ProBasketballTalk 2014-15 preview: San Antonio Spurs

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Last season: Going to be hard to top that.

Coming into camp with a fire lit under them following an hard-to-swallow loss to Miami in the Finals (remember the Ray Allen three?) they played with a real passion all season. Tim Duncan continued his renaissance (not that his game really ever dipped much). What’s more, their offense really blossomed into something beautiful — they moved the ball, moved off the ball, read defenses and carved them up like a surgeon nightly. San Antonio’s offense was a thing of beauty. It didn’t even matter when the starters were out — remember Tony Parker was injured for the closeout game against the Thunder in the Western Conference Finals and the Spurs won without him. In the Finals it looked like LeBron James would lift the Heat to a Game 1 win, but as the temperatures rose inside the AT&T Center and LeBron cramped up the Spurs took the opener. By Game 3 San Antonio had adjusted to the Miami pressure and took complete control of the series. They got their revenge and a fifth title in the Gregg Popovich/Tim Duncan era.

Signature highlight from last season: So many to choose from, but when you think about top highlights of the Finals rejuvenated Manu Ginobili throwing down on Chris Bosh has to be near the top of the list.

Key player changes: There were none. Nada. The Spurs just won an NBA title (and have been to two-straight Finals) playing some of the prettiest and best team basketball we have seen in decades, why would you tinker with that? Duncan opted in then everyone else got in line, including Boris Diaw and Tony Parker signing extensions (as did Popovich). The only change of note is the addition of Kyle Anderson, the rookie drafted out of UCLA (who will be brought along slowly). There are questions looming about the future, but for this season getting the band back together was always the smart plan.

Actually, the biggest off-season change may have been bringing in Becky Hammon, the first full-time female assistant coach in NBA history.

Keys to the Spurs season:

Can Tim Duncan, Spurs core continue to outrun father time? This has been an annual question for at least six years and the last few the Spurs have had no problem keeping their distance. Part of that is the much-discussed minute management — last season the Spurs had no player that averaged over 30 minutes a game. Everybody gets nights off. But the other key is the Spurs have injected youth and athleticism around the Duncan/Parker/Ginobili core — Kawhi Leonard is on the verge of superstardom, there is Danny Green and Patty Mills along with others to provide that spark.

Will the Spurs be fat and happy after winning a title? This is Popovich’s big concern. Last season, after the sting of a very painful Finals loss, the Spurs were motivated all season. They would put in the extra effort in pracitce, the film room, wherever. Will they still do that after winning a title? I would bet yes, this is a veteran team not a young one. But, as Popovich said, human nature is to let up a little.

How big a contract year will Kawhi Leonard have? Coming off a Finals MVP, Leonard is going to get paid one way or another next year (either he gets a contract extension before Halloween or he becomes a restricted free agent next summer). Nobody thinks the Spurs are letting Leonard go, the only question is money (a lot of Spurs players take a discount to stay, but will Leonard on his first big deal after his rookie contract). Popovich leans on Leonard to cover any position one through four — he drew the LeBron James assignment in the Finals and did as well as one could. Plus, he had three straight 20-point games in the Finals. He is athletic and can finish at the rim and is deadly with the corner three the Spurs thrive on. He is only getting better and this could be a monster season for him as Popovich entrusts him with more and more responsibility.

Why you should watch the Spurs: Forget that they are elite title contenders, you should watch them because they play a selfless, pure, beautiful brand of basketball and they they aren’t going to be around forever doing that.

Prediction: 59-23, they could win more but Popovich will be willing to sacrifice a couple wins to keep guys rested. That will be enough to be one of the top two seeds in the West (likely the top seed) and they will set the bar to win a title. The Spurs are not coming back to the pack, if another team is going to take the title away from them that team is going to have to improve enough to outright beat them. Not sure any team can do that if the Spurs are at their peak.

Watch Donovan Mitchell drop 43, upstage LeBron return as Cavs top Lakers

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CLEVELAND (AP) — As a kid growing up in New York, Donovan Mitchell idolized LeBron James. On Tuesday night, he upstaged him.

Mitchell scored a season-high 43 points and Jarrett Allen returned from injury to add 24, leading the Cleveland Cavaliers to a 116-102 victory over the Los Angeles Lakers in James’ only visit home this season.

With Anthony Davis missing the final three quarters because of illness, the Cavs improved to an NBA-leading 11-1 on their floor, their best start at home since 2015-16, when James led them to a championship.

Mitchell, who has Cleveland fans dreaming of another title run, took over in the second half and scored 29 points with the kind of performance James had routinely during his 11 seasons for the Cavs.

“You always want to spoil the homecoming,” Mitchell said with a smile.

With Cleveland leading by 12 in the fourth, Mitchell buried a 3-pointer from the left wing to finish the Lakers. After dropping the shot, the All-Star guard strutted around the Rocket Mortgage FieldHouse floor nodding his head as James helplessly watched.

“He’s Mitchell,” James said. “He’s a special kid.”

Darius Garland added 21 points and 11 assists for Cleveland.

James finished with 21 points and 17 rebounds, losing for just the third time in 20 games against the Cavs.

Dennis Schroder and Russell Westbrook added 16 points apiece as Los Angeles had its four-game winning streak stopped.

Davis went out after eight minutes with flu-like symptoms. The eight-time All-Star had scored 99 points in his previous two games and had been playing as well as he has in several seasons after being plagued by injuries.

Davis didn’t attempt a field goal and scored just one point before leaving.

