing with 21 points on 11 shots in 28 minutes of action. —Brett Pollakoff

Pacers 98, Timberwolves 84: Minnesota continued its struggles on the road, while the Pacers kept on proving that they’re one of the league’s best teams. A strong start got Indiana out to a 12-point lead in the first quarter, behind eight early points from Paul George. And then a 14-2 run to open the fourth helped Indiana pull away for its 13th win in 14 tries this season. The Pacers got big games from Paul George and George Hill who contributed 26 points apiece, while the Timberwolves shot just 29-of-89 from the field and 3-of-19 from three-point distance which ultimately doomed their chances. —BP

Pistons 113, Bucks 94: The Bucks are a complete disaster right now, and though injuries have played a part in their recent demise, the overall lack of talent on the roster is becoming painfully evident with each passing game. The Pistons have struggled themselves this season, and improved to just 6-8 with this victory. But they were able to get out to a lead of as many as 34 points against this terrible Milwaukee squad, behind 15 points and 13 assists from Brandon Jennings who was one of seven Detroit players that finished the game in double figures.—BP

Heat 107, Suns 92: Phoenix was playing its fifth straight game without Eric Bledsoe, who continues to be sidelined with a bruised shin injury. We’re not sure his presence would have mattered against the defending champs, considering LeBron James was able to pour in 35 points on just 14 shots and Dwyane Wade was similarly efficient with 21 points and 12 assists on 9-of-13 shooting. The foundation is being laid in Phoenix, however, as the effort put forth by the team along with its propensity to consistently pass up decent shots for better ones will undoubtedly pay dividends in the future.—BP

Rockets 93, Grizzlies 86: James Harden sat this one out with a sore left foot, and Marc Gasol is out for a while after suffering an MCL sprain. That meant a balanced attack from the players that were left, and it took a monster fourth quarter from Houston to come away with the victory. The Rockets outscored the Grizzlies by 15 points in the final period behind a 14-of-20 shooting effort. Omri Casspi had 11 in the fourth and Chandler Parsons had nine on 4-of-4 shooting to help Houston pull away over a Grizzlies team that fell to just 7-7 on the season.—BP

Nuggets 110, Mavericks 96: The Nuggets have swept a home against Dallas and have moved above .500 — they may be finding their groove under Brian Shaw. This was a close game for the first half then in the third quarter Ty Lawson put up 13 of his 19 on the night to pull the Nuggets ahead. Dallas made some runs in the fourth but Nate Robinson answered all of them on his way to 17 points. It was vintage Nate. Monta Ellis had 22 for Dallas and continued his run or strong play.—Kurt Helin

 Spurs 112, Pelicans 93: Imagine how good the Spurs are going to be when Tim Duncan gets going. Not to knock Duncan, his offense is off to a slow start (just 7 points in this one) but his defense seemed to bother Anthony Davis on the night and the New Orleans star to 3-of-8 shooting. The Spurs defense was on fire all night, holding the Pelicans to 38 percent shooting (and that bumped up from around 33 percent with a late little run). The Spurs did it with balance — seven players in double figures.—KH

Jazz 89, Bulls 83 (OT): This was Black Monday for the Bulls — in the morning they officially lose Derrick Rose for the season, at night they lose to the Jazz (who are now 2-14). Chicago is just struggling to create offense with Rose out (not surprisingly), Luol Deng had 24 and is the guy the Bulls went to late, but he is the only guy who can get shots consistently. Give Utah some credit too — Marvin Williams had 17, while rookie Trey Burke showed some real confidence on his way to 14 points (on 17 shots, but cut the kid some slack). —KH

Trail Blazers 102, Knicks 91: Face the fourth best offense in the NBA this young season with the struggling Knicks defense without Tyson Chandler and this was pretty predictable. Portland went on a 22-6 run that started midway through the first quarter to pull away, and the game was never really in doubt after that. Nicolas Batum had 23 points on 12 shots and along with Damian Lillard (23 points also) had his way with the Knicks defense. Carmelo Anthony had 34 points and 15 rebounds but he alone can only carry the Knicks so far.—KH

As expected, Denver’s Wilson Chandler to opt into $12.8 million next season

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Wilson Chandler played a workmanlike role for the Nuggets last season — more than 30 minutes a game (in 74 games), 10 points a night, shot 35.8 percent from three. His efficiency and value slipped from previous seasons but he still played a role for the team.