“It got progressively worse as the day went on,” Lakers coach Darvin Ham said. “His temperature was 101 and some change. A-D wanted to try to play, but he felt too weak. He’s drained and dehydrated.

“That’s a huge loss, obviously, with the way he’s been playing lately.”

Without Davis clogging the middle, Allen, who missed the last five games with a bruised back, made his first 10 shots and helped the Cavs take a 57-49 halftime lead.

“Next man up,” James said when asked how he reacted to losing Davis. “That’s a tall task – literally and figuratively.”

The Cavs welcomed James back with a video tribute during an early timeout. After a montage of clips, including some from 2016, James waved to the crowd and then blew kisses to show his appreciation.

The warm scene was in contrast to what happened almost exactly 12 years ago, when he came back with the Miami Heat and was met with boos and worse on a night James has said he’ll never forget.

James said he was caught off guard by the tribute.

“It’s always love coming back here,” he said. “The memories I have here will never be forgotten.”

 

Ben Simmons targeting Friday vs. Hawks to return from calf strain

Toronto Raptors v Brooklyn Nets
Adam Hunger/Getty Images
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Ben Simmons has missed the Nets’ last three games with knee pain tied to a left calf strain, and he will be out Wednesday, too, when Brooklyn takes on Charlotte.

However, he plans to return on Friday (Dec. 9) against the Hawks.

Simmons was adjusting to a new role in Brooklyn. In Philadelphia he was a point-forward with the ball in his hands playing off Joel Embiid (at least at first), but in Brooklyn the ball needed to be in the hands of Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving in the halfcourt. Simmons is playing more small-ball five, and is asked to be aggressive and attack when he gets the ball — not shoot jumpers — and to push the rock in transition. It took a while for Simmons to settle into that space, but he seemed to in games against Philadelphia (11 points, 11 assists), Toronto (14 points, six assists) and Indiana (20 points). Then the injuries hit.

Brooklyn sits at 13-12, with a middle-of-the-pack offense and defense for the season. While there are doubts about the ceiling for this team, it has a talent level that should be better than this record, it’s just been beset by injuries, controversy causing Kyrie Irving to miss time, and a coaching change. The Nets have yet to hit their stride.

But they could have a clean injury report on Friday night, and maybe that can be the start of this team getting on a run.

Suns, Hawks reportedly show interest in Kuzma trade, Wizards see him as cornerstone

Washington Wizards v Brooklyn Nets
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Kyle Kuzma was the kind of quality, two-way role player the Lakers needed around LeBron James and Anthony Davis to win the 2020 NBA title (the type of player the Lakers wish they had now).

In Washington, his role has been elevated — he’s a 20-point-a-game scorer (20.6 points per game this season, to be precise) who is a key part of generating offense, not just playing off the stars of Bradley Beal and Kristaps Porzingis. As he told Shams Charania of The Athletic:

“As soon as I got traded, I was ready to be more,” Kuzma told The Athletic.

It’s been enough to draw the interest of a couple of teams looking for a trade, Charania adds. The Wizards are not necessarily interested in moving on, however.

Several teams, such as the Atlanta Hawks and Phoenix Suns, have expressed trade interest in Kuzma, according to league sources. By the same token, the Wizards have shown interest in Hawks forward John Collins, and the sides seriously discussed a potential deal last offseason, league sources added…

However, the Wizards’ front office, led by general manager Tommy Sheppard, has made clear that it views Kuzma as a cornerstone moving forward as the franchise has seen him thrive since the mega-trade in the 2021 offseason. The Westbrook trade provided future flexibility and assets for the Wizards, who have been known to be aggressive and active in research across the league.

Kuzma has a $13 million player option for next season that he will unquestionably opt out of, making him a free agent in search of a healthy raise (north of $20 million a year, although expect something more in the ballpark of the four-year, $104 million Jalen Brunson contract). If the Wizards are willing to pay they likely can keep him (they have his Bird rights). But if Washington isn’t sure it wants to pay market value, or if management sees a shifting path for future seasons, it should consider trading Kuzma at the deadline.

If he becomes available, far more teams than the Hawks and Suns would be interested, quality two-way forwards are in demand around the league. Kuzma would have some leverage over where he gets sent because he can leave as a free agent (teams would offer up less if they believed Kuzma would only be a rental for this season).

Magic send Jonathan Isaac to G-League for practice, rehabilitation

2022-2023 Orlando Magic Media Day
Fernando Medina/NBAE via Getty Images
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There was a time when it was thought Jonathan Isaac might be the Magic’s next big star.

However, he has not stepped on an NBA court since he was in the bubble (Feb. 8, 2020), then he tore his ACL in August of that year (which came on the heels of missing much of that season with an injury to the same knee). Last March he had a setback and another procedure, and at this point he has missed two full seasons plus the start of this one.

Isaac is still working toward recovery and the Magic have assigned him to the Lakeland Magic of the G-League to get in some practice.

Because NBA teams barely practice during the season — the schedule of games nearly every other day plus travel and recovery doesn’t permit more than film sessions and walk-throughs — these kinds of baseball-style minor league rehab assignments are more and more common.

The story from the Magic’s official website notes this will be the first time Isaac will play 5-on-5 with other players during his rehab, which is a significant step forward.

There is no timeline for his return, but the Magic have him under contract this season for $17.4 million and two more fully guaranteed years at the same price. There is no reason for the franchise to walk away, even if some around the league question if his knees will ever let him back on an NBA court again.

The Magic have found their next star in Paolo Banchero and have built a promising young core, something Isaac — an elite defender before his injuries — should fit in well with. If he can get healthy and back on the court.