Not the kind of role that’s going to earn him a big payday as a free agent, so he will opt into the $12.8 million for next season, a story broken by Chris Haynes of ESPN.

Denver Nuggets forward Wilson Chandler will exercise his player option for the 2018-19 season, league sources tell ESPN.

Chandler, 31, is opting into a $12.8 million salary instead of entering free agency this summer. Denver was notified of his decision on Friday.

Chandler’s name has come up in trade discussions in recent years, and no doubt the Nuggets would be happy to move his salary now, too. However, in a tight financial market it’s unlikely that’s happening without Denver throwing in a sweetener, and that’s not likely either. So it will be another season of Chandler in Denver.

Deandre Ayton arrives as symbol that Suns are on the rise

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PHOENIX (AP) — Since the heady days of Steve Nash came to an end, there have been few signs of joy from a dwindling fan base that watched the Phoenix Suns tumble to the bottom of the NBA standings and miss the playoffs for the eighth year in a row.

Then came the announcement that Deandre Ayton would go to the Suns with the first overall pick. A huge cheer went up from the several thousand fans at Talking Stick Resort Arena on Thursday night for the draft party. General manager Ryan McDonough, owner Robert Sarver and coach Igor Kokoskov came out of their meeting room to watch and bask in that rare moment of sheer joy from the fans.

“It was a pretty special moment for our franchise,” McDonough said.

Not only that, but McDonough engineered a last-minute trade for swingman Mikal Bridges of Villanova, the 10th pick. It was a spendy move because Philadelphia demanded and got Miami’s unprotected 2021 first-round pick. But the Suns are weary of stockpiling assets. It’s time to cash in, they figured, and did it with that trade.

“We weighed the pros and cons of trading it heavily and carefully,” McDonough said. “We were only going to put it in play if we had a chance to get a special player and that’s how we feel about McKell.”

All four of the Suns’ picks showed up on a crowded dais in Phoenix on Friday – Ayton, Bridges, French point guard Elie Okobo (chosen 31st) and forward George King of Colorado (the 59th selection).

The 7-foot-1 Ayton towered over the others, in a white unbuttoned collared shirt and a sharp blue suit, but he looked and sounded a bit weary from the whirlwind of being the No. 1 draft pick. His only sleep lately, he said, was a couple of hours on the plane ride from New York on Tuesday.

“I’m just excited to finally get a jersey on and be able to play five-on-five again,” Ayton said.

Ayton had been the frontrunner for the No. 1 pick ever since the draft lottery and any doubts were erased when he went through an individual workout with the Suns, the only team which he did so.

McDonough said that Ayton’s workout “in and of itself was as impressive as I’ve ever seen in my 16 drafts in the NBA.”

Ayton is seen as strictly a center, so how does he fit in the modern style of the NBA, when center plays is diminished and players are essentially interchangeable, is a question. Ayton replied that he’s no ordinary center.

“I don’t like it when people think I’m just a guy down low,” he said. “They haven’t watched me shoot the basketball.”

Ayton and Bridges say they got to know each other well at the college awards ceremony in Los Angeles but never figured they’d be on the same team.

“It’s like I’ve known him my whole life,” Bridges said.

Now comes the hard work, molding a team with Ayton, Devin Booker and Josh Jackson. A billboard of those three already has been erected downtown.

The Suns, so bad for so long, seem on the brink of being relevant.

“We’re very hungry,” Ayton said. “I think the great team chemistry and the work ethic that we have, especially us guys coming in, we’re going to bring it to the next level. We’ve got young lets. We can run all day. … We can really start a winning legacy.”

And Ayton is the reason for the sudden leap in optimism, even though he won’t turn 20 until next month.

“I embrace it a lot,” he said of the expectations placed upon him. “Through my career I’ve always had that on my shoulder, the expectations. I represent a whole nation (Bahamas) I just do that the best that I can and just help this community start over and be the best player I can possibly be. I just want to be the best great player.”

Kokoskov says Ayton possesses “a unique talent for the decades.”

Ayton said he wants “to be the best person on and off the court.”

Now the Suns move on to the next phase. Free agency starts July 1 and McDonough wants some veteran players to add to this very young core. He said the team should have $15 million to $20 million to spend.

“We were aggressive last night with the picks and the trade up to get Mikal,” McDonough said. “We’re going to continue to be aggressive for the next couple of weeks in free agency. We’ve got some money to spend and we’re looking to spend it on the best players we can get.”

Hornets GM Kupchak: Kemba Walker focal point of franchise going forward

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CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — General manager Mitch Kupchak wants point guard Kemba Walker to end his NBA career right where it started — with the Charlotte Hornets.

Kupchak said Friday that Walker is “revered” in the Charlotte community, and that he and owner Michael Jordan look at the two-time All-Star as “the focal point of this franchise going forward.”

The 28-year-old Walker has been the subject of possible NBA trade talks as he prepares to enter the final year of his contract with the Hornets. That speculation has amped up recently because it is a practical impossibility for Charlotte to sign Walker to an extension before he becomes a free agent in July of 2019 since the Hornets are so tight under the salary cap.

“I think everybody is aware of the situation, if you follow basketball a little bit, it is unique that he is on an extension that may make it a challenge going forward to figure out before he becomes a free agent,” Kupchak said.

At $12 million per year, Walker well underpaid when compared to the other top point guards in the league.

But that doesn’t mean Kupchak is giving up hope the team can keep Walker in Charlotte.

“I don’t think it is anybody’s goal to lose him in free agency,” Kupchak said. “But going forward, in the community, in the franchise, this is a player that we hope is with us – not only for the next couple of years, but ends his career here.”

The Hornets don’t have much experience behind Walker at point guard.

They have last year’s first-round draft pick Malik Monk and drafted Devonte Graham from Kansas in the second round on Thursday night.

Graham said he is excited to pick Walker’s brain when it comes to basketball.

“I have never met him, but I remember watching him play when he was at UConn though,” Graham said. “I’m just excited man to learn from someone like that and just be around someone like that who is winner, and knows how to win and compete. I am looking forward to being able to learn from him.”

 

Another report Spurs will not trade Kawhi Leonard within West

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The people around Kawhi Leonard made it clear (through leaks to the media, not by talking to the Spurs at first): Leonard wants out of San Antonio, and he wants to go to Los Angeles. Specifically, the Lakers.

Almost as quickly, the Spurs leaked that they were not going to trade Leonard to the Lakers or any team in the West.

Sam Amick of the USA Today echoed that sentiment in his discussion of LeBron James‘ offseason options on Saturday.

But in the days that followed, the Spurs wasted no time in sending this message all around the NBA: The only Western Conference team he might be playing for is theirs.

Fellow West teams have been told, in essence, to get lost – none moreso than the Lakers, according to ESPN. As it stands, the Spurs are determined to either fix the situation or trade Leonard to an Eastern Conference team.

Leonard has leverage here: He can tell teams he will not re-sign with them and will leave as a free agent. That will scare off most teams who don’t want to put in

Would it scare off Boston or Philadelphia? The rumor is no. Those teams have real interest in Leonard, and both have the assets to get a deal done and make the bet that a year in their cultures, with their coaches and top players, a year contending, and with their fans and city would win Leonard over. Just like Oklahoma City made that bet with Paul George. Also, whoever trades for Leonard will be able to offer a five-year, $188 million contract, while as a free agent the max will be four years, $137 million. For a guy who just missed almost an entire season with an injury, that guarantee can matter.

Boston could go all in on an offer — Jaylen Brown, Marcus Morris, the Kings first-round pick next season (top one protected) and the Clippers first round pick next year (lottery protected). Philadelphia could put together an offer of Markelle Fultz, Robert Covington, and Miami’s unprotected 2021 pick (the first year high schoolers likely re-enter the NBA draft, making it a deep one).

The question is would those team put in all those assets on a bet they would win Leonard over?

The other big looming question, when the offers start to come in will a rational Spurs front office reconsider and look at a trade from the Lakes of Brandon Ingram, Kyle Kuzma, a future first, and the contract of Luol Deng to balance out the numbers. Would they consider it superior because they like Ingram? (That trade may require a third team to take on Deng’s contract, and the Lakers might need to throw in Lonzo Ball or some other sweetener to get a team to take on Deng’s $36 million remaining.)

Expect the Spurs to take their time with this, try to win Leonard back over, then consider all their options. They are in no rush, in fact, they’d love to create a bidding war for Leonard. Any offer from Boston and Philadelphia on the table in July will be on the table in September when training camps open. The Lakers, however, may be in a very different space.

It’s going to be a very interesting next few weeks